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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Christopher Eccleston

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The end of the world is a comfort. Things have finally and definitively fallen apart, no more struggle, and, most importantly, all the Big Questions are answered. In literary terms, an apocalypse is mystery novel. The word means “uncovering” or “unveiling,” the exegesis Sherlock Holmes performs at the close of every story. Religions promise big reveals in the afterlife, delivered on a first come first served basis, but an end-of-the-world apocalypse provides closure to all readers at once.

Sometimes the answers suck. The Walking Dead apocalypse reveals that God is dead, life is brutal, and death a mockery and negation of all human values. But that’s still an Answer. Mystery solved. Horror usually tips the opposite scale: the universe overflows with supernatural import. Sure, most of the supernatural forces want to flay and eat you, but even when they succeed, the stench of blood and brimstone is still comforting. You finally know what’s what—whether Buffy or the Winchester brothers swoop in at the last-minute or not.

But the biggest horror is an apocalypse that doesn’t reveal anything. That anti-Rapture, the ten-episode adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, has been airing on HBO this summer. Although I’ve met Tom Perrotta (nice guy, drove him back to his hotel after his reading at UVA a few years ago), I have the blissful ignorance of having not read the novel. So I don’t know how season one will end, and based on ratings, season two is anything but a certainty.

leftovers book cover

That’s appropriate for a show about radical uncertainty. Left Behind, the book series Perrotta is at least partially lampooning, delivers the ur-apocalypse of Revelations, complete with an all-mysteries-solved Antichrist at the center of its plot. The Perrotta Apocalypse is way scarier. When 2% of the planet’s population pop out of existence, the leftover 98% are left without any answers. Dr. Who, in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s American-accented clergyman, says it wasn’t God. A three-year congressional report might as well be blank.

That abyss-deep level of not-knowing is too much for some people. Liv Tyler and Any Brenneman join a nihilistic cult of mute chain smokers hell-bent on proving life is worthless. Their evangelical pamphlets are literally blank. They are the show’s zombie horde: they stare at you blankly from the sidewalk outside your living room windows; they buy your church and paint its windows white; they stage protests at commemorations for your vanished loved ones; they break into your home and steal your family photos from their pictures frames.

At least zombies are accidental. Reanimated flesh-eating corpses are random byproducts of a random universe. Perrotta’s zombies choose meaninglessness, abandoning their families and severing all emotional ties and then terrorizing others into adopting their philosophy—while inwardly struggling to maintain it themselves. People secure in their nihilism wouldn’t bother to terrorize or recruit converts or take vows of silence—behaviors as inherently meaningless as all other behaviors.

But the cult is a fundamentalist church. Most non-apocalyptic atheists don’t congregate in the name of non-God. They have better, more meaningful things to do. But being leftover raises the stakes. When the bank forecloses on Eccleston’s church, he gambles the existence of God at a roulette table. But do three double-or-nothing wins equal divine intervention? Are those pigeons gray-feathered messengers of the Supernatural—or are they just brainless birds? Are the voices in the ex-sheriff’s head evidence of his schizophrenia—or did they send a very corporeal, tobacco-chewing hunter to help his son shoot packs of wild dogs? These and many other burning questions will not be answered next week, or any other week.

Perrotta’s teenagers at least know how to channel their universe’s amoral indifference into an app (in addition to “kiss” and “hug,” a game of spin-the-cellphone includes “punch” and “fuck”). They know the baby Jesus in the town’s Christmas display is just a mass consumer object–yet one so haunted with a residue of meaning that burning it isn’t as easy as stealing it. In this world of heightened uncertainty, even the disappearance of a bagel into the bowels of an industrial toaster is enough to trigger existential crisis.

Although this agnostic apocalypse is Rapture-inspired, it reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of godless humanism. Vonnegut’s end-of-the-world revelations challenge basic assumptions of reality: water only freezes when cold, time moves in one direction, gravity is a constant, humans have free will. After a “timequake” causes years of predetermined repetition, humans find themselves suddenly at the metaphorical wheel again and are so unprepared they literally drive into each other. The Leftovers opens with a similar car wreck, a driverless car careening through a not-just-existential crossroads.

Vonnegut founds his own religions too. The Book of Bokonon announces that its teachings are lies, although useful ones, godly untruths that impose order on an unloving universe. Perrotta’s Guilty Remnant can’t cope with such abandonment and so their lies impose an uglier order. Their leader writes on her tablet: “There is no family.” It’s as true/false as any other religious claim. The “Lonesome No More” government in Vonnegut’s Slapstick randomly assigns the population middle names, providing everyone with an extensive family of siblings and cousins to care for them. It’s nonsense, but it also works. There might not be any Supernatural order to your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a soulless zombie.

If that orderless order sounds too frightening for you, wait till October. The powers-that-be are giving the Left Behind franchise a second chance. Nicholas Cage will be our pilot through the end-of-days reboot.

I’d rather take my uncertain chances with The Leftovers.

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Thor 2

According to the new Thor movie, every few millennia the universes line up for an anything-goes cosmic cross-over called the Convergence. Inhabitants of unrelated realms get sucked through portals and tossed together to defy the laws of physics. It happened for the first time in 2012. They called it The Avengers.  Superheroes from all the Marvelverses were plucked from their disparate origin worlds to converge in a single, box office-defying blockbuster.

Physicists predict the next Convergence will occur in 2015—not once, but twice! Not only will The Avengers 2 draw the sequel-spinning franchises of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America together again, but Warner Brothers’ Batman vs. Superman have Gotham and Metropolis on a collision course—with Paradise Island and Starling City and other DC planets to be swept into the same Justice League gravity pit.

But which Convergence will come to define all of superhero reality?

In Thor: the Dark World, an evil dark elf wants to use the Convergence to remake reality in his own dark image. He’s played by former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, but his real name is Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight trilogy and the gray tones it casts over Man of Steel now define the DC brand. It’s a humorless void happier with the droning rumble of Christian Bale’s Bat-rasp than the giggles of a live audience.

Christopher Nolan

The Dark Knight Elf wants to crush the world into a Black Hole. But Thor, with his lightning bolts and deadpan timing, is all about levity. He’s super-hunk Chris (not Christopher) Hemsworth in the credits, but his real name is Joss Whedon. The Asgardian—like his buddies Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and even the ever earnest Steve Rodgers—is a Comedian. He throws that mighty hammer at all kinds of monstrous bad-asses, but he it’s our funny bone he keeps hitting. I didn’t see Joshing Joss’ name in the credits, but I hear Mr. Whedon was responsible for major rewrites and reshoots—all part of his uber-duties as the overseeing Odin of the Marvelverses. He’s Captain Convergence, and he wants the world to end in a laugh not a rasp.

Joss Whedon

Of course the Whedonverse isn’t a flawless reality. There’s a moment in Thor 2 when a funeral barge sails over an Asgardian waterfall and hangs there a moment before dropping—a little like Wile E. Coyote after sprinting past the edge of a canyon. It would be pointless to criticize a Road Runner cartoon for its failure to follow basic laws of physics. And the same is true of Thor: the Dark World and the laws of plotting. The word “convenient” comes to mind, as does “inexplicable” and “far-fetched.” Director Alan Taylor is hoping we’ll be too busy enjoying ourselves to ask annoying questions like “How is it that a random convergence portal just happened to drop Thor’s girlfriend of all people into the exact spot where the Dark Elf’s reality-destroying superweapon has been hidden for millennia?” Comic worlds tend to cut corners. Do we really need to hear a ponderous explanation? Nolanland has plenty of those, and its’ still pockmarked with its own plot portals.

The Whedonverse—despite Whedon having literally majored in Women’s Studies—also can’t find much for Natalie Portman to do but look lovelorn and occasionally panic-stricken. This might be the result of the gender-challenged fabric of superhero reality, since DC can’t even turn a Wonder Woman screenplay penned by Joss Whedon into an actual movie. Apparently Hollywood executives think fanboys won’t buy tickets to see scantily-clad women in fight scenes. And yet the shirtless beefcake shot (Hemsworth provides a couple screamers) has become a staple of the genre (the clothing-challenged Stephen Amell flexes weekly on the CW’s Arrow).

This may or may not be why my wife surprised us both by saying she wanted to see the new Thor movie. I was so underwhelmed by the first that I was going to pass, but I’m glad she suggested it. I like dumb fun. I also like smart fun, but that combination has yet to Converge on a superhero universe. I’m hoping it won’t take a millennia.

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