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The Wachowski Brothers Misled a Movement

Remember, remember the…time the Wachwoski Brothers constructed a magnificently alliterative monologue that was, unfortunately, misleading at its core.

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition! The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me “V”.

Fantastic. That is up there with any Nabakov in terms of alliterative prowess. However, I would direct your attention to the third sentence, which is specifically in reference to the Guy Fawkes mask V famously wears throughout most of the film:

This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished.

Translated into normal human speech, he’s basically stating that his Guy Fawkes face isn’t just for the looks or the fashionable facial hair, but represents the voice of the people which is now missing, presumably due to government oppression.

The issue with this line, not originally featured in the source material, Alan Moore’s comics published from 1982 to 1989, is that it is almost completely false. Guy Fawkes never represented the voice of the people. He was a vehemently anti-Protestant and was part of a plot that would have replaced England’s monarchy with a Catholic theocratic monarchy. A theocratic monarchy, on the understated end, would have almost certainly been as oppressive as the status quo.

That message seems entirely lost to the people who are under the impression that Fawkes represents some sort of anti-establishment/anti-oppression ideal. The guy was part of the establishment — it just happened to be the establishment that did not want to lose more power and influence to their political and religious rivals and sought to oppress a different group of people. Obviously, this is a simplified explanation, but there is a point to keeping it this simple — you would think someone would read the Cliffnotes and think, “Hmm, maybe this guy isn’t the best symbol for what we’re going for here…”

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There Might Never Be a Truly Great Superman Movie

(This post may include SPOILERS for Man of Steel.)

Despite Superman being low on my  pull lists growing up, I was sold on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.  It had all the right elements as far as I was concerned: BirthrightAll-Star SupermanSecret Identity, Last Son, a smattering of Earth One and a good amount of homage to John Byrne’s 1980s Superman reboot mythology — i.e. the handful of Superman stories and concepts that I’ve really enjoyed. However, the movie failed to come together and, despite being significantly different films stylistically, it’s tough not to draw comparisons to The Dark Knight, by virtue of being highly anticipated superhero movies. Christopher Nolan’s involvement in both only makes the comparison more inviting. Frankly, it’s not fair. The Dark Knight transcends the superhero genre; keeping that in mind, I do not plan to compare so much as examine why the Batman film worked where Superman failed.

For all its negatives, there were times when Man of Steel worked. The first hour or so consisted primarily of Krypton’s last days, flashbacks of young Clark Kent growing up, and an adult Clark Kent exploring the world and learning what it means to be a human ala Birthright. The conflict on Krypton was a solid choice for a starting point. Every red, white, and blue-blooded American (and most people on this planet) knows Superman’s origin story — last son of a dying world, tearfully punted into space by his parents, ending up on Earth to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, etc. However, less is remembered about what was happening on Krypton before that and there have been very few attempts in film to make Jor-El and Lara the bad-asses they had to be to save their son. So the dying world of Krypton came alive more than ever on the back of modern CGI and Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Jor-El shortly before he was relegated to the role of a prop in the film.

Yeah, he used to be a little more aggressive about the whole American way thing…

As far as complaints appearing in the negative reviews of the film, contentions against the flashbacks/frame storytelling seems to be a consistent refrain. This makes no sense to me. Yes, with this style, the pacing certainly feels different from, say, Iron Man 3, but it also gave the movie an almost pensive quality that focused on the more interesting side of a character that cannot be punched into submission. The format was a solid way of exploring his internal conflicts, expressing his feelings of alienation, the pain endured in learning to control his powers, and the genesis of his moral code. For instance, in a moment both poignant and “realistic”, young Clark Kent freaks out because of sensory overload caused by the genesis of his super-hearing. He is then comforted by Martha Kent, whose maternal empathy and insight is displayed by helping him learn to control a power that she could not fully understand.

And while Diane Lane was excellent as Martha Kent, Kevin Costner often stole the screen as Jonathan Kent, right up until his death, which was incredibly stupid. The fact that he dies shouldn’t be a spoiler in itself, since he has the tendency to do that in most iterations of Superman, but the reason this time around was just silly. Finally, the solid first hour of the film comes to an end with Clark donning his Superman suit and Jor-El’s great monologue taken directly from All-Star Superman.

Now…go chuck your head into somebody repeatedly.

Had the movie ended there, with him becoming Superman and walking across the frozen tundra with the very last flashback scene from the end of the movie spliced in (the one with Clark playing with his dog and donning a red bed sheet), I would have probably left happier than I did. Though not as completely mind-numbing as the problems get later on, I can point at certain things that just didn’t  work for me up to this point.

For instance, the whole reason there is a conflict at all: Zod’s escape from the Phantom Zone. It’s possible that the Phantom Zone in Man of Steel is different, but it really looks like the prison ship is being fed into another dimension when Zod and his crew are exiled. The simple destruction of Krypton freeing them from another dimension was lazy and pretty uninspired. Once the gate closes, the destruction of Krypton should be irrelevant to those inside of it. Then there’s the whole ‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’ repeated in a whole bunch of languages when Zod enters the solar system. That’s one of those ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ in theory things that comes off as really idiotic if you spend a second thinking about it.

Next is Jonathan Kent’s death. For all the camp and time-stream disrupting hilarity present in Superman circa 1978, that iteration has a Jonathan Kent whose death (as a result of cardiac arrest) serves a legitimate purpose: to show Clark, in a most painful way, that all the power in the world sometimes means nothing, which arguably takes away an invincible man’s sense of control and helps humanize him — if nothing, lack of control is a theme in the human condition. In one of the more memorable lines of the movie, Clark laments, “All those things I can do. All those powers. And I couldn’t even save him.” Of course, Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather, who also wrote the screenplay to the original Superman) decides to eventually say “Screw it!” and has Superman turn back time the next time somebody he cares about died, but it could have been an excellent way to ground an almost omnipotent character. In Man of Steel, the reason Jonathan Kent dies is essentially so that Clark can remain a secret for a few more years, which is utterly absurd, no matter how much the story plays into Lois Lane’s decision not to run with the story on his identity. He even repays his father’s sacrifice by completely destroying a tractor trailer after having an altercation with its jerk owner inside a restaurant, as if that would not raise a few eyebrows.

Superman still sometimes forgot to use his powers responsibly.

All of this was before the last hour of the movie became little more than a pointless game of Let’s-Fly-Into-Each-Other-and-Cause-Wanton-Destruction between invincible characters.

EXCLUSIVE: Storyboard art for the last hour of the movie.

I get that Superman really wants to defeat the bad guys with all his muscles, but  the action gets repetitive when it goes on for so long — keep some of the sequence and then skip to the part where he does something different. In no particular order, I had some problems after this point in the film:

I get Earth’s background noise disorienting Zod — I don’t get how atmosphere plays a role in Superman losing his powers. The atmosphere-based weaknesses generally got thrown out in the Golden Age (1940s/1950s) with the notion that the heavier gravity on Krypton would not make sense as the source for Superman’s powers.

I do not understand how Superman does not ever seem to even give much consideration to the fact that he is destroying Krypton’s legacy. That could have been a huge internal conflict, and it was barely a shadow of an afterthought.

I must have missed why Toby –er, Dr. Hamilton, was able to shove the key into the Superman’s shuttle when Lois could not (ostensibly because Jor-El had been wiped). What changed there? This could have been something I legitimately missed because it seems like an incredibly lazy example of deus ex machina.

Finally, the romance between Lois and Clark goes from zero to sixty pretty quickly. It would have been incredibly easy to hint at her falling in love with him from afar through her exploration of his exploits as he traveled across the country anonymously, but if that was the case, it was not established very well. Also, Lois’s line after their first kiss was cringe-worthy.

This is true love, and it took four seasons to develop.

There were a number choices in direction that really irked me, but I can only recall some of the more prominent instances of Zach Snyder slapping us in the face with the whole SUPERMAN = SAVIOR = JESUS thing. My most audible grown was likely when Clark was talking to a Roman Catholic priest and the the camera angle put a stained glass image of Jesus right above his right shoulder. For like five whole minutes. Then there was a part when he dropped out of the spaceship to go save Lois. He spreads his arms and there are a couple of frames where he looks like the silhouette of Jesus on the cross. Some subtlety to the comparison would have been okay with me.

It was, roughly, this subtle.

So why did The Dark Knight work so spectacularly whereas Man of Steel falls short? I suspect that it is because the superhero genre has evolved to the point where the “NEATO DORITO” factor really is not enough to make a memorable film. You need an “and”, and both films have them. The Dark Knight is a superhero movie “and” a crime/drama epic with smatterings of psychological thriller. Man of Steel is a superhero film “and” a science fiction film. The problem here, as far as my tastes are concerned, is that there are very few truly great science fiction movies where there are hour-long chunks consisting of wanton destruction as a result of pointless amounts of punching between invincible people, who would probably start looking for other ways to end each other. The most compelling works of science fiction are the ones that examine situations, characters, or technology. This is why the first part of Man of Steel works — it’s a great science fiction premise of what would happen if an omnipotent alien lived among us and was trying to fit in? How would he do it? Where would he get his sense of morality? And so on and so forth. The second part is basically the regurgitated action sequences of Battleships and the Transformers sequels I mostly dozed through. It might be enjoyable for a certain audience, but it is not memorable in the long run. And therein lies the rub of Superman as an on-screen entity —  because ridiculous fights and wanton destruction is essentially what you need to push Superman to his limits outside of a psychological or emotional context. Superman’s physical fights are going to be a lot more absurd than Batman’s because the challenge needs to be magnified that much more. My observations in this regard are not necessarily new thoughts — Superman’s omnipotence has been lovingly lampooned for decades by the likes of Invincible and Irredeemable, which are both comic runs that sometimes show, often in extremely gorey detail, what would happen if Superman-level capes went up against realistic bad guys.

A decidedly tame example from Invincible.

So will there ever be a great Superman movie? It’s hard to imagine after seeing an example that chose all the right source materials, had great casting, as well as a huge budget, and was still only good for half of the run-time. I am not the most discerning movie critic (I actually hate overly criticizing efforts that are at least entertaining), but this movie disappointed me and reinforced my admittedly ingrained notion that Superman is only compelling as an ideal for virtues and a symbol for all the things we would like mankind to be, but far less compelling as an actual hero in a story.

Terminal City

Recently finished Dean Motter’s 1996 classic, Terminal City. Some assortment of thoughts:

– It is a stylish piece. The titular city channels the art deco future imagined during the1930s World Fair: zeppelin docks, hover cars, clashing analog clocks, robot desk clerks, pneumatic tubes, high technology without the miniaturization, etc. Michael Lark’s art design, the thematic elements, and interweaving characters’ plots gives the setting a noirish aura.

– Some more on the art deco settings: it reminds me a little bit of the mid-90s Batman: The Animated Series.

– I can’t seem to confirm intent anywhere, but there appears to be a number of homages to Herge’s Tintin comics. There is a professor who bears a striking resemblance to a royal seals expert from King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Two comical, bumbling mustachioed twins channel Thomson and Thompson. (“What’s his name?” “Yes, Watt.” “No, what’s his NAME?”). There’s even a Latino general who bears a striking resemblance to General Alcazar. The name of his nation? Alcazar.

It was tough to care about the plot of Terminal City; it was a little bit all over the place, lagged in tying together all of the characters’ arcs, and the characters themselves were largely forgettable. However, it is just enough to keep the reader engaged in the world, and more importantly the city, and that is all that matters. What really strikes me about Terminal City is that the book is genuinely about the city, with the denizens as peripherals. Considering the dilapidated state of Terminal City, the reader is meant to recognize the design flaws in a future that was conceived to be a spectacle at a fair: splendor without substance. It is not a future that was ever meant to be lived in, and the malcontent state of humans signifies that. The setting is interesting to consider in the frame of urbanization; are the aesthetics worth austerity? Despite the weak-even-for-noir plot, this book does something rather special in terms of giving a personality to the titular city, and I would have a difficult time not recommending this book if you can get your hands on it.

just some late January updates

Books – I’m reading Great Sky River by Greg Benford. I’m about 60 pages in, and I’m not sure how hooked I am. But at the very least, I’m intrigued.

The Galactic Center Saga by Greg Benford consists of six volumes. I happened to stumble upon all six volumes at a second-hand bookstore in DC a few years ago and, since they looked promising, bought them all. That was about four years ago — I hadn’t gotten around to them until last year. So far, I’ve gotten through In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns. The former depicts humanity’s first encounter with an inorganic alien intelligence that enters Earth space and the subsequent fallout. The latter jumps forward two decades to humanity’s discovery of inorganic life systematically destroying organic lifeforms throughout the galaxy and the invasion of Earth itself. Great Sky River, flashes forward in time and space to an apparently (very) distant future on a planet where humanity is being hunted to extinction by inorganic lifeforms. The story follows one of the last bands of humanity (if not the last band, it’s not clear to me at this point, and I don’t want to spoil anything by looking it up!).

The premise is intriguing, but it hardly feels like I am reading the same series, which is probably a contributing factor to this being difficult to dive into. But I’ll soldier on, I have heard good stuff and it will likely be worth it.

Comics –  I’ve gone through Batman’s Contagion story arc which expanded across the Catwoman, Robin, and Azrael series in the late mid-90s.  I’ve also gone through the Cataclysm story line and am currently smack in the No Man’s Land arc. In Contagion, the Bat family have to deal with the effects and fallout of a biological agent released in Gotham City. Cataclysm deals with a massive earthquake that more or less demolishes Gotham City and allows Arkham inmates to escape. No Man’s Land is the subsequent arc that finds Gotham City cut off from the rest of America as an ancillary result of the earthquake, developing its own feudal(ish) system, with former members of the Gotham City Police Department and the Bat crew trying to maintain some form of order while villains like the Joker and Scarecrow try to cause their brand of trouble in what is essentially a new world. The dynamic shifts this story introduced in the late 90s is absolutely fascinating.

Music – I’ve been listening to Kaskade’s Strobelite Seduction almost non-stop since I purchased it. I’m in a distinct electro kick lately. Tiesto, Kaskade, Calvin Harris, Porter Robinson, Deadmau5, and a smattering of Skrillex songs have been racking up the play counts.

Spiderman 2099

Picture courtesy of IGN.

As of a few months ago, I decided I wanted to get back into comics. This may or may not have been directly influenced by successfully turning a B&N Nook Color into an epic full color comic reader. More on that later.

Part of what makes comics difficult to follow is the sheer volume of options and issues that stories are spread across. Unsure of what to read or what superhero arc to pick up on, I thought back to the two issues of Spiderman 2099 I owned as a kid. I was always a big fan of the original Spiderman (lots and lots of those lying around in a basement somewhere), but for some reason, I had the first issue of Spiderman 2099 and the 41st issue. Turns out the series did not run too much longer than the 41st, finishing with 46 regular issues, two annual specials, and one cross-over with the friendly neighborhood Spiderman we all know and love — a relatively limited series to ease my way back in. Also, the 2099 version of Spiderman seems to be seeing a resurgence in popularity primarily due to his being featured prominently in all of the newer Spiderman video games, and not just as a bonus costume.

In the 1990s, Marvel had this habit of doing grand-scale things that nobody ended up liking a whole lot. A prominent example is the Spiderman clone saga. I think the 2099 series was one of those things. The 2099 series followed different iterations of superheros in the year 2099. Some titles included Doom 2099, Ravage 2099, Punisher 2099, X-Men 2099; you get the idea.

But while the overall concept wasn’t too much of a success, Spiderman 2099 stuck out as a fresh take on an old Spiderman. The setting is a dystopian cyber-punk future where corporate empires run everything and something in the past has wiped out the entire population of superheroes. When Miguel O’Hara, a geneticist at Alchemax, tries to recreate superpowers sabotage and accidents lead to his genetic code being infused with spider genes. From there on out, Miguel not only fights crime and super-villains (such as 2099 revisions of familiar foes, such as the Vulture and Venom), but becomes the champion and hope-bringer of the underclass that is downtrodden by society. The series had many upsides and a number of downsides, but was generally fresh, entertaining, and worth the read. If you have to read any 2099 series, make it Spiderman.

Positives

  • Fresh character; personality is remarkably different than Peter Parker. He’s a little bit edgier and actually kills when pushed to it.
  • Character development is well-paced and doesn’t seem contrived; Miguel is a selfish corporate scientist who goes on to fight for the opposite side in class warfare. The drastic shift is well characterized.
  • Various degrees of classic dystopian science fiction theme intelligently infused into the series.
  • Likable supporting cast, including Miguel’s younger brother.
  • Well-paced story arcs throughout the series run.
  • Post-feature featurettes such as “Young Miguel” help to provide back story on various characters without bludgeoning the reader with exposition within the actual issues. Also utilized effectively as a foreshadowing tool.
  • Possibly the coolest Spiderman costume since the black and white one.

Negatives

  • Series ended far too quickly and in a rushed manner. It was a tough period for Marvel and comics in general, with various firings and financial troubles, and the 2099 series suffered at large for it.
  • There were some tie-ins, but there could have been more tie-ins with past Marvel events. Part of writing the future is seeing how the events of the present affect those futures.
  • More super-villains — there was a distinct lack of them throughout the series.
  • The virtual reality elements were somewhat cheesy, but that may have been done with campy intentions.

3/5