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Superhero Movies v the World

Countless words have been written on how much, and why, Batman v Superman sucks. The amount written on this subject would make the infinite number of monkeys reproducing the work of Shakespeare proud. Believing things to be better late than never, I intend to throw my two cents on top of that monumental literary pile. But hopefully from a slightly different perspective.

While many people found the narratives of BvS lacking, many still praised the visuals of the movie. For me, the scene that caught me most strikingly happened to be the scenes allegedly taking place in “Nairomi,” Africa. This dusty exotic locale gripped me with powerful but mixed feelings.

Apparently, this scene was filmed in New Mexico, not anywhere near Africa. Yet somehow, they put enough research and artistic ingenuity to recreate the looks of a real African region. The movie captures the scenery, costumes, people and architecture of the Sahel African region with unusual accuracy. Mainly, I was transported back to the country of Mali, Africa, which I visited over a decade ago in my youthful thirst for adventure.

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Grand Mosque of Djenne, Mali

This is the Sahel region of Africa. Many of the places here, especially the landlocked countries, remain some of the least developed and sparsely populated places in the world. Very few Americans get to visit this region or know much about it.

In short, I was impressed by the effort put in by the filmmakers in this regard, only to paint yet another discolored picture of Africa. A nauseating dichotomy.

Let me first discuss the name itself. As someone who has been to the actual “Nairobi”, Africa, I found the naming of place plain lazy.

This is what “Nairomi,” Africa looks like in the film.

This is what Nairobi, Africa (in Kenya) looks like. I have been there.

Nairobi or the country of Kenya looks nothing like the way it was portrayed in the movie. But they just picked a random African place name and decided to change it a little. This would be like naming a fictional American city “Los Angelos” and have it placed somewhere in New England.

Here I want to put a disclaimer. I am not African by any definition. I just happened to have been to four different sub-Saharan African countries. In one of the countries I happened to work briefly. But after having traveled to about 40 countries, I happen to know media distortions and misconceptions more intimately than most Americans.

So let me talk about Africa. Africa is a vast continent. It’s larger than the US, and China, and India AND much of Europe put together. The trickery of the Mercator projection and our ingrained prejudice, not to mention ignorance, make us think the continent is much smaller and more uniform than it actually is.
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There are fifty four countries in Africa with many different states of economic development and political stability. What that means is that in most countries things are nowhere near as bad as Americans believe them to be. It may shock many. But there are people living in Africa with lives and stories just like any other people living in any other place.

Of course, Lois Lane visits a country in Africa not to report on everyday life or joyous occasions happening there. Nor is she there to show the country’s culture or tourist attractions. She visits there to report on wars, deaths, and destruction happening there. And she does so because that’s what we expect to see in Africa.

The real reason one needs to fight against stereotypes is not to be PC. That’s not the main point. The practical and selfish reason we need to fight against stereotypes and prejudices is because they keep us ignorant. Our 24 hour media present us extremely distorted view of the world and keep us ignorant and we need to break free for our own benefit.

Let’s compare BvS with the way Africa was portrayed in another recent superhero movie.

A part of Captain America: Civil War, takes place in Lagos, Nigeria. Granted, the filming apparently took place in Atlanta, Georgia (USA).

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Captain America taking place in Lagos, filmed in Atlanta (Somehow Pictured with the Atlantic Ocean)

Sure, it was not an exactly genuine location. But the movie portrayed the Nigerian city as a normal place where people live. The city has skyscrapers, cars, and full of vibrant people buying and selling things in a marketplace. It was not a locale set in Africa to portray wars, famine or Four Horsemen in any other order. It was just a normal place with normal people that just happened to be a backdrop of an action scene like NYC or Paris. If you look at the online responses from actual Nigerians, it appears their reaction is mostly positive precisely for this reason.

The movie continues a more balanced portrayal of Africa as it introduces African characters who are not corrupt warlords or victims waiting around for a white savior. The king of Wakanda and his son appear as independent, educated and honorable. I also appreciate how they didn’t give them phony British accents or something similar to prop up their noble status. They speak with African accents and appear intelligent doing so.

The prejudices of course run amok against other regions of the world, most notably the Middle East/Arab world. (I also have been to the Middle East, including Syria before the civil war.) When was the last time you saw a movie set in the Middle East that didn’t involve terrorists and wars and brown people for white heroes to kill?

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A portrayal of the Middle East in a Holywood movie. And things went DOWNHILL since.

While the right wing prejudice against the Muslims and Arabs are not surprising, I find the liberal prejudice equally dangerous. Personalities like Bill Maher blatantly show their arrogant prejudice against the Islamic/Arab worlds for not being like us.

Is there hope? I fear, looking at the impending Trump presidency, our American prejudice and ignorance got worse, not better. Yet the cultural resistance would go on. Many comic books have been at the forefront of fighting against prejudices.

For art to be a positive force for change,  artists and liberals would need to be properly armed with knowledge and awareness instead of remaining in an echo chamber.  Art should let us see the world and its possibilities, instead of distorting them.  That would certainly make a better Superman movie for us. The kind of art we need for our time.

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