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

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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.

 

 

Three Forms Of Comedy In Justice League

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In a way, comedy is the art form of the masses. Most people can’t play the cello or perform ballet, but almost everyone can make someone laugh ( hopefully, not during sex ). Not everyone knows why people laugh, however. There are a legion of theories on comedy dating back to Ancient Greece, but for the sake of argument, i’m going to narrow it down to just narrative comedy. Let’s say there are three forms of comedic plots that come out of mainstream media: situational, character-based, and farcical.

To compare and contrast these three forms, i’ll use the animated series Justice League Unlimited as a base. For some background: Justice League Unlimited was a series that ran on Cartoon Network from 2004-2006. It was the culmination of the extensive DC Comics animated universe created by character designer Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and writer / producer Dwayne McDuffie. Why this series? Because it’s fucking awesome! More importantly, while listening to the DVD commentary for one of the episodes ( yes, people do that sometimes ) i was intrigued by an offhand remark by series lead artist Bruce Timm who noted that, unintentionally, they released three episodes that almost perfectly fit the three forms of comedy around the same time. This is especially funny since JLU is definitely NOT a comedy series ( at least most of the time ). I decided to re-watch those episodes to examine that claim…

1. Situational

I’m pretty sure most of you have heard of the film pitch of “X meets Y“. This is reflective of the “dartboard” approach to screenwriting, where writers literally just combine random ideas in order to create a concept. When done poorly, the results are awful. For example: ” Urban black culture meets Sci-Fi “.

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When done well, it can create hilarious spins on familiar stories. Much of the comedy from Shaun of The Dead ( 2004 ) derives from the fact that the main characters seem to be right out of a lighthearted romance film…yet they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Hilarity ensues. The film Analyze This ( 1999 ) revolves around a psychiatrist’s relationship with his new patient…who just so happens to be a mob boss. Hilarity ensues.

The central idea  of situational comedy is “humor derived from incongruity” ( and yes, i just made that up ). When things don’t quite match up, they can be funny. The most common form of this is “fish out of water” plots which put easily identifiable character-types in situations they shouldn’t be in. Situational comedy leans mostly on dialogue and chemistry, since the disconnect has to be established by characters interactions. For example the series Frasier builds a lot of its humor from the snobby Crane brothers interacting with their working class father and friends. The biggest threat to this concept is if the initial premise becomes the only joke that can be made. One of the most maligned examples of this trope is “white guy / black guy” films where all of the humor can be summed up quite quickly…

In short, a good situational comedy BUILDS off its incongruity.

The Episode – Kid Stuff ( August 11 2004 )

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The Premise – Mordred, punk-ass son of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend, obtains a macguffin known as the “Amulet of First Magic”. The amulet gives Mordred ultimate power, which he uses to get back at his mother and all adults of the world ( which includes the Justice League ) by banishing them into some kind of limbo dimension. Morgan Le Fay, seeking to undo her son’s spell, finds a way to counteract the magic…by turning the League into little lads and lasses! ( i’m sorry )

How does it work? – Interestingly enough, most of the plot is played fairly straight. The situation is portrayed as fairly dire: the entire adult population is stuck in limbo for eternity and their children are left to fend for themselves. Even the heroes themselves attempt to play it straight. I say ‘attempt’ because once they’ve been reduced to ten-year-olds, they fall victim to the realities of how a ten-year-old would act in this situation.

Each character trait of the heroes is modified to a ten-year-old’s sensibility. Green Lantern’s militancy turns into dorkiness. Superman’s nobility turns into farm boy naivete. Wonder Woman’s confidence turns into flirtatiousness. Batman’s grimness turns into smartassness. What’s great about this characterization is that it saves the episode from going to the obvious “spinoff babies” direction by not having all jokes revolve around one note “aww that’s cute” humor. For example, for awhile in the series Wonder Woman has been implied to have an “interest” in Batman, which he seems to ignore because he must be the gayest man in the universe. This comes up in one scene when the heroes decides to pick teams to fight Mordred:

What makes this situation funny is that they’re STILL acting in-character, it’s just that their characters are being viewed through an exaggerated lens. Wonder Woman flirts more openly than usual, Bats is more dismissive than usual, and Supes is more oblivious than usual. Even Lantern’s jokes manages to fit in-story since he alludes to becoming more corny at the beginning of the episode. The plot of Kid Stuff manages to take a humorous AND canonical look at each character’s personality through their childhood selves.

2. Character

Some people are just naturally funny ( *cough* like me *cough* ). These guys are able to enter a room and have everyone laughing without much setup. People like these are producers’ wet dreams, because it means they can bank on a film or television project just by finding these guys. More often than not, character-based comedy draws from comedians, since they can carry shows single-handedly. The 90’s had a whole slew of these types of comedies; Martin, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, just to name a few. Often times, the character ( or characters ) is someone who is outlandish in his or her own right. A perfect film example is the The Nutty Professor ( 1963 ).

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See? I don’t even have to explain to you why that character would elicit laughter. Character comedy doesn’t ALWAYS have to be outlandish to work; characters can just be humorous in a believable way. The protagonists of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia manage to be both despicable, yet relatable. Their flaws are all based in reality: Dennis is a narcissistic guy who peaked in college, Dee is an entitled loser who has delusions of grandeur, Charlie is a slovenly pauper who’s struggled his whole life, Mac is an insecure conservative oblivious to his own hypocrisy, and Frank is Danny Devito. Good character comedy produces likable protagonists that keep us engaged. Bad character comedy creates protagonists who are so removed from reality that it’s difficult to connect with them ( a common criticism of Monk and the aforementioned Martin ).

The episode-The Greatest Story Never Told ( September 11 2004 )

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The premise – Rookie Leaguer Booster Gold is called to join in an epic conflict with the universe’s most powerful wizard…as crowd control. However, during the conflict he uncovers an equally important catastrophe, which he takes on since he’s the only unattended Leaguer. And also because he’s trying to get laid.

How does it work? – First, i’ll explain the origin of Booster Gold to you non-nerds: Michael Jon Carter was a failed football star who became a janitor in the far off future. While working at a superhero museum, he had the brilliant idea to steal several pieces of high end technology ( including a living computer named Skeets who became his sidekick ) and take a one-way trip to the current time in order to become a famous superhero so he can become rich and famous.

That by itself is a hilarious set-up for jokes. It’s like if Criss Angel was a real-life Angel who became a magician to get a free hotel room. Much of the humor of this episode comes from Booster’s superficiality: at one point he gives advice to Martian Manhunter on how he should get himself a catchier name ( which is a solid point ). When the Manhunter tries to get him to realize that being a superhero is about more than just fame, Booster agrees and asks ” How much do you pull in a year, after taxes? “. Now arguably, this is somewhat of a situational plot as well: Booster’s self-serving nature is incongruous in a world of superHEROes who should be the opposite. However, most of the episode focuses on him alone, negating many comparisons with the other Leaguers. Instead, we get a lot of jokes about how much of a loser he is. In addition, there’s great voice acting from actor Tom Everett Scott ( Dead Man On CampusBoiler Room ) as Booster and veteran voice actor Billy West ( STIMPY! ) as Skeets:

3. Farcical

Now, i know some of you have been reading and thinking” Fuck you Rob; comedy isn’t about structure! Comedy is just doing funny things!” First off, don’t curse so much. Second of all, you have a point. Some stories eschew specific plots and characters in favor of “free-form” comedy. This is where we get to ‘farce”, which means “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations”. As you can imagine, farce is easy to do for comedy, because all it requires is something that’s momentarily funny. The issue is the “momentarily” part. Remember when “THIS IS SPARTA!” jokes were funny? Imagine an ENTIRE film based around that?

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Exactly

Farce is probably the easiest form of comedy to fuck up because it requires a body of individual bits of humor to support it. This requires an extensive grasp of “quick comedy” ( one liners, slapstick, etc ). I think this is why older works tended to grasp this comedic form better ( The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Airplane! ) since they had their roots in silly vaudeville acts. The best modern day examples would probably be shows like Family Guy and Adventure Time, which have almost no grip on reality. As with any form of comedy, works don’t have to be ENTIRELY farcical, farce can still exist in degrees. For example, Seinfeld was mostly character and situationally driven, but occasionally incorporated outlandish elements such as the famous “Bubble Boy” who had a heated rivalry with George Costanza.

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One of the best ways to incorporate farce is as a “narrative crescendo”. One of the best examples is the film Tropic Thunder ( 2008 ). It incorporates farcical elements throughout the film, but it isn’t till the film’s climax where ( SPOILER ) a character intercepts an rpg with a TIVO ( END SPOILER ) that it becomes completely divorced from reality. Overall, farce is both the simplest and the trickiest category of comedy.

The Episode – This Little Piggy ( August 28 2004 )

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The Premise – Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, the goddess Circe, turns her into a pig. Batman has to find out how to get her back to normal. No seriously.

How does it work? – How could it not work? This is the craziest idea in the history of the series. First off, making Batman the protagonist allows for every situation to become even funnier because of how serious he is. In the picture above, Batman is caressing a pig tenderly. No more needs to be said. Secondly, the scenario leads to a bevy of of corny-yet-effective pig puns. ( a slaughterhouse worker jumps on Wonder Pig and utters the inevitable “that’ll do, pig” line from Babe [ 1995 ] ). Notably, what i’ve mentioned so far covers only character and situational comedy. So what makes it farcical? Several things. Each scene in the episode has it’s own internal logic that creates either a character comedy or a situational comedy ( or both ) in itself. When Batman loses the Wonder Pig, he has to call a guy called ‘B’wana Beast‘ who has never been mentioned before and looks like this…

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…to track her down. At one point, Batman thinks to venture to the RIVER STYX to question FREAKING MEDUSA about Circe.

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Medusa sounds like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons and tells Batman to ask Circe for her curling iron back. Most ridiculous of all, when a character ponders Circe’s whereabouts, we get a musical number with Circe accompanied by a full band and backup dancers.

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Did she conjure that up? Is she a club regular? None of this is explained, it just happens. This all builds up to a final battle at the same club in which Batman makes a bargain with Circe in order to return Diana to humanity ( or I guess amazon-ity ). What horrible request does Circe make of Batman?

That’s it. That’s all it took to resolve the whole plot. She turned a woman into a pig and fought a huge battle just to ask for that. That, my friends, is farce.

While i wouldn’t call them reflective of the entire series, i would say these episodes reflect what’s so fun about superheroes in general. Each episode highlights how these tales can be vacillate between dramatic AND funny. In addition, they also help to show how humorous writing is almost always smart writing.

Here’s some other funny moments from the series:

For more posts on superheroes:

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Superman as Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted Into Arrow

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

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

For more posts on televison:

Top 5 Bullies In Fiction

The Walking Dead: The Governor as a Well-Intentioned Extremist

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

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“…by playing a superhero in Daredevil, I have inoculated myself from ever playing another superhero… Wearing a costume was a source of humiliation for me and something I wouldn’t want to do again soon”-Ben Affleck preparing the words he’s going to eat

You ever have one of those moments where you perceive something but don’t really believe it? To the point where it seemed surreal? I had one of those last week when I perused IMDB to come upon the news that Ben Affleck is playing Batman in the sequel to Man of Steel (2013). Ben “Fucking” Affleck. My response was…confused. I didn’t know how to feel, but i know i had a feel. For most, this feel was pretty straightforward: fuck that guy. The internet exploded with a surge of hate that I will dub the “Affleck-tion”. The Afflecktion has taken many forms. For example: there’s a twitter hashtag titled “betterthanbenaffleck” that contains “suggestions” for better actors.

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There’s even an honest-to-God petition by fans to somehow oust Affleck from the role. So why all the hate for the guy? He just won an Oscar, is married with kids, and has several great films under his belt recently (Argo, The TownGone Baby Gone). Isn’t that good enough to get some respect? Unfortunately, the Afflecktion runs deep in the body of American moviegoers, far before his casting as Batman.

I subscribe to three primary reasons why Ben Affleck has such a bad rap…

1. Perceived lack of contribution to Good Will Hunting 

When Good Will Hunting debuted in 1998, Hollywood was enamored with the Cinderella tale of two Bostonians who wrote and starred in an Oscar-winning film. So much so that, of course, many inquired about the impetus for such a film. Here it goes (as described by the writers themselves in Boston Magazine): Matt Damon, a Harvard student, wrote a short story about a genius Southie who’s brilliance garners the attention of the government. Later, Damon took a screenwriting class, where for a final project he turned his story into the first act of a film, telling his professor “I might have failed your class, but it is the first act of something longer“. The professor, Anthony Kubiak claimed that it even in its early stages “it was very authentic and real“. Wow, Matt sure did a good job on that screenplay. Ben Affleck’s account? He helped write it. That’s it. No specifics. No details. He. Helped. Write it. Mind you, this is his OWN WORDS.

The only thing in his interview Ben mentions that speaks on his specific contribution is that, when he thought the producers weren’t paying enough attention, he’d sneak in blowjob scenes just to see if they would notice. No, really. So as you could imagine, many began to feel that Ben Affleck basically broke into Hollywood on the coattails of Matt Damon with minimal effort on his part. People thought he didn’t “deserve” his success. It didn’t help that many filmgoers viewed Affleck as an idiot due to his brashness and boisterousness. It made it easier to visualize a drunk frat boy Ben offering meager assistance whereas bookish Harvard alum Matt Damon actually writes the film, which is realized in this Family Guy clip.

The relationship between Sean and Will in the film was oddly paralleled with the image of Matt and Ben in real life: Matt was a genius who far outstripped his lesser best friend Ben. This dynamic defined the two for awhile: Matt Damon went on to be in other well received flicks such as Rounders, Saving Private Ryan, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ben Affleck? Well, here’s where we get to the next reason…

2. High-profile yet lowly-received films

Like Matt, Ben was in some pretty big name films after Good Will Hunting, particularly Armageddon and Shakespeare In Love (both in 1998). He wasn’t the star of either film, however, and most of his films as a leading man were mediocre in terms of audience turnout and reception. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since it means most of the filmgoing audience didn’t have a record of bad movies to look to. Unfortunately, when Ben Affleck did start heading major flops, it was something everyone remembered. The first was Pearl Harbor (2001), which was an obvious Hollywood attempt to recreate the success of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). It didn’t turn out that way: the film’s several inaccuracies, tedious love triangle, and association with the increasingly despised Michael Bay made it a commercial disappointment. And guess who’s name is on full display on every poster?

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Afterwards, he was in Daredevil (2003), Marvel’s attempt at another blockbuster superhero film that combined the stylishness of Spider-Man (2002) with the “dark and edginess” of X-Men (2000). While the film did a decent job of characterization, audiences didn’t know what to make of the obscure character and therefore spent more time focusing on the actor, who had already begun to lose public credibility. The film’s lukewarm reception was heaped onto Affleck and comic fans never forgot about it. While these films garnered negative feedback, none of them put as big a nail in the coffin as Gigli (2003)

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This film had bad press before it was even released due to conflicts between the screenwriter and the director, leading many to believe that the final product would be disjointed. Once it was released it set box office records for the biggest second-weekend drop in box office gross of any film in wide release since that statistic was kept; it dropped by almost 82% in its second weekend compared to its first. By its third weekend in release, only 73 U.S. theaters were showing it, down from 2,215 during its first weekend, a drop of 97%. The film has since gone onto be considered one of the worst films of all time. One of the primary reasons for the failure of the film is also my final reason for the Afflecktion…

3. Bennifer

Generally speaking, America loves “super couples”.

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Drake and Josh were meant for each other

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Unfortunately, one they didn’t care for much was Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Sure, at first they grabbed the public eye like any other celebrity couple, but that attention quickly turned to scorn. I postulate that it was due to the fact thatbecause they had the unfortunate distinction of being both absurdly famous and absurdly unrelatable. Ben was viewed as a jockish douchenozzle and J.Lo was viewed as an egotistical diva. A blog post on whatever-dude.com called them Hollywood’s Hitler and Eva Braun“. Ben himself recognized the hate they received, outright saying in an interview with Suzy Byrne that he felt as if he was “the press’ whipping boy” during those two years. What’s worse is that much of the hate was due to Jennifer Lopez being considered “better” than him. She had a more successful film career, and a music career, AND a fashion line. Doesn’t help that SHE broke off the engagement. As one blogger put it, he came across as being “desperate and needy and lacking in self confidence, as if he were under some kind of love spell“. Arguably, the ultimate Hollywood insult directed at him during this period was during VH1’s “200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons” television special. Oh sure, he was included as #119, but look closely at his portrait by Robert Risko…

7373 (1)Yes, they literally have J.Lo on his jacket for NO discernable reason other than to remind the viewer that a large amount of his fame is due to being engaged to someone more famous (she was on the same list as #15, btw) . Even worse, every celeb in the special had an indicative tagline that was a famous quote or phrase (i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger-“I’ll be back“, Hugh Hefner-“Big Pimpin‘”) . Guess what his was? Mr. Jennifer Lopez. Damn.

So should Ben Affleck play Batman?

Given all the vitriol i’ve just shown, obviously not, right? Honestly, I know i’m blasphemous for saying this but I really DON’T CARE who plays Batman. Batman isn’t this deep, nuanced character, he’s a franchise. The reason why DC has gotten so much use out of the property was because they can do whatever the fuck they want with the character without violating his identity. He hasn’t “grown” in the near century since his inception, just reinvented. Why do you think that the 60’s Batman series, the Burton films, the Schumacher films, the Nolan Trilogy, and the Animated series are all so different yet successful? It’s because the character is malleable. He’s a concept that can fit any story imaginable. Compare Batman to Spider-Man, who, while having different series, is always the same character that Stan Lee envisioned him to be. You’ll never see a “dark and gritty” Spider-Man or a “realist” Spider-Man. That’s because Peter Parker is intended a REAL person who has a specific personality. If he were to be in a world similar to the 60’s Batman series, he’d have to lose most of his flippancy just to sell us on the campiness. If he were in a comic similar to The Dark Knight Returns (1986), he’d have to lose much of the whimsy associated with the character. He has his limits as a property, you can’t just make him, say, a pirate.

Unlike some people

Unlike some people

Fact is, Batman is such a loosely conceived character that anyone with a decent chin could put on his costume. This isn’t to say he’s a flat character, he’s just a ‘high concept’ character, like Superman, who focuses more on connotations and iconography than character traits. By virtue of this, any actor can bring something to the character: Michael Keaton brought an eccentricity to Wayne that made him more affable, Val Kilmer brought a coldness that made Batman seem more like a shell-shocked soldier. I’m not the best person to comment on Ben Affleck as an actor (i’ve only seen a few of his films), but I think he could have a very interesting take on the character. Maybe he’ll have a lighter approach than Bale; maybe he’ll be a bit more vulnerable. It’s hard to tell. A lot of people said Michael Keaton was a bad fit for Batman, but afterwards many said he put in a decent performance. Same was said for Heath Ledger as Joker, and look at how THAT turned out. Personally, I think that no matter how he plays it, Affleck will add to the wonderful tapestry of Batmen to date. Or at least fuel some great memes.

For more commentary on the Batman franchise:

Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in the Batman Mythos

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“This isn’t Metropolis…this isn’t the city of tomorrow…it’s Gotham,and if you want to see what that means, just check out your squad room”-Gotham Central #7

Superheroes tend to be subversive of law enforcement. Aside from the illegality of vigilantism, it’s difficult to have much respect for a a moderately trained guy with pistol when compared to a billionaire genius ninja detective. Despite this, most superheroes since the induction of the comic code have had genial relations with law enforcement. It helps that superheroes rarely target “mundane” crime. Superman’s enemies tend to be as strong as he is; the X-men stick to “mutant crime” and so on. Despite this, Batman works with the police. Or really, I should say a single policeman: Commissioner Gordon. Mostly because Gotham cops are fucking dicks. Most “gritty” iterations of the franchise portray the police as at best impotent and at worst, as bad as Gotham’s criminals. This element is prevalent enough to even be present in video games such as MMORPG DC Universe Online, where Gotham cops are enemies to hero players.

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Just so you know: he’s a dirty cop

The GCPD’s corruption makes sense for a few reasons. For one, the Batman franchise derives heavily from film noir, a genre with cynical attitudes towards humanity and fate. Even the police can’t be relied upon in the genre; in Frank Miller’s Sin City, every character, no matter their alignment, is wary of the police.

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Sin City

In addition, Batman fights predominantly “normal” people (at least by comic book standards), who the cops should be able to handle. Law enforcement has to be ineffectual in order to justify the need for a Batman. Sometimes they’re just incompetent; Tim Burton’s Batman had a Commissioner Gordon who was nothing more than a face for the police (the guy wears fucking tuxedos to busts).

Batman (1989)

Dumbass

Incompetent cops just aren’t enough to get across the dramatic weight of Batman’s quest. Giving the city a culture that enforces crime allows for an even bleaker Gotham to save. This is most prevalent in Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller’s origin story that details the beginning of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon’s careers. We see through Gordon’s introduction that calling the GCPD corrupt would be an understatement…

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The Commissioner even implies that he wants officers who are dirty.

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As you could see, Frank Miller tends to veer towards the “extreme” side of police corruption where everyone is as evil as possible. This isn’t totally ridiculous; LA’s infamous “Rampart scandal” in the 90’s involved a branch of the police called C.R.A.S.H. who literally REWARDED murder and evidence tampering with commendations. In Dekalb County Georgia, corrupt sheriff Sidney Dorsey assembled a group of cops to pose as gang-bangers in order to assassinate his political rival Derwin Brown, showing that even those at the top can be as corrupt as Gotham’s ex-commissioner.

Despite Frank Miller’s extreme depictions, Batman:Year One was considered canonical by DC Comics, meaning that all of the events “really” occurred in continuity. So Gotham’s previous police department ordered a hit on a newborn, blew up a tenement with civilians in the vicinity, and casually beat up teenagers on the street. Holy shit. Miller definitely went with the amoral cops route for police corruption, which works well for his “dark and edgy” stories, but has several unfortunate implications. In Metropolis, we can at least assume that the police department works in the favor of the people’s interest (as one would like to assume of most law enforcement), meaning that we can trust the local government by extension, and thus we can trust the city itself. If Gotham’s cops are corrupt, and its government is corrupt, then the CITY itself is, by default, corrupt. And if that’s true,why should anyone care if it gets saved? As with most superhero works, there are no “normal” people to care about, just heroes and villains. If the police are bad guys too it almost makes Batman’s quest silly (well, silli-er). It’s no wonder why so many antagonists seem to suggest just destroying Gotham; what Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, and Bane all seem to agree on in the Nolan trilogy is that crime is inherently systemic. It begins from the top and ends at the bottom in the slums of Gotham. Until the police are reformed, the city can’t improve.

250px-GothamCentralCv22 One way to alleviate the unfortunate implications of Gotham’s corruption is by showing that the police force, even when misconducting themselves, have the best intentions. The biggest canonical kinda dirty/kinda good cop in the franchise is Detective Harvey Bullock (to the left). In case you’re wondering, he’s that fat cop in the animated series who’s kind of a douche. In comics, he’s probably the closest thing you get to a sympathetic corrupt cop. He takes bribes, but other cops trust him. He allows a attempted murder suspect’s identity to leak to the mafia, but that’s to avenge Commissioner Gordon. He has ties to the organized crime but uses it to gain info on crimes. He’s complicated.

Strangely enough, despite being quite a staple of the franchise, Bullock doesn’t appear in media outside of the comics and the animated series but is represented by characters who are pretty much the same person. His representatives in the Batman films are decidedly less morally ambiguous. In 1989’s Batman, his stand-in Detective Eckhardt accepts bribes from criminals and attempts to murder the same guys in order to stay out of trouble. In Batman Begins (2005), his stand-in Detective Flass (who for some reason has the name of the guy from Batman: Year One) is just as corrupt. I guess Bullock just looks so unsavory due to his fatness and manner that most adaptations just make him dirty to contrast with Gordon. In addition, comic writers can’t seem to decide if he has good intentions or is just corrupt. The is probably because, no offense to them, most comic writers aren’t capable or willing to get across the conflicts of being an ACTUAL crime fighter. The series Gotham Central goes in this direction, basically turning the Bat mythos into Dragnet with real cops interacting with the rogues gallery the way real cops would. Police misconduct is portrayed in reasonable degrees as opposed to extremes.

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Gotham Central

Gotham Central2 Gotham Central3Sometimes cops have to break the rules in order to get a job done. Sometimes cops just run out of ideas. While these methods aren’t always the best, they are human responses to often difficult scenarios. In the world of Gotham Central, normal cops have to go against men like Mr. Freeze and the Joker, people way outside of their pay-grade. It would be hard to conceive of how would one deal with such threats without being forced or compelled to go outside the line.

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Arguably, the best commentary on police misconduct in Gotham is the character Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), played by Matthew Modine (who oddly enough WASN’T a character from the comics). Remember how I said a cop has to be either corrupt or stupid in order to make Batman look good? Well he manages to do both to a realistic degree.

Foley is introduced talking to Gordon at a high-class party, where Foley tries to convince him to pay attention to crime statistics, which Gordon rejects in favor of his “gut” feelings. He also suggests that he talks to the mayor, which Gordon also dismisses by saying that’s Foley’s department. We get some quick distinctions here between the two: Gordon is more concerned with crime on a personal level that goes beyond statistics, which is all Foley knows about. Gordon doesn’t care about political maneuvering whereas Foley relishes it. If Gordon is the “good cop” than Foley is by default the “bad cop”. He’s not evil at all, only his aims have been “corrupted”. Rather than focusing on public service, he’s more concerned with personal glory. For example, when Batman appears, his main interest is one-upping Gordon to make himself look good by catching him, rather than containing the more immediate threat of Bane’s gang. His lack of “good cop” goals seems to affect his competency as well; when Blake is introduced as another “good cop”, his passion for the job allows him to believe fellow good cop Gordon’s story about soldiers in the sewers, which Foley of course scoffs at. Blake also manages to connect corrupt Wayne Industries board member Roland Daggett to Bane through ambitious detective work, which Gordon implies Foley was supposed to do, but clearly failed. Foley’s lack of “good cop-ness” comes to a head after Bane’s takeover, where he flat out decides to not get involved with the plan to save his fellow officers. Up until this point, the guy seems like a lost cause…until Batman returns to Gotham.

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Eventually, we see the effect the symbol had on Foley during the siege on Bane’s troops, when Foley not only joins the cops, but leads them in full uniform.

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Foley dies doing his duty. The film never elaborates why the symbol of Batman meant so much to Foley then when it didn’t mean anything before, perhaps it was something akin to a “spiritual rebirth” that born-again Christians often allude to. While this could easily be chalked up to sentimentality (and it definitely is), that doesn’t take away from the fact Foley, a cop who seemingly had no more “good cop” left in him, was redeemed by the hope Batman brought. He became a “born-again officer”. In a “realist” scenario that Nolan claims the films take place in, Batman is just a man. He can beat up bad guys but he can’t fight crime alone. As Bruce Wayne postulates in Batman Begins: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy”. For the police officers of Gotham, that meant inspiring them to risk their lives to save their city. This is in stark contrast to The Dark Knight (2008), where many police officers are said to have been in the pocket of organized criminals which culminated in the fall of Harvey Dent. The last film left us with a disturbing view of the GCPD, but this film manages to redeem them along with Foley. The cops retaking of Gotham and Foley’s sacrifice shows what makes Batman (and the superhero in general) such a resonant character: he makes us want to be better.

For commentary on the questionable morals of Batman himself: 

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

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

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

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As I said before, Spider-Man used to be my favorite comic characters. As such, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the character, which led me to start reading issues of his original run beginning in the 60’s. What always struck me about these issues was the irreverence; no other heroes from this era had the flippancy that made The Amazing Spider-Man such a great read. Despite being a generally good kid, Peter could be a real douche sometimes.

For this post, I wanted to focus on a comic story that I particularly enjoyed when I first read it. It takes place in The Amazing Spiderman #8 (1964). As you can see, the cover shows that this issue is chock full of stories; Peter boxes his rival Flash Thompson and battles a spiffy robot. Fuck those stories, I don’t care about them. What i’m talking about is the story that dwarfs those two, namely “Spider-Man Tackles The Human Torch” (and we ain’t talking about football). As I mentioned before, this was a common sales tactic, everyone loves a dust-up between two heroes, and Spidey and Torch make excellent candidates. At this point in time, Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four were the DEFINITIVE Marvel titles, meaning that combining the two franchises was a sure fire hit. As such, crossovers abounded, but eventually The Human Torch became Spidey’s particular rival given their teenage-ness and cocky attitudes. What made their rivalry even better was that whereas Spidey was so disliked that he was often considered a criminal, Torch was beloved by everyone. So beloved is he that he has a huge birthday party with loads of ladies and stuff, which leads us to our story.

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One of the first things I love about this comic is that there is NO LEAD UP WHATSOEVER. To be fair, the two had a rivalry for awhile, but it was only when they ran into each other. In this issue, Spidey actively harasses him by showing up and fucking up his birthday like it was his job. And maybe bone his girlfriend. Peter’s portrayal here is vastly different than most iterations, which often make him a paragon of morals. While Spidey’s no Punisher, here he shows what made him one of comics’ first anti-heroes. Anyone who’s read Amazing Fantasy #15  knows that Peter has a burning desire for respect.

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His peers mock him and women avert their eyes in his presence, which manages to carry over into his superhero career as well. As such, he’s sometimes portrayed as starved for recognition. Here we see that he’s so envious that he’d do something as petty as ruining a birthday party just because he can’t have one.

The Amazing Spider-Man #21 (1965)

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The Torch isn’t just more popular than Spidey, he’s also the establishment hero that he could never be. The Fantastic Four, as Marvel’s “first family”, defined being a superhero in the marvel universe, so Torch was by extension a major hero. He had all of the benefits Golden Age superheroes were supposed to have; money, women, and public admiration. Ironically, The Torch’s notable lack of a traditional secret identity also makes him more of a superhero to the people, since the public harbors no distrust against him in the same way as Spidey, who’s masked appearance is consistently said to be “creepy” in universe.

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I’m pretty sure Torch gave that girl cancer

Upon seeing  Torch’s fiery display, Spidey calls the kid a “phony” and views his “heroics” as more pompous than purposeful. Given that his powers involve wreathing himself in flame, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. This of course comes off as a bit hypocritical coming from SPIDERMAN of all people, who responds by making an entire bat out of web and throwing it at the partygoers. Having got the man’s attention, he decides to swag in assholishly and talk some good shit. Unsurprisingly, no one reacts with “HOLY SHIT IT’S SPIDERMAN!!!”, and instead act like he’s the paste eating kid in grade school. Mind you, this is still very recent into The Amazing Spider-Man‘s run, so everyone instinctively reacts with hatred towards the poor lad. This went back and forth throughout the series, since seemingly everyone on in Peter’s high school seemed to like Spidey just fine. Since the kids in this particular comic are Torch’s friends, one can assume they are as much “establishment” as he is, so they wouldn’t share other teens’ sentiments. This dynamic makes Pete more sympathetic in the story, since he does deserve some respect for his heroism, even if he did just pull a prank.

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Spidey takes their rejection in stride, causing Torch to create some lame-ass comebacks, including calling Spidey a “rusty crutch”. I often wonder if people in the 60’s really spoke this way or was Stan Lee just fucking around. Spidey isn’t amused by this either, and continues to mock the lad. Once again, we see a nice distinction between the two: Torch is a “square” who uses crappy jokes as opposed to the hip Spidey, who knows how to smack talk with the best. Granted, much of this is due to the fact that this is a Spider-Man story and not a Fantastic Four one, but generally Torch isn’t that funny anyway. Despite the fact that Torch has more social approval, he’s not nearly as entertaining as the irreverent Spidey, who we as the audience like more in this match up. Torch gets so angry at Spidey that they get into an actual fight outside of the building.

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Spidey almost gives up the fight, until Mr. Fantastic, rather innocently, offers a hand to help, which Spidey takes offense to and attacks him as well. Obviously the rest of the Four intervene as well. This isn’t the first time a fight has broken out among these characters; the first issue of his Spidey’s series has him fighting the Four for the first time.

For some reason, in both issues he takes offense to Reed and Sue’s offers of help, as if the very idea that he needs it is insulting. This streak of independence  is probably why Spider-Man was never integrated that much into the Avengers franchise; so much of his character is defined by him struggling alone, which joining a super-group would subvert.

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His rampage against the Four is stopped rather unexpectedly by the Invisible Woman, who flirts heavily with him because she is a woman and that’s what Stan Lee thinks women do. He reciprocates by giving her a web-heart and making fun of the team once again. Our hero! This issue is similar to a much more recent issue of Deadpool, where the titular character picked a fight with Wolverine for the hell of it.

Deadpool #94

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Obviously, while I wouldn’t compare Wolverine THAT MUCH to the Human Torch, one thing they do have in common in their respective issues is that they are Marvel mainstays being accosted by cocky upstarts. Wolverine is a hero known worldwide, respected by pretty much any hero worth a damn. Deadpool is an insane idiot who’s made fun of in this issue by fucking SHADOWCAT, a barely relevant X-Man. Both of these issues illustrate how these characters fit into the larger Marvel universe and what makes them anti-heroes.

Whereas the term “anti-hero” has become synonymous with excessive guns and gruffness (i.e. Cable), anti-heroes in the classical literary sense are those who are impotent and ineffectual. Spidey and Deadpool are the guys who are at the low end of the totem pole; the George Costanzas of superheroes. Just as George Costanza is the man nobody wants to admit they are, Spidey is the hero no one would like to think they would be. Sure, he still performs all the duties expected of him as a cape, but he still has the same problems you and I have. On top of that, he doesn’t always deal with them in the most mature manner. For example, whereas most heroes are dead-set on their lifestyle, Spidey contemplates quitting anytime a personal complication arises. As seen in his battle with the Torch, his seemingly carefree demeanor belies his tempestuous mind, which could be prone to rash decisions. In one of the series’ most famous issues, he quits being Spider-Man all together due to a verbal berating by J. Jonah Jameson on how he should get his life together.

The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (1967)

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Whereas for most people, “getting your life together” could mean starting a 401k, for Spidey this means…

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Unsurprisingly, quitting has been a recurring event in the franchise, even extending to the film Spider-Man 2 , where he quits due to losing Mary Jane to another man. Speaking of women (and this may come as a surprise for modern fans), Peter had SEVERAL girlfriends during his series, including a co-worker at the Daily Bugle (Betty Brant), a high school cheerleader (Liz Allan), an Ivy League former cheerleader(Gwen Stacy), a hot cat-burglar (Black Cat),another Ivy Leaguer (Debra Whitman) and his one-time roommate (Carlie Cooper). He fucked up all of these relationships, just because he’s Spider-Man. Compare this to Superman, the Flashes, and pretty much any other hero who manages to maintain a relationship no matter what. Peter, not so much.

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He’s got haters AND his bitches don’t love him

What’s so great about “Spider-Man Tackles The Human Torch” is that it manages to establish just what isn’t heroic about Peter quite succinctly. The people don’t support him, he doesn’t get the girl, other heroes think of him as at best inconsequential and at worst, a pest. And what’s also great is that he acknowledges it. Acknowledgement can sometimes mean a snappy comeback to his detractors, and sometimes it can mean unwarranted aggression (as we see when he attacks Mr. Fantastic). Attributes like this is what made Spider-Man so resonant in the 60’s.

In 1965 Esquire had a college student poll that revealed that student radicals ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons. What made such Spidey such a counter-culture hero was because his readership had the same frustrations he had. He was akin to a James Dean character, trying to fight against the ever-present enemy of society. He neither is accepted by others or accepts others himself, leading him to conflict even with those who don’t wish him harm. Teens had been dealing with sexual frustration and resentment towards authority for years, but this was one of the first superhero franchises that acknowledged it. Spidey’s “tackling” of the Human Torch (and later on the Fantastic Four)represented a confrontation with the “establishment”. Superheroes were meant to be wish fulfillment figures, but that also meant they were often aloof and unrelatable. Despite being young himself, the Human Torch and his allies are very much the detached authority figures that look down upon someone like Spidey. While the Four aren’t “villains” per se, they are the type of heroes “new age” characters like Spider-Man had to differentiate themselves from in order to connect with the sentiments of the audience. As such, conflicts like this helped to illustrate just why Spider-Man has continued to have an impact on several generations of youth.

For a more in-depth look at Spidey’s origin story:

Throwback Recap: Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

For more posts on Marvel heroes:

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

The Lois Lane Effect