We’ve been talking a lot over the past few days about the interaction between quality storytelling and politics. So there’s something fitting about the fact that this week saw the announcement of a live action Captain Planet movie, because holy elemental power rings, folks, is that a franchise that sacrifices storytelling and plausibility for didactic politics:
It’s interesting to think about how the geopolitical realignments might affect how the Planeteer’s powers get realigned. It probably makes more sense to have a Planeteer from China rather than Japan, for example. And given China’s status as the largest coal consumer on the planet (though it’s also got the biggest hydroelectric projects in the world), maybe that Planeteer should have the ability to heal the earth or the air, rather than to control water? I don’t know if you can have metaphors for coal without having metaphors for oil in this sort of thing, so it would be interesting to have either a Middle Eastern Planeteer, or have the African one be from an oil-rich country like Nigeria. I do kind of love the crankiness of Wheeler, who complains about being a “cut-rate superhero” and can’t figure out why he — or more broadly, the U.S., should care about pollution clean-up (I sort of doubt we’ll see any character, Soviet or none, respond to that question with: “Because we care, my sweet imperialist dog.”) and generally serves as the person who provides opportunities for Gaia and Captain Planet to provide environmental lessons to the team.
But the larger problem is figuring out what story the movie’s going to tell, and picking one that isn’t totally unrealistic about what it takes to stop pollution, or the fact that environmental degradation is an ongoing problem rather than a one-off fix. Honestly, some of the original scenarios, like Captain Planet just sucking the oil from an offshore drilling site back into the well, are just dangerously unrealistic and un-useful:
When it comes to the environment, worshipping at the Church of Wouldn’t-It-Be-Pretty-To-Think-So is worse than having no pop cultural messages about the environment at all. It’s great that the message is “the power is yours,” but not so great that the idea is that Captain Planet can “take pollution down to zero,” which is just not possible. What’s interesting is that a lot of the original storylines have problems that clearly have systemic sources. Verminous Skumm grew up in a toxic waste dump, but rather than seeing cleanup as an option, he’s continuing to pollute so other people suffer the way he did:
Similarly, Rigger, Hoggish Greedly’s sidekick, works for the rapacious industrialist because he doesn’t have a lot of other career opportunities. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to fund an environmental justice group for Skumm to work in, and to hook Rigger up with Gemesa, the Spanish wind turbines company that’s converting U.S. Steel factories so they can build turbines here? It seems like it might make sense to have a two-part movie that’s initially about mitigating, rather than magically solving, an environmental catastrophe, and then becomes a heist or double-cross movie about co-opting the villains’ sidekicks and undermining their environmentally unfriendly enterprises.
But I sort of doubt if they’ll be that smart. There’s a clear audience for environmentally themed movies, whether it’s Avatar cracking the $2 billion market at the box office, or Wall-E taking home a Best Animated Feature Academy Award and $500 million despite being a stinging indictment of American consumerism. But I wonder if a badly-executed Captain Planet could be too on the nose. It would be unfortunate to have a dumb, obvious movie set back the effort to make environmentalism seem aspirational and important.