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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: May 2013

Benedict_Cumberbatch_blows_up_the_Gherkin_in_new_Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_posterworld trade center explosion

J. J. Abrams is not bashful about 9/11. He blew up the Vulcan home world in his 2009 Star Trek reboot and said afterwards he was aiming for the World Trade Center. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, literally spells it out with a 9/11 dedication in the ending credits. Not that anyone was going to miss the parallels. An enormous, hijacked spaceship takes a suicidal plunge into a 20th century-looking cityscape and levels a block of skyscrapers? I think we’ve seen this episode before.

I admit I was startled, teetering on repulsed, to see such extreme 9/11 imagery employed for mere box office fun.  And the movie really is fun. Osama Bin Laden is played by Star Trek uber-villain Khan, who’s played by—no, not the Corinthian leather guy in the white, Fantasy Island suit, but Benedict Cumberbatch, who BBC fans already adore as their most recent Sherlock (in addition to commandeering a starship, Benedict dethroned Basil Rathbone for most flamboyantly named Holmes actor).

Cumberbatch also plays Adolf Hitler. In Star Trek mythology, Khan is the abortive product of the so-called Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Here on our Earth, we call that World War II. The Nazis were exterminating unfit races in the service of a cleaner, ubermensch-friendly gene pool. Cumberbatch’s Khan even boasts a strain of Dalek (a latent BBC gene presumably) and so wants to expand his extermination program to a universal scale.

I’ve written elsewhere (“Heirs of Slytherin the Virginia State House”) how eugenics keeps providing Hollywood with 21st century supervillains, including most recently Voldemort, Magneto, Red Skull, and the Lizard. In my theater, Khan was scheming a room over from Iron Man 3, where evil genius Aldrich Killian upgrades himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.” But Abrams is less interested in the war of the fittest than the War on Terror.

It turns out our C.I.A. drones are fueled, literally, by more of those evil supermen. The military brass want Kirk to fire them at a targeted terrorist. No trial, no jury, just a remote control execution, what the U.S. authorizes daily in the Middle East.  Obviously Spock objects. And soon we learn a rogue admiral is undermining the very principles that America—I mean, the Federation—was founded on.

The Enterprise was always a Cold War vehicle, so there’s some whiplash in the political retooling. The admiral is Peter Frederick Weller, reprising his equally treasonous role from season five of 24 (a franchise Fox is planning to reboot too). Weller wants to safeguard us against wars to come, but the real threat is the lure of vengeance (also the name of his ship). Even a liberal-blooded half-Vulcan can long to beat the murderer of his best friend into uber-pulp. But that won’t bring him back to life. Only the DNA-fit blood of a still-living superman can do that. So listen to your girlfriend, and keep phasers on stun.

Despite the glaring plot parallels, I doubt Star Trek Into Darkness is going to stir the same waters as Zero Dark Thirty. Which is too bad. More people have already seen it. Science fiction is an especially apt vehicle for allegory—though also one easily ignored (I’m still astonished how season 3 of Battlestar Galactica, an overt representation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq told from the sympathetic POV of human suicide bombers against their literally inhuman oppressors, all but escaped political analysis). American consumers prefer their entertainment entertaining, not thought-provoking. A fact Mr. Abrams fully embraces. His Star Treks are satisfying romps, spiced with just enough current events to create a pleasing patina of relevance.

The reboot of Khan is first and foremost a reboot of Khan. It even prompted my family to look up the original episode on Hulu. For all its talk of selective breeding, the 1967 “Space Seed” is, I was surprised to find, anything but eugenically correct. Ricardo Montalbán is Mexican, a mixed ethnicity any self-respecting eugenicists would have stamped as unfit. And he plays an Indian, the warlord of a continent far far below the standards of Aryan supremacy. Eugenicists wanted to weed out not just the East, but Eastern Europe, those migrating degenerates endangering the genes that produce the likes of, say, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I don’t object to Gene Roddenberry scrambling the history books, not any more than I do Mr. Cumberbatch finding lucrative employment (Sherlock was temporarily exterminated after The Hobbit abducted his Watson, Martin Freeman). He and Zachary Quinto’s Spock (remember his villainous days on Heroes?) are ideal opponents, two super-muscled brainiacs ready to kill each other for their loved ones. Nimoy’s Spock makes a cameo too (Abrams, thankfully, does not re-explain the not-quite-a-reboot reboot premise), reminding us that noble principles (I vow never to interfere with your timeline) are plot fodder when it’s William Shatner’s doppelganger on the line.

So, yes, vanquish the supermen of evils past, put the pesky military in its Constitutional place, and let’s get this five-year mission underway. To boldly go (fifty years later, and we’re still splitting that damn infinitive) where we apparently can’t help ourselves from going again and again and again.

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The-Great-Gatsby

Jimmie Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby, debuted in dual-identity crime fiction long before the prototypal Bruce Wayne slipped on his Bat tights.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rolled off the press in 1925, Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939. When Bob Kane and his writers (probably Bill Finger, possibly Gardner Fox) tacked on an origin story six issues later, they set the alleyway murder of Bruce’s parents “Some fifteen years ago.” I’m not suggesting Gatz (it’s slang for “gun”) was that homicidal thug (one of Mr. Wolfshiem’s other associates would be a better guess), but the Gatsby and Wayne funerals would have been simultaneous. Which might explain why nobody attended Gatsby’s. Though I suppose friends of the extravagantly respected Waynes would have snubbed a West Egger regardless. Thomas and Martha Wayne were tight with the Buchanan crowd.

“Jay Gatsby” is a disguise, one as elaborate as the mild-mannered reporter a certain Kryptonian invented for himself. Jimmie Gatz was born on the alien planet of smallville Minnesota. To the snobbish Nick Carraway, he might as well have crawled out of New York’s lower East Side or the swamps of Louisiana. He is a rough-neck trying to pass as an Oxford man. And, unlike Bruce and Kal-El, he’s not one of the good guys.

Jay is a party-crasher to a long tradition of gentleman thieves popular in the first decades of the century. For an origin point, see E. W. Hornung’s 1898 “A. J. Raffles,” a man of seeming wealth and leisure who secretly burgles his fellow aristocrats. Hornung was a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and his character is an inverted Sherlock Holmes. By 1925, the character type’s anti-heroism had mutated to Robin Hood do-goodery, the mission Kane and Finger burgled for Batman. Graham Montague Jeffries published Blackshirt the same year, another tale of a thieving yet well-intentioned well-born—this time inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 too, a treatise Tom Buchanan and many of his fellow East Eggers sent up the best seller list.

As far as supervillainous schemes go, the Gatz Plan for World Domination is small-fry, mostly bootlegging and stock scamming. Unless you count his secret identity itself. “Jay Gatsby” is an agent of social chaos greater than Christopher Nolan’s Joker. To Tom Buchanan, the mere existence of the new money millionaire signifies the collapse of Aryan Civilization. Soon blacks and whites will be marrying. He’s the bridge beyond which anything can happen.

But what ultimately wins Nick over to Gatsby’s belated side is his other Plan for World Domination, the wooing of Daisy Buchanan. In addition to re-inventing himself, Jay invents a time-machine more complex than Dr. Doom’s or Kang the Conqueror’s. He wants to reboot the world and repair the moment he lost Daisy. And like any Quixotic supervillain, he can’t see the futility of his own plan. Of course he’s going to fail. That’s the point.

I miss teaching The Great Gatsby. Before I re-invented myself as a college professor, Fitzgerald was a perennial high point on my high school syllabus—same as most high school syllabi. I don’t need a time machine to visualize the filmstrips from the 1974 adaptation I had to watch when I was sixteen. It’s a god awful film, the surprisingly incompetent script penned by Francis Ford Coppola. So imagine my delight when I heard Baz Luhrmann was taking a fresh shot. His Romeo and Juliet was a delightfully frenetic mess, Moulin Rouge yet more so, and so who better to capture the excesses of the decadent 20s?

True to form, Baz delivers a circus wagon of a movie. I was planning to enjoy it, but despite the incongruous hip-hop beats, it was almost as yawningly dull as last time Gatsby the Great popped into our timeline. I admit much of the problem is me. I know the book embarrassingly well, and the Luhrmann script, like the Coppola script, is a collage of favorite lines. I know, you’d think that would be a good thing—Fitzgerald’s own words!—but it means neither doggishly devoted screenplay ever commits to its own storytelling.

Worse, Luhrmann loves voiceovers. Which isn’t necessarily an absolute evil in screenwriting. But instead of visual juxtapositions or contradictions, we get lazy repetitions. Tobey Maguire narrates what we’re already seeing. He tells us that his neighbor is standing on the dock reaching for the green light. And, yep, sure enough, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio doing exactly that. It’s the definition of excess, but not the fun kind (like replacing Klipspringer’s baby grand with a church-sized organ—why not!). Early comics suffered similar redundancy. Look at the Bill Finger panel declaring Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27: “As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure behind them… It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’” And, yep, that’s exactly what Bob Kane drew in the panel under it. Comics outgrew the flaw decades ago, making poor Tobey all the more annoying now.

But maybe Baz is fulfilling a larger theme here. Gatsby has to fail. It’s what makes him Great. Ultimately, he and Bruce aren’t very different. Yes, Batman directs his megalomania for good—but just barely. His never-ending war on criminals is about vengeance and self-punishment. He’s ceaselessly borne back into his parents’ alleyway, endlessly replaying a botched past he will never get right. Gatsby’s jilting at the hands of the Daisy is no different. It’s a fate he’ll never escape either.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

I can’t wait till the next time Hollywood reboots him.

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The_Iron_Giant_posterIron man 3 poster

Who stuck an adaptation of the 1999 cartoon The Iron Giant into the middle of Iron Man 3? Not that I’m complaining. Even The New Yorker loved it (as opposed to the formulaic explosions that bookend the movie). Robert Downey Jr.’s abrasive bromance with 11-year-old Ty Simpkins is the film’s brightest and most unexpected subplot. Though it also adds to the film’s overall incoherence. Which, again, might be a good thing. Not since Tim Burton was defining the superhero blockbuster in a single bound have we gotten such a (to use Tony’s term) “hot mess” of a movie.

Even before the young Mr. Simpkins’ entrance, Iron Man 3 was straining its thematic rivets. Aside from the obligatory bad guy machinations, the story scaffold looks like your standard marriage plot variety. Yes, Tony and Pepper are already together at the start, not married exactly, but at least, you know, whatever. Tony quickly overturns the domestic bliss by sending one of his remote control drones to romance his girl while he finishes some work in the lab (anyone notice that Shane Black and Drew Pearce lifted the scene from Watchmen?). Tony is literally phoning it in, and Pepper’s stuck with his empty shell.

Soon the robot drone is jumping into bed with them (yep, Watchmen again) and Pepper is packing. Next thing she’s climbing inside some other super-genius’s brain, and Tony’s pal warns he’s going to lose her if he doesn’t change. Which he does. When things start exploding, he remote controls that robot suit to encase her instead of himself. It’s actually a bit poignant—especially when Iron Pepper returns the favor by shielding him a moment later.

The weird thing though? We’re only about thirty minutes in. Sure, there’s a reprise when Pepper saves him a second time at the climax, followed by the formal exploding of the Iron drones in evidence of Tony’s now focused devotion to Pepper. He even chucks his cyborg heart over a cliff in the epilogue.

But romance is not the machine driving this movie. In addition to becoming a less dickish boyfriend, Tony has to get over the PTSD brought on by his near-death in The Avengers. This is fairly new terrain for a superhero plot and is one of several ways the specter of Afghanistan haunts the movie. The platoon of regenerative thugs are all maimed soldiers who literally grow back lost limbs. Osama Bin Laden is played by the Mandarin—who is played by a Baptist minister—who is played by a washed-up British actor—who’s played by Ben Kingsley—who most of us remember best as Gandhi. Terrorism, it turns out, is not the problem. It’s the War on Terrorism. Which might explain why the President looks like George Bush and not Barack Obama—especially when he’s being rescued by Don Cheadle. So when Tony blows up his armada of Iron Drones, he’s also saying goodbye to a military policy a lot of Americans would like to see go too.

Except when exactly is it that Tony gets over all that pesky post-traumatic stuff? He’s been tinkering in his basement for months, so why does one Home Depot shopping spree turn him into a McGuiver-esque 007? And what does it mean that he promises Pepper he’ll catch her and then can only watch with us as she plummets to her (apparent) death? And if both the romance plot and the foreign policy allegory agree on vanquishing all that deadly hardware, why does the newly superpowered Pepper need an extra boost of tech to put the bad guy down a final time?

Maybe this is where Ty Simpkins and The Iron Giant come in.

If you’ve not seen the Brad Bird movie, I highly recommend it. My daughter adored it when she was four. A mail-functioning robot crashlands in smallville where a father-less boy hides it in his shed while he and a wacky father-figure partner work to repair it. Sound familiar? It gets better. Like the Iron Man suit, the Iron Giant divides into semi-autonomous pieces, and the story climaxes with the self-sacrificing hero sailing into the sky to prevent a U.S. nuclear warhead from destroying the town. Which, incidentally, is also the climax of The Avengers. The Iron Giant even pays homage to the ur-superhero, Superman, who the Giant emulates to escape his programming as a soulless military machine.

But if being a less dickish boyfriend means finding your inner father figure for a half-orphan, the film mocks the tropes more than it fulfills them. This isn’t Spielberg. It’s a Spielberg parody—a particularly hilarious one. Downey and Simpkins are a comic tag-team that skewer the feel-good formula they’re only half pretending to inhabit. It’s as if we’ve crashlanded in a different movie.

But soon Tony is driving back down the main plotline, his remote control suit soon to follow. And what is it exactly that he learned during the detour? Mock sincerity. Deadpan delivery. Comic timing. All the things we loved about Tony but that no longer worked with Pepper in the room. He had to drop his defenses or lose her. All his jokes were misfires on the home front. So the kid gave him a new comic target. Simpkins replaces Paltrow as sparring partner and straight man. Iron Man is above all else a comedian. Refueled with a live audience laugh track, he’s ready to smash the bad guys again.

This all makes sense for one reason only. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark. He’s Robert Downey Jr. Yes, Black and Pearce wrote the script, and Paramount dropped some $200 million into the budget, but the film’s structural logic isn’t animated by CGI effects. The movie only works because it’s so damn funny.

Even the post-credit Avengers 2 teaser is pure sketch comedy—Tony and Doc Banner trading barbs in a two-minute therapist routine. The material is pretty hackneyed, but these guys make you want to laugh anyway. Political commentary, character arcs, plot structure—it all melts away when you’re laughing.

Comedy is Iron Man’s real superpower.

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I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring, and Marvel very kindly scheduled Iron Man 3 to fit our syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their verdict.

Alejandro Paniagua: “Iron Man 3 was a movie filled with action, violence, and the right amount of comic relief. Eccentric billionaire Tony Stark is portrayed as a more relatable character that suffers from anxiety attacks and is even saved by Pepper who assumes the role of superhero in an exhilarating final battle against Killian who wants to create an army of “ubermensch”. Like in The Dark Night Rises, this movie adopts the idea of portraying an image of evil that society will accept while the real villain remains unknown until the end.”

Alena Hamrick: “It was brilliant how Pepper’s role changed from the previous movies. You see it when, for the first time (even if it is of Tony’s will), Pepper dons the Iron Man suit and saves Tony from falling debris. This was ingenious foreshadowing. She again comes through at a crucial moment and saves Tony’s life; this time, not with the Iron Man suit on her, but with her own super powers. In this sense, Pepper became a superhero. It was a super intriguing role reversal (the fact that Tony Stark needed to be rescued by a woman!!!!).”

Clark Hildabrand: “A cynical melding of the Marvel universe and everyday reality, Iron Man 3 marks the return of the suave and battle-hardened Tony Stark. Rather than the super villain of the comics, the Mandarin is a spokesperson for the alleged villains of democracy: think tanks and PACs. Killian tempts scientists, veterans, and even the vice president with money and the possibility of greater power. Although the boy sidekick from Tennessee may make this film more palatable to younger audiences, the violence of both Iron Man and the antagonists is distressing.”

Sarah Michalik: “Having not seen either of its precursors, I did not know what to expect with Iron Man 3. I heard it was a superhero movie, but this movie did not seem to be a superhero film to me. Tony Stark has no real superpowers, unless you count his ability to build a whole fleet of metal suits. The Iron Man suits are what hold the real power, and in this film, many people wear the suits to help defeat the ‘Mandarin’. In short, the action scenes were exciting, but I do not think it was a real superhero movie.”

Becca Brown: “Iron Man 3 explores to what extent a superhero can act as an independent agent. Before this movie, Iron Man operated as a lone hero, with the exceptions of his alliance with War Machine and his recent team-up with the Avengers. This movie sees Iron Man expand his personal ‘saving the day’ network. He enlists the aid of not only the newly dubbed Iron Patriot and his girlfriend Pepper Potts, but must also rely on civilian strangers to help him complete his mission.”

Lijiang Liu: “The love interest is the key. If Iron Man didn’t hit on the bio girl, he won’t meet the guy who owns the think tank. Kind of ironic that Iron Man said that his sole mission is to protect the girl, yet the girl saved him. More ironically, the girl is “superhuman” when she kills the think tank guy, while Iron man is lying on the ground without his suit. So it seems like the girl is the superhero in this movie. Yet we still have a Hollywood ending, hero and the good girl are together.”

Gray Jones: “In Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, there are spectacular explosions, battles between good and evil, and an underlying love story.  Black is no stranger to action-packed movies as he wrote screenplays for Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3, and 4, but unlike his previous movies, he artistically weaves in several humorous and heart-warming side plots into Iron Man 3.  In this sequel, the mysterious and formidable terrorist called the Mandarin tests Tony Stark’s strength both as a man and a machine.  Iron Man 3 is heart-pounding sequel and well worth two hours.”

Margaret Felger: “One of the most important points of the movie was Tony’s battle with his identity.  The public knows that Tony is Iron Man and he doesn’t try to hide his identity.  Because of this, it is harder for Tony to keep his lives separate.  This movie, more than the other Iron Man movies or the Avengers, made it seem like Iron Man has eclipsed the life of Tony Stark.  While we see Tony “give up” being Iron Man, the end was ambiguous enough to allow Tony to return as Iron Man in other movies (for example he’s in the next Avengers movie).”

Carissa Steichen: “The film Iron Man 3 presented a hero with many of the same traits and tropes of the superheroes we have read about.  A major element of the film was Tony Stark’s conflict with his identity as a human versus his identity as Iron Man. While the movie was serious at times, there was comic relief throughout the action packed story. The romantic aspect of the film gave it a positive ending, leading to Tony giving up his identity of Iron Man, which brought closure to the plot.”

Scott Mokris: “While Iron Man/Tony Stark is the supposed superhero of the film, I found it fascinating how Aldrich Killian, the film’s supposed principle villain, is also portrayed as a type of superhero. Not only does he have superpowers given to him by Extremis, he also has a pro-social mission, which Peter Coogan finds essential for a superhero, in his attempt to create better humans. Another aspect of Killian as a superhero is his second/secret identity as The Mandarin. This second identity is unique in the fact that, instead of putting on a costume, Killian has another person be the costume and identity for him.”

Ali Coy: “The dual identity between Tony Stark and Iron Man, the superhero, is a prevalent issue throughout Iron Man 3. At the end of film, Stark destroys all of his Iron Man suits, freeing himself of his superhero identity.  However, his final words of the film are roughly, “I am Iron Man.” Therefore, even though his suits are destroyed and he removes the iron heart from his chest, his identity as Iron Man is still a part of him and always will be. Also, the character of Pepper, Tony’s girlfriend, reminds me of Lois Lane, by playing the damsel in distress-like character and having Iron Man come to her rescue.”

Elizabeth Lamb: “Despite the unfortunate mischaracterization of The Mandarin, the epitome of Eastern mysticism and the perfect foible for Western technology’s Iron Man, this latest addition brings to a fiery light the dangers of biotechnology while still gracing fans with irresistibly clever one-liners.  Defying the typical damsel-in-distress motif, Pepper Potts joins in the action, rescuing Stark twice, while still maintaining her delightfully pure charm.  With homegrown terrorists, corrupted good intentions, and a hero struggling to overcome his anxiety, Iron Man 3 reflects the image of a nation in chaos – a vision of present day America.”

Nolan Doyle: “The film concludes with the iconic line: “I am Iron Man”, as spoken by Tony Stark. This is not only a reference to the song “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, but also a commentary on the character himself. Iron Man is quite different from most superheroes in that he doesn’t care to hide his identity. Such is the unique characteristic of the hero, his singular identity: Iron Man is Tony Stark and Tony Stark is Iron Man.”

Emily Flippo: “Iron Man 3 presented an interesting spin on the way that we’ve been talking about superheroes, specifically the aspect of dual identities. It made me wonder whether you can qualify an iron suit that will attach to any person as a second identity. Also, if Tony does have dual identities as Tony and Iron Man, Tony is extremely open about his identity as Iron Man, when normally it seems like superheroes keep their super identity a secret. Overall, Iron Man 3 was a good movie but I thought the first two were better.”

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