Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Kung Fu Panda and other action heroes: compare and contrast

('Kung Fu Panda 2' out now! - on dvd and blu-ray)

Po (aka Kung Fu Panda) is the chubby hero of the Kung Fu Panda movies.

He fantasises that he can be *awesome* like his heroes, the Furious Five (China’s leading kung fu warriors), painfully aware that he is seen by others, and by himself, as just a clumsy overweight oaf. This is exactly what we see him dreaming in the opening sequence of the first movie. Villagers (in his dream) thank him for saving them from evil bandits, someone remarking how “awesome” he is and some girl remarking how “attractive” he is. ‘How can we repay you?’ they ask. Po imagines that he will be very magnanimous: ‘There is no charge for awesomeness – or attractiveness.’

He is unique amongst action heroes in being the only one whose hallmark personality trait lies in having self-esteem issues (e.g. he eats when he’s upset).

This occurs with no other action heroes. For example, James Bond’s primary personality trait is smug arrogance. Moreover, to the extent that any other heroes have any personality at all, the only ‘depth’ to that is their torment: Spiderman and Superman, particularly, are tormented by their separation from the girls they love as a consequence of their crime-fighting duties. That adds a modicum of drama to plotlines which are otherwise pretty turgid.

Conventional action heroes, e.g. Spiderman, Superman and Batman (SSB), are narcissists who demonstrate their superiority to others (e.g. Batman is superior to the Gotham City Police in crime-fighting). Kung Fu Panda merely seeks acceptance by others (particularly the Furious Five), achieving equality with them rather than superiority. It is striking that SSB fetishize themselves through their skin-tight costumes designed to advertise their toned physiques; whereas Po merely wears very old patched shorts that have been stitched in many places (due, no doubt, to his fatness splitting the seams). SSB think only about *themselves* (as exemplified by the branding of themselves through their thoughtfully constructed self-obsessed costumes) and their alter-egos (their enemies). Po thinks only about *others* – in his admiration of kung fu masters and in his mission to protect the villagers. SSB are masters and saviours to be idolised, whereas Po and the Furious Five are merely servants (of the people) to be thanked.

There are striking differences between the economics of conventional action heroes and Kung Fu Panda. Bruce Wayne and James Bond, for example, are capitalists; Po and the Furious Five are socialists. This is sometimes very explicit: for example, Bruce Wayne derives his Batman powers largely from his fabulous wealth which enables him to invest in hi-tech gadgets and weaponry. The same applies to Ethan Hunt, James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer (curious, btw, that so many spies have the initials ‘JB’): enormous personal wealth and/or taxpayer subsidy via MI6/CIA. And even if material wealth is not crucial to the hero, e.g. Superman, Spiderman, then it is crucial to the villain, e.g. Lex Luthor, Green Goblin, Doc Octopus. What we learn from SSB is that there is good capitalism (e.g. Wayne Enterprises) and bad capitalism (e.g. Lex Luthor’s holdings, the Green Goblin’s ‘Oscorp’); and we the audience cheer the good capitalists and boo the bad capitalists, but capitalism itself is not challenged.

In stark contrast, Kung Fu Panda does not derive any power from any such crude commodity as money, nor in fact do his adversaries. Indeed, he doesn’t derive any strength from any external agent – because even the sacred powerful ‘Dragon Scroll’ (the rightful possession of the ‘Dragon Warrior’, who Po is revealed to be) is nothing but a mirror that simply tells one to look within oneself.

Thus, Po is a very positive influence for not only children (whom his films are apparently meant for) but adults too. The message is that anyone, even a clumsy overweight panda, can become “awesome” if they tap into their inner strength. In stark contrast, others, e.g. Batman, Bond, are a very corrupting influence, the message being that, if you can get yourself the right gadgets (Bond films even indulge in the crass practice of product-placement), the right body and the right costume, then you too can be the coolest kid on the block. This simply promotes consumerism, whereas Po promotes self-reflection.

It is striking that, whilst SSB, Bond, Bauer, Bourne & Hunt are men, it is Po the *panda* who is actually the only one with genuine human qualities: he is wracked by low self-esteem, self-doubt and fear.

Po’s supreme humility and complete lack of ego is illustrated at the end of the first movie. He has vanquished the evil Tai Lung and saved the Valley of Peace. He has fulfilled his Dragon Warrior destiny and earned the respect and adulation of the whole village. Even his most severe critic, Master Tigress, is moved to bow and address him with the honorific title he has finally earned, ‘Master’. Rather than basking in the adulation, Po merely chuckles at hearing the word ‘Master’ being applied to him. Moreover, he is so concerned about others and uninterested in himself that the word ‘Master’ simply turns his thoughts straight to his own master, Master Shifu – who he rushes straight off to see for fear that he (Shifu) might have been injured/killed.

In political terms, Po + the Furious Five are like Sandinsta or VietCong guerrillas, whose mission is to repel fascist invaders from terrorising peaceful villagers. In stark contrast: James Bond’s mission is to protect Her Majesty’s imperial interests – originally ill-gotten anyway through rapacious plunder around the globe by the British Empire – against any upstart villains who have the gall to think they can challenge the power of the MI6-CIA terrorist network.

On the inter-personal level, Bond is always looking for sex (from women), whereas Po is always looking for love (from anyone).

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