Retroactive Continuity: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Children are not tiny adults; in particular, children’s tastes are not necessarily the same as adult tastes. This is fairly obvious in the realm of flavor, which physically changes as a person matures: children tend to like sweet and dislike bitter flavors more than adults do, for example. But it’s equally true in the arts; for example, children tend to be more entertained by scatological humor than adults are.* The benign violation theory of humor makes sense of this phenomenon: references to taboo topics are funny because, as taboos, they violate norms, but as mere references they are not as risky as actually breaking the taboo. The more intense the violation–which is to say, the greater the taboo–the greater the laughter, but at the same time, the greater the violation, the greater the likelihood it will no longer be seen as benign, and hence stop being funny entirely. Adults are aware of much greater taboos than the merely scatalogical, which is largely just a chore, and so we find scatalogical humor unfunny because it’s boring; for prebuscent children, however, nudity and the scatalogical are the only taboos to which they have ready access, and therefore the greatest of taboos. At the same time, they are basically harmless, which is why they’re relatively minor taboos for adults; they are thus ideal joke topics for children.

The variance between children’s tastes and adults’ tastes can be navigated in a few ways. The four most common are appealing to adult tastes while maintaining accessibility for children; appealing to a mixture of adult’s and children’s tastes; appealing to children’s tastes in particular; and mistaking the differences between child and adult tastes for a lack of discernment by children, and just shoveling something out.** In practice, most works combine multiple approaches, but in general my writing focuses on works that take the first two. Captain Underpants is thus a little bit outside my usual wheelhouse, as it’s very emphatically and enthusiastically taking the third approach.

That said, it is still a superhero film, and we can still approach it in terms of the themes we have discussed regarding superheroes in the past. Notably, the Captain Underpants character created by the children in their comics has a classic traumatic origin, namely a parody of the Superman origin story, but the Captain Underpants persona they create within their teacher does not. His dual identity is imposed entirely externally, through hypnosis by the boys, as opposed to arising to cope with trauma. In this, it somewhat resembles the Hulk, in that the superhero persona is not consciously adopted by the character, but rather triggered unwillingly by events.

Nonetheless, the Hulk is still an expression of trauma, namely the trauma of the accident that created him, and an expression of Bruce Banner’s rage over his experience and loss. By contrast, Captain Underpants appears not to be an expression of anything Krupp feels–rather, he is an expression of precisely what Krupp doesn’t feel, joy and fun.

However, the boys’ post-hypnotic suggestion to Krupp is simply that he is Captain Underpants. A great deal of a subject’s response to hypnosis has to do with their own interpretation; for example, guided imagery of floating down a river could be relaxing for some, but provoke anxiety about drowning in others. That Krupp interprets the instruction to be Captain Underpants exactly as the boys do implies, first, that he’s read the comics he confiscated from the boys, and second that he has the capacity to imagine what Captain Underpants who do in the scenarios he encounters throughout the movie–and his imagination matches the boys’.

Early in the film, Professor Poopypants says that the capacity for humor appears to be a necessity for survival. Even he, despite his quest to rid the world of laughter, has things he finds funny. The only character entirely devoid of a sense of humor, and the first such person Poopypants has encountered–and who “doesn’t get” the Captain Underpants comics. Krupp does get them, however, at least enough that his subconscious can call forth a version of the character accurate enough to convince its creators. He does have the capacity for joy, humor, and imagination that the boys do, because without it, he couldn’t be Captain Underpants. He might try to be, under hypnosis, but he wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.

So what, then, has buried his joy so deeply that he can become the humorless, authoritarian jailer of children that is Principle Krupp? We don’t know. The movie never really hints at it; his life is solitary and sad, yes, but is that the cause of his joylessness or caused by it? Authoritarians usually come from authoritarian households, though sometimes they come from overcorrecting for an upbringing with too few, or too vague, boundaries. There may well be something in his past–some trauma, if you will–that robbed him of joy.

If so, then we have an unusual case: a superhero whose non-heroic identity is the one defined by trauma. Captain Underpants is, in the end, too silly to be the solution we’re seeking. Silly is a register in which superheroes work, and work well, but it’s not the only register; a hero who cannot handle any other is not a complete answer to our quest for a less toxic version of the hero. But the inversion is worth keeping an eye out for; perhaps it can help lead us to the answer we do seek.

*We are, of course, speaking here of tendencies. As a child, I liked bitter flavors more than most; as adults, my sister and mother like scatological humor more than most. And that’s before we even get into cultural variations, or variations across time within a culture.

**The attitude immortalized by Lindsay Ellis when she quipped, “Entertainment is the only area where parents say, ‘Who cares if it’s good? It’s just for my children.'”

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