Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Superheroes never die. Or, Thud!

I was in the gym the other day, trying to complete my gym requirement. The class ahead of ours is 'ropes,' and a couple people were standing on a platform 40 feet up, attached to rigs. Its the gymnastics room, so the floor beneath is slightly springy. Even after both individuals had safely made it to the ground, I kept hearing a body fall, smacking into the mat with a sickening thud. Yes, I'm prone to fits of morbidity, but for the rest of the day I couldn't get the story of Owen Hart out of my head. (I didn't see it, but in a moment of excitement started reading one of our texts, only to be... surprised.)

I don't really know what to make of it. It's not just that he died in the ring, it's not just that it was live, in front of so many people. It's not just that I haven't a clue where the potential for real injury and real injuries are exciting. Real blood and bruises- if anything they're exciting because wrestlers endure them with panache. Like the Wildman's constant pain, his synergy with his body in a time when, for so many of us, pain means wrongness, time for the doctor and a sick day.

They are superheroes. It's not just that he was dressed in an absurd costume from a time when wrestling were, almost literally, superheroes from the comic books. Captain America was just killed off. He took punches from the Iron Sheiks of the super villain world, kept trucking. Until Hart fell, Cpt America was shot, a family who would tightrope walk without a net slowly – toppled – and...

Heels keep winning. There's something about the narrative of the fall of the hero that is satisfying. In stories, but in real life? It's not just tragic. Is it? Senseless death? We construct stories and meanings to deal with the senselessness of life, our fundamental lack of control. Wrestling is scripted, but part of it is ad libbed, changes in an instant to deal with the realities of an injury or an acquisition. It's liminal, it's ruthless. In this context, what does Hart's death mean?


Sam Ford said...

Tess, these are some awfully good questions, and we are going to talk about them further. We are going to watch some footage surrounding Owen's death later this semester, not anything directly greusome I promise, but it can be hard to watch in an emotional sense, including some of the footage from the night Owen died and the RAW after he died. This was a moment when the line between the fictional wolrd of wrestling and "real life" particularly broke down, and it's important to distinguish our reading of wrestling as a text of the battle of gods or akin to comic books as still involving real human beings.

Many fans were just particularly mad that Owen's death was not even involved in a stunt in the wrestling ring, which made it feel particularly senseless, and it was made even worse perhaps by the fact that Owen was seen by many as a very good guy and also a good in-the-ring wrestler.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

You'll have to forgive me for being stuck in a full-on fandom mode today. After class, we stopped by the comic store to pick up the first of the new Buffy series, and I'm all about superheroic serial fiction at the moment. As such, my perspective has less to do with Owen Hart than the general theme of dying superheroes.

One thing superhero narratives (primarily comics, despite derivative forms in film and TV) and wrestling share, that most modern media do not, is the possibility of infinite narrative. The structure of a traditional finite narrative--in which the good guy usually wins--requires that climactic victory to be delayed as long as possible, and consequently the good guy usually must lose badly and often until then. For most of the story, the bad guy is ascendant.

The infinite model poses a problem--how do you keep going when the good guy has won? Well, you stretch the middle. You make the bad guys win for as long as possible, both to increase demand for his eventual comeuppance. To keep the model going, that comeuppance is often incomplete--think of the number of times the Sheik kept the belt on a technicality--and when it does happen, it usually only lasts long enough to set up a new villain. Superhero comics tend to work this way, with some variation. Ditto the Jossverse, which tends to rely on turning the victory against one enemy into the ascendance of another. I'm not sure it's anything as complicated as the "two capitalisms" theory, but just an attempt to graft a finite narrative model onto a structure in which the story can't be allowed to end.