Spidey

Spider-man and the Curse of Adulthood

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  It’s an obvious statement to make, but it’s the bane of most creators working on popular characters today.  With exceptions like Harry Potter, most iconic characters in western culture, from Homer Simpson, to James Bond, and Superman, have stories that never end.  If they ended, really ended, that would mean the end of some very lucrative franchises.  As a result, those characters stay stuck on the part of their story Joseph Campbell referred to as the “Road of Trials,” where the hero faces a long series of confrontations from a variety of enemies.  When that gets old, they reboot and start over from the beginning.

This continuous publication has been particularly tough on Spider-man.  Marvel has been struggling for years to keep his story engaging, from magically erasing his marriage to having Dr. Octopus take over his body.  Movies and animated TV shows keep rebooting him to a teenager, but the comics’ story is part of the larger Marvel continuity.  You can’t take Peter Parker back to a kid without dragging the whole universe with him.

Every character goes through ruts, but Spider-man’s ruts outnumber his peaks by a large margin.  A truly great Spider-man story is rare.  Think about it: what is Spidey’s equivalent to The Dark Knight Returns or All Star Superman or even The Winter Soldier?  I’d argue the 616 Spider-man hasn’t had much in the way of truly great stories since maybe the Gerry Conway era.

Spider-man is, without a doubt, one of the great fictional characters of the last one-hundred years.  Some would argue he’s the greatest comic book character of all time.  So what is it that keeps him from knocking it out of the park?

The key to understanding any superhero is understanding what their story is about.  Superman’s story is about the ideals of Twentieth Century America.  Batman is about a man of privilege getting a cold dose of reality, and then using his privilege to help his city, no matter what the cost to himself.

Spider-man has a shorter shelf life because his story is about growing up.  In his teenage years, he gets a surprise dose of power (puberty), pays the price for wielding it recklessly (which of us didn’t hurt someone in our teen years?), and then tries to find a balance between being responsible and happy.  Once he becomes a successful adult, the story is over.  So, Spider-man’s problem isn’t that he’s stuck on the Road of Trials.  His story ended and the books just kept going.

So when does he become a successful adult?  When he gets the girl.  The girl in this case being Mary Jane Watson.  Yes, he’ll continue to have problems, because becoming an adult isn’t about not having problems.  It’s about finding a balance between what he must do and what he wants to do.  Mary Jane is an independently successful, smart, and assertive woman who will be his rock when he’s at his weakest.  It’s the ultimate happiness for Peter.  The end.

This puts the character’s writers in a pickle.  In order to keep the story going, it has to become about something else.  If it becomes about something else, it’s not the classic dynamic Spidey fans are looking for.  As a result, the stories tip too heavily towards soap-opera style plots, where superficial threats drive the action.  Only a handful (maybe Kraven’s Last Hunt or The Death of Jean DeWolff) have any emotional punch.

Yes, the McFarlane/Larsen era proved a sales boom, but that had more to do with the book’s visuals and EXTREME (!!!) villains.  Superior Spider-man was also popular, but that was Otto’s story, not Peter’s.  The most highly regarded book about Peter from the last twenty years seems to be Ultimate Spider-man, because it could set the clock back.

I’d even argue that Spider-man 3’s Achilles heel wasn’t too many villains or the part where he turned “evil,” but that Spider-man 2 brought the story to its natural conclusion.  There was nothing left to say.

So what is Marvel to do?  Sure, they can undo Peter and MJ’s marriage, but that’s a temporary, and gimmicky, Band-Aid.  In order to continue Peter’s story, you have to change the theme, and that means moving the character in a direction a lot of fans aren’t comfortable with.

J. Michael Straczynski came the closest to doing this.  He was broadening the scope of what it meant to be Spider-man and challenging the character’s assumptions.  I love when he tells the story of how he learned “With great power comes great responsibility,” the response he gets is, “And then what?”  I’m frustrated to this day that his run crashed and burned before reaching its potential.  It could’ve opened the character up to new worlds of possibility.

As it is, I feel sorry for any writer taking on the book now.  Spidey fans are still asking for Marvel to do something brand new with the character, as long as they don’t change anything.  That is a heavy cross for any creator to bear.

POST NOTE:  I have ideas if anyone from Marvel is interested.  Just saying.

DARK KNIGHT RISES

FIXED IT: The Dark Knight Rises

Today, I’m putting out the first of what I hope to be a series of posts called FIXED IT.  I’ll be going through movies I think could’ve hit the mark, but didn’t quite get there.  These won’t be terrible movies, at least in their concept, but ones that somehow lost their way. 

 

When it comes to “fixing” movies, I tend to focus on blockbusters (or movies that wanted to be).  It’s more fun to tinker with something that came off an assembly line than with a smaller, more personal piece of work.  We’ll start with The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan, with a screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.  It, of course, features Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

 

I should also mention this is meant for someone with good knowledge of the film.  This post is long enough without a recap.

 

The Diagnosis

There’s a lot of hate out there for this movie, but I enjoy it, warts and all.  It’s just those warts bother me a whole lot less than other people.  Also, I hear a lot of complaining about the movie’s plot holes, but I don’t so much care about them.  Why don’t I care?  Because of a rule I call BHFB or “Because He’s F***ing Batman.” 

 

How did Bruce Wayne get from the prison to Gotham with no resources at his disposal?  BHFB

How did he get into the city?  BHFB

How is he walking on ice other people fell through?  BHFB

How did he make a gasoline trail from said ice, up the bridge, and into some sort of pyrotechnic bat-symbol?  BHFB

 

Here’s the deal, though: BHFB only works when you’re emotionally invested in the story.  That’s the main difference between The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight.  Some of the Joker’s plans make no logistical sense, but that doesn’t bug us so much because it’s a more enjoyable movie.

 

The problem isn’t the plot holes.  The problem is that the first hour or so is too dull, muddles the film’s themes, and takes us out of the story.  If you fix some fundamental problems with that section, the rest of the movie works much better.

 

So what are those problems?  Actually, there’s one really big one.  If they’d avoided that mistake they could’ve a) made things more entertaining and b) given the movie room to fine tune its other issues. 

 

Batman should NOT have quit.

 

Let’s go back to the end of The Dark Knight.  Harvey Dent has become Two Face and murdered several people.  Batman tells Gordon to say he did it, so Dent could remain a symbol of hope for the city.  Harvey was really an empty suit, who couldn’t handle the personal cost of saving Gotham.  Batman has lost the same thing Dent has, but will keep going and let himself be hated for the sake of the city. 

 

And then he goes home and gives up.

 

So we’ve started TDKR by mooting the finale of the last movie.  From there, we get to hang out with mopey Bruce as he putters around before getting back into the game.  Thank god for Catwoman livening things up, but she can only do so much.  The main character is disengaged from the movie and we disengage with him.  Plus, these scenes use valuable screen time that could’ve been used to shore up the movie’s themes.

 

Nolan’s films put a huge emphasis on world-building and theme, sometimes to the detriment of the movie itself (see Inception).  Batman Begins was about overcoming fear to do what’s right.  The Dark Knight was about finding the path between what’s right and what’s necessary, or how you fight something awful without becoming awful yourself, which resonated well in an America dealing with the War on Terror.  It’s also about, as stated before, the personal cost of doing what’s right.  The Dark Knight Rises is about not letting your responsibilities go.  Or is it about how awful Occupy Wall Street was?  Or is it about how our aristocrats need to watch their backs?

 

I’ve read a lot of interviews with Nolan and it seems what he was trying to say if you’re not taking care of the real needs of a society, it can fragment into a class struggle, which someone else can take advantage of to tear everything down.  The elites were awful, so the lower class of society was awful right back, and the result was almost the annihilation of them both.  A secondary theme is how you can’t save things based on lies.  That’s an awesome statement for a tent-pole superhero movie, but they botched the execution.

 

There are several brief references to the city not prospering as advertised, but we don’t actually see any of it, outside of the orphanage’s plight and Selina Kyle’s commentary (not exactly a trustworthy source).  We also see city officials and guys at the stock exchange acting like dicks, but that’s nothing compared to what Bane and “the people” do later on.  This is why TDKR is often interpreted as favorable toward the elite over the rabble. 

 

Also, there’s the whole fact that we want to see Batman in a Batman movie.  Batman Begins was an origin story, so it gets some latitude.  It’s fascinating to watch Bruce become Batman, but frustrating to watch him twiddle his thumbs after that’s happened. 

 

So, how would I fix all this?

 

The Fix

The movie’s first couple scenes unfold as is, because only an idiot would cut out Bane crashing the plane.    

 

We move from here to nighttime Gotham, where Batman is interceding in a crime, only to find it’s a police trap he has to fight his way out of.  As this scene ends, we go to a TV interview of Mike Engel (Anthony Michael Hall) who catches us up on what’s happened.  He’s become a full-on Batman supporter, though he’s treated as a conspiracy nut.  You see, he believes Harvey Dent killed the people Batman’s accused of taking out.  As the host drones on about Harvey being a hero and how turned around Gotham is, Engel corrects him that while organized crime is out of power, neighborhoods are suffering from neglect, schools are underfunded, and street-level crime is up.

 

We shift to the party at Wayne Manor, where Bruce is absent, not because he’s holed up like Howard Hughes, but because he’s out as Batman.  One thing that’s the same is that Bruce Wayne is being viewed as a recluse, but it’s because Batman has swallowed his life.    

 

In the interaction between Commissioner Gordon and officials, he complains about losing police and resources to budget cuts.  He’s blown off, much like he is in the existing movie.  The rest of this scene precedes as is.

 

Bruce comes home in rough shape to find Selina Kyle stealing the pearl necklace (and his fingerprints), and isn’t able to stop her escape.  She takes off with the Senator, just like in the real movie. 

 

We cut to John Blake leaving his apartment to start his day.  He leaves a small bag of groceries in front of one of the apartment doors.  After he’s passed, a woman holding a baby opens the door and picks it up.  We also see other signs of neglect in his building.  John is the movie’s guide to what’s happening to everyone else in Gotham. 

 

We follow him to his meeting with Gordon, with Blake expressing doubt over the Dent story.  Gordon lets slip his frustration that he finally has an uncorrupt force, but it’s being compromised by the city’s big wigs.

 

At the cave, Bruce is investigating Selina, looking far more buff than in the existing film.  The discussion in this version, though, is about Alfred’s concern that Bruce has lost himself in Batman, neglecting his personal life and the good he could be doing as Bruce Wayne. 

 

We keep the scene of Blake tracking the dead teenager back to the orphanage, where we find out that they’ve lost funding from both the city and the Wayne Foundation.  Through his conversation with the kid, we find out that to people on the street, Batman is still a hero. 

 

Selina’s showdown in the bar happens just like in the movie, except that Batman swoops in along with the police.  The police ignore everything else to go after Batman, allowing the bad guys to escape down the sewer.  Gordon follows them and the scene proceeds as is.

 

You know, I don’t know if I buy how John Blake figured out Batman’s identity, but I’m willing to roll with it.  It doesn’t hurt the movie and I like the “start paying attention to the details” line.

 

I think we can keep the next several scenes as is, though the hospital visit to Gordon would have to be about how Batman has to keep going, as opposed to how he must come back.

 

The ball scene stays the same, except now Selina’s threat has more bite.  I love that she steals his car.  Catwoman really gives this movie the dose of fun it needs.  So does Lucius Fox, so we can keep their scene pretty intact, without the mention of retiring.

 

Alfred and Bruce have their cave meeting, without the robo-brace thing.  Again, Alfred’s speech about how the city needs Bruce more than Batman should have more punch.  We’ve seen that the city is suffering from things Bruce Wayne can help with more than Batman, but then we have Bane.

 

The stock exchange sequence stays the same, with the exception of the cops not being amazed at Batman’s return.  It will be a more intense repeat of what we’ve seen earlier, though Batman is able to control the situation better than before.  The same goes for the rooftop battle and escape with Catwoman.

 

This leads to Alfred’s goodbye, which hinges on the lie about Rachel, so it can stay pretty much intact, with little dialogue tweaks. 

 

From this point forward, the movie stays the same, with a tweak here and there.  One of those would be some shots of regular Gothamites (including the mother and baby from Blake’s building) cowering as Bane’s army takes the streets.  This would make it clear that Gotham’s been taken over by scum and mercenaries, not “the people.”  The movie can’t make its case if we never see them.

 

As I said, this doesn’t clean up the little holes.  Hopefully, the changes I detailed would create an audience that would be more forgiving of them.  This version of the movie would convey its themes better, but also be more entertaining from start to finish. 

 

In Conclusion

TDK and TDKR are both movies that place theme and character over plot.  No matter how “realistic” Nolan tried to make them seem, they’re still superhero movies.  Superhero stories rise and fall on their theme, and how well all the other elements serve it.  When that happens, things like the police coming out from three months underground freshly shaved don’t bother viewers as much.   

 

I have to mention that I love the very end of the movie.  Even with the movie as it stands, Bruce Wayne’s last act before “dying” is to pass the last of his estate to the poorest of Gotham’s people and his Batman resources go to a regular cop.  It’s proof the movie’s heart isn’t with the aristocrats, despite what many people think.  Batman hasn’t just saved the city from Bane, he’s left its future in better hands.  That’s what he does, BHFB.

Goodreads Review: Straight Man (Richard Russo)

3 Stars

As much as I enjoyed Straight Man, I wanted to like it even more. The humor was rooted in character, as opposed to the author constantly straining to prove how clever he is. While things were inflated a bit beyond reality, it was never to the point that it felt fake. Most of all, the lead character’s observations about the world around him felt true.

What keeps me from giving this four stars, though, is the lead character, William Henry Devereaux, Jr. I appreciated Russo giving us a character who kept the world, and his responsibilities in it, at an ironic distance, but it also kept me from caring as much about what happened to him. This is the opposite of what I felt reading Empire Falls. It doesn’t kill the book; it just kept it from being an all-time favorite.

The Art and the Artist (or Roman Polanski: International Fugitive)

Many years ago, I went to one of my first comic book conventions and met a writer/artist who I’d practically worshipped since I started collecting in the mid-eighties.  It was my first time meeting someone I considered a legend.  It couldn’t have been more of a let-down.  The guy acted like I was wasting his time, shrugged off my compliments, and chided me for not bringing books from his latest series to sign.

I was nineteen and the experience was demoralizing.  How could this guy, who created stories I loved, turn out to be such a tool?  Today, getting very close to forty, I’m grateful for the experience.  It was my first, and best, lesson in separating the work from its creator. 

It’s an idea that makes sense on paper, but can be tough in real life.  If you read a novel that touches you deeply, how can you not want the author to be a great person?  After all, their art is a product of their self-expression.  How can they touch so many people with a book, movie, etc., if they’re shallow in the day-to-day?

Well, it happens.  It’s not unlike the psychologist who guides people to a better state of mind, all while their own life falls apart.  People often don’t make sense on paper, so I worked very hard at keeping my hopes in check going forward.

But does it hit a point where you can’t separate the two?  Take Roman Polanski.  He’s one of the all-time great directors and probably still has the talent to make great movies.  The problem is the whole “him raping a thirteen year-old and fleeing the country after the trial didn’t go his way” thing.  I know he has his defenders, but if some guy down the street did the same thing, no one would feel sorry for him.  I understand the guy was screwed up, but if he’d just done his time this whole thing wouldn’t be as big of a deal. 

There’s a part of me that says it’s still okay to see his movies.  They’re not about raping thirteen year-olds, after all.  Isn’t what goes on in his life a separate issue from the content of his films?  What about Orson Scott Card?  Or even Woody Allen?  Every time I read someone talking about boycotting their work, I see a reply about how their personal opinions or issues have nothing to do with the work itself.

But do certain creators take it to a point where it’s no longer about that separation, but instead about supporting a career of someone you don’t think deserves it? 

I think it does.  I don’t shell out any more money for Roman Polanski films.  I can separate the artist from the art once he’s either turned himself in or shuffled off his mortal coil.  I’ve also decided the same thing for Woody Allen, though that one hurts a lot more.  While his good-to-bad ratio has tilted more towards bad in recent years, he’s still important to me as a creator.  Twenty years ago, his movies opened my brain up about film making as a craft. 

Of course, he could also be innocent, but when the victim herself steps forward to say he did it, I’ll fall on the side of not giving him any more of my money.

It’s not a perfect stance to take.  I buy products all the time that are probably made in conditions I don’t agree with or the money goes to causes I don’t support.  There comes a point, though, where it’s thrown in your face and you can’t ignore it.  It may not be perfect, but you could go insane trying to be right all the time.  If you take a realistic look at life, you know you have to choose your battles.

So I’ve chosen to not support certain artists in the present.  I’ll make the effort to separate them from their work when they can no longer directly benefit from it.  I think that’s as good as I can do for now.

 

By the way, I (and some friends) had dinner with Bruce Campbell about a year after that comic con incident.  The guy was as cool as I’d hoped he’d be.  It was good to know sometimes it can work out that way.  

What Everyone Gets Wrong About The Dark Knight Returns

I don’t talk about Frank Miller very often any more.  It’s been many years since he’s done anything artistically interesting and his political commentary makes me feel sad for him.  How did this once-great artist turn into an angry old man who once in a while turns out lazy garbage like Holy Terror?  He’s lapsed so far into self-parody that you can sometimes forget how good the guy once was.

 

This is probably the number one reason why it’s becoming hip to dump on The Dark Knight Returns.  It’s hard to read it now and not see the beginnings of ideas he’s become fanatical about.  Also, I understand people are turned off by its depictions of Batman and, even more so, Superman.  They don’t really fit in with my ideal versions of the characters either.

 

There’s one thing, though, that people misunderstand about TDKR, and it’s something that changes the entire meaning of the book.  And what is that one thing?

 

The Dark Knight Returns does not take place in the future.

 

That’s right, it’s set in the early- to mid-eighties.  That’s why Reagan is still the President.  We’re not seeing the end of the modern-era Batman.  This is the Batman of the fifties and sixties, now old and discouraged.  The same for Superman.  Once you realize this, the meaning of the book changes.

 

TDKR is Miller’s rejection of the Eisenhower era of superheroes, which is when DC ruled the roost.  Batman is rebelling against the assumptions heroes made in those times and Superman is following them to their logical conclusion.  As much as I hate a Superman that plays along with the authorities, no matter where it takes him, it’s the logical trajectory for who he was in the Silver Age.

 

It would be the logical progression for the Silver Age Batman as well, but Miller has set the character up as the wiser counterpoint to the accepted ideology of the past age.  The trust we put in authority was misplaced, and Batman spends the entire book setting an example on how to fight the moral rot that’s set in.

 

So if we’re going to argue about the merits of TDKR, let’s make sure we’re starting from the right place.

I Will Return

I’m about to jump back into blogging.  I didn’t even look to see when my last post was.  A long time ago, I’m sure.

 

This blog will be focused back on culture, entertainment, and history.  I might even write about my quest to become a “real writer.”  Whatever the case, I’ll be working my best to bring enjoyment back to the tens upon tens of people who once read my work here.

Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009

This is my GoodReads write-up of the latest, and last, LoEG chapter.

While I’ve enjoyed the post-Black Dossier LoEG work more than others I speak to, I still find myself disappointed by its conclusion. I respect Moore and O’Neil’s changing of the tone from adventure to meditation on fiction and have been happy to flow with the change as it happened. I’ve always enjoyed walking through the world, fictional and real, from Moore’s perspective.

This latest book, however, reveals his Achilles heel: satirizing modern culture despite his shallow experience in it. I understand his points about franchises and corporate entities spoiling imagination but I don’t know if current popular fiction is really worse than the era his main characters come from. This is especially true of the Harry Potter series, which he puts in the cross hairs in 2009. His criticisms of the boy wizard and his world ring hollow. It makes me wonder if he knows anything about the series beyond the first two books, as the themes and characterizations Rowling presented are far richer than he acknowledges.

It’s likely he hasn’t dug deep into Harry Potter or much else and that becomes a problem when you’re looking to skewer it all.

That said, the book is still full of surprises along with some great character bits. I personally love the James Bond concepts he throws around. Also, I can forgive a deus ex machina when the person delivering it is that unexpected. As always, O’Neil’s artwork is great and I’ll have fun poking through the details over the next couple of days.

Alan Moore and Frank Miller were the great comic creators of my youth. While they’re both no longer creating their best work, I’ll take Moore in a reduced form any day over Miller’s descent into (unintentional) self-parody.