Superheroes postsSaturday May 11, 2013
The Superhero Trilogy: Powers Revealed, Lost, Turned Evil
An observation about superhero sequels.
The first superhero movie of the modern era, the one that caused Hollywood to realize the money to be made from men in tights, was “Superman” in 1978. What happens to Supes in that Donner/Lester trilogy?
- I: Superman's powers are revealed
- II: Superman's powers are lost (so he can be with Lois)
- III: Superman turns evil (via synthetic kryptonite)
It doesn't seem like much of a formula—the box office for each sequel kept dropping—but we haven't gotten far away from it. The Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies follow it exactly:
- I: Spider-Man's powers are revealed
- II: Spider-Man's powers are lost (psychologically)
- III: Spider-Man turns evil (via intergalatic space goo)
There are subtler variations, certainly. At the end of “The Dark Knight,” Batman agrees to be perceived as evil, which, I've argued, is a smart move that prevents the series from descending into camp; and for the first half of “The Dark Knight Rises,” he's lost his powers through old age, injuries, and cynicism. He has to build his way back. Twice.
Even fucking Ghost Rider lost his powers in “Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vegeance.”
Of course, what matters is less the formula than the variations within the formula. Losing powers worked in “Spider-Man 2” and “Iron Man 3” (the Tennessee portion was the best part of that movie) but not “Superman II” or “X-Men 3.” And while turning evil is a tired plot device, the ways Bryan Singer handled it in “X2” and Christopher Nolan in “The Dark Knight” were inspired.
Even so, can't we get a new story now and again?
Apparently not. This summer, “The Wolverine,” sequel to “Wolverine,” opens in July. The big line from the trailer? “I'm not healing.” Apparently Logan loses his powers. Never saw it coming.
The classic superhero trilogy: powers revealed, lost, and turned to evil.
Who Knew Prof. X was a Slacker?
Director Bryan Singer tweeted this photo today, from, one asssumes, the set of his 2014 film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”:
At first you think: Cool! How fun to be able to play with stuff like that.
Then I caught the date at the bottom. Wait. 1973? Really? Wasn't Xavier at Oxford in the early 1960s in the first prequel? The events all took place before the Cuban Missile Crisis in Oct. 1962, which is when Prof. X lost the use of his legs. So it took him more than 10 years to finish his thesis? Charles Xavier? Was he moping or something? Did he take time off to fight crime with his brain? Who knew Prof. X was such a slacker?
There's Big Money in Fantasy
In 1940, Look magazine did a feature on Jerry Siegel, Joe Schuster, and their new comic book creation “Superman,” whom Look calls “An imaginary man popped out of an imaginary planet.” But I mainly love the subhed there: The part that begins “New Comic Strip Hero Proves...” and ends with the title of the post:
As Jolson said, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothing yet.”
I still miss the spitcurl.
Face Front, Dark Knight!
This is pretty funny. Could be funnier, but I like the basic premise: “The Avengers” (channeling Stan Lee) equals fun; “The Dark Knight” (channeling Frank Miller) not so much:
You could include James Bond in the mix now, too. He's gone Dark Knight on us.
Superman vs. Batman: Last Word
“The appeal of flight. I mean … Batman’s got a cool car. But flight is what really captures people’s imaginations. To take two or three running steps and to soar into the air. That’s everybody’s dream.”
--Christopher Reeve, being interviewed for the doc, “Making Superman: Filming the Legend,” near the end of his life.
Supergirl Can't Get a Date
One of the things I came across while doing internet research for my review of “Supergirl” (1984) was this cover from Feb. 1973:
It's a perfect example of why Supergirl never took off as a character. It's the third issue of her own pub. Is she fighting supervillains? No. She's crying. She's alone. Because she's not with the cool, handsome people inside. It's the cover of a “Young Love” comic. (I think I wound up owning that couch, btw, circa 1995.)
I like the cat licking her hand. It's her only comfort. She's a cat lady in the making. I like the self-pity and passivity inherent in Supergirl's thought balloon.
Then there's the costume. As feminism gained strength, DC Comics responded by cutting Supergirl's blouse lower and taking away her skirt for hot pants. Someone cue James Brown. Please please please.
The Burden of the Secret Identity
Came to me by way of my friend Erika, who got it via George Takei, who apparently got it from a fan. It's the quick version of why the ending to “Iron Man” was so refreshing.
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.
Trailer of the Day
Loki: I have an army.
Tony Stark: We have a Hulk.
If I'd seen this when I was a kid, I would've wet my pants.
Via Ross Pfund on Facebook.
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?
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 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:
Here, meanwhile, are similar last panels from the Secret Empire storyline:
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.
Captain America: Disambiguation
From Wikipedia, natch...
Captain America is a Timely/Atlas/Marvel comic book superhero.
Captain America may also refer to:
- Captain America: The First Avenger, a 2011 film directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving.
- Captain America (serial), a 1944 serial
- Captain America (1990 film), a film starring Matt Salinger
- Captain America (album), an album by Jimmy Buffett
- Captain America, a song by the band moe. from their album Dither
- Captain America, a character in the film Easy Rider
- Captain America, a Scottish rock band later known as Eugenius
- Captain America or Randy Couture (born 1963), mixed martial arts fighter
- Captain Americas, a themed restaurant chain in Ireland (since 1971)
- Captain America, a character in the television series Generation Kill
- Claudio Reyna, former captain of the United States men's national soccer team, dubbed Captain America by British media
A Practically Priceless Drawing of Captain America ... By Stan Lee
I've written about this incident before.
I met Stan Lee in 1975 when my father, a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune, interviewed the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, etc., as he was traveling city-to-city for his book, Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics. My father knew nothing about comics—“Superman” would make him think George Bernard Shaw more than Siegel and Shuster—while my older brother Chris and I were immersed, particularly me. So Dad invited us along for the second-half of the interview at a swanky, dark, downtown restaurant. I held the light for the photograph that went in the next day's newspaper. It was a beginning.
The great part? When the interview was over, Stan didn't turn off. I don't know if he has an “off.” He invited Chris and I over and brought us out. He took out a pen and drew us a cartoonish Captain America holding up a sign. He gave us nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner: Charismatic Chris and Erudite Erik. He may have been the nicest famous person I ever met.
I didn't have a scanner when I wrote my original post a few years ago so I couldn't let you see the drawing.
Thirty-five years are often unkind, with people more than paper, but it's still a pretty cool collector's item for a non-collector like me. 'Nuff said!
The Songs of Captain America
1n 1975, my friend Dan Roach and I, nerdlinger comic book collectors both, wrote a song called “Captain America” to the tune of “Theme from Rockford Files,” an instrumental song in want of lyrics, which was just hitting the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. In honor of the Captain America movie coming out Friday, not to mention a brain stuffed with the inconsequential, here are the lyrics:
Throw your mighty shield
Beat the enemy
Do not yield
It is up to you
A living symbol
Red white and blue
Through the years you've fought for worldwide peace
Your fight for freedom, will never, never, never
Throw your mighty shield
Beat the enemy
Do not yield
--from the song “Captain America”: Music by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter; Lyrics by Dan Roach and Erik Lundegaard
OK, a bit derivative of the 1966 cartoon theme song (shield/yield), but we were 12. Stick around, true believers, and I may regale you with “The Night Gwen Stacey Died,” to the tune of “The Night Chicago Died.” Excelsior!
“Beat the enemy, do not yield”
Second Screenshot of the Day
Tomorrow I'll be posting a review of the second X-Men movie, “X2,” which was released in 2003, in anticipation of the new “X-Men” movie coming out next week. In the meantime here's a screenshot from the film that, for some reason, I didn't remember until this viewing. In certain parts of the world, and possibly within the U.S. if he'd done it without Ms. Romijn's permission, director Bryan Singer could get arrested for this kind of thing. Thank god for gay directors.
“Mr. Laurio, never trust a beautiful woman. Especially one who's interested in you.”
Hollywood B.O.: Thor Strong, Bridesmaids Bridesmaids (But Strong, Too)
Last weekend I wondered if “Thor,” grossing only $66 million opening weekend ($65.7, it turned out), could become a $200 million movie. This weekend is a good step in that direction. On early estimates, the movie only dropped 47.5 percent from its opening, raking in $34 million to finish in first place.
Why is that good? In a chart of superhero movies similar to “Thor” (that is: non-sequels or reboots), “Thor” has the sixth-lowest second-weekend drop:
And, really, the first two movies on this chart don't even count, being released in 1978 and 1989, respectively, which are different eras in movie distribution. So “Thor” is really fourth. And of those four, only one, “Spider-Man,” grossed more opening weekend.
More importantly, look at the movies behind it: “Iron Man” and “Dark Knight,” both of which had great word-of-mouth.
I'm assuming “Thor”'s word-of-mouth isn't as good, since the movie isn't as good. But the movie isn't “Fantastic Four” bad so the drop-off isn't “Fantastic Four” bad. Which is good news for Paramount and Marvel and the God of Thunder.
Meanwhile, my favorite comedy of the year, “Bridesmaids,” opened well, with an estimated $24.4 million in 2,918 theaters. Have you seen it yet? Do you need a laugh? Go. Spread the word.
“Fast Five” added 131 theaters and fell off only 39.8 percent from its second weeked to finish third. At $168 million, it looks poised to become the year's first $200 million movie.
“Priest,” opening in 2,800+ theaters to bad reviews, finished fourth, with $14.5 million.
Box Office Mojo's totals here.
Wiig salutes the happy couple: Thor and Jane Foster.
Forsooth, Today Verily is the Day!
The 2011 Vintage Marvel Comics calendar that Patricia gave me for Xmas features, for the month of May, an old Thor cover—to be precise, Journey Into Mystery #123, with the Mighty Thor—which, given the movie being released today, feels entirely appropriate. For a time, in fact, I wondered if the calendar makers had done this intentionally but it seems merely serendipitous. Avengers #4, with that great, energetic Jack Kirby cover, “Captain America Lives Again!,” was featured in January, while the movie, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” is slated for a July release.
The Thor cover is also a Jack Kirby cover, and also features the hero moving toward the viewer, but there's less movement in it. He feels musclebound and turgid. As did Thor, to me, as a kid. I was never a fan and rarely bought the comic. That corny Shakespearean dialogue. Asgaard. Odin and Loki. Lame med student Don Blake goes for a walk, sees aliens, flees into a cave, gets trapped, uses a stick to try to free himself but accidentally taps the stick on the ground in such a way that he turns into THOR and the stick turns into THE HAMMER OF THOR and he defeats the aliens and becomes this new superhero in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Later we learn, and he learns, that Don Blake is the fiction and Thor the reality. Still didn't appeal. Despite the fact that all Lundegaards get weekends free in Asgaard. It's a double-a thing.
Which means, to me, today's movie doesn't have much to live up to.
But dig that Journey Into Mystery cover caption: “While a Universe Trembles!” So over-the-top it couldn't be anything but Silver Age Marvel.
Why You Should Never Name Your Plane “Green Hornet”
I don't want to make light of a book that contains the horrors that Laura Hillenbrand's “Unbroken” contains, but I find it—how do I put this?—superheroally appropriate that a WWII airplane named Super Man, after getting shot 594 times during an air battle over the island of Nauru, continues to fly many hours and hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean to deposit its crew safely on the island of Funafuti; while a plane called Green Hornet can't handle one rescue mission, crashes into the ocean, and in effect causes all the unspeakable horrors that ensue.
Name your planes well, people.
Top 10 Superhero Scenes (Circa 2007)
I wrote the following for MSNBC.com in June 2007 to coincide with the opening of “Fantastic Four 2,” but it was in the slideshow format, a format that has since been buried by their new big-type interface. Thought I'd resurrect the piece while asking the following: Tons of superhero movies have come out since. Which scenes would you include now? Something from “The Dark Knight”? “Iron Man”? “Iron Man 2”? “Watchmen”? “The Spirit”? “The Green Hornet”? My complaint from four years ago still seems true today ...
Top 10 Superhero Scenes
In the Golden Age of superhero movies, the best scenes involve revelation
By Erik Lundegaard
I thought this would be easy. Best superhero scenes. I rattled them off in my head: Superman doing this, Spider-Man doing that, the X-Men doing the other.
Then I tried thinking of scenes that didn’t involve these guys.
This is supposed to be the golden age of superhero movies, but beyond the first two installments of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” what’s been good? “Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” is being released this month, and some of the trailers look cool, but should we hold our breath? The first “F.F.” stunk. So did “Hulk,” “Daredevil,” “Catwoman,” “Elektra,” “Ghost Rider,” on and on. Superhero movies are supposed to soar but most of these limp. Some just lay there, quivering. They are the movie equivalent of what happens to Senator Kelly in “X-Men”: Splooosh!
Still I cobbled a list together. Turns out what’s memorable is revelation: of the hero’s power, of the hero’s love, of the hero’s identity. At least that’s what’s memorable to me. You may be one of those guys who thinks there’s nothing cooler than a superhero brooding on a rooftop or cathedral spire. At night. In the rain. Good luck with that.
I tried to spread things out by choosing only one scene per movie. One movie was so good, however, it got two scenes. Let the second-guessing begin.
10. “What are you???”
Enter: The Bat in Tim Burton's “Batman”
Director Tim Burton plays with us right from the start. A couple, with a small boy, try to hail a cab in a section of Gotham where theater and crime meet. Could this be a young Bruce Wayne and his parents?
Nope. It’s the thieves who rob them we’re interested in. As they count their loot on a nearby rooftop, one worries over what happened to Johnny Gobs. “I hear The Bat got him,” he says. The other is disbelieving “The Bat?...”
Sitting in a theater in 1989, this was music to my ears. Our hero wasn’t yet “Batman,” your friendly neighborhood crime fighter, or even “The Bat-Man,” a creature of the night. He was just “The Bat,” and all that entailed — including flying and drinking blood.
Burton, a B-horror fan, actually gives us Batman’s intro from the crooks’ perspective, as if it’s a horror movie. He descends in silhouette to Danny Elfman’s dark, brilliant score. Freaked, the crooks shoot and run, only to see his shadow rise behind them like a vampire. He knocks out the first dude; the disbelieving one runs, is tripped up, and is slowly pulled towards this dark creature, who holds him over the roof’s ledge. Then we get their famous exchange: “What are you???” “I’m Batman.”
The entire series went downhill from there. Batman quickly became friendly and familiar, with too many gadgets, too many villains, and too many sidekicks. But at least we have this one scene and the dark purity it suggests.
9. “Let’s put more.”
A hero begins to realize his strength in “Unbreakable”
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are all about slow revelation. “Oh, so I’m dead!” “Oh, so that’s why God killed my wife!” “Oh, so we're actually living in the 20th century!” His movies have a dreamlike quality because his protagonists don’t know who they are yet. His movies are all about waking up.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a train wreck outside Philadelphia, becomes the focus of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art and comic collector who was born with osteogenesis-something. His bones snap easily, in other words. He’s infinitely breakable. But he has a theory of opposites. He believes if there’s someone like him, then there must be someone who is the opposite of him. Someone unbreakable. Someone like David.
More, he believes the superpowers in comics may be an exaggeration of truth, but truth nonetheless; that there’s a group of strong, unbreakable people put here to protect us. David thinks he’s nuts. David’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), is more open to the idea.
So in the basement Joseph helps David lift weights. “How much did you put on?” David asks after bench-pressing the weight. He adds it up himself: 250 pounds. Too much. Joseph apologizes and adjusts the weights. David lifts again, then asks how much he took off. Joseph admits, “I lied.” The camera closes in on David as he realizes his son added weight. And he was still able to lift it. Then the two add all the weights in the basement, plus paint cans dangling off the sides, and David lifts that, too. He is beginning to realize his true power. He is beginning to wake up.
The death of Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man”
Spider-Man has one of the best psychological motivations for fighting crime, and the first “Spider-Man” movie actually improved upon it.
Instead of letting the Burglar go out of pure selfishness, as Peter does in Amazing Fantasy #15, here he lets him go to get revenge on the wrestling promoter who just screwed him out of $2900. And we’re with him. “Way to get the bastard,” we think.
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
Later, Peter will realize the man who killed Uncle Ben is the Burglar he let go (allowing him to kill Uncle Ben), and so he will fight crime, not for revenge, as Batman does, or simply to do good, as Superman does, but out of guilt. Not only is guilt a more complex, more adult emotion, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts, but the weight of the guilt in the world is heavier than gravity.
7. “Go Aquaman, go!”
The definition of a hero in Aquaman”
OK, so this movie doesn’t really exist. The making of “Aquaman” was the main story arc during season 2 of HBO’s “Entourage,” and season 3 begins with its opening weekend.
At one point our boys take in a matinee on a scorching Friday afternoon and we get this scene from the fictional movie. First a long shot of the Santa Monica pier. People in panic. Then we see a tux-wearing Aquaman, actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), walking toward what everyone’s fleeing. He undoes his tie. More panic. A girl drops her doll. Now Aquaman is running and everyone is streaming in the opposite direction and the music builds until finally we see the danger: a tidal wave about to hit L.A. And just as Aquaman leaps off the pier and into the tidal wave...the power in the theater goes out. Part of a series of rolling blackouts in California that may or may not affect “Aquaman”’s opening B.O. totals.
At this point a groan goes up in the theater and it was echoed by me at home. For days afterward I had a visceral urge to see this movie that didn’t exist. And I never even liked Aquaman. Who did? That’s part of the in-joke on “Entourage.” Yet director Julian Farino, filming in half a day, on no budget, in part homage/part satire of superhero flicks, makes it work better than filmmakers given years and hundreds of millions of dollars. He gives us the definition of a hero: the man who runs toward what everyone is fleeing.
So maybe Julian Farino should get the next big superhero movie? (Update: Nope. But he is giving us “The Oranges.”)
6. “When they come out, does it hurt?”
What Wolverine brings to a knife fight in “X-Men”
Let’s face it: When we get picked on, most of us acknowledge, in some core part of us, the logic in choice of victims. “Gotta hand it to them, they picked the right guy,” we think as we get pummelled.
That’s often the secret thrill of superhero movies. Some ordinary person (Clark Kent, Peter Parker) gets picked on and we get to think: They’re messing with the wrong guy.
The introduction of Wolverine in “X-Men” is one such example. Thanks to the cage match we already know he’s the toughest guy in the bar. But one defeated opponent can’t deal with his loss and bugs Wolverine, who just wants to be left alone with his cigar and his beer. The guy whispers, “I know what you are.” Then he pulls a knife.
Snkt! Out come the claws.
But now the bartender presses a shotgun to Wolverine’s neck and says, “Get out of my bar, freak.” There’s a beat or two before Wolverine slices the shotgun in two.
You know the phrase “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight”? This is the update.
5. “You’ll never be alone.”
Superman discovers he’s no longer the last son of Krypton in “Superman Returns”
Who knew the big guy was so troubled?
In “Superman,’ Jor-El tells Lara, before they send baby Kal-El to earth, “He will never be alone,” but nearly 30 years later, in “Superman Returns,” director Bryan Singer begs to differ. For five years Superman abandons earth on the slim hope that some part of Krypton still exists. He hangs in outer space. Lois hates him. You get a real sense of, if not Superman’s loneliness, then at least his aloneness. “I’m all that’s left,” he tells Ma Kent.
Which is why the most emotional scene in the movie is Superman’s realization that he has a son. What he tells the sleeping boy, as he watches him with pride and gratitude, he could now be telling himself: “You will be different. Sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast. But you’ll never be alone.”
The movie begins with Superman’s failed search for Krypton. It ends with a different lesson: Krypton lives.
4. “I’m the worst one.”
There goes the neighborhood in “X2”
You kinda wonder about Ronny Drake, don’t you? His older brother, Bobby, is coming out to the family as a mutant, as “Iceman,” and Ronny runs upstairs and immediately phones the cops, telling them that he and his family are being held hostage by a bunch of mutants. So the next thing you know, even as Mom is asking Bobby, with a subtext so obvious it’s supratext, “Have you tried not being a mutant?,” the cops surround the place. Wolverine leads the student-mutants outside but the cops use excessive force. They crash into the Drake household and throw mom and pop against the wall. One nervous cop shoots Wolverine in the forehead. The others are told to hit the dirt. They do. Except for one. Pyro keeps standing. A female cop tells him, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid,” and the camera closes in on him, breathing anxiously.
The X-Men have always been seen as a metaphor for an embattled minority, often gay, since so many “pass” or hide their powers, but a civil rights metaphor works even better. In this sense, Professor X is Martin Luther King, Jr. (trying to talk sense to an oppressive majority), while Magneto is more like Malcolm X. At the end of “X-Men,” he even uses Malcolm’s most famous line: “There’s still a war coming, Charles, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary.”
Pyro will soon be recruited by Magneto, who will tell him, “You are a God among insects,” and outside the Drake household, in suburban Boston, he’s about the demonstrate it. More, we want him to demonstrate it. If the thrill in Wolverine’s introduction is this: “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” then the thrill, as Pyro stands there, and the female cop tells him, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid,” is this: You really don’t know who you’re messing with.
3. “He’s...just a kid.”
The passion of the Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 2”
It’s not just the best battle between superhero and supervillain on film, contained, as it is, within a small enclosed space: a moving (and, of course, non-existent) “el” in Manhattan. No, the filmmakers up the ante. They bring in the religious metaphor.
First the battle. After fighting high over Manhattan, Doc Ock and Spider-Man land on a moving commuter train. Passengers shriek. Spidey keeps getting knocked off and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds. Spidey saves both.
At this point you can almost hear the “Bah!” from Doc Ock and he goes for bigger fish by accelerating the train and destroying the controls, leaving it shooting like a bullet through midtown Manhattan. Spidey has to take off his mask, temporarily aflame, and his spider senses tell him they’ll soon run out of track. His solution? Webbing onto nearby buildings and using himself, at the head of the train, to slow it and stop it. In the process he exhausts himself and loses consciousness.
Now comes the religious metaphor. As the music turns ethereal, the hero with special powers, who has sacrificed himself in a cross-like pose for the greater good, is passed back, in pieta fashion, by the passengers, who lay him down. They wonder if he’s still alive. Has he died for them?
Then one passenger states the obvious: “He’s...just a kid.”
Which says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is...just a kid.
2. “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?”
Superman saves Lois (for the first time) in “Superman”
Besides a brief glimpse at the Fortress of Solitude, we don’t see Superman until more than an hour into the movie. Once he hits Metropolis, Clark, re-made as a nerd, gets a job at The Daily Planet, meets Lois and Jimmy, meets Rex Reed of all people, and saves Lois from a mugger. He tries to make a date with her but she’s taking a helicopter to meet Air Force One.
Ah, but those troublesome cables. One breaks loose, gets tangled with the helicopter during lift-off, the thing crashes, Lois screams. The helicopter is hanging, passenger-end out, over the edge of a skyscraper, and Lois is looking at, what, a 50-story fall? Always adept at making a bad situation worse, she unbuckles her seatbelt, slips, falls, and dangles by a cord. The crowd below watches, fascinated and horrified.
Enter Clark. As he exits the building, he picks her hat off the ground, looks up, and we’re off. With a phone-booth site gag for the oldsters, and a ‘70s-style pimp joke for the youngsters, the John Williams’ score begins to build and Clark morphs into Superman, just as Lois slips and falls and the horrified crowd resigns itself to her death. Then a streak cuts across the sky and an onlooker asks, “What the hell is that?”
What is it? It’s our greatest wish fulfillment. The man who is to adults as adults are to babies. The one who’s always there to break our fall with seemingly magic strength and abilities.
What helps make the scene is not just Superman’s majestic calm but Lois’ disbelief. The crowd below — prodding us, the theater audience — breaks into applause too easily. A flying man? Who can grab a helicopter effortlessly? They should be stunned into silence. Instead they react as if someone just hit an 8th inning homerun. Hooray! But Lois looks stricken, like she’s lost her mind.
I saw “Superman” six times as a kid and again on television in college. When this scene was over, my friend Todd and I looked at each other. Both of us were grinning ear-to-ear. It’s still my reaction.
1. “Hi... This is really heavy.”
The big reveal in “Spider-Man 2”
It’s near the end of the movie and once again Spider-Man takes off his mask. But this time it makes sense. He’s revealing his humanity to Doc Ock in order to bring out the humanity in Doc Ock. It works. Octavius agrees to sacrifice himself and destroy his experiment in order to save the city. Spider-Man watches him go.
Then he turns and there’s Mary Jane and we get the shot: the revelation of a superhero’s identity, power and love all in one. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero making. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects me (Clark), but she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies.
And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
I have to admit, when Peter Parker’s gaze goes from Mary Jane to the roof collapsing above her, I thought: Oh crap, they’re not going to let this last. I thought: She’ll probably get hit on the head and develop amnesia and blah blah blah. I’d seen it a million times. I’d see it again with Harry Osborne in “Spider-Man 3.”
Bless their hearts, they didn’t go this route. Instead an unmasked Spider-Man stops the roof. And then they do something really, really smart. They have him act like Peter Parker. “Hi,” he says, all goofy and tongue-tied. And then: “This is really heavy.”
Of course once the disconnect is connected, where do you go? In most stories you don’t. You say: The End. But the movie business is a business, and if there’s money to be made it’s made. Which is why we got “Spider-Man 3.” But we don’t have to get into that until I write about the 10 worst superhero scenes.
--Erik Lundegaard wonders what’s holding up that Captain America movie. He can be reached at ...
Movie Review: “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS OF STEEL
It’s immediately suspect, isn’t it? “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics,” produced by DC Entertainment. Most corporations can’t police themselves let alone document themselves. Gonna suck. Gonna sweep shit under the rug.
And it does. We get Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster creating Superman in 1938, and, according to Bob Kane, earning $800 a week a year later, but not being shunted aside in the 1940s by DC, then forgotten, then scraping out an existence while their creation soars to new heights, until, in the 1970s, to prevent bad publicity prior to “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Bros. finally, meagerly compensates the two for changing the world. We get Captain Marvel outselling even Superman in 1940, but not the eight-year-long lawsuit by DC that kills that creation as well as Fawcett Publications. We get editor Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger rescuing Superman in the late ‘50s by inventing Supergirl and Superdog and Supercat and Superhorse and Supermonkey, but no word on how all of this super crap essentially buried the Man of Steel under layers of irrelevance just as Marvel Comics was about to make comic books relevant again.
The first words in the doc don’t help. A dude who turns out to be Neil Adams defends comics through hyperbole. “There is no better medium than comic books,” he says. “It’s the medium.” A second later he defends comics through a kind of quotidian consumerism. “You may not like comic books, you may not respect comic books, but they’re something that people buy for themselves that they want to read.”
Really? That’s your open?
Yet “Secret Origins” isn’t bad. Some shit even stays on top of the rug. Gerard Jones, author of “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book” (a must-read), talks up the gangster contacts of Harry Donenfeld, along with the near-pornography status of his early pulps, before he and accountant Jack S. Liebowitz partnered with Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of National Allied Publications and created “Detective Comics #1.” Both Jones and comic book writer Mark Waid, all half-smiles and shrugs, talk up the bondage fixation of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, which was translated to the comics page with breathtaking regularity. Stan Lee and Marvel Comics get their 30 seconds, too, which is 30 seconds more than I thought they’d get, while Denny O’Neil offers a charming, heartfelt mea culpa for taking away Wonder Woman’s powers in the early 1970s: “What I did, in effect, was take the feminist icon and depower her, dial her way down, and then to compound the sin give her a mentor [I-Ching] who is a male, and then, to compound that sin, named that male after one of the classics of Chinese literature.” A grimace and an eye-roll. “Hoo!”
The doc, to its credit, doesn't ignore the bondage fixation of William Marston, Wonder Woman's creator.
Talking heads often make the doc and “Secret Origins” is as packed as the Justice League in this regard: Not just Jones and Waid and O’Neil but Chip Kidd, Neil Gaiman, and Len Wein. We get archival footage of Bob Kane behind the wheel of the 1960s Batmobile (the coolest car ever) and Alan Moore recounting that first phone call from Len Wein offering him “Swamp Thing.” The doc takes us from the mid-1930s and “Fun” comics to the constant reboots of today.
Some of the footage is truly archival. Here’s a kid caught up in early Supermania:
Here’s “Superman Day” at the World’s Fair in 1940:
Chip Kidd, unlike Adams, is charming in his hyperbole:
I think the Fleischer Superman cartoons are a pinnacle of cinematic achievement in the 20th century. I’m sure people will laugh at me for saying that. But they’re like beautiful little poems that I never get tired of viewing.
How good are these cartoons? Near the end of the doc, there’s a nice juxtaposition of Max Fleischer’s cartoon Superman stopping a plane from crashing (in 1941) with Bryan Singer’s live-action Superman stopping a plane from crashing (in 2006), and they’re so similar one wonders if the former didn’t inspire the latter.
The mighty Superman, in 1941 (top) and in 2006.
Unfortunately, Singer isn’t a talking head here. His Superman is being rebooted by Zack Snyder so he’s literally out of the picture.
DC frames their story—correctly I believe—as one of invention followed by stagnation, followed by the next generation’s invention. Thus the company went from messy, creative, 1940s sweatshop to surviving by tiptoeing through the reactionary 1950s to a burst of Julius Schwartz-directed activity just before 1960 (the origin of the modern Flash is particularly interesting), which led indirectly to the resurgence of Marvel, which led DC to attempt, breathlessly, to catch up with stories of poverty and drug abuse from the younger generation (Adams; O’Neil), and which ultimately led to the astonishing reboots and darker visions of Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the 1980s. But the 1990s saw excessive darkness and vigilantism from Miller/Moore acolytes, so Alex Ross and Mark Waid created the “Kingdom Come” series, in which Superman, etc., returned to battle the new amoral superheroes. Post 9/11, apparently, we got a return to the superhero as wish-fulfillment. At least that’s what’s implied here but the modern era is out of my purview. (To me it feels like it’s all one-shots and reboots.)
So much is missing. We get tears, literal tears, on the overhyped “Death of Superman” in 1994 but nothing on John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reboot or Marv Wolfman’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” maxi-series. We get the 1950s “Adventures of Superman,” the 1960s Adam West “Batman” and the 1970s “Superfriends”; but no mention of the 1940s Superman/Batman serials (two each), the 1960s Broadway musical, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!,” nor the 1960s “Superman/Aquaman Hour."
So many issues (no pun intended) are left untouched:
- What does it mean to kill off continuity with reboots and one-shots? Continuity leads to stagnation and the weight of history, but reboots lead to ... what? Frivolity? None of it matters because none of it is the story. It's all imaginary tales now.
- Does the increasing sophistication of comic books, and their marginalization into specialty stores, mean losing younger generations of fans?
- What are sales like these days? Are comic book characters thriving in other media (“Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight”) even as comic books themselves struggle to survive anemic sales?
- The biggee: Why did superheroes emerge when they did? What were the nearest forerunners to superheroes in the 19th century? In the 14th? In 29 A.D.?
All of which means, I suppose, that the great documentary on Superman, or DC Comics, or the long history of comic books in general, still needs to be written.
Same Bat-time, kids.
5 Things The Atlantic Gets Wrong in Their Post
“5 Ways to Revive the 'Superman' Franchise”
Read their article here.
- “Superman is a part of our culture. But the America he protects in 2010 is a far cry from the one he protected in 1932.” Or 1938, the year he was created.
- “Snyder should follow the examples of Batman Begins and Iron Man: find a young, charismatic lead for your hero, and pad the rest of the cast with respected veteran character actors.” Did writer Scott Meslow mean young OR charismatic? Downey, Jr., brimming with charisma, was in his early 40s when Iron Man began, while Christian Bale, in his early 30s with Batman Begins, is hardly Mr. Charisma. And even early 30s isn't exactly young.
- “Keep the John Williams theme song.” Even in 1978, this thing seemed too “Star Wars” to me.
- “Speed through the origin story” and “Do everything Chris Nolan says”: Don't these contradict each other? Meslow writes, “Nolan masterfully revived the Batman franchise with Batman Begins”... in which he didn't speed through the origin story. It took more than an hour before we even saw Batman as Batman. Compare with Tim Burton's “Batman” (1989) in which we saw Batman as Batman in the first three minutes.
- Suggestions 1-5: These thoughts are either obvious (cast, Nolan) or wrong (speed the origin) or, as above, contradictory. And none get to the heart of the Superman dilemma: We're interested in him because he's all-powerful but being all-powerful is dramatically uninteresting. So we need to either push toward or pull away from his power: weaken him to create a feasible drama, or keep him as is and make his all-powerfulness the drama. I'm inclined toward the latter.
Waiting for a Superman (Movie)
The other day on Facebook I mentioned that I've only bought eight new songs this year—and it's nearly the end of May. My friend Andy, recently of Hanoi, suggested the latest Iron & Wine collection, which I promptly bought, and which includes this cover of the Flaming Lips' song “Waiting for a Superman.” It's quite beautiful. You can listen to it here, but, as always, I recommend buying. Support your local artists. Even when they're not local.
Here are the lyrics:
I asked you a question
I didn't need you to reply
Is it getting heavy?
But then I realized
It's getting heavy
Well I thought it was already as heavy as can be
Is it overwhelming
To use a crane to crush a fly?
It's a good time for Superman
To lift the sun into the sky
Because it's getting heavy
Hell I thought it was already as heavy as can be
Waiting for Superman
That they should try to
Hold on the best they can
He hasn't dropped them, forgot them or anything
It's just too heavy for Superman to lift
The people working on the next Superman movie should listen to this song over and over. The question they need to answer, to make the movie work, is right here: What's too heavy for Superman to lift?
Answer that and you've got a story.
Oh, and I'm still taking suggestions for new music if anyone's got ideas.
Things Superman can lift: a car, a lion, Goebbels.
The Problem with The Shadow
“[Lamont] Cranston himself I thought a little slow-moving; he was fairly sedentary, as compared, say, with the Green Hornet, who could probably lick him in a fight if they went at it visibly. I didn’t think of the Shadow as being able to jump rooftops or climb ropes or run very fast. On the other hand, why should he have to? Also, I wondered about his restraint when he could become invisible anytime he chose. I wondered if he ever took advantage of women, as I surely would. Did he ever watch Margo Lane go to the bathroom? I knew that if I had the power to be invisible I would go into the girls’ bathroom at P.S. 70 and watch them pulling their drawers down. I would watch women take their clothes off in their homes and they wouldn’t even know I was there. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking up or making a sound, they would never even know I had been there. But I would forever after know what they looked like. The thought of having this power made my ears hot. Yes, I would spy on naked girls but I would also do good. I would invisibly board a ship, or, better still, a China Clipper, and I would fly to Germany and find out where Adolf Hitler lived. I would in absolute safety, and with no chance of being caught, go to Hitler’s palace, or whatever it was, and kill him. Then I would kill all of his generals and ministers. The Germans would be going crazy trying to find the invisible avenger. I would whisper in their ears to be good and kind, and they would thereafter be thinking God had been speaking. The Shadow had no imagination. He never looked at naked women nor thought of ridding he world of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. If his program hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, I would probably not have listened to it.”
—from E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, which I recently re-read for the first time in 20 years. It’s a beautiful book, and reminds me of Willa Cather’s lyrical My Antonia. Both are coming-of-age stories. This one's about coming into consciousness and perception in the Bronx in the 1930s. Funny, but I never thought about the double meaning of the title before: Not only a destination—the 1939/40 version in Flushing Meadows, New York—but a declaration of the way things are, which, given the circumstances of the story, not to mention our own perceptions, can only be viewed as ironic. Was Doctorow ever going to call it the title of the World's Fair essay contest our protagonist enters? “The Typical American Boy”? And how much of the book grew out of writing The Book of Daniel?
And Now...The Wolverine!
I wasn’t impressed. I had a weak boy’s respect for the Hulk as the strongest character in the Marvel universe — Thor Schmor — and this guy in yellow spandex with the whiskers hardly seemed in the same league. And he was Canadian? That was the point of Wolverine, initially. On the cover of #181, Marvel didn’t trumpet him as a badass. They wrote: “HE’S HERE! THE WORLD’S FIRST AND GREATEST CANADIAN SUPER HERO!” It’s been a while since I collected comics, and more than 25 years since I looked at that cover, but it strikes me now that the introduction of a “first” kind of makes the secondary claim of being “greatest” rather pointless, doesn’t it? Almost patronizing.
A few years later, a friend started talking up X-Men, which for my entire collecting history had been nothing but lame, smeary reprints. Now they had all new stories but I wasn’t biting:
EL: I’m not into those characters.Turns out Wolverine was the most popular new character. He was the brooding badass — the guy who was such an outcast he didn’t fit in among a group of outcasts. Now that I think about it — again — there’s a Ben Grimm vibe there, isn’t there? The cigar-chomping dude who didn’t want to be part of the super group but never let his partners down. Wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t intentional.
PL: No, they’re all new characters.
EL: Like who?
PL: Well, they still have Cyclops and Professor X...
EL: Professor X? I just don’t get him.
PL: ...plus a bunch of new guys like Nightcrawler and Colossus. Oh, and Wolverine!
Me: The Canadian? You’re kidding. How is that dude even a mutant?
I collected the new X-Men for a few years then stopped collecting comics altogether around 1979, but I’ve obviously warmed to the character in his Hollywood incarnation. He was in two of the top 10 superhero scenes I wrote about in 2007 and among the top 5 superhero casting decisions written about last year — although his (or Hugh Jackman’s) no. 3 spot might now be taken by Robert Downey, Jr. At the same time I don’t love Wolverine nearly as much as others do. To some, he’s the greatest comic book character ever created.
I’ll post a review of the film tomorrow — the buzz, thus far, isn’t good — but I wanted to add this thought: As much time has passed between now and the introduction of Wolverine (35 years) as between the introduction of Wolverine and the introduction of.... Superman (36 years). Seems impossible. Makes you wonder where the time has gone.
Who Watches the Watchers of "Watchmen"?
"I am apparently in the lonely 1.4% of the public who is only somewhat interested in this movie. In other words I want to see it but I'm not salivating after that 15 minutes I saw. NY Post wonders if Zach Snyder is the new Stanley Kubrick. This is why I'm not salivating. Mass preemptive hyperbole just kills my will to live."
— Nathaniel R. on Film Experience Blogspot.
Check out, too, Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker in which he tears "Watchmen" (and "V for Vendetta," not to mention leering 19-year-olds in general) a new one.
Dark Knight: Adventures in Alphabetizing
A couple of days ago Tim alerted me to this post by Max Barry about his problems viewing a “Dark Knight” DVD. I sympathized. Now I sympathize a little more.
Last night, still getting socked by bronchitis, I wasn’t in the mood to watch anything too highfalutin, and, of Comcast’s “On Demand” films, the one Patricia wanted to see the most was “The Dark Knight.”
Except it wasn’t available in HD. How could that be? It was listed in the “Just in” section, but not among the “HD” films.
I suggested we watch something else instead. But she really wanted to see “Dark Knight.” So...
It began with that awful, VHS-era line about the film being formatted to fit your TV. Bad enough, in other words, that we couldn’t get it in HD. Now we had to get the pan-and-scan version? Even though our TV has been formatted to fit any film? I couldn’t stand it. But we’d already paid for it.
For the first 20 minutes I made apologies. “This looks much better in HD,” I told Patricia. Even so, she was enjoying herself. She’s not much into comic-book movies, but with “DK” she kept saying “Cool” and “Fun.” She’s always liked Christian Bale. And she was blown away by Heath Ledger.
Two hours later, during the credits, I hit the “stop” button, which takes you back to the “On Demand” screen, where one of those fluff-jockeys prattles on about the latest films. This one talked up “Dark Knight,” which was, she said, “available in HD.”
I went back to Comcast’s HD movies and scrolled to the D’s. Nothing. Then it hit me. I scrolled to the T’s. There it was. “The Dark Knight.” Listed under the T’s.
My god. How dumb can we get?
Thanks for the sour taste, Comcast.
On Meeting Stan Lee in 1975 — or — Another Practically Priceless Blog Entry in the Mighty Marvel Manner
A belated shout-out to Marvel Comics Everything Stan Lee who was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal at the White House a few days ago.
I met the man once, back in the mid-1970s, when he was promoting Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics, and my father, a journalist for the Minneapolis Tribune, interviewed him for what was then called the “Variety” section of the paper. The interview took place at a fancy restaurant in downtown Minneapolis and my brother and I were allowed to leave class early (I was 12) to attend the back-end of it.
I think I was disappointed when I first saw him. He wore dark glasses in a dark restaurant and he had a moustache and a loud and brash manner. He seemed like a villain on a cop show. Not sure what I thought he'd look like. Reed Richards? Peter Parker? Me?
But he turned out to be about the nicest famous person I've ever met. First, he let us sit in on the interview. Then when the interview was over, he didn’t turn off. I don’t know if he had an “off.” He invited my brother and I over and brought us out. He drew a cartoonish Captain America holding a banner up to his nose —like Kilroy — and on the banner he wrote: “To Chris and Erik. Excelsior! Stan & Cap.” Below it he added, in that great mix of irony and braggadaccio he had: “Another practically priceless Stan Lee original!” He signed our books. He gave us nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner. “To Charismatic Chris,” he wrote in Chris’ Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics. “To Erudite Erik” he wrote in my copy of The Origins of Marvel Comics. The first thing I did when I got home was look up “Erudite” in the dictionary.
I stopped collecting comics in the late '70s and I don't know what happened to my autographed Origins of Marvel Comics, but I still have the Cap drawing.
My father's article on Stan Lee, by the way, wound up on the back page of the “Variety” section, where they put the unimportant stuff. That's how comics were viewed back then. Now, though actual sales are way down, the presence of comic books is everywhere. As you know.
Dark Knight + Oscar
I missed this article about the Academy Awards and box office when it came out two days ago — distracted, as ever, by the presidential campaign and the World Series — but it’s certainly in my wheelhouse. Last January I wrote an article (or articles) on the subject for HuffPost, and throughout the year I’ve certainly blogged enough about Times’ writers Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, and the two tag-team on this one.
Here's the point: In the past, popular but lightweight movies were nominated best picture (Three Coins in a Fountain; Love Story; Raiders of the Lost Ark), while weighty Oscar nominees could be huge box office hits (Bridge Over the River Kwai; The Graduate; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). But for the past 30 years, and particularly this decade, we've seen a split: Box office hits rarely get nom’ed and weighty best picture nominees rarely become box office hits. Last January I wrote:
How rare is it when at least one of the best picture nominees isn't among the year's top 10 box office hits? Since 1944, it's happened only five times: 1947, 1984...and the last three years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006. What was once a rarity has now become routine.
Make that the last four years in a row. The biggest box office hit among last year's best picture nominees, Juno, topped out at 15th for 2007, $25 million behind Wild Hogs.
Now, according to Cieply and Barnes, the studios, who have been busy closing their prestige divisions, are hyping their box office hits, including The Dark Knight and Wall-E, for best picture. Good for them. Unfortunately, Cieply’s and Barnes’ article is also filled with the conventional wisdom of Hollywood insiders. No sentence screamed at me more than this one:
However, several [Oscar campaigners] noted a belief that audiences — weary of economic crisis and political strife — are ready for a dose of fun from the entertainment industry.
It screamed because last May, in Cieply’s article about how Hollywood insiders were worried about their gloomy, sequel-shy summer box office, we got this graf:
The [summer movie] mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive who is now an adjunct professor…
What movies, included in this “mix,” did Cieply specifically mention that the audience might not be in the mood for? The comedy Tropic Thunder, which quietly made $110M, and, of course, The Dark Knight, which noisily grossed $527M. Internationally, it's approaching $1 billion.
You’d think a journalist might be shy about quoting Hollywood insiders in the exact same way after dropping a bomb like that. Not here. Seriously, I encourage everyone to read Cieply’s May article. It’s instructive. Hell, it’s downright Goldmanesque. Nobody may know anything but some of us really don’t know anything.
In the end, and depending on what gets released in the next few months, I wouldn’t mind seeing Dark Knight get nom’ed. It shouldn’t win, of course (Three Coins, Love Story and Raiders didn’t win either), but it was a hugely popular, critically acclaimed film and in the past that’s been enough for the Academy.
But that’s only one part of the equation: a box-office hit will have gotten nom’ed. The other part — a weighty best picture nominee that becomes a box-office hit — will take more work. Work, I should add, the studios don’t appear interested in doing.
Repeating last year’s performance looks like a long shot, given the rest of this summer’s lineup. This batch is light on sequels, gloomy in spots (as with “The Dark Knight”) and heavy on comedies...The mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive...
— The New York Times, May 15, 2008
The success of “The Dark Knight” is an example of what can happen when an array of factors coincide...The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.
— The New York Times, July 28, 2008
Different writers, to be sure, but it raises this question about movie audiences: Do people go to films to escape the national mood or reflect it? Or do they just go?
And just what are the “array of factors” Brooks Barnes gives in yesterday's article (via quotes with industry executives) for The Dark Knight's continued success? Let's see: 1) expertly executed promotion plan, 2) brooding film matched national mood, 3) sour economy forcing families toward cheaper entertainments like movies, and 4) the publicity following Christian Bale's questioning by the police last week.
Wow. Nothing on the stuff we talked about last week. No mention of the word “quality.” No mention of the phrase “word-of-mouth.” That's part of the problem with relying on quotes from industry executives. Those guys are in a bubble. They're in a town that talks about movies constantly so they can't tell the difference when people really start talking up a movie. In Seattle (or in Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Portland, take your pick...), it's a little easier. One wonders if relying on industry executives for quotes about movies is a little like relying on Dick Cheney for quotes about WMDs.
Both articles also remind me of something I tell my writers in the magazines I edit: Just because someone gives you a quote, doesn't mean you gotta use it.
One Good Cop
So one reader, Shen, writes the following about how Christopher Nolan helps break Batman’s usual vigilante-to-cop-to-camp cycle:
In Nolan's Gotham, the corruption of the police and political structure acts in a way so as to maintain Batman as simultaneous vigilante / institution. Nolan demonstrates this nicely even while keeping Gordan as a supporter, with the deep infiltration by the mob and other corrupt elements. Batman therefore simultaneously keeps his vigilante status (pursued by the “police” who are actually working for the mob, although this may be less effective with Gordan as commissioner now), and Batman as institution (he's the real crime-fighting institution, since the criminals know they can always plead insanity like in Batman Begins, or manipulate/bribe the police/DA to keep out of jail, like with the Dark Knight).
Smart stuff and all true. In an original draft of “Dark Knight My Ass,” in the section on the social changes reflected in the Batman films, I had a take on this but cut it for space reasons. If there are cops, why is Batman necessary? Different eras have different answers. In 1943, the cops were fairly incompetent. In 1949 they were merely understaffed and overwhelmed and so Batman rode in, like the Lone Ranger, to save the day. By 1989, post-Serpico, you have intimations of corruption, but only one cop, Lt. Eckhardt, is on the take. Sixteen years later, this situation is reversed: every cop is on the take, with only one good cop, Gordon, remaining. There’s an interesting book to be written about our attitudes towards cops as reflected in our films. Maybe it’s already been written.
My friend Adam also writes about what he considers some of Heath Ledger’s best work: his few scenes at the beginning of Monster’s Ball in 2001: “I remember at the time thinking, Jesus, who knew this kid was so good? I mean, to hold your own with BBT and do so with such deep and interesting character work — you could see it all back then.”
The Dark Knight: The smartest superhero movie ever made
In case you haven’t heard, The Dark Knight had a better weekend than we did. It brought in $158 million (original estimate: $155 million), shattering the Spider-Man 3 mark of, what, $151 million, set last May.
What does this mean? It means that The Dark Knight will probably be the biggest box office hit of the year. Only twice this decade — and never since 2003 — has a film scored the year's biggest opening weekend without being the year's biggest box office hit. For once, that film is a critical hit, too, unlike last year’s Spider-Man 3 (mixed), 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (mixed) and 2005’s Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (mixed). Last I checked, Dark Knight had a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 84 on metacritic.com, which, for them, means “Universal acclaim.”
My review? Not quite that. I call it the smartest superhero movie ever made in an article on MSN. Check it out. Unless you came here from there, in which case you can check out my Huffington Post piece on Batman Forever.
The history of Batman: from les Vampires to George Clooney
As a way of introducing a new round of reviews in the Batman cycle, let me point, first, to M. Rhodes' European Film Report and his post from a week ago on the early silent-film influences on the creation of Batman, including Les Vampires from 1915, The Bat from 1926 and The Man Who Laughs (i.e., the Joker) from 1928. Some of the clips go on a bit long, and to seemingly silent purpose, but when, say, the vampire-girl swoops onto the stage with her bat cape, or when “The Bat” beams a “bat signal” onto the wall, it looks stunningly familiar. If the lead in Man Who Laughs looks familiar, it's because it's Conrad Veidt, the German actor who played everything from Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Major Strasser in Casablanca, and who was the first choice to play Dracula.
Rhodes' report is my kind of thing. How did we get where we are? How did such iconic characters as Superman and Batman come to be? Rhodes deals mostly with European cinema, which is why Douglas Fairbanks' Zorro isn't mentioned, but let me add, as a possible influence, from the newspapers, the murder of Fred Oesterrich in his home in 1922. His wife, Walburga, was charged with the murder but she was let go due to insufficient evidence. In 1930, a man named Otto Sanhuber claimed to have killed Oesterrich after living in Oesterrich's attic for more than 11 years. He was dubbed the “Batman” by the press. Who knows what influence this might have had when Bob Kane and Bill Finger were scratching their heads for superhero ideas in the wake of Superman in 1939. At the least, it's the first mention of a “Batman” in the New York Times in the 20th century.
Also, if you head over to the Movie Reviews section of this Web site, to the letter “B,” you'll find new reviews of the seven Batman serials and movies that prefigure the current Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale cycle: Batman (1943), Batman and Robin (1949), Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). For most, it's probably too much information, but it's still a kind of exploration into how we got where we are.
The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture
Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.
The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:
In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:
Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.
Who's your superhero?
Another 5Top piece on MSNBC — this one on the most inspired superhero casting. It was designed to coincide with the opening of IRON MAN because I was thinking of putting Robert Downey, Jr. on the list, but the studio didn't make the film available before the piece was due. The screening is tonight (and anyway I've got French), and the piece was due yesterday, and I didn't want to hold it up on the off-chance that I liked Downey and IRON MAN enough to include it.
No supervillains. That's a whole other category and would include Gene Hackman and Ian McKellan and Alfred Molina and probably, eventually, Heath Ledger. Off the top of my head.
Captain America and the short end of the stick
Yesterday the New York Times ran this piece on Joe Simon, who, with Jack Kirby, created Captain America in December 1940. Simon is now 94 and part of a panel at this weekend’s New York Comic Con that he calls “The old geezer table.”
It’s a newspaper piece, and thus skimps, but it brings up a key issue not only for comic creators but for artists in general: the inability to profit from your own hugely successful creation. Simon, who got squat for creating the good Captain, puts it this way: “People in comic books have a very sad history in dealing with their creative people.” Todd McFarlane, reinventor of Spider-Man in the 1990s, and creator of Spawn, says this: “I read the stories of Jack Kirby. I read the stories of all those guys in the ’40s, ’50s and even the ’60s. I kept coming across this repetitive story: the creative guy got the short end of the stick.”
The great cautionary tale, of course, belongs to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two Cleveland boys who jumpstarted an entire industry with Superman in 1938, and who, for their trouble, got $116 from Detective Comics (and, after decades of lawsuits, an annual stipend from Warner Bros.). Their story, along with many others, is told — extremely well, I should add — in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones. Check it out.
Hulk smash New York Times!
Today the New York Times has a piece on the controversy surrounding the movie, The Incredible Hulk, which won't be released until June.
I'm not a big fan of these types of articles anyway. The star is bickering with X. The fan sites are saying Y. The first movie "flopped," even though it made over $130 million domestically. It's not "news," since it's not about something that's actually happened; it's just gossip and prediction.
I would've let it all slide except for this line: "The monster was mute in Mr. [Ang] Lee’s film, but this one speaks, a nod to the campy 1978-82 television series that starred Bill Bixby and the bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (resplendent in green body paint)."
First, the TV show wasn't really campy — the way that Adam West's "Batman" was campy. "The Incredible Hulk" took itself seriously. Parts of it, in retrospect, may appear campy, but that wasn't the intention.
More importantly, and correct me if I'm wrong (Tim), but what nod to the series? Ferrigno's Hulk didn't speak. The comic-book Hulk spoke, generally without articles or proper grammar, but he spoke. If this new Hulk speaks, it's a nod to the comic book not the TV show.
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