The $1.2 billion, record-breaking opening weekend for Avengers: Endgame last week was cause for much rejoicing in Hollywood. Variety reported that the movie, which made $350 million of that sum in North America alone and nearly as much in China, “is providing a badly needed jolt to the North American box office, which for 2019 was down 16.7% to $2.94 billion as of April 24. As of Sunday, the gap had dropped to 13.3%, according to Comscore.” Money-watchers say Endgame seems certain to top Titanic as the second-highest grossing movie ever, and it may have a shot at beating out the $2.8 billion Avatar raked in for the top slot.
For those whose interest in movies is aesthetic rather than financial, however, there may be less reason to celebrate. Endgame has already joined five other Avengers movies among the top-20 highest grossers of all time, according to Box Office Mojo. But wherever it finishes on that chart, it will be among 15 straightforward fantasy flicks on that top-20 list, and that’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the other five — two from the Fast and Furious and two from the Jurassic Park franchises, plus Titanic — all of which have strongly fantastical or cartoonish elements to them as well.
One of the greatest works of scholarship of the 20th century, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, first published in German in 1946 and in English translation in 1953, demonstrated how the mimetic principle, or what Shakespeare described as “hold[ing] the mirror up to nature,” was at the very foundation of Western art and literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf. But Auerbach’s book came at the end of that long tradition and, as we can now see, at the beginning of one which has superseded it. Namely, a new fashion for overproduced versions of the fantasy and science fiction that were formerly the province of children’s books and movies.
To be clear, the problem is not inherent in the format, but rather what overwhelming demand for it indicates. Here’s how it works: Marvel Comics owns the copyright to its version of reality, which makes that version much, much more valuable, at least to Marvel and those in collaboration with it, than reality itself. On that, of course, there can be no copyright, since it belongs, or used to belong, to everybody. So we can, like those millions who are flocking to Endgame, pay up for access to this more exciting version of reality and even proceed to live in it or we can go away and invent our own reality. What we cannot do anymore, it seems to me, is sell the public a representation of reality itself, reality that’s real for everybody and not just mine or yours.
Which makes sense when you realize that there is no longer broad agreement on what that reality is. We’ve become so accustomed to the idea of proprietorial reality that we’ve started treating it as some kind of human right. I, you, he, she, and ze all have a right, not just to their own reality but to have it respected by others, just as all have a right, in a not unrelated development, to their own favored pronouns. The latter right is now enshrined in Canadian law.
A few years ago, Rachel Dolezal, then the president of the NAACP in Spokane, Wash., claimed the right to be considered black because she “identified” as black, even though she was born to two white parents of European descent. We’re likely to see a lot more Dolezals in the age of social media, the great appeal of which to many appears to be the chance to create a private reality online as the face they present to the world. Government enforcement of ever-stricter privacy regulations can only make this tendency more pronounced. In Europe and Argentina, and no doubt coming soon to a country near you, there is already a “right to be forgotten” online, which means a right to be known for only what we want to be known for.
Nor is social media alone in honoring claims to proprietorial reality. The media as they used to exist, before Facebook et al., have in the past three years gone the same way, exchanging news for narrative. And what is narrative but fabricated and overproduced reality? We don’t mind this when the fabrication is in a movie or a novel — something avowedly fictional but in the service, presumably, of some higher truth. But the fabricated media narratives of today claim to be real, and they are only in the service of the media’s political purposes.
For although the storied names of the New York Times and the Washington Post are now indistinguishable from that of any pajama-clad blogger making claims to his own reality, the former rely on their legacy of prestige to deny, at will, the same right to others. They are frantic with annoyance at what they call the “lies” of President Trump — the Post is now preposterously purporting to have catalogued 10,000 of them — while taking a mostly relaxed view of such demonstrable lies as the president calling neo-Nazis “fine people” or that the Trump tax cuts went only to the rich.
These are just two examples from the first two days of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign of his own private reality. The Washington Post, to its credit, gave four Pinocchios to the latter to set against the thousands it has given Trump. But the balance of media attention remains overwhelmingly on anything it can represent as mendacity by Trump and rarely if ever on the media’s own falsehoods, or those of their favorite Democrats.
These are most often of the type which moralists call suppressio veri, but the Post’s outrageous suggestio falsi last week that Attorney General William Barr lied in his summary of the Mueller report was obviously made in the confidence that the paper’s readers would never see it fact- checked. The media not only have a right to their own reality but also a right to ignore or discredit anyone who might dare to question its correspondence to the real thing.
Likewise, when the FBI, in collaboration with Fusion GPS and the Hillary Clinton campaign, fabricated a narrative, told at first only to a compliant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, of Donald Trump’s “collusion” with Russian spies to steal the 2016 election, it inspired the dominant media narrative of the past two years and was rarely if ever questioned. Commentators and politicians of the Left have continued to treat the Mueller report and its aftermath as if it had pronounced Trump as guilty as they have always known and will continue to believe he is. Some even say Mueller doesn’t believe his own conclusions. A law professor at Fordham University claimed in the New York Times that the Mueller report did prove that there had been criminal collusion, in spite of what Mueller himself said explicitly to the contrary. It just goes to show you that, in our era of privatized reality, anything can be asserted as truth with the help of sufficiently ingenious legal reasoning.
We may see the same process at work elsewhere in today’s media, much of which no longer even pretends to represent objective reality but has instead reverted to the open partisanship, along with the partisan rancor, familiar from the early days of the republic. Then the rival realities were based on regional identification; now the identification and therefore the realities are racial, ethnic, or sexual, or as much so as Democrats can make them. The result for our country appears to be endless and evermore rancorous contention.
Families, friendships, and marriages have already been sundered or become embittered over the divergence between national and ideological loyalties that began long before Trump’s election. Moreover, shots have already been fired in this culture war, most recently by a spate of sad, little fantasists of social media, most of them barely if at all out of childhood, who have shot up schools or places of worship, ostensibly in the service of some more or less self-manufactured and incoherent ideology but really, I believe, because they see themselves and want the world to see them as a kind of real-life superhero or supervillain. The one is as good as, or perhaps better than, the other. Just count the number of Darth Vaders, as opposed to Luke Skywalkers, who come to your door next Halloween.
The vogue for fantasy movies is not responsible for such incidents or even for the lamentable state of our cultural affairs that has given rise to them, but I do think these things spring from the same impulse, which is the land rush to claim a small plot of reality as one’s own, which ensued upon the breakdown of a hard-won national consensus in the 1960s.
Fantasy, not the film genre but the insistence on living inside one’s own manufactured reality, is something out of which nature intended us to grow, like our baby teeth. As St. Paul so memorably put it in I Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” It is the ultimate fantasy that we can live our lives, or at any rate live them in peace and contentment with each other, without ever having to share a common reality.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.