Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
Acting skill – even paired with leading-man looks and undeniable charisma – is not enough to get you cast in a big-budget spy thriller or a Marvel Comics franchise. “A decade or so ago, Stallone and Van Damme and Schwarzenegger were the action stars,” says Deborah Snyder, who produces husband Zack Snyder’s films: 300, Man of Steel, the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie. “Now we expect actors who aren’t action stars to transform themselves. And we expect them to be big and powerful and commanding.”
Michael B. Jordan, who got his break as The Wire’s sensitive kid Wallace and raised his profile in last year’s Fruitvale Station, knows he needs to be able to bulk up on command if he wants to break into the A-list. “You’ve gotta be ready to take off your shirt,” he says, and he will as the Human Torch in next year’s Fantastic Four movie. “They want to blow you up and put you in a superhero action film. Being fit is so important. . . . The bar has been raised.” …
Gunnar Peterson, the trainer who for decades has maintained the physiques of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and others, agrees. “For male action heroes,” he says, “it’s an arms race now.”
My son is 30 years old today. And while this is a wonderful thing and I’m thrilled to have the experience, it also demonstrates one of the great failures of my lifetime. He stopped reading comics before I did. When I was a kid, before the direct market, before cable television, before the discovery of fire, kids might read comics for a few years but usually stopped around the time they started high school. There were a lot of reasons for this (puberty, team sports, rock’n’roll) but I’ve always thought a big reason was the spotty distribution. It was more difficult to be a dedicated fan when you couldn’t be sure that the magazine racks would have the same titles every month. Still, I was an unusual child. I kept reading comics, despite the hardships, despite my gender. I’ve always enjoyed a quest – especially when said quest involves shopping. Of course, I wanted to pass on these values to my child. We spent many happy hours in his youth, walking to the comic book store on Comic Book Day, reading comics, discussing comics. He met Stan Lee before he started school. When I applied for a job at DC, I remember telling Paul Levitz that my five year old kid could explain Crisis on Infinite Earths and the multiverse, and Paul wanted to arrange for him to come in and explain it to the editorial staff. After I got the job, my kid could sit in the DC library and read the bound volumes of back issues because the librarian knew he would take care of the books. My son learned important lessons from his father, too. By the age of three, he could tell a Tex Avery cartoon from a Bob Clampett. Family values were important to us. And now, this. He’ll explain that it’s not his fault. The monthly comics that he read all of his life left him. The Flash that he knew (Wally West) is gone. So is the Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). I could have said the same thing at his age, when The Powers That Be took away my Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan). The difference is that TPTB made new characters who had new stories. I might like them or not, but they were new. My son’s heroes were replaced by the characters his parents liked. That’s a problem. The market for superhero comics (and I love superhero comics) isn’t adapting to a new audience. It’s adapting to the old one. My boy still enjoys a good graphic novel. He likes a lot of independent, creator owned series (which he buys as trade paperbacks). He can still speak with great wit and insight and humanity about the socio-economic and political implications of Superman and Batman. If we’re in the same city at the same time, I’m sure we’ll go see Guardians of the Galaxy together. He’s turned me on to some great books. I’m loving Saga based entirely on his recommendation. But I wait for the trades. Maybe I’m not as old as I look
Bryan Singer was making watchable superhero movies when no one else was and because of that I want to give him a lot of slack. I’ve even mostly forgotten Superman Returns ever happened. I liked more about X-Men: Days of Future Past than I didn’t but there’s a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that if this were a movie by a less famous director I would be ripping it apart instead of trying to patch the pieces together.
The plot is so much of a continuity nightmare that I spent a fair amount of time wondering if it was a bizarre homage to mid-90s X-Men comics. I’m not sure anything in the first two movies holds up at all anymore and I’m quite curious when exactly Mystique decided she wanted to look like Rebecca Romijn instead of Jennifer Lawrence as most people are pretty much done changing physically in their late 20s. An awful lot of characters that act like they have no history at all in the first X-Men film had apparently been hanging out regularly for some 30 years before it started. I understand this is the consequence of a movie series lasting 14 years and starting before every superhero franchise had to be a well-crafted franchise but I can’t ignore that this movie now exists in a world with those well-crafted franchises in it and it just all feels so unpolished.
There are also some insane contrivances in service of the plot. Charles Xavier doesn’t have his psychic powers because he’s hooked on Hank McCoy’s mutant heroin that lets him walk. I’m not bringing external baggage with that heroin comparison as it is absolutely dripping off the screen. I could have lived and died without needing to see Professor X tying off a vein. Wolverine is also incapacitated by a traumatic flashback during a scene where he could have easily fixed everything that goes wrong and sets up the third act. The Wolverine I know and love from the comics isn’t quite so delicate and I’m really not buying that time travel makes someone so consistently portrayed as hard this emotionally vulnerable.
X-Men has the most star power of any film franchise and the cast really shines in this one. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are, again, amazing as Xavier and Magneto and watching them have more and more emotionally charged scenes as their friendship moves toward the enmity that will define their relationship going forward. Hugh Jackman has to carry a lot of plot in this one and he does it while still managing to radiate Wolverine in that way he’s done so much. While rebooting the series might clean up some of the continuity and put them on equal footing there’s something about having people like Jackman (and Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and even Shawn Ashmore) inhabiting these roles for a decade and a half that serves the belivability of a movie about people who can walk through walls and turn in to metal.
Spoiler: Like every movie that involves time travel, X-Men: Days of Future Past ends with a scene where the main character comes back to see the changes he’s made. In this movie one of the first ways Wolverine knows that he’s in the good future instead of the bad one is that Bobby Drake is dating the person he’d rather he be with. A touching moment but also a shout out to the ‘ship culture of the Internet I thought. A moment of “hey, Wolverine is just like us” thrown in to what is otherwise a bit of a soft reboot. It’s not good or bad it’s just interesting and that is, unfortunately where a little too much of this film ends up.
There is a bottomless pit and you have fallen into it and you plunge ever downward and you despair of ever seeing the light again…
What we’re talking about, here, is the light that issues from your television screen when you’re watching a superhero show. Well, be at peace. Things aren’t so bad. It’s true that the dying season’s two weekly shows derived from comic books are already into their summer hiatuses, but you can sustain yourself with reruns or maybe just sit in a twilit room and anticipate next season’s Flash. Orconsider what has happened to those shows that have bidden a fond and temporary farewell.
Of course you know I refer to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow (and, as we did last week, we are from here on doing without the periods in the Marvel acronym, which, for those who don’t know and yet give a hoot, stands for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate and yes, that is a mouthful and no, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but hey, buster…you’re the one giving a hoot.)
Someone savvier than me might enumerate the ways in which the comics versions of these entertainments varies from their television adaptations, but let’s focus on just one. In comics, years – nay, decades– would pass with no significant changes in the premise or the main characters of the series. That was then. Now: SHIELD killed off a main character and, within a month, changed from being a story about a secret spy outfit with a lot of swell toys to a story about a bunch of good guys on the run to, as it inches toward a new season in the fall, a story about the resurrection of the aforementioned super spy outfit. Granted, the slain character was a villain, but he was the villain, one played by a major actor.
Arrow sustained similar alterations when the hero’s mother died – arguably a more important than the demise of SHIELD’s heavy because well, she was his mom and she was central to a lot of the past season’s plots. Another central character left the scene, presumably to return to a life as an international assassin though, of course, she could always abandon that trade and return. And the main stalwart, our own Oliver Queen, the very Arrow himself, has undergone some adjustment. He has stopped killing people and has voiced regret at ever having done so – relic from an earlier age that I am, I’m glad – and he is no longer rich. No invite to the Koch brothers’s next soiree for him!
Despite these alterations, both SHIELD and Arrow continue adhering to what seems to be series fiction’s Prime Directive: it must be about family. Not always biological family, but family structure: a parental figure, siblings, often a cute younger brother or sister, all of whom, despite occasional spats, are loyal and care deeply about each other. All the cop shows, all the spy shows, all the sitcoms – all familial.
Wonder what kind of family next season’s Flash will find himself in.
Criminy. Devin Faraci sitsus down for “the talk”.
Is this simple sequel fatigue and diminishing returns, or is it possible that we might be seeing the first superhero movie domino fall?
Suddenly, a lot more seems to be riding on X-Men: Days Of Future Past this weekend…
Before Godzilla had even been out for 24 hours, I was already hearing mixed feedback about it. Some people I know enjoyed themselves while watching it, but the more vocal reaction I’ve encountered is disappointment that the characters and story aren’t strong enough for it to be a good movie. And though I have to preface this by saying that I’ve yet to see it and could end up being disappointed by it myself, I do have something to say to the people that are complaining about the narrative shortcomings of Godzilla:
Get your expectations in line with the movie you’re watching!
Of course, I’m all for monster movies that have characters with dimension and stories without gaping plot holes, but when I sit down to watch something with a kaiju in it, all that needs to happen for me to be satisfied is for that kaiju to rampage. I want to see a city get attacked, and a fight ensue to take down the kaiju (preferably one in which another huge monster or some kind of huge machine is the kaiju’s opponent). If I happen to care about the fate of the humans that serve as the audience’s entry into the story, that’s honestly just gravy.
But as someone who’s usually complaining about hollow characters or narrative shortcomings in other blockbusters, why is it that I don’t take issue with similar problems when it comes to monster movies? Because it’s one of very few genres in which I think the characters are completely secondary to other aspects of the movie. Sure, superhero films must have set piece action sequences and exciting stunts to be successful, but they also must get the viewer to take the hero’s side in those sequences, because even a team of superheroes working together is still a fight involving several individuals against an antagonizing force. Monster movies, though, pit all of humanity against a terror from space or the sea, and the specific characters involved in the fight against them are basically incidental since they could be replaced by any other pilot, politician, or unlucky civilian tasked with the same plan to eliminate the kaiju.
Even with my (fairly low) requirements for a monster movie to satisfy me, there have certainly been some offerings that didn’t live up to my expectations. In its trailers, Cloverfield promised a monster movie unlike any I’d ever seen, but delivered on that promise by barely letting me see the monster. I expected unparalleled destruction, but got far too much time spent with people I didn’t care about running through tunnels. And despite the signs of destruction around the protagonists, I was too embedded with them to get the sense of large-scale damage and combat that I crave from a kaiju. With no real monster money shot, I left the theater underwhelmed and had to wait five years for one that really lived up to what I crave in this genre. With multiple kaiju and a bunch of giant robots, Pacific Rim seemed to never go more than fifteen minutes without showing one smashing into the other, and became the monster movie to which I’ll compare all future offerings.
While Godzilla advertises itself as a single kaiju movie and (as far as I know) has no giant robots as part of the scheme to take it out, it at least makes its single monster enormous and destructive enough to plow through bridges and swat away combat vehicles as if they were pesky insects. It’s enough to get me in the theater, and as long as the eponymous kaiju doesn’t have a silly weakness that brings it down too easily in the end, I’m sure I’ll have a great time watching it. And if all else fails, at least Transformers 4 is only about a month away. It may not have a monster, but it has a giant robot riding a robot dinosaur, which is obviously the next best thing.
Last week in this space I touched on the subject of Amanda Waller and how she acted in the penultimate episode of this season’s Arrow. I mentioned how I found her acting a little out of character. I thought we’d probe that a little more as I explain what my thinking was when I created her in the first place
Before I start, I want to state that I know Amanda Waller is not my character. She belongs to DC Comics and, by extension, the Warners conglomerate. I’m glad to be receiving compensation when she gets used outside of comics and I look forward to the check I’ll eventually receive. What they do with Amanda is up to them and I generally refrain from discussing how others interpret her; I was given a free pass in interpreting existing characters so other creators should have that same freedom without my breathing down their necks.
That said, I think that if you’re using a character you should stay true to who that character is – what they are, who they are, what values they have. When Tom Mandrake and I took on The Spectre, we certainly put our own spin on him but, at the same time, we very much wanted to get down to the core of the character. There was a certain type of visual that we wanted to use. Otherwise, why do The Spectre? (Plug area: you can decide for yourself how effective we were when the TPB of the first 12 issues, The Spectre Vol. 1: Crimes and Judgments, goes on sale May 20. And we thank you for your support.)
I’ll dip now into my leaky cauldron of memory and try to recreate my thinking in the making of Amanda Waller. I was putting together the proposal for my version of Suicide Squad. The high concept of that was Dirty Dozen meets Mission: Impossible meets the Secret Society of Supervillains. The series needed someone in charge of the Squad and there was a list of possible candidates within the DCU such as King Faraday and Sarge Steel. However, I wanted someone original.
Then, as now, I was into diversity in comics. I wanted someone, a type, who hadn’t existed before. I wanted a female and I wanted a person of color. I also wanted her to have a certain size, a certain heft and be of a certain age. Why? She would seem more real and, despite having no superpowers, she needed to be imposing. Her power was her will and, with that, a seriously bad attitude. Her physique was not superhero or supermodel; she seemed more real that way, to my mind. I had met women like her. My father’s mother, although not black, was an imposing woman. Shaped like the Wall. She scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. Not someone I wanted to provoke. Hell, I didn’t want her to glare at me. So a lot of Grammy O went into Amanda.
And, I guess, some of me. There are those who have told me that somewhere deep inside I have an angry, middle-aged black woman trying to get out. Yeah, that scares me, too.
Waller is ruthless but that comes from her background. For many years, she lived in Cabrini Green in Chicago, one of the projects. She lost her husband and a daughter to the violence there. She got the rest of her children out and then went to college herself. Lots of will. She knows first hand about violence and criminals. She knows a lot about getting the job done. She has no compunction of using criminals to achieve ends that would benefit, in her mind, the greater good (which she defines).
I think some people misread her that way as well. They use the badassery at the surface and interpret her mostly as a villain. I don’t see her that way and never have. She does have a conscience and she keeps people around her who prick that conscience. She may not do as they recommend but she does hear them and, deep down, considers those recommendations.
Waller is also not stupid. She is both street smart and book smart. She has college degrees. In short, she’s not one note. There are depths and nuances in her – at least as I conceived and wrote her. I think that’s what made her a compelling figure.
I don’t understand why they felt, both on the TV show and now in the comics, that they had to make her look like a fashion model. To my mind, she loses lots of what made her unique. She looked like no one else in comics; now she looks like most females in comics.
I also don’t understand why, on Arrow, they had her prepared to do a nuclear strike on Oliver Queen’s home town of Starling. Yes, there were super-powered thugs trashing the town and she stated she couldn’t risk their getting out of the city. However, Arrow told her he had a way of neutralizing them and she cut him off. Okay, I understand from a plot point perspective that the writers felt they needed a ticking clock but it’s a stupid move. It’s morally indefensible and not very bright. Nuking an American city? The repercussions from it would expose her and her group. It’s too over the top; it makes her irredeemable when there were other possibilities. Hell, shoot the thugs with exploding bullets. You have to figure that being in pieces might at least slow these thugs down. But no – she went for the nuclear option. That’s not the Amanda I know.
Will I cash the participation checks when they come to me? Oh yeah. And, again, I’m not trying to tell anyone to do the Wall my way. Couldn’t make them do it if I wanted to. I just wanted to go on record as what I was thinking when I created her.
Now you know.
Glenn and Mike gave me two issues of Strong Female Protagonist to read. Since they are the bosses of this particular sandbox, the ones who pay me the big bucks to do my thing here, I interpreted this action to be a strong suggestion, not a gift.
The series, available on the web at the link above (and in print) has a lot of elements that I like. Here’s the description from the website:
“SFP follows the adventures of a young middle-class American with super-strength, invincibility and a crippling sense of social injustice.”
Super-powers and social justice? I am so there.
It’s not easy to combine comic book storytelling and a political perspective. Let me amend that: It’s not easy to do unless that is the stated starting point. Underground comics were usually overtly anti-establishment, anti-war and pro-drugs. Wimmen’s Comix also big, big fun. It’s probably no coincidence that both were usually comical comics, not episodic stories.
The gang at World War 3 Illustrated carries on this fine tradition, although their emphasis is less on humor and more on inciting activism.
In superhero comics, the most successful (in my opinion, obviously) is the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern.
There have been overtly political comics created by people first known to American readers (or, at least, me) from superhero comics. The most successful, for me, are from Alan Moore. There’s a reason the Occupy movement appropriated the most powerful image from V for Vendetta, and that, even though it isn’t nearly as good as the book, the movie still sucks me in when I find it on television.
Another great book of his, written with Joyce Brabner, is Brought to Light, a non-fiction book about, among other things, American support for dictatorships and how many people have to bleed out to fill a swimming pool.
Moore’s stories work because, first and foremost, the reader (or me, anyway) cares about the characters. The minute the reader feels the action is out of character, the political position is exposed and therefore weakened. For me, this is most noticeable with Jamie Delano. I love his work on Hellblazer and in his creator-owned books. However, he lost me on his run of Animal Man even as I agreed more and more with what he said.
Strong Female Protagonist wears its heart on its sleeve, as its title character struggles to be part of the people’s struggle, not an isolated hero. It’s an interesting take on one of our modern dilemmas.
Or at least it is for those of us who care about such things.
If there is one thing that sets the superhero genre apart from its cousins – science fiction, detective/mystery, fantasy and mythology – it is the garish costumes our heroes and villains wear. The practice dates back to the inception of superheroes, even in western comics like The Lone Ranger, to bring in young readers with heroes (typically in primary colors) and the bad guys who started off as mobsters then became such foes and fiends as the Joker and Doc Ock in secondary and tertiary colors… grab a color wheel guys I’m getting deep here… to help the young heads full of mush differentiate and keep their attention throughout the book…
Now, Let’s fast forward to today, and leave the past, which is always prologue behind.
Why are some of our beloved “superheroes” still wearing primary colored laden tights when it goes against the very fiber of the well established character that we have come to know over the past 50 years? Superman, I get that. Captain America? Yeah. Not a costume but a way of wearing Old Glory mixed with some armor. The Punisher wearing a big white skull on his chest, perfectly reasonable way to draw enemy fire towards the body armor he’s wearing. I can buy that. The Batman, as it has been explained over and over and over again is also wearing body armor mixed with a “flair for the dramatic” to “instill fear” into a “superstitious and cowardly lot.” It’s a stretch, but I’m still on board. The many Green Lanterns are wearing the Crops uniform.
Where my suspension of belief stops is Wolverine. Logan. James Howlett.
I can believe in all the fake science. As Denny O’Neil famously said, it’s fake, but it’s ours. I can believe Logan’s two hundred years old. I can go along with almost every nuance and minutia over the character. Until we get to that costume. It does not compute.
I understand that Wolverine was created, in the comics, to lead Canada’s superhero team. Fine. However, that was many years ago, both in real life and in comics continuity. So, are we going to continue with the idea that a guy that has killed more people that can be counted, used to smoke cigars (until someone took charge at The House of Ideas put a moratorium on smoking) and drinks like a fish, has been trained as a samurai, has fought in every major war since (well it varies, but we will go with) the American Civil War is going to put on skin tight yellow and blue spandex suit because Professor X told him to?
Can we look at the character again? This dude would look Professor X or General Patton himself in the face and laugh, light a cigar and go on his merry day to the nearest non-smoking bar. And, maybe stab a ninja or two on the way just for kicks.
Grant Morrison changed this dramatically, and generally fanboys (I’m a fanboy, too) booed and hissed and bemoaned the change. Larry Hama and Adam Kubert did a great run with Wolvie outside of the costume after the Fatal Attractions storyline. The point being, there are plenty of heroes that don’t wear costumes, that stick to their character and it works for them. Shouldn’t we look at our heroes and villains and see which ones work in “costumes” and more specifically which ones don’t? Don’t we owe it to a guy that we love like Wolverine to let him stop dressing like a clown and let him just be who he is?
That hair is bad enough, right?