The mysterious metric behind movie scheduling recently created an interesting contest: Iron Man vs. The Great Gatsby. Iron Man and Gatsby are not so different, really — both self-absorbed rich men who wear masks to hide intense insecurities. More relevant to my purposes of fighting against misperceptions of genre and refocusing our understanding of texts in a way that’s much more helpful to writers: both stories are escapist. Few words are used as cudgels more often than “escapist” to beat down stories with fantastical elements — oh, it’s “just escapist,” meaning “it’s not as important as real literature,” meaning “it only serves to take us away from present troubles and serves none of the much more important functions of much more important texts.” But let’s recapture that term from its pejorative implications: escapism is one of many possible effects of a story whether it’s so-called genre, so-called realism, or so-called great literature. Part of the problem with this way of reading a text is defining stories by endpoint functions. To be valuable to a reader, a text must first excite the reader in some way within the present moment act of reading (or viewing in the case of movies) and then give the reader some desired elements as a secondary effect. The value of these elements is different depending on the reader, rendering ridiculous any claims at universal association, for example, between escapism and genre fiction.
Let’s focus on three inaccurately applied concepts associated with escapism:
1) Escapism transports us to different worlds.
This is part of where the association between escapism and genre fiction comes most often since much of science fiction and fantasy transports us more literally to different realms — this is less obvious in Iron Man, as its “near future” sci-fi technology is similar enough to our own world in many ways as to not be much of a transport, but it is much more obvious when considering the Thor film takes place in the same narrative continuity but contains many scenes of Asgard and other imaginary worlds. But what work of so-called great literature fails to transport us to different worlds as well? In that context it isn’t called “transporting to different worlds” — it’s called “sense of place” or “detailed attention to setting” or “portrait of the character’s time” and so on. Don Quixote transports us to a 17th century Spain of Cervantes’ invention as much as Thomas Hardy transports us to Wessex as much as Tolkien transports us to Middle Earth. When an author does this well, that’s a very good thing — not something that need be pejorative. The Great Gatsby likewise transports us to the 1920s of Fitzgerald’s invention, and this is one of the few things I like about the book (full disclosure: I’ve never liked The Great Gatsby beyond small shreds of detail like this, but I’ll try to be fair). Most people who love The Great Gatsby, what do they identify as their favorite elements? Half of them will cite the excitement of the 20s, the lavish parties, etc. and who among us has been to a lavish party in the 1920s? That’s transportation, and that’s escapism. The other half will cite the characters, and that brings me to the next point:
2) Escapism provides only superficial titillation and very little depth.
This is the most inaccurate implication of the term, and character depth is one place that most clearly identifies the misconceptions of the universalizers. Recognition of character depth has a lot more to do with an individual’s engagement in the text than it does some universal association of depth and literature or shallowness and genre. For example, comic book characters get accused of two dimensionality by non-fans — a claim like “comic book characters are flat” equates to “I don’t actually read comics and haven’t bothered to put much thought into them beyond surface and cliché.” Actual fans recognize that comic book characters can be extraordinarily complicated because in many cases their stories are being told monthly over several decades by multiple writers; sustained interest in characters over such a long span comes from exploration of the complexity of character, not from sensational plots. Just read reactions of real fans to any adaptation: a comic book movie is not made better by bigger explosions but by characters closer to the complexity of their comic book versions. Thor is best when it’s about sibling rivalry, not just a big guy who hits stuff. Hulk is best when it’s about a man with deep psychological trauma from child abuse, not just a big guy who hits stuff. And Captain America, the character who should be the flattest because of his lack of moral ambiguity, is still a character who protects the weak because he knows what it’s like to be weak; whether or not stuff blows up is incidental. The complexity of the Iron Man character in film is most often attributed to Robert Downey Jr., but you get the same sort of complex brokenness and vulnerability in the source material upon which Iron Man 3 is based: Warren Ellis’ “Extremis”
and Matt Fraction’s run on Invincible Iron Man, at least from “The Five Nightmares”
to “Stark: Disassembled.”
Tony Stark is in a coma throughout “Stark: Disassembled” and spends most of the story plumbing the depths of his psyche: no explosions, no armor, no punching. This is the sort of story real comic book fans love and real comic book fans give awards to. The plot-heavy action T&A and violence cliché gets old quick. In contrast, Jay Gatsby and Nick Caraway just seem flat to me. I’m honest and self-aware enough to recognize that this just means I don’t like the book, and there’s very little I can apply from this universally, but to bundle escapism, shallowness, and genre all together in any necessary relationship is total nonsense.
3) Escapism helps us forget about the problems of the present world.
It’s hard to imagine this as a mark against any great story because what is the alternative? Political allegory? If The Great Gatsby is really a reminder of the dangers of decadence and if this lesson applies to all times reminding us to look upon and condemn our own decadence, it risks losing the complexity of character I identified as being so valuable earlier; it becomes the flat superficiality of preaching. Who really prefers preaching over great stories about great characters? A text able to succeed on both levels is admirable, but this is likewise not the sole domain of the so-called great works. NPR ran a piece after the release of Iron Man 3 about how Tony Stark is America; apparently Iron Man is the great parable of our decades just as The Great Gatsby was the parable of the 1920s. I don’t personally prefer to think of Iron Man as a parable, but read it however you wish as long as you let Tony Stark be Tony Stark first. When a text fails on the level of character (as The Great Gatsby does for me and again that’s an entirely personal response) then any sort of political peachiness can be annoying and a mark only of the story’s failure. If Tony Stark succeeded in only showing us the folly of America’s arrogance and there wasn’t a great, complex character to anchor that, it would seem to me a failed narrative and a failed lesson as it still seems to take much of its delight from Tony’s continued arrogance; if he were only the flat servant of whatever lesson he’s meant to be learning and he ceased to be America’s arrogance at the end with a turn-to-the-camera don’t-be-me speech, this would seem like hollow authorial machinations and not good storytelling.
In contrast to these misconceptions, I would argue that reactions to escapism have more to do with a basic narrative element: the ending. If a text ends with a satisfactory resolution, the audience can let it go — it feels more like a temporary escape. Many regard the ending of The Great Gatsby as haunting and tragic, but to me it just seems like one douche is dead and the other douche is going home. So what? I can let that go easily. Comic book stories likewise seem to have resolutions, but every comic book fan knows that villains never stay dead and super villain prisons are terribly guarded, so the sense of crisis is constant. Even Captain America, the least ambiguous superhero, has to keep fighting undying Nazis every month for decades and decades. This is hardly a resolution that allows us any lasting sense of release. Even the tragic and morally ambiguous Hamlet got a temporary victory when he solved the mystery in Act III but the release of death caused an end to his failings; comics present a scenario in which Hamlet has to keep killing Claudius over and over again. Like Sisyphus, superheroes must make the decision to remain good despite the absurd hopelessness of a world where evil never dies. I’d call that much less escapist than Nick Caraway’s final cowardly boat ride home.