superheroes

Grounded: Why Superman Has To Walk

I don’t know if you know (frankly, I’m not sure why you would) but recently the Superman comics reached the 700 mark. They took the opportunitity to begin not only a new story, but a new direction for Superman. He would be walking the length of the USA to reconnect with its people. Walking. As in, on foot. The idea has been pretty thoroughly mocked. And rightfully so: it’s a bit stupid, really, like the time Captain America gave up on Civil War because he was out of touch with the modern American man. It’s been pointed out that the writer, J. Michael Straczynski, has done a very similar idea with his last three major iconic-superhero stories, bringing Thor and Wonder Woman to ground so he can get a handle on them. Thing is, it also kind of makes sense. Superman is a power fantasy figure. He was designed by two fanboy kids, from not-well-off immigrant backgrounds, as their protector. Superman is the genie in the bottle of guys like them, the bespectacled awkward working-class guy. He is the purest example of superhero as Metaphor. I have to admit that these thoughts are all tangled with the fact I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay this summer, and Shuster and Siegel have become stand-ins for those two characters in my head. ‘Escapism’ is a word I am trying to avoid.* Meanwhile: It’s a fairly accepted maxim that good Superman stories are thin on the ground these days. If it weren’t for Morrison – more on him later – I believe it would go ‘noone’s written a great Superman story for decades’. The last film was a wreck. The big touchstones are ‘imaginary stories’ (aren’t they all) which rework Superman (Red Son: as a Commie, Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow: as a disappeared legend). One possible reason? Nowadays, the average comics reader doesn’t have much to fear. The geek is king. We sit atop culture, defining the newest trends. We’re able to snobbily say, huh, you’ve only just heard of Scott Pilgrim? like the indie-gurus of yesteryear. And, as all those Bam! Pow! headlines will tell you, they’re not even kids anymore. There are no bullies to fear, at least no more than their average fellow man has. Ladies and gentlemen, the metaphor at the heart of Superman has been spent. We don’t need him anymore. Grant Morrison did the best possible version of the Kryptonian Super-Jesus for the modern age in All-Star Superman, taking the idea to its logical extreme, as Morrison is wont to do, and painting him as just that: an outer-space saviour for the entire world, never faltering in his love. But that can only be done for so long and so, as the Superman serials roll on and on and on towards the next one thousand issues, writers have to make do with what’s left. In this case, Straczynski has chosen ‘he’s one of us’. The jocks are no better than us, anymore, and Superman is no better than the Common Man. Looking from the outside, testing with one foot, we can see that the metaphor bends a little under strain, but holds. To go further, I need to examine the Metaphor in its natural habitat: Issues #700 to 702 of Superman. The metaphor, and the couple of ways JMS chooses to bend it, are fascinating. The line between Clark Kent and Superman is blurred – Clark Kent casually chats on the phone, as Superman strolls down a street. Superman, the old immigrant, asks new migrants: “Could you possibly have picked a worse time to immigrate here illegally?” Clearly, it was different when he did it. Or is he drawing a line between him and his past? The Superman iconography is testing the waters, trying to reinvent himself so he can remain a successful icon in the modern world. Elsewhere, though, it’s business as usual. Superman gives a lot of speeches, without really saying much about the metaphor, or himself, or the ideas behind the story. They seem to work their magic on the people Kal El meets, though, who are consistently inspired by his presence. Which comes off a little cheesy, particularly when he helps the skinny little kid who wants to play basketball. It’s predictable, but does return to the idea of Superman as liberator of the weak geek (in this case, the geek who wants to, and successfully manages to, integrate into normality.) Meanwhile, there’s some disturbing ‘fighting for over here, over there can look out for itself’ rhetoric from Superman, which seems a bit contradictory both with the character – it’s the kind of thing that makes sense out of the mouth of Daredevil or Batman, overcome men doing what they can for their slice of land but not an all-powerful alien who has come to save us all – and the message of these comics. An attempt to tie it back into that idea, that ‘there’ can become ‘here’ only compounds the issue. It’s all a bit confused. The life of the everyman isn’t below Superman – he’s happy to clear out a stockroom to pay for a steak sandwich** – but he’s also treated reverentially by both the public and the text. His opinion is treated differently to that of the man on the street, he’s the only guy who can stop a girl from suicide (which might sound familiar to anyone who’s read All-Star, where it actually makes 100% sense). I think it’s an attempt to bring human concerns and stories back to Superman, but only manages it in a temporary, revolving supporting cast. Not in the big man himself, or even his human friends. Straczynski takes a genuinely interesting idea, but one that requires following through straight and clear. Here, he muddles it and interesting ideas fail to translate into interesting comics. And you have to be reading as a meta-fictional thing, a setting I can really only tune my brain to because […]

A Kick To The Balls

So, if you haven’t heard yet, Kick Ass is a pretty good film. It’s probably not going to Dark Knight your socks off, but it’s a solid Iron Man. It takes the ideas and ambition of Millar’s good-but-flawed comic and it runs with it. Superbad + Spider-Man? The stories about studios turning Matthew Vaughan and Mark Millar away are astounding: how the dollar signs in their eyes weren’t spinning I don’t know. And here’s what Kick Ass does: it deconstructs the superhero genre better than Watchmen. To be clear, we’re taking the 2009 film, not the 1987 comic. And here’s the point: nothing is ever going to be able blow apart expectations like Alan Moore in the ’80s ever again. Thing about expectations is, once you’ve destroyed them once, that trick doesn’t work any more. And by the time our current Golden Age of Cinematic Supers rolled around, the geeks were in charge, and they’d all read Watchmen. Look at the first wave: Blade, Spider-Man and the single film responsible for the last decade of capes and sound effects on the big screen: Bryan Singer’s X-Men. No colourful costumes. Opening in Nazi Germany. That bit where Wolverine uses one of his claws to give Cyclops the finger. And Kick Ass is essentially that, writ large. It’s at its best when it melds mundane reality (which rings true more regularly than Millar’s original sweartastic dialogue) with low-key superheroics. We’ve seen all this before – Raimi did the early failures when Peter Parker hit that billboard learning to web swing; the ‘scuba suit as superhero suit’ practicality was a hallmark of Nolan’s realist approach to Batman Begins; hell, even the unexpected ‘getting hit with a bus’ was in Mean Girls – but it’s still loveable here, as long as it doesn’t expect us to gasp, they can’t do that! Kick-Ass telling us that if we think he’s sure to survive just ’cause he’s narrating this, stop being such a smart-ass works and, obviously, the breakaway hit of the film is the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably sexualised Hit Girl. Making it so the infamous C-word line isn’t her entrance seems a waste, but her character is largely pitch-perfect in delivering little subversive shocks throughout. The scene where she asks for a puppy for her birthday is a brilliant example. Unfortunately, though, Kick Ass has a tendency to get too close to the clichés it’s playing with, and develop Stockholm Syndrome for them. The general plot structure is very reminiscient of the first Spider-Man film, if cleverly obscured and (I should point out that minor spoilers will follow, but given that they’re examples of Kick Ass playing it safe to action movie conventions, they’re probably not going to ruin it for you) relies on the sort of ‘friend comes to the rescue at the last minute’ and ‘apparently dead character is in fact only mildly injured … and comes to the rescue at the last minute’ clichés with such regularity that, far from building tension, they undermine any sense of danger. Which brings us to the inevitable portion of our review entitled ‘But, it’s not like the comic!’ Letting Kick-Ass get the girl probably shouldn’t work, but it’s cute and satisfying enough (and the love interest is fleshed out in a way not only beyond the comic’s two-dimensional but beyond the likes of Spider-man et al themselves) that it’s easily forgiven. Taking away the big reveal that Big Daddy’s cool Punisher-style origin story is just a story, however, means that the movie loses the message that made the comic worthwhile: that, perhaps, obsessing over the revenge fantasy of superhero vigilantism isn’t really very healthy. Like the superhero films it is playing on, it can’t resist turning the last half hour into a big righteous action setpiece, as Hit Girl stays resolutely bad-ass and seeks her revenge. The comic kept the characters passive, their focus on escaping and surviving rather than vengeance and killing every last motherlover in the building. Ultimately, Kick Ass succeeds in raising the stakes better than most superhero stories, it wreaks minor havoc with the formula in a way that far outstrips Snyder’s bombastic efforts in Watchmen, but it doesn’t quite have the balls to go as far as it promises.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fulfil Dreams.

It was a relationship that turned sour quickly. I’d looked at her from across the party, knew her reputation: fun but promiscuous, a quick fling. I’d heard the rumours of violence. A real femme fatale.But dammit if I didn’t want to dress up as Batman, so I rented her. It all turned out exactly the way I’d imagined. Okay, the initial thrills were giddier than I’d ever really considered- laughing maniacally at the complete disdain for physics, that ridiculous ‘hai-hai-hai’ noise Liu Kang makes as he flying-kicks across the screen. Carried away into the night chatting about the crazy beautiful stupidity of superheroes and fighting games.When the lows came, they were deep and dark. I found myself alone, sinking unsatisfying hours into the ‘Story’ mode, grinding towards the one unlockable character I was interested in. But even now, having denounced MK vs DC, I can’t forget the first few games together, where I got to play as Batman. I love Batman. All the gadgets and gruffness, pitched against the sci-fi-mentalist world he lives in. I love the childish escapism of it all, both for me and him. I love the Batcave, its giant penny and an unexplained T-Rex. I’ve never understood those particular parts of the Batman mythos, but damn if I don’t love them.So obviously he was the first character I took for a spin. As I discovered each new move, I giggled with delight. I peered into the background of the Batcave level, murmuring approvingly at any recognisable details. I beat up my friends’ assorted choices of fighter (seriously, who plays as a MK character when you’ve got a load of superheroes at your disposal?) and that was fun, but it wasn’t till we were left alone that the thrill of Being Batman really clicked. Looking back, at the way the gruff interior monologue filled my head and how satisfying each avenged punch felt, I worry about myself. I consider myself a (reasonably) balanced human being, never really been the type for role-playing of any type, yet here I was pretending to be Batman. It wasn’t the game- MKvsDC‘s quite a mechanical affair, stiff, not the kind of fighter you’d ever forget you were playing a game with. It’s just the strength of fantasy (and, I suppose, the simple iconography I was given to project on). I remember being young and naive and dreaming about being able to finally do all the impossible acrobatics and kung-fu-moves I’d seen in The Matrix. Enter the Matrix arrived and, looking back, it was a disappointed. But at the time I consumed it hungrily, playing it over and over again and it fulfilled everything I wanted to do- running from unfightable Agents, backflipping off walls and watching bullet tear that wobbly path through air-turned-to-treacle. It was the same with The Punisher game- although I’ll still defend that game today, if only for the bit where you get to pop out of the coffin in the middle of a funeral and mow down half the mob with an M60. I was in the midst of Garth Ennis’ classic work on the Punisher comic when I bought it and with the game being based on Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank, I was able to summon Frank’s gritty caption-box voice as I tore through enemy after enemy. I felt no pleasure as I forced thugs’ heads under saws, and threw them into woodchippers. It just needed to be done. There are hundreds of other examples- I remember replaying the first Max Payne over and over, in the style of whatever action hero I’d seen that week- slow and steady like the Terminator, or dashing through the level without stopping or worrying about damage. Swinging around New York as Spider-man. (Which felt subtly different to swinging around as Ultimate Spider-man.) Downloading skins of my favourite characters for The Sims. They always seem to tend towards the geekier end of my interests- I’ve never felt the urge to play an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind game, or dress up as Kilgore Trout. I suppose its that simple iconography that the geeky-media tends to provide you with. It’s easy to project on but, frankly, of course I’d want to be the man dressed as a bat, beating up clowns. Surprise surprise, I cannot wait for the new Batman: Arkham Asylum game. I’m already piecing it together in my head, how I’ll hide in the shadows, spooking out the criminals one by one, then pulling them into the darkness. Just like the start of the Tim Burton film, or Old Batman’s comeback in Dark Knight Returns. I’ll be that Batman, and file it alongside my time as the four-coloured square-jawed crusader, punching gods and spacemen in MKvsDC, and I’ll already about fantasising about the next Batman I get to be. (Confessions: I say I’ve quit MKvsDC forever, but the disc is still waiting to be sent back. And, inelegantly, more-or-less unwittingly, I stole the relationship metaphor from the always elegant chewingpixels.)