Zombieland, USA

The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism BY Peter Biskind. The New Press. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism

Except for its action-packed title, Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism doesn’t have much in common with the smack-talking chronicles of Hollywood rebels he’s best known for. A onetime editor at Premiere magazine, he first hit pay dirt twenty years ago with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Only cinephilia’s most stubborn vegans didn’t immediately gobble up that gooey cheeseburger of a book.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls charts a “Golden Age” sparked by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate; transformed into a bonanza by Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Robert Altman’s revisionist riffs on westerns, Raymond Chandler, and the state of the union; and then abruptly extinguished by Star Wars’s runaway success. To movie fans reared on 1970s cinema, Biskind’s saga of how those directors did it and then were undone is still the definitive account of the era, partly because (note paradox) it’s not always reliable. He followed it up with 2004’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, featuring a whole flock of upstart next-generation directors (Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, et al.) but dominated, to engrossingly obnoxious effect, by the pre-#MeToo Harvey Weinstein. It’s a blur of film-festival intrigues and frantic jockeying to spot the next chic auteur, with careerism creeping up on art as relentlessly as the shark in Jaws.

Because The Sky Is Falling deals in large part with the superhero franchises and fantasy spectaculars that have pretty much taken over the moviegoing world since then, you might expect Biskind to serve up a similar—albeit more cynical—mix of deal porn and entertainingly rendered filmland personalities. But a handful of interview quotes aside, there’s basically no reportage in the book, and not a single juicy, behind-the-scenes anecdote. Instead, we’re being reintroduced to the Peter Biskind who’s been more or less MIA since his first book, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. He’s an ideas guy with crotchets to burn who wants to tell us what today’s entertainment vogues signify and the sneaky ways they resonate, not only culturally but politically.

Until relatively recently, Biskind argues, mainstream movies and TV shows upheld “centrist” values: trust in institutions and authority figures, sensibly meliorist solutions to problems, a placidly inclusive society. Apocalyptic paranoia was exiled to the fringes. These days, on the other hand, the Four Horsemen are firmly in the saddle and galloping madly off in all directions, with the extreme left (James Cameron’s Avatar) and the extreme right (24, the Left Behind novels) both hoping they’re riding Secretariat. “Nothing entertains like disaster, according to the conventional wisdom, but now it seems as though nothing entertains but disaster,” Biskind sighs.

Promotional image for The Walking Dead, season 7.
Promotional image for The Walking Dead, season 7.

He’s obviously right that traditional pop culture’s most reliable and often only message—“Everything’s fantastic,” more or less—has been replaced by its pulp counterpart, “Everything’s drastic.” (My words, not his.) The transformation may be most acute when it comes to TV, which has gone from being America’s great pacifier in the broadcast networks’ heyday to its great unsettler in the cable era. A series like The Walking Dead, whose conflicts Biskind exegizes in scholarly detail, may be built around characters arguing over whether or how to retain some vestiges of ethical behavior in Zombieland, USA. Andrew Lincoln’s Sheriff Rick—“the Obama of the group,” Biskind calls him—often prevails by barely a whisker. But the show’s premise is so dire that civilization as Rick once knew it has no chance of making a comeback, so why split hairs?

Biskind’s analysis-cum-survey packs in a lot, from the Twilight movies (he’s not a fan) to ABC’s Lost (“so vapid and anodyne in [trying] to be everything to everyone that it’s almost enough to make one appreciate the bracing extremism of the evangelical right”) and HBO’s True Blood (“so dazed and confused that it doesn’t even have the confidence of negation”). The complicated political plumbing of superhero franchises gets a more extensive Roto-Rooter treatment, including the often-overlooked biases built into the genre’s priorities—most strikingly, these supersize cape-and-tights contraptions’ indifference to the ordinary, mundane folk whose lives actually resemble ours. “There’s simply nothing for just plain people to do in superhero movies; they are essentially useless,” Biskind observes, although he’s not totally right about that. We do make fairly good CGI chum for supervillains.

So far as overt ideology goes, he isn’t the first critic to notice that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy got more flagrantlyprejudiced against ye olde lumpenproletariat in every installment. In The Dark Knight Rises,“the corruption that gnaws at the moral fiber of Gotham is blamed on the riffraff, not the 1 percent.” Of course, the movie came out before the Trump era’s right-wing populism made blaming the riffraff a liberal fad instead.

With the Howard Roark–esque exception of Tony Stark/Iron Man, the Marvelverse skews impishly liberal, not Ayn Randishly conservative. But that doesn’t stop superheroes in general from being “the darlings of the secular right,” as Biskind puts it. Like America itself, they are, first and foremost, exceptional—flying, often quite literally, above the hoi polloi. In 2004, Pixar’s The Incredibles let the cat out of the bag by openly deriding egalitarianism as mediocrity’s revenge on genius.

Biskind, who makes a somewhat dutiful point of scorning Trump as “our fake president,” doesn’t exactly charge into the culture-wars fray wearing a bright-red maga cap. Notably, however, it’s the left—categorized, variously, as “the Luddite-left,” “the alien-loving left,” and “the Dotcom-left”—that draws most of his ire for spawning fantasies that clearly appall him. He’s not even crazy about X-Men’smutants, who “become whole by accepting that they’re not human”—exceptionally freakish, not exceptionally gifted.

He’s at his most astute in noting the current pervasiveness of movies that identify humanity itself, often equated with American-ness, as a deplorable condition. It can be subliminally remedied at the multiplex by rooting for the Other—in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, the apes are the heroes, not the villains—or else, if not outright merging into the Other (Avatar), at least making love to the Other (The Shape of Water). Unexpectedly, however, the truism that these tales are metaphors for escaping our hidebound racial and cultural identities to embrace a more fluid, polyglot world cuts no ice with Biskind.

Enlightened fellow though he may be, he nonetheless belongs to the demographic whose once-unchallenged status and cultural sway are being earmarked for the glue factory—and it shows. He correctly spots this transformation-exalting stuff’s origins in stories, beloved by liberals eager to atone for their genocidal forebears, about white men turning against their fellow invaders to adopt Native American ways. Yet the recognition only triggers the most unhinged passage in the book, which I truly dislike feeling obliged to quote at length. Here goes:

In Dances With Wolves (1990), and Pocahontas, released five years later, white movie stars dole out generous dollops of noblesse oblige. They give up their cocaine for peyote, luxury faux haciendas in Bel-Air for drafty tepees stinking of animal fat, racial purity for miscegenation. In these pictures, white men think nothing of sleeping with Native American women—preferably of royal blood—but even the rush of sex with another color can’t make Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson desert their own people, and each finds a reason to go home.

Speaking of letting cats out of the bag . . . It ought to go without saying that the spittle-flecked merging of Costner’s and Gibson’s (conjectured) private lives with their onscreen characters isn’t even the most disgraceful thing in this paragraph. Not much less charmless is Biskind’s earlier explanation that “looking at who learns from whom” reveals a movie’s ideology: “Generally, although not always, if the teacher is a ‘manspert,’—that is male, expert, and centrist—expounding on the ways of the world (so-called mansplaining) to a woman, then we’re looking at a mainstream show. When the reverse is true . . . we’re looking at an extremist show.” Isn’t that “so-called mansplaining” priceless? It’s hard not to conclude that, in this book, labels like “mainstream” and “centrist” simply mean whatever validates its seventy-eight-year-old author’s own crankily beleaguered place in the cultural food chain. “Extremist” means whatever threatens or demotes it.

Much of the time, Biskind does better than that at evading the suspicion that The Sky Is Falling is ultimately a screed about his own alienation from twenty-first-century culture, not the levelheaded diagnosis the book poses as and intermittently is. Yet he never communicates any pleasure in discussing any of the movies and TV shows he examines, and cultural criticism without a detectable pleasure principle somewhere in the mix inevitably signals quasi-academic remoteness from the audience’s untutored proclivities, an unspecified ax to grind, or both. Despite his intermittently useful insights into our era’s admittedly strange idea of entertainment, fatigue sets in as Biskind keeps reprising the same material from only slightly retooled, increasingly exasperated vantage points. Sentences that open with “As we have seen”—never much of an encouragement to plow on—begin to clutter the text like tetchily woebegone emojis.

He’s come a long way from the raffish excitement of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. At least to a reader who agrees with Biskind that pop-culture trends don’t get the attention they should as “agent[s] of change” in America’s ever more jagged political landscape, the book’s ultimate failure is one of empathy—i.e., any detectable desire to understand why contemporary moviegoers and TV viewers thrive on this stuff, which may require a susceptibility to its attractions he doesn’t share. It’s got a great title, but he isn’t telling us that the sky is falling so much as he’s lamenting that the parade’s gone by.

Tom Carson is the author of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).