erik lundegaard

Superheroes posts

Thursday June 28, 2012

The History of Spider-Man On Screen

In 1967, this was cool:

Spider-Man swinging in the original 1967 cartoon

And this:

In 2002, it became this:

And this:

What will the new incarnation give us? How much more real can it get?

Five years ago, for MSNBC, I wrote about the history of Spider-Man on screen. I applauded the first two movies and disparaged the third. In the link to the article, you'll also find Nicholas Hammond and Electric Company versions of Spidey. Whallopin' Websnappers!

New chapters getting written all the time. See you next week!

Posted at 08:49 AM on Jun 28, 2012 in category Superheroes
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Tuesday May 01, 2012

Avengers Movies: Assembled!

Marvel Comics, under Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was the first comic book company to include a sense of continuity between issues and titles. Its heroes all lived in the same universe, and often in the same city, New York City, which wasn't named Metropolis or Gotham but was named, you know, New York City. It was peopled by folks like you and me. Stan and Jack even made guest appearances.

Marvel Studios is now the first studio to include a sense of continuity between movies and franchises, and “The Avengers,” out in the U.S. on Friday, and already out in more than 39 countries abroad, is the culmination of this experiment. It's been hinted at for four years, since May 2008, when, after the credits of “Iron Man,” Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), showed up at Tony Stark's beachfront mansion to tell him, “We're putting together a team.” Nick, along with Phil Coulson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg), made subsequent appearances in: “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Thor” (2011), and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). Black Widow showed up in “Iron Man 2,” Hawkeye in “Thor.” Hulks, or Bruce Banners, have been swapped for a third time in a decade. We're good to go.

Caveat: Thus far, only one of the Avengers movies, “Iron Man,” has been a first-tier superhero film. “Captain America” is good but has a weak ending and nothing like Robert Downey Jr.'s driving force. It feels like careful prologue, which it is, to this. “The Incredible Hulk” is like its hero: starts smart and small, ends big and dumb. “Iron Man 2” suffers in comparison to the first but it's better than fanboys remember, while “Thor” is saddled with the dull lumps of Odin and Asgard.

Supposedly “The Avengers” rocks. It's certainly rocking the international box office. In the meantime—before Friday, that is—here are the individual Avengers movies, assembled and ranked:

  1. Iron Man“Iron Man” (2008): In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference. No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.” Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.
  2. Captain America“Captain America” (2011) Who is Steve Rogers and why did they choose him for this all-important experiment? Why him? The question that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby didn’t care about in 1941 is the question that’s central to “Captain America.” Dr. Erskine is a German scientist, Jewish one assumes, who developed a prototype of the super-soldier serum back in Germany but was forced to use it on a bully, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who is turned into the Red Skull. Erskine realizes that the serum not only makes a man stronger but amplifies what’s inside him. A bully becomes a megalomaniac. A weak man like Steve Rogers? “A weak man,” he tells Steve,” knows the value of strength, the value of power.” I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good? Let’s face it: the real reason Steve Rogers is a small, skinny kid is because that was the comic-book-buying demographic in 1941, and those kids wished to thrill—a la Shazam—at the magical transformation from meek to masterful.
  3. Iron Man 2“Iron Man 2” (2010): Can I pause here to thank Darren Aronofsky? Without Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke’s career wouldn’t have been resurrected enough for studio execs to allow him to play an A-list role in an A-list movie, and he’s a perfect counterpoint to the star. Stark/Downey, Jr. is a babbler, whose mouth, working overtime, still can’t keep up with his mind. Rourke/Vanko is the opposite. Everything he does is slow. He walks slowly, talks slowly, shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other slowly. He serves his revenge cold. If Stark’s pace is the result of frenetic intelligence—one thought pushing out another—Vanko’s leisurely pace almost feels like wisdom. When Stark visits Vanko in his Monte Carlo jail cell, he talks shop, “Pretty decent tech,” etc., but Vanko has the bigger picture in mind. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he says, with that deliciously thick Russian accent. “And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” This is exactly what you want in a villain. Not someone to boo and hiss, but somebody almost more admirable than the hero. Someone to make you consider switching sides.
  4. The Incredible Hulk“The Incredible Hulk” (2008): Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. It starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk. The origin of the Hulk is rebooted in the credit sequence. This allows the movie proper to start in the same place the last one left off: with Bruce on the lam in Latin America. That’s smart. Smarter? Our protagonist. He’s a scientist, and, for the first half of the movie, he never stops being a scientist. He’s stopped running in Rochina Favela, the largest shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, where he’s gotten a job at a bottling plant and is tackling his rather unique problem by pursuing both temporary solutions and permanent cures. The latter involves rare flowers and blood samples and microscope slides. The former involves heart-rate monitors and yoga and martial arts lessons. “The best way to control your anger is to control your body,” his teacher tells him before slapping him. We’ve just seen a TV re-run of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” in which Bill Bixby, who played David Bruce Banner in the 1970s “Hulk” TV series, gets slapped, so nice echo. Days without incident? 158.
  5. Thor“Thor” (2011): Thor, easily manipulated by the ear-whisperings of Loki, takes four friends to Yodenheim to battle the Frost Giants. Odin may counsel against war but it’s what we in the audience want. It’s actually a helluva battle, and the filmmakers make good imaginative 3-D use of Thor and his hammer, Mjöllnir, as the throws it, whirls it, creates shock waves around the planet with it. But the incident sets Odin off, and he strips his son of his powers and banishes him to Earth ... where he runs into Jane Foster, or she into him. (Side thoughts: Early on, Asgard is described as “a beacon of hope” ... but to whom? Themselves? And if they’re so enlightened, why rule by royalty? Are we doing it wrong here in America? Finally, how exactly does a father strip his son of powers? Is it an Asgardian thing? A Scandinavian thing? As a Lundegaard, should I be worried?)

To be honest, #s 2, 3 and 4 are pretty close, and if you made a good argument to move up one or the other I'd probably buy it. In fact, I'm leaning towards putting the two “Iron Man” movies at the top. “Thor” can't get past Asgard. (Plus we lose Natalie.) “Iron Man” is easily the best of the bunch: smart, surprising and energetic.

Here's hoping for smart, surprising and energetic on Friday. Excelsior.

Avengers assembled

It's 2012, they can create the Hulk out of thin air, but they still can't get Captain America's mask right.

Posted at 06:27 AM on May 01, 2012 in category Superheroes
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Sunday April 01, 2012

Lust and Wil Wheaton at the 2012 Emerald City Comic Convention

The 10th annual Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) at the Convention Center in downtown Seattle on Saturday was my first comic convention in 35 years. I don't know what I expected. But the last thing I expected was to get turned on. Hopelessly, adolescently turned on.

It's not just that more women attend comic conventions now. (Up from about zero in 1975.) It's not just that they wear skimpier outfits. It's that they tend to wear the skimpier outfits of my first sexual fantasies: Star Trek mini-skirts and Batgirl costumes and Catwoman costumes. For every fat Capt. Kirk there was a svelte Black Widow. Some of these women were obviously nerds. Others looked like models. I was reminded of an early “Kung Fu” episode:

SCENE: Young Caine (Radames Pera) sits in the audience of a burlseque show with Master Kan (Philip Ahn). His face looks both amazed and stricken as he watches a woman performing on the stage.

Master Kan: How do you feel, Grasshopper?
Young Caine: (long pause) Uncomfortable, Master.

The place was packed. Packed. I've never seen the Convention Center so crowded for anything—and I pass by it almost every day. It was a relief, after four hours, to come up for air.

I didn't expect Wil Wheaton to be so entertaining, either. Friends and I sat through his 90-minute show and he did recent bits from his blog: a humorous take on spam email; a “Robocop as bad '80s sitcom” script; a STFU PSA ad. All easy targets, and, save for the PSA ad, all posts I would've ignored after 15 seconds. But he performs them well. Then he did a bit from a post called “life imitates art (or: I don't know much about brain scans, but I'll help you fix your computer),” in which—true story—fellow “Star Trek” cast member Jonthan Frakes' email was compromised, Wheaton, the tech-nerd, helped him fix it, and, during the back and forth, Wheaton and Frakes used the language of the show: “I'm giving it all I can, Captain!” and “Run a level-five diagnostic” and the like. Wheaton concluded with this:

This was funny to me, because we're two Star Trek guys (with magnificent beards), making contextually-relevant Star Trek jokes with each other. More significantly, though, is that we did this using handheld computers which were inspired by the show we were on twenty-five years ago.

Wheaton was even better during the Q&A:

Fan 1, recounting her childhood: When I was growing up, liking science wasn't cool.
Wheaton: Welcome to America.

Fan 2, recounting an early affiliation with the early “Star Trek--The Next Generation” episodes: At that age, I wasn't able to recognize bad writing in the episodes.
Wheaton: Neither were the writers.

My other great adolescent lust was for the comic books. Thirty-eight years ago, at the Dykman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, I bought a dog-eared copy of “Fantastic Four #2” for $10 and was ecstatic for years. Now the dealers seem an afterthought, relegated to the back of the main hall. Even so, seeing a huge wall with nothing but polybagged, Silver Age, Marvel comics on it—early “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four”s—was like seeing a woman dressed as Batgirl. All I could think was: I want, I want, I want. I wound up buying three '70s-era Captain America comics, numbers 153-155, the ones with the crazy, McCarthyite Captain America from the 1950s returning to take America back. That Captain America never really goes away, does he? He'd be on FOX-News now. He'd be running for office on the Tea Party ticket. He'd be asking for Pres. Obama's birth certificate.

The front of the hall is for newer books and strips and artists. They're remaking “Peanuts.” Did you know that? They've hired new writers and artists to keep it going, as they hired new writers to keep James Bond going. The artist creates into popularity and the corporation recreates into oblivion.

To be honest, I didn't recognize half the outfits folks were wearing. I didn't recognize the names of the shows, either. It's not my world anymore. But it was nice to visit. Nice and uncomfortable.

The crowds at the Emerald City Comic Convention 2012

The crowds at the ECCC 2012...

The Angel from "Dr Who" at the Emerald City Comic Convention 2012

... were enough to make you cry ...

The Dark Knight, Batman, at the ECCC 2012

... or call for help.

Posted at 08:56 AM on Apr 01, 2012 in category Superheroes
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Friday March 30, 2012

A Long Time Ago, In a Comic Book Far, Far Out...

“Upon learning that stone-faced Darkseid, ruler of the smoke-covered industrial planet Apokolips, wanted the Anti-Life Equation, Highfather called Orion for help. Born on Apokolips, but raised on New Genesis because of a baby-switching pact that kept the peace, Orion had no idea he was really Darkseid's son. Highfather led him to the Source, a fiery wall and vague cosmic essence that held their universe together, and both watched a disembodied hand write that Orion had to battle Darkseid's men on earth, then meet his father for a infal battle.”

--discussion of the characters of Jack Kirby's “New Gods” comic book, which appeared in 1971, from “Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution” by Ronin Ro.

I'm late to the party on this one—decades late. My comic-collecting days were shortlived, 1973 to 1978, and “Star Wars,” possibly, helped put an end to them. More likely it was girls. And, you know, better stories. “Star Trek” led to Aismov led to Vonnegut led to John Irving and Doctorow and Roth and Mailer and Hemingway and... out.

During my golden age of comics, which was post-Silver Age of Comics, basically, Jack Kirby, fed up with how he'd been treated at Marvel, jumped ship to DC, where he was treated worse. I didn't get much of his stuff. I didn't get much DC stuff in general, to be honest, just Superman, Batman, and Kirby's “Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.” By the time I began to pay attention, “New Gods” had died, I believe. I remember my brother bought “Sandman #1” (Winter 1974), which I didn't understand at all. Sandman was back? But it was No. 1? And he entered your dreams? WTF? I was 11.

I read the above passage this month. Every influential piece of art or commerce has its own influences. Long ago I'd read that “Star Wars” was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa's “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), and when I saw it, sure, I saw similarities. A princess. Two bumbling peasants. A general. That form of cinemantic transition where one scene sweeps across the screen and replaces another. But ... it's feudal Japan. Come on.

But this? This is right there. You don't need to be Roland Barthes to see it.

  • The Source = The Force
  • Darkseid = Darth Vader
  • Orion = Luke Skywalker
  • Highfather = Obi wan Kenobi

The Source, like the Force, is the source of power in this universe. Orion is really Darkseid's son, as Luke is really Darth Vader's son. Darkseid is the villain, as is Darth, who wields the dark side of the force.

That said, it ain't a story. I wouldn't be surprised if the story of “New Gods” is as awful as the names Kirby came up with. It certainly sounds bad from the Wikipedia description.

Comments welcome, my nerdier brethren.

The power of Darkseid!

Posted at 07:50 AM on Mar 30, 2012 in category Superheroes
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Friday July 22, 2011

Captain America: From Hitler Puncher to Commie Smasher to Man Without a Country

If you'd asked me in 1974, when I was 11 years old and a year into my serious Marvel-Comics-collecting phase, for the names of my two favorite superheroes, I would've immediately given you Spider-Man; then after some thought, after mentally sorting through Superman and Batman (the only DC heroes worth a damn), and the Hulk, the Thing, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, I would've added, “Captain America.”

Spider-Man is easy to figure. A teenager who feels sorry for himself but has the proportional strength of a spider. Identification and wish-fulfillment in the same package.

But Captain America? He was tall, blonde and strong-jawed. He was draped in the flag when there was no cache to being draped in the flag. He looked like a young adult but was actually older than my father.

Wish fulfillment, sure, but why did I identify?

Image from Captain America #1, March 1941

Drawing taken from Captain America #1, March 1941

Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in March 1941, for what was then Timely Comics, and on the cover of the first issue he's seen decking Adolph Hitler—meaning Captain America was fighting the Nazis eight months before America was fighting the Nazis. He was soon joined not only by the rest of us but by many superpatriotic superheroes: The American Eagle, The American Crusader, Minute-Man: the One-Man Army, Major Victory, Man of War, Uncle Sam, U.S. Jones, The Shield, The Defender, The Flag, Super-American, and V-Man, as well as a character named Yankee Doodle Jones, an artificial man, who, in one of the more gruesome origins ever, was created from the body parts of crippled World War I veterans. Then he was injected with a super serum. 

This last bit was Captain America's origin, too: scrawny kid, tries to enlist, 4-F, but volunteers to be injected with a super serum from a Professor “Reinstein.” The kid is to be the first of a super army. But the Gestapo shoots Reinstein, his formula dies with him, and we're left with Steve Rogers and the legend of Captain America.

Scan the covers of those early, World War II-era comics and they are, albeit with greater Kirbyesque attention to the energetic motion of the human body, typical of the period: carryovers from the lurid pulps, with damsels or young boys (Bucky Barnes) tied up and imperiled, and our hero decking yet another round of sinister Krauts or buck-toothed Japs or various yellow or green grisly monsters and henchmen. My favorite imperilment may be on the cover of Captain America #9, in which a Mephisto-like creature is painting himself in the act of strangling Bucky Barnes. Jack Kirby's wish fulfillment?

Most of the superpatriots either didn't survive or barely survived the war, and Cap was no exception. Captain America #42 was the first issue where Cap is fighting civilians on the cover—bank robbers rather than Nazi or Jap soldiers—and several issues on you can sense the desperation. Cap's dynamic silent covers suddenly became very wordy. A Clark Kent-like private life for Steve Rogers was created. Women went from being imperiled to being the peril. For a time, as horror comics took over the medium, the magazine was retitled “Captain America's WEIRD TALES.” At the height of McCarthyism, the magazine was retitled “Captain America COMMIE SMASHER!” None of it worked. Captain America #78 was the last issue.

Captain America #9  

 

Captain America covers, 1942-1954: the struggle for survival.

In 1974, I knew none of this history. I merely knew the story Stan Lee created in resurrecting Cap in Avengers #4: How, at the end of the war, as he's fighting Baron Zemo with Bucky, the two climb aboard a missile in flight to redirect it. But Bucky stays on too long and gets blown up, while Cap, screaming “Nooooooo!,” falls in the ocean, is encased in ice, and is thus preserved, World War II-era ready, when the Avengers find him in 1963. 

In a way Cap never gets over losing Bucky. He never gets over his lost 19 years. He remains, in the Marvel comics parlance of the time, trapped in a world he never made!

That was part of the appeal for me. In 1974 my parents were already separated and in the midst of a divorce, and I felt trapped in a world I never made. I felt I had lost something, as Cap had lost Bucky, as Spider-Man had lost his Uncle Ben, and I identified with their respective losses.

The storylines in Captain America were also fascinating. I began collecting Cap with #169, which was the first issue of an six-issue arc in which Cap battles a group called “The Secret Empire,” who first besmirch Cap's name via television propaganda (anticipating FOX-News by 25 years), then frame him for murder. But Cap and the Falcon (now with wings!) infiltrate the organization and stop it literally on the White House lawn. 1974 was a very political year and Marvel, to its credit, didn't run from it. They embraced it. Inside the White House, Cap unmasks the Empire ringleader, a man with “high political office,” whose power was “still too constrained by legalities,” who subsequently kills himself. An issue later, in the exact month Nixon resigned the presidency, Steve Rogers, fed up with what his country had become, resigns being Captain America. A few issues later, with the help of Hawkeye, Steve Rogers becomes Nomad, man without a country. That arc lasted for about a year.

My favorite Captain America storyline, though, was one I discovered via back issues at Schinders, a magazine store on 7th and Hennepin in the then-grungy part of downtown Minneapolis. Captain America #s 154-156 would now be called a ret-con storyline: “retroactive continuity.”

Fans, you see, delving into the history, had begun to wonder how Captain America could have been frozen in a block of ice during the 1950s when there were in fact real issues, “Commie Smasher” issues, being created in our world. This was Marvel's solution. Scripter Steve Engelhart and artist Sal Buscema created a second Captain America and Bucky, both injected with the super serum, who became America's McCarthy-era heroes. The original serum, though, included “vita-rays,” which weakened, slightly, the serum but preserved the subject's sanity. McCarthy-era Cap wasn't so lucky, and, like the worst part of his country during that decade, he became an intolerant, racist superpatriot, a commie smasher who, after Nixon opened China in '72, is resurrected by another commie-hater within the State Department. 1950s-era Cap then goes after 1970s-era Cap, whom he doesn't know is the original until it's too late.

Our Cap, the sensitive 1970s Cap, beats the fascistic 1950s Cap in a battle in Miami. But check out the last panels (taken from the original comic book). He wins but he sees himself in the loser. The victory doesn't make him feel good:

The last panels of Captain America #156

Here, meanwhile, are similar last panels from the Secret Empire storyline:

last panel from Captain America #175

Admittedly Captain America is a cool superhero. He's got a cool name. He's got a shield that, like a bullet-proof frisbee, always returns to him. He rides a motorcycle. Plus he's a tortured soul in the Mighty Marvel Manner. He's suffered a great loss. He has an original sin. He's stuck in a world he never made.

In his post-1963 incarncation, he's also never been a superpatriot. The opposite. He has nothing but doubts about his country. Representing America, he is forced to question it all the more.

But I think the above panels demonstrate Captain America's real appeal to my 11-year-old self. After his incredible victories, against incredible odds, using his incredible muscles, he resembles no one so much as me dragging myself back to my room to mope.

Posted at 06:06 AM on Jul 22, 2011 in category Superheroes, Personal Pieces
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