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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: September 2012

It was fun while it lasted, but let’s face it. The election is over. Why wait till November to vote? In fact, why wait till January for the Inauguration? We could get both out of the way this week.

At least that’s what they’re doing over on Earth-1610. Marvel Comics moved Inauguration Day to Wednesday September 26th.  And who’s that guy in the flag suit with his hand on the Supreme Justice’s Bible?

Write-in candidate Captain America of course.

The Earth-616 version of the character died four years ago, so it’s a hell of a comeback. It also says a lot about Presidential politics.  (Why, for instance, do candidates limit their flag-wearing to lapel pins?)

I’m not sure if Marvel is leaning left or right this election cycle. Their masked Commander-in-Chief has no party affiliation, and his earlier incarnations have bounced all over the political spectrum. In the 50s, he was a right wing Commie-basher. But he thawed into a liberal in the 60s, and even discarded the flag outfit briefly in the 70s.  More recently, he protested against Marvel’s version of the Patriot Act, but then surrendered rather than see his nation further divided. (Not the sort of high minded compromise we see much in our current Tea Party climate.)

Although DC elected Lex Luthor back in 2000, it’s rare for Presidential politics to bleed so deeply into comic book culture. Usually things flow the other direction. Americans love to talk about their politicians in terms of superheroes.

Look at Mitt Romney. Newsweek called him “Plastic Man” for his political shape-shifting (it didn’t help when his own campaign likened him to a human Etch-A-Sketch). The New York Times Magazines went with “all-business man, the world’s most boring superhero.” Rush Limbaugh drew the unfortunate Bain/Bane comparison during the Dark Knight Rises release. And, most recently, James Carville dubbed Romney’s running mate “Wonder Boy,” a thinly masked variation on Batman’s Boy Wonder.

Commentators throw plenty of leotards at Obama too. A New Yorker essay about the President’s family history was titled “An Origin Story,” and a June New York Times op-ed about his then flagging campaign appeared under the headline: “Captain America?”

Obama has provided a few of the superheroic comparisons himself. His ex-girlfriend Genevieve Cook told biographer David Maraniss that his desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.” While first campaigning for the White House in 2008, he joked at an Alfred Smith dinner that right-wing rumors about his birth certificate were true: “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth.” His website even featured a photograph of the Illinois Senator posed in front of a Superman statue.

Mitt Romney is a Superman fan too. When asked last winter which superhero he like to be and why, he went with the Man of Steel. He didn’t say why, and from his expression (and 1947 birthday), Superman may be the only superhero he’s ever heard of.

Obama had a fuller explanation for his other favorites. He told Entertainment Weekly: “I was always into the Spider‑Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers‑‑like Superman‑‑that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy. Whereas Spider‑Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil.  They get knocked around a little bit.”

Obama has been knocked around a bit himself, but like Captain America or any other good superhero, he’s back from the grave. National polls have him moving 4 points ahead of Romney, and his lead in the electoral votes promise a November blow-out.

But if you can’t wait that long, tune your Bat Dials to Brazil. Their October elections promise to usher in a horde of masked do-gooders. Campaign laws there allow candidates to use almost any name on a ballot, so how better to grab attention than throwing on a leotard?

My favorite is Piracicaba city council candidate “Geraldo Wolverine” and his slogan: “Vote for the guy who has claws!” There are five Batmen (Batmans?) running too. But fear not Obama fans, it looks like the President is going to win big down there too. Sixteen candidates are using his name. One copycat (“Obama BH”) explained:

“Barack Obama is more than a politician; he is an icon.”

That doesn’t make the guy a superhero, but it does look it will get him a second term in the Bat Cave.

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It’s not easy being superhuman. Your physique isn’t calibrated for this planet. Everything is too small and fragile. So of course things are going to break sometimes. Like people. Why are they always swarming under you when you’re trying to land? And if your ego has swollen to match your body mass, why shouldn’t it? You’re an impressive guy. It’s not your fault when some of those ungrateful muggles complain. Why can’t they see how loveable you are?

Well, fear not. Your problems are solved.

Switch on your laptop and download (legally of course) Peter Berg’s 2008 Hancock for a crash course in superhuman public relations. I first screened Hancock for my “Superheroes” class a few months after it came out in video. I’ve shown it twice more since, and it gets better every time.

Though that might be a question of contrast. In his review of The Avengers, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott declared that Hollywood superheroes have entered “a phase of imaginative decadence.” If that’s true, 2008 was the turning point. Hancock was one of seven big screen leotards that year, and though The Dark Knight grabbed most of the glory, Will Smith was the only actor playing an original character.

Too original, in fact. The lone superman in a sea of pissed-off Homo sapiens. Is it his fault everybody hates him?

Actually, it is. And the film is a study in rehabilitation. Maybe other big budget superheroes could learn something from Mr. Hancock and save their genre from wider decline. In fact, anyone in a position of authority—elected officials, corporate managers, school administrators—anyone with any weight to throw around needs to tune in.

The only thing that comes with great power is great arrogance. Responsibility you have to work at. And here are five easy steps to get you there:

1. Don’t forget.

Hancock forgot how he’d accidentally splattered that beached whale, but Green Peace remembered. In fact they videoed it and posted it on YouTube. For Hancock it was just a passing “my bad” moment that he put behind him before the day’s next disaster. But for whale lovers, it was their worst nightmare, one they replay daily. Literally. What’s water under the bridge for you, may be a collapsing dam for everyone else. So go on YouTube and relive some of your most humbling screw-ups. It will help you in the long run.

2. Say thank you.

It’s one of the funniest bits in the movie, Hancock turning to every cop outside the hostage scene and individually thanking them: “Good job, good job, good job, good job, good job . . .” It’s what Ray, his PR coach, told him to do, and it’s smart advice. Sure, it puts a cramp into your action sequences, but it’s better than coming off as unappreciative. You might not realize how often you belittle people. You’re larger-than-life after all. You probably do it without realizing, a kind reflexive combat stance that squashes all the little guys stationed around you. Here’s an easy rule for the gloved thumb: dish out twice as many thanks as punches. Pretty soon those compliments might start flowing back at you.

3. Don’t touch.

When that wounded police officer is pinned behind her car with bad guys firing all around her, Hancock first asks permission before grabbing her and carrying her to safety. Sure, it’s another comic moment, but the point is that even supermen need to obey the rules of basic human interaction. Keep your hands to yourself. Even when you don’t mean the contact to be hostile or sexual, you don’t go around touching people. This is true of everyone, but especially superhumans. You’re bigger than the rest of us. A friendly pat could slam us through a wall. Even if you’re good at calibrating, you’re still a giant. If you want to be friendly, trying waving. From a safe distance.

4. Don’t hog the bench.

This is a corollary to the no touching. First scene of the movie, Hancock is sprawled all over a city bench. This is him at his worst, hungover, foul-mouthed, belligerent. You’re better than all that, but you still have to think about the bench. As already discussed, you have a big body. That means your bubble is bigger too. You take up even more space than you realize, lots more. Not only do you not get to touch, you can’t sprawl either. Keep your hands in your lap, elbow at your sides. Make room for other people on the bench. Many regular humans have trouble with this too. There’s a guy at my college notorious for throwing the mass of his arms over couch backs, oblivious to the latest woman contracting beside him, even as he expands further into her space. Think small. The first time Hancock comes in for a landing, asphalt shatters. But eventually even he learns to control all that superpowered mass.

5. Go to prison.

Getting knocked out of your position of unfettered authority? I know. Doesn’t sound like fun. Hancock was pissed when Ray told him he had to go too. But look at it as an opportunity not a punishment. This is where you learn to play by the rules. Superheroes enforce the laws; they don’t invent them. Sure, those thugs deserved getting their car stuck on top of that skyscraper, but people in authority don’t get to act on whim. Your two most important superpowers are consistency and transparency. The public should always know what to expect from you. Otherwise they end up fearing and hating you, which pretty much makes you a supervillain.

So follow these steps, rent Hancock as needed, and next thing you know you’ll be acting like a human being. If it doesn’t help you save the world, it might just help you save yourself.

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Dear Warner Bros.,

First off, congrats on the whole Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy thing. Sorry about The Avengers, but hey, Batman grabbed both silver and bronze for biggest grossing superhero movies of all time. Now you’re all asking yourselves one question:

How soon till we reboot!

If you follow the Spider-Man model, you have the minimum of a five-year hiatus. That’s a 2017 release date. Which is like, wow, a long time from now. You could jump sooner, but The Amazing Spider-Man took a lot of heat for its accelerated offing of Tobey Maguire. And even though it was a better film than Spider-Man, it grossed a measly $257 million against the original’s $403. Hell, even Spider-Man 3 pulled $336.

Plus the Nolan trilogy is now a “classic.” There were no street protests when Val Kilmer stole Michael Keaton’s batsuit back in ’95 (or George Clooney in ’97), but you’ll have Bane-style revolution if you yank Mr. Bale’s tights off too soon.

So how do you keep the franchise alive in the meantime? How do you capitalize on the Dark Knight when its success is its own roadblock?

Switch screens.

It’s time for the Warner Brothers Television to answer the bat signal.

You have plenty of TV superhero successes to build on. My Bronze Age generation grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lois & Clark defined Superman for the 90’s, and Smallville just completed its decade-long run last year. Sure, you’ve had flops (The Flash, Birds of Prey), but the timing is right for the caped crusader to go prime time.

Except not.

And here’s where I worry about confusing you. People say Hollywood only understands things in very simple, high-concept terms, so I’ll try to keep this plain.

A TV show about some new Bruce Wayne gearing up to clobber crime once a week will not work (see “Bane-style revolution” above, except with more yawning). Keeping your franchise alive means shaking up the paradigm. The new show isn’t about Bruce. It’s about Gotham.

Maybe I should translate this into agent-pitch dialect:

“It’s Batman Begins meets Law & Order!”

“It’s Batman: Year One meets The Wire!”

It sounds weird, I know, but Batman can’t be the main character. In fact, he’ll almost never be on screen. Bruce will make a few appearances, but not in costume, and only as a secondary character. The viewers are in the know of course, but everyone in the show has no idea that the loser playboy has any connection to reports about that new vigilante weirdo pulverizing thugs in Crime Alley.

Let me be explicit about this: that means no Batcave, no shots from the Batmobile cockpit, not even a Wayne Mansion interior unless it’s from the POV of a visiting character. “The Bat-man” is just a name a reporter coins after an episode or two of rumor-level sightings. We only know him from his handiwork, via crime scene investigations, usually just details bubbling through the cast of cops and lawyers.

Steal as much as you like from Frank Miller. Year One is already plotted for a first season arc. “Meet newcomer Detective Jim Gordon as he struggles against police corruption in his adopted precinct.” I’d add a tier of uniformed patrolmen too. Maybe Officer Drake? Or, for a Dark Knight tie-in, Officer Blake. Better yet, Officer Carrie Kelley. The first time we glimpse a cape flapping into the dark, it’s going to be from one of their street-level points of view.

You’re going to need a posse of lawyers too, headed of course by District Attorney Harvey Dent. Don’t overdo the Two Face foreshadowing. Dent is a decent guy trying to work within a flawed legal system. That two-headed quarter in his pocket is just a trick he plays on arrested thugs he’s trying to turn, pretends he’s leaving it all to chance, heads you take the plea bargain, tails you walk free. But guess what happens to his meticulously crafted court cases when that new vigilante won’t play by the rules. How do you prosecute the big fish with that idiot warring on the small fries is scaring off your informants? I’d end Dent’s first season with the collapse of his biggest case. Maybe the legal system really is just random. In frustration, he grinds an X across his coin, a talisman of things to come.

As far as the other villains, tone them back too. No costumes, no MHA-HA-HAing. “The Riddler” is another newspaper-coined name for that anonymous guy phoning in tauntingly obscure tips and threats to the police hotline, another season-length plot to play out. The Penguin? That’s what the editorial cartoonist nicknamed the corrupt, old money mayor, scribbling in a monocle and umbrella for comic effect. Keep stealing from Miller and follow Selina Kyle’s gritty travails through Gotham’s underworld of drugs and prostitution as she develops her own brand of Mob-bashing vigilantism and Robin Hood-esque do-goodery.

Remember: the show is doing with Gotham what The Wire did with Baltimore and Treme New Orleans. It’s a portrait of a city. For real world locations, I’d go with Pittsburgh, and not just because I grew up there. It’s another way of building on Nolan’s vision. The city provided the working class feel of Dark knight Rises, something the TV show would need to expand. Plus Pittsburgh is a film-making mini-hub ready to go.

Tapping the Wire/Treme creative team will also provide something else woefully lacking from the history of the Batman franchise:

Black people.

Did anyone notice all the white faces when the police force charges Bane’s stronghold in Dark Knight Rises? I didn’t spot any black faces during the prison break either. Or on the streets. Or at the fundraising gala. Or just about anywhere in Gotham. It’s as if Morgan Freeman beamed in from an alternate dimension. Of course Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is no better on race. His urban mutants are thinly coded black gangs. And does anyone remember Jack Nicholson graffiti-painting the art museum to the beat of a boom box? At least Tim Burton’s Harvey Dent was played Billy Dee Williams, a cameo made pointless when Tommy Lee Jones camped up Two Face for the third movie.

But let’s not get off track here. We can talk casting after you start the development ball rolling. I’m thinking a Fall 2013 premiere. Not too close to the Nolan achievement to provoke grousing, but close enough to ride some of its wake. Especially when you start the pre-hype now. A year of strategically leaked rumors and production shots, and that massive Batman fan base will have their TVs tuned to their Bat channels before you spend a dollar on advertising.

Also, I assume you heard about Marvel greenlighting Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. show, right? So unless you want to get beat by The Avengers again, you better get the Batmobile in gear ASAP. If you have any questions, drop me a note. I’d be happy to read some of the preliminary scripts. I’m busy with my new semester, but I should be able to free up some time during Thanksgiving break.  Good luck till then!

Sincerely yours,

Chris Gavaler

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Why is Lady Gaga wearing a mask? Or, more importantly, why is Lady Gaga wearing ONLY a mask? “Masked nudity.” That’s like an oxymoron, right? Since this is an ad for the perfume “Fame,” I’m tempted to read the image metaphorically:

“Fame is being naked and masked at the same time.”

Or, “Fame is tiny little men crawling over my body as I gaze off indifferently.”

The ad currently appears on a Times Square billboard, so all those little men are life-sized, and Ms. Gaga gargantuan. Perhaps super-genius Henry Pym (AKA Ant-Man/Giant-Man) helped in the perfume lab. Either way, photographer Steven Klein has a thing for superheroes.

As apparently does Kobe Bryant, AKA The Black Mamba. The Lakers star donned his own mask after breaking his nose in an All-Star game earlier this year. He tried a transparent one first, but it kept fogging up, so he switched to the caped crusader look the following game. It didn’t affect his performance one way or the other, which might be why the uber-player auctioned it off at benefit for the homeless a few weeks later. The mask pulled in $67,100. That’s one way of using your powers for good.

Image analysis: “Fame means having to look stupid.”

If Bryant’s comic book apparel was donned for medical reasons, the swine flu has him beat. Medical face masks are an international hit, with or without Joker mouth accessorizing. Heath Ledger looked a lot scarier in his, but the swine flu is real.

Image analysis: “I’m not laughing on the inside.”

If the swine flu doesn’t frighten you, Paris fashion will. Belgian designer Martin Margiela premiered this exciting new, um, look last July. Margiela is apparently a big fan of the obscure Marvel supervillain team The Headman, particularly evil scientist Thursday Rubinstein who replaced her head with a faceless orb of organic circuitry. Hulk called her “Gumball-Head Lady.”

Image analysis: “They’re paying us money to wear this stuff.”

An even less appealing fashion trend. Would you believe this is beachware? They call the hood a “facekini,” and it and the full bodysuit are all about tan prevention. Pasty white is the color of privilege in China. Only day laborers sport tans.

Image analysis: “Maybe Lady Gaga should try it.”

And just when you thought a woman couldn’t look good in a balaklava, along comes Pussy Riot to save the day. The Russian punk band was arrested after staging an anti-government protest video in an Orthodox Church last February. And if you don’t know they were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, you really need to be reading more on the web than superhero blogs. As the Guerrilla Girls wrote in support: “The world needs more feminist masked avengers.”

Image analysis: “Putin is an asshole.”

But the number one example of superhero wear used for a superheroic purpose goes to the people of Syria. The masks are no fashion statement. Like Zorro, these freedom fighters are hiding their identities from the tyrannical government they’re dedicated to tearing down.

Image analysis: “Why haven’t NATO and the Arab League teamed-up to take out Bashar al-Assad yet?”

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