Sunday, 22 February 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #18: The Butterfly Effect

There’s an old adage that the longer a review goes on, the less you learn about the subject of the review, and the more you learn about the reviewer.

After seventeen posts on the X-Men, totalling some 30,000 words or so, it’s not hard to believe that I’ve revealed quite a bit about myself. Our relationships with our fathers, the desire to avoid disappointing those you’re close to, the ways in which we fail in achieving our goals, this is the stuff that tends to circulate in my brain even when I’m not talking about mutant teenagers.

When I come to a character like Ororo Munroe, then, who I find so depressingly dull I’d almost rather gnaw off my fingers than continue typing about her, there’s always the risk that my total lack of interest stems, not from a flaw in the character, but in the fact that there is simply nothing inside my experiences and concerns that intersect with hers.

It doesn’t help that there is perhaps a touch of the same problem I mentioned with regard to Jean Grey (and so many other female characters that sprang up during or immediately following the sexual revolution). Maybe so many writers have spent so much time proving Storm is intelligent and independent that it never really occurred to them to put much more specific into her.

Eventually, though, it occurred that this might not be the root of the problem at all. It might not be that I can’t grasp the roots of Storm’s character, so much as I can’t comprehend the scale.

Storm is all about control. Which I guess in some sense is something that I can relate to, along with everyone else in the world, but the sheer size of Storm’s issue is such that it becomes qualitatively different. The less power you have, the less a loss of control matters. Most of spend our days hoping we don’t say something stupid when we’re drunk or upset (or both, I tend to refer to that particular situation as “Fridays”). Once you’ve got the atmosphere of the planet to play with, things become somewhat different.

At this point I’m guessing that 95% of the Western world can identify where the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” comes from. What Uncle Ben meant, though, or at least how Peter Parker took it, was that those with the power to help people should ensure they use it.

It’s not by any means a poor philosophy, but in Storm’s case it simply won’t work. Spiderman lives in a world of muggings and bank raids, with the occasional miniature sun to liven things up. All he has to do, basically speaking, is decide who gets punched, and who gets protected from getting punched. He fears for the safety of his loved ones, but that’s because of who his powers are applied against.
Storm's problem lies not in deciding how to apply her powers, but in whether to use them at all. Having discovered her abilities whilst wandering in the Sahara (which probably came in pretty handy), Ororo eventually arrived at the Serengeti Plain, and settled down in a nearby village. It was here that she learned the two most important lessons of her life. One of these came soon after she had caused a cloudburst in order to end the drought plaguing their community. She saved the village, but the rain she had used in the process had not been created, but stolen from somewhere else. All she had succeeded in doing was move the drought somewhere else, with the obvious effect of killing many animals, and with Goddess only knew how many less immediate or visible consequences.

With great power comes great responsibility. With power that can change the world comes the responsibility to consider every change you make. We're into Wagnerian territory here, frankly. Wotan's crisis in The Ring Cycle is that with absolute knowledge and absolute power comes a paradoxical helplessness. Although anything can be done, nothing can be done without consequences. Every tug at a thread of the tapestry will unravel something somewhere else.
Storm understands this. After the disaster of the drought, she headed into the wilderness and spent quite some time gradually knitting the weather system back into balance. She spent a great deal of effort erasing the effects of her own actions. Using an innate understanding of chaos theory to try and restore order. Which can't be easy. "A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking and in Central Park you have rain instead of sunshine," to quote Ian Malcolm. Trying to use chaos to impose order is like trying to paint whilst your brush is on fire. She pulls it off this time, but who knows if it will work again, if she might one day knock the system so far off balance that there would be no way to restore it?

I said she learned two lessons in that village, under the tutelage of her dear friend and surrogate mother Ainet. The second was this: that her own emotions were tied into the weather system. The more her own emotions spiralled out of control, the more the atmosphere did the same. She wasn't just able to manipulate chaos theory, she could become it. From her cells to her feelings to the weather around her to the weather across the globe. A fractal of insanity and fury.

Given Storm had already committed herself to control, not just after the drought but after being forced to kill a man who tried to rape her, and swearing to never take another life, it is hardly surprising that she deals with this crisis by trying her best to wall herself off from her emotions.

There's a horrible irony in all of this. As a child, Ororo loses her parents when a plane crashed into their house. She is left trapped under the rubble, next to the dead body of her mother, until she is finally able to dig her way out. This unimaginable trauma manifests itself as acute claustrophobia with which Storm struggles for the rest of her life. Choosing to trap herself within her own mind, to shut away strong emotion, is hardly likely to help. Indeed, by sealing up her passions and her fears, Ororo as much as guarantees that she can never come to terms with the tragedies of the past. Each new crisis, each new loss, is simply shut away the moment it registers. Storm becomes a pressure cooker, trying desperately to shove more and more boxes into the same cupboard, out of sight.

It can't possibly last. We have a finite capacity to contain our rage, and to refuse to allow it to trickle out is just to guarantee that one day we'll simply detonate. This is exactly what happens after Dr Doom traps her inside a statue of herself; upon escape she generates a storm that almost swallows the world. After being trapped inside Emma Frost's head for a while she attempted to murder her the instant she was returned to her own body. She also deliberately almost kills Callisto, leader of the Morlocks, in a leadership struggle deep in the New York sewers. Her victory leaves her in charge of the outcast mutants, a role in which she has no interest, having only declared the challenge in order to save her friends.

After the X-Men fight the Brood, a particularly vicious alien race with the irritating habit of implanting their eggs inside people (where could that idea possibly have come from?), which leaves Ororo out of kilter with the weather patterns even after the embryo is removed, and having met the ronin Yukio and observed the woman's total commitment to enjoying the moment, Storm decides that rather than continue to hold back her emotions and her desire to beat people up, she will become a leather-clad punk. Middle ground is apparently not something she's particularly concerned with.

It's perhaps for the best that she loses her power soon after, hit with a neutraliser gun designed by Forge. As much as she despises being "regular folks", she can at least explore her emotions without accidentally lightning-bolting the world to death. Of course, in an ideal world she wouldn't have fallen in love with the very man who stole her powers (up until she works out the truth, anyways), but better to have loved and lost, I guess. Certainly, better to feel shit than refuse to feel anything, or at least that's what we tell ourselves.

Losing her abilities helps Storm in other ways. She makes the conscious decision that the stripping of her abilities has not stripped her of her responsibilities (I suspect Uncle Ben would be in agreement on this score, at least). She continues to aid those in need, challenges Cyclops for leadership of the X-Men (and wins, though this is mainly because Scott is far too busy at the time wallowing in self-pity to avoid getting repeatedly kicked in the head) and takes responsibility when the Morlocks are massacred, since she had not been there to lead them when the Marauders attacked. She even returns to Forge to ask for her powers back, despite the cost to her pride in the request, and her fear of having to return to being the emotionless, untouchable woman she once was. Maybe it doesn't occur to her that not having to worry constantly about being in balance is what has made her balanced, or maybe she just worries that isn't enough.

Regardless, Ororo does not regress, but the restoration of her power does not come without cost. Having embraced responsibility so thoroughly without her powers, having already made clear that control was a need for her beyond its use in regulating her tremendous strength, finding herself once again a "goddess" forces her to throw herself into her many roles with even more gusto, a choice that costs her her relationship with Forge.

That's the price of control, though, and of power, which she knows full well. While the rest of lament the chasm between what we want to change and what we can, Ororo gazes into the gap between what she can change and what she should. If the rest of us don't understand that problem, maybe we're luckier than we think.

Next time: we consider what the use is in being an honorable man if your bosses are dicks, and you're a twat.

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