What our heroes tell us about ourselves: reality vs fantasy

Superman vs. Wong Fei Hung

Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow made the most obvious but mind-blowing statement when he said that China’s fictional movie character Wong Fei Hung (or was it Bruce Lee’s macho persona) was the equivalent of America’s Superman. And I don’t hesitate to agree with him.

But what does this say about the cultures that worship these characters?

In one respect, look at how free Americans are to think, to put their own likeness into a character like Superman. They have the audacity to believe that they could fly, deflect bullets, save countless people. At it’s heart, they believe themselves to be righteous and godly, just like Superman.

In China, their propaganda is still very much grounded and stuck in the past. Yes, it’s a means to control the masses, but Superman is no different. But Chinese propaganda is very much more “realistic” than American superhero flicks, no matter what negative things Americans might have to say about them (an American film nerd who likes laser swords and man in tights who doesn’t like a pig-tailed man with a real sword but can also fly doesn’t make sense). However, there is a limitation to Chinese grandeur. If a man can fly, then it’s only because he jumped first.

In American propaganda, there is no limit. He can fly into space. He can fly into the Earth’s core. He can fly into Heaven. He can fly in The Matrix. There is no limit. But does this mean it’s a good thing? How can we, in reality, achieve this kind of “power” if we don’t work hard and earn it? If there’s anything in American propaganda, it’s that there might be a sense of entitlement or false promises. The “you can fly all the way to Heaven, just because you can” theme. It might be true for benefactors of nepotism, but the majority of people watching Superman might be oblivious to how it all works. And maybe that’s why so many Americans like to escape into superhero movies.

At the least, in Chinese “kung fu films”, the protagonist has to train to become a master. He has to earn the respect of the people he’s fighting for. In an American superhero film, the protagonist just shows up and the people HAVE to worship him because he’s a god. So what can you deduce from this about the cultures of each side? That American propaganda is trying to induce a fear in God, while Chinese propaganda is godless and that you must work for what you get.

So isn’t it ironic that in order to continue to sell American superhero propaganda in the modern day that Hollywood tries to “ground” it in reality? How realistic is it to see a man flying around the Earth catching airplanes? When was the last time you saw a real Batman that didn’t get shot dead by real SWAT within a couple hours of his vigilante antics? And since when was Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, ever considered a normal guy?

Now, I don’t want to say that dreaming big is a bad thing. It’s safe to say that because Americans dream big is probably why they are the major power of the world. Historically speaking, depending on what types of heroes you create, whether there is even existence of propaganda, tells you whether or not your culture has thrived. And all you have to do is look at those gods and what they represent and you can probably deduce what state a culture is currently in.

Can you imagine if Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, only worked in a boring 12-hour-shift factory job only to go home and eat a TV dinner in the dark? Or if Wong Fei Hung got an upgrade, like a laser google or machine gun or Hung-mobile? Yes, I’ve seen Hong Kong’s attempt at superhero, I don’t even want to go there, but just because they don’t have the same budget and technique doesn’t mean that it isn’t as equally absurd or daft, as the classy British would say.

But imagine a world that was truly at peace. Is it safe to assume then that its propaganda would be nothing but happy stuff, because they would never know of hate, or would it be the opposite because the world would be boring without conflict? When is good-enough good enough? How many of us humans are ever going to fly around in space? How many of us are going to be able to do triple spin kicks to a guy’s throat and send him into a bamboo wall?

I wonder if most of these movie watchers start believing they live in these movies? If you can’t count on real human help, don’t bet that some fictional character might rescue you. That’s not to say we can’t learn morals from them. The best mythological characters will teach you how to be a good person.

Superman will try to stop the fighting himself, whether the Earth is getting invaded by aliens and taking down skyscrapers. Wong Fei Hung will fight whatever warlord, but he can’t fight an entire army, so he makes a declaration after defeating the warlord for every one to stop fighting.

It never quit plays out like that in real life does it? But the propaganda does speak truths about our desires.

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