The Myth of Escapism: An Essay
If you go back and read the first reviews of the original Star Wars film, there are some pretty consistent themes. There are frequent references to comic strips, old radio programs, and westerns. Names like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon get dropped in many of them, alongside the idea, explicitly stated or not, that Star Wars might not have been the most thinky of films. The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm, for example, wrote that the film was “enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them”.
“It’s aimed at kids,” Time Magazine wrote, “the kid in everybody.”
Whether it was from a detractor or a supporter of the film itself, the general consensus was that Star Wars was the sort of escapism that moviegoers crave. There was no sex, no cursing, and evidently, none of the darkness and violence featured in films like Taxi Driver, or the grubby politics of All the President’s Men. This was a film that really did offer an opportunity to leave all the muck and mire of the “real world” for a while so that people could just...go to the movies.
In 2021, that doesn’t seem possible anymore. In this age of hyperpolarized politics, or “wokeness”, or whatever else you might want to call it, it seems like there are fewer and fewer films around now that would fit that description. What category of film would you even turn to for that sort of thing, especially if you wanted to bring your 12-year-old with you? Science fiction? I hardly think that films like Arrival or Avatar could qualify as apolitical, or even non-violent. A musical? I don’t know how familiar you are with In the Heights, but it turns out that the show about a neighborhood full of immigrants, written originally by a second-generation American, might not shy away from that particular topic. Escapism is, in a sense, escaping us, even in the most Blockbustery and supposedly universally-appealing of film genres: superhero movies.
There are a few pretty obvious contemporary examples of this: Wonder Woman delves heavily into the political and emotional themes of World War I, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier warns against government surveillance in a movie that was released barely a year after Edward Snowden fled the country. Are there badass action scenes featuring muscle-bound heroes kicking butt and taking names in those movies? Of course. Those are conventions of the genre, but as far as escapism goes, the ideological symbolism of those movies in particular is pretty overt, and just enough outside the threat threshold of a typical moviegoer that it wouldn’t affect someone’s sense of “wonder”. That’s what we’re after, after all; an experience that separates what we’re taking in from what we experience on a day-to-day basis. In most cases, we don’t feel threatened enough by juiced-up Germans or gods or cyborgs to really think about the subtext.
But it’s there, whether we want to consider it or not. Take, for example, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Could someone get a satisfyingly escapist experience from watching that movie? I suppose so--there’s plenty of cool lines and Batman being Batman and witty banter in there--but having watched that movie many times, I’m now convinced that it might take more work to come away with that impression than it would to read the movie’s themes. And not just the ones about justice and fairness, the cost of being a hero, or the role of chaos, as rich as all of those are. No, there’s a lot more there to unearth. Way more.
I must confess at this point that I didn’t come to this exploration on my own; YouTuber and essayist Sage Hyden unpacked a lot of this in the most recent video on his channel, Just Write. A side note here--his channel is excellent, and I have learned a great deal about the anatomy of stories through his analyses and essays. If you’ve ever thought about trying to write fiction, you should totally give him a look. Anyway, back to Batman--Sage’s video focused primarily on a comparison between how the idea of jurisdiction is treated in both Dark Knight and the recent Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. In the latter case, the question arises when John Walker, the newly-minted Captain America, murders one of the Flagsmashers as he’s pursuing their leader, who he believes killed his partner. While Walker is technically there in Riga at the behest of the Global Repatriation Council (GRC), there are still quite a few questions to be asked about why a man wearing the stars and stripes on his uniform should be allowed to murder a foreign national without the fear of serious, multinational consequences.
But what does that have to do with Dark Knight, I hear you ask? Well, a lot, actually. Early on in the movie (which is a relative term in a two-plus hour film), Batman flies himself to Hong Kong in order to bring back the mob accountant, Lau. Lau has just successfully moved all of the Gotham crime lords’ money into a secure location, and to avoid the feds (which is a fate that most of his colleagues won't be lucky enough to avoid), he’s skedaddled back to his home country, where he thinks he’ll be safe. Batman thinks otherwise--he succeeds in finding Lau all the way in Hong Kong, and while there is little moral equivocation about that mission in the movie itself, it can only happen because, as the Joker himself points out, Batman has no jurisdiction. While we, the audience, understand Batman’s pursuits to be noble and heroic, there are technically no rules governing him, nor is there any accountability for him should anyone be harmed in the process. Even more so than John Walker, who is at least kind of tied up in bureaucracy, Batman is free to do as he pleases, and to pursue his target at all costs.
Now, on its face, that scene where he gets Lau is incredible. There’s a whole series of terrific scenes that set it up beforehand, too, from Bruce buying out the Moscow Ballet to provide himself an alibi, to Lucius Fox being a bonafide business daddy in Hong Kong. There are some truly excellent one-liners in there (like a submarine, Mr. Wayne, like a submarine), and when it’s time to pull the op itself, the whole thing takes place at night--with the Hong Kong skyline as its backdrop, it looks amazing. Batman blows out a couple of windows with remote charges, grabs Lau in full view of his considerable security team, and gets pulled out of the building by a plane that’s still in the air. If you went to that movie solely to see some sick set pieces, with no thought of anything else, this scene would have done the job.
And yet, there is something significant happening under the surface, and at this moment, it behooves us to ask a question: apart from looking awesome, which it does, why is that scene in the movie? I always thought it was a commentary on Batman/Bruce’s limits, which he and Alfred discuss earlier on in the movie. That would be a very universal, human point to make, but as Sage points out in his video, there’s also a much more direct reading. This movie came out in 2008, and according to Sage, Batman’s foray into another country’s borders is a direct commentary on something else: Bush-era foreign policy. Why is Batman there? Should he be there? What gives him, or John Walker, for that matter, the right to prioritize his own interests over those of others? I believe that it’s nearly impossible to extricate the message of a movie from the time that it’s produced in, and in 2008, after eight years of Bush’s presidency, those ideas would have been fresh on the minds of Dark Knight’s viewers. Sure, the scene is cool, but is what Batman is doing right? Does the stated end really justify the means? Is it American?
In Batman’s case, I think it’s pretty clear that the idea of “escapism” doesn’t fully apply. Even if you don’t believe that the writers intentionally coded Iraq War commentary into their superhero movie script, there’s still a whole hell of a lot to unpack in that movie, and indeed that entire trilogy. It’s incredible. But what about Star Wars? What about all of those reviewers that were like “this one’s for the kids”, and essentially wrote it off as a “fun picture” or a “triumph of camp”? Like many people who enjoy Star Wars, I was introduced to the films as a kid, and they were certainly digestible, if not completely salient to me at that age. And if popular culture is anything to go off of, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s shared that experience; any number of shows and movies, from E.T. to Stranger Things to The Lego Movie, have referenced how much kids love Star Wars. And if it’s that popular with the younger crowd, it can’t be that deep, right?
Surely, if anything passes the escapism test, it’s Star Wars.
Well, hold on for a minute; remember that thing I said about works reflecting the time in which they were created? Star Wars, for its part, came out in 1977, but by most accounts, George Lucas started working on the script in 1971 at the latest. Lucas himself is a California kid who came of age in the 1960’s--a time when he only dodged the draft for the Vietnam War because of Type II Diabetes. And then, a few years later, that California kid wrote a story about rebels defending a galaxy from an authoritarian empire during a time when U.S. foreign policy had been nearly entirely focused on stopping the spread of communism. It could be argued that the Soviet Union could have just as easily been the “evil empire” in Lucas’s mind, but the sentiment remains: Star Wars was not created in a vacuum. It is influenced as much by movies like Army of Shadows, Dr. Strangelove, and The Manchurian Candidate as it is by those old, swashbuckling radio serials. There are deep issues at play within both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, and to be so dismissive of them as to call the film escapist, or to dismiss its thematic quality out of hand, is to not enjoy the whole of the story being told.
There are two things that I don’t understand about the “escapist” school of movie watchers: first, one might say that movies are intended to be entertainment, and thereby should be divorced completely from significant, “real life” issues. I don’t mean to presume too much, but I might ask someone who holds that opinion why they’re so eager to not have real life played out in front of them? No matter how hard a writer might try, real life will always find its way in; these are just people, after all, and people rely heavily on their own experiences to tell stories. You can critique the execution of how creators choose to implement their viewpoints, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect them not to include them at all.
Which brings me to my second point: why are we trying to get real issues out of our entertainment? I get that real life is hard, and we do want to escape from it sometimes, but I would argue that the best stories are the ones that don’t shy away from them. Sure, some movies don’t even try to engage issues, but how many times can we watch Transformers, really? Good stories don’t avoid hard topics; they teach us something about the things we’re trying to escape from. Star Wars taught me that even if you’re daydreaming your life away going to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters, sometimes the universe leads you to the rickety spaceship with the old space wizard, the wookie, and the pilot who doesn’t seem to fully know how shirt buttons work. I think that was the lesson, anyway. There was also some stuff in there about the complicated nature of good and evil, the dichotomy of nature and machines, spirituality, and the importance of finding something more important than yourself, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie.
If you’ve read this far, the biggest thing I want you to take away from what I’ve written is this: escapism is a lie. It doesn’t exist any more than a womp rat or a female character not named Leia. No matter how much we might try and pretend otherwise, there is always something more complicated going on, even in the movies where we might not expect it. Saying anything otherwise is insulting to the people who’ve worked so hard to bring that story to life, and if there isn’t something deeper there, is that story even worth telling? The next time you sit down in front of your TV, I’d challenge you to dig a little deeper than you might normally, even if you feel like turning your brain off and escaping. The real escape is getting lost in the story the writers were trying to tell; the whole thing, real life and all. It’s certainly better than pretending like none of that exists.
Do you agree or disagree? Leave a comment below!