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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Chris Claremont

marvel logos

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.”

marvel logo 80s

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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Carrie 2013

Let’s hear it for menstrual blood.

Radioactive spiders, super-soldier serums, shouts of “Shazam!”, they’re all second best attempts to transform puberty into the fantastical. But puberty already is fantastical. Blood spilling from your genitalia? No warning, no spider-senses tingling, just a biological transformation as instantaneous as a gamma bomb.

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Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hinted at it first, when a teenage Jean Grey’s taxi pulled in front of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngster back in 1963. Later writers replaced Miss Grey’s mutant menstruation with a telekinesis-spilling car accident when she was ten (an increasingly common age for menarche, though the average is still twelve). When a teenage Rogue arrives at the School in 2000, the grown-up Dr. Grey tries to spell it out for her: “These mutations manifest at puberty and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.”

Yep, you heard right: “triggered by periods.” Even X-Men director Bryan Singer buries the horror of menstruation in the middle of the sentence. That’s why we need Stephen King. It takes a horror writer to spill the blood.

carrie 1974

Like Jean Grey, Carrie White is a telekinetic mutant who discovers her powers at puberty. But King doesn’t beat around the proverbial bush. He puts us in the girls locker room when Carrie menstruates for the first time and bullies pelt her with tampons. “The period,” explained King in an interview, “would release the right hormones and she would rain down destruction on them.”

King’s Ewen High School in Chamberlain, Maine is far far away from Professor X’s “exclusive private school in New York’s Westchester country.” Stan and Jack’s mostly male, mostly pre-pubescent readers weren’t ready for a Jean Gray tampon scene. In 1974, when Carrie was first published, The X-Men were in reprints.

I doubt King was aware that his main character was a knock-off of Marvel’s second Silver Age superheroine. He was just trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t “scared of women” (someone had accused him of writing only about “macho things”). He typed the menstruation scene and then tossed it in his wastebasket. “I hated it,” he said. It took his wife to fish out those first three pages and bully him into writing a couple hundred more. Next thing Sissy Spacek is getting herself nominated for Best Actress.

carrie 1976

The Brian De Palma film was still in production when Chris Claremont relaunched the X-Men in 1975. When Carrie White leapt from paper to screen the following year, Jean Grey was transforming from Marvel Girl to Phoenix. Kirby penned Jean cowering on the cover of X-Men No. 1. Lee admitted that he sometimes forgot what her powers were (he misidentifies telekinesis as “teleportation” in that first issue). But Dave Cockrum’s Phoenix explodes across X-Men No. 101, and soon Claremont makes her the most powerful mutant on earth, dwarfing even Professor X.

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By 1980, Dark Phoenix is swallowing stars like air. Which says a lot about the circularity of cultural influence. It only took four years for the inspiration for Carrie to become Carrie. King’s mutant murders everyone at her prom and razes most of her hometown. Jean Grey takes out the population of an entire planet, but the result is the same: both pregnancy-ready women have to die.

Carries bleeds out from a mother-inflicted knife wound, while Jean superheroically commits suicide. Carrie’s hyper-religious mother stabs her because Mrs. White considers her own daughter an abomination against God. Which is true of Miss Grey too. Mutants are the engine turning Darwin’s God-usurping evolution. Mutations that increase the likelihood of reproduction are Naturally Selected. You might think telekinesis would be pretty damn adaptive, but it’s top two female specimens died before they reproduced. Otherwise menarche would be accompanied by more than just internal explosions.

Of course Jean and Carrie don’t stay dead for long. I’ve lost track of the number of times Jean has returned and/or been cloned. Stephen King never wrote a sequel, but his first-born mutant was resurrected for a film sequel, a stage musical, and a made-for-TV remake designed to launch a series. All were flops. So you have to admire Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce for wading anew into all that pig and menstrual blood. She’s not scared of women either.

Carrie wasn’t her first choice for next project (the producer came to her), but when Peirce reread the novel, she realized: “Oh, these are all my issues: I deal with misfits, with what power does to people, with humiliation and anger and violence. Carrie has gone through life getting beaten up by everyone. She’s got no safe place. And then she finds telekinesis — her talent, her skill — and it becomes her refuge. And I thought, Wow, this is an opportunity to make a superhero-origin story. With her period comes the power. With adolescence comes sexuality, and with sexuality comes power.”

In other words, the best thing about Peirce’s Carrie are the vaginas. Not that we ever see one. She opens with Carrie’s home birth (the amniotic-soaked Bible on the stairs is a nice touch), but Julianne Moore’s dress hem hides everything else. I ducked my head behind the surgical screen during my wife’s c-section, but I can report that the table rocked with the doctor’s sawing and the floor required a mop afterwards. But horror movie horror is about controlling horror (usually by exaggeration) and so paradoxically lessening its effect. Peirce at least knows where the horror crawls out from.

Soon Kick-Ass actress Chloë Grace Moretz’s vagina threatens an appearance during the shower scene (with a brilliant nod to Hitchcock), and the first objects she moves with her mind are all those tampons. Then the whole movie is drenched in half-births. Carrie’s water breaks when she explodes a drinking cooler in the office of a principal scared to say the word “period.” When Carrie’s mother locks her in a womb of a closet, Carrie cracks a slit down the length of the door; an hour later Mom is midwifing herself through the bloody opening. Carrie cracks a larger slit under the car of the bully who turned her into Red Phoenix. The girl dies half-born, her crowning face caught in the vagina dentata of the bloody windshield. Carrie, like her sister Jean, finally ends her own life–though the crack in the tombstone keeps at least the vagina motif alive.

Ultimately, the new Carrie doesn’t add much to either De Palma’s or King’s, both of which at least spoke to their times (read Gloria Steinem’s Ms. essay “If Men Could Menstruate” if you’re in doubt). But the real horrors remain too much in the visual subtext (and that includes the Columbine shootings). Why not employ all the powers of CGI to show infant Carrie struggling out of the birth canal? Why not show the harrowing, bathroom stall moment when Carrie inserts her first tampon?

Metaphors are nice and all, but Carrie remains too marooned in the 70s. Or maybe our culture hasn’t really grown in those forty years. We’re still the same horrified middle schoolers cringing through Sex Ed class.  We’re still scared of women.

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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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