Monday, May 31, 2010

Marvel Comics enters...The Disney Age?

"I'll stack 'Mary Poppins' against any cheap and depraved movie any day." -Walt Disney

A recent article in USA TODAY considers the speculation that Marvel's move away from the "grim and gritty" to "The Heroic Age" may be related to the recent purchase of Marvel by Disney: "All this would be of interest only to comic fans except it comes just months after Disney purchased Marvel for $4 billion and as Iron Man 2 and other Marvel films are on the way." Given Walt Disney's quote above, and that company's reputation of "sanitizing" its acquired properties, it's not an unreasonable speculation. Still, Marvel's Joe Quesada insists that the shift was planned beforehand: "Quesada says that Marvel's return to "good guys" was in the works for two years, was finalized eight months ago and that the Disney takeover had no role."

He adds that "There is no sanitizing of the Marvel books at all," he says, promising stories will remain "edgy" and contemporary. "Our philosophy here is to just keep telling good stories." This claim is bolstered with the " participation of writer Brian Michael Bendis, who was chief architect of the "disassembly" of the Marvel Universe in the first place." Bendis says that "the 'brand new day' of the Heroic Age presents a tonal shift to optimism, a world filled with hope but quite hellish villains," Bendis says. "The heroes realize it's a blue-sky world worth protecting."

Though I called him a liar regarding the "Tea Bagger" incident of Captain America #602, I'm inclined to believe Quesada on this one, for the same reason; I suspect that part of the change was swept in with the "change" promised by the election of Barack Obama. When was the last time you saw a sitting president on the cover of Spider-Man? Or tell Captain America that "this country's going to need to call on you for something much bigger"? (Though it should be said that Obama is a self-professed comics fan, especially of Spidey and Conan the Barbarian. But would they have done that for Dubya?) But for a less political testinomy, witness Marvel's 1985 story by Mark Millar, published in July-Dec. of 2008. Millar who did his own 180˚ turn from his darker material like Wanted, Civil War, and Kick-Ass said of that story: I really wanted to create a book set in the slightly more innocent Marvel Universe of old. It's where heroes were absolute heroes, and the villains were creepy villains. That’s 1985."

(I wondered whether or not Millar's change-of-heart was also inspired by Obama, but I'm not so sure, given this quote: "I'd obviously vote for Obama...but I worry about the messianic hope America has invested in [Obama]. He's a good orator and I agree with him on most things, but he's still just a guy from Chicago. Let's not go overboard.")

Anyway, agenda or not, the point is that the change was already in the air. That said, it will be interesting to see what kind of heroism emerges. But for those who fear that the "Disney Age" will neuter the "hellish villains" of Bendis, I'll present in an upcoming post a theory that there is enough violence in the Disney vaults that the "heroes reborn" would be foolish to underestimate...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Iron Man 2

I was initially very supportive of the original Iron Man film when I first saw it, but I flat out turned on it after The Dark Knight was released. In all honesty, this has more to do with how much I loved The Dark Knight as opposed to any real or imagined flaws in Iron Man. I'd even go as far as saying it was a definite contender for the best super-hero movie from the traditional mold that I've ever seen. It simply came up short compared to The Dark Knight, which did things within the super-hero genre that sometimes I'd convinced myself I was crazy to believe a super-hero movie could actually do.

While I was working on a story with Joe, he shared with me a parable from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, where the author discusses the the effectiveness of conveying a lesson by drinking from a clean glass, instead of berating someone for drinking from a dirty glass. The Dark Knight was that "clean glass" for me.

But how would a sequel hold up in a summer which contained no Chris Nolan magnum opus (current withholding of judgment on Inception not-withstanding)?

The answer I'd give is: quite well.

One of my biggest complaints about the first Iron Man film was that it tried to be all things to all people. An Objectivist could watch it and take away the idea that Stark accomplished everything he did because of his capitalist beliefs, beliefs that made him a great entrepreneur and inventor. But at the same time, a Chomskeyite could watch the movie and see that Stark accomplishes these things in spite of his capitalist nature, and that his character arc is in overcoming his exploitative, commercial nature and becoming a true altruistic hero for the first time.

Some people might disagree with me on how this is different in the new film, but there are just a few particular points which I did find refreshingly different. Stark goes around bragging in this movie quite a bit, and I'm sure it becomes grating to the anti-capitalist set, but all of his boasting is based in fact. Tony Stark did, in fact, "successfully privatize world peace."

I loved the back and forth with the senators. It reminded me of how I've recently heard Glen Beck's style described. Stark was all laughs and all jokes, but he could turn his words into into weapons as quick and deadly as his armored maneuvers. One minute, he's making personal jokes on his competitors and the senate; the next, he's making a bold defense of property rights. He gets a bit pragmatic at times, but there's no real back tracking, and I like that.

Also, I've noticed that a lot of people say that the "subcommittee" scenes slow the movie down, but, thinking back, they were some of my favorite parts of the movie. They were funny as hell and they put something on display that you don't see very often. One of the most frequently (I'm tempted to say intentionally) ignored parts of the novel
Atlas Shrugged is the moral hierarchy of a mixed government. This is built around three main parts: the honest businessmen, the corrupt businessmen, and the bureaucrats.

The problem is that Rand's assessment (those she judges as honest and those she judges as corrupt) is at odds with what the general population would consider as such. The standard view is that "evil businessmen" like this want the power to basically do anything they want to the public at large (if you ask some proponents of this idea), up to, and including, theft and murder. Meanwhile, the businessmen who are viewed as being "as good as possible" in this system are the ones who support heavy regulation and policies designed to "keep things fair" and "help the little guy."

The reason Rand's view comes into conflict with the standard view is because this is quite opposite from how things actually work. The businessmen who are actively compliant with heavy regulation and support heavy government intervention often do so with the idea of having a vested interest. You're far more likely to support a policy to "help the little guy" if you happen to be considered "the little guy." And so, laws are passed, forcing more competent competition out of certain markets for the sake of people who cannot actually do the job as well, but are well connected. And, sadly, this is the best possible alternative for someone being in this position. If a business interest is not trying to actively grow their own venture through force and coercion, they are supporting this happening arbitrarily. They are supporting the competent being forced out of the market by the incompetent but well-connected.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, if a person is truly against heavy government intervention, they do not truly want an "anything goes system." They want a code of laws in place where people can deal with each other on even terms. Contracts are enforceable, people are held to their word and acts of force, and fraud are punished. But beyond that, they simply want to run their business, not have to follow and bow to whatever arbitrary edicts happen to come down the pipe at any given moment.

(At this point, you may notice I did not offer an alternative for "honest bureaucrat." Because seriously, how honest could anyone be in a system such as this? But back onto the film itself...)

There are attempts at undercutting that go on in the film, but I agree with what Joe suggested to me, that they do seem "half-hearted" at best. When I did my "Hero Archetypes: the Selfish Capitalist Jerk"* article, former contributor Michael Vardoulis said that Stark belonged in this category. I didn't answer him at the time, but I will now, for the record. The archetype is built around the idea of this person's selfishness and commercialism is supposed to make the person unlikable. The problem is that for an Objectivist the opposite happens.

In the Fantastic Four film series, Johnny Storm is the only character I sympathized with because he's focused on paying the bills with actual work and money, while Reed Richards seems to think they'll be paid by some odd combination of floating abstractions and altruism. Or, in a slightly more mainstream example, the landowner Benjamin in the play/movie Rent, is sympathetic because it seems like he's bent over backwards to help his friends who seem to value nothing but sacrifice (whether others to self or self to others they don't seem picky) and naval gazing. In the film version, this even goes as far as him being the person who helps Mimi in her time of greatest need, while the character we're supposed to sympathize with simply abandons her.

Stark never seems to be presented as a person we're supposed to truly resent in either film, so I don't think he qualifies for this archetype, which I see as a good thing. This means that the things of value Objectivists see in him aren't just a sort of "secret handshake" we share with one another, but are truly transcendent and a bit more universal. As such, the undercutting never really works.

Tony starts drinking heavily in the movie. He was far worse in the comics, while he's presented in the film as having a very good reason to do so. His drinking makes him become careless with his armor in both the comic and the movie. In the movie, he shoots skeet inside his house and has an "armor war" with his best friend during a very bustling party...

And, in the comic, he's in full armor while giving a speech to congress when his repulsor beam misfires, killing a senator. Say what you will about undercutting in this film, but Favreau toned it down quite a bit from what it could've been.

I do have some complaints on the film, but they're more in the fanboy range. I really hate that the Black Widow didn't sound like she was "plotting big trouble for Moose and Squirrel." She's a beautiful, brilliant superspy, but she's also supposed to be a cold war stereotype, and we love her for it.

Also, I liked the nods to past-and-future Marvel films, but if they don't find a way to do it with a bit more subtlety in the future, it could start to get annoying.

But the film's theme of understanding your past in order to determine your future, and the fact that Iron Man is the closest thing this side of Rorscach to an honest-to-Galt Objectivist superhero on film were enough for me... This time.

*A while ago, I was still a series here called Hero Archetypes. I basically abandoned it after discovering the site Tv Tropes because the general ideas I was covering are covered there far better than I was doing. The only real exception I've decided to make going forward is in archetypes that seem very specific to Objectivism. Such as the above mentioned "Selfish Capitalist Jerk."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Marvel Comics: "Heroes Will Be Heroes Again"

First, there was 1985, with its "clear-cut" heroes. Then there was the "rebirth" of Captain America via the "hope" of Barack Obama. It's official: heroism is back. From

Marvel Comics is proud to announce The Heroic Age, the dawn of an exciting new era of heroism in the Marvel Universe! Beginning in May 2010 with the release of AVENGERS #1, The Heroic Age ushers in a brighter Marvel Universe and a bold new era for the world's greatest super heroes as they emerge from darkness with a renewed sense of hope and optimism...

Over the past few years, the Marvel Universe and its citizens have found themselves living in a dark age of despair.... Now, the heroes have united once again, stronger than ever and are prepared to face the dangers that lie ahead.

"Our heroes have experienced some of their greatest trials and tribulations recently, but now there's going to be a renewed hope among their ranks," said Joe Quesada, Chief Creative Officer & Editor-in-Chief Marvel Entertainment LLC. "As our heroes emerge from the darkness, the Marvel Universe is going to be a more optimistic place than we've seen in a quite awhile. But that doesn't mean we're making things easy for our characters!"

I'll have more to say as this plays out, but for the moment: When Landon and I started this blog, it was partly to speak out against the denigration of the very idea of heroism to begin with. But since then, with a seemingly worsening world-scene, there has been a radical sea-change away from the "grim and gritty" school back to a defense of values. (Hard times will do that...). We'll see how this plays out; I doubt that I will be a fan of their brand of heroism, if it's of the self-sacrificial variety. The conflict in values is still a Tower of Babylon, and we're speaking different tongues. But for Marvel's recognition of the value in heroism, I think the phrase "Excelsior!" is still universal.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hey Kids! It's Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!!!

Here's my little contribution to the heroes who defend their right to free speech...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

SMALLVILLE: Atlas Won't Shrug?

While I've been pretty impressed with Smallville this season (I doubted the Kandorian clone idea initially, but it really took off), I've not commented on it much, mainly because I've accepted that the show's idea of heroism, and the character itself, is firmly entrenched in altruistic Christian ethics. I've come to accept that Clark will not become John Galt in season 10, so I've been letting go and just enjoying the show for its storytelling, action and drama.

That said...I couldn't help but sit up when I saw this:

To quote Fritz Lang, "Nothing is accidental."
That sign says what it does for a reason. Now, I could be upset and see this as the creators firmly affirming the altruistic hero (next's week's finale is called "Salvation," after all), but the very fact that they felt the need to even address the issue with that sign? I'll chalk that up as a small victory for Ayn Rand...

That said, the episode was a good buildup for next week's season finale, and the trailer promises something..."iconic." Looking forward to it. (My Kryptonite? The inevitable cliffhanger...)

Monday, May 3, 2010

KICK-ASS the Movie: A Heroism Rorschach Test

I was not initially going to see the Kick-Ass movie, given my reaction to the graphic novel, but some online discussion that claimed the movie was different enough prompted me to see for myself. Well, despite some superficially significant changes (the twist on Big Daddy's origin's was gone, and the hero gets the girl), I think I was right the first time. (And confirmed in an interview with director Matthew Vaughn, who, in the spirit of the book, says that "superheroes are always flawed characters that we can relate to and who you want to be and take you on a journey that gets you out of the mundane life that we all have.")

Now, I've already outlined my issues with the graphic novel's approach to heroism, which is a parody of sorts. I've also noted that writer Mark Millar has shown a willingness to acknowledge the brighter side of superheroes with his book 1985. So, in that spirit, the movie's philosophy is vague enough, on the surface, to be a type test, testing the audience's psychological reaction to heroism in general. Are these characters to be applauded for heroism, or laughed at for dressing funny? Or they bravely stepping up to defend values, or psychotically acting out on sadomasochistically? And so on...

But one thing that stood out in the movie was a picture of the Greek titan Atlas on the wall of the hero's bedroom. This is not accidental, and revealing, considering that in Marvel's Civil War, Millar has Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four reject the notion of the superheroes "shrugging," a la Ayn Rand. This theme carries over into Kick-Ass via a bit of monologue from the teen hero in a homage to Spider-Man:
"With no power, comes no responsibility...except that's not true."

Well, ego prompts me to point out that I've already said this back in October of 2005 on an online forum regarding Spider-Man:

"The opposite is true: With great weakness comes great responsibility, because the weak have to work HARDER to protect that self."

The difference between my reversal and that of the one in Kick-Ass is that the full context of my quote on that forum challenges the altruistic side of Spider-Man's quote: responsibility to whom? The hero in Kick-Ass rightly realizes that responsibility cannot simply be shrugged because one is not a superhero, but, despite the post-modern posturing of Millar and Vaughn, never radically challenges the ethics behind the superhero genre; so much for deconstruction..."plus ca change..."

This goes beyond the world of Kick-Ass in its revelations, however, revealing the bankruptcy of that deconstructionist Watchmen-spawned multi-verse...for years, comics were under the pseudo-intellectual spell of amoralism, relativism, whatever-ism, featuring flawed heroes, anti-heroes, anything BUT heroes...but now, since the election of Barack Obama, heroism is in again, and the cynics are slowly embracing their "inner Romantics." In a way, I see this as a victory for a site subtitled "for heroes in exile;" heroes have been called back home.

But under what banner? Has anything really changed? America has always been a mixed nation of individualism and altruism, a contradiction that has finally caught up with it. The superhero genre has always been a manifestation of this, and, just as capitalism has taken the blame for the statist-altruistic interferences in the economy, so has the individualistic side of superheroes taken the blame for the altruistic failures of the Judeo-Christian influences.

So, even granting the idea that stories like Kick-Ass, in whatever form, are un-ironically welcoming back heroes, they've not grown in understanding, and have nothing to offer than the same old utterance found in the justifications of Superman's quest: "to do what is right...because it is right..." This is not new, or radical; this is the Kantian "moral imperative." And with the conscious choice to put the world back on Atlas's shoulders, the comics community has fully reaffirmed the the self-sacrificial image of the hero.

And so, the hero who stands for the individual still remains in exile...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Don't Fall Asleep.

I know I'm probably alone in this, but the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street was the most anticipated movie for me in a long time. I've told people that I might see Iron Man 2 in theaters. I have no plans to see Kick-Ass until the DVD release. I have yet to see Avatar even. But for the past couple of months I've been going nuts every time a new trailer for Nightmare was released. It's been well over a year (possibly going on two now) since I've seen a film first run, and the one to break my streak is A Nightmare on Elm Street.

I have lots of thoughts on the film itself, but first I just wanted to register a minor complaint. It may have been the fact that I went to a matinee for my first viewing, but the crowd was a little small, very low energy. This might sound like a strange thing to say in reference to a slasher movie of all things, but at the end of the film one person started clapping. No one joined in and it was as if everyone thought they were too cool to even laugh at him. I remember seeing one of the first showings of
The Dark Knight and there was a moment at the end where the whole audience clapped for the film. Now Nolan, Bale and especially Ledger may not have been able to hear us, but it was more about acknowledging that everyone in that room had just taken part in something special, and not worrying if we looked silly responding to it.

On top of that, I had four of the most annoying teenage girls who ever lived sitting directly behind me, in a theater with plenty of room to have stayed away from strangers. They kept giggling at inappropriate times. This was my first time seeing the film (at a price I could barely afford I might add), and for my first viewing I just wanted to enjoy what the filmmakers did right and pick apart the flaws later on my own time. Also a few times these girls predicted Nancy was about to die. I flat out took offense when they said this.

Annoying teenage girls aside, I really liked the movie. It was made by Michael Bay's production company, which has made most of the recent remakes including
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13
th. These films have their defenders and their detractors, but in my opinion, remake or not, the Friday the 13th remake is the best film in the series. It had 11 films worth of backlog to build from and did so better than any remake I've seen recently again, horror or not. It acknowledged every phase of the franchise without dwelling on segments that were best left just touched upon. But most importantly it kept everything that made the series work while offering several logical updates and general logical cohesion to the story.

Nightmare is definitely from this same mold.

It stands up to the original quite well. Most slasher flicks would look fairly similar with 1980's special effects or 2010 special effects, but the
Nightmare series, with its liquid dream logic, is one that always would've been better with
CGI and modern practical effects, which are used to make every classic scene from the original just a few notches better.

Another great thing about this modern version is the science applied. A few years ago a movie called
Prom Night tried to be the "anti-slasher movie." It billed itself as a "thriller" and tried to tame down the violence of the kills. The problem is we that live in a world where CSI is one of the most popular shows on television, and people are far too aware of what it actually takes to kill someone. It was painfully obvious that most of the victims in that film would've easily survived their attacks, effectively rendering Prom a messed-up story everyone talks about at the 10 year reunion, which they'll all be attending because they're all still alive. Meanwhile the new Nightmare milks every last bit of tension from the real effects of insomnia.

There are some story adjustments I really liked and some I'm not a big fan of. First off, the
entire supporting
cast's character's were renamed. Even Nancy is now Nancy Holbrook, not Nancy Thompson. But, in general, if you know the original, each character has a counterpart in this remake. That being said, the general supporting characters in this film are written far better than the original. Tina was a slut and a victim, plain and simple. Her counterpart Kris, on the other hand, is a tragic heroine in search of the truth. Tina's boyfriend Rod was just a jerk, but Kris' boyfriend has real depth and layers.

Also, most of the cliche's about the kids earning their deaths are gone. Kris
sleeps with her boyfriend, there's no indication there's any sex going on and, more so, it's treated that if there is any, it's none of our business. The only "drug user" is Quentin, who is simply always looking for higher grade stimulants...for obvious reasons.

Also, there's a real mystery angle to the story. It builds off of past history, but changes things enough that even someone who's seen every one of the films several times will still often be kept guessing. The real theme of the story involves honesty and evasion. In this story it seems that evasion is the only crime punishable by death. If you are unwilling to face the truth, or do your best to hide it, you will pay. Only through total, ruthless honesty does salvation lie.

That being said, onto my disappointments. The biggest is Nancy herself, along with those directly involved with her. Rooney Mara plays a distant, haunted Nancy. She does a good job of surviving and her detective skills are impressive, but I wouldn't describe her as heroic. Also the parental figures just have it together too well. Nancy's mother in this film is a doctor, not a pathetic drunk. Her father, the police officer, is replaced by her love interest's father, the principal. No one seems
truly damaged by what they've done in this film, even though their actions are far more morally ambiguous than in the original.

This also takes away one of the
original's most powerful scenes. In the book The Myth of the American Superhero, there is much talk about the archetype of the inept authority figure, such as the bureaucrat, the sheriff, etc., who stands in the way of the lone hero doing what needs done. In the original Nightmare, this idea goes so far that it encompasses all adults. In the climax of the film, Nancy tucks her mother into bed, effectively becoming the adult herself, before bravely going to sleep herself, in order to fight the fight that no one else can against Krueger. When the new Nancy goes through her version of this scene, it just lacks the power of the original.

Also, you may have noticed that I've said very little about the man himself. I'll just say that Jackie Earle Haley had eight films and a TV series to study and he learned what he needed to. His humor is still intact, and creepy instead of goofy, like it
could've been. He also does a very good job of establishing the character of the living Krueger. When he needs to, he comes off as very sympathetic, which is important, as his initial innocence is in question at one point in the film. By this I mean that it is implied that, when he was lynched, he was actually innocent of the crimes of which he was accused, and his current state is just a form of Pied Piper's revenge.

But the name of this blog is
Superhero Babylon, not
Supervillain Babylon. My love for the Nightmare series has always been built upon its relationship to the final girl archetype. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that everything of value in that archetype originated with this series, and I hope that this new series does not view all of that as a relic of the past.

In closing, I'll just remind you all of Nancy Thompson's immortal words from the original, more valuable in today's world than ever: "
Whatever you do...Don't fall asleep!"