The Culture Beat

July 12, 2011

Movie Preview: The Captain is Coming

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:05 am

The summer season film I’ve been looking forward to more than any other is Captain America: The First Avenger, the third 2011 blockbuster based on the red, white and blue Marvel superhero and the second this summer produced by Marvel Studios’ brilliant team working since the first Iron Man film to create a cinematic Marvel universe of interrelated movies, mirroring the comic books’ continuity.

I read Captain America’s adventure as a boy when in the 1960s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby resurrected the World War II star spangled avenger that had been created by comics’ art king Kirby and Joe Simon during World War II. Then, in comics’ Golden Age, Kirby’s graceful, dynamic style (pictured at the top) had Cap’s lean figure literally bursting out of the panels as he took on Nazi scum including his chief nemesis, the terrifying Red Skull. One of the top titles of the era, Captain America and his young sidekick, Bucky Barnes, gave the Nazi’s heck, but after the war ended, so did Cap’s essential reason for being and a long twilight decline would finally end his run in the early 1950s.

The genius of Lee and Kirby’s revival of the Sentinel of Liberty, was that, in 1964, during creation of the Marvel Universe, having the newly formed Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp, and the Hulk briefly), discover Cap’s frozen body and his quick defrosting meant that Marvel suddenly had given itself a new anchor in history and the previously uncomplicated Cap was now newly able to fit into the comics company’s new world of complicated heroes. A man out of time, Cap’s need to find a purpose became his complicating factor. Even as a kid, reading about a supremely athletic hero who didn’t fit in made Cap more interesting. He wasn’t the strongest, fastest or strangest of Marvel’s growing staple, but he was the noblest and most experienced warrior who had the gravity of having served his country and lost his young partner, Bucky, on their last mission. Guilt, combined with a drive for justice made Captain America both a metaphor for American virtue and a very human, relatable character.

Putting Captain America into live action has proved daunting. During the 1940s, Cap’s popularity had earned him his own movie serial, but the more one watches those cliffhanging chapters, the more you see how little the producers kept of the character. For one thing, he’s not even Steve Rogers, the result of a secret Super Soldier experiment, working with our armed forces–he’s a stateside adventurer, District Attorney Grant Gardner, and there are many other departures. The costume is also changed in several ways as this trailer indicates. There were a couple of cheap TV movies in the 1980s that tried to do live action versions of the hero but are best left forgotten. A 1990 theatrical film, made for about $49 further disgraced the Living Legend of WWII and showed what a direct translation of Cap’s colorful costume would look like in live action cinematography–embarrassing. Something like the Universal Islands of Adventures cast member I took a picture of.

So the new movie, debuting the 22nd of this month, looks like Hollywood, with Marvel’s enabling, has licked the adaptation challenge with heaps of production values fueled by what once source said was around $140 million to recreate the halcyon days of the 1940s and to design a believable costume that honors the original but is realistic about how a functional costume would work. The flag’s colors are muted yet quite recognizable with a paratrooper built-in harness to motivate the red vertical stripes. This appears to be the final stage of the progressive development, throughout the film, of the WWII era costume. Cap’s uniform always had what looked like a chain nail shirt and the pads strapped around the shoulders functions similarly. Overall, it looks like this will be a successful adaptation that meets the challenge of translating what could have been a hopelessly cornball character into a believable live action superhero.


June 26, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:00 pm

This won’t take too long–most critics found Warner Brothers’ latest attempt to exploit another character from their DC Comics’ stable into a franchise that would earn them lots of, er, green, to be too conventional and comic book fans found it bad storytelling with messed up motivations and arbitrary plot moves. I wasn’t expecting much since the trailers didn’t successfully intrigue and Ryan Reynolds in the lead seemed like bad casting. More about that later, but the real reason I was cool to the idea was that Green Lantern doesn’t translate well to blockbuster mode.

Let me explain: I’ve read the Green Lantern title and others over the last two or three years in order to follow two epic narratives by Geoff Johns: “The Sinestro Corps. War” and later, “Blackest Night.” The first story was pretty great comic book storytelling with beautiful art telling of an intergalactic war started by classic bad guy Sinestro using fear as his driving force behind his army’s yellow power rings. The Blackest Night storyline was basically a DC Zombies epic as members of newly discovered multi-colored ring corp representing other emotions strove mightily to get through what was to me a very convoluted story. A few months after the event, I gave up on the Green Lantern titles; I discovered that all that time spent with this large cast didn’t make me care about them any more.

The biggest problem I think is that, when it comes down to it, the idea of an army with power rings who can fight evil by forming giant fly swatters or cannons belongs more to a young boy’s imagination than to a popular blockbuster film designed for a broad audience. When my wife and I finished watching the movie, she said, “This idea of green power rings is great if you’re an eight-year old boy.” Uh-huh. I’m afraid the biggest problem though, is the main character, Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern from Earth and the main character. Since his beginning in the DC Universe’s early Silver Age of the late 1950s, Hal greatest strength was his character design. Drawn by comic book artist legend Gil Kane, who had used the young Paul Newman as the basis for Hal Jordan, his simple, elegantly designed green corps uniform (with white gloves, by the way) and super science origins, always looked cool as he flew in a way no other superhero did. But Hal, essentially, a space cop, never had much of a personality and thus, after Marvel’s revolutionary injection of conflict into their stable of characters, Hal Jordan looked sort of bland. In fact, DC realized this in the 90s and had Hal, driven over the edge by the destruction of his home town, become a power mad supervillain which eventually resulted in his destruction. And as we know from experience, no hero in comics stays dead for long. A few years ago, Johns came up with a resurrection scheme to bring back Jordan, much to fans’ happiness. But though Johns added a more complex backstory to Jordan’s life, he’s still the stoic, and sometimes brusque cop on the beat–but as drawn, he looks cool, if dull.

And that’s not enough to carry a movie, even with Reynold’s charm and the artificial imparting of a reluctant hero arc in the movie, he’s not the compelling character you need to carry a franchise that DC, despite the film’s disappointing debut, still plans to continue with a planned sequel–which sounds like backwards logic. So, maybe it will take place on Bizarro World.

June 5, 2011

Mad (X-)Men

Filed under: Comics,Movies — Alex @ 10:08 pm

(After a hectic several months of Spring semester, I’m a little freer to post again-it’s good to be back. Is anybody there????)

This has been a very good start of the blockbuster season. Thor, Marvel Studio’s opening volley in a double feature along (with this July’s Captain America: The First Avenger), has made over $400 million. Last week’s Kung Fu Panda 2, though not spectacular at around 85 million thus far, was still a worthy and great looking sequel to the Dreamworks animated film. And the hits continue with the revival of the Marvel mutant franchise, X-Men: First Class, which takes a risk by resetting its continuity by doing a team origin story beginning in 1962, or actually earlier if you include the 1940s, when we see the future supervillain Magneto, a teenage Eric Lehnsherr, in a replay of the 2000 X-Men scene when the victim of the Nazi regime is separated from his parents and his mutant magnetism manifests itself. And in a safer locale, young Charles Xavier makes friends with another young mutant who thinks herself alone. Both Eric and Charles are beginning paths that will define two approaches to dealing with mutant persecution, Charles by seeking peaceful co-existence and Eric by learning to hate and attack his persecutors. The film is a splendid origin story and remixes the themes of the earlier X-Men films into an epic and stylish period piece set in the Cold War, coinciding with the era when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created Marvel’s Merry Mutants.

This is the best X-Men film yet as it balances three major characters, Charles, Eric and Sebastian Shaw, energy wielding leader of the horrific Hellfire Club, who plots humanity’s destruction to make way for the mutant homo superior species. Lehnsherr watched Shaw kill his mother, an act intended to release Eric’s rage and thus his powers and has sought revenge ever since. Charles seeks a more peaceful way and functions as Eric’s conscience as the two work together to discover more mutants and recruit them for the CIA. Here the title of the film comes into effect, as one-by-one, teenagers, secretly aware of their powers but terrified of being different find a (temporarily) refuge with the US government.

The film’s period setting is even more amusing with Shaw’s associate, Emma Frost, a telepath like Charles, played by Mad Men‘s January Jones, who didn’t have to change her hairstyle for the part, but seems to have stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue,if they had existed then with her skimpy white costumes. The well-structured script allows various characters to smoothly soar through their dramatic arcs as each must wrestle with which path they will take toward humanity. There are several effective moments of warmth and poignancy that ground the story in what made Marvel stand out from traditional superhero comics in the 1960s “Silver Age,”characters readers could relate too because these superpowered beings had essentially the same problems they did. Yes, for years, “mutant” has functioned in X-Men as a floating metaphor for all kinds of prejudice and alienation and the dialog’s repeated chorus of “Mutant and Proud” underlines these themes.

By the end of the film, the stage has been artfully set for further X-ventures, new recruits on both sides and a powerful jolt to several acting careers, particularly Michael Fassbender, who marvelously evokes one of the comics best supervillains, Magneto, who almost makes being a mutant terrorist justified.

November 14, 2010

Comics I Am/Not Reading

Filed under: Comics — Alex @ 10:45 pm

My last posting on comics, discussed the end of a series of grim-sounding crossovers for both DC (Blackest Night) and Marvel (Dark Reign) that promised a new “Heroic Age” for Marvel and the “Brightest Day” for DC. And earlier than that, in the summer of 2009, I wrote about “Death and Rebirth in the Comics World,”specifically those of Captain America and Batman. The latter post discussed the latest “killing off” of two of comics’ greatest characters, acts that are assumed to be opportunities to let the characters lie fallow for a season to recharge their creative potential.

Last year Captain America returned, sorta, when he was retrieved from the careering about the space-time continuum and emerged as Steve Rogers after his resurrected sidekick, a now-grown Bucky Barnes, had taken up the shield in his stead. To my surprise, Rogers wore the star-spangled suit very little, ceding the mantle of the Sentinel of Liberty to Barnes while he took on the leadership of the Secret Avengers (a title I’m enjoying), a superpowered black ops team as “Steve Rogers–Supersoldier”(illustrated above). I have always like Rogers as Cap and am expecting Barnes’ tenure to end by summer’s arrival of Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger feature. It’s impossible to imagine Marvel not returning Rogers to Cap status while he’s on the big screen. But when I realized that Bucky would still be Captain A for a while, I lost interest in the title book–some characters must be played by the person who originated the role–and Steve Rogers is Captain America.

Just as Bruce Wayne is Batman. When the evil Darkseid blasted Batman back to prehistoric times at the end of Final Crisis, we knew it was only a matter of time until Wayne returned. Until then, the original Robin, the now the grown Dick Grayson (Nightwing) again took up the mantle of the Bat and with a new, brattier and more lethal Robin, Damian, Wayne’s progeny as the current Boy Wonder. Part of a several years epic by Grant Morrison, the Batman and Robin title started out well, but I soon got lost in Morrison’s dense and perplexing narrative, never very accessible to start with.

Now that Wayne has re-entered the scene, readers learned that Dick will stay Batman, even while Bruce wears the cowl too. In fact, Wayne has decided to extend the brand–he’s revealed to the public that he has been financing Batman’s technology for years and that he will back anyone worthy of being a Batman in his, er, local market. This “Batman Inc.” concept, which removes any singularity about the Dark Knight, is about the worst idea I’ve ever seen regarding Batman in comics. Apparently I’m not alone. Although the good folks at IGN Comics seem to love everything about Morrison’s run, the most of the comments(below the review) reflect a high degree of disgust and/or confusion at the stories. I had hoped this would be my jumping-back-on point for the Caped Crusader, but, unless one of the Wayne as Batman titles attracts me, I’ll have to settle for back issues and the next Christopher Nolan Bat-film, The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.

April 5, 2010

Crises on multiple realities

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Science,Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 1:37 pm

This is a big year for alternate universes in pop culture. Where to begin? Last summer’s movie hit Star Trek rebooted the franchise by positing that a Romulan villain’s trip to the past that caused the death of the future Captain Kirk’s father, radically changed history. But it wasn’t by obliterating the long history of the Enterprise and its crew but by creating an alternate time stream with the same characters having different first meetings but still winding up together for some yet unwritten adventures.

And the J. J. Abrams sci-fi series Fringe, offered a mind-blowing revelation of a parallel universe impinging on the one of the main characters. But viewers of Abrams much more infamous series, Lost, are now experiencing alternate reality whiplash as the new and final season has left behind the series famous flashbacks and flash forwards to “flash-sideways” where we see the series’ characters living in a world in which Oceanic flight 815 never crashed on the island. Viewers are now asking which is the real world? Both? Neither? This picture of Jack Shephard in the Side-ways world suggests the parallel nature off his predicament.

It’s important to note that all of the above are part of Abrams’ Bad Robot productions with many of the same writers and producers using these concepts to create mind-bending tales whatever their understanding of or commitment to specific scientific theories.

Last night I watched JLA: Crisis on Two Earths, the latest in Warner Bros. direct-to-video movies featuring superheroes of the DC universe. The concept of multiple realities, based on the theory that every human choice creates a new universe, thus leading to a “multiverse” of infinite earths, feeds the concept of such stories. Despite the current vogue, the concept of parallel universes that are to some degree different from our own has spawned tales long before the 20th century. But instances of the science fiction thread discussed here can be found in television at least as early as several episodes of The Twilight Zone of the early 1960s and in the famous Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” wherein Kirk finds himself on a different, barbaric Enterprise with a goateed Mr. Spock.

Comics got into the act when in 1961, DC Comics offered “Flash of Two Worlds,” the “Silver Age” tale of the original speedster, Jay Garrick, from the comics “Golden Age” of the 1940s, meeting the new Flash, Barry Allen, who had been the instrument of DC’s rebooting of its superhero stories by re-inventing classic characters in an updated form. To account for characters of the same name who didn’t live in the same world, DC borrowed the alternate reality concept and posited that the Jay Garrick earth was slightly ahead, history wise, of Barry Allen’s earth and that many of the same characters had their versions in each world. Thus we would see more and more DC characters re-introduced into current continuity as inhabitants of “Earth One” often crossing over to or being visited by their counterparts on “Earth Two.”

Eventually there were two Green Lanterns, Atoms, Hawkmans (Hawkmen?) and others each with their distinctly different costume designed that sent young readers’ brains spinning with wonder and delight. Periodic expansion of the concept led to the discovery of other earths, one with an “Crime Syndicate” that had evil counterparts to Superman, Wonder Woman and others and resisted by its lone hero, Lex Luthor in a topsy turvy reversal.

Eventually, by the 1980s, DC had accumulated so many characters and parallel earths that it did a major housecleaning with its historic 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which saw the elimination of the multi-verse into a single universe. That tradition of dimensional crossovers is the basis of JLA: Crisis on Two Earths. The Batman criminal counterpart, Owlman (voiced by actor James Woods) does a surprising dive into philosophy by surmising that an infinite number of worlds created by choices makes human free will pointless and humanity insignificant. Thus it would be no crime if he was to set off a superbomb that will destroy the multiverse–just because he can. This isn’t the first time DC animators have delved into modern philosophy. In this YouTube clip from the Justice League series, titled here “Sartre and Superman,” the original evil Lex Luthor advises an android seeking purpose for his life, to go all existential and create his own purpose. Owlman shows his fidelity to his nihilist beliefs in the movie’s climax. This and a well-executed story lifts the movie out of simple bash and crash beat ’em ups.

Ultimately, none of these stories is meant to prove the reality of quantum physics. Writers just love to explore the dramatic story potential of parallel lives intertwining. Indeed, many are meditations on the consequences of human moral choices, again reminding us of the significance of our actions and the power of imagination.

Note: Soon after posting this, my buddy Thom Parham, also known as the “DCU Continuity Cop,” let me know of several errors of names of the complex DC history, which I’ve since corrected and for which I am grateful.

February 21, 2010

Reboots in Multiple Franchises

Filed under: Comics,General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 11:15 pm

The ongoing saga of Hollywood’s recycling of once-profitable movie properties continues. Earlier this month, Niki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood reported that the brilliant Christopher Nolan would oversee the script for a new Superman film while also beginning work on the next Batman screenplay. The director whose vision revived the Caped Crusader’s movie career in Batman Begins and trumped that with The Dark Knight seems just the guy to rescue Superman from the dead end he faced after the unsatisfying Superman Returns. I trust he understands that Bats and Supes are characters with completely different tones and sensibilities and won’t be tempted to darken the Man of Steel but find a way to make the first superhero soar again. And yes, though I’ve expressed doubt whether there was any way to top The Dark Knight, especially without the return of Heath Ledger’s Joker, I’m certain Nolan’s earned the right to try, after a couple of years to ponder a sequel.

The other big news in reboots comes from Television Without Pity which reports that plans are in the works to bring back Daredevil, Mission Impossible, and Riddick. Let’s take each in turn:

Daredevil: After Mark Steven Johnson’s overly ambitious letdown of Marvel’s sightless superhero in 2003, a new take would have to rethink the bad idea of telling all of old Hornhead’s greatest tales in once compressed feature. Think franchise instead of one-shot and the next film should pace itself to tell just one great story at a time. This, by the way, is a character that could benefit from Nolan’s approach to noirish style–for decades Daredevil has been the champ of Marvel’s mean streets, an almost self-made hero like Batman, except instead of cool toys, he’s got supersenses.

Mission Impossible: I’m agnostic on this property since I’ve never watched one of the films, so distasteful was the original concept of replacing the covert team caper approach of the television inspiration with a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. I utterly disavow any interest in anything but a fresh approach to the original concept.

Riddick: I saw the first of the two films, Pitch Black, which was a pretty good sci-fi B-film that helped launch Vin Diesel’s career, but skipped the hyper pretentious Chronicles of Riddick. I imagine this is part of Diesel’s comeback course, so good luck to him.

I believe one of these linked articles makes the point that those holding the franchises on superhero character are reviving them mostly because their permission to use the characters is based on either exploiting them in films or losing those rights–thus, besides the potential for profitability, studios don’t want to lose the millions possible for a job well done.

January 12, 2010

Spidey Goes Gritty

Filed under: Comics,Movies — Alex @ 2:34 pm

The long-running effort to return Spider-Man to the big screen just took a big left turn with this news release that Sony has decided to scrap the current franchise with director Sam Raimi and star Toby McGuire and reboot the character as a contemporary teenager. Seems that the team that brought billions into the studio’s coffers with the first three films just couldn’t agree what to do next. There was discussion of what villain the hero should face, the most recent being the geriatric Vulture. But all this isn’t really that surprising given that the franchise had succeeded in adapting the comic book hero to film far too successfully to continue.

The first Spider-Man film profitably launched the character with an origin story that stayed true to the classic comics story where Peter’s irresponsibility with his new powers leads to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben and his commitment to dedicate himself to fighting crime. Spider-Man 2 fulfilled the theme of self-denial as Peter’s mission was pursued at the painful loss of a normal life with his beloved Mary Jane Watson. Everything fans loved about the character was beautifully played out in the ultimate Spider-Man story. At the time I wondered where the next film could possibly go thematically that could improve or even equal it. And they couldn’t. The infamous sequel was a confused and constipated mash-up of too many villains, poorly structured plot and badly motivated lead characters. Yet Spider-Man 3 made almost $900,000,000 worldwide so of course Sony would plan on sequels. But Raimi must have sensed that he had succeeded too well and that there was no where else he could satisfactorily take the character.

Thus the tactic too often used by the comics industry–when a character gets tired, reboot it. Since the 1980s, there have been three or four different re-tellings of Superman’s origin. Now, the studio has decided that the only way to sustain the movie version of the character is to re-invent him. IOW, it’s Spider-Man Begins all over again, within memory of young people who can remember Raimi’s first origin story in 2002. By making Peter a teenager again, you return the character to his most appealing period as a new hero trying to get a handle on both his new powers and high school relationships complicated by his double life. But, as Toby McGuire who was 27 when he first played the teen hero and now at 35 is looking a little old for the eternally youthful Peter Parker, the problems of sustaining a comic book character’s unchanging age demonstrates why even a teen Spidey will need to be in a series of films paced every 18 to 24 months, like the brilliantly produced Harry Potter films, to sustain the teen concept.

And this also points to a looming issue for another comic book franchise, Warner Brothers fabulously successful Batman films: The Dark Knight‘s billion dollar success left the studio eager to follow up on Christopher Nolan’s artistic and financial success, but The Dark Knight, like Spider-Man 2, are both probably impossible to top and anything else would be a lesser effort–which of Batman’s supervillains could possibly offer a challenge to match the Joker’s? Will Warner’s be able to see this instead of dollar signs or will they follow Sony’s lead and re-conceptualize the franchise yet again with yet another director so that Batman begins yet again?

July 15, 2009

Death and Rebirth in the Comics World

Filed under: Comics — Alex @ 1:07 am

Batman_gravestone cross
Batman is still dead.

Actually, Batman is still swinging through Gotham City; it’s Bruce Wayne who’s still deceased, as I discussed a while back. After the “Battle for the Cowl” event, to no one’s surprise, former Robin Dick Grayson took his mentor’s place with a new Robin, 11-year old Damian Wayne, (Bruce’s son by archvillain Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Talia).

The best rendering of this new Dynamic Duo is in the new title, Batman and Robin, written by brainy scribe Grant Morrison with art by the incredible Frank Quitely. I had planned to avoid such stunt-driven crossover events as I waited for Bruce Wayne’s inevitable return after DC had squeezed all the story potential out of the new setup. But I gave Batman and Robin a try and actually came away impressed.
Quitely draws like no other artist, with both realistic detail and the ability to capture action, two qualities that rarely go together. And so far, Dick Grayson, predictably struggling to walk in Batman’s boots, and to handle the angry and arrogant Damian, is turning out to be an interesting central character. Dick was always the bright contrast to Batman’s darkness so having this character become the Dark Knight, if handled as well as the first two issues have done, holds intriguing possibilities.

But DC has other plans for Bruce Wayne and many other characters who have died over the last few years. Blackest Night, a long-announced crossover centering on Green Lantern Hal Jordan has finally arrived and it’s all about death. The name comes from the famous Green Lantern oath spoken when Jordan re-charges his power ring:

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!

Green Lantern 43
The Black Lanterns are those dead who have been unnaturally returned to life to attack the living and they appear to include many dead heroes including Jon Jonzz, the Martian Manhunter, killed during the Final Crisis crossover, and Bruce Wayne, judging by the cover of the latest Green Lantern issue with Black Lantern-in-Chief, the Black Hand. It sounds like this major event will allow DC to have it’s own league of the undead to exploit the current zombie fad. Since we’ve known about the Blackest Night crossover for at least two years, it appears that DC editors have been killing off characters to serve as recruits in the new Black Lantern Corps. What their state, living or dead, will be when Blackest Night ends is of course unknown, except nothing is as certain in the superhero genre than death and rebirth (see the currently resurrected Flash, Barry Allen and of course, Hal Jordan himself was resuscitated several years ago after being dead since the 90s.
Cap's death
The current resurrection at Marvel centers of course on Captain America. Three years ago we saw the Star Spangled Avenger, Steve Rogers, shot down on the steps of the courthouse he was entering in handcuffs to face trial for resisting a federal superhero registration act. His original sidekick, Bucky, now grown, eventually took the Captain America role in a new costume and readers responded positively to writer Ed Brubaker’s fresh approach as he explored the new Cap’s attempt to live up to his mentor’s legacy. Whether this inspired DC’s current Dick Grayson Batman role-playing is debatable but they sure sound similar. I always wanted Steve Rogers to return–Marvel could no more get rid of the original Cap than DC could dispose of Clark Kent’s Superman. But given the vitality of the new Cap stories, I didn’t expect the announcement that Cap 1.0 was coming back this soon. But with Captain America #600 and the new miniseries Reborn, that is the big news. It seems that Steve Rogers is unstuck in time, that his apparent assassination was part of a nefarious plot to control him until his consciousness slipped off into the timestream and he keeps popping up at various points in his history (borrowing heavily from the classic Lost episode, “The Constant”).
Like Superman, Captain America is a prime superhero, born at the beginning of the genre and freighted with profound moral symbolism. Superman and Captain America usually function as their respective universes’ moral compasses and thus it is not easy to place them in dramatically interesting conflicts, since they are so tried and true-hearted. After Marvel brought the WWII- era character out of suspended animation in the 1960s, the company always sought to have the flag-wrapped hero serve as a reflection of America’s ups and downs. After Vietnam and Watergate left the country deeply dispirited, Rogers even gave up his patriotic identity to become Nomad, to reflect the country’s wandering from its values. In the days after 9/11, writers tried to make Cap face the USA’s alleged blame for provoking terrorists but the character never works as mouthpiece for such editorializing. Ed Brubaker brought Cap’s stories back to the superhero world that, like the James Bond films, used current events as background material for heroic tales. Thus it will be interesting to see where born-again Cap goes from here in the age of Obama with hope for change butting up against the realities of a dangerous world.

April 6, 2009

Batman goes offline

Filed under: Comics — Alex @ 2:17 am


The two dominant American comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, are both currently in the middle of an era of continuous “crossovers” –megastories involving an “epic” event in their respective comic universes, essentially stunts to attract and hold readership. At Marvel, the past five years have seen an unending series of such events starting with “House of M,” followed by “Civil War,” (wherein superheroes were pitted against each other in a dispute over government “registration” of powerful characters), then “Secret Invasion,” that saw the shape-shifting alien Skrulls infiltrate and then nearly conquer Earth. That was ended when, after Marvels heroes, seemingly defeated, were outgunned when supervillain Norman Osbourn, AKA the Green Goblin, fired the shot that ended the threat, allowing a segue into yet another mega-crossover, “Dark Reign,” wherein a grateful public, perceiving Osbourn as earth’s savior, has put him in charge of earth security and has his own international security force, H.A.M.M.E.R., at his disposal to persecute the good guys, including fugitive industrialist Tony Stark, Iron Man.
Things are hardly better at DC., after a months long “Batman, R.I. P.,” which saw the Dark Knight’s psyche shattered before his recovery and then apparent death, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego surfaces in the concurrent megaseries “Final Crisis,” breaking his most solemn rules, by picking up a gun to kill cosmic supervillain Darkseid. Darkseid zaps Batman with his most feared power, a death beam thought to be inescapable. Thought dead, Wayne’s consciousness has actually been sent far into the past at the dawn of mankind.

This left Gotham City without its Caped Crusader and the Batman family of titles is going through yet another mega-event, “Battle for the Cowl,” risking event fatigue for those fans who aren’t letting themselves being stimulated like a dead frog subjected to electric shocks. I have observed all this from afar since these kind of contrived events where, the company ballyhoo proclaimed, “nothing will ever be the same again!” are often desperate measures that rarely pay off in fresh storytelling.

I was quite frustrated with the poor hype-to-quality ratio of the DC’s treatment of its most profitable character until I realized that, for a character who appears in four or more regular titles a month along with constant new one-shots and graphic novels, the publisher risks story fatigue and massive overexposure as well as the creative exhaustion from Batman’s ubiquity. The corporations owning pop culture franchises thrive on the franchises that earn their owners great fortunes. Star Trek, Star Wars and the pantheon of comic book heroes must either limit their exposure to focus their creativity and maximize their appeal, or allow their lucrative properties to lie dormant for a season. This allowing the soil to lie fallow can permit fresh thinking and new talent can be brought to bear that extends the life of the franchise.

And that’s what sidelining Bruce Wayne allows DC to do–take this unique character offline and even put him literally in a cave while the Batman titles play around with a Bat-substitute for awhile until they have several volumes’ worth of trade paperbacks to market next year as a standalone epic. This is what happened in 1993’s “Knightfall/KnightsEnd” series that saw an exhausted and broken Batman sidelined while a violent substitute took his place until a healed and renewed Bruce Wayne returned–the status quo was shaken up for awhile and writers got to paint on a large canvas, but it always came down to one man, Bruce Wayne, as the Batman, warring on all criminals in Gotham City. In a few months or a year, we will see the one and only Batman return from a well-earned sabbatical, and maybe I’ll start reading his titles again then too.

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