Monday, July 17, 2023

How do you bring fresh material to superhero metaphors?

By explicitly focusing its conflict on a persecuted Black family, Gray Matter goes into themes the X-Men movies haven't addressed in a long time

Once upon a time, mutants were a metaphor that stood in for any oppressed minority. The writerly intention was noble, but for the purposes of a rhetorical device, it's always been a faulty one. Normal people can't oppress the superpowered. Fortunately, this incongruity between the metaphor and the reality it aims to represent opens the way for a different, more narratively and philosophically interesting type of story: that of mutant outcasts persecuted by a faction of their own peers who have internalized the prejudice they've heard from the dominant society. Recently, Sense8 did a fantastic (and undeservedly cut short) job with this type of villain. This month, HBO Max has launched a smaller but no less poignant variation on the same idea: Project Greenlight graduate Gray Matter.

Ayla (Jessica Frances Dukes) and Aurora (Mia Isaac) are a mother/daughter team of perpetual fugitives, changing cities every few months so that their psychic powers are kept out of the radar of a vague, undefined enemy. The plot suffers from slightly too low tension in the first act because we haven't been shown what they're running from; we see Ayla trying to teach Aurora how to control her gifts, but Aurora doesn't feel motivated to learn when she doesn't even know why they're going to so much trouble. Here the plot draws from the old reliable trope of the overprotective parent who keeps secrets that their kid would be better off knowing.

Cue the classic X-Men moment where Aurora accidentally hurts her love interest, and we jump rather abruptly into the second act, where we finally meet our villain. From this point on, it's your standard mad scientist conspiracy thriller, with Aurora stuck trying to figure out how to throw a sinister organization off her family's scent. Superhero problems start to displace the carefully laid out subtext of the first act, until the climax ties the hanging threads a bit faster than the viewer can process the implied message. In general, the action scenes are more restrained, and therefore more dramatically impactful, than the multicolored splashes Marvel has conditioned our eyes to gorge down, and the cinematography makes laudably resourceful choices with the clearly limited budget for set design. Numerous shots have a single bright light in the background (either the sun or a potent lamp) aimed directly at the camera, a trick that shifts the viewer's depth perception and makes the modest sets look more spatially complex.

It's all very superhero-keeps-punching-villain-until-finally-superhero-punches-harder-and-wins, but the particulars of this family add some valuable talking points to the old and recycled conversation on the meaning of superheroes as a persecuted minority. Most obviously, Ayla and Aurora are Black—almost the only Black characters in the movie. Ayla's anxiety about raising her child in a dangerous world is easy to translate into the real-life struggles of Black famlies in the US. In one scene, they rehearse all the safety tips Aurora has memorized, a conversation with specific resonances in our world. Ayla's lessons for Aurora include how to look nonthreatening, how to behave if she's detained, how to keep herself always in check lest she draw attention. Sound familiar? Don't be too visible, don't take up too much space, keep your guard up, don't confess to anything. But also, Aurora needs to learn how to fight back and how to understand the ethical grounding of her fight.

Aurora puts her crash course in superhero ethics to logically pragmatic use at the ending of Gray Matter. In doing so, she blows up decades of pointless discussion about the proper use of superpowers. Even if the way the scene is edited may strike the viewer as too fast and unsatisfying, it shows that this movie takes the trope of persecuted mutants more seriously than the X-Men movies were able to. If the superhero genre is to maintain any relevance as a conversation about power, it needs to become more honest about the poison of internalized shaming that still pushes many into a state of disempowerment. Gray Matter may not ever make Marvel-scale money, but what it has to say about the desperation caused by systemic injustice is more than we've heard in a decade of digital explosions.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.