Friday, June 30, 2006

Superheroes For All Seasons

Continuing with the comic-related discussion from the last posting here on the old SF soapbox, my wife and I took my parents’ godchildren out to see “Superman Returns” last night, and on the drive home after dropping the kids off, we had that classic discussion: if you could be any superhero, who would it be?
First of all, as an aside, I can’t resist giving a review of Bryan Singer’s take on The Man Of Steel. All of us (my wife, who likes a good action movie and who’s growing into a speculative fiction fan, but who never read comics; my parents’ 12-year-old goddaughter who doesn’t really go in for the action movie scene; the 14-year-old godson who likes action movies and reads a little SF but isn’t into comics; and then there’s yours truly) thoroughly enjoyed it. To be sure, I didn’t think it was as good as Richard Donner’s 1978 version starring the late Christopher Reed. This take lacked it’s predecessor’s sense of the wonder of believing a man can fly, the majesty of an alien civilization with vastly superior technology but tragically human flaws, and the pathos of a hero bound to protect the world when he only wants to be with one woman. But “Superman Returns” was never billed as a redo – rather as a sequel to “Superman, The Movie” and “Superman II” (wisely choosing to ignore the half-hearted “Superman III” with Richard Pryor and the execrable “Superman IV – The Quest For Peace”), and I think Singer has done an admirable job in that respect. Part of what made the story so entertaining was the inclusion of many overt and sly nods to the previous incarnations of Superman. And speaking of previous incarnations, let’s also give the nod to Singer for weaving bits of the late Marlon Brando’s dialogue as Jor-el from the 1978 version into this story to act as a nice bridge between the two and to underline the flavour of Krypton in Superman’s life that would otherwise be absent from the movie.
Brandon Routh was believable as Kal-el, and I’m completely on the bandwagon with those who say at times Routh bore an uncanny resemblance to Reed.
Kudos to Frank Langella for his portrayal of Daily Planet editor Perry White – an actor (aided by a well-thought-out script) who has the rare talent and wisdom (let’s include Robert Duval in this exclusive club for his performance in “The Paper”) to portray a newsdirector (there’s my broadcast background rearing its ugly head again) as an intelligent, caring and even-keeled individual (as most of them are), rather than the soul-less, immoral, childish, frothing-at-the-mouth attack dog cliché that most actors, writers and directors wrongly believe populate the industry.
The real applause needs to go Kevin Spacey for his performance as the arch-villain Lex Luther. Okay, you’re probably all saying Spacey could give a great performance in his sleep, and you’re right. But the point is that where he could have been sleepwalking through the film, he wasn’t – Spacey was very much alive in his crafting of Luther to evolve in his villainy. Spacey kept the laissez-faire goofiness Gene Hackman gave Luther, but matured it at times with a frightening coldness and dashes of spicy viciousness. And then there was his wardrobe: three-piece suits and combat boots. I found myself thinking back to the character of Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” talking haute couture with a prisoner and referring to an expensive haberdasher’s in London: “I hear Arafat buys his suits there.”
And the special effects were very cool – we saw it in Imax with 20 minutes (at various points) in 3D. I thought at times the 3D was a little blurry, but that could have been simply because we didn’t get there early enough to get good seats, and being forced to sit in the 2nd row and cran our necks up 90 degrees admittedly may not have given the screen the perspective intended to make the effects work.
The story, for the most part, worked. Was it perfect? Far from it. I think my biggest problem was Singer’s decision to remove the much-talked-about act showing Superman’s exploration of the wreckage of Krypton. Singer’s excuse in cutting the 20-30 minute segment from the film was that it didn’t add anything to the story. I disagree. The story is about Superman’s reintegration into a world that’s learned to get along without him during his 5-year absence. While, admittedly, the focus of the story should be about that reintegration, if the lure of exploring the remains of his home was so great to draw Superman away from Earth, Singer should have given us a clear picture of it - even if only for 5 minutes - something that would let us see Superman’s human side as he reacts to the ancient devastation confronting him. The presentation of the reality of Superman’s original home being a disaster, being something inaccessible in its deadness, would have been a poignant reflection of the reality of life back on an Earth where his world involving a love with Lois Lane is equally inaccessible because of her new life. Singer certainly should have given us more than a big bang with the opening credits and a recently-returned Clark muttering “It was a graveyard.” to Ma Kent. I also found it a little odd that Superman was able to lift into space, with his bare hands, an entire island (that was continuing to grow) that had an unhealthy percentage of its mass made of Kryptonite, when minutes earlier touching that same island had weakened him severely. Never mind that this was done with a nasty little shank of Kryptonite in his kidney. I briefly wondered if the lifting of an entire island itself was pushing it, but then again, in ’78 Superman flew backwards in time to prevent Lois Lane’s death, so, being that he is The Man Of Steel, we’ll allow it. The other oddity that struck me was that the island, with its hexagonally-pattered topside facing outwards and its jagged bottom facing planetside, once adrift in space, looked an awful lot like the Black Fortress of the Beast in “Krull”.
In any event, “Superman Returns” is certainly worth the full price of admission.
But getting back to the original point (that was along aside, even by my standards, wasn’t it?), on the drive home, my wife and I had that classic discussion about who you would choose if you could become any superhero.
Some people are very quick on the draw and will tell you they’ve always wanted to be ________ ever since they were a little kid, and are still drawn to movies, comics, books, action figures, Underoos Funderwear, what have you that involve their favourite hero.
Some people can’t make up their minds. Such party-fare discussions always result in somebody asking Brody’s questions from Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats” about whether to choose a character based on powers, skills or ability to banter well with villains.
Some don’t have an answer at all because, for whatever reason, they never watched Saturday morning cartoons or read comics or played with action figures or went to movies featuring superheroes.
But it occurred to me that at least in my own case, the answer to the question of “who would you be?” has changed over the years of my life. The choice has matured as I have. (okay, okay, enough with the cheap cracks about my nonexistent level of maturity, wisenheimers!)
I think Brody’s questions about basing a choice on certain skills or powers or personality traits reflects, to some extent (and I’m still not sure how much) a person’s desires, fantasies, ego, flaws they think they need to compensate for, and other aspects of their personalities. And I think some of this has to do (sometimes) with a person’s level of maturity – their stock of experiences, what they’ve made of them, and what they make of their current place in life.
As a young boy, it was Superman. Hands down. Most little boys in the neighbourhood wanted to be Superman (with the exception of one or two who leaned towards Batman or the Flash – no Captain Marvels, thank-you very much) while the girls were all lined-up to be Wonder Woman. To me, what was great was that Superman could fly. He had super strength, super speed, super vision, laser vision, super hearing and no-one who didn’t have a fistful of Kryptonite could stop him. And Superman always did the right thing. He helped people. Being enamored of the physical powers was typical of your average suburban munchkin who thinks the universe is his playground and that there should be no boundaries to his exploration of it that he can’t overcome by using his wits and abilities. Being unstoppable would’ve been handy to deal with the depredations of the neighbourhood bullies – 9-year-olds who needed someone to show them that it wasn’t right to pick on 4 and 5-year-olds. And knowing that Superman helps people in trouble earns points after the little tyke has seen those bullies beat up his friends and steal their bikes, and maybe pounded him too when he’s jumped in to try and help his friends. It was tough to learn that sometimes you can do the right thing and try to help people in trouble and still get hurt bad and maybe face odds so great that despite all your trying and all the suffering you endure, you can’t make things right. But what Superman taught us was that in spite of that you have to try, and, as cheesy as it may sound, that’ll make you super inside, and you’ll know it when the little girl who had her bike stolen says thanks for trying.
Then the late teenage years. Ah, testosterone explosion fuelling feelings of invincibility, a desire to change the world damaged by the stupidities of your forebears, an excess of righteous indignation, and a smartass streak about as wide as the country. For me, those years saw the solitary god Superman give way to the seemingly irreconcilable twin idols of Spiderman and Ghostrider. (the Ghostrider version 2 from the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, that is, not the circus-stuntrider turned cackling cornball of the original 1970’s version – what was with the obsession with circuses in the ‘70’s, anyway?)
Spiderman was cool not for his powers (which were acceptable), but because of his ability to banter well with supervillains in the heat of combat. In fact, Spiderman’s ability to taunt should have been listed as a power in itself. What teenager doesn’t respect the smartass? The Webslinger’s observations of absurdities (including his own) helped maintain the crucial element of fun in comics. That’s not to say I disapprove of action or suspense or drama-oriented comics – I don’t, in fact I quite enjoy those as well. But when it comes to superhero fare, a comic can’t take itself too seriously without becoming boring. Spiderman also worked because Peter Parker was basically just a regular guy trying to do the right thing. Sometimes he failed – a bad guy would defeat him and escape or an innocent victim would die – but in his moments of triumph Parker never let it go to his head and never saw himself as greater than the average Joe who’s ass he’d just saved.
Ghostrider, on the other hand, was a bad-ass without being a bad guy. Silent and deadly (unlike his previous chopper-straddling incarnation from the ‘70’s who just couldn’t shut up). A leather-clad specter with a flaming skull, a flaming bike, a rumble chain with some real flexibility in its use, super strength, near invulnerability, and the penance stare that reduced all but the most implacable of villains to sobbing jelly. Even for mild-mannered teens like I was, there’s always a hormone-driven desire to be the tough guy. Never mind that the conflagration during the host-kid’s transformation into the Ghostrider looked really, really painful. It was just a matter of me and my fellow comic-readin’ buddies saying: hey, there’s a dude even Wolverine had to give the nod to.
Of course, when Todd MacFarlane had Spidey and the Ghostrider team up in one issue of his short-lived “Spiderman” comic, he brought their fundamental natures into collision, even though they were working together. Peter Parker had no trouble telling his demonic partner that he had no respect for the final-solution/extreme measures, no exceptions style espoused by Ghostrider and the rest of the horde of popular antiheroes patrolling the streets. And ultimately I had to come down on Spidey’s side, cause the real world’s far too complex of a lot of oversimplified extreme measures.
During my 20’s, I think I would have identified most with the Turtle from George R.R. Martin’s collaborative “Wildcards” series. A basically likeable, normal guy, endowed with unparalleled telekinetic abilities, but who has to hide in an armoured shell for fear of being vulnerable to physical attack that might distract him from using his powers. What was best was that the Turtle was a three-dimensional character. He had personal flaws and unlike most superheroes he had real doubts about some of things going on, and wasn’t always comfortable with what he had to do. When New York was threatened by an army of malicious teens with the ability to hijack people’s bodies, Turtle was part of the assault on their island hideout and ultimately had to use his powers to sink the thing once and for all. Once it was over, Turtle left in disgust - disgust with himself and everyone else for allowing a situation to develop where hundreds of teens had to be slain, as much of a threat as they were. This is not to say that at the time I was involved in anything remotely close to this kind of moral trauma, but it was the appeal of a normal guy with real human reactions to superhuman insanity that appealed to me.
Now, dwelling in the thirtysomething region (no reference intended to that bucket of ‘80’s yuppie swill TV show), I find myself again thinking that I’d have to choose between two superheroes. On one hand, there’s Mr. Incredible. Super strength and super durability, and basically a nice guy living next door who loves his family and wants to help people. (cue the sappy “awwww!”) On the other hand, there’s the rolly-poly goofiness and explosive energy of Captain Chaos. You heard me. Captain Chaos. The superhero alter-ego of Victor Prinzi (as played by Dom Deluise), the sidekick of Burt Reynolds in that classic romp (or, ode to drunken speeding) “The Cannonball Run”. Admittedly, part of my attraction here is the similar physical profile – a tubby dude with a moustache. But ya gotta love Captain Chaos’ heart. Here’s a hero who’ll jump in full-bore to help his friends when they need him – whether it’s blasting down the highway in a fake ambulance weaving between racing Ferraris and Lamborghinis, or forgoing winning the Cannonball to rescue a drowning dog, or single-handedly tackling a squad of surly bikers to save a pair damsels in distress – regardless of the fact that he has no superpowers. He’s even got the guts to launch into a verbal performance of his personal theme music (“Dah-duh-DAAAAAH!”) every time he makes an appearance. Long live the Captain!
So, as you prepare to amble into your local googleplex theatre to watch the adventures of the X-Men or Superman or the Super Ex-Girlfriend this summer, answer me this: if you could be any superhero, who would you be?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Popcorn Ideals – Why It’s Not A Bad Thing To Cuddle Up With A Hot Buttered Bowl Of Comics

I was given a copy of the first issue of a new comic series recently, “Darkness Falls”, published by The Healthy Aboriginal Network, and it got me to thinking about the value of discussing moral, ethical, mental health, medical and spiritual issues in comics, and by extension, in comic book movies. Admittedly, this had already been on my mind in recent weeks because of the theatrical release of “X-Men: Last Stand” and all the promo hype for “Superman Returns” and the accompanying resurrection of discussions of the Man of Steel’s philosophical implications.
For now, let’s put aside the whole debate about high vs. low culture, pop vs. the classics. Let’s not get into an epic, bicep-flexing, taunt-throwing, electrified slugfest about why the so-called elite lump comics as a body together, making no distinction between Wolverine and Maus, as they dismiss this nearly hundred-year-old art form as vulgar or scripted pose-offs, while extolling the pretentious dreck of Margaret Atwood and Louis Hemon. Let’s just treat comics and their movie spin-offs as pieces of our larger cultural tapestry.
Issue number one of “Darkness Falls” centres on a pudgy young artist struggling with life as he deals with bullying from teachers, fellow students and parents, as well as the harsh realities of existence on his first nation’s reserve. All of this causes him to question his self-worth and to consider suicide. During a tale spun by a native elder, the boy connects to his culture through a trickster spirit-turned-superhero who battles the evil phantom that preys on those who become lost, confused or despairing. In the end, the boy defeats the evil spirit and his suicidal feelings by declaring that he wants to live.
Right off the bat, I’ll tell ya this book has got some great art. The superhero and monster are standard fare, but it’s the vivid bleakness of the prairies at sundown that’s so perfectly captured as it both contrasts and compliments the brooding claustrophobia of a high school or household where you think everyone’s out to get you.
And the comic is to be credited for its cultural empowerment value. It’s important for youth of all cultures to see themselves positively represented in media, and this is especially true of first nations kids who must learn to hold on to their heritage as they deal with today’s challenges. Allowing the kid who’s seemingly the victim of a problem to step in and not only assist, but save his own hero by himself driving off the bad guy is an example more youth (from every culture) need to have more often.
Some may say, and rightly so, that the storyline itself isn’t terribly complex. That it’s the hit-you-over-the-head simplicity of dealing with tough issues that’s typical of Saturday morning cartoons, that it’s the light and fluffy, buttery sweet fare of movie theatre popcorn.
Admittedly, the reality is that suicidal feelings sometimes take a lot of councilling and soul-searching to overcome, and simply constructing a superheroic adventure around an elder’s story, all presented over the course of a single day in a single comic issue, probably wouldn’t be enough to work through a crisis.
And to be sure, this sort of treatment of “the big issues” is par for the course in comics. The cheap presentation of good vs. evil, of justice and social responsibility, friendship, loyalty and true love are played out every week in volumes galore of Marvel and DC. This is taken off the page and onto the screen in their movie adaptations, as we’ve seen recently with “X-Men: Last Stand” and its treatment of genetic tinkering and revision, social acceptance, pride in being what you are, revenge, self sacrifice and genocide.
Critics may argue this simplistic presentation of complex issues is harmful to youth, giving them a black and white view of a very grey world, or that it gives the impression that such issues can be solved quickly and relatively easily, or that a “good guy” facing a challenge can succeed by sheer force of being right and the possibility of failure is an empty fear.
I say there’s nothing wrong with comics or their movie spin-offs dealing with the big tough issues, even if they do it simply.
I’ve known a number of people over the years, and seen and heard interviews with others, who’ve said reading comics early on gave them important lessons on right and wrong because comics were an entertaining medium that was easy to identify with and the simple presentation of the morals within made them easy to grasp at a young age. As such, it’s eminently wise for aboriginal groups to get into comics to affect how those moral are illustrated and to present to youth the tough issues, such as suicide, which face some of them. They’re taking a widespread and youth-accepted pop culture medium and making it their own to present positive role models to their youngsters and to deliver messages that youth can get help with problems, that youth can empower themselves, and that there is hope.
But most importantly, I think the presentation of big issues in the comic format is valid because comics (like literature, movies, paintings, television, sculpture, music, theatre, photography – did I leave any out?) are ideally the beginning of dialogue, both internal and external, as well as entertainment. They are not, as some critics would warn, a closed system where a youth is fed an idea and never given the opportunity to explore it further. We all know that when kids lock onto an idea that interests them, or touches them emotionally in some way, they’re relentless in their pursuit of more information about it – especially now in the computer age. Whether they talk with friends, parents, elders or hunt down information on the internet or in a library, youth who want information usually know how to get it. Presenting issues such as suicide on a comic book platform is a way of getting kids thinking about how they can help themselves or others deal with crisis. It’s the creation of talking points where the youth can bounce the issue off of other people and perhaps get a deeper understanding of the issue and get directed towards sources of help. In an age where many adults complain about how hard it is to talk to youth, the wise person finds common ground or language – finds out what a kid is interested in so that they can talk with the kid about something that interests him in order to build mutual understanding, trust, and meaningful dialogue about important issues.
Maybe then, you might say that a better metaphor for big issues in comics is that of a salad, instead of popcorn, because it comes before the more complex and filling entre, as opposed to popcorn, which usually doesn’t come before anything else, unless you’re dining out at the local pub and the entre is 5 cent wings, and if that’s the case, it’s entirely possible (as a critic might worry) that you may not be having wings at all and the popcorn itself might constitute the entire solid portion of the meal. But I’ll stick with popcorn because to use salad for some reason leads me to soup, and that makes me think of Sean Connery’s line in Finding Forrester about “soup questions” which have to do more with obtaining information useful to oneself, instead of presenting ideas for discussion – although, you could argue they’re kind of the same thing. But I digress. I’m babbling.
I also like popcorn as metaphor for the big issues because the reality is that popcorn by itself is attractive, it’s a draw. How could you not like that combination of airy crunch, salt, and buttery sweetness (unless of course, you break a tooth on an errant kernel or choke on a bit of kernel husk – okay, I’m babbling again)? Go to any movie theatre or sports arena and you’ll see the popcorn stand keeps everyone, young and old, coming back for more. And what invariably happens when the popcorn they get is good? They talk about how good it is with each other. And when it comes to looking at, and hopefully later discussing, the big issues like suicide, that’s a pretty good start.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings or other problems, remember that you’re not alone. Help is available. Contact your local distress line, crisis centre, mental health office or councilling service to get help. Contact information is usally available in your local Yellow Pages or online.