How Green Was My Goblin: A Look At Norman Osborn

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DISCLAIMER: Reading, summarizing and examining every appearance of Norman Osborn would be both overly time-consuming and messy. As such, this post will focus on his most significant early appearances and a large part of his recent storylines.

One of the reasons the Spider-Man franchise has lasted so long is due to how personal the character’s world is. Peter Parker is a human being before he’s a superhero, with all of his conflicts having human consequences. Parker isn’t a representative of anything lofty, he’s just a kid in a suit trying his best to help people. With that in mind, what kind of asshole would go out of his way to pick on the poor guy?

Amazing Spider-Man #39 (1966)

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Green Goblin/Norman Osborn is one of the oddest comic villains in terms of initial concept. He’s a green skinned (or is it garbed?) man with a purple Legend of Zelda tunic, a flying bat-thing (which was originally a fucking broomstick) who threw exploding pumpkins. And frogs for some reason.

Amazing Spider-Man #17 (1964)

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Even his original introduction is wacky as hell: seeking to take over the underworld of NY, Goblin hires three previous Spidey villains named the Enforcers, who consisted of a guy with lasso, a midget karate master, and a “strong for a normal guy” guy. His plan? Approach a film producer and casually suggest to him that he should fund a Spider-Man film. He does this in full costume.

Amazing Spider-Man #14 (1964)

 

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The guy agrees and just stands on a roof top waiting for Spider Man to just happen upon him (which actually works) He pitches him the film, which Spidey agrees to quite easily. The Goblin, having apparently written an honest to god script, has them shoot the first scene in a cave, where his “master plan” this whole time was to just to have himself and the gang (who Spidey thought were just guys who just happened to look like enemies of his) beat him up.

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Even as a 60’s comic lover, this debut has to be one of the dumbest i’ve ever read. We don’t even get a passing explanation of the Goblin’s powers, weapons, or even who the fuck he is in the first place. Apparently, writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko disagreed on who the Goblin should be. Ditko felt he should remain anonymous whereas Lee felt he should be someone close to Peter. When Ditko left the series, Lee had his way with the Goblin (that sounds dirty!), which leads us to the revelation that he’s Norman Osborn, father of Peter’s then-new friend, Harry Osborn.

Amazing Spider-Man #39 (1966)

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The backstory: Normie had a routine freak lab accident while working on (of course) green chemicals, which increased his mental and physical capabilities. It also increased his crazy as well, which manifested as the character of Green Goblin. Which doesn’t explain the gimmick AT ALL, but whaddaya gonna do? Much later on it was retconned that Norman Osborn had a recurring childhood nightmare of a literal “green goblin” that inspired his motif. So he’s basically an even more fucked up Batman.

The revelation of Norman Osborn as the Goblin is where he goes from being a silly Joker-esque madman to being a truly unique character. Like many villains, Osborn attempts to explain to Peter his origin, but what makes this moment particularly unique is that there’s a clear disconnect between how he views himself as Norman Osborn and the reality of his actions even before he became the Goblin.

Amazing Spider-Man #40 (1966)

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In his mind, he was a great father to Harry, whereas we can clearly see he was emotionally distant. In his mind, he’s a pragmatic businessman, whereas we can clearly see he’s quite corrupt. Osborn is completely delusional about his own villainy, a rare trait in comic villains. At this point, most super-villains are just crooks and despots, but he actually thinks his actions are for the best. By the end of this issue, Norman conveniently gets amnesia but this characterization sticks with the character for awhile anyway. His delusion reaches it’s zenith when blames Peter (without cause, of course) for his son’s drug abuse.

Slipping back into his Goblin persona, his method of “justice” is killing Peter’s girlfriend at the time Gwen Stacy. Your welcome for the spoiler.

Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973)

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This sets off a chain of events that leads to his own (of course temporary) death.

Such a heinous act not only codified Osborn’s delusion, but also his pettiness. In a way, this is why he makes such a good antagonist for Spidey. Characters like Superman and Captain America represent lofty ideals, so their antagonists have to be equally as lofty. Generally, Lex Luthor is portrayed as having a sense of purpose so grand that he could just as easily be as heroic as he is villainous. In a Silver Age story, this was realized when he found his own planet (which he un-egotistically dubbed “Lexor”) where he got to play hero. 

Superman #164 (1963)

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Far from heroic, Osborn’s goals are no more lofty than fucking with Peter. His reintroduction to the Spider-Man franchise was orchestrating an elaborate plot to create clones of Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy just to fuck with him for…ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Once again, Spidey didn’t do anything to him or Harry before his resurrection and even spared his life after killing Gwen. 

Osborn went on to plague Spidey in a number of ways after his resurrection. For example, one story reveals he raised two Spidey-hating kids who he had with Gwen Stacy before her death. Comics, lol. The character continued to be singularly a Spidey villain till the Thunderbolts series, where he led a team of villains who were tasked with policing superheroes. The series illustrates the distinction between Norman’s personalities. Norman is a mixture of Lex Luthor and the Joker. As a businessman and leader, he’s very Luthor-like, with a massive sense of importance and superiority. Then there’s the Goblin persona, which is more Joker-like with an obsession with Spidey and massive bloodlust.  

Thunderbolts #111 (2006)

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His growing positive reputation combined with a strange set of events allow Norman to become Earth’s greatest hero when he defeats an alien queen during an invasion. His newfound admiration not only allows him to finally rewrite public record of his past crimes, it also means that he’s able to take the role of both Nick Fury AND Iron Man as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which he aggressively re- dubs H.A.M.M.E.R.) and leader of the Avengers (having jacked himself some sweet-ass armor and recast the team with equivalent super villains).

New Avengers Annual #3 (2009)

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This is definitely his “Lexor” moment, where Stan Lee’s Norman Osborn really comes to fruition. As mentioned, the two defining attributes of Norman are a) delusion b) pettiness. So seeing him in a role where he has to deal with characters like Dr. Doom and Namor, men with both a clarity and grandeur of vision, allows for both humor and tension.

Dark Avengers #6 (2009)

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He becomes, dare I say it, almost sympathetic. Osborn is so out of his depth and he knows it. Ironically, he becomes an almost Peter Parker like figure in the larger Marvel Universe. Spidey has also been in the big-time as an Avenger for over a decade now, but he’s often still written as the low man on the totem pole. Spidey’s role on the team is essentially comic relief. Parker and Osborn are both people of just enough ability to reach the peak of Olympus but with the barely the strength to survive the climate once they get there.

Brian Michael Bendis uses the persona of Norman to seemingly comment on  the irrationality of real life government leaders (most likely George W. Bush). Norman becomes increasingly obsessed with ” protecting America ” and letting his presence be known. When Asgard ends up hovering near Earth (don’t ask) he immediately views it as a threat despite the fact that NOTHING suggests that at all. As he did with Spidey, Norman delusions created a threat. In order to legitimize Asgard as a threat, he tricks an Asgardian into committing mass murder.

Siege: The Cabal #1 (2010)

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Norman’s war with Asgard is most likely meant to reflect the War on Terror, where many feel the American government purposely caused fear of Iraq in order to justify war, some even going as far to claim that 9/11 was engineered by them. Using Norman as a stand-in for Bush is a stretch, but fits into the public perception of what people considered “evil” at the time. Like the ‘corrupt corporate executive’ version of Lex Luthor in the 80’s, Norman reflected America’s distrust of those in power.

Despite losing his war with Asgard and his public clout, Norman continues to be a major villain in Marvel Comics. Norman Osborn/Green Goblin’s continued prominence is a testament to the ability of skilled writers to reinterpret characters. Lets hope the wacko always has a place at Marvel.

For more posts on Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

The Lois Lane Effect

Top 5 Fictional Bullies

Spidey Tackles The Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man: The Journey of Peter Parker

For more posts on Marvel Comics

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

Iron Man: Real American Hero

 

 

 

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man series has had some big shoes to fill. Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man (2002) was basically our generation’s Richard Donner-directed Superman (instead of, y’know, Man of Steel). It not only reinvigorated the already successful Spider-Man franchise, it legitimized superhero film in general. This led to the current explosion of superhero films and, to quote the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Baron Strucker, “the age of miracles“. With all that in mind, what could the new Spider-Man series distinguish itself beyond adding on an adjective? The first film was both familiar and different. Mark Webb and Sony Pictures used many music and visual elements from the Raimi films but created a lore that impacts each film (Peter’s parents, Oscorp Industries, etc). Probably it’s most contentious element is Peter Parker himself as played by Andrew Garfield. This Peter Parker beckons more to the Stan Lee’s original vision: a smart alecky scientist with a nerdy-but-charming way with the ladies. I wouldn’t personally call this better or worse than Tobey Maguire’s portrayal, since Raimi’s Spider-Man was meant to be more of a “classic” superhero story with a more earnest protagonist. Overall, I think The Amazing Spider-Man was a solid iteration of the franchise. So what about the second film?

The premise: High school graduate Peter Parker is having turbulence in his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) due to her father’s last request for them to be apart. Exacerbating his woes is the return of childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan), who believed that Spider-Man is the key to curing his family’s hereditary illness. Further exacerbating things is the arrival of the villain Electro (Jaime Foxx), yet another victim of Oscorp’s piss-poor science regulations.

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Assuming that action is the first thing viewers for looking for, this film’s got a pretty decent amount. As with the previous film, Spider-Man’s acrobatics are portrayed  as more freeform and impulsive than practiced. He doesn’t move like an acrobat, he moves like a normal guy with massive strength and agility. This really shows itself while fighting the villain Electro, who he has to combat more evasively. One can tell that Mark Webb probably got excited when he realized that Spidey’s “Spider-Sense” meant that he could use gratuitous slow-mo, which he seemingly incorporated into every scene. While somewhat cliched at this point, at least it fits here. Unfortunately, the film’s so chock full of everything that there really aren’t many action scenes in it. It appears as if the filmmakers realized that themselves, given that we’re treated to an opening action scene that doesn’t even include Spidey and “action-packed” web-making scene similar to the one from the first film.

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While the film might skimp on action, it has plenty of romance. Now normally I roll my eyes at the cliche superhero romance, but I feel that Spider-Man – as the everyman – makes more sense with a love interest that characters like Thor or Batman. It helps that Garfield and Stone have natural chemistry, probably due to actually dating each other. They both have very natural humor and wit that makes their interactions fun rather than sappy. In a scene where they’re hiding in a closet (long story) they both connect on how cliched hiding in a closet is before having a bit of seemingly unscripted kissing. Many of their scenes wouldn’t be out of place in films like 500 Days Of Summer or Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Oh that hipster love!

Despite my enjoyment of the film’s romantic elements, it ends up being part of what makes the film inconsistent tonally. While I hate to draw too many comparisons between the Raimi films, one of their strengths was that they knew what they were. They were earnest and melodramatic superhero stories without much irony. These films attempt to be more modern (Peter wears a fucking Thrasher t-shirt at one point), which makes the moments where it slips back into cliche a bit more awkward.

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For example, hollywood nerd Electro wouldn’t be out of place in Batman Forever. Foxx plays him as a nebbish scientist with an inexplicable combover who becomes obsessed with Spidey after he saves his life. One scene has him (hilariously?) celebrating his birthday alone as he talks to a picture of Spider-Man on his wall. While I appreciate the film’s attempt to give him some humanity, because the character himself has no significance thematically, he lacks the same emotional weight of Green Goblin or even Sandman from Raimi’s trilogy. The tragedy of the character seems kind of insignificant to the film’s overall narrative as he becomes a generic villain.

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Harry Osborn also seems to be in a different movie at times; it’s hard to believe that the melodramatic Harry (who has a bit of a Children of the Corn vibe) was ever friends with the more laid-back Peter. To be fair, i’m not saying that Foxx or Haan put in bad performances, i’m just saying that they don’t necessarily fit into the film as well as they could have.

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Visually, the film is as gorgeous as one would expect from a Sony film. Electro is rendered magnificently as an electrical entity. Rather than just painting him blue and calling it a day, the filmmakers took the time to conceive elements such as making his skin slightly translucent in order to portray his vein’s lighting. As he grows in power, there’s visible reds and oranges underneath his skin which give off the impression of electric combustion. It shows that the effects guys really explored the idea of how an electric man would work visually. As far as cinematography, the only thing I noticed was an intriguing inclusion of a few dutch angles (a scene shot at a tilt). I suspect that they’re included just because the 60’s Batman series decided that all superhero shows and films have to contain dutch angles. To be honest, this is more of a stray observation and has little impact.

As an overall narrative, this film is okay when focusing on any of it’s constituent parts, if not necessarily forming a coherent whole. As mentioned, the love story between Peter and Gwen is fun and makes sense in context. Electro’s story is sad despite having a secondary focus. Harry Osborn’s conflict at Oscorp is equally as sad as his sympathetic goals fail to come to fruition. Do these elements sync up? Not really. They do end up impacting each other but more through contrivance than theme. Just look at how disjointed my premise summary was. As a sequel, it’s possible that the film slightly suffers from what happened the Spider-Man 3: there were several plots that they had to get through and no one thought through how they would intersect. What makes this better than Spider-Man 3  is that these plots are all solid on their own.

Final Verdict

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a fun film with an enjoyable love story and some good action. While it’s not as focused or as action oriented as it’s predecessor, it furthers the narrative journey of Peter Parker. While I wouldn’t call this film anywhere near the depth of it’s superhero contemporaries, it does manage to entertain.

Easter Eggs

Ravencroft Institute

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The facility where Oscorp takes Electro is basically Marvel’s equivalent to Arkham Asylum, used to house crazy supervillains such as the symbiotic Carnage and master of illusion Mysterio. It’s founder was Ashley Kafka, the lead scientist in the film.

Vulture’s Wings

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When showing Oscorp’s various powered armors, one of them appears to be a harness with wings. This is based on the villain Adrian Toomes aka the Vulture, who was an old man who invented a harness that allowed him to fly.

Felicia

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Harry’s secretary Felicia is most likely a reference to the Felicia Hardy aka the Black Cat, a thief who alternated between antagonist and ally of Spider-Man. They also had a fling. This sure sounds like another cat-themed supervillain…

Smythe

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The douchey scientist played by BJ Novak is a reference to Alistar Smythe, a member of the Smythe family responsible for creating the robotic Spider-Slayers. He went a little bit further and turned himself into a spider-slayer.

For more reviews:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

American Hustle

Thor: The Dark World

Gravity

Don Jon

Riddick

Iron Man 3

Oblivion

Fast And The Furious 6

For more thoughts on Spider-Man:

The Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains

For more thoughts on superheroes:

The Lois Lane Effect

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Hoverboy: The Most Racist Superhero Ever

From Comic To TV: Arrow As An Adaptation of Green Arrow

10 Freaky Yet Awesome X-Men You Forgot About

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Famous Comic Characters

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

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Post-Avengers, I would say the biggest issue with Marvel films is that they seem to have ran out of characterization. The Iron Man sequels reiterate the same points of the first film: Tony doesn’t need the suit, Pepper is important, weapons can be misused blah blah blah. Thor: The Dark World doesn’t even pretend to progress Thor further than giving him an excuse to be on Earth. What’s disappointing about these films is that they don’t really progress anything that happened in Avengers; events are mentioned, but these stories are basically standalone. While I understand that Thor can’t team up with Iron Man, it would be nice if an invasion of fucking elves actually impacted someone outside of Great Britain. The first sequel to actually further  the Marvel Movie Universe is Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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The premise: Post-Avengers, Cap is now S.H.I.E.L.D.’s elite soldier. Rather than feeling at home, Cap begins to question his allegiance while operating in the shadowy world of intelligence. Things get worse when a threat from inside S.H.I.E.L.D. puts him at odds with the organization. Things get worser (I think that’s a word) when a mysterious assassin appears to oppose him: the Winter Soldier.

For anyone who actually cares, this film is partially based on several comic series I would suggest checking out: Secret Warriors, Fury’s Secret War, and primarily Ed Brubaker’s The Winter Soldier.

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To start, the title of this film is mildly misleading. The Winter Soldier is at best a subplot in this very dense film. Most of the film centers around yet another thinly-veiled “freedom or security” debate which stretches much further than any of the other Marvel films. These plots have become overused in actual comics, but not as much in superhero films so it’s not totally objectionable. What distinguishes the plot is that it serves as a reaction to the events of The Avengers, which would probably lead to an increased desire for world security just as 9/11 did. Since this is a Captain America film, it’s appropriate that the embodiment of American Dream has to weigh in on a post 9/11 world. It would have been great if he could have weighed in a decade ago but whatever.

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The main attraction of the film is action and deservedly so. What’s great about the film is that it combines some of the low-key practical combat of the the first film and The Avengers with a few “holy shit!” superhero moments. As a friend of mine noted, Cap gets to have his “Legolas versus a mammoth” moment that is easily one of the most badass things ever. One of the biggest complaints about the film’s predecessor was that most of the good action was in a montage. While I wasn’t as bothered by this (as an 80’s film fan) , I can assure you that every scene is given a pretty decent run-time without any montages. These scenes manage to have a large variety as well, ranging from car chases, elevator brawls, and aerial combat.

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As far as performances are concerned, it’s par for the course. Chris Evans is still a bit too “kiddy” for the ultimate authority figure at times, but his earnestness contrasts well with Johansson and Jackson’s usual cynical performances. Robert Redford plays his fairly obvious role well and i’ll leave it at that. Anthony Mackie is a great addition as the down-to-earth Sam Wilson aka “The Falcon”, which helps to keep Cap in line with his identity as a soldier. My only real complaint here is that the film, like many of it’s contemporaries, has a very jarring plot twist which should be much more disturbing than how the protagonists react to it. This is the same issue in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. I get that the Whedon-esque flippancy of the cast means they can stay deadpan throughout any scenario, but I think given the weight of what happens, I would at least expect a bit more emotion.

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In terms of plot, this film is a bit of a mixed bag. As usual, the “freedom vs security” plot goes in the most obvious direction since this is America, after all.  The original Winter Soldier arc told a tale of a Captain America who had to come to grips with being witness to unsavory government acts during World War 2, particularly with the Soviets. The titular Winter Soldier, a Soviet assassin, was a remnant of World War 2 come back to haunt him. The series was one of the few to show Cap’s incongruity with the real world as a hindrance to his position as America’s spirit. This film goes somewhat against this: Cap’s old timey beliefs in small government and “overt” intelligence are justified in the film’s climax. As always, Cap is never wrong. In the film, rather than being a fellow soldier suffering through war memories, Cap’s relationship to the Winter Soldier is based more on their mutual roles as elite soldiers kept in the dark about their superior’s goals. While the film differs a bit from it’s sources, it isn’t supposed to be an adaptation or a deep reflection on politics, so the plot is passable.

One of the last things i’d like to note about the film is that it’s oddly subversive of usual gender dynamics. The film doesn’t go in the Cap/Black Widow route or any romance route for that matter. Hell, he’s more obsessed with  saving his male buddies in the film, while the three female characters get to be (gasp) competent partners. There’s not even a “save the girl” moment! This in contrast to most superhero films, where most women have big “kidnap me” signs on their backs. While this might sound minor, it’s a big step in a mainstream film like this.

Final Verdict

Overall, this is an enjoyable film. The plot isn’t anything new, but at least gives a new dimension to the Marvel films. Chances are you’re going to see this for action and one-liners and that’s here in spades. The only reason not to see this is if you’re un-american. If so, get off my site you damn commie.

 

 

Top 5 Bullies in Fiction

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Everyone’s had a bully at some point of their lives. If not, then you probably are / were a bully ( if so: not in the face, please ). Either way, we can all relate to bullying, which is why bullies are so familiar in fiction. The stereotypical bully is bigger than the protagonist, an athlete and most of all, monstrously violent. And yea, many times a bully really is just a brute with a gland disorder, but they are people as well. People who can fuck you up. So i decided to compile a list of some bullies who are particularly noteworthy.

5. Terry Filkins – Drillbit Taylor ( 2008 )

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This school is boring. Watching you freak out amuses me.

Fun Fact: This film was written by Seth Rogen and John Hughes under his pen name “Edmond Dantes” . Yes: “Breakfast Club – Sixteen Candles – Home Alone” John Hughes. This was also the last film he was involved with before his death. The premise: three nerds hire a bodyguard to protect them from two bullies. As a final film it’s…ok. Owen Wilson has his moments but the nerds are fairly trite and nothing else stands out either…except for the main bully, Filkins. Whereas the nerds in the film are a little too generic to be interesting, Filkins’ takes the equally generic bully stereotype to new heights. He begins as a standard bully, stuffing nerds into lockers and whatnot, but then quickly shifts into outright insanity. It turns out that he’s an extremely wealthy emancipated minor, which in the film’s logic means he can get away with destroying a student’s laptop, driving a car through people’s yards, attempting to run over people in broad daylight, and cutting off a man’s arm with a katana ( offscreen, unfortunately ).

Normally I hate the casually violent bully cliche because it’s hard to imagine in a modern school where adults are more reactionary. But the combination of Seth Rogen’s brashness and John Hughes’ 80’s nostalgia makes it more of an homage to the cliche itself. Rather than pretending as if he’s a normal bully, the film portrays Filkins as a violent psychopath who couldn’t and shouldn’t possibly exist in a modern school. His comeuppance at the end of the film is due to him chucking a sword at the nerds in the middle of a partyThis guy is so committed to being a bully that he’ll literally murder someone in front of several witnesses. I don’t care how you feel about bullying, that’s admirable.

4. Alan White – Freaks and Geeks ( 1999 – 2000 )

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” You like Bill Murray? Oh yeah? Bill Murray sucks! “

The stereotype of the bully is so ingrained that few writers actually question it’s validity. Bullies are the jocks. They’re the big men on campus. Everybody likes them, right? More often than not, no. Kids who often become bullies are often just as marginalized as the people they pick on. One of the few bullies to embody this is Alan White from Freaks and Geeks. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s short lived dramedy series is well known for subverting many high school tropes. The designated geeks’ oppressor Alan is even more odd than they are. Skinny and awkward, the “threat” of Alan is more due to his aggressiveness than his physicality. The pilot of the series builds up to a fight between the geeks and Alan, which amounts to this:

After such a pathetic show, Alan’s bullying became more verbal, throwing out brilliant jabs such as changing the name Sam Weir to Sam Queer. Ah high school. The character gained some depth in the episode Chokin’ and Tokin’. Thinking his allergies aren’t life-threatening, Alan tricks one of the geeks into eating peanuts, leading to him become hospitalized. Whoops. Concerned, Alan visits him in the hospital and has a candid moment while the geek is unconscious ( you can watch the actual clip here )

” I’m sorry. I was just goofing on you. It’s not like you guys were ever nice to me. In the 4th grade i used to think you guys were really cool. I remember when you guys brought a model of the Saturn 5 in for show and tell and I asked if I can shoot off rockets with you and you said no. So i’m supposed to be nice to you? I like comics and sci fi too but you never ask me to hang out. “

We see a great commentary on one of the often overlooked causes of bullying: the cycle of victimhood. Alan, clearly lacking social skills already, perceives the geeks’ probably unintentional dismissals in the past as rejection. Afraid of being vulnerable, he strikes back against them in order to justify his alienation. This blurs the nerd / bully distinction, since it forces us to view the protagonists as part of a culture of abuse. Earlier in the episode, two of the three geeks abandons plans to attend a convention. When one of the other characters in the series, a fellow geek with weight and odor issues, offers himself to go, the geek seems less than excited. Later on, he claims he can no longer go due to an issue at home, but it’s suspect whether or not he’s just blowing him off. Alan’s view of the geeks now has a bit of credence to it; it’s possible that their desire to be insular marginalized him. This scenario highlights the often murky milieu of high school power dynamics.

3. The Tannens – Back To The Future Series ( 1985 – 1990 )

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” Make like a tree and get out of here! “

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Nowhere is that more true than in the Back To The Future trilogy.

Back to The Future ( 1985 )

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To start, lets look at Biff Tannen: the definitive bully. He hits every single trope: he’s bigger than the protagonist, he’s a jock, he’s popular ( for no apparent reason ), he’s dumb, he extorts favors, he’s a rapist ( ! ), he’s a racist, and most of all, he’s a murderer ( at least in one timeline ) ! Tom Wilson puts in an underrated performance as Biff; he manages to be as funny as he is threatening, vacillating between being just obnoxious and being a physical threat.

Back to the Future 2 ( 1989 )

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He also portrays the settled nature of an older, more sinister Biff well in the second film. Rather than being a negligible schoolyard bully, he becomes a deeply corrupt sadist. This version of Biff is a Mr. Potter-esque figure who’s so evil that it permeates all of Hill Valley, turning it into a dystopia.

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Wilson’s performance as his great- grandson, inventively named “Griff”, is wonderfully uncanny. The implication is that he’s a cyborg, which comes through in his staccato movements and manic pitch. He’s a futuristic fantasy version of the schoolyard bully: Biff was a slow, Archie-style meathead while Griff is a robotic speedfreak.

Back to The Future 3 ( 1990 )

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The Tannen line stretches back to the Wild West, where Biff’s ancestor was a cowboy ( the closest thing to a bully in that backdrop ). Fittingly, Wilson based his performance on Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? ( 1962 ). Lee Marvin’s titular Liberty Valance begins the film by robbing an honest lawyer ( Jimmy Stewart ) and then beating him savagely just for talking back. Likewise, Buford Tannen has a massive sense of entitlement that makes him think something as minor as a $80 dispute is worth murder. Overall, this family shows that evil is sometimes in the blood.

2. Butch Deloria – Fallout 3 ( 2008 )

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” I could be out there and kicking butt in my own gang and everything. The Tunnel Snakes could ride again! Or, y’know, slither again. Whatever! “

Most media that depicts 1950’s American youth incorporates the gang subculture of ” Greasers “,  a primarily Italian and Hispanic social group associated with hot rods, leather jackets, and their titular greased hair.

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Given Fallout 3 1950’s influences, it was natural for them to draw upon this culture for the Lone Wanderer’s lifelong tormentor. We see this primarily through his design, but also through a deconstruction of the archetype. For example: his obsession with hair makes him want to be a barber, which a career assessment test refers to only as a ” hairdresser ” to his chagrin. Butch is generally characterized as a chump: when his room is infested with giant roaches, Butch enlists the Wanderer to save his mother because he’s terrified of them. You can also beat the shit out of him and his entire gang as a teenager. It’s funny to think that in a post-apocalyptic world where violence becomes a norm, the resident gang-banger is a a bit of a pussy.

In spite of ( and partially due to ) these aspects, i feel as if Butch is a pretty interesting character. As with Alan White, the character is marginalized from the insular vault community. His mother is a promiscuous alcoholic, which led him to be born not knowing his father. This is probably the cause of his asshole behavior. Once the character makes it to the wasteland, he becomes interested in expanding his vault gang, the Tunnel Snakes. Which consists of just him and the wanderer at that point. At least the jackets are pretty cool.

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So why is this guy such a big deal? Well honestly, he isn’t in the canon of the game; he’s statistically the worst partner you can have. His starting weapons are a switchblade ( being a gang-banger and all ) and a 10 mm handgun. Mind you, this is a game where powered armor exists. The only unique thing he offers the player is, I shit you not, free haircuts.

Despite his gameplay shortcomings, i always felt the character had great potential as a foil to the Lone Wanderer. Like the Wanderer, he’s a teenager from the vault without battle experience. He also has a missing dad as well. Whereas the wanderer wants to leave to find his Dad, Butch just wants freedom. If Fallout 3 was more character-driven, he’d probably be the most interesting guy in the game. One of the primary themes of the Fallout series is letting go of the past and looking to the future. That fits in perfectly with Butch and the archetype he draws from: in West Side Story ( 1961 ), the greaser hoods have all been marginalized into their paths by their race and economic backgrounds. Even Fonzie from Happy Days, a heroic greaser, was shown to have redeemed himself from a tragic urban back-story with a missing father and gang connections. Imagine a story that powerful, but with laser guns! And i’m not the only one who thinks the guy has potential; some players have even modded Fallout: New Vegas ( 2010 ) to include the overlooked Butch Deloria. Hopefully, the actual game creators could take note and include the guy in the future of the franchise.

1. Eugene ” Flash ” Thompson – Spider-Man ( 1962 – Present )

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Puny Parker!

In a heroic tale, antagonists elevate a protagonist into heroism. For superheroes, this is mostly accomplished by supervillains. Given that the Spider-Man franchise draws much of it’s appeal from how the fantastic affects the mundane, Peter Parker also got a high school bully. As you can tell from the panel, the initial conflict in their first appearance ( Amazing Fantasy #15 1962 ) was pretty standard: Thompson was a popular and attractive jock and Peter was an unpopular and unattractive bookworm. While now a cliche, it’s important to remember that there weren’t as many bully / nerd stories then, which makes the conflict more specific. Despite being a smart dude, Peter does lack several heroic qualities. In the mundane high school world, the primary qualities he’s lacking are humor, confidence, and sexual charisma.

The Amazing Spider-Man #2 ( 1963 )

Umm...yea. Great comeback.

Umm…yea. Great comeback.

This is something most modern media don’t get about these archetypes: while audiences are often either “nerds” themselves or sympathize with nerds, that doesn’t mean nerdy characters are inherently admirable. This is a problem in media such as The Hard Times of RJ Berger, The Big Bang Theory, and the aforementioned Drillbit Taylor that create one-note nerds who never grow into compelling heroes. In contrast, once Peter Parker’s dangerous and thrilling lifestyle as Spider-Man allows him revisit his conflict with Flash from a competitive position. Peter is able to return Flash’s insults, fluster him with his bravado, and get his girl to make eyes at him.

The Amazing Spider-Man #13 ( 1964 )

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The conflict between the two isn’t always the same in every iteration; several versions portray their relationship more violently. While Flash does threaten Peter, their relationship almost never incorporated violence in the original series. Both Spider-Man film series turn Flash into a psychopath who would beat Peter’s face in for sneezing on him. This of course sets up the inevitable fight where Peter beats his ass and we all cheer. Stan Lee, rather than going for immediate gratification, builds a relationship between the two that remains playfully combative through clever wordplay and one-upmanship. While not witty, Flash’s combination of machismo, deluded confidence, and goofy Steve Ditko-drawn mugging makes him pretty funny.

The Amazing Spider-Man #25 ( 1965 )

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Granted, they have a formal boxing match at one point that turns out exactly as you think it would.

The Amazing Spider-Man #8

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Slowly, Flash begins to realize that Peter is more admirable than he originally thought.

The Amazing Spider-Man #39 ( 1966 )

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Flash himself became more admirable as well; his obsession with Spidey makes him want to be a hero himself. He later joins the military, loses his legs, becomes an alcoholic, and gains the Venom symbiote. Comics are weird. In a totally not gay way, Flash is sort of like Lois Lane, given his Peter-hate-that-turns-into-respect and admiration of Spidey. A combative yet not-overly-malicious teenager relationship is a hard thing for modern writers to do, which makes all the more impressive how well Stan Lee handles it. Flash challenged Peter, but as a shortsighted rival and not as a sadistic thug. Likewise, rather than backing down or becoming violent, Peter finds the inner strengths he’s always had to measure up. Their mutual growth embodies the constant progression of The Amazing Spider-Man series throughout the decades.

So what have we learned from these characters? Bullying is wrong…except when part of a well crafted story.

To read some more of my pop-culture lists:

10 Underrated Movie Characters That Fans Really Hate

10 Cover Gimmicks That Cheapened Great Characters

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Comic Characters

8 Most Iconic Slasher Movie Death Scenes

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains

The Lois Lane Effect

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That’s why Lois Lane is so perfect for him. She’s the perfect blend of firebrand, intelligent opponent and total doormat. And she’s hot.– Lois Lane as defined by “Jimmy Olsen”

Writing is hard. One of the hardest aspects of writing is evoking drama in a made-up story. Who really gives a shit if Mark Hamill has to sit in a fake plane in order to make a toy ball explode? This is where emotion comes into play: if the audience can relate to a conflict, even if it is contrived, they will be invested in that toy ball exploding. And of course, the easiest way to go about doing this is to shove into plots the greatest of all contrived conflicts: the quest for sweet, sweet nookie.

Fred Durst approves

Fred Durst approves

As i mentioned in another post of mine, modern Romantic fiction (and not just guy meets girl stories) was codified during the Middle Ages of Europe, with much of the coda coming from the Chivalric code. A man fights through everything from other men to Hell itself in order to prove himself worthy of his lady. It was supposedly as true for real life knights as it was for Lancelot himself. As such, this basic tenet of manliness passed on till modern times, where pretty much any “real man” in fiction has to kick ass and get laid (in either order). This sequence is especially important in the superhero genre.

           Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

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The golden standard for superhero love interests is Superman’s longtime girlfriend Lois Lane. Debuting in the very first issue of Action Comics, (where Superman first appeared) Lois is as old as the hero himself. Given that these were stories meant for children, their relationship was no more complex than ” Clark wants Lois. Lois wants Superman. Conflict. Ironically, she was actually more progressive than the characters she inspired in her Golden Age 1930’s-40’s appearances, being assertive and only occasionally used for “save the girl” plots.

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The Fleischer Superman cartoons even had her fighting in World War 2 as a covert agent.

And the ” Baddest Bitch ” award goes to…

This characterization ceased during the “Get Back In The Kitchen!” 50’s and the rise of the Comics Code Authority, which literally had doctrines such as “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage“. This led to the Lois Lane who became a bane upon Superman and comics and general. She was reduced to an annoying hanger-on who’s only concern was marrying Superman.

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The biggest loss for the franchise was that she ceased to even have a reason to be around anymore. Golden Age Lois served as a challenge for Clark since he had to win her over without being Superman. She was a badass character in her own right which justified her astronomical standards. Reducing her to a satellite love interest nullified that romantic conflict and replaced it with a series of ” zany ” marriage schemes. You’d think she needed a green card or something. What was even worse is that as she became more arbitrary, her prevalence in media increased, to the point where she got a whole series dedicated to her desire to bone Superman.

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Lois was never good with linear reasoning

Batman #157 (August 1963)

Vicki Vale CompetitionGiven that Superman is the quintessential superhero, several other franchises had a Lois Lane equivalent just to keep up with the Joneses. Batman had Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger in the film) who was a reporter who wrote about Batman, intending to find out his identity and bone him (in either order). Oh, and she didn’t like Bruce Wayne that much. Sounds familiar? Barry Allen aka The Flash got his own model in Iris West, yet another “intrepid reporter” who couldn’t figure out his secret identity until they were already married. “Intrepid” must be old timey slang for “idiot”.

Marvel Comics dealt with this trope better in the 60’s, but still with a few Lois Lane influences. Before the arrival of plot tumor Mary Jane, Peter Parker started off with Betty Brant, who was sort of like a deconstruction of 50’s Lois Lane. She was also clingy and jealous, but instead of being played entirely for laughs, it was actually a serious relationship problem which caused him quite some grief.

The Amazing Spider-Man #15 (August 1964)

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He then went on to court Gwen Stacy, who began as actually quite vain, being interested in Peter literally because he had the nerve to not try boning her.

The Amazing Spider-Man #31 ( December 1965 )

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Once their relationship became settled, however, she started to become yet another satellite love interest. So much so that Marvel editors thought the most interesting thing they could do with the character is kill her off.

      Journey Into Mystery

Nurse Jane Foster Dreaming of Thor

Marvel’s other flagship hero, Thor, had a love interest in Jane Foster (who was carried over into the films but more on that later) back in his ” secret identity ” days. A doctor’s assistant in his mortal form’s (Donald Blake) practice, Foster and Blake were mutually attracted, but he thought she only pitied him due to his handicap (he couldn’t walk without a cane). This was exacerbated by the fact that she was (you guessed it) also attracted to Thor, but they couldn’t consummate due to Odin’s plot-drama doctrine of “don’t let mortals know about your secret identity”. To be fair, this dynamic was interesting at times because it injected a bit of classical myth: human/god coupling is an issue in almost every religion. Nevertheless, it was dropped once Thor stopped being a part-time human all-together and rationally decided to have sex with hot god babes instead.

Following suit with Thor, most superhero franchises drifted away from the generic love interest formula moving into the next few decades. Dimensions were added to pre-existing and new love interests. Many became (with varying levels of quality) “tougher” to compensate for previous portrayals. Lois Lane, the progenitor herself, was one of the first to get her metaphorical balls back.

                                                      Man of Steel

Maybe a little too much balls...

Or maybe her literal balls…

Some ladies went the Jane Foster route and were just phased out of focus; Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s first love Carol Ferris became more important for becoming a hero/villain (it’s complicated) in her own right. Their love affair became just one of many flings for the bachelor hero. On the darker side of the spectrum, some were used as macabre drama fodder, such the aforementioned death of Gwen Stacy. Comic writer Gail Simone dubbed this trope “Women In Refrigerators“, referencing a controversial Green Lantern story where the hero’s girlfriend was brutally murdered and…well you could probably guess…

Green Lantern #54 (1994)

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“WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!?”

Obviously a fucked up trope it is in it’s own right, many writers consider this equally terrible (if not worse) as just having a living shallow love interest.

For the most part, the role of superhero girlfriend had a decent reinvention in mainstream comics. The days where love interests bogged down superhero tales were going away…until fucking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

Keep in mind this is the official poster

Keep in mind this was the official poster

What Richard Donner’s Superman films were in the 70’s, Spider-Man was to the current generation. It reinvigorated the comic film and also set the stage for how these films will be adapted. This included how love interests would be integrated. And boy was it an awful model for it, since Mary Jane pretty much eclipses EVERYTHING in the film series. The film’s events unfold as such:

1. Peter takes a picture of MJ and gets bitten while he’s distracted

2. Peter becomes a wrestler with his new powers because he wants to buy a car to impress MJ (leading to his life-defining negligence)

3. Peter incorporates red into his costume because it’s her hair color (fuck patriotism, I guess)

4. Peter’s relationship with Harry is strained due to a love triangle with MJ

5. Norman Osborn goes on a homicidal rampage because Peter hooked up with MJ

And that’s not counting all of the damsel-in-distress nonsense. Fuck Norman Osborn; SHE’S clearly the antagonist of the film. The second film takes this even further by beginning with Peter’s voice over stating that ” She looks at me everyday. Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy! If she only knew how I felt about her “. The film basically establishes it’s premise as ” It’s all about MJ! “. Forget nuclear armageddon guys; how’s Petey going to go to MJ’s play? Is MJ going to marry that astronaut guy who we’ve never seen before? Pressing issues indeed.

While i wouldn’t say that these films necessarily caused an insistence on superhero love interests, it wouldn’t be too wild to assume that film producers, always eager to emulate the success of hit movies, saw this as an affirmation of the Lois Lane formula. This meant that every hero who had some canonical squeeze had a love story shoehorned into his film.

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

As mentioned before, Thor and Jane Foster’s coupling was an artifact of his secret identity days when his human persona already had a longstanding relationship with her. Yet, she’s placed in the film (albeit with a different job) as the woman he falls in love with in about three days.  Once again: Asgard. Hot god babes. C’mon.

Ditto

Seriously guys?

For the Iron Man films, they took Pepper Potts who he only occasionally fucks when he’s not fucking super-models or super-heroes or anything with a hole in it, and turned her a convenient satellite love interest. In contrast, in the comics she eventually married Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau’s character) until he died, so it wasn’t even like her and Tony had that serious of a relationship. And as for Nolan’s Batman films, I had no issues with the character of Rachel Dawes (who was a pretty good moral compass)…buuut then he forced in a last minute hookup with Selina Kyle that was as plausible as the end of John Hughes’ Career Opportunities (and no, I don’t expect you to get that reference).

Good thing he isn't world-famous or anything...

Good thing he isn’t world-famous or anything…

As much as i’ve grown to be wary of love interests in comics, i’d be bereft to call them necessarily a bad thing. As i mentioned in the beginning, this trope’s defining nature is its relatability. Love is the most ubiquitious real-life concern; it’s something most people want and desire. And not everyone is necessarily smart about it. People do get obsessed with relationships and often put aside other important things in order to focus on them. And in the hands of a good writer, a love story can elevate a hero. With that being said, it’s a trope that needs moderation. If there’s a narrative point in a relationship, so be it, but it shouldn’t be a necessity for every hero. Those unfortunate stories with Lois Lane were made during a time when the country was trying to avoid certain truths. No one wanted to admit women could be independent. No one wanted to admit marriage wasn’t as great as we all believed. To some extent, we’re still thinking that way. But things are changing. And as we change, our heroes (and heroines) should too.

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For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bat In The Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

For more posts on Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As A Classic Anti-Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

For more posts on Romance in fiction:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: The Implication Of Romance In Hollywood

Don Jon Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

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Thor is the Dos Equis guy of Marvel. Whereas Peter Parker cries about dead uncles and Tony Stark can’t put down that bottle of Jack Daniels, Thor fights rock giants and beds valkyries with a grin on his face and sledge in his hand. He’s omnipotent. He’s noble. He’s boring as shit. One of the reasons it took soooo long for Marvel to even create a film about one of it’s most significant characters was because he’s extremely difficult to adapt into a compelling protagonist. With that in mind, i saw the first Thor ( 2011 ) with apprehension and came out…neutrally. It’s about as good of an adaptation as one could do, but it’s not a good film in its own right. As mentioned, Thor was severely lags behind his Avengers kin in terms of character in the film. In addition, a large portion of the film ( by necessity i understand ) happens on Earth for the sole purpose of:

a) connecting the franchise with the awkwardly integrated S.H.I.E.L.D.

b ) connecting him with humanity despite the fact that it was established IN THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM that the Asgardians had already interacted with humans several times in the past

c ) forcing a relationship with all the chemistry of peanut butter and salami

With that being said, i thought it was well cast, which allowed for fairly boring characters to be interesting ( especially Loki ). In addition, i’ve grown to appreciate the artistic direction of the series in regards to its Asgard ( which i’ll touch upon later ). But enough about the first film, what do i think about it’s illustrious sequel?

Honestly? It’s better. Still not good, but better. And not for necessarily the best reasons.

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The plot: After the events of the first film, Thor has been busy maintaining order in the ( poorly defined ) nine realms of the universe. Back on Midgard / Earth, Padme and that busty CBS waitress happen to find a rip in the fabric of reality ( which happens sometimes ). It turns out that one of these rips leads to a macguffin known as “dark aether” which was previously a plot point in an ancient war between the Asgardians and the oddly-technologically-advanced Dark Elves, who want to use it to spread the daaaahkness across the realms.

The Dark Elves

The Dark Elves

One of the biggest problems i had with the first film was it’s scenes on Earth and this one more than makes up for it. The majority of the film takes place on Asgard and occasionally the titular dark world. As such, we get the sheer scope of the world of Thor. This is helped by another narrated “historical lecture” by Anthony Hopkins as Odin in the beginning. Though he’s clearly a little checked out in this film, Hopkins as always manages to get across the gravitas that a film featuring Norse myth should have. Speaking of which, one of the most under-appreciated aspects of these films is the art direction. And i don’t mean flashy Hollywood CGI ( which is still good, i’ll admit ) , i mean the actual aesthetic choices. The film furthers a sort of “magitech” feeling for the Asgardians and their technology. When Loki is imprisoned, his force field cell looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in Star Trek if it weren’t for those stock “fantasy runes”. Choices like this keeps Asgard from feeling like a generic Dungeons and Dragons locale and also makes it fit in a world where Iron Men and Heli-carriers abound. The villainous Dark Elves take this even further by using weapons straight out of Halo such as energy rifles and grenades. Overall, like the last film, The Dark World has a very strong aesthetic goal and concept that makes for compelling visuals…

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…which doesn’t do much for uncompelling plot. Thor: The Dark World suffers from the same condition as Iron Man 2 ( 2010 ) by being an uninspired franchise sequel. By the end of Thor, Thor goes from being a cocky guy who cares little for his enemies to being a cocky guy who cares a little for his enemies. That’s it. That’s the only psychology you could milk out of that asshole. As hard as it is to believe, there’s LESS characterization in this film. The only driving aspect of the character is, of course, his arbitrary love for Jane Foster ( Natalie Portman ).Once they’re reunited, that becomes the only thing we get out of the guy emotionally. Even when a MUCH more terrible event occurs during the film, he barely has emotional reaction. This is why Thor is such a god-awful film protagonist: no matter how charismatic Hemsworth is, he can’t make up for a character with absolutely no pathos. There’s nothing for him to grow into at this point, his narrative journey ended in the first film. This makes the scenes on Earth more painful than they were in the first film, since they literally have no bearing on anything. Ironically, the film’s choice to use Earth comedically actually undercuts most of the point of the first film. The first scene with Jane Foster shows her on a date with the affable Chris O’Dowd ( Bridesmaids ) who looking like this…

Chris O'Dowd At Jameson Done In 60 Seconds Media Day

…pales in comparison the dreamy Thor. During the scene, Darcy ( Kat Dennings ) shows up and basically cuts the poor sod off, while Jane purposely ignores him, which is funny because…it’s actually not that funny. It underscores the biggest problem with this film and the challenge of Thor as a superhero. Once all of the “character development” of Thor was finished, humans became punchlines to the film’s jokes. “Look at this limey loser! He ain’t shit compared to Asgardians!”. Even Jane ends up being portrayed as more of a commoner during her brief stay on Asgard, where she can barely has any screen presence when compared to her godly costars. So with all that in mind: how do you then justify Thor’s interest in Earth? Asgardians and whatever the fuck Hogun is are essentially humans but better. Why the fuck was it important for him to be a hero on Earth? The film seems to forget it has to even establish that reasoning. This lack of motivation stretches an already stretched-thin excuse plot.

Speaking of plot, it’s actually the opposite of Iron Man 2 in terms of complexity. Which is a bad thing. Obviously, no one really cared about writing a good story for Iron Man 2. So instead, they have a quick plot that needs little explanation AND could be conveniently wrapped up succinctly. The Dark World takes a fairly uninteresting macguffin plot and actually makes it hard to understand through a whole shit load of plot elements. This is where the ” magitech” elements work against the film, since we’re given obscure technobabble for almost every aspect of the climax. I dare any viewer to honestly tell me how exactly Thor defeats the Elves by the end. In terms of subplot, the only one of note is the hinted at Jane / Sif rivalry. I’ll just tell ya, it’s not that big of a deal. See it for yourself and you’ll probably agree.

One of the most criminal sins for the more passive viewer is the fact that, once again, Thor barely fights. I get it, i really do. Thor is a god. Because of this, showing him in combat often would kind of diminish the majesty of his might. This is the reason why this is one of the few elements that didn’t bother me. As i said, Thor just ain’t interesting. There’s no way for him to lose and he has no personal struggles to overcome. This film manages to spend just enough time away from Thor in order to actually be somewhat compelling. We get more screen time with his mother Frigga ( Rene Russo ) who has some tense moments. As per fan-girl request ( literally ), we get plenty of Loki as well. While it’s obvious he’s a bit tacked on to the plot, i’ll admit Hiddleston plays his role well as usual as Thor’s untrustworthy sidekick. Personally, i think the time could have been better spent with supporting characters Thor actually LIKES like, i don’t know, the four fucking badass warriors who would follow him to death. But as a non-fifteen year old white girl, i am clearly not part of Thor’s fanbase.

Thor: The Dark World film still

Final Verdict

This film is the lowest form of ‘ok’ to me. The first act is impressive and really ties you into the Norse mythos the film creates. The best parts for me were when they didn’t focus on Thor or Jane and instead had us soaring around this world. The actors make due with what they got, but it ain’t much. Not to mention the plot is almost pointless. See this film if you liked the first one, appreciate the talents of the cast, or have the money for IMAX 3D. Don’t see this film if you didn’t like the first, actually want character development, or want an interesting story.

For more posts on Marvel heroes:

Iron Man 3 Review

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man Tackles The Torch: Spider-Man as a Classic Anti-Hero

The Lois Lane Effect

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 2: Positive Discrimination

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See, it’s not enough for the new black kid on the team to be just as competent as everyone else on the team, oh no. He has to be Super Negro and beat the snot out of everybody else in the entire gymnastics world“— The Agony Booth‘s recap of the Mister T episode “Mystery of the Golden Medallion”.

To read the first part of the series,”Cornball Brothers”, go here  . For the third part, “Noble Savages”, go here

Post-Civil Rights Movement, many writers realized that African Americans were given a pretty bad shake when it came to cultural depictions. They were at best benign pets and at worst, savages. As such, many tried to rewrite the image of blacks in the media through “ positive discrimination ”. Whites (particularly heterosexual male WASPs) are independent entities in the minds of most Americans. The default audience is white, therefore whiteness has become the “non-race” of America. Race was only pondered when whites came upon others who were not them. This is why many misguided youths often want to appropriate culture from other races in order to be part of a “cause” so they can feel distinguished in some way (a phenomenon dating back to the first ” hipsters ” during the rise of jazz). Because whites have no “culture”, their flaws are viewed as individual and not representative of a whole. In contrast, other races appear homogeneous (hence stereotypes). Therefore, if a minority is portrayed as having ANY flaw, this becomes a commentary on minorities in general.

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This issue vacillates heavily: The Cosby Show was accused of portraying an “unrealistic” African American family because they were upper middle class, nuclear (mother, father, daughter, son), and college-educated. On the other hand, shows like House of Payne are often thought of as going too far in the other direction by over-representing African American cultural tropes such as being loud and boisterous. It’s much easier to deal with singular blacks in terms of narrative; and since this is still a man’s world, these singular blacks will more than likely be men. On the other hand, we’re still dealing with mainstream (i.e. white) media, so that singular black is more than likely going to be surrounded by plural whites. As such, it’s hard for the black guy to not be discriminated against, even tacitly. And here’s where positive discrimination comes in: what if the one black guy is actually BETTER than his peers? What if he’s stronger, smarter, and more noble than they can ever hope to be? This satiates the audience’s desire for “diversity” and “acceptance”. As with many narrative tropes, there are several problems with this narrative device.

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Probably the first consistently positive black male actor in America was Sidney Poitier, an academy award winner who was most prominent from the mid 40’s till the late 60’s. As a character actor: Sidney was typecast as intelligent, authoritative, and all-around awesome professionals. In The Heat of The Night ( 1967 ), he played a high ranking police officer who goes to the district of a racist slob of a sheriff. In All The Young Men , he played a hyper-competent Sergeant to a bunch of idiot white privates. If you’re in a film with him, he’s better than you. Given the romance of Poitier, it was inevitable he would end up in a film that centered on a romantic conflict.

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In one of his most famous films, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), Poiter drops by the home of Spencer Tracy as his daughter’s fiancée. She of course neglects to tell her father about his chronic skin condition, which he doesn’t take well. Now let’s be honest; in real life this situation statistically would have had an African American of average means, average looks, and average averageness. But since this is SIDNEY FUCKING POITIER, he’s an Ivy League educated physician. Spencer Tracy is portrayed as having a huge crisis over their engagement because of his blackness, completely ignoring that he’s significantly  more successful than most white men. Hell, the couple don’t even seem to have sex (neither of them seems to care that they sleep in separate rooms during their visit), implying that he’s even chaste enough to wait for marriage. Tracy’s turmoil is portrayed sympathetically, as most whites at the time would have been taken aback at the notion of interracial marriage. Sidney’s obvious superiority, however, has a very unfortunate implication. Most Romance films focus on protagonists with flaws that obstruct a relationship. In the film She’s Out Of My League (2010), 50% of the main cast (the dorky Jay Baruchel) is vastly outclassed in every conceivable way by the other 50% (the luscious Alice Eve).

I mean…goddamn

It’s not just looks either: he doesn’t have advanced education, is the butt of his friends’ jokes, and has no career trajectory. Despite being so lacking, Jay is still accepted by Alice throughout most of the film, which he eventually accepts as true love. The general idea is that when someone loves you, you have objective value. By extension, Romantic film affirms the value of the audience, since most people have felt like they were in love, and most people would like to be objectively valuable no matter how unattractive or batshit crazy they are.

Positive discrimination subverts that idea, as we see in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Poitier’s fiance loves him, but he’s such a paragon of manhood that we never feel it’s because of who he is as a person. In any other romantic film, he’d be a better fit as a romantic rival given his awesomeness. Spencer Tracy’s character being suspect of someone arguably more successful than himself is laughable. As such, it’s difficult for an average man (black or white) to relate to Poitier’s character. This points to the larger issue of many of his roles (and Hollywood in general): Sidney Poitier was more of a “model minority” than a foil for the audience. This happens even today: if not funny/thuggish/poor, a black actor pretty much has to be infallible (Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, etc). For fear of racial backlash, creators feel that a black man in fiction has to be AMAZING in order to be a respectable character.

One of the most common instances of this occurs in modern mainstream superhero comics, where token black characters are often even more heroic than other heroes.

Backstory of Mr. Terrific

Backstory of DC superhero Mr. Terrific

In the series Reign of the Supermen (1993), four super-powered dudes attempt to become the protector of Metropolis after the death of Superman (he got better). Most of them fail to live up to the legacy: one of them is a kryptonian clone who nukes muggers, two of them attempt to actively subvert the legacy of Superman in order to boost their own cred, and one is a cyborg (inventively named “Cyborg Superman”) who ends up becoming a mass murderer.

3364126-steel Of course, the only one who is heroic happens to be John Henry Irons aka “Man of Steel” – which was later shortened to just “Steel” (yes, that Steel) – an African American engineer who builds a suit that allows him to be a Superman stand-in ( albeit at a drastically lower level ). Despite being the only human in the bunch, Steel is not only capable, he’s arguably more heroic than Superman himself. After being orphaned at a young age, Irons realizes that (according to his origin story)  the only way to protect his family was to become rich and powerful “. Well obviously. So he got into Yale on a football scholarship where he studied engineering, got money, and started developing weapons for the government. He then uses his money and resources to become a hero.

This character’s primary trait is his perfection: he’s a self made genius millionaire athlete superhero who takes up the mantle of SUPERMAN, yet is humble, pacifistic, and always deferential. And he’s boring as shit. Few writers delve into how ANY of these elements affect the character’s personality. Does he have a chip on his shoulder due to having to struggle so much? Is he cocksure due to his vastly superior abilities? Does he date/have sex? How does he feel about violence? Mind you, this is a character who debuted in the nineties, where every hero who wasn’t comically intense was at least fleshed out a bit more than before. Like Steel, Iron Man is an industrialist who’s inability to control his products led to the series Armor Wars (1987-1988) where he became paranoid about who was using his weapons. Like Steel, Batman lost his parents and had to forge himself at a young age, which is heavily implied to have given him a very abnormal mental state, which we see in series such as Arkham Asylum (1989). I’m not saying Steel should mimic these heroes, but I do think the lack of equivalent character exploration is suspect. Steel has no more depth than a superhero version of the ” Successful Black Man ” meme. Characters such as Black Lightning, Black Panther, and Luke Cage similarly tend to be written shallowly. Even black villains aren’t immune to this.

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The Thor villains dubbed the “ Wrecking Crew ” consist of a bunch of working-class hoods who accidentally got empowered by an Asgardian goddess. All of them are white except Eliot Franklin aka ” Thunderball ” who’s a fucking physicist who invented a gamma bomb superior to Bruce Banner’s. He’s only in the crew because he committed robberies to fund his experiments, which landed him in jail with the rest of the team (because it’s not like anyone would PAY a genius level nuclear physicist for R&D). And of course, he’s the only character who considers it blasphemous to attack Thor’s homeland of Asgard, so he’s even the most moral of the thieves. Not only is the juxtaposition of a genius level physicist street thug extremely silly (even by comic book standards), it’s not even at least handled sincerely. Thunderball never parlays his genius into becoming a more effective villain, at best he attempts to overthrow his boss in order to become leader of a shitty gang. He only serves as a token and as a “testament” to the writers’ lack of racism. As with Steel, the desire to make a non-offensive character eclipses actually making a good character.

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While seemingly innocent, positive discrimination is often caused by discomfort with race rather than acceptance of it. Political correctness requires people to ignore race, to ignore people in favor of a two dimensional image that “equalizes” us. True diversity requires a recognition of humanity not avoidance of it. In the play/film A Raisin In The Sun ( 1961 ), protagonist Walter Younger ( ironically, played by Sidney Poitier ), is the patriarch of a black family living in the impoverished south side of Chicago. Unlike Poitier’s other roles, Walter is a established early as a schlub: his introduction parallels his difficulties getting out of bed with that of his son’s, equating him with a pre-pubescent child.

African-American men’s ” arrested development ” is a commonly touched upon topic socially, but rarely in media (at least not explicitly and especially not in regard to fathers). Here we see a man who’s immediately painted as being not much more mature than his own son: he hides his inadequacies through misogynist remarks, he constantly obsesses over his own success over others’, and he avoid responsibility whenever possible. He’s several black male stereotypes given form.

Many writers would have dismissed the character as a two-dimensional asshole. For example, it’s tragically common in Tyler Perry films that black men who are flawed are portrayed as unsympathetically as possible. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009), Taraji P. Henson’s boyfriend is so laughably evil that in his first appearance he lobs racial slurs at a guest, threatens small children, and even implies raping one of said small children.

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This is all in his FIRST SCENE, by the way

Rather than making Walter a one-note stereotype, the film establishes sympathy for him by expanding on what made him who he is. His mother Lena (to the left in the picture) describes a father who passed on his own unattainable dreams to his son Walter, who had no more resources than his father. Walter’s so poor that he can’t afford to give his son $8 for school, signalling a continuation of poverty for his son as well. As such, Walter’s obsessed with using his dead father’s will money to open a liquor store, which would give him the fiscal autonomy he or his father never had. His mother objects to this immediately. Walter continues to perform several selfish acts throughout the film, including using the money to fund a liquor store anyway, only to be robbed by his supposed partner.

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What makes Walter such a great character is that he’s pathetically human. He embodies several of the challenges black men (and men in general) face even today. As such, his personal journey throughout the film is compelling. His triumph over his own compulsions at the end is impressive due to his weaknesses: when offered enough money to recoup his losses from a white man who wants he and his family to not move into his neighborhood, he considers then rejects his offer for the sake of his family.

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The film’s realism doesn’t presuppose the family or Walter go on to success, what it gives us at the end is a man willing to try to do what’s best. Walter isn’t perfect, and the film wants us to sympathize with him anyway. The film acknowledges some of the hard truths of black manhood while at the same time making a nuanced character, something several black directors (*cough*Tyler Perry*cough*)  have either avoided or failed at. Race will always continue to exist no matter how many writers try to ignore it. Rather than attempting to whitewash the notion, I believe it’s more important to recognize it, or at least not be afraid of invoking it.

For more thoughts on African American race relations:

Slave Ownership as Seen In Roots

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie