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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Hegelian Dialectic of James Gunn’s Peacemaker

Wang Sum Luk explains why 19th-century German philosophy sheds light on how superhero movie adaptations work.

What links the superhero show Peacemaker with the work of 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel?

The obvious answer is “nothing at all” or “huh?”. Hegel’s work is considered infamously complex and boring, even by other philosophers; in contrast, Peacemaker is a show brimming with bloody fights, ridiculous characters, huge doses of dark comedy, and 1980s hair metal. They’re opposites in nearly every way—but Hegel’s theories can in fact shed light on what makes Peacemaker work. To explain this, we’ll have to look at James Gunn’s filmmaking style, 19th-century philosophy, and the history of Batman, but it’ll all make sense in the end somehow.

The aspect of Hegel’s work that’s relevant here is his concept of the dialectic. To simplify it to a ridiculous degree, it’s the philosophy that no idea is perfect. Let’s say you come up with an idea to solve a problem. But closer examination shows that the basic assumptions of this idea are contradictory, inherently incapable of dealing with the issue at hand. The dialectic is the process of confronting the contradictions in ideas, seeking to refine them into a better form.

Philosopher Michael Inwood compares this to mixing two chemicals; they might initially have opposite properties, but they’ll combine to form something new. However, Hegel believed that the dialectical process doesn’t end here: this new idea will also have flaws and contradictions, so back to the drawing board we go, in a constant process of moving towards capital-T Truth.

An example from Peacemaker’s plot might illustrate this more clearly. At the start of the show, Peacemaker wants to believe that killing criminals and obeying his father (a thoroughly nasty white-supremacist militant) makes the world a better place. But as the show goes on, he begins to see the contradictions in this belief, realizing that his father’s a monstrous villain, while the enemies he fights might not be as unambiguously evil as he initially believed. And in the finale, he reconciles the contradictions in his worldview, finding a new way of fighting and sacrificing for peace.

Having briefly explained Hegel’s dialectic, let’s now turn and look at the history of Batman. As every review of The Batman will tell you, this latest movie might be the darkest adaptation of the Caped Crusader yet. Matt Reeves’ movie explores political corruption, online radicalization and Bruce Wayne’s tortured psyche—very unlike the 1966 Adam West Batman movie, with its bright colors and goofy Bat-gadgets. Adam West’s take on the character is very unlike the approach of most modern Batman stories, but it’s important to recognize that it’s a faithful adaptation of what the character was like in the period roughly between the 1950s and ‘60s, when Batman inhabited a simple, colorful world where the good guys always defeated the bad guys. That vision of Batman is as valid an interpretation of the character as the one seen in 21st-century adaptations.

I loved every second of The Batman, but (like every single comics adaptation) it has to pick and choose which aspects of the titular character to focus on, which in this movie’s case is to pull almost exclusively from the darker approach to comics storytelling that began to be popularized in the 1970s. The same, however, cannot be said for James Gunn’s Peacemaker.

The show embraces the goofiness of the titular character, kitting him out in a colorful costume that perfectly imitates his comics outfit, and having him take on an alien invasion and a talking gorilla, plots right out of the campy storylines of the mid-20th-century. But the show also deals with serious themes, most prominently the titular hero’s abusive upbringing and warped view of militant patriotism, and his attempts to grow beyond both. He’s a character who once saw the world in a simple black-and-white way, confronting the complexities of real life.

To put it in Hegelian terms, early superhero comics offered one solution to portraying these characters: as cheery, colorful figures aimed at an audience of children. The Batman, and many modern comics, can now aim at a more adult audience with bleaker, nuanced stories. But just as the former approach isn’t very thematically complex, the latter approach can sometimes miss the joyful humour that turned generations of kids into comics fans. Peacemaker represents the concluding phase of the dialectical process, mixing these two ingredients to form a new compound that reflects the best of both worlds.

Of course, Peacemaker isn’t the final phase in this dialectic, especially considering how decidedly adult and R-rated the show is. Nor is it the first or most influential superhero story to combine elements of different comics eras—it only happens to be a particularly recent and successful example. But each attempt to portray these characters is one step in the dialectical process of how superheroes develop. Each attempt contributes something to the overall answer—yes, even the much-reviled Batman and Robin (and for the record, I unironically love the way Gotham City looks in the movie, and some of the songs on the soundtrack are just awesome). In this broader picture, everything has its own value—the uniformity of Marvel’s shared universe and the DCEU’s range of directorial styles, the simple pleasure of early comics and the complexity of modern ones.

I don’t pretend to be able to solve the riddle of what style (or range of styles) would create the perfect superhero adaptation, not when Hollywood’s armies of market researchers and writers haven’t found that answer just yet. But my instinct is that the gonzo ridiculousness of Peacemaker is part of the solution—a demonstration that there’s no contradiction between contemporary complexity and classic charm.

Was this a pointlessly complicated way of saying that this show mixes different parts of comics history? Yes. But in the dialectical process of developing how we write about superhero fiction, imperfection’s to be expected.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk. Image credit: andreas160578//Pixabay, Projekt_Kaffeebart//Pixabay

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