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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: A. O. Scott

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Is Marvel Entertainment evil?

I compiled commentary from twelve experts, and the results are not good for superhero fans.

“I’m not going to head off and do a Marvel film,” director Peter Jackson said on the eve of his Hobbit 3 release. “I don’t really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now. The industry and the advent of all the technology, has kind of lost its way. It’s become very franchise driven and superhero driven.”

Since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings marked that technology advent, and since Jackson made all six of the Tolkien franchise films, that leaves superheroes as his only objection. He doesn’t like them. Or at least he doesn’t like Marvel—which, despite Warner Bros’ best efforts, is the same thing.

Even Marvel’s own Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. is sees the rust: “Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out.”

Actually, there were only four superhero movies last summer, and though Marvel Entertainment produced only two (Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy), the Marvel logo appeared at the start of the last X-Men and Spider-Man installments too. But you can’t blame Downey’s miscount. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott expressed a similar opinion after seeing Downey in The Avengers two year earlier: “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.”

Alan Moore’s review was even more apocalyptic: “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” Even The Avengers own director Joss Whedon acknowledges that audiences are tired of at least some aspects of the formula: “People have made it very clear that they are fed up with movies where entire cities are destroyed, and then we celebrate.”

And yet when a director attempts to shake-up the formula, Marvel fires them. Marvel’s Ant-Man went into production only because of Edgar Wright’s involvement, but when Marvel wasn’t happy with his last script, they rewrote it without his input, followed by a joint announcement that Wright was leaving “due to differences in their visions of the film.” Wright joined axed Marvel directors Kenneth Branaugh, Joe Johnston, and Patty Jenkins (as well as axed actors Edward Norton and Terrance Howard), all victims of similar differences in vision.

Is this the same risk-taking Marvel that hired Ang Lee to make his idiosyncratic Hulk? Is this the same Marvel that hired drug-addict Robert Downey, Jr. after Downey couldn’t stay clean long enough to complete a season of Alley McBeal? Is this the same Marvel that hired the iconoclastic Joss Whedon after his Buffy empire expired, his Firefly franchise flopped, and his Wonder Woman script never even made it into Development Hell?

Actually, it’s not.

Kim Masters and Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter explain:  “Marvel and Wright were different entities when they began their relationship. Marvel was an upstart, independent and feisty as it began building the Marvel Studios brand.”

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The Marvel I grew up reading, Marvel Comics Group, hasn’t been around since 1986, when its parent company, Marvel Entertainment Group, was sold to New World Entertainment. Technically, Marvel Comics (AKA Atlas Comics, AKA Timely Comics) ceased to exist in 1968 when owner Martin Goodman sold his company to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation. The corporate juggling is hard to follow, but that next Marvel was sold to MacAndrews Group in 1989, and then, as part of a bankruptcy deal, to Toy Biz in 1997, where it became Marvel Enterprises, before changing its name to Marvel Entertainment in 2005 when it created Marvel Studios, before sold to Disney in 2009.

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The real question is: at what point did Hydra infiltrate it?

I would like to report that the nefarious forces of evil have seized only Marvel’s movie-making branches, leaving its financially infinitesimal world of comic books to wallow in benign neglect. But that’s not the case.

Marvel comics writer Chris Claremont, renown for his 16-year run on The Uncanny X-Men, is currently hampered in his Nightcrawler scripting because he and everyone else writing X-Men titles are forbidden to create new characters.  “Well,” he asked, “who owns them?” Fox does. Which means any new character Claremont creates becomes the film property of a Marvel Entertainment rival. “There will be no X-Men merchandising for the foreseeable future because, why promote Fox material?”

That’s also why Marvel cancelled The Fantastic Four. Those film rights are owned by Fox too, with a reboot out next August. Why should the parent company allow one of its micro-branches to promote another studio’s movie? Well, for one, The Fantastic Four was the title that launched the Marvel superhero pantheon and its subsequent comics empire in 1961.  Surely even a profits-blinded mega-corporation can recognize the historical significance?

Like I said: Hydra.

This is what drove former Marvel creator Paul Jenkins to the independent Boom! Studios: “It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders.” Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas agrees: “There is a sense of loss because the tail is now wagging the dog.”

Compare that to Fantagraphics editor Garry Groth: “I think it’s a publisher’s obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable ‘literary’ comics or solid, ‘good,’ uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it’s important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.”

Marvel Entertainment is all about comfort zones. Even for its actors. “It’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe,” says former Batman star Michael Keaton. “Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now.” New York Times’ Alex Pappademas is “old enough to remember when Warner Brothers entrusted the 1989 Batman and its sequel to Tim Burton, and how bizarre that decision seemed at the time, and how Burton ended up making one deeply and fascinatingly Tim Burton-ish movie that happened to be about Batman (played by the equally unlikely Michael Keaton, still the only screen Bruce Wayne who seemed like a guy with a dark secret).”

That’s the same Michael Keaton that just rode Birdman to the Oscars. How soon till Marvel’s Agents of H.Y.D.R.A. overwhelm that corner of Hollywood?

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As Jack Black sang at the Oscars ceremony: “Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jediman, Sequelman, Prequelman – formulaic scripts!”

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Is anyone else tired of superhero movies?

According New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, superheroes peaked with The Dark Knight in 2008. Since then, “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.” Scott said that back in 2012, before the release of Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Kick-Ass 2, Dark Knight Rises, and Thor: The Dark World —much less the still future releases of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, and Batman vs. Superman.

Which is to say, he’s got a real point. All those masks and capes and inevitable act three slugfests—could we maybe call a moratorium while the screenwriters guild brainstorms new action tropes? I’m probably too optimistic that Edgar Wright’s 2015 Ant-Man will provide a much needed counterpunch to all the BAM! and POW!—the same way his 2004 Shaun of the Dead enlivened the weary corpse of the zombie movie (another genre still in decadent ascendance).

But instead of looking forward, maybe we should be looking backwards. If, like me, you crave a beer chaser for all those syrupy shots of Hollywood superheroism, tell your online bartender to stream some mid-twentieth century French avant-garde instead.

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Georges Franju’s 1963 Judex has to be the least superheroic superhero movie ever made. Well into its third act, the title character (think Batman with a hat instead of pointy ears) bursts through a window to assail his enemies—only to allow one to step around him, pluck a conveniently placed brick from the floor, and sock him unconscious from behind. It’s not even a fight sequence. Everyone but the brick basher moves in a languid shuffle. The scene is one of many reasons critics label the film “dream-like,” “surreal,”“anti-logical,” “drowsy”—terms opposed to the adrenaline-thumping norms of the genre.

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The original 1916 Judex, a silent serial by fellow French director Louis Feuillade, largely invented movie superheroes. The black cloaked “Judge” swears to avenge his dead father, leading to dozens of similarly cloaked avengers swooping in and out of the 20s and 30s. Judex had barely exited American theaters before film star Douglass Fairbanks was skimming issues of All-Story for his own pulp hero to adapt. A year later, the Judex-inspired Zorro was an international icon.

But Georges Franju was no Judex fan. He preferred Feuillade’s Fantomas, one of the most influential serials in screen and pulp history, and the reason Feuillade dreamed up his crime-fighter in the first place. Fantomas was a supervillain, as was Irma Vep in Feuillade’s equally popular Les Vampires, and French critics had grown weary of glorified crime. Fifty years later, Franju was still glorifying it, making one of France’s first horror films, Eyes Without a Face.

Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux, was a Franju fan—though he really should have checked the director’s other references before asking him to shoot a remake of the superhero ur-film. When the French government commissioned a documentary celebrating industrial modernization, Franju had focused on the filth spewing from French factories. When the slow-to-learn government commissioned a tribute to their War Museum, Franju used it as an opportunity to denounce militarism. Little wonder his Judex is a testament against the glorification of superheroism.

But Champreux bares some of the unintended credit too. Franju admitted to not having “the story writing gift,” but few of Feuillade’s gifts passed to Champreux either. Much of the remake’s surrealism is a result of inexplicable scripting. Champreux and fellow adapter Francis Lacassin boiled down the original five-hour serial to under a hundred minutes. While the streamlining is initially effective (opening with the corrupt banker reading Judex’s threatening letter is great), it soon creates much of that surreal illogic critics so praise:

Why is the detective so incompetent? (Because this is his first job after inheriting the detective agency.)

Why is the banker suddenly in love with his granddaughter’s governess? (Feuillade’s opening scene establishes her plot to seduce him and steal his money.)

Why set up the daughter’s engagement if her fiancé exits after one scene? (Because he originally returned as a villain in league with the governess.)

How does the detective’s never-before-mentioned girlfriend happen to find him just as she’s needed to aid Judex? (Feuillade introduced her well before, and the two were already walking together when Judex allows himself to be captured.)

How is Judex able to pose as the banker’s most trusted employee? (He took a job as a bank clerk years earlier and worked his way into the top position.)

Why is Judex even doing any of this? (His father committed suicide after the banker destroyed the family fortune and his mother made him vow to avenge his death.)

Some of Franju’s most pleasantly peculiar moments— the travelling circus that wanders past the bad guys’ hideout, the dog that appears from nowhere and sets his paw protectively on the fallen damsel’s body—are orphans from Feuillade’s plundered subplots. The remake is a highlight reel. Though, to be fair, not all of the surrealism is the result of the glitchy script.

Masque of the Avian Flu

By moving Judex’s death threat to midnight and shooting the engagement banquet as a masked ball, Franju offers the best Poe adaptation I’ve ever seen—even if all the bird costumes make it more of a Masque of the Avian Flu. And the Franju’s one fight scene isn’t derived from Feuillade at all. Originally the detective’s girlfriend attempts to save the governess who drowns while trying to escape, but Franju costumes the two women in opposite, if equally skintight attire—a proto-Catwoman vs. a white leotarded acrobat—before sending them to the roof to leg wrestle.

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Instead of washing ashore in the epilogue, the governess falls to her death in a bed of flowers. Meanwhile, what’s Judex up to? Not only is the nominal hero not present for the vanquishing of the villainess, but by the end of the film he’s devolved into Douglass Fairbanks’ Don Diego, Zorro’s mild-mannered alter ego. While Franju was imitating the style of early cinema (yes, his version opens with a classic iris-out, a fun gimmick even though Feuillade avoided it in his own Judex), he also grafted Fairbanks’ goofy handkerchief magic into Judex’s less-than-superheroic repertoire. The tricks were cute in The Mark of Zorro, but once again inexplicable in the contemporary context.

And I mean that as praise. A Judex redux is exactly what the genre needs right now. I would love to watch Emma Stone toss the Lizard from a skyscraper while Spider-Man practices his web sculpting—or Natalie Portman shove a Dark Elf through a magic portal while Thor perfects a hammer juggling trick. Superhero films feature plenty of glitchy illogic, but it’s time for drowsy surrealism too. Why hasn’t Marvel or DC handed any directing reins to David Lynch yet? Or David Cronenberg? Terry Gilliam dodged The Watchmen back in the late 80s—but surely his version would have been more memorable than Zack Snyder’s. Isn’t there someone out there who can prove A. O. Scott wrong?

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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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I fully acknowledge that The Avengers might suck. Anyone who’s seen Joss Whedon’s two half-seasons of Dollhouse understands that. (Though if you also saw the original pilot, which Fox never aired, you also understand how a network can thwart even the best of visions.)

I’m pretty sure when Alex Pappademas wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine that the superhero industry should be handed over to film auteurs, he didn’t have Joss Whedon in mind. Unless Pappadmas had also watched seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, four seasons of the network-jumping spin-off Angel, and, my favorite, the brilliant half-season of Firefly followed by its equally brilliant if franchise-ending feature film, Serenity. (Again, I hold Fox responsible for grounding Whedon’s original Firefly pilot, not aired until after the show was cancelled.)

I’ve never read Whedon’s Wonder Woman screenplay (as far as I know, no one’s ever leaked it to the internet), but when both he and the project got the axe, I figured my favorite TV writer-director was down for the count. When I heard Marvel was handing him The Avengers, I cringe-laughed. As Whedon put it, his and Silver Pictures’ Wonder Woman visions were “non-sympatico.” That literally goes double for Fox. So it was simply a question of how long he would last before Marvel pulled his plug.

Of course I braced the same way when Marvel cast my favorite actor, rehab-rebounder Robert Downey, Jr., in Iron Man. The guy had compelled me to watch an entire season of Ally BcBeal, only to have him flame-out before the finale. This was also before the Sherlock Holmes franchise reboot, so people forget just how toxic Downey was even five years ago. Marvel actually made him AUDITION for the part.

So Whedon isn’t the first Fox discard Marvel has gambled on. Certainly Kenneth Branagh looked like the safer and more eye-catching choice for last year’s Thor. Sadly, it seems the Shakespearean auteur did most of his directing from the bed in his trailer. The best thing about Thor is the review it trigged from A. O. Scott. The poor guy was thrown into existential crisis by the film’s intentional mediocrity.

Which is also the likeliest outcome for The Avengers. Corporations are not auteurs. Either they broke Whedon, or Whedon broke them. Or, the least likely outcome, the two found a way to combine vision and finance to craft something that’s both intelligent and money-making. (Hey, I can dream.)

But even if The Avengers does suck, I’m still giving Marvel Entertainment some credit. Film series number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and spin-offs, while rarer, are nothing new. But no company’s produced an interlaced web of parallel films before. The Avengers is both the first in a series (The Avengers 2 is already slated for a 2014 release) and the sequel to not one but four simultaneous franchises: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk.

You can even count Hulk twice if you include the Ang Lee film, which nobody is. (And allow me a moment now to lament the firing of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. I’m not sure if Whedon or Marvel is primarily responsible, but Norton is another of my favorite actors. Though largely because his kid sister was a student at my university. Ed even took her as his date to the Oscars. How cool a brother is that! Plus he only plays Jekyll/Hyde parts—Fight Club, Primal Fear, The Incredible Hulk. As far as I’m concerned Norton should star in ALL superhero movies.)

Anyway, the interconnections between the six Marvel titles is what made the original Avengers so much fun in comic book form. Stan Lee, unlike his competitors at DC, wasn’t interested in stand-alone heroes adventuring each in their private universe. The original 1940 Justice Society of America wasn’t a team, it was a marketing gimmick for a reprint omnibus of each character’s individual episodes. Things had changed by the time DC rebooted them as the Justice League in 1960, but it’s Marvel that invented “continuity.” Stan Lee actually included footnotes in his panels. Readers were reminded not only of previous events within a series but events from ongoing parallel titles, complete with issue numbers. The result was an interlocking web and the sense of an entire world in constant, interactive motion.

Pretty much what Marvel is doing now on screen.

One last side note: The Avengers is not the first Avenger film. That credit goes to Zorro. His team of masked caballeros dubbed themselves the Avengers in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel. When Douglass Fairbanks stared in The Mark of Zorro the following year, he made what is arguably the most influential superhero film in history. Without Zorro’s Avengers, I doubt Marvel’s would have ever been written.

That’s a high bar for The Avengers to match, but I’m looking forward to the attempt. I hear it opens next Friday.

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