Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Rise And Fall Of The Norman Empire

Chris B and I recorded our latest podcast on Thursday - coming soon to an internet near you - on the subject of Norman Osborn.  In the end, though, I figured my notes were complete enough to forge into a post.

I've been trying to decide for a little while exactly what makes Osborn so interesting, and I think a lot of it boils down to a single question: What happens when you take a villain and make his success contingent on being heroic?
That idea in itself isn't spectacularly original.  The Marvel Universe is littered with examples of villains both reformed and compelled into servitude.  What makes Osborn unique is that he's both at the same time.  Osborn knows he’s a villain, but he's still convinced that he's doing the right thing.  He's absolutely convinced that a “good man” just hasn’t the stones to keep America safe.

This dichotomy is important to grasp to understand what Osborn represents. I've seen people compare the Osborn story to the rise of Hitler, but that’s not entirely right.  Hitler persuaded the masses to give him power. Osborn persuaded the President to let him get on with things.  If anything, Osborn is most similar to Dick Cheney. Indeed, there’s a distinctly lunatic-Republican attitude here overall; Osborn seems obsessed with getting power but has no interest in actually using it for anything but acquiring more power.

Getting hold of power, of course, is Norman Osborn's forte.  His passion, too.  You can see the joy he takes in building power from the Thunderbolts to the Avengers and HAMMER.  Each asset is given a different story, a different deal, and we watch him weave together disparate strands into what look like coherent forces. Karla Sofen notes this in her analysis of the man; that he has excellent executive skills, but is an unknown quality as regards true leadership.  In other words, he can put together these structures, but there's no way to tell whether or not he can maintain them.

He can't, as it turns out.  There's two reasons for this.  Firstly, it's because his obsession with immediate results means he gives no thought to what happens the day after he slaps his new team together.  His combinations of bribes and threats invariably create a poisonous cocktail that leads to infighting, betrayal and, in rare cases, needing to stab Germans to death with their own swords.  No-one is ever actually rooting for Osborn.  They all want him to fail, even those who work for him.  Not that Osborn cares; he's too busy burning bridges.  Or, given his race to the top, it might be better to say he's setting fire to each rung on the ladder the moment he steps on it. 

Secondly, it is whilst he is trying to hold these structures together that the Green Goblin’s influence is most strongly felt, pushing him deeper into madness.  That's why Osborn starts wearing his Iron Patriot armour almost constantly; what started out as a joy for him (and a "fuck you" to both Tony Stark and Captain America) quickly becomes just another mask Osborn is forced to wear to hide himself away.  It's also why it was surprising that so many people thought Siege stupid because Osborn would never take up arms against Asgard.  To me it made perfect sense.  It was what was next.  Aside from (perhaps) the Presidency and his stated goal of world domination (though that might have been simply dark humour), there was nothing else to do but gain further power whilst within HAMMER, and that meant big wins.  That meant putting together something new, in this case a strike force capable of waging war on the Gods themselves.  It is absolutely no coincidence that the person who persuades Osborn into attacking Asgard is not Loki, but the Green Goblin himself.

There's more to the Cheney/Osborn link, though.  There's the public support angle, too.  Osborn understands the American people very well, or thinks he does.  “Educate the people?" he sniggers when Radioactive Man asks to have it explained his power is harmless, "See, that’s foreigner talk”. “The American people do not want diplomatic anything he points out to the President on the eve of the attack on Asgard.  Osborn has that strange combination of devotion to his country and total contempt for its citizens.  This gets him some distance, especially when Sofen teaches him to spin even total disasters into reasons to gain more power (see e.g. 9/11), and is accentuated from a leaf straight out of the GOP playbook - treating all criticism of his as inherently suspect.  This is why it’s so important – and impressive – that Spider Man hands Osborn a major defeat not by fighting him, but by demanding as Parker that his civil rights be respected.

In addition, there's also a nice dramatic irony at work here.  Osborn got his job essentially because it turned out putting all of the superhero community’s power at Tony Stark’s disposal had disastrous consequences.  Rather than realise that this proved either one or both of a) the SRA was dumb, or b) giving one man command of the Avengers, the Initiative and SHIELD was dumb, they just changed the person.  The only thing you can count on as much as people being idiots is people finding the most stupid way possible to fix the mistakes they make.  In any case, Osborn’s trajectory thus mirrors Stark, especially since in both cases it can be argued that their flaws lay in arrogance and an inability to let past slights go.

This last point is far more true of Osborn, of course.   He’s not only obsessed with Spider-Man, but each act of perceived betrayal or lack of respect (Luke Cage, Swordsman, Namor and Emma Frost, The President) becomes something he is determined to... well, avenge.  He is convinced that he is all that stands between the US and destruction, to the point where he will both lie to and endanger the life of the President to save his own skin – and yet call Tony Stark a contemptuous traitor and genuinely mean it. 

OK, anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows how I feel about the Republicans (though I doubt Cheney himself is liable to get much support), so take the comparisons with a pinch of salt.  Even if I'm off-base with the specifics, though, there's certainly enough going on with Osborn to make him entirely worthy of the time he spent in the spotlight.  The Heroic Age will doubtless be brighter for his absence, but it will be a long time before we come across another shadow quite as interesting as his was.

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