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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: August 2013

Detective Comics 66. Two-Face's origin

Bob Kane first drew the villain Two-Face in 1942 (Detective Comics #66). But it wasn’t till 2008 that the Nolan brothers got his origin right. My favorite scene from The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger’s Joker convincing Aaron Eckhart’s brutally disfigured Harvey Dent to embrace the dark side. How’s he do it?

With the flip of a coin.

Javier Bardem made similar use of a quarter the year before in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. Live or die? Ask JFK and the eagle.

Rewind two more years, to Woody Allen’s 2005 Match Point, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers spells it out: “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control.”

Meyers’ character (he later gets away with murdering an inconvenient lover) fascinated Roger Ebert because, like all of the characters in the film, he’s rotten: “This is a thriller not about good versus evil, but about various species of evil engaged in a struggle for survival of the fittest — or, as the movie makes clear, the luckiest.”

Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is a hitman, so at least he’s supposed to kill people. But that’s not what makes him so damn scary. The movie’s nihilism is contained in those coin flips. When Chigurh tells a gas attendant to “Call it,” the man says he didn’t put nothing up to bet. “Yes, you did,” Chigurh answers. “You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it.”

Myers’ tennis pro plays the same game: “There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.” Near the film’s end, when he tosses an incriminating piece of evidence (his dead lover’s ring) toward the river, it takes the same fate-determining bounce. He wins.

When the gas attendant wins his toss, Chigurh congratulates him and tells him not to put the lucky quarter in his pocket where “it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.” Chigurh’s lat victim already know this and so refuses to play: “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”

“Well,” says Chigurh, “I got here the same way the coin did.”

Coin-Toss

The Nolans’ Joker embodies the same anarchic philosophy: “I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” And in the true spirit of  anarchy, he points the gun at himself. “I’m an agent of chaos,” he explains to Harvey Dent as he leans his forehead into the barrel. “Oh and you know the thing about chaos, it’s fair.”

The Joker survives his coin toss too, but not Dent. He’s Two-Face now. He worships Chigurh’s god.

My wife and I were recently catching up on the last season of the British cop show Luther. It opens with Idris Elba (we liked him as a gangster in The Wire too) sitting on a couch, playing Russian roulette. He learned the game from a homicidal army vet, not the Joker, but his character is relinquishing his will to the same higher Non-Will as the others. Except Luther is a (mostly) good guy. So by the season’s end he’s traded in the gun (he rarely carries one anyway) for an ice cream cone with his newly adopted teen daughter. What got him there?

Not a coin toss.

It wasn’t a roll of the dice either. That’s the device of chance preferred by the season’s ugliest villains, a pair of identical twins (two people, one face) playing a real-world game of D&D. They earn experience points by killing people. You can do it anywhere, a gas station, subway, a lane of stopped traffic. Just open your backpack, spread out your bat, hammer, and squirt gun of acid, and roll the dice.

I bought our twelve-year-old his first D&D game this Christmas. (He learned about the game last year from a particularly hilarious episode of our family’s favorite sitcom, Community.) So while Luther’s evil twins were rolling their dice, our son was upstairs rolling his. I can now differentiate between the thump and skid of dice on floorboards and the smack and skitter of dice in a D&D box lid.

I asked him once, if instead of killing the various trolls and orcs and armored whatnots he has to battle, could he just knock them out, tie them up, and leave them for the authorities to incarcerate?

He said, “What authorities?”

Right. There’s no government in D&D. It’s literal anarchy. Even at the metaphysical level. There are plenty of supernatural beings, but no Supreme One. Gods but no God. Even the Judeo-Christian Lord is only the sum of the numbers in the Dungeon Master’s hand. And the DM isn’t God either. He (yes, in this case, DMs are almost as uniformly male as Catholic priests) must obey the Dice like everyone else.

Roll them to determine the whims of heredity, what skills and proclivities you’re born with, which you’re not. The Dice control every important moment of your life, every struggle, the literal blows of chance. Sure, my son admits to ignoring the occasional bad roll, but he said it gets boring if you do that too much. Real life is random.

So why is randomness overwhelming portrayed as “evil” in pop culture?

The Brave and the Bold 130

First time I saw Two-Face as a kid (October 1976, The Brave and the Bold #130), he bewildered me. Instead of just killing Batman and Green Arrow, he and the Joker flip a coin? (Allowing the Atom to secretly climb on and alter its fall.) At some point in the story, Two-Face betrays the Joker—and not because Heath Ledger killed his fiancé. It’s just what his quarter tells him to do. So why, my ten-year-old self wondered, is the guy considered a supervillain?

When those D&D twins bend down with a 20-sided die, only the ugliest options are in play. Shouldn’t your backpack have more than murder weapons? Where’s the wad of twenties for homeless people’s cups? Why does Chigurh only flip a coin when he’s thinking about plugging someone in the head? A true worshipper of chance would be Mother Theresa half the time.

So it’s not randomness that makes hitmen, supervillains, D&D players, and tennis pros scary. It’s the deification of randomness. The abdication of responsibility. A true nihilist (like Alan Moore’s Comedian) embraces the absence of God and so the permissibility of everything. But that’s an abyss too deep for the Two-Faces of the world. They can’t fill that God-sized gap with themselves. They can’t hack that much free will. So instead of randomness, they invent Randomness and pretend they’re just following order. Pretend that’s not really your finger on the trigger.

You can take comfort in the illusion that the bullet in Russian roulette chooses you. But an ice cream cone, that’s something you have to go out and get. It’s a scheme. You have to choose to want it despite the uncontrollable probabilities of your getting or not getting it. If life’s a crap shoot, the only question is how you cope with that fact.

I do know one writer who flips Randomness to make us see it not as a force of evil but of good. Or, more accurately, of helpful change. Glen Dahlgren’s A Child of Chaos spins a D&D-inspired world where the lazy gods of Charity, Evil, War, etc. have gotten a bit too complacent. What the universe needs is the smack and skid of a die. Literally. That’s the magic instrument of Chaos, how the promised one will restore some much needed disorder, unlock all that magic the privileged class keeps hogging. No more homicidal lunatics. Chaos is our hero.

Unfortunately you don’t get to read Dahlgren’s novel yet. My copy is a Word file in my laptop. The manuscript (like my own third novel) is still mid-spin in the seemingly random universe of the publishing industry. I’m rooting for the unmarred JFK side of the coin. But there are no guarantees. Right now my agent is battling the forces of Evil and trying to land my manuscript in a New York house. It’s a chaotic process (stalled by the randomness of a hurricane and jaw surgery so far), but the dice keep bouncing. My agent now believes my fourth novel (The Patron Saint of Superheroes) has a shot at a movie deal that will trigger a bidding war between the top publishers. Sounds fun, but who knows? I sure don’t.

Glen and I, like Chigurh’s last victim, understand the rules of the game: “I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me.”

God bless chaos.

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Sgt. Bales

What makes a loving husband and father-of-two go on a shooting rampage, murdering sixteen people in their homes, most of them women and children? I don’t know, but Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty of it in June. He dodged the death penalty with a life sentence, but hearing this week will determine whether he can ever earn parole.

Dr. Jekyll couldn’t recreate the monstrous serum that released his Mr. Hyde. The same is true of Sgt. Bales, but we know some of the ingredients: contraband alcohol, snorted Valium, steroids, and the anti-malarial drug mefloquine which can induce such side effects as hallucinations and psychotic behavior. Bales also suffered PTSD and a traumatic brain injury from multiple deployments.

When asked by a judge why he massacred the Afghan civilians, he answered: “Sir, as far as why — I’ve asked that question a million times since then. There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.” He acknowledged that he “formed the intent” of killing each victim, but he didn’t remember also burning their bodies. When pressed, he said, “It’s the only thing that makes sense, sir.”

Sgt. Bales sounds like a confused observer of his own actions. Which he is. We all are.

“Like a rider on the back of an elephant,” argues psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.” Mostly we just sit on top and watch what happens, recording the bumping and jostling of our emotions and actions. We’re not steering the elephant. We just pretend we are. “Then, when faced with a social demand for a verbal justification,” Haidt says, “one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case, rather than a judge searching for the truth.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” Bales said after his arrest. The elephant always does the right thing, and it’s our job to prove it—to ourselves and everyone else. The counter evidence was too great for Bales’ lawyer to challenge in court, but Haidt calls us all “intuitive lawyers” defending our elephant-sized intuitions.

I picture a blind lawyer, Daredevil’s alter ego Matt Murdock, arguing why his vigilante-by-night job doesn’t make his legal career complete hypocrisy. There are a range of available justifications (failure of enforcement, police corruption, court incompetence), but none of them are the actual reason he runs around in a skintight unitard with little devil horns beating up bad guys. That’s just something his elephant does.

This sounds like a weirder form of double identity than most superheroes face, but two of Hollywood’s biggest, Batman and Wolverine, encode the same human-animal duality. Comic books stock a zoo of animal men, including, most obviously, Animal Man, and continuing down the alphabetized cages: Ant-Man, Badger, Beast, Black Canary, Black Panther, Blue Beetle, Cat, Catman, Catwoman, Chameleon, Cheetah, Crow, Green Hornet, Hawkman, Hellcat, Howard the Duck, Lizard, Man-Bat, Man-Thing, Man-Wolf, Nite Owl, Penguin, Rhino, Scorpion, Sabretooth, Toad, Tigris, Vulture, Wasp, and Yellowjacket.

Image Comics started publishing an Elephantman series in 2006.  Otherwise you need to go to back to 1884, the year the deformed and destitute Joseph Merrick assumed that freak show moniker. Victorians ate him up. Even the Princess of Wales (a queen of animals?) stopped by his bedside to ogle. Advertised as “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant,” Merrick believed his secret origin was the fairground elephant that frightened his pregnant mother. His doctor called him “the most disgusting ” and “degraded or perverted version of a human being” he’d ever seen.

Which explains his ticket sales. Victorians were busy being disgusted by all manner of animal men. H. G. Wells wouldn’t get around to populating Doctor Moreau’s island of half-men for another decade, but Robert Louis Stevenson began his vivisection of humanity’s animal side with his 1882 play, Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life. Professor Brodie of my English department assures me she’s only related to the real-life Deacon by marriage. Even so, you might not trust her with the keys to your home lest her inner elephant feels an atavistic urge to pillage. Deacon William Brodie was an upstanding member of his Edinburgh community until they hung him in 1788 for robbing by night the homes he woodworked by day.

Stevenson took four years to expand the two-faced Deacon into The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The doctor is the ultimate, elephant-straddling lawyer. Jekyll has no control over what his inner Hyde does. Drink, rob, rape, murder, he’s a stampede of animal urges, and when he dies it is with a “dismal screech, as of mere animal terror.”

Victorians were screeching with terror too. Not just of Hyde, but of all such criminal degenerates hiding among their fellow Jekylls. Evolution, they believed, might be slipping backwards into the animal mud which humans had once stood so divinely above. Wasn’t Joseph Merrick’s elephantine deformities evidence?

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So who will save us from these animal men? Well, oddly enough, other animal men will. Superheroes aren’t like the rest of us. Being “super” means you’re only half-human to begin with. Bruce Wayne would just be another lazy socialite, but instead of abdicating control of his inner beast, he yokes it for his own moral mission. Bat-Man is a Jekyll-controlled Hyde. Beating up degenerates keeps Bruce from degenerating into one of them.

Wolverine has to battle himself to keep his berserker rage under control too. It’s a duality we all experience. Do you just make excuses for your elephant or do you try to seize its reins? It’s scary enough admitting the elephant exists. We aren’t so different from the Victorians. Instead of Darwin skinning our animal side, we have psychologists like Haidt poking their non-rationalist sticks through our cage bars. Who wouldn’t snarl when told their moral reasoning is just ad hoc rationalizations for emotional reflexes? Who wants to work as hard as a self-cage superhero, when it’s so much easier watching from your animal’s free-ranging back?

Perhaps Sgt. Bales is just a degraded version of a human being. Maybe he doesn’t deserve life, let alone parole in twenty years (he’ll be 68). He lost his inner battle against his berserker rage. He was a mere animal when he butchered those families. He needs to be caged. I would like to believe that makes him unique, that he’s a throwback from our animal past. I would like to think other human beings, if placed in the same crucible of environment and chemical horror, would not commit the same atrocity. I want to believe I could never sit before a judge, with my lawyerly hands folded in front of me, and have to say:

“It’s the only thing that makes sense, sir.”

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Matt Damon for Obama

“He broke up with me,” Matt Damon said about President Obama. “There are a lot of things that I really question, the legality of the drone strikes, and these NSA revelations. Jimmy Carter came out and said ‘we don’t live in a democracy.’ That’s a little intense when an ex-president says that, so he’s got some explaining to do, particularly for a constitutional law professor.”

It’s not the kind of publicity soundbite you expect from a Hollywood star the weekend his latest $100-million-budget, hope-to-be blockbuster opens. But then Elysium is fed up with the President too. His name is Patel in the movie, and his right arm is right winger Jodie Foster. Allow illegals a path to citizenship? She’d rather gun them down. Give the poor universal healthcare? She’d rather gun them down. Sure, the brown-skinned President scolds and threatens his renegade Security director, but it’s Ms. Foster and her Tea Party of drones and psychopaths keeping the 1% afloat. The gated community of Elysium orbits high above the slumlands of allegorical Earth.

Damon and his running mate, director Neill Blomkamp, deny the film is overly political. It’s mostly about boys with guns blowing each other up in new and interesting ways, same as any summer blockbuster. But the Damon-Blomkamp ticket does make some big campaign pledges:

Had enough of the Affordable Healthcare Act? We’ve got giant robotships filled with cure-anything Med-Pods, and we’re flying them down to a parking lot near you.

Annoyed with the immigration reform bills flailing around in Congress? Tap a key on your laptop and the entire population of the planet are instant citizens.

Sick of greedy CEOs exploiting employees? We’ll shoot down their private jets and pirate their brains.

Worried about the psychopaths running the drone program? We’ll slit their throats and explode their bodies in sprays of CGI blood.

Tired of lawless hoodlums looting your neighborhood? We’ll drill cybernetic exoskeletons into their skulls until they grow self-sacrificing hearts of gold.

It’s an ambitious agenda, but they promise it all not in their first hundred days in office, but in five. Because that’s all the radiated working class has left. Damon and Blomkamp even guarantee term limits. Once all that legislation is downloaded, you drop dead. No second term sequels.

Which is how Damon feels about Obama. He was a big supporter back in 2008, but now it’s conservatives playing the actor’s soundbites. Some of them must be buying his tickets too. Elysium earned $30 million its opening weekend. That’s not a landslide victory, but it’s respectable enough that the film should pull a profit once it hits foreign markets. That’s right, people outside the U.S. are going to see it. That’s how Pacific Rim rocketed out of the red too. America isn’t the exclusive pot of gold it used to be.

Elysium isn’t everything I’d want in a politically allegorical star-driven scifi action flick, but it’s a decent compromise for such a messy genre. The same is true of Obama. No, he’s not everything I want in a President, but he’s decent, and his genre is way way messier. Damon heard Jimmy Carter say last month that “America has no functioning democracy at this moment.” He meant because of NSA surveillance, something former President George Bush said he supports. If you’re the current resident of the White House, you probably don’t want either of them agreeing with you.

I don’t know if the history books of 2154 are going to agree with Damon or not. Probably the 44th President of the United States will get very mixed but ultimately if grudgingly positive reviews. Elysium will be long forgotten. Even in the shorter term, its plot is too simple, its villains too one-dimensional, its women and children too obviously in hero-motivating peril, for the film to be memorable.

But it’s not trying for memorable. It’s just a quick dip in Hollywood’s orbiting paradise before we plunge back into the grit of August. Forget democracy. All America wants at this moment is a theater with a functioning air conditioner.

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“I grew up in Indiana,” writes Chris Huntington, “and saved a few thousand comic books in white boxes for the son I would have someday. . . . Despite my good intentions, we had to leave the boxes of yellowing comics behind when we moved to China.”

I grew up in Pennsylvania and only moved down to Virginia, so I still have one dented box of my childhood comics to share with my son. He pulled it down from the attic last weekend.

“I forgot how much fun these are,” he said.

Cameron is twelve and has lived them all in our southern smallville of a town. Chris Huntington’s son, Dagim, is younger and born in Ethiopia. Huntington laments in “A Superhero Who Looks Like My Son”(a recent post at the New York Times parenting blog, Motherlode) how Dagin stopped wearing his Superman cape after he noticed how much darker his skin looked next to his adoptive parents’.

Cameron can flip to any page in my bin of comics and admire one of those “big-jawed white guys” Huntington and I grew up on. Dagim can’t. That, argues Junot Diaz, is the formula for a supervillain: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Fortunately, reports Huntington, Marvel swooped to the rescue with a black-Hispanic Spider-Man in 2011, giving Dagim a superhero to dress as two Halloweens running.

Glenn Beck called Ultimate Spider-Man just “a stupid comic book,” blaming the facelift on Michelle Obama and her assault on American traditions. But Financial Times saw the new interracial character as the continuing embodiment of America: “Spider-Man is the pure dream: the American heart, in the act of growing up and learning its path.” I happily side with Financial Times, though the odd thing about their opinion (aside from the fact that something called Financial Times HAS an opinion about a black-Hispanic Spider-Man) is the “growing up” bit.

Peter Parker was a fifteen-year-old high schooler when that radioactive spider sunk its fangs into his adolescent body. Instant puberty metaphor: “What’s happening  to me? I feel—different! As though my entire body is charged with some sort of fantastic energy!” I remember the feeling.

It was 1962. Stan Lee’s publisher didn’t want a teenage superhero. The recently reborn genre was still learning its path.  Teenagers could only be sidekicks. The 1940s swarmed with Robin knock-offs, but none of them ever got to grow-up, to become adult heroes, to become adult anythings.

Captain Marvel’s little alter ego Billy Baston never aged. None of the Golden Agers did. Their origin stories moved with them through time. Bruce Wayne always witnessed his parents’ murder “Some fifteen years ago.” He never grew past it. For Billy and Robin, that meant never growing at all. They were marooned in puberty.

Lee and co-creator Steve Ditko tried to change that. Peter Parker graduated high school in 1965, right on time. He starts college the same year. The bookworm scholarship boy was on track for a 1969 B.A.

But things don’t always go as planned. Ditko left the series a few issues later (#38, on stands the month I was born). Lee scripted plots with artist John Romita until 1972, when Lee took over his uncle’s job as publisher. He was all grown-up.

Peter doesn’t make it to his next graduation day till 1978. If I remember correctly (I haven’t read  Amazing Spider-Man #185 since I bought it from a 7-EIeven comic book rack for “Still Only Thirty-five” cents when I was twelve), he missed a P.E. credit and had to wait for his diploma. Thirteen years as an undergraduate is a purgatorial span of time. (I’m an English professor now, so trust me, I know.)

Except it isn’t thirteen years. That’s no thirty-two-year-old in the cap and gown on the cover. Bodies age differently inside comic books. Peter’s still a young twentysomething. His first twenty-eight issues spanned less than three years, same for us out here in the real world. But during the next 150, things grind out of sync.

It’s not just that Peter’s clock moves more slowly. His life is marked by the same external events as ours. While he was attending Empire State University, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter appeared multiple times in the Marvel universe. Their four-year terms came and went, but not Peter’s four-year college program. How can “the American heart” learn its path when it’s in a state of arrested development?

Slowing time wasn’t enough either. Marvel wanted to reverse the aging process. They wanted the original teen superhero to be a teenager again. When their 1998 reboot didn’t take hold (John Byrne had better luck turning back the Man of Steel’s clock), Marvel invented an entire universe. When Ultimate Spider-Man premiered in 2000, the new Peter Parker is fifteen again. And he was going to stay that way for a good long while. Writer Brian Bendis took seven issues to cover the events Lee and Ditko told in eleven pages.

But even with slo-mo pacing, Peter turned sixteen again in 2011. So after a half century of webslinging, Marvel took a more extreme countermeasure to unwanted aging. They killed him. But only because they had the still younger Spider-Man waiting in the wings. Once an adolescent, always an adolescent.

The newest Spider-Man, Miles Morales, started at thirteen. What my son turns next month. He and Miles will start shaving in a couple of years. If Miles isn’t in the habit of rubbing deodorant in his armpits regularly, someone will have to suggest it. I’m sure he has cringed through a number of Sex Ed lessons inflicted by well-meaning but clueless P.E. teachers. My Health classes were always divided, mortified boys in one room, mortified girls across the hall. My kids’ schools follow the same regime. Some things don’t change.

Miles doesn’t live in Marvel’s main continuity, so who knows if he’ll make it out of adolescence alive. His predecessor died a virgin. Ultimate Peter and Mary Jane had talked about sex, but decided to wait. Sixteen, even five years of sixteen, is awfully young. (Did I mention my daughter turned sixteen last spring?)

Peter didn’t die alone though.  Mary Jane knew his secret. I grew up with and continue a policy of open bedrooms while opposite sex friends are in the house, but Peter told her while they sat alone on his bed, Aunt May off who knows where. The scene lasted six pages, which is serious superhero stamina. It’s mostly close-ups, then Peter springing into the air and sticking to the wall as Mary Jane’s eye get real real big. Way better than my first time. It’s also quite sweet, the trust and friendship between them. For a superhero, for a pubescent superhero especially, unmasking is better than sex. It’s almost enough to make me wish I could reboot my own teen purgatory. Almost.

Meanwhile the Marvel universes continue to lurch in and out of time, every character ageless and aging, part of and not part of their readers’ worlds. It’s a fate not even Stan Lee could save them from. Cameron and Dagim will continue reading comic books, and then they’ll outgrow them, and then, who knows, maybe that box will get handed to a prepubescent grandson or granddaughter.

The now fifty-one-year-old Spider-Man, however, will continue not to grow up. But he will continue to change. “Maybe sooner or later,” suggests artist Sara Pichelli, “a black or gay — or both — hero will be considered something absolutely normal.” Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield would like his character to be bisexual, a notion Stan Lee rejects (“I figure one sex is enough for anybody”). But anything’s possible. That’s what Huntington learned from superheroes, the quintessentially American lesson he wants to pass on to his son growing up in Singapore.

May that stupid American heart never stop finding its path.

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The Wolverine movie

Best thing to be said about The Wolverine came out of my daughter’s mouth in the parking lot afterwards: “I forgot I like superhero movies. I always think they’re going to be stupid. But that was good. I want to be a superhero!”

She’s sixteen. She also did a good parody of Hugh Jackman’s lumbering walk as we looked for our car.

My twelve-year-old son said afterwards (SPOILER ALERT!): “That was Magneto? He’s really old.” Sadly the warmest reviews praise the two-minute preview bit during the ending credits. Which can’t be that much of a surprise since there are X-Men 2015 posters all over the lobby.

The reviews also said (I skimmed a lot while deciding whether I could subject my family to yet another superhero movie this summer) the train scene was really cool. I’m apparently one of the few people in the U.S. who saw The Lone Ranger and so could live longer than the semi-immortal Wolverine and never want to watch two guys fighting on top of a train ever again. I felt that way after Skyfall as well. Hell, I felt that way after Spider-Man 2. But don’t worry, this time it’s a bullet train, which not only changes the physics in a fun way, it means the scene is short.

Even my wife (she sat through The Long Ranger too) liked the train, but not as much as the clothes. They were beautiful, she said. Except Hugh Jackman’s. He wanders the whole movie dressed like a lumberjack.  Which is loads better than the leather and/or spandex outfits all other superhero movies require their leads to shimmy into at least once in the third act. It’s literally a surface change, but it says a lot about the deeper structure of the film.

With one or two gratuitous exceptions, director James Mangold allows very few superpowers room to fly. Sure, masked ninjas are kinda the same thing, but it’s okay because we’re in Japan. Since the bad guys zapped his mutant healing, Jackman spends this round closer to a garden variety martial arts pro than the Man of Adamantine. Think 007 if Q could figure out the claw-popping tech. He also apparently has a license to kill. People got quite bent about Superman snapping poor General Zod’s neck earlier this summer, but Wolverine slices up two hours worth of bloodless PG-13 bad guys without a moral shrug.

But despite such stalwart formula-bending, the film still operates wholly within superhero movie expectations. More specifically, superhero movie 2 expectations. Somewhere in Hollywood it is written that in his second film the hero will temporarily relinquish his accursed powers in an attempt to live a more human life only to learn the noble necessity of his lonely plight and renew his do-gooding mission. See the above mentioned Spider-Man 2. And Superman II. Christopher Nolan shook things up by yanking Christian Bale’s bat tights off at the start of his third movie, and the Fantastic Four franchise crammed the Thing’s arc into that unfortunate first flick. I’d call it a Last Temptation of Christ thing, but I’m on vacation and so not in the mood for the analysis of bloated superhero-as-savior imagery.

I should probably also mention that the Wolverine screenplay is based on a 1982 comic book by Chris Claremont, but I never read it. I was suffering my brief, too-cool-for-comics phase in junior high. Though I do remember seeing the cover and thinking, “Really? Wolverine gets his own series? Aren’t they milking that a little thin?” Which explains why no one in Hollywood ever phones me for advice.

If you count his cameo in X-Men: First Class, Jackman has played Wolverine in six movies, the seventh currently in production.  He was 31 when X-Men premiered and 44 now. Though his anti-aging mutant powers are way way better than mine, Hugh is not that spry young thing he once was. That massive musculature looks like the product of lots and lots of effort—not the ole born-that-way mutant privilege.

And that’s true of the superhero movie in general. It’s working really really hard to maintain its supremacy, but the skin pulled over all that muscle is looking a bit grizzled. As my son would say, “He’s old.” Fortunately for every Toby Maguire there’s an Andrew Garfield, and a Henry Cavill for every Christopher Reeve. Who do you think will be playing Wolverine when my son takes his twelve-year-old to X-Men XX?

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