To follow up on my previous essay, I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice last night. During the film I jotted down some notes, listed below. Obviously, some spoilers are involved.
As far as a review goes, I might or might not bother. There are some good visuals, some good performances, a couple of good action sequences, and a terrific score. There are also some terrible, terrible performances; something I could only call a script if I was feeling obscenely charitable; plot holes big enough to swallow a planet; and a complete failure to understand superheroes in general (and these three in particular). I guess on a classic 1-10 scale I’d give it a 4, maybe a 5.
As recounted elsewhere, the first comic book I ever owned was a Batman 80-Page Giant. Over the years the stable of characters owned by DC Comics (neé National Periodical Publications, now a tiny sub-branch of Warner Communications) was my mainstay for modern mythology: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and their associates remained my go-to characters.
Like every comic publisher, DC has had its ups and downs. Marvel invented the angsty superhero in the ’60s with Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, and for the first time superheroes had to deal with problems like making rent and school bullies — alongside the traditional cosmic menaces. Adolescent boys — the primary market for comics at that time — flocked to Marvel’s characters instead of the big blue boyscout and his larger-than-life cohort.
In the ’80s DC got some of its prestige back by taking risks on high-concept and expensive experimental titles, taking perhaps ill-advised inspiration from an obscure UK comic series1. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) posited a Batman who retires after the Joker murders Robin, only to be lured back into the fray as a bitter, angry old man. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7) took a gimlet-eyed view of the entire concept of superheroes operating in the real world, dragging into the light all of their flaws, hubris, and petty humanity. And while there were other titles from other publishers quickly following in the trend, those two books turned the world of superhero comics inside-out.
I’m not going to go into all the other factors that contributed to the ’80s and ’90s becoming one of the weirdest periods in the history of American comics; suffice it to say that the explosion of independent publishing, underground comix, the comic collector valuation bubble, and the creation of direct sales channels to comic shops played a big part, too. The end result, though, was that in the rush to duplicate the unprecedented success of Watchmen and Dark Knight, the two major comics publishers stumbled across something painfully obvious in hindsight: the only thing adolescent boys love more than imagining that their heroes lead lives as complicated and frustrating as their own, is the opportunity to vicariously experience hyper-violent revenge fantasies against their enemies: hormonal rage with added heat vision and super-strength. And these dark, bloody anti-heroes — “grim and gritty” versions, in the parlance of the day — sold better than anything else since WWII.
Superman had, in the past, been tempted to use his godlike powers to reshape the world in his own image. However, he never succumbed to that temptation; if he did, it was in an “imaginary story” wherein the folly of that choice was laid bare. It is essential to his character that he is the man who could be king, but chooses instead to serve humanity, restricting the use of his abilities to the minimum required force.
Batman saw his parents shot down in front of his eyes by a gangster, and while he made the questionably sane decision to devote his entire life and inherited fortune to eradicating crime, he refused to take a life.2 Again, it is essential to his character that he rise above those who destroyed his family and his childhood; he should never stoop to the level of violent revenge.
But in Miller’s magnum opus, Batman does precisely that, becoming a violent, revenge-crazed, death-seeking lunatic fighting a literal war in the streets of Gotham. Superman has become a super-stooge for a Reagan clone, bringing the American Way to the rest of the world, whether they want it or not. I admit that at the time — and for some years later — I loved the hell out of this book. The art is fantastic, and the story is cinematic in a way that comics had seldom even attempted to that point. It even has the great lines you’d expect from an action movie.
It has not, however, aged well. From a modern perspective,3 Batman comes across as little better than a tin-pot dictator in power-armor with a Bat-logo. He’s anti-state, but that’s easy to pull off when the state is cartoonishly corrupt. He’s pro-individual rights, as long as you agree with him. And he sees civilian casualties as acceptable losses in his renewed war against crime. (It’s clear that in Miller’s universe, the Batcave is in Galt’s Gulch.)
Watchmen has fared better, in part because it’s a period piece. Its world is an alternative ’80s where costumed heroes were a brief fad in the 1930s, then faded away until a godlike “superhero” was created as a by-product of the Manhattan Project. The foundation is much closer to our world, allowing for a more realistic portrayal of super-heroes without violating any of the tenets of the form. Still, it bears some of the blame for what was to come.
Watchmen was long considered unfilmable, with people like Terry Gilliam taking a crack at it from time to time, without success. Then Zack Snyder came along, a director whose love of the book — no, worship of the book — was well-known. And he succeeded in filming it, more or less.4 He used the actual pages from the graphic novel as storyboards, obsessively recreating large chunks of the book, panel by panel. It’s simultaneously beautiful and creepy, like coming home to find your apartment filled with roses and chocolates from someone who knows nothing about you.
Because while Snyder clearly knew he was looking at genius when he read the book, he still didn’t understand exactly why it was genius. That failure to comprehend is obvious in every frame.
Still, it made several tons of cash for Warners, so in the eyes of the suits, Zack was clearly a guy who gets those comic reading kids. Hence the decision to hand him first Superman, via Man of Steel, and then the entire DC Universe, starting with Batman vs Superman. I am not certain they could have made a poorer choice had they hired Uwe Boll.5 This is a guy for whom, it is clear, the ’80s were the best thing to ever happen to comics and superheroes. Snyder’s one of those angry, hormonal, frustrated adolescent boys who want to see bodies ripped in half and necks snapped in a Superman movie because dammit that’s what he’d do if he had the power of a god.
(I’m about to get a little biz-talky. It’ll be over soon.)
Marvel (aka Disney) is kicking DC’s (aka Warner’s) ass up and down the street when it comes to monetizing their superhero movies. That’s because Marvel has people at the top who actually understand the source of the value of their properties; in fact, if Marvel hadn’t danced around the precipice of bankruptcy for so many years that they had to sell off rights to many of their major characters, they’d be the dominant force in the genre for decades to come. DC, unfortunately, wasn’t given the budget to buy a single clue. The only places where they’ve been successful are areas where no one was expecting to make money: direct-to-disc animated movies and TV. (Somewhat ironically, those are the two areas where Marvel has had little success (although the Netflix deal has changed that dynamic with the R-rated Daredevil and Jessica Jones).
Globally, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are three of the most identifiable and marketable characters around. If Warners had any understanding as to why those characters retain their power they’d be able to forge a franchise universe that would dwarf anything Marvel could build. Unfortunately, they understand less about the popularity of their own characters than any kid on the street does.
Superman’s a good guy. He’s an alien, and stronger than anybody, but he’d never hurt you.
Batman’s scary, but he’s a man, and you only have to worry if you’re a crook. Even then, he still won’t kill you.
Wonder Woman is some kind of goddess, and is as powerful as Superman, but just wants justice for everyone.
See, that’s not hard. Simple, relatable concepts.
I know some readers are thinking that this is just the rant of an old man who doesn’t like change. (Those readers don’t know me very well.) The reality is, though, that I love these characters. They’re American myths, like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill or John Henry — they can change, they can be contradictory, the aren’t consistent, but they’re myths. They certainly don’t deserve this treatment. They don’t deserve to have their fates handed over to a director who has so little respect for the stories that he’d… well, kill off Jimmy Olsen just as a joke.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was the title of a comic in the ’60s and ’70s. He’s the classic goofy cub reporter/photographer who hangs around annoying Lois Lane and getting into accidental adventures with Superman. Although a popular supporting character, much of the time Jimmy was just comic relief; still, he’s a well-loved part of the mythology.
In a brief sequence early in Batman vs Superman, Jimmy Olsen accompanies Lois Lane to Africa to interview a warlord. He’s quickly outed an a CIA spy, and has his brains blown out in front of Lois. When asked about this decision, Synder responded:
“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”
Yes, because putting a bullet in the brain of the comic relief character is always fun. I loved it when Mickey Mouse had to put down a rabid Goofy — best scene ever.
At this writing I haven’t yet seen BvS, but my employer is taking everyone out to see it on Tuesday afternoon. Frankly, if I could gracefully bow out, I would; I really don’t want to contribute to any perceived success it might have. But I will see it, and wince all the way through, and maybe even shed a tear for that poor sap, Olsen.
That’s just me, though. Let me tell you of another opinion.
There are a couple of kids I know, good kids — smart, literate, nerdy kids. They’re teens now, but younger when we first met, and they’d never paid any attention to comics at all. I thought this was unfathomable, so I sent them a bunch of back issues and some toys action figures. Being a DC fan, they were all characters from that line; no Marvel comics at all. (No prejudice was consciously intended; I just didn’t have anything to give them from my collection.)
They quickly became fans of the comics, and then of the various animated series. Eventually they even watched the Burton Batman films, and enjoyed them. Nothing past that did anything for them, though.
Being modern, media-hungry kids, they eventually watched a couple of the Marvel movies. Even though they knew nothing about the characters, they liked them. They rented Guardians of the Galaxy and loved it, and now they want to rent Ant-Man. But when asked — with no little trepidation — if they wanted to check out Man of Steel, or go and see Batman vs Superman, they were completely uninterested.
“Why’s it so dark?” — “Everyone looks mad.” — “This doesn’t look like fun.”
These are not prissy kids. Ever since they figured out the remote for the Amazon Fire TV they’ve been watching anime, and they were reading some questionable manga before that. They’re smart, though, and difficult to manipulate; putting Batman in the title wouldn’t be enough to convince them to watch.
And these are ostensibly members of Warner’s target audience: media-savvy genre-oriented teens with a little disposable income. And they don’t give a damn about seeing these versions of Batman or Superman; they’d rather watch a movie about a third-string Marvel character they know nothing about than a grim and gritty “black and white” movie where Superman and Batman fight.
Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all in the same film for the first time ever, and Warners can’t make a movie that will make two teenaged DC fans want to see it.
Between this enormous misstep (and the shitshow that’s been the publishing arm’s attempt to refocus and rebrand itself over the last decade, but that’s a rant for another time), I’m thinking that the heroes may have met their match.
The holy trinity of DC characters can save the world on a daily basis, can face challenges that would make any mortal quake in fear, and can stop villains from beyond time and space. They can even rewrite the history of the universe.
But not even the combined powers of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman can save the world from clueless middle management.
1 Alan Moore’s fascinating and complex 1982 revisionist view of a ’50s Captain Marvel rip-off called Marvelman for Warrior Magazine. It was renamed Miracleman (and picked up by US publisher Eclipse, and still later Marvel), went through a million different legal battles regarding ownership and publication rights, none of which we’re getting into here. However, it’s well worth tracking down; after Moore left it was taken over by the still-unknown Neil Gaiman.
2 Yes, I know that in the very early days that rule wasn’t as set as it later became, but remember that his character was born of the pulp tradition set by The Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage, and others who saw murder as just another tool in their ruthless war against crime.
3 From a modern perspective it’s also clear that Miller’s jingoistic, xenophobic, misogynistic attitudes were present from the start. I imagine that before he became revered as a god in the industry (and made an ass-ton of money off Sin City), he did a better job of hiding his warts.
4 I actually like the film, to be honest. It just isn’t really Watchmen. And not because of the change to the ending. I’m actually okay with that change; it’s the weakest element of the original story.
I saw Star Wars for the first time on its original release date: May 25, 1977.
Of course, that isn’t exactly true. My memories tell me that I saw it some time after my high school graduation, which would have put me in the theater in June, not May. After poking around a bit I was reminded that South Florida in 1977 was not even a second-tier movie market, so it was not in the first two waves of release. I can’t find a precise date for the first showing — thanks for having locked archives, Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel! — but me and my friends would have gone to that matinee some time in the latter half of June.
I went, however, on opening day for our area, that’s for sure.
Shortly before its local release, the newspaper ran a full page ad for it: that amazing, thrilling, beautiful poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt (although reproduced in half-tone black and white — newspapers didn’t have color in those days, kids). My small nerdy tribe was familiar with the Hildebrandts through their Middle Earth calendar the year before, so the connection brought with it an unstated expectation of epic scope and fantastic visuals.
Star Wars does inadvertently provide a window into the early history of geeky fandom. Without the ubiquitous information source of the Internet we had to scrounge and scrabble for scraps and rumors about this movie. I’d found the novelization in Waldenbooks several months earlier, its cover proudly proclaiming that it was soon to be a major motion picture. That was rare in those days: a big budget science-fiction film with good special effects and a raucous, action-driven story.
Sitting in that theater and seeing it for the first time was as close to an ecstatic experience as I’d had to that point. I saw it for the second time on the same day, having moved down to the first row in the largely empty house. That was followed immediately by the third time, and I’d have stayed to see it again but hunger and sensory overload finally won out. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie more than once in the theater, and — the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz excepted — there was no other way to see a film again in those pre-VHS-and cable days.
We talked about it quite a bit, me and my friends, particularly the goofy ending that clearly left open the possibility that there could be further installments. That would have been too much to hope for, though. More Star Wars? Might as well ask for our own TIE fighters, while we were at it. Sequels were rare creatures, generally reserved for major critical (The Godfather) and box office (Jaws) successes.
Of course, Star Wars met the latter criterion with bells on, so it didn’t take long for the newly-minted genre magazines like Starlog to break the news that Lucas had an entire universe of stories planned. What we’d seen was actually the fourth of a planned nine — NINE! — Star Wars films! Our minds could barely comprehend the bounty we’d been granted.
When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I stood in line for the first showing — a national release this time, thank you very much — arriving hours before the curtain went up. (There was no ticket presale, of course, so if you didn’t camp out in line you might not get in, and that would be unbearable, a shame you’d have to carry for the rest of your life.) TV stations sent crews out to film us standing in parking lots in the sweltering Florida sun. Newspapers sent reporters and photographers to ask lame questions. Mundane citizens going about their lives gawked, shook their heads, and carried on.
It’d been a long three years waiting for that day, years filled with speculation, hype, and… well, okay, real life. But still, release day was a gathering of the tribe. You could talk to anyone around you, because we were united in our purpose. It really was a celebration.
Of course, after the movie the first crack appeared, with some jerks deliberately discussing Luke’s parentage as they walked past the line of people waiting for their chance to worship at the galactic altar. (I have memories of someone being slammed against the stucco wall by an enraged fan, but that may be a bit of wish-fulfilling selective memory.) Still, a strong sense of community pervaded the occasion.
There followed another three year wait — three years of nerdy talk, three years of a growing fandom community, three years of speculation as to the nature of “the other.” Good money was on Boba Fett, but really, pretty much anyone who had an action figure was a candidate. All we knew for sure was that we had absolute faith in Lucas; after all, he’d had this whole thing plotted out for years!
And at the end, another multi-hour giddy wait outside a Miami cinema waiting for the conclusion of the middle trilogy. News crews came back and newspapers sent reporters, but this time they were more likely to be fans themselves. Star Wars had morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and you didn’t have to be a nerd to like it (but it helped). People in line were threatening to beat the shit out of anyone who gave away the secrets of Return of the Jedi. (They weren’t spoilers yet; that word wasn’t coined until after Jedi was released.) There was a community, but it was already growing a little unwieldy.
And while Jedi gave us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the trilogy, it was also a disappointment. Maybe the intervening years had just taken their toll on our innocence, but so much of it was obviously created to sell toys, and not tell to tell an exciting story. We all knew that the big battle was supposed to be on Chewie’s home planet, because — thanks to the explosive growth of fan press — that had been leaked from early scripts. What was this teddy bear bullshit?! And “the other” turned out to mean absolutely bupkis.
It didn’t stop us from going to see it a few times, but instead of fun, it started to turn a little ugly, like picking at a scab. Sure Star Wars was still great, and we liked to jabber about it, but my interest it was fading fast.
There was some talk about the “prequel” trilogy for a while. It was supposed to be all about the Clone Wars, and take place maybe a hundred years before the first movie. (It still feels wrong to call it A New Hope.) That fell apart, though, and took the rest of my interest with it.
Still, I was honestly surprised when the first prequel was finally announced. Not that they were finally making them — I was surprised that I didn’t care. Many of my friends were getting worked up about the possibilities, but I just felt… nothing. When the first one was released and eviscerated by the fans, I felt simultaneously justified and sad. I’d been hoping that maybe they would rekindle the fond memories I had, that perhaps they’d be a new beginning. Who knows? Maybe if — as with most of my peers — I had a family, some kids with whom to share the experience, I’d have been excited. But no. To date, I’ve still never seen even one of the prequels.
Now it’s time for the post-quels. Social media has taken over the world, and my feeds are full of people I love talking excitedly about tomorrow’s release. I have a smidgen more curiosity this time, I confess, primarily to see the old familiar faces returning to the screen. It feels closer to my heart. Still, I didn’t buy an advance ticket, and didn’t make plans to see it. Strangely enough, though, and cementing the place Star Wars has in general culture, my employer decided that as a holiday gift they’re taking us all out to see an afternoon show next week.
A few minutes ago I played a bit of the opening theme, the piece of music which assured John Williams’ place in musical history. The triumphant brass, the soaring strings, the pounding tympani — I didn’t even make it through the fanfare before I broke out into a smile, my heart started swell, and my eyes got misty. In spite of my general indifference toward the current Star Wars zeitgeist, the chill in my heart was blasted away by the force of memory. Once again I was seventeen years old, sitting in the Florida Theatre in Hollywood, being swept away by a tale of spaceships, lightsabers, naive heroes, ominous villains, goofy robots, and a nearly endless supply of corny cliches.
The past is always far, far away. Fortunately, memories are not.
I walk between rows of stainless steel counters strewn with dark monitors and abandoned notebooks, lit by the flickering fluorescent light coming from the glass-fronted berths lining the walls. I walk to the one I need and lift open the door, helping out the young woman sleeping inside.
Thin and long-limbed, her skin is the color of birch bark, with coal tar hair falling to her shoulders. She allows me to take her hand, her amber eyes bright with curiosity as she peers at my face. I lead her to a locker, and in the dim blue-white light she puts on jeans, a grey cotton shirt, leather work boots. I watch her dress, and think of the times I’d watched her during her long, long sleep — her, and the others, too, most of their lights now extinguished.
The pack I’ve assembled for her sits askew on a desk near the door. She slips it over her shoulders easily, and after putting on my heavy mask, I open the hatch.
We walk up broken concrete steps to the street. Little has changed since my last visit outside: the asphalt is still buckled and torn, burnt trunks all that remain of the decorative trees. The flow of time has remained constant, I think, with some surprise.
She walks ahead of me, silhouetted against the cracked, jaundiced sky. No breeze stirs her jet hair as she takes in the new surroundings.
I walk to her, stumbling a bit as I clamber over the same rubble shes navigated with grace. She turns to me, and her eyes have already changed. Their light is dimming — so soon? — and their rich amber hue is fading to mirror the diseased and broken sky.
The radio crackled to life with a shattering burst of static, even though the battery in our old truck had died long ago, shortly after the all-devouring void reached the sister cities on the edge of the scorched and blasted lands where once crops grew tall. An old, old voice which may once have been human crooned to us, telling tales of the insignificant world we had known, before IT returned to claim ITS birthright. As the final light went out of the sky, condemning us to eternal darkness, the fading voice half-croaked, half-crooned, “And these are the tales of the Lake of Woe…”.
[The preceding was knocked off in a Facebook comment thread, wherein the poster asked for a three sentence story inspired by this image, written in the style of weird fiction author H. P. Lovecraft.]
…and other routes as well, and other routes as well, and other rooms as well, and other rooms, rooms, rooms, other riddles, too, other riddles, riddles riddles…
And why did I have to get wet today? Why did I have to get other riddles, other riddles, rooms, riddles, mustang, mustang, musTANG TANG TANG! Mustang Sally, mustang sally, rooms, riddles, routes…
[tuneless whistling for several stops]
Minipigs, minipigs, minipigs minipigs…
[sing-song] I’m singing in the rain, I’m singing in the rain, there’s a spiral in my brain, there’s a spiral in my brain, spiral brain, I’m singing a spiral in my brain, there’s a smile in my brain, smile, smile.
The middle-aged woman with thick glasses, five-o’clock shadow, and a Wizards jacket exits the bus.
A middle-aged blond in a black hoodie, navy blue leggings, and scuffed black running shoes sits reading USA Today through her wire-framed glasses, her Coach bag secure on her lap. Her earrings are inch-wide silvery filigree hearts. She smiles at something she reads, a genuine and open expression on her face. The smile fades as she turns the page.
A young woman, Crumb-esque in design, stands at the pole reading her Kindle. Her thick thighs end in black leather ankle boots lined in blood red; her knee-length dress is black lace. She doesn’t smile, though whether from an innately sour nature or a particularly intense choice of reading matter, I cannot tell.
A fresh-faced young businessman boards in Friendship Heights. The leather brief bag in his hand is new, unblemished — he’s not had it for long. A bright blue golf umbrella is slung across his back by a strap, like a young ronin’s katana in a Kurosawa film. He stares blankly at his reflection in the train’s window for the duration of his ride.
At Brentwood a thirtyish black man boards, clad in a fluorescent green t-shirt and vest, with oddly heraldic day-glo orange bands on the cuffs and shoulders. A dirt-smeared cap of the same green cotton covers his hair. He stares at the phone in his left hand, his right holding a plastic grocery sack containing a carton of apple juice and a package of Huggies.
There is something strangely melancholy yet calming about nighttime train platforms. Stripped of the usual anxious crowds rushing about, there’s a quiet sense of emptiness, a caesura between destinations, caught between home and office, the burden of decision lifted away, a brief respite from care.
In the wake of yesterday’s midterm elections, I’ve been asked by a couple of friends what I believe in. Given that I don’t think they are looking for my version of Crash Davis’s speech in Bull Durham — which I’ve posted elsewhere, anyway — I’m guessing the interest is in my political opinions. Be careful what you ask for, my friends.
I believe that…
…lies are not facts, no matter how often they are repeated.
…the worth of a human being is not measured in dollars and cents, nor does a bank balance indicate intelligence or wisdom.
…giving more money to the wealthy in the hope that they will create more jobs is as sound an economic practice as taking out a bank loan to buy lottery tickets.
…women should be in complete control of their bodies, and any laws limiting that control should be drafted, endorsed, and passed by women alone.
…every American has a right to free health care and a viable income; America’s failure to provide this is the primary reason for our loss of stature in the world.
…the American Civil War was about slavery, period. Rebel states? You lost; get the fuck over it and build a real future.
…it is none of your god damned business what kind or how many people someone chooses to love.
…evolution should be taught in schools, and that creationism and intelligent design are not equally valid “theories.”
…climate change is real, human action is a primary factor, and we’re fucked if we don’t stop listening to liars pretend there’s an actual debate on the topic.
…the media is not obligated to seriously present an opposing view when that view is clearly bullshit, but that it IS obligated to point out bullshit whenever it’s presented as facts, no matter the source.
…America has returned to its founding principle: only rich white male landowners get a voice in government, except for the occasional rich woman or non-white citizen, as long as they keep quiet.
…corporations should not reap the benefits of citizenship until they are subject to the risks and limitations of citizenship.
…excusing evil, inhumane actions by invoking the magic word “capitalism” is a sign of a corrupt, likely irredeemable soul.
…there should be a Constitutional amendment striking all references in legal code to “marriage” and replacing it with “legal union.” Keep religion out of the law.
…America has changed from a well-intentioned, naive nation to one which is reveres its own stupidity.
…we have become a nation of short-sighted, greedy, self-absorbed assholes who worship the wealthy as gods.
I don’t believe that it’s too late to change course, to reverse the damage done to our national character, but…
We have the technology to join different cuts of meat together, so why do we always make it look like, well, meat? Imagine a buffet of extravagantly assembled origami meatcraft: exciting carnivorous designs concealing mysterious and unexpected stuffings; beautifully engineered steak architecture supporting provocative pork sculptures; Gaga-esque wardrobes of stitched salami and tailored chorizo. Surely the possibilities would be endless?
To learn how to bring these meatballs to life to your table, check out Instructables.
I found this LitReactor list of disturbing yet literary works interesting, not least because of the ten items listed, I’ve only read four. (I plan to rectify that soon.) Keep in mind, though, that it’s not a “ten best” list or anything of the sort. Thinking of all the additions I would make reminds me of how deep the field really is, and how pointless genre boundaries are.