Posts tagged supers
Having watched a number of the new shows that debut this fall, here are some thoughts:
My Generation: I was interested in this show in no small part due to the fact that the main characters, nine students from the class of 2000 at an Austin high school, are nearly my age-peers. I graduated in the class of 2001 (we did not play Space Odyssey, I’m sad to say), and am far away from where I thought I would be at that time.
This show takes the mocumentary style and applies it to a drama, where filmmakers followed nine students throughout their senior year, and is now checking in with them ten years later. The characters are introduced with their High School clique labels, such as “The Nerd,” “The Brains,” “The Jock,” etc. and then shown in their current lives, often very far away from where they’d expected to be. Circumstances in the characters’ lives bring many of them back to Austin, re-connecting with those who had never left or already returned.
The pilot clearly set the stakes, established the characters and their current trajectories vs. their self-professed worlds that they had imagined for themselves in 2000. It’s not fantastic, but it’s compelling so far and I’m likely to keep watching for a little while, if for no reason than the degree to which it makes me think about what has been happening in my own life vs. what I expected when I was a senior in HS.
The Event — This is the new The New LOST. The Event uses mosaic-style storytelling, jumping between characters and time frames in a fairly jarring manner, though over the episode, the rhythm became less distracting for me. The focus on Sean Walker (Jason Ritter) in the first episode brings the audience into the middle of The titular Event, balanced with POV sections from President Martinez (played by Blair Underwood — no relation) and others.
For me, much of my level of ongoing interest will depend on the truth of the Mt. Inostranka facility. Who are these people, and how are they connected to The Event? Once we know more about that, it’ll be easier to decide how much I care. There are several options that are yawn-worthy, and some others that could prove quite compelling.
Undercovers — The new sexy spy offering from Alias-creator J.J. Abrams is cute and fun. It’s not fantastic, but it does show a happily-married african-american couple as series leads, which is still noteworthy for network TV. It’s Sexy People Doing Sexy Spy Things, but it’s pretty well-done, and the leads are both gorgeous and likeable. I won’t stay home for this one, but I’ll probably catch up via Hulu every so often.
No Ordinary Family — The Pilot of this one hasn’t actually aired, but I got to watch a preview last month when they had it in limited availability. No Ordinary Family is very nearly a Live Action The Incredibles, with an origin closer to the Fantastic Four, who were an obvious inspiration for the Pixar film.
Michael Chiklis is Jim Powell, police sketch artist and under-appreciated dad. He feels fairly powerless and disconnected from his family, including his Bigwig Scientist Wife, Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz). Their children are Just-Trying-To-Fit-In Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and Undiagnosed Learning Disability Kid Brother JJ (Jimmy Bennett).
Jim convinces the family to take a vacation, which leads to their plane crashing into the Amazon — their trip is ruined, but shortly after their return, the members of the family begin manifesting super-powers. Jim gains incredible strength and toughness, Stephanie gets super-speed, Daphne becomes telepathic and JJ gets a massive intelligence boost.
The show’s formula seems like it will include Jim using his powers and police connections to fight crime while the rest of the family goes about their lives trying to deal with their powers — there are also hints of a larger super-world which will likely play a role as the show goes forward.
Of the new shows this season, I’m probably most excited about No Ordinary Family — it’s fun, doesn’t take itself to seriously, and seems to be respectful of its genre roots.
Hawaii Five-O — The joys of remakes. I didn’t really watch much of the original, as it was mostly before my time. However, the new show keeps what some say is the best part of the original show — the opening theme.
Alex O’Laughlin plays Steve McGarrett, who is brought out of the Middle East and offered a position heading a new state police unit in Hawaii, with no red tape and vast resources, tasked with bringing down TV-worthy criminals across the state.
He crosses paths with Danny “Danno” Williams, a divorced father who moved to Hawaii to be near his daughter (who primarily lives with her mother and step-dad), and also recruits Chin Ho (Daniel Dae Kim), a disgraced cop who worked with McGarrett’s father. Rounding out the cast is Grace Park, playing Chin Ho’s cousin Kona “Kono” Kalakaua, a hotshot rookie policewoman. McGarrett recruits her right out of the academy, as she’d have trouble getting respect in the normal force due to her familial connection to the disgraced Chin Ho.
The exotic locale, nostalgia, and charming cast are likely to be the show’s best assets, at least to begin with. I admit that if the show finds a way to highlight Grace “Boomer” Park’s gorgeousness on a regular basis, that will help by willingness to watch.
This review is about the film, rather than the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic.
Directed by Matthew “Layer Cake” Vaughn and co-written with Jane Goldman, this film elevates hyper-violence to the category of camp, in company with such films as Wanted and Shoot ‘Em Up. Roger Ebert called the film “morally reprehensible.”
Well, it is. And that’s the point. Kick-Ass is a parody by means of Reductio ad Absurdum. The violence and improbability of the premise is pushed so far that it falls into what I call the Moore Continuum, which condemns all superheroes as ultimately tending towards psychosis or fascism (or both). In this case, the superheroes fall by the side of Rorschach — sociopathic masochists guided only by their own moral code. The titular Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is the most moderate of these figures, far outpaced in his sociopathy by Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz)and her father/trainer Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, channeling Adam West’s Batman). The super-hero cast is rounded out by Christopher Mintz-Please (aka McLovin) as Red Mist.
In particular, the 11-year old Hit Girl is shown as brainwashed/raised with a worldview that desensitizes her to violence by interpreting vigilante slaying within the context of a game. A sequence towards the climax of the film gives us the action from Hit Girl’s POV in a manner evocative of a 1st person shooter such as Doom or Halo, complete with reload animations.
Big Daddy and Hit Girl are easily seen as analogues of Batman and Robin, and Big Daddy also parallels the Punisher. Since no heroes have actual powers, they fall into the “street level” hero category, where the vigilante aspects of superheroes are drawn with a sharper focus. The bad guys in street-level superhero stories are customarily thugs and crime bosses, rather than invading aliens or armies of secret cyborg nazis.
Kick-Ass addresses the question “why hasn’t anyone become a superhero?”
In our world, the answer is “they already have. But not in the way you’d expect.” Individuals like Mr. Silent and Doktor DiscorD (both in Indianapolis) and across the world with groups such as the World Superhero Registry are stepping up and pursuing the spirit of superheroics without breaking the law. Heroes such as Mr. Silent patrol the city and act within the law while working to allay fears and help people feel protected.
Kick-Ass goes far, far beyond the level of Mr. Silent or any of the Real Life Superheroes. Comics geek David Leziwsky orders a scuba suit off of the internet and intervenes in a carjacking. Given that he’s an untrained average teenager, he gets the living daylights beaten out of him, then stabbed in the gut. Massive surgery leaves him with metal plates in his body and head and nerve damage which becomes his “super-power” — he can take a beating and keep going.
In his mis-adventures, he becomes a YouTube and Myspace phenomenon, leading to ubiquitous Kick-Ass memorabilia and increasing his popularity. He runs across Hit Girl and Big Daddy, who have the actual training to take on large numbers of armed opponents. It helps that they use lethal force without remorse, stabbing slicing and shooting at whim.
I’ll end my plot recollections here for now, as there are some notable twists.
Kick-Ass is not for anyone who isn’t a fan of hyperviolence or ridiculousness. It leaps a jet ski over the top, then trampolines over a shark and never looks back. But as campy as the action is, the emotional reality of the situation is powerful for the characters. Kick-Ass confronts the idiocy of his attempts to be a hero when he doesn’t have the training or the equipment to succeed, and the reality of loss and revenge are keenly felt by Big Daddy and Hit Girl, who reprise a Punisher/Batman-style origin story of tragedy and loss. By counter-example, David shares his own tragic past — but instead of being murdered by a criminal, his mother died from a brain aneurysm. His rage cannot be anchored to a guilty party, unlike Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil.
An unexpected surprise was the 3-D John Romita Jr. art during the recollection of Big Daddy’s story of loss. The camera zooms across 2-D traditional comic-panels, but as it turns and moves, the panels come alive in 3-D, giving greater depth and texture to the art of Romita Jr. (standing in for Big Daddy’s paintings on his half serial-killer, half police officer target/crime board.) It was a deft artistic touch that acknowledged the film’s sequential art heritage as well as highlighting the art of Kick-Ass‘ co-creator.
I’m not a big Mark Millar friend in general. I love his Elseworlds Superman story Red Son, which tells the tale of a world where Kal-El’s escape shuttle lands in the middle of Russia instead of the American Heartland, leading him to become a gleaming example of the triumph of Socialism, positioned as national foes with American hero Lex Luthor rather than as rival claimants on the American Spirit. In Red Son, the critique of the superhero flows naturalistically and doesn’t take arrogant pleasure in itself. In other Millar works, I find the aggressive testosterone-filled action to be smug and self-important (evident in later arcs of The Ultimates and in Civil War. In the case of the Kick-Ass film, the overblown testosterone-y action draws attention to its own faults and invites critique, where I feel some of his other works lack the same self-awareness.
If you’re a superhero fan, Kick-Ass is certainly worth your time and money — more and more superhero films are being made, and it’s films like Kick-Ass that show another part of the genre conversation than films such as Iron Man or The Dark Knight. As a genre rises, parody comes with it. Parody is a way for the genre to show its self-awareness and show that it’s aware of its blind spots and its pock-marks. Parody and deconstruction doesn’t necessarily lead to re-construction or reform, but it maintains the conversation and keeps artists and fans from consuming and engaging with stories in the genre without reflecting on its motifs and assumptions.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was long considered an un-filmable work. It pushed the formal grammar of comics to new levels, and remains among the top superhero deconstruction narratives. This review will fully discuss the comic and film versions without pause for spoilers.
So when I heard that a film version was coming, I was suspicious. The promo shots and trailers and interviews painted a pretty picture, but the big questions remained:
Would Watchmen be able to translate to the film medium and retain its efficacy? Could it do for superhero films what it did for comics, and for the supers genre? What would have to change for it to do so?
The film version of Watchmen opens with the Comedian’s murder juxtaposed with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” The visual style is striking, more polished and shiny than Gibbons’ Watchmen, which was studied and deliberate in its messiness. The use of music throughout grounds the story within its historical context.
One of the most inspired innovations of film version of Watchmen is the opening credits sequence. The film shows several living photographs over the cource of the alternative history. We go from Nite Owl knocking out a crook in front of a theatre (which i09.com pinned as being a Batman easter-egg) to Silhouette kissing a nurse in a re-work of the iconic ‘soldier coming home kissing nurse’ picture:
The film takes cues from Moore and Gibbon’s intensely dense intertextual text with this and other allusions. It shows Sally Jupiter’s retirement party as a re-figuring of the Last Supper:
It also posits the Comedian as one of the gunmen in the Kennedy assassination, and so on. And the thing tying it all together is Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changin’”. By the end of the sequence, you know what’s different in the world, you know what the stakes are for the film.
For the most part, Zach Synder’s film of Watchmen follows the graphic novel closely. The Black Freighter text-within-a-text is omitted, to be released separately as a DVD. The basic story beats are there, with more of an emphasis put on the energy crisis aspects of the cold war, such that Ozymandias and Dr. Manhatten’s efforts to fight the dwindling Doomsday Clock by creating a revolutionary energy source.
Synder’s Watchmen turns up the graphic detail of violence, drawing attention to the hyper-violence of the genre in addition to the hyper-sexuality of the fetishistic costumes and their role in the sexual lives of the heroes.
The Moore Continuum
In my earlier post about the Moore Continuum, I talked about how Moore’s critique of superheroes established two ultimate fates of the superhero: A superhero ultimately becomes a Fascist or a Psychopath. Dr. Manhatten represents the superhero being used as a totalitarian tool or weapon of mass destruction, ending the Vietnam conflict in a week of action. The Comedian presents the superhero as a sociopathic rapist turned tool of the establishment (as opposed to the outlaw hero.
Superheroes have been more commonly establishment heroes or outlaw heroes depending on the character or the times. Superman is more usually an establishment hero, Batman and Spiderman more frequently an outlaw hero). Within the history of Watchmen, heroes began as outlaws, were accepted and embraced by the establishment for their work in WWII, used by the establishment in Vietnam, then outlawed by the Keene Act.
Among the other notable changes is the fact that the female figures in the film have had their smoking habits removed, despite the chain-smoking of the comic. This while Comedian is still allowed his cigars — this ties into the new default cultural assumption now that associates smoking with moral fault. Comedian is an antagonistic/villanous character, so he gets to smoke. But the Jupiter women are figured as victim and heroine, so they aren’t directly associated with that behavior.
In general, Laurie is allowed to be more heroic and agent than in the comic, participating in most of the current-timeline fight scenes and pulling her own weight alongside Nite Owl II. However, the entire narrative of Watchmen remains a critique of the gross excesses of the figure of the superhero.
Feet of Clay
We’ve examined the ‘villains’ of the piece, but what about our protagonists?
Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II — an overweight middle-aged shut-in trust-fund kid who wanted to join in the fun, and is impotent without the fetish of his costume and ther aphrodesiac of crime-fighting. Dan is a self-insert character for any and every superhero fan, any kid who grew up loving superheroes so much that their motives are comprimised — is Dan in it because he wants to do good, of because he wants to matter, to be strong, be powerful, be desirable?
Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II — A woman who is defined entirely by her relationships to other characters. She goes into heroing to follow after her mother, falls in with Dr. Manhatten and becomes his sole link to humanity, then imprints on Dan when Dr. Manhatten slips away from her, re-creating her hero worship while acting as a hero herself because she doesn’t know anything else.
Walter Kovacs/Rorschach — A dangerous sociopath raised in a broken home and consdered worthless growing up, he found refuge in crime-fighting, found a way to channel his rage into righteous fury into (somewhat) socially-acceptable channels. For all that he is a crime fighter, he is also a racist misogynist bigot who mooches off of his fellow heroes and unquestioningly murders criminals. His fetish is the Rorschach mask, which he calls his ‘face’ — Kovacs has abdicated his identity and given himself over to his superhero identity, to escape his painful past.
Our ‘heroes’ are far from the paragons of virtue that characters like Superman or Spiderman are made out to be. Now any given hero has their weaknesses — it makes for more human, compelling figures for a hero to transcend their faults to do the right thing. But the weakness and faults in Watchmen’s heroes run so deep that every step of the way, their actions are suspect, must be judged in context with each character’s less-than-heroic motivations — Dreiburg for virility, Jupiter for validation, Kovacs for control. The film does a fine job of following suit with Moore and Gibbons’ storytelling in this regard, such that by the end of the narrative, the protagonists are less reprehensible than the villains, but are hardly role models.
In the comic version of Watchmen, Ozymandias created an alien invasion scare by teleporting a giant alien corpse into Times Square, creating a rallying point for humanity to unite against an external threat. The alien is seeded throughout the series, gestured at and shown in parts.
In the film, Ozymandias instead uses the energy sources he and Dr. Manhatten had been making, and replicates effects associated with Dr. Manhatten. He plays on established fears of the godlike figure and re-works nuclear apocalyptic anxiety to provide the unifying threat that ends the Cold War.
In both cases, Rorschach’s journal makes its way to the New Frontiersman, which would raise enough questions about Ozymandias’ involvement to bring down the whole house of cards. In the comic, the New Frontiersman is established throughout the series, but in the film, it is included at the very end without introduction. Regardless, the point is that after Dan and Laurie agree to lie to preserve the costly peace, the truth will come out anyways.
I doubt that Watchmen will revolutionize superhero film the way that it changed superhero comics. It presented an impressive visual style, but satisfied itself by re-creating and somewhat re-working the story. The credits sequence alternative history was powerful, but even with the evocative usage of music (even though Battlestar Galactica fans will forever associate “All Along The Watchtower” with Cylons).
The film’s first weekend performance ($55 million) was, when we take the recession in context, is impressive. Depending on second-week dropoff and general reception, will determine how the film will be remembered in terms of the superhero film trend. We may see other film adaptations of famous comics, though for many of the leading franchises, the adaptation process complicates the possibility of direct adaptations. Marvel Studios continue building towards their massive crossover Avengers film, following the unexpected success of Iron Man and their competition’s success with The Dark Knight. Superhero films don’t seem to be going anywhere yet, and the film was not adapted in such as to condemn or indict other superhero films or their franchises.
If you’ve read Watchmen, seeing the film will let you see iconic moments brought to life, though the adaptation is not perfect, and the changes made have provoked negative reactions from fans, but other fans have been satisfied with the adpatation and noted the increased role given to Silk Spectre II. If you haven’t read the comic but are interested in the supers genre, it’s worth a look to see a critique of the genre brought to the big screen. But then go read the comic afterwords.