Superheroes postsSunday July 01, 2012
What's My Motivation? Batman, Spider-Man, and the Dictionary Definition of a Superhero
It’s July 1, 2012, and the latest incarnations of Spider-Man and Batman arrive on our screens this month. That’s appropriate. These guys have a lot in common.
We tend to think not. We tend to think of them as opposites. Batman is DC, Spider-Man Marvel. Batman is silent and dark, Spider-Man gabby and colorful. Bruce Wayne is rich, Peter Parker poor. Spidey has the proportional strength of a spider, Batman is just a strong dude, dude.
Moreover, neither can sustain the other's mood. When a Batman movie goes for lighter and gabbier, you wind up with crap like George Clooney in “Batman & Robin” (1998). When a Spider-Man movie turns dark and vengeful, you wind up with crap like the evil Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 3.”
They’re oil and water, these two. They don’t mix.
Our biggest box-office superheroes
But at the box office they’re our two most popular superheroes. They keep trading off bragging rights. Tim Burton’s “Batman” set the opening-weekend box-office record with $40 million in June 1989 and was the No. 1 movie that year. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man’ set the opening-weekend box-office record with $114 million in May 2002 and was the No. 1 movie that year. “Spider-Man 3” may have set a new opening record with $151 million in May 2007 (and was the No. 1 movie that year), but Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” took it back again with a $158 million opening in July 2008 (and was the No. 1 movie that year).
Here. These are the top five superhero-movies of all time:
- The Avengers (2012): $606,298,000
- The Dark Knight (2008): 533,345,358
- Spider-Man (2002): $403,706,375
- Spider-Man 2 (2004): $373,585,825
- Spider-Man 3 (2007): $336,530,303
Adjust for inflation and you get more Batman:
- The Avengers (2012): $606,298,000
- The Dark Knight (2008): $588,314,100
- Spider-Man (2002): $550,319,200
- Batman (1989): $498,600,600
- Spider-Man 2 (2004): $476,457,300
- Superman (1978): $454,276,400
- Spider-Man 3 (2002): $387,401,200
- Iron Man (2008): $351,218,400
- Batman Forever (1995): $335,063,500
So why are these guys so popular?
The dictionary definition of a superhero
Watch Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” again and notice how much he borrows from Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Both movies are scored by Danny Elfman. Both heroes battle grinning maniacs. Both movies give us city-wide celebrations, complete with parade balloons, in which, backed by the R&B singer of the day (Prince, Macy Gray), the supervillian attacks the populace. Both Burton and Raimi come out of the horror genre (“Evil Dead”; “Beetlejuice”), and both include scenes in which the hero is seen as the horror by petty crooks: the opening rooftop scene of “Batman”; the warehouse/carjacker in “Spider-Man.”
“What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of Tim Burton’s “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies.
“Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man.”
Beyond the movies themselves, both superheroes tend to fit what we think of as the dictionary defintion of a superhero: They 1) have secret identities, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, because 3) they’re attempting to cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.
We think of this as the dictionary definition but it really isn’t that common. Most of the superheroes of Batman’s “Golden Age” generation didn’t have a psychological motivation to fight crime; they did it because it was right (Superman), or because they’d been detectives (The Spirit), or because Hitler’s hordes were on the march (Captain America). Most of the superhero identities of Spider-Man’s “Silver Age” generation, meanwhile, were either known (The Fantastic Four, X-Men) or irrelevant (Hulk), and they rarely bothered with petty crime. They were too busy saving the world from Galactus.
But Spider-Man and Batman bothered. Because both are bothered.
Revenge vs. guilt
As a child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered by a petty crook and burns with a desire to get the bastards. That’s why he’s Batman: he wants revenge.
Batman: It's their fault.
As a teenager, Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is murdered and he burns with a desire to get the bastard; then he realizes he had the chance to stop the dude before the murder and didn’t. That’s why he’s Spider-Man: he’s overwhelmed by guilt.
Spider-Man: It's my fault.
But is such psychological motivation a key element to box-office success?
Let’s look at “Iron Man,” the No. 8 movie on the list above. Does Iron Man fit the dictionary definition of a superhero?
Pretty much. He may not fight street crime but he does fight war crimes, and he's psychologically motivated to do it. For the first part of the movie, he’s held hostage by terrorists, who kill his friend and savior, Yinsen, so he wants revenge on the bastards. At the same time, he’s been creating and supplying and getting rich off of weapons for years, so he’s guilty, too, and needs to cleanse himself. He's combines the motivations of both Batman and Spider-Man. Nice trick. Of course, at the end, he gives up his secret identity (in a totally cool move), and besides the box-office success of “Iron Man” certainly had more to do with the movie's kick-ass special effects and Robert Downey Jr.’s kick-ass wit and charm. But superhero motivation doesn’t hurt. At the least, it helps the movie make sense.
Let’s go the other route. Are there examples where the superhero fits the dictionary definition and his movie still bombs at the box office?
I can think of one: “Daredevil” (2003), starring Ben Affleck. Matt Murdock’s father is killed by mobsters, which gives Matt the motivation to fight crime, and in the end he confronts his father’s killer. “Daredevil” didn’t bomb, so to speak; it raked in $102 million. But it bombed by Batman and Spider-Man standards. It was the 27th biggest movie of the year, not the 10th or fifth or first. Psychological motivation for your superhero may help, in other words, but you still have to put something decent on the screen.
Superman: What’s my motivation?
How much does motivation help? Of the nine most popular superhero movies listed above, Batman has a motivation, Spider-Man, too, and Iron Man two. As for the Avengers? They’re psychologically unsuited to team up but supremely motivated to save the world. That's the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby twist. We fight in times of peace but unite in times of war. You could say it's the story of America. Or it's the story America likes to tell about itself.
I hope saving the world is part of Superman’s motivation in next year’s “Man of Steel." Superman was the first true superhero, and, back in 1938, he fought crime and injustice just cuz. But ultimately Superman’s origin isn’t much different from Batman’s. Both lost their parents. Batman lost his to crime, and that’s why he fights crime. Superman? He lost his parents, and his entire planet, because nobody could be bothered to listen to the apocalyptic warnings of its scientists. So shouldn't he fight ... that?
I know. A downer. Tough to dramatize. Preachy. At the same time, it might resonate a little. It might even give the popcorn-munching crowd a little psychological motivation of its own.
Superman: Is it your fault?
The History of Spider-Man On Screen
In 1967, this was cool:
In 2002, it became 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!
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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
It's 2012, they can create the Hulk out of thin air, but they still can't get Captain America's mask right.
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 ECCC 2012...
... were enough to make you cry ...
... or call for help.
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.