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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: March 2012

John Carter is already headed to my area’s second-run theater. Wall Street estimates Disney is going to lose $165 million. After dragging my eleven-year-old to a matinee, I can now report that Mars isn’t as bad as its buzz. Earth, however, has some serious problems.

John Carter is about a reluctant warrior who gets roped into other people’s wars. First this army officer tries to bully him into fighting Apaches, but Carter refuses, saying he didn’t start it. So he ends up having to finish a 1,000 year-old war on Mars instead. But the real enemies are these godlike beings who pull the strings from the shadows and feed off the destruction. The environment of every planet they visits ends up dying while its inhabitants are busy battling each other. How’s Carter supposed to win that fight?

I’ve read some rotten reviews, and though I agree the director should probably stick with animated fish, the real problem with the movie isn’t the movie. Mars is as good an afternoon escape destination as any. The trouble is leaving it.

Ask Barack Obama.

Lynn Collins, who plays the princess, said she cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.” If President Obama stumbles into a second-run theater, he’s going to be sobbing buckets.

Little wonder movie audiences haven’t flocked to John Carter. They know the plot too well. They’ve watched the Obama administration running it for the past three years. That bullying army officer trying to make Carter fight a war he didn’t start? That’s George W. Bush. And I don’t mean the mission to Mars he started talking up in 2004 (Obama has almost gotten on board with that). I mean the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and how he left both conflicts catastrophically unfinished. Like the reluctant Carter, Obama didn’t have a choice.

Disney spent $250 million on their project and had hoped to gross $700 million. That may sound like a lot, but it’s all in a day’s work. Literally. The U.S. spends about $300 million in Iraq and Afghanistan daily. Disney’s dreamed-off profit wouldn’t finance our military project through Wednesday. That catastrophic loss Disney is facing? We lose almost that much every day by lunch.

Like Carter, Obama just wants to get home. But that requires fighting. In 2006, when even Bush realized that Donald Rumsfeld was a liability, he replaced him with Robert Gates. When Obama announced that Gates was staying, I thought that was just for show, a gesture of bipartisanship Obama wanted to bring to the capital. It’s six years later and Gates is still Secretary of Defense. Bush was hoping for a manned mission to Mars by 2010. Gingrich wants a moon colony by 2020. We’ll be lucky if we’re not still trapped in the gravity of Afghanistan.

Carter has an easier job.  Unifying Mars is nothing compared to unifying Washington.  It only takes him an hour or so to win over those strange, desert-dwelling Tharks (in part by showing that deep down inside their green skin, it’s family they care most about). But a decade into a real war and the U.S. is no closer to understanding what’s under Afghani skins. (On Mars, the burning of a book doesn’t cause greater upheaval than the murder of a child.)

Reviewers disliked John Carter because its plot was too complicated. Instead of vilifying one of the warring tribes (Sunnis, Shiites, etc.) , the film personifies war itself. You could argue those war-profiting god-aliens are Wall Street, but I think the writers (Michael Chabon? Really?) were going for something even more abstract. While the Martians have been battling for centuries, their planet is all but dead. And where were the aliens headed next? Earth. That’s right. Global warming. While we waste trillions (latest estimate: $3.7) on alien-orchestrated conflicts, our planet rots out from under us.

It’s an inconvenient plot to get your head around. Conservatives are generally better at writing villains than liberals are. Probably John Carter would have sold more tickets if it had a simpler us vs. them story to sell.  Obama would probably have a higher approval rating too. Voters, like theater audiences, like things simple.

In the end, Carter saves the day. The war is over. Mission accomplished. He even wins over the Martian people and gets their princess to marry him (Lynn Collins, by the way, looks nothing like Afghanistan’s President Karzai). It’s bittersweet though, because once he’s happy, those nasty uber-aliens fling him back home. The same thing they did to Bush in 2008. Like Carter, Bush now spends his time in his basement study—he dubbed it “Mission Control 2”—plotting trips to Mars.

Obama’s future is less clear. We know John Carter won’t get a sequel. Obama’s box office numbers don’t come in till November.

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Scene One. JULIE TAYMOR (played by Julianne Moore) is arguing backstage with PRODUCER, a sixty-year-old roadie, with fuzzy hair and beard, dressed in jeans and a U2 concert T-shirt. He’s smoking a joint.  JULIE wears the remains of a Lion King costume, most of which has been shredded from her body, exposing her left breast in an act of tasteful and artistically appropriate nudity. The first notes of the opening song, “The Show May or May Not Go On,” squeak from the orchestra pit. Enter GREEN GOBLIN (played by Willem Dafoe). He is painted green with pointy ears, but with an oversized white neck brace and matching foot cast. He walks with a pair of crutches. Ropes connect his harness to the unseen flyrail. PRODUCER bursts into song . . .

PRODUCER

Julie, when will we open?

JULIE

I keep on hoping,

but I just don’t know if or when.

GREEN GOBLIN

This costume is cheesy, I hate that trapeze,

oh god I hope they don’t drop me again.

PRODUCER

This isn’t funny. I’m out of money.

JULIE

I just need another million or ten.

A strange moving presence churns in the shadowy upper recesses of the stage. Its enormous, spider-like body hovers above the cast, almost but never quite bobbing into view. One of its tentacles gestures at a doorway, which is immediately bathed in light. Enter IAGO (played simultaneously by a midget set designer and Taymor’s trusted writing partner, a giant talking pencil). Tempo slows as IAGO starts to belt out “We Need You, Bono”

IAGO

If only there were someone,

someone who could save us.

PRODUCER

A hero to get things done?

IAGO

Instead of making all this fuss.

GREEN GOBLIN

Can he stave off these reviews?

PRODUCER

And shave the budget? That’s a must.

JULIE

We’re only in previews. You’re such a wuss.

Power chord. Dramatic light change. Enter BONO (played by Ben Stiller) with supermodel CHRISTY TURLINGTON (played by supermodel Christy Turlington) and a CHORUS of identical, red-lipped models from that old Robert Palmer video. BONO is carrying an almost empty six-pack of Stella Artois.  All, including BONO, wear tops that expose their left breasts. The CHORUS pretends to play instruments as BONO sings “(I’m a) Pissin’ Philanthropist.”

BONO

I save the world and I do it pissed.

Bend over AIDS, here comes my fist.

African debt, give my junk a kiss.

Cause I’m a pissin’ philanthropist.

CHORUS

Because he’s a pissin’ philanthropist!

ALL (except JULIE)

Oh yeah, he’s a pissin’ philanthropist!

PRODUCER

Bono, can you get us out of debt?

JULIE

Without touching my post-modern sets?

BONO

This is Broadway not the bleedin’ Met.

JULIE

It’s about vision, not the gross and net.

CHORUS

Yeah, but you’re not a pissin’ philanthropist!

ALL (except JULIE):

Oh no, she’s not a pissin’ philanthropist!

JULIE

I make art!

BONO

You make farts.

GREEN GOBLIN

This show’s a farce.

BONO

Eat my arse.

CHORUS

Because he’s a pissin’ philanthropist!

BONO attempts to drop his pants, trips, and passes out face down center stage. All stare in silence. The spider monster in the shadows stirs. Orchestra begins “Changes Suck” which plays under the conversation, while IAGO makes a pass at TURLINGTON.

PRODUCER: Okay, so we need to fix the songs as best we can, come up with a new ending.*

JULIE: It is not easy to change anything, but now I think it is a matter of lyrical and musical changes — *

IAGO and TURLINGTON

It’s always so hard. Changes aren’t easy.

JULIE: And perhaps cutting a scene or two from the second act.*

IAGO and TURLINGTON

They make me feel strange. They make me feel sleazy.

GREEN GOBLIN: Maybe we could cut—AAAAAAAAAAAAH!

A black tentacle yanks GREEN GOBLIN out of view and then drops his body in a mangled pile, before yanking him up again, repeating the process through the duration of the show and then long, long afterwards. The song stops as the cast and orchestra turn and watch until bored.

JULIE: Okay. Good meeting. Let’s reconvene tomorrow.

All begin to leave, except IAGO, who smiles at JULIE and lovingly paws her exposed breast. He watches her exit until satisfied that he is alone, and then he steps toward the shadows.

IAGO: Master?

The monster descends. It is THE EDGE (played by an enormous, eight-tubed sock puppet animated by thirty-seven stagehands).

THE EDGE: You have completed the scenes as I instructed?

IAGO: Best not to mention anything to J.*

THE EDGE: Then the time is ripe to implement . . . Plan X!*

IAGO: Please know that anything you need from me — I’m at your service.*

THE EDGE: Plan X will crush Julie’s naive artistic ambitions and plunge this show into blockbuster mediocrity! MWAHAHAHAHA!

IAGO: Is that ‘X’ as in the letter ‘x’ or the Greek number ‘ten’? Because by my count—

THE EDGE: Silence, human. Bring me my focus groups!

Lights out. Scene Two. Opening Night. Enter PRODUCER and BILL CLINTON (played by Robert Palmer) in matching tuxedos that expose their left breasts. BONO and JULIE are in the corner of the stage having sex. Orchestra plays “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” a song added to the show after JULIE was fired.

PRODUCER

All the weirdos from out of town
And all the freaks always around
All the weirdos in the world
Are here in New York City tonight

BILL CLINTON: What an amazing and historic night on Broadway. New York has never seen anything like Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. And I am very proud of them for not giving up, it was fabulous.*

THE EDGE descends and devours CLINTON.

CLINTON: AAAAAAAAAAAH!

THE EDGE

If you’re looking for a night out on the town
You just found me
A freak like me needs company
I’m a 75 million dollar circus tragedy

JULIE: (shouting over BONO’s naked back) I am very excited. It’s opening night! I am delighted to be here. Also, I’m suing. These are very dark times.*

BONO: She’s clearly exhausted, overwrought.*

JULIE: Shakespeare would have been appalled!*

ALL
All the weirdos in the world
Are here right now in New York City

Lights out. Applause. No curtain call.

[*Things they actually said.]

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Dr. Doom’s time machine premiered in Fantastic Four #5 back in 1961. Doom flings the FF “centuries into the past” to retrieve Merlin’s gems from Blackbeard’s treasure chest. His evil plan was “mastery of all the world.” The same as any politician. The plan didn’t work (will Dr. Doom never learn?), but, more importantly, it turns out the FF didn’t really return to the age of pirates. Doom’s machine doesn’t travel to other time periods. It creates them. Parallel worlds pop into existence whenever a traveler from our timeline invades the past.

A time traveler like, say, a Republican Presidential candidate.

Rick Santorum describes state education in America as “anachronistic.” Which is funny coming from a guy beaming in his campaign from the 1950’s. He wants to return to a simpler time when wives stayed at home and homosexuals stayed in the closet. Though for his education agenda that means the 1850’s. He wants to live in pre-industrial America, when there was no government oversight or funding and children learned at home or in “little neighborhood schools.”

I’m picturing the one Laura Ingalls attended in Little House on the Prairie. That 1970’s show was based on novels written in the 1930’s about a childhood set in the 1870’s. It premiered in 1974, same as Happy Days, another hit show about another golden age. Change time machine channels and you’re in Santorum’s magical 1950’s again.

But Happy Days wasn’t about the 1950’s any more than Little House was about the 1870’s. Ingalls’ novels sold because her Depression era readers needed an escape. They wanted to live in a time before the problems of their modern world existed. It’s the same today. In their heart of hearts, Republicans are wannabe time travelers. They want to return to the way things were.

Unfortunately, the GOP plan for world mastery relies on a time machine that, like Dr. Doom’s, doesn’t work. You can set the dials for whichever golden age is highest on your nostalgia meter, but you will never get there. Instead, like Dr. Doom, you’ll just create a parallel universe. An imaginary world where everything once was wonderful.

For George W. Bush, that was the 1920’s. And not just because of all the sex and drugs. The top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was only 24%. The Bush tax cuts were modeled on the Revenue Acts of 1921, 1925 and 1926. Income inequality hit its highmark in 1929—just before the bubble burst and the planet plunged into Depression.

But that’s the magic of the Dr. Doom time machine. You don’t actually go anywhere. You selectively beam in what you idealize about some past moment and then pretend the rest of history won’t repeat itself.

Mitt Romney and today’s Republican establishment have their Doom dials set to 1913. When federal income taxes were first enacted, the top rate was only 7%. Romney had to pay a whopping 14% on the twenty million he made last year, but with him in the White House, the GOP should be able to half that in no time.

While Republicans scour parallel timelines for lower taxes, their Doom Machines are calibrated for a range of golden ages. Newt Gingrich best articulates their cold war nostalgia. Republicans miss Communism. So now they’re busy dressing up the Muslim world in Moscow’s retired gear. Gingrich claims the U.S. is “about where we were in 1946” against the Soviet Union. Those are big boots for Iran to fill, but Gingrich still warns of “another Holocaust” and loves the apocalyptic phrase “if we do survive.” The cold war wasn’t fun but it was fulfilling. Who doesn’t miss the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire? Things are so much simpler when there’s a supervillain to rally against. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently observed: “Iran has done more to bring us together than anything in the world.”

Santorum figured that out too. Instead of post-war 1946, he set his dial to pre-war 1940’s. Forget Communism. He’s aiming for the greatest supervillain of them all, Adolf Hitler. Iran may look silly in Soviet footwear, but that’s nothing compared to President Obama with the dictator mustache Santorum’s doodled under his nose. He says the President is like “that guy over in Europe” and Americans are sitting on the sidelines like they did while Britain was being “bombed and leveled.” It’s quite a leap, even for Dr. Doom, and Santorum knows it. He lamented how it will be “harder for this generation to figure it out” because there’s “no cataclysmic event.” He’s thinking 1942. His time machine is searching for Pearl Harbor.

It’s no coincidence that the golden age that Conservatives most love is also the golden age of comic books. World War II created the modern superhero. Men dressed in primary colors battling forces of undeniable evil. For once the world could simply be black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. For one moment in American history there were no gray areas. The cold war and Marvel’s guilt-burdened mutants were half-measure imitations. The 40’s Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, they were the cartoon embodiment of a unified nation acting with moral clarity.

It never happened before and it’s not happened since. But the GOP’s political machine remains marooned in that magical moment. It’s the gem they want to pull from Bluebeards’ chest. Never mind that all time travel schemes are doomed. Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie made for great escapist TV in the 70’s, but have you tried to sit through a rerun lately? They’re unwatchable. Have you ever read a 1940 comic book? My eleven-year-old thinks the golden age Superman is a jerk.

Times change. Barack isn’t Adolf. Muslims aren’t Commies. Also, state-funded education isn’t anachronistic, gay people aren’t sinners, and massive income inequality isn’t safe. Instead of trying to relive its selective past, our country could learn from it instead. Step one means shelving the time machine. Even Dr. Doom figured out it didn’t work.

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Superman wasn’t the first alien to gain superpowers by hopping planets. That honor goes to John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-Tarzan pulp star. He premiered in All-Story magazine a hundred years ago last month. This Friday Carter takes his first superpowered leap to the big screen.

In 1939, Jerry Siegel offered a “Scientific Explanation for Superman’s Amazing Strength”: “The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength!”

But Burroughs beat him by more than a quarter century. John Carter’s powers are a product of “the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars.” A “very earthly and at the same time superhuman leap” carries Carter “fully thirty feet into the air” and lands him “a hundred feet” away.

Before 1912, the 20th century had never seen a hero fling himself through the air before. And since John Carter is beating Man of Steel to theaters by more than a year, he bounds over Superman in the 21st century too.

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (who’s always had a thing for Martian scifi) co-wrote the screenplay. It’s his first film credit since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the former high mark for superhero excellence (pre-The Dark Knight, of course). Readers of Thrilling Tales (the retro-pulp issue of McSweeney’s that Chabon edited back in 2003) know the first chapter of his sadly unfilmed screenplay “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance.” Chabon told me he has no intentions of completing the novelization, so his John Carter revisions are the closest we’re going to get.

Given that Burroughs’ first Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, is one of the most hilariously racist novels I’ve ever read, I trust Chabon had his delete key in full working order before opening director Andrew Stanton’s script.

Carter, a former Confederate Captain, is a “southern gentleman of the highest type.” In fact, “slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.” Once he makes the magical leap to Mars (or “Barsoom,” the quasi-oriental-sounding name Burroughs gives the planet), he wars with a race of four-armed savages, each a “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.” If the connection to the so-called savages of the western plains is too subtle, then please note that Captain Carter was battling a band of Apaches seconds before his apparent, planet-flinging death.

Barsoom also hosts a race of four-armed white gorillas, a funhouse reflection of those trod-worshipping slaves freed after the Captain’s Confederacy lost its War Between the States. There’s even a human-looking race of a once great but now tragically fallen civilization. Burroughs doesn’t describe any antebellum mansions in the ruins, but a 1912 reader would have recognized the vanquished South in Barsoom’s dusty riverbeds.

Carter, a well-bred Virginian, arrives ready to rule. Those ferocious-looking Martians are “infinitely less agile and less powerful, in proportion to their weight, than an Earth man.” Carter doubts “were one of them suddenly to be transported to Earth he could lift his own weight from the ground.” Mars, with its impossibly arrested climate and cultures, are his to conquer. John Carter is the ultimate colonizer. Mars was literally made for him.

I don’t know what the screenplay looked like before Chabon started his repairs, but Stanton is already planning two sequels. Burroughs wrote ten, but Disney wants to rake in $700 million first. That’s less than Spider-Man 2, but still a high bar for even an interplanetary superman to clear.

Will Disney’s John Carter also clear the racial politics of the Burroughs novel?

Well, let’s see. Martian women wear “flowing Middle Eastern garb,” and their cities are modeled on the ancient ruins of Petra in modern Jordan. Chabon likens those four-armed Tharks to 19th century “Afghani tribesmen,” and Stanton gave them the lean look of “desert-dwelling people,” specifically “the Masai warriors and the Aborigines.” Plus, for musical icing, that’s Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” playing over the trailer.

So what do India, Afghanistan, Jordan, Kenya, and Australia have in common? They were all British colonies. Disney’s Mars is the ultimate melting pot of non-Western “others.” Which is the scifi way of saying: “They all look the same to me.”

[Addendum: Lynn Collins, who plays the titular Princess, self-identifies as “Irish and Cherokee Indian.” She also cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.”]

Stanton and Chabon let Carter remain a Civil War vet, but the wars that will inevitably haunt their film are Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the trailer, if Carter does not defeat his enemy on Mars, that enemy will attack Earth next. It’s a one-sentence summary of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The war on Mars sounds a lot like the War on Terrorism.

In a creepy way, that’s appropriate. Burroughs’ character was a hit in part because Carter reflected U.S. foreign policy of 1912. England was done with imperialism, and America was its heir. Our internal frontier was closed. The government fought its last battle with Native tribes in 1898 and seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam the same year. To expand our naval capabilities, we instigated the 1903 secession of Panama from Columbia and the construction of the Panama Canal. When Burroughs’ Martian canals were premiering in All-Story, our own canal was just two years from completion. America was the newest global power. And John Carter was our very own superman.

A hundred years later and he still is. It’s not just the Martian weather that never changes. For good and bad, superheroes remain America’s favorite way of mythologizing itself.

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