Category Archives: Superheroes

What Would Kilgrave Do?

If you have not yet watched the Netflix series Jessica Jones, you should definitely check it out. Like so many of the excellent shows available nowadays, it isn’t so much about superheroes as it is an engaging and provocative study of human behavior. You miss out on an awful lot of excellent drama if you are not open to the genre.

KilgraveIn this storyline, Jessica Jones (who is as unenthusiastic about her super-strength as she is about everything else in her life)  is stalked by a sociopathic guy named Kilgrave who has the ability to compel anyone do anything just by telling them to. Look at Kilgrave the wrong way and he is likely as not to tell you to put your head through a wall. And you will. Really piss off Kilgrave, and he might tell you to chew off your own foot, and you would, despite the pain and horror and revulsion.

Clearly an awful guy. But what would you do if you had Kilgrave’s power? Would you use it for good?

I could imagine grand ambitions. In the morning I’d order my way into the boardroom of Exxon-Mobil and suggest politely that they reinvest every cent of their profits into green alternatives to fossil fuels. In the afternoon I’d stroll into the U.S. Congress and tell them to cut the military budget by 75% and invest that money in social programs and infrastructure. Then maybe I’d end the day by dropping in at the United Nations to direct the world powers to dismantle every nuclear weapon in their arsenals.

Would that be an abuse of my power? Or would it be my right and duty to use whatever talents and abilities I have to make the world better? Superman faced this dilemma in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”  He reluctantly decided to gather up every nuclear missile in the world and toss them all into the Sun.

Some agreed with Superman. He was the only one who could rid the world of the nuclear threat so it was his obligation to do so. But even many of those who agreed with his goal were nevertheless outraged by his actions. Just because you have power, they argued, doesn’t mean it is acceptable to impose your will on others. And what, his critics asked, would Superman decide to impose upon the planet tomorrow in the name of protecting us from ourselves?

I for one admit that I would definitely descend from Superman to Kilgrave very quickly. Oh I’d start off innocent enough. I’d use my mind-control power to nudge people into doing the right thing, like “You should apologize you know” or “let that nice old lady have your seat.” But where would I draw the line? Is it so wrong to say “hey you, pick up your cigarette butt and throw it away properly.” Maybe it would teach those litterers an even better lesson if I said, “hey you, pick up your cigarette butt and eat it.

If given his power, it would probably not take very long before I turned into Kilgrave incarnate. I’d like to think I would not order anyone to eat off their foot, but hey, that’s hard to guarantee until one actually has that kind of power.

And the fact is that all great fantasy is allegory. In the real world, some few people do actually have extraordinary power and influence. There are real individuals, like Lex Luthor, whose superpower is wealth and corporate resources. They have the Kilgrave-like power to compel most anyone to do most anything. They may start out innocent an well-meaning enough, like Superman, using their gifts to do what they think is right. But like Lex Luthor, how long before the superpower of wealth turns otherwise ordinary people like the Koch Brothers into real-life supervillains, imposing their will on everyone?

Maybe what the comics teach us most profoundly is that superpowers are something we simply cannot risk in the real world.

 

 

 

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Clobberin’ the Critics

FantasticFourThe Fantastic Four reboot premiered in movie theatres last weekend. Despite, or because of, the fact that I’m a huge superhero fan, I was really apprehensive about the release. The previews looked stiff, the casting looked highly questionable, it was yet another stupid origin story to “reboot” a franchise, and it was a completely “made up” origin story to boot. No one I knew was excited about it in the least. Even the director came out ahead of the release apologizing and making excuses for it. Without exception reviewers ripped it to shreds with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a disastrous 9% rating (one review).

So of course I went to see it.

This wasn’t unusual of me since I’ll see any superhero movie. And since I usually disagree with professional reviewers anyway, their unabashed bashing was a reverse-psychology encouragement for me. Moreover, I’d seen and greatly enjoyed the previous two Fantastic Four movies despite the fact that I’ve never met anyone gracious enough to utter even the most insincerely polite comment about those.

And – hey Mikey – I liked it! Although I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks so, I thought this reboot was worthy. It certainly didn’t fulfill all my preconceived ideas or hopes, but it wasn’t my tale to tell. How can I expect to enjoy any story-telling if I insist upon inserting all my own expectations? How can I ever be surprised and amazed if all filmmakers ever give me is exactly what I imagine in my limited imagination?

Which brings up a much broader observation… people are WAY too hard to please. It’s not even just that they’re hard to please; it’s that while they imagine that they want to enjoy things, they are really incapable of it. In short, often the problem is not the movie, it is us.

Maybe you just cannot appreciate the film.
I used to live in London and as a lonely bachelor I went to see movies frequently. I was continually amazed how all the Brits would go to see American comedies and chortle begrudgingly at all the most unfunny moments while sitting stone-faced though all the intended jokes. Then they would walk out of every film commenting on how unfunny it was. It’s not really that those films were not funny; they were just not funny to Brits. Similarly if you hate action films and go see one anyway, don’t complain that there were too many fist-fights and not enough kissing.

Maybe you have gotten too old and jaded.
When The Phantom Menace came out, all my coworkers complained vigorously and incessantly about how much Jar Jar Binks had ruined the movie for them. I found Jar Jar to be quite cute and funny, but most everyone universally hated him. I contend that Jar Jar was essentially exactly the same as the Ewoks those same people loved in their youth. It wasn’t the movies that changed, it was them. They have become incapable of enjoying movies through the same fresh and uncritical lens they used to, and they are continually disappointed that moviemakers don’t make any films that touch them like they used to.

Maybe you’re just a douche.
Too many people need to prove how smart and insightful they are by dissing everything. You know the type. They just can’t wait to impress their date or kids even as the credits are still rolling with their scathing critique. And if the movie is superb, they feel especially compelled to show that they are even more discriminating. “It completely ruined the whole movie for me that Gandalf’s staff had runes clearly etched in Valinor rather than ancient Moriquendi.” Really? How sad for you…

Now let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting that you should indiscriminately like everything and indeed some movies are deserving of unreserved ridicule. Battlefield Earth and Dune come to mind. But Fantastic Four has a lot to like. More often than not, your disappointments in life may say more about you than the movies or whatever other activity is disappointing you at the moment. If you don’t get something many others do, if you think nothing is as good as it used to be, or if you feel compelled to critique everything to prove your good taste, then it may just be you that is the only disappointing commonality in those equations.

I for one, am really, really happy that my standards are incredibly low. I can go see the Fantastic Four and enjoy myself while you lose out. How much better is that than setting seldom achieved standards and being disappointed in most everything life has to offer? And when it comes to people I associate with, I much prefer those rare individuals who can truly enjoy most everything, who can appreciate the filmmakers vision, rather than seek out the flaws and buzz-kill every bit of enjoyment for everyone.

  • There are few boring situations, just mostly boring people.
  • Interesting people can get interested in pretty much anything.
  • Positive people find the positive in most everything.

Ares Targets Iran

GodOfWarIn Wonder Woman comics, the Amazon Princess often does battle with Ares. The God of War ceaselessly and eternally dedicates himself to instigating violence and fomenting war. He is especially difficult to combat since he doesn’t usually act directly. Most of the time he works covertly, behind the scenes, pulling strings and pushing buttons to ensure that greedy, ideological, or even well-meaning humans are tricked or prodded and driven to war. Two of Ares most powerful lies are convincing people that war is inevitable and that war is necessary to ensure peace.

Ares would have been proud of our 1990 Gulf War which was based on “a pack of lies” (see here). In the comics, he often takes the form of humans to influence events. He certainly might have taken the form of Bush Senior in snookering Saddam into attacking Kuwait. Then, he no doubt might have inhabited Dick Cheney to lie us into the second Gulf War and subvert Colin Powell into supporting him.

We really need Wonder Woman right now because Ares has long set his gaze upon Iran as the next great senseless battleground and he is hard at work to sabotage any possible deal with them that might delay his carefully laid plans.

Of course I refer specifically to the battle over approval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the “Iran Deal.” The opposition to this agreement is much more than merely an honest policy debate between well-meaning people of good-will. This really is a clash between those who align with war-imperative of Ares versus the peace-making ethic of Wonder Woman. For Ares, this Iran deal threatens to delay his plans to ensure uninterrupted and perpetual war.

While Ares and Wonder Woman may be only metaphors, these figures nonetheless personify our real, iconic struggle against those who are dedicated to the ideology of war and crave the plunder that wars yield. And the rest of us are not merely spectators of this struggle, we are participants in it whether we accept it or not.

But we cannot win this war against war if we do not understand our enemy. If we naively refuse to consider that anyone would actually WANT war, we cannot hope to defeat those who do. And make no mistake. There are many people with tremendous amounts of power and influence over the political process in America who greatly desire a steady stream of war and will do anything to ensure the uninterrupted flow of the war pipeline.

In 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in arms and military services with some of the highest profit margins of any industry. Is that a lot you ask? Well consider that the entire world-wide cell phone market is expected to reach $341 billion in 2015. So yes, the military industry is indeed humongous by any comparative measure with far higher profit margins to boot.

But the mobile phone industry has something the war industry does not. Cell phones wear out, get lost, and need to be upgraded constantly. The viability of their market, their prospect for sustainable revenue, has no inherent limit barring some completely unforeseen new technology to replace it. The war industry however has a fundamental sustainability and growth problem. Without a constant stream of new wars to consume all those bombs they produce, without a constant stream of existential crises to convince people to pay for wars rather than for the betterment of the human condition, their entire industry collapses. Their gravy-train of war hits a brick wall.

Simply put, the war industry withers and dies without perpetual wars, and the war-profiteers understand that uncomfortable reality even if you do not. And the most foolish thing is to imagine that there just happen to be enough legitimate “organic” wars to keep the war profiteers in business and satisfy their lust for profit. There are not. On the contrary, without Ares-grade machinations, the war industry would dry up very quickly. In fact, we have innumerable quotes that reveal the determination of the war industry to ensure a permanent war economy by any means. Immediately after WWII, corporate war-moguls terrified at the prospect of peace set about ensuring that America would never return to a peace-time economy. I still recall just one memo that was circulated decades ago. It was written by a former President of General Electric and it said something close to the following:

“We can anticipate in the foreseeable future a time when aversion to war might become an insurmountable obstacle to our corporate interests. We must therefore take every action to assure a permanent war economy in the United States.”

This is not an anecdotal wacky comment. This general sentiment has been repeated by corporate leaders over and over again, often proudly. And “every action” includes searching for enemies and creating new ones to ensure wars. It includes destabilizing other countries to make them ripe for war. It includes making sure the “defense” industry is too big to fail so that any cuts can be linked to losing jobs. It includes ensuring that we remain in a perpetual state of fear. And of course it includes blocking any initiatives like the Iran Deal that might result in peace.

Some of these warmongers may truly be motivated by ideology rather than profit. But it’s hard to separate motivation from rationalization. It’s difficult to know when ideology is just a rationalization for profiteering or when ideology is the pawn of profiteers. In any case, it kind of doesn’t matter. Either way, the result is reprehensibly glib calls to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.”

The bottom line is that we must recognize that Ares is not a nice, well-meaning guy who may simply be misguided or uninformed. We must acknowledge that he and real people with financial and political power actually DO want war, even cataclysmic war. They have worked a long time to set Iran up as the next bad guy in their domino chain and they don’t want see those war profits slip away.

If we keep assuming, as we typically do, that our opponents don’t really want war, or that they don’t understand that their obstructions could lead to war, we cannot hope to combat them. As unthinkable as it may be, many opponents of the Iran Deal do understand it would likely lead to war and that is exactly what they want.

If we don’t understand that reality, the real nature of our opponent, we cannot hope to help Wonder Woman to defeat Ares. And she cannot fight him without your help.

Superheroes on Screen

Superheroes have transitioned from the pages of comics to the screen with varying degrees of success. Heroes from the DC universe have long been animated extremely well. The bar was set almost insurmountably high back in the 1940’s with the peerless Superman cartoon shorts by Max Fleischer. Television shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League (Unlimited) established an extremely high level of excellence that was carried into many well-crafted animated movies like Justice League: The New Frontier and Wonder Woman.

In live action, however, DC heroes have tended to disappoint or even embarrass. Although there are still folk who look fondly upon the old Batman and Superman movie franchises, that fondness is mostly just nostalgia. More recently, even Amy Adams could not breathe any life into Man of Steel and it fell upon stoic and dull Russell Crowe to offer something resembling an engaging performance. And do you even remember there was a movie called Superman Returns? I personally didn’t think Green Lantern deserved such hate, but hardly anyone agrees with me so I cannot claim it as an exception to this dismal track record. The current Arrow series is a tedious soap opera. Perhaps the best live action DC series was Smallville and that was mostly about Clark Kent.

Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, but even there I have real problems with how Batman was portrayed. Only in a few scenes does he appear as the frighteningly agile creature of the night that most fans expect. Rather he is generally depicted as a stiff, plodding, lumbering version of Iron Man (except considerably less able to avoid a slowly telegraphed punch).

There is shining beacon of hope however. The recent Flash television series is an excitingly refreshing work of love that pays due homage to the very respectable 1980’s series and to the essential nature of the character. It’s absolutely great and I only hope the upcoming Supergirl series will be half as endearing and faithful to its heroine.

We could go on and on about DC, but now let us turn to the Marvel universe. They are the mirror image of DC with fantastic live action and underwhelming animated efforts. With the exception of X-Men: The Animated Series which was pretty decent, their animated series and movies have been poorly animated junk food. However their live action movies, and yes I’m even including the Fantastic Four series which I alone seem to have loved, are generally well – fantastic.

True, Marvel admittedly has produced a few flicks we’d like to conveniently forget – I’m looking at you Daredevil, Elektra, and Hulk – but the truly great Marvel live action movies are too numerous to name, right up to Guardians of the Galaxy (which could have easily been quite ridiculous), Iron Man, Thor, Cap, and Avengers.

Last but definitely not least, the new Daredevil series on Netflix deserves very special recognition. This show is the best thing I’ve seen in …, well the best thing I’ve seen period. It literally draws you into the sweltering, seedy urban jungle of Hell’s Kitchen and makes you believe a blind man can be an actual superhero. The supporting performances are compelling, particularly by Deborah Ann Woll and Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin. And the brutal, exhausting, cringe-inducing fighting sequences are affectionately choreographed by brilliant students of the art.

I urge you to check out this link that analyzes one particularly memorable but representative fight scene from Daredevil. This single shot in Daredevil is the best fight scene in years (view here).

DaredevilDespite a sporadic history in both comic universes, I look forward to a lot more great Marvel movies and I remain hopeful that DC will eventually find their mojo. On television, DC’s Flash and Marvel’s Daredevil encourage me that the superhero genre will thrive in episodic live action by offering complex story lines that movies cannot match in richly crafted settings that exquisitely complement the tone and style of each uniquely individual hero, heroine, or team.

Comic Book Kid

As a kid I had a super power. It was reading comics. And I read lots. I mean lots. I mean like every one ever printed up until that time. And that was a lot. Moreover I read each one many, many times. Not online, but actual ink imprinted upon actual paper. They were best savored at 2 a.m. on a school night under the covers with a flashlight.

During grade school in the 60’s, my friend Mike and I were mentored in superhero comportment by George Reeves in Superman reruns from the 50’s. From our super-secret base in Mike’s garage, we protected South-side Milwaukee from super-villains who were only detectable by means of our super-vision. Equipped with dramatically flowing capes fabricated from advanced bed sheet technology, we tracked them using our super-computer cleverly disguised as an old hub cap and leapt into action to foil their diabolical plans that always seemed to unfold in Mike’s back yard.

Other than George Reeves, superheroes pretty much only lived in comics and in our imaginations. At that time, new comics only appeared on drug store racks every Thursday. I’d make the rounds every week before the new stock even made it to the rack, ready with my 12 cents per copy that I mostly earned by collecting newspapers door-to-door for recycling; old boring paper out, new exciting paper in. I was hit hard by the big financial disaster of ’69 when comic prices jumped to 15 cents.

There was no real “comic collecting” back then. In fact, comics were almost universally seen as even less valuable than old newspapers. Not even suitable for parakeet cage liners. There were no dedicated stores, no conventions, no fan magazines, no web sites, no price guides, no Comic Book Men TV show, nothing. The entire industry around comic collection is a relatively recent invention.

Back then I procured my old comics from Mary’s second-hand store. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall with all kinds of useless junk and even in that setting Mary didn’t feel that comics deserved to be placed out in public view. She acquired them when she could buy them dirt cheap and tossed them into a box under her cluttered desk that she dragged out for me each Saturday.

Gradually, week by week, my collection expanded organically. I rescued many of the virtually discarded comics from Mary’s box under the desk like they were abandoned kittens, sheltering them in my bedroom where their number grew steadily. To be clear, I never had any intent to collect. My only goal was to discover these precious comics so I could read them over and over and fill in the gaps as I read episodes of mostly forgotten old story lines in random order.

When I started my paper delivery route (again my fortunes were tied to the newspaper industry), I became flush with actual dollar bills every week. I quickly exhausted Mary’s relatively meager supply and discovered the “Old Town” vintage store in downtown Milwaukee. Although ostensibly a “collectable” store, it was really pretty much just an upgraded version of Mary’s second-hand junk store. But they did value comics and had a whole section in back with boxes bulging with them. It was the mother-load of those flat, rectangular gems!

So my Saturdays throughout the 60’s and 70’s routinely entailed trekking west out to Mary’s and then east back across the viaduct to Old Town to spend my paper route money or earnings from subsequent jobs. My collection gradually grew into many thousands of issues. Let’s be clear, my mother was not enthusiastic about this. Every time she ventured into my bedroom she would direct me to “get rid of all this crap.” Somehow I never got around to it. Each one was too valuable to part with. Not because of their monetary value but because they were innately precious. They told long lost stories that needed to be protected. Parting with even one issue in a series would be to leave a hole in a puzzle; a missing page in a larger book.

In 7th grade I augmented my paper route money with a second job as a bus boy at a Vera’s restaurant. That same 7th grade summer Mike and I took a roadtrip to central Manhattan where we visited DC comics where we appeared unannounced and talked ourselves into a personal tour from Carmine Infantino. A waitress at the restaurant introduced me to her son Greg, twice my age, who had also amassed a large comic empire. I became friends with him and he introduced me to a larger world of collecting, buying, and even selling. At that time there was not yet any formal comic market. It was just enthusiasts who mostly knew each other and communicated by letters or phone calls. There were new “fanzines” that were very crudely “published” advertisements from individuals to buy and sell comics between each other.

Comic AdSo, in order to satisfy my comic appetite quicker, I started to buy and sell too. I would sell duplicate issues for comics I needed to fill out my series. That entailed road trips to get together with other collectors to swap directly or typing out ads to publish in a fanzine, describing each item’s individual condition in meticulous detail. As a kid with no adult supervision whatsoever I was engaged in mail-order commerce, fulfilling daily orders for comics, carefully packaging them, and hauling them down to the post office. One had to be scrupulous in all these regards as in this small community one misrepresentation could destroy ones credibility.

Eventually my mom started to realize that these comics were actually worth real money. Suddenly the attitudes about my now barely tolerated collection, then well over 10,000, changed dramatically. Now suddenly it was respectable, even valued. My family quickly subsidized my passion with bookcases and wall-shelving for my bedroom to store all these suddenly precious comics. But I always found this distasteful. To me their worth was purely in their stories, never in their monetary value. I felt scorn for those who only started caring about comics after they became it became popular and lucrative and geeky-sheek to do so.

In fact, as the entire nation woke up to the “value” of comics, as more and more people started to buy them mostly because of their rapidly inflating monetary value, I inverse-proportionately lost interest. After I left home and it became logistically unfeasible to haul around my collection, I finally sold it all off. Collecting is best suited to sedentary types, not college students barely living in one dorm room very long, let alone in any one country.

When Greg bought up the remainder of my collection in one big bulk purchase, my puzzle was virtually complete with every issue, from #1 onwards, of every series printed up to that time. My DC collection went way back to a 1938 issue of Adventure comics and included series that went back as far as Action #10 and Batman #5. At one point I held in my very own hands a “good” copy of Action #1, agonizing over buying it, but I decided to put the $500 that was being asked into other issues. In the relatively recent Marvel world I had every single issue – right back to multiple copies of Spiderman #1, Fantastic Four #1 and the rest.

When I sold off my collection it was just at the start of the skyrocketing price curve. So I didn’t make a fortune my any stretch. But I did make enough profit to help see me through college. Do I regret selling off what would today be an immensely valuable collection? A bit but not really. The thing about collecting is that there is never a good time to sell. If you hold on it will always eventually get more valuable, if not for you for your children.

But making or losing money didn’t matter anyway. What mattered was not the short-term profit my efforts yielded, but the priceless and undying experiences those comics gave me. They instilled me with a “comic book” sensibility and a heroic world-view that I proudly retain to this day.

Back when Mike and I ran around zapping villains in his yard, we dreamed of an impossible future when we might see our heroes portrayed in the movies. We specifically speculated about the possibility of a day when Green Lantern might come to life in a live-action movie, showing off the full capability of his amazing Power Ring. What amazes me is that we lived to see that impossible dream come to life pushing 50 years later. I have to think that comics were instrumental in giving us the imagination to dream that crazy dream and the enduring spirit to remain “true believers” until it became reality.