Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki: Princess Mononoke



The seventh film in my comprehensive retrospective on The Films of Hayao Miyazaki is the mystical chambara fantasy Princess Mononoke. Cited as one of the greatest animated films of all time, this was the first film to bring Miyazaki wide international acclaim, as it was Mononoke that brought Miyazaki to the attention of US audiences.  One of the few animated films of its era to travel the film festival circuit, Mononoke gained steam in the hubs of New York, Toronto, and LA. before bursting onto US screens in 1999.  And while this film would become the highest grossing animated film of all time, this was just the “set” for the “spike” Miyazaki would deliver three years later with Spirited Away.



Set during the feudal Muromachi period in Japan, Ashitaka, a young prince of the Emishi clan (Known in the story for riding red elk), encounters a Boar god that has been twisted into a demon by hate for the humans who attacked it.  Although Ashitaka is able to slay the beast, his right arm is cursed by one of the demon’s worm-tentacles.  Armed with the knowledge that the demon mark will spread and eventually kill him, Ashitaka uses the time he has left to investigate the incident.  This investigation causes him to get in between an ancient battle between the Gods of the Forrest and human prosperity, while trying to see the conflict “unclouded by hate.”



            The only one of his films to be set in Feudal Japan, this is Miyazaki’s one dalliance with the Samurai film culture. Typical Samurai films are set in the Tokugawa era of Japan 1500-1868, usually closer to the Meiji restoration that saw the Samurai as a class in revolt with the public consciousness. A lot of Samurai films set in this era center around the toppling of the Shogunate, causing many Samurai to be released from the service of their feudal lord, creating Ronin “masterless” (and penniless) Samurai. Many of the Samurai classics from famed directors like Akira Kurosawa, Kihachi Okamoto and Masaki Kobayashi are told in this period.  Miyazaki on the other hand, decides to set Mononoke a few dynasties earlier, in the Muromachi era (1336- 1573). This not only informs the overall look of the characters, but informs the spiritual dimensions of the film as well

Of Gods and Monsters[1]

The Muromachi culture during this period was heavily influenced by both Zen Buddhism and Shintoism.  Zen Buddhism is a spiritual practice that focuses on meditation, self-restraint, insight into the mind, and into the activities of all things. There is no separation between practice and enlightenment in Zen. Thus, you do not need to do anything specific in order to achieve spirituality, as any act is enough. Although, typical Zen practitioners sit in Zazen (cross legged position) with a keen focus on breathing as their chief form of meditation.  The other concepts of Zen that are important are the ideas of “No Mindedness” and “The Middle Way”

“No-Mindedness” is a state of awareness that is only occupied with the present moment. There is no thought of the past, or the future, nor of any subject, topic or ideology. The practitioner attempts to just simply “be.”  Whereas “The Middle Way” is common in all types of Buddhism, which indicates a maintenance of focus that is a path between extremes.  This is often interpreted as a rational and practical “grey” area between bifurcated concepts that are often presented or develop into exaggerations of isolated ideologies.

            Shintoism is a religious practice developed in Japan that is defined as belief in the kami (spirits). This is a form of polytheism that sees “spirits and gods” in everything from plants, air, water, the moon, to the cosmos.  Like most religions, the stories of the gods and spirits act as morality/cautionary tales for social control, or as ways to explain yet unexplainable phenomena. What separates Shintoism from other polytheistic beliefs is that within Shintoism the spirits and gods are not necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, or immortal. Thus, the stories that involve them are often reflecting a more fluid sense of morality than is typically found in a Eurocentric polytheism. Modern Shintoism has been interpreted to center on nature and promote environmentalism.

            In Princess Mononoke, all of the gods and spirits are influenced by Shintoism.  The gods are a part of a polytheistic pantheon without a typically western hierarchy structure.  The three Animal God factions that Miyazaki presents are the Apes, Wolves, and Boars. Additionally, Miyazaki includes “The Forrest Spirit” presented as a sika deer, and the tree spirits called kodama. Even the name Mononoke translates to mean “vengeful spirit”.  Each of these spirits represent something depicted in Shintoism itself.

            The Wolf God and her Children are derived from Shinto’s idea of the Okami, the wolf spirit. Typically, they are divine messengers or vehicles of the mountain gods. They also provide guidance to worthy humans. The monkeys of Japanese folklore often are passive and act as a mediator between spirits and humans, while at the same time, being tricksters. While Miyazaki’s “Nightwalker” is related to the Daidabachi which is a large spirit that creates lakes wherever it steps, the Forrest Spirit it transforms into is a Shi-shigami, deer spirit. Deer spirits in Shintoism are vehicles and messengers of all gods, not just those on the mountain. Which is why deer in Japan can roam the countryside[2]. The Boar in Shintoism is revered for its defiance, bravery determination and impetuousness. All of these qualities are displayed through the Boar clan’s actions in the film, as they are felled by the weapons of Iron Town.

As in Shintoism, many of these gods and spirits in Miyazaki’s story can be corrupted or destroyed. This is depicted in the annihilation of the boar clan and the Forrest Spirit itself

The boar clan’s assault on the human stronghold witnesses the destruction of the spirit clan through modern explosives and weapons (guns). No doubt a metaphor for the way advanced technology can become so powerful that it becomes greater than the gods themselves. Additionally, Shintoism is again invoked in the way the Boar clan leaders Nago and Okkoto become corrupted by led poisoning and their own hate, transforming them into demons. To Shintoism, Nago and Okkoto become a Totati. Totati is a demon in Shintoism that is created by a vengeful spirit that hangs on to anger.  





Miyazaki began to cultivate a lot of the ideas and character Sketches for Princess Mononoke while working for an animator in LA on a project he eventually left.  The main production did not start in earnest until 1994. This is when he had his chief animators and himself come up with the initial story boards and character sketches.  In this process Miyazaki personally approved all 144,000 single shots of this film and even redrew 88,000 cells himself during the production.  It was this pace and work ethic, that began Miyazaki’s flirtation with retirement. Henceforth, he would announce at the end of every subsequent project, that he was going to retire; but then eventually come back.

Like a lot of other Japanese directors that have produced chambira films, Miyazaki too was influenced by the John Ford western for Mononoke.  He wanted “Iron Town” to have more of a frontier feel to it, rather than accurately depicting medieval Japan. Without these western elements, Miyazaki was fearful that the film was too deeply rooted in the long history, culture, and mythology of Japan, which he was certain would not appeal to a wider audience.  He was not confident people would get it.

In the 1990’s, The Disney Company owned the distribution rights to all of Studio Ghibli films.[3] At the time, Disney charged Miramax and its co-founder, convicted sexual predator Harvey Weinstein,[4] with Mononoke’s distribution in the United States. In preparing the film for distribution, Weinstein oversaw the production of the English dub (translated by Neil Gaiman), and how the film was going to be presented in theaters.  With the film’s run time being a whopping 134 min, much longer than your average animated American film (especially since a lot of American animation is created for children), Weinstein, in an act of aggressive bullying, attempted to get Miyazaki to cut 45 minutes out for the US release, after previously agreeing not to.  Finding such an idea so apocryphal and dishonest, Ghibli’s Producer Toshiro Suzuki, at the behest of Miyazaki, sent Weinstein a katana with the note that read “No Cuts!”.  The film was eventually released at the length Miyazaki specified.[5]



            Many of the themes of Princess Mononoke have become the staple of what the world expects from Miyazaki. It is after this, in the time before his next film, Spirited Away, where lot of people went back to his previous work and retroactively applied the themes of Mononoke (Environmentalism, Industrialization Capitalism and Gender) to create thematic consistency. While some of these themes are present in all of his previous work, it is Nausicaä with which Mononoke thematically rhymes; taking on some of the same concepts, but asking different social questions about The environment, Capitalism and gender dynamics.




Even a shallow interpretation of Miyazaki’s work, especially Mononoke, understand that it has a lot to say about the environment and human’s relationship to it. However, when we look at this through the Sociological Perspective, particularly in comparison to his other work, Miyazaki is asking different questions about that relationship with each film, and with Mononoke, making a finer point than he has in the past.

On the surface, one could make the simplistic argument that each of the characters are embodiments of the thematic conflicts Miyazaki is interested in: Eboshi (Industrialization/Capitalism) San (Environmental Conservation) and Ashitaka (socially conscious consumer) all represent some aspect or actors in environmental conflicts. Therefore, the interactions between these characters are the conflation of ideas Miyazaki wants to say something about. Yet, this film goes beyond just its anthropomorphic transformation of characters. It also paints an inevitable bleakness that the mere existence of humanity means the destruction and consumption of the environment; and while we may stave off this process for a period of time, halting its momentum, elemental eradication is inevitable.

This inevitability was set in motion as our society transformed from a premodern Society (from which Ashitaka hails from) into Modernity[7] (Iron Town). As societies shifted from an agrarian to urban organization, resources were mined from the earth through industrial means with greater ease than ever before.  This process, and its results, were then given value beyond what was needed to sustain a labor force (basic exchange value capitalism), which fueled the desire of overproduction for profit rather than necessity (greed). Historically, because there was an inability to measure the overall global impact of these practices at that time, a False Consciousness developed in humans regarding the environment. Humans of the time generally did not understand the lasting effects they were causing. This ignorance continued for so long, that by the time humans gained the ability to measure their effect, not only had irreputable damage occurred, but generations of cultural norms and values were centered around this consumptive mentality which has the capacity to bring society to ruin, if unchanged. This mentality developed into climate change denial and transformed the environment into a political issue.

  Contrarily, Lady Eboshi in the film, does not present this form of blind ignorance. She is very much aware of her impact on the environment and relishes in its eradication.  This is the perspective common in the” Reganite” late stage Capitalism, that seeks to control the overall environment in a structured and organized way. What makes Mononoke revelatory sociological storytelling, is that Miyazaki puts this post war (Vietnam) mindset in a person living in during Capitalism’s infancy. By that subtle shift, Miyazaki is foreshadowing the end of the story. Regardless, of what transpires between Ashitaka and San after the film ends, Lady Eboshi will rebuild and expand Iron Town, eventually ushering in the concrete jungle of modern Japan. Lady Eboshi is not just Capitalism, but a type of destructive corrosive and consumptive Capitalism which is emblematic more of our current culture.


                        Eboshi as a Disaster Capitalist

Coined by Journalist Naomi Klein (2007) Disaster Capitalism is defined as the practices of generating profit through the creation or exploitation of disasters. While the term "disasters" was originally taken literally to mean natural disasters (fire, hurricane, flood etc.) and the profitability of reconstruction. The term has also been applied to social, economic, political or Health Disasters. The key is to use the “shock” of the disaster to adopt or enforce social or political policies that would enrich elites. These are usually policies that the public would not agree to under “normal” circumstances. Instead, they prey on the public’s disorientation (due to the “shock”) to gain their acquiescence, and then only provide Pro-market capitalist solutions. We’ve seen this with 9/11 and the passing of the Patriot act which allowed for the monetization of meta data[8], the gentrification after Hurricane Katrina, and now with the Coronavirus: the manufacturing of masks and other forms of PPE (personal protective equipment), the pharmaceutical profits from the eventual vaccine, Stimulus packages, and the propping up of industries through government bailouts.

     Lady Eboshi demonstrates this perspective in the way that she exploits the Disaster she helped create by warring with the Boar clan. From the direct outcome of the battle, she gets her people to go into the forest, and kill the Forest Spirit for its healing powers.  This singularity of thought and purpose toward Disaster Capitalism, is demonstrated when she does not send help back to Iron Town when it is being attacked by a rival clan. She is willing to sacrifice the lives of the women and disabled protecting Iron Town, because there is money in its reconstruction. She can also sell the viscus extract from the Forest Spirit’s decapitated head as a miracle cure. 

  In other reviews, Eboshi is often individualized and not viewed through this anti capitalistic lens. For instance, several reviews cite Eboshi’s garden as a representation of her complexity and lack of hostility toward the environment, as if to say “See she likes plants! She can’t be all bad.” That is like saying people who had house slaves weren’t racist. A person can admire a resource and still objectify and abuse it. Eboshi’s plants are only admirable to her because she has power over them, in what plants are in her garden, and being able to control how they grow. It is order that she craves, and she is willing to obliterate the world to achieve it. Lady Eboshi can, through this socio-economic lens, be seen as the primary villain of this story. 


San and Climate Activism 

Climate activism has always been an antithesis to industrialized Capitalism. Our current form of resistance began in the 1970’s with the celebration of the first Earth Day, the fight for improving air quality and exacting policies to achieve it[9].  Modern Environmentalism focuses on three areas: environmental conservation, reduction of pollutants, and increase in biodiversity. In that charge, activists have come to the basic conclusion that our current industrial practices are unsustainable for our environment.  This is because, as I have mentioned, Capitalism reinforces behaviors and practices that promote environmental destruction. Therefore, to have any meaningful environmental change, we need to deconstruct the entire system.

In Mononoke, it is this deconstructive desire that fuels San and The Wolf Clan’s war with Iron Town.  San, being raised outside of the organizational structures of civilization, has grown to understand the pain inflicted on the forest by industrialization. This understanding brews into hate for humanity and causes her to reject everything that makes her human.  This culminates in her verbally denying her humanity to Ashitaka and falling into bursts of animalistic ferocity, engaging a threat with quick, agile, and instinctive maneuvers. Because of her emotional commitment to the environment, beyond what is considered acceptable by the pro-industrial capitalist perspective, San would be labeled, in our current parlance, as an ecoterrorist.

Ecoterrorism is the use or threat of violence to further promote or insure environmental policies. This usually happens when activists destroy property (whether that be equipment, infrastructure, or personnel) in an attempt to thwart, or completely eliminate the threat of industrial capitalism on the environment. By that definition, San’s assassination attempt of Lady Eboshi can be seen as ecoterrorism due to San’s belief that if she is successful, not only will she get vengeance for Eboshi’s strip mining and deforestation, but she will stop the entire climate crisis. While this is short sited and does not see the macro level impacts of humanity as a whole, San’s plan (and a lot of Eco-Terrorism) fails because they do not have a diplomatic or legislative component. San needs an advocate, and her own Green New Deal.


Ashitaka as a climate diplomat 

Ashitaka represents the collateral damage that is caused in any war. His curse, the potential destruction of his village and people, would have been caused by the aftereffects of this “War for the Environment,” had he not stepped in. Ashitaka is the grey area in between two extremes. This allows him to see with eyes “unclouded by hate”, when embroiled in this Ecological crisis.  To that end, he begins to act as a “neutral” third party to resolve the conflict; interacting with both Eboshi and San, in order to stem the tide of utter destruction. Like many other real climate conscious advocates ,  Ashitaka is injured in the process and while he can make small incremental change, he ultimately fails in his desire to achieve a more macro level impact. He cannot stop the decapitation of the Forest Spirit, and while he does manage to return its severed head to the body, he cannot stop the spirit’s death. 

Identifying Ashitaka as a true neutral party, Miyazaki blurs the negative connotations of the Forest spirit’s death by juxtaposing it with the solution to Ashitaka’s curse and curing Iron Town of leprosy. At films end, Miyazaki solidifies Ashitaka’ s diplomatic status when Ashitaka becomes a citizen of Iron Town to help with its reconstruction. The implication being that he will help guide Eboshi and Iron Town into becoming more ecologically friendly. Yet, in interviews about the seemingly ambiguous nature of the film, Miyazaki is clear that the ending points to the cycle of hate and destruction beginning again with Eboshi’s line “We will remake the city, better this time.” Miyazaki believes, regardless of intention, if industrialization continues, the environment is not safe. 


Gender in the World of Mononoke

 The work of Hayao Miyazaki has been consistently used as an alternative to the corporatized mass-produced princess culture spear-headed by Disney. More specifically, a handful of Miyazaki films feature specific “princesses” that provide a far more egalitarian and feminist message. In this film, San, Princess Mononoke herself, joins both Sheeta  and Nausicaa as Studio Ghibli royalty as a Ghibli Princess.[10] A Ghibli Princess is self-assured, bold, principled, has a unwavering morality and drive to do something that she knows to be unequivocally correct, while also not shying away from danger or difficulty. She is never “damseled” or becomes a prize for someone else’s work/bravery, and she never defines her identity or existence by her relationship status.  The irony of this kind of “feminist” messaging is that, defining and labeling the characters as “feminist,”[11] was never Miyazaki’s intention. He only set out to see boys and girls as equal, in both their abilities and the lessons they need to learn throughout childhood. He believes that these are universal themes that all humans, regardless of their placement on the gendered spectrum, should understand.

 Princess Mononoke is one of the first times in Miyazaki’s career that he gives us differing, but equally complex, representations of femininity when comparing the main characters of Lady Eboshi and San. San and Eboshi can be interpreted as different types of feminism. From such a lens, their juxtaposition and conflict in the film becomes a representation of their clashing ideologies. Yet, these similarities do not occur to either of the characters. San does not see the feminism in Lady Eboshi’s actions with her people, because San is not a part of Iron Town’s social structure. Similarly, Eboshi sees San as just one more obstacle in her quest for domination. 




Eboshi’s Liberal Feminism


Lady Eboshi is representative of the common liberal (usually white) forms of feminism that seek justice for women from inside an already established system. This is commonly illustrated through the example of Second Wave Feminism, particularly the creation of the National Organization for Women by Betty Friedan. This type of feminism, through several of its founders, was imbued with a white perspective which limited their perception and reduced their ability to consolidate power among all women during the Second wave movement. Liberal feminism (viewing feminism through a white cultural lens) championed actions and legislation that would support and improve the lives of white women, such as the ability to enter the workforce.  Ignoring the fact that women of color have always had to work, and the many other differences that separated women’s experiences.

 This alienation lead to the branching of nonwhite, trans, gat and disabled women into different, more radical forms of feminism. Radical Feminism being the type of feminism which seeks a dismantling of the entire social system.  Rather than see the constraints on women as being able to be changed, as liberal feminists support, radical feminism sees the oppression of women rooted in the socio-political system; itself fueled by valuing white, cis heterosexual able-bodied men. Thus, creating and maintaining laws that greatly improve that group’s ability to succeed. One of the chief differences between liberal and radical feminism is the support of Capitalism. A liberal feminist can also be pro-capitalist, whereas a radical feminist cannot. It is this difference that is mirrored by Lady Eboshi and San in the film.

Eboshi is a liberal feminist in the way that she interacts with her townspeople.  After eradicating prostitution, she redistributes the workers from the brothels; putting them to work in the furnaces of Iron Town. She also gives these women the freedom to choose their partners. Secondly, she also does not see those suffering from leprosy as being social pariahs, common for that time. She welcomes them into Iron town and treats them humanely. Both actions are a redistribution and/or accessing of a labor force while still maintaining the capitalism structure.

It is also important to mention that these (monetarily profitable) decisions are framed as “kindnesses” Lady Eboshi bestows upon her people; thereby fostering in them a fierce sense of loyalty and justice.  During the assassination attempt by San on Eboshi, the townspeople rally behind their leader; fiercely defending her by surrounding San with their swords and guns. Here, not only does Eboshi fight San one on one (improving her status and credibility), but she allows two women, whose husbands died in the wolf attack on the mountain road, to get “revenge” for their loved ones, by shooting at San. Whom, on the other hand, in her opposition to Lady Eboshi’s liberal Feminism, not only adopts a more radical feminist perspective, but a particular form of radicalization known as EcoFeminism.


San, the Ecofeminist


EcoFeminism, a term coined by French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne is a specific form of radical feminism that focuses on the relationship between gender and nature. Some Ecofeminists use ecological destruction as a complex metaphor for how women are treated within society, seeing the treatment of the earth and the treatment of women as being analogous.

 The character of San intersects with Ecofeminism at two distinct points:

1.      The Ecofeminist principle regarding capitalism and the environment.

2.      The subcategory of Spiritual Ecofeminism

 For Ecofeminists, capitalism has a need and drive toward the exploitation and destruction of animals, earth, and people for profit (Adams and Gruen 2014).  San, being raised[12] by the Wolf God Moro, came of age with an understanding of the beauty, wonder, and splendor of the environment and its importance to all creatures. Therefore, San sees the actions of Iron Town, and Lady Eboshi specifically, in the destruction of the forest for profit, as not only selfish but dangerous.

            Spiritual ecofeminism, a subcategory of Ecofeminism itself, see the earth as alive and devotees give time and energy to its protection; focusing on community-based behaviors that generate caring and compassion.  In Mononoke, we literally see the earth alive through the Tree Spirits and the Forrest God/ Spirit, the latter of whom controls life and death. San’s respect and reverence for these beings is so great, that she is willing to go to war with those that oppose or try to harm them.  Admittedly, this is not a common practice among spiritual eco feminists, as they tend to preach nonviolence.



Princess Mononoke was both a critical and commercial success. The film became the biggest film in Japan at the time and one of the most profitable animated films in the world, grossing over 230 Million dollars. This was a watershed moment for Miyazaki as it was a story that he was working on for years, and it was the film that allowed him to be able to make whatever he wanted next.[13] Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa and Spirited Away are the films in Miyazaki’s filmography that represent what the public sees as “The Miyazaki Aesthetic.” It was these ethereal masterpieces of Spiritual Eco-Feminist Anti-Capitalism that solidified him as a welcomed alternative to the sexist corporatized monotony of Disney and others of their ilk. 





Aadams, Carol J. and Lori Gruen  2014. “Groundwork” Pp 7-36 In EcoFeminism: Feminist Intersections with other Animals and the Earth New York Bloomsbury Academic


Klein, Naomi, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism New York: Picador    



[2] Through the adherence to these rituals, beliefs, and behaviors. The deer have become, in the strict Durkheimian sense, a sacred object.

[3] Thankfully this has changed. Since 2017 Gkids has had exclusive distribution rights for all of Studio Ghibli and has remastered and re released all of their films.

[4] Seriously, Fuck this guy. If I believed in Hell he, and all the other male predators he trained in the industry would be flayed and burned for eternity.

[5] This my favorite Miyazaki story because he and Suzuki stand up to a sexist bully during the height of his power and basically gave him the Japanese equivalent of a middle finger. Again, Fuck Weinstein.

[7] Components of Modernity:

-          -  Shift in the economic system. From a Barter Systems of trade, to Capitalism

-         -     New technologies emerged causing an increased focus on industry and production (resulting in          hydro and steam power, textiles, steel, and increased transportation (sea trade))

-         -    Expansions in Medical Science leading to Population Growth (lower infant mortality)

-          -    Urbanization ( City boom; go where the jobs are)

-          -   Increase in Secularism

[8] More on this, read the book the Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

[9] Clean air, water and endangered species acts

[10] Ponyo will eventually be included.

[11] In general, a feminist is any person with a political consciousness that promotes the understanding the women are people and champions their progressive advancement in all aspects of human life. 

[12] Secondarily, there may be also a personal stake in San’s ideological position. San became adopted by the Wolf Clan after her birth parents threw her at Moro when she was a baby as a sacrifice to let them live. Knowing this would not engender sympathy for humanity in anyone.

[13] Often referred to as a “Blank Check”

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Comics Cultural Collateral Damage: The Tragedy of 'The Eastrail 177 Trilogy'


                Filmmaking has always had to contend with capitalism. Not only did film become a rich contextualized way to tell stories, but it was also beset by the whims and fancies of corporate executives that steer the film industry toward any direction that results in profitability. This devotion to the dollar (or other forms of currency) has historically guided film culture to the creation of various genres. These genres are the result of the reactionary nature of the business of film.  When something “works” (is profitable) we see it repeated, renovated, and regurgitated; turned over and churned out until the rich nuance becomes bland. Spent. Empty. This has happened with musicals, westerns, film noir, crime dramas, and now, the superhero film.[1] We are currently witnessing the over tilling of the superhero aesthetic, much in the same way it has been done in the past. Yet, because history rhymes, rather than recited, it always develops a little differently than before.  What has allowed the superhero genre to have a (strangle) hold on film culture is the way in which the spectacle of the superhero film fuels the profit motive of the industry; to the point that every major studio tries to option the next IP that may even have a hint of a superhero flavor. This, coupled with the rise of social media, and its incorporation into subcultural fandoms, has lead the superhero genre to become its own monoculture; thereby voiding out any depiction or analysis of the medium that does not fit with its myopathy.   


            In the beginning, before the bombast and the heavy CGI laden visuals that mask simplistic writing and wooden dialogue, film culture has been a predominant space for whiteness and the celebration of white stories. This is important because the origin of this addiction is in the rise of geek culture which has also presented itself mostly as ethnically white. There are more white characters in comics and geek culture, and characters that present as white, than there are characters of color. Even today, many characters of color are obscured in secondary roles in stories. If they are prominent, they primarily exist in the independent comic scene. The irony of this is that a lot of comic stories appropriate the culture and struggle of people of color and then give it to white people. The clearest example of this being the Civil Rights struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X were appropriated and given to two white leaders of super hero teams: Professor Xavier and Magneto who, in the beginning, lead all white teams against each other.
            The appropriation of diverse racial culture into the predominantly white geek space is correlated with the seeming alienation of non-traditional masculine men.  In film culture until the late 1970’s the image of masculinity was the white masculinity of John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Humphrey Bogart. This alienated a lot of other white men from feeling represented. This feeling may have given some white male filmmakers a false since of kinship with people of color and other marginalized groups during this time, resulting in not only the aforementioned appropriation, but the rise of the “playing the white ethnic card” practice. Typically, “the white ethnic card” is played when a white individual uses their ethnic heritage to minimize the struggle of people of color as a part of the “natural” process of assimilation. This is using symbolic ethnicity[2] to deflect accusations of racism and racial bias; while at the same time, co-opting the struggle as something that is “American”.     
Starting in the late 70’s, you started to see a shift in the type of (white) masculinity. It is this shift (particularly in the work of Lucas and Spielberg) that paved the way for a generation of white male geek masculinity to flourish on screen. Through the 1990’s this geek masculinity (a version of the equally terrible beta male sexism) was percolating just beneath the surface. Waiting in the fringes for the technology to improve just enough for the doors to the studios to open. Once it did, the reservoir of toxic sexist behavior that was left unregulated[3] was released.  This geek masculinity still sexualizes and objectifies women, still promoted violence as masculinity, and promoted anger as a chiefly valid emotion. Yet, the difference is that this is done with an air of intellectual superiority to both women and traditionally sexist men. It is this type of sexism that is at the core of the geek culture that has consumed all the mainstream film culture, leading to a modern superhero addiction.

Impact of social media

            Social media has allowed for individuals to break geographic boundaries to build cyber social networks. In Sociology, a social network are the social links that people create through relationships that intertwine with others.  There are direct connections (individuals that you have a personal connection with) and indirect connections (the individuals you are linked through an association with another person).  The more people you meet and make connections with, the broader your social network.  A cyber social network through social media is wide and vast. We can create connections with more people than we have personally met in our entire lives.
Social media followers are a perfect example. A person may have a million followers on a certain social media platform which is quite difficult to do in person. While the overall vastness of both this concept and practice of social media can overwhelm some people, Social media has a way of making these groups smaller through the creation of specific subgroups to join or things to follow. Thereby curating (and siloing) your social media experience through the tracking of a person’s online presence by corporate consumption of meta data[4]. Individuals can be in their own private echo chamber of thoughts opinions and ideas that shall be supported and never challenged.
It is the challenging of these ideas, especially in fan culture, that receives the most visceral of reactions.  These reactions are the result of an unchanged reference group. Sociologically, Reference Groups are the collection of individuals in our life that we use to evaluate our own behavior.  These people change throughout our lives. Members of our group can be different based upon our age, or what social task we must perform. Our reference groups change as we acquire new and different skills and tasks throughout our life and as we age. We also reject members from our groups if they fail to maintain the standard by which they were included in the group in the first place. For example, your boss might be in your reference group because you believe that he is honest; but then you catch them in a lie. Consequently, you remove him from your reference group and find someone else to fill that position. Thus, the fluid nature of our reference groups keeps us from forming a too strong of an attachment to these members (outside of direct family members).  However, in the case of fictional characters in media, they often can cling to a person’s reference group due to the continuity of character writing and development.  If a character is written consistently for generations, then a person can have that character in their reference group for potentially their entire life. This puts a lot of personal investment in a fictional character to the point where any criticism or break in (perceived) continuity for the character, will be taken as a personal attack on the individual fan themselves.  This is why the writers for the Hydra Agent Arc of Captain America got death threats as did Director Rian Johnson for his depiction of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. While this has continued to happen repeated for as long as fan culture has existed, social media tends to compound the problem exponentially. As indicated when the comic fan culture took aim at Martin Scorsese.
In an op-ed for the New York Times published Nov 4th, 2019, modern movie master Martin Scorsese explained why in an interview he stated that Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema, and that he did not care for them.  The crux of his argument is that Marvel films (he does not speak to the broader Superhero Genre) do not have any “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at Risk.” He goes on to believe that all the sequels and connected universe building is just giving the audience more of the same. While this might be bad enough, Scorsese fears that because of the success of these films, it may cause studios to drift away from independent cinema because it is not as profitable. He is worried that to focus on ONLY Superhero films will lead to the death of cinema itself.  The article, as of this writing has over 1900 comments, many of them overly aggressive and criticizing Scorsese for his opinion, going so far to make ageist comments and unprovoked criticism at Scorsese’s body of work.  When the internet equalizes all opinions, it lowers the level of discourse in spaces like social media to the lowest common denominator.  

        Why Marty was Right

For Superhero film historians the (post) modern superhero film culture we are currently living through began in 1998 with New Line Cinema’s release of Blade. Before this, film had dipped its toe in the superhero waters with only culturally well-known characters like Batman and Superman, but never drifted cinematically outside of this very narrow box.  Yet, regardless of Blade’s success, it did not spark the fire that was needed to get “the superhero genre” off the ground until the release of X-Men in 2000 by the now defunct 20th Century Fox.
The proverbial pebble that starts a landslide, X-Men (and its film franchise) led to the Sam Raimi helmed Spiderman Trilogy, Ang Lee’s Hulk and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy duology. Still, the trepidation and lack of guidance from producers and filmmakers kept the genre a float, but did not maximize its full capitalistic potential until it broke the “billion dollar gross” ceiling with  Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe . This is when super heroes went from a sample on a tasting menu of unique films,           to the cinematic experience of k rations 

This analogy is pointing to the homogenization of content and products through the process routinized bureaucratic capitalism maintained by a colonial style globalization that leaves us with volumes of goods with little value.

As I mentioned in a previous essay:

 In 2004, [George] Ritzer came up with a term Grobalization- to define all of the macro level rationalized dehumanizing practices of the process of globalization. Ritzer and [Roland] Robertson (separately) came to the conclusion that Grobalization- produced “Nothing”. Nothing was defined as anything that was devoid of unique and distinct content, homogenized to appeal the broadest audience possible. “Nothing” is the chief product of mass production; the foremost architect of mass production are corporations. The profit motive that drives corporations leads to the inevitable production of nothing because Nothing is safe, it does not take a social or political stance. Additionally, because of its lack of focus, more advertising dollars are put in to the selling of ‘Nothing’ because advertisers have to “Manufacture desire” for that thing in the minds of consumers (hence the pitch towards a synergy of content). Therefore, instead of “something’ people want various forms of ‘Nothing’ A product that gives the illusion of both quality and content, (the illusion that it is in fact ‘something’ when it is not) while making it easier for producers to create something for the broadest and simplistic tastes.

 This is what the Superhero genre, guided by massive corporations like Disney and Time Warner, has produced; content that is so monetized and standardized that it is devoid of life (with only a few exceptions)[5]. The inevitable success of ‘Nothing’ causes its reproduction. If something is reproduced enough, it moves from a subcultural component to a part of the dominant culture. Thanks to Disney, people know who Captain Marvel, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and Thanos are. Before the Disney films, these names were only whispered in hush tones in the basements of geeks.  Now, they are becoming as recognizable as Batman and Superman. 
Most major food manufactures are chasing “the bliss point”. This is the optimization of sugar salt and fat which maximizes deliciousness and results in mass consumption. One of the reasons this Grobalization of comic book content has led to the proverbial “Nothing” is because Disney has cracked “the bliss point” of cinema.  It is the combination of sensory stimuli, emotional engagement, and social distraction that keeps the audiences rolling in to see stories that are  similar to one another .  This is cinematic junk food; and in small portions, this junk food is tasty and relatively harmless. However, when you make junk food a major staple of your media diet, it results in our film culture becoming gluttonously sick. We are addicts in need of detox.


            The Eastrail 177 trilogy is the uncommon moniker for the three films in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable universe. Those three films consist of Unbreakable (2000), Split (2016) and Glass (2019). This is an interesting case study for understanding the impact and oversaturation of geek culture in film because:
1.      The Production of the Trilogy spans the time before and after Geek culture invaded film.
2.      The Trilogy was one that was not planned out ahead of time with unflinching rigidity

Film Synopsis


This film follows the story of security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who survives a deadly train crash (Eastrail 177) without a scratch. He is later approached by an eccentric comic art collector Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) with brittle bone disease who questions his mild-mannered demeanor.  Through their conversations, and uncompromising support from his son, Joseph, David begins to realize the true power that he has always had.


Casey, a social outcast high schooler is given a ride home by a few classmates when the three girls are abducted by a man who seemingly suffers from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). As Casey looks to find a way out, Kevin, their captor (James McAvoy) begins to prepare for the birth of a new personality. As preparations commence, Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s psychologist concludes that he was misdiagnosed, Rather than DID, he is a supervillain with 10 of his 23 personalities adopting the moniker “The Horde”; and their leader proclaimed as “The Beast”. Upon hearing this, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) sets his sights to capture him.


Set three weeks after the ending of Split, David Dunn and his now adult son Joseph track “The Horde” just after they abducted a group of female cheerleaders. As “The Unbreakable Man” confronts “The Beast”, their conflict is cut short by Dr. Elie Staple who captures and incarcerates both men in Raven Hill Memorial Institute, believing their super heroics/villainy to be nothing more than a delusion. Once there, David finds out that one of the institutes longtime residents is none other than Elijah Price (Sam Jackson). With all his pieces now on the board, the self-aggrandized “Mr. Glass” puts his true plan into motion.

            There are 35 pages and 124 illustrations in the average comic book.
A single-issue range in price between $1.00 and $140,000.
172,000 comics are sold in the US Every day.  Over 62, 780,000 each year.
The average comics collector owns 3, 312 comics and will spend approximately one year of their life reading them                                                          
                                                                      The Opening Text of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable 

The opening text of Unbreakable is a good indicator of the state of comic books and the comic book/superhero medium in film twenty years ago.  The audience needed to be primed with the overall profitability and popularity of comic books and superheroes to be engaged with the story.  It is almost as if in this opening Shyamalan is saying “Trust me. The story I am about to tell is legitimate.” Today, this seems quaint, and baffling that such a film would need to be legitimated considering the monoculture of the superhero films now; and especially ironic that Shyamalan had to argue with Disney (The Parent company of Touchtone Pictures) to allow this film to be about superheroes and marketed as such. This is because, the film was in production in 1999 well before “the official” glass ceiling of Superhero films was broken with X-Men July of the next year.  Since Unbreakable was released in November, 2000, it is an interesting thought experiment to ask if marketing it as a Superhero film would have made a difference? When you compare Unbreakable to X-Men, the latter certainly looks more comic book than the former. Yet, the whole premise of Unbreakable is how comic books evolved out of myths and storytelling which exaggerated the abilities of superpowered people. So, from the beginning, Unbreakable was unconventional superhero story one that seemed to be more analytical than most, an academic analysis that gets both lost and unappreciated in the near two decades since.
In the time between Unbreakable and Split the comic culture enveloped most media, taking comics from a fringe interest to mainstream acceptance. In comparison to the data cited in the beginning of Unbreakable, as of 2019, the comics industry generates, in North America alone, around 1.21 billion dollars annually. This is a combination of single-issue comics, graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and digital comics. Yet, during the time of Unbreakable’ s release, Marvel was in the process of mortgaging their character’s licenses to avoid bankruptcy. The question is when and why did it change?
The beginning of the Monoculture of comics began with the corporatization of comic characters. When characters began to be acquired by major corporations (WB, Sony, Disney), and those characters started to become successful, those corporations began to give us more of the same. As I alluded to earlier, there is an inherit flaw in Capitalism that causes profit driven media corporations, and the people who run them (mainly white men), to squeeze every ounce of financial capital out of all intellectual property they have. For example, when you compare Marvel Phase one with Marvel Phase four, there is a gradual decline in the tier of characters along with spreading them thin over an interconnected universe that spans many types of media platforms (film, television, shorts etc.)

Geek Aside
Ok, I know many Marvel Zombies that may have read that statement and now have a huge geek beef. Sigh. I am aware that a lot of the characters in Marvel’s Phase 1 were not considered upper tier in the comics until the movies were successful (Iron Man being the prime example), and that their most successful character in the comic books at the time was off limits because that character (Spider-man), and all of the characters associated with him, were owned by another company. Yes, Marvel had to make do with what they had left and what toy manufacturer Avi Arad didn’t set up yet at other studios. But again, this comes back to capitalism. If you always need more profit, and you use up a character, (this is particularly pertinent when considering movies, how long they take to make and the natural aging of actors.) you are bound to find other “revenue streams” (characters) on which to exploit.

Before and After the Invasion (Continued)

 Yet, because Unbreakable was produced and released before comic book legitimation by the corporatization of superheroes, it is a time capsule of how comic books were treated before all of this. It harkens back to a time when going to a comic book show had the same amount of shame as an adult bookstore. The entrance to comic book shops were in weird alleyways and your “stash” would be wrapped in the all too familiar black plastic bag. Comic book fans up until the 2000’s (really the 2010’s) were the bullied. This did not change until the economy shifted, and we saw a rise in tech based white collar jobs (not to mention the Silicon Valley dot com boom of the 90’s). This is because there is a strong overlap between comic book enthusiasm and school academics, particularly computer technology. So, it stands to reason that when that the cultural interests of those individuals who now were in high status positions, the subcultures they were interesting and a part of would also be elevated. Unbreakable just came too early for the culture to truly appreciate it, and because it wasn’t linked to a preexisting IP, it did not stick around in the public consciousness[6] Thus, it was forgotten in the mainstream public for 19 years.

The Unplanned Trilogy: Insurgency, Archetypes, and subverting expectations

 In interviews, M Night Shyamalan always said that he had ideas for an Unbreakable trilogy. Shyamalan has stated that Unbreakable was the origin of a superhero who would have a peak then fall. Originally, Unbreakable 2” was going to center on David Dunn tracking and capturing “The Horde”  Then, because a series of cinematic setbacks, Shyamalan was hesitant to dip back in, at least directly. So, he conceived the next film to be stealth sequel and as a super villain origin story. Yet, only marketed Split as a psychological thriller, without mention of what universe the film lives in, allowing the film to stand on its own two feet. However, because Shyamalan is a master of hyping his own work, he used the inclusion of David Dunn at the ending of Split to test the audience interests for Glass. The reveal and subversion went better than Shyamalan expected, going so far as to increase the positive word of mouth for Split, thereby raising ticket sales and green lighting the final chapter in the “trilogy”.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to both Shyamalan and the audience, their expectations have crystalized into a desire he was not willing to fulfil.
The reaction to the end of Split is partially a function of, and reaction to the ingrained mono comic culture that we live in.  When the camera pans and reveals David Dunn in that diner at the end of Split, audiences are expecting the next film (Glass) to be an exclusive clash between Dunn and Crumb, in the spirit of the comic book culture to which they have been conditioned. Instead, they got a dissertation, the thesis of which was far more contemplative than the audience expected. Through this (albeit shallow) academic analysis, (That was, to Shyamalan’s credit, consistent with the tone and world he set up in Unbreakable) Shyamalan deconstructs comic books and comic book storytelling that has, in the interim, tapped into our basic instincts and feeling of childlike wonder, to become a touchtone of modern cinema. In short, the problem with Glass is not in the film itself, it is in what people wanted from it. Most people wanted to see a fun action movie where the hero and the villain fight, with the spectacle and majesty that they have grown accustom to. They were not looking for a philosophical meditation on the notion of heroism. They came for a party, instead they walked into a lecture.  

Because Glass was tasked with merging two seemingly independent stories and was written at a time where culture is saturated with comics/superhero content, Shyamalan was purposeful in his design to subvert expectations of the audience. Glass twists the audience into a pretzel as it continually promises, fulfills and undermines audience expectations.  The first twenty minutes of Glass is everything a modern comic book fan would want. A straightforward structure of The Hero tracking The Villain, saving the hostages, and engaging in fisticuffs.  Then, at the beginning of Act II, the film grinds to a halt and starts to ask deeper questions, that given the film’s rotten tomatoes score many people were not interested in asking. As the third act begins to ramp up, Shyamalan teases a huge MARVEL-ous climax that involves fighting in a newly constructed building that may or may not explode[7]. He has the audience again, then has the “showdown” in the front grounds of the institute unceremoniously. This again, is consistent with the thesis from Unbreakable. The fight on the building with thousands of people in danger would be the comic book version about something, that in the film’s reality, took place in a parking lot.  Unfortunately, regardless of this consistency, we have reached a point in the permeation of comic culture, that modern audiences wanted the teased comic book come to life, rather than an introspective scholarly evaluation of the subject.  The result was disappointment. Not for what the film is, but because of the audience’s exaggerated expectations; primed by a culture run amuck, the film was set up to fail.     

Shyamalan Criticism

            The consensus on Shyamalan’s filmography is that he starts out strong in his first four films, but progressively got worse with each film after Unbreakable up until Split. Some of the speculation was that with the success of his first quartet of films, he garnered enough support and trust in the industry that those in production with him did not censure his work. Shyamalan is known for keeping the same people around on his production crews from film to film. This could have had the consequence of insulating him from the limits and criticism from which his best work develops. This all culminated in the atrocious duo of films in a three-year period, The Last Airbender[8] and After Earth. The former being a whitewashed concentrated adaptation of a progressive and much beloved animated show. The latter a stealth Scientology soliloquy.   
If you look at Shyamalan’s filmography a subjective argument can be made that he makes his best work when he has both limits and something to lose.  This is why, starting with The Visit, Shyamalan began to fully finance or co-finance all of his films with horror producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse productions. Shyamalan has mortgaged his house, and re wrote whole scripts while in the development stage and the results of these restrictions were rewarded in renewed acclaim for his films.
One of the criticisms of Shyamalan’s recent work that has merit, revolves around Split’s use of the real diagnosable condition DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). Many groups in support of those with a DID diagnosis, believed depicting the disorder in this way would add to the already horrible track record Hollywood has for representing mental illness on screen. These groups also presented data on the frequency of DID patients acting violently. In an open letter to Shyamalan himself, the presented data that showed violence among DID patients to be a rarity.  In this regard, there was a missed opportunity in Split’s third act. Shyamalan had already set up the character of Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) to be on the fringes of the psychological community. Therefore, when Karen confronts “The Horde” at the end of Split, she could have said a simple line of dialogue: “I was wrong.”
Split falls into another trap in the way that it uses the trope of abuse and child sexual violence. In the film, it can be interpreted that the abuse experienced by Casey, “the final girl”, to use horror movie parlance, does “save her” in the end due to the ideology of “The Beast” valuing “the broken” as pure. While this is nothing new, horror movies for generations have played on these ideas. Yet, it is disappointing that in such a progressive age, this sexist tired and lazy plot device would still be used. However, if I am at my most magnanimous, “The Beast” defines her “pure” not because the knowledge of the sexual abuse is made aware to him; but because he sees the scars on Casey’s body from “cutting”, a common coping mechanism for trauma. The Beast is only aware that she has experienced trauma, as he has, but he does not know what kind; the nature of the abuse is only revealed to the audience, which is not necessary. 


            For the last decade, film culture has been besieged by comic books and Superheroes to the point that the films that make money at the theater. In 2019, Disney alone made up 33% of the market share for overall ticket sales. Their closest competitor only had 13% (WB).  Couple this with the bureaucratically homogenized way that Disney, and other corporations, consume IP and produce their content, is there any wonder why all (studio) films look the same? These studios also have the marketing budget to make sure their product gets in front of as many eyes as possible.  The result is a negative impact on film culture itself. It has caused the expiation of the best picture categories from 5 to 10, created the discussion of the “popular” Oscar category, and set such an unrealistic bar for success that it has killed mid-range budget filmmaking. I often wonder what “The Eastrail 177 Trilogy” would look like if Shyamalan would have got to create his trilogy closer together in time. What would the Unbreakable/Split/Glass story be, if it did not have to contend with a film culture that is so supported by the “comics off the page” aesthetic? Would it have been better received? I would like to think so; and that is the ultimate tragedy of the whole thing. Because, in the words of Martin Scorsese, “the [filmmaking] situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art.” As it turns out, even inhospitable to other comic/superhero interpretations outside of those owned by giant corporations.    

[1] I wanted to regulate this mini argument to a endnote. There are some that would not define Superhero films as a genre. In this (usually passionate) defense of superhero films not being a genre many will point to several more recent examples of superhero films that are also a crime story (TDK) or an espionage thriller (Winter Soldier). Yet, the same can be said about various films categorized in Drama, Comedy, or Action.  There are certain beats that the Superhero film, regardless of the other genre’s it is intersecting with, that they have which make it a superhero film
[2] Symbolic ethnicity is a term by Mary Waters to describe the particular form of white privilege that allows white people to only be abstractly connected to their ethnic heritage in superficial ways
[3] Nope the comics code does not count
[4] This has become of increasing importance to the film industry because it is a direct line to the consumer. Many actors now may gain or lose roles based upon their social media presence and the number of followers they have  

[6] There was little merchandising and cross platform promotion for Unbreakable to make and keep public engagement in the project
[7] Shyamalan even trolls the audience in a magazine article for the Building by calling it a Marvel in the same letter font and style of the Company/Studio
[8] Personally, due to my love of Avatar and its sequel series Korra, Shyamalan’s film is the worst thing I have ever seen. In addition to the film being poorly paced with too much exposition and wooden acting The film sparked race representation controversies. According to a comprehensive report in 2016 from the University of California  "71.7% were white, 12.2% Black, 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, 2.3% Middle Eastern and 3.1% other",