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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Hulk

My wife and I have been discussing the proper disposal of bad guys lately.

Used to be a hero could just kill them. You didn’t even have to call it “homicide.” Unless you’re the 1930s Spider or his 21st century descendant, Dexter. Sometimes stories just have a convenient way of doing in the villain. The hero even gets to keep his moral high ground, as his enemy refuses to grasp his outstretched hand before plunging into the abyss (see Loki in the 2011 Thor).

Batman racked up a list of kills before DC instated the first code of comic book ethics and, more importantly, recognized the joy of a reoccurring nemesis. That’s why the Joker’s first appearance ends in jail bars instead of flames (Batman #1). When Superman’s original archenemy (the now deservedly obscure Ultra-Humanite) mysteriously vanishes from his plane wreckage, Superman muses: “Well, that finishes his plan to control the earth—OR DOES IT?”(Action Comics #13).

But the disappearing body trick gets old fast. And so if you can’t kill or lock up the guy, all you’re left with is banishment. Take Magneto. Even that all-plastic prison in X-Men 2 didn’t hold him for long. The first time the Avengers thwarted his plans for world domination, they sealed him in a magic bubble and dropped him to the earth’s core (Avengers #110).

It’s a nifty trick, but did they really think through the consequences? They were saving the earth, but did they consider the below-the-crust population? What about the mole men? Here they are, minding their own subterranean business, when suddenly, BAM!, world’s mightiest mutant plops into the heart of their community. Sure, he’s been de-fanged, no magnetic power waves pulsing from his battle helmet. But it’s still him. Same hulking physique. Same pompously flapping cape. Imagine having to face schlepping to work every day, never knowing when you’re going to find him slouching at the office copy machine, an unrepentant grimace scarring his face.

Because that’s the problem. He doesn’t know he’s a bad guy. In fact, as my ex-department chair’s husband’s brother says, Magneto is the best supervillain because he actually thinks he’s the hero.

But he’s not alone in that category. Only a few Bronze Age readers out there might remember the ex-Avenger Moondragon and her mission to bring peace to the world by establishing herself as its all-powerful goddess. Her rule wasn’t exactly a golden age for human morale, but she didn’t mean any harm. The Avengers had to thwart her too, but instead of allowing her to conveniently die or vanish, Thor’s dad demoted her with a power-absorbing headband and then forced her to join the Defenders for safe keeping (Defenders #124).

Great news for the world. Kinda shitty for the Defenders.

At least when Wonder Woman topples would-be world-conquers, she ships them to Transformation Island where they wear Venus Girdles and learn to submit to loving authority (Wonder Woman #28). But a guy like Magneto never changes. So when his next evil plan went horribly awry, he was demoted all the way down to the baby room. The leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants ends Defenders #16 as a bawling infant.

Again, great for humanity. But what about the x-babies at mutant daycare?

Imagine plopping your diapered butt down for storytime and who’s hogging the bean bag chair but the kid who just the day before was trying to remake your world in his own fickle image. It’s not fair. Mutant daycare was one of the best run departments in the multiverse, and now they have to babysit a dethroned ubervillain? The Defenders are a top-notch team of world-savers, and now they have to share a water cooler with a mind control goddess still pining for omnipotence?

When the Hulk went on a berserker rampage after losing the balancing presence of Bruce Banner, Dr. Strange banished him to an endless crossroads of alternate universes, ones where his green muscles could do no harm (The Incredible Hulk #300). It was a kindness to the poor brute because he got to choose where he would live, while still removing him from the world where he caused so much chaos. Sort of like job searching during an imposed sabbatical far far away.

Is that so much to ask?

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I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring term at Washington & Lee University, and Marvel very kindly scheduled The Avengers to fit on the syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their analytical verdict.

Ryan Scott: “Though The Avengers features many of today’s biggest film stars and relies upon state-of-the-art special effects, in many ways the film harkens back to the earliest superhero comics, especially in the level of violence carried out by the heroes.  Just as the original Superman of Siegel and Shuster flings his enemies into the sunset, so do the Avengers rack up an impressive body count in the film’s climatic battle.  And just as Bob Kane’s Batman packs a pistol in his first few appearances, so do Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury spend much of the film shooting their enemies.”

Lauren Woodie: “One of the main themes that I have observed in my reading of superhero comics is the superhero’s ability to act above the law. Superman constantly takes the law into his own hands and will sometimes even fight against the police. This theme is highlighted in “The Avengers” mainly by the fact that the Avengers operate under the control of an organization called Shield, which seems to transcend all governments much like the superheroes it encompasses.”

Mihai Cirstea: “To viewers like myself, who are not avid followers of the superhero genre, The Avengers was successfully appealing because of its constant humor that lightens up the heavier comic book influences. The scene that I found particularly amusing was when the Hulk smashes Loki back and forth against the floor like a rag doll. Stark’s humor, of course, also adds levity to the movie with his constant sarcasm. These moments of humor reminded me of the Superman comics, in which Siegel often offset the heavy plot with a snarky quip from his hero.”

Marie Spear: “To my surprise, I found that I had to stop myself from reading into all the different tropes and traits we have looked at class while watching The Avengers so that I could focus on the fun happening onscreen. I like how the director was able to bring in heavy undertones like god vs. science, such as with Thor, or the struggle of dual identities, and still have the movie be a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it is a little too long.”

Anna DiBenedetto: “Whedon’s The Avengers takes a comical stance on the powerful and almighty superhero triumph.  After the Hulk and Thor have a battle against one another on the starship, in a later scene, after they have both teamed up to defeat the flying, bad fish, they are standing over the dead corpse.  Then after a moment of silence, the Hulk punches out his left hand and sends Thor flying away.”

Paul Nguyen:  “The foremost appeal was the action and hilarity, but besides that, there was an intriguing use of superheroes of many types. None fell into the shadow of another. Captain America’s patriotism was well emphasized as well as his physical prowess. Thor’s god-like presence was well felt, but his obvious superiority to the others did not overshadow the overall awesomeness of the Avengers. Iron Man’s wittiness came through well. Hulk’s violent hilarity was strong, especially in his thrashing of Loki. It was about the superheroes as a whole rather than a single superior superhero.”

Anna Dorsett: “The Avengers, while thoroughly entertaining, does not skim over the darker portions of a superhero’s struggle. Dr. Banner, for example, overcomes his inner struggle and finds balance with his human self and super human self with the acceptance and support of the Avengers- he, as a human, found a positive purpose for his destructive power, which he formerly despised. Each character has incredible power, but also a weakness within- some form of humanity that works against them to give the storyline more drama and make the character more relatable. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Nick Lehotsky: “The Avengers proves entertaining, reflecting the reversed tropes seen in superheroes like Hancock. The indifferent, often aggressive attitude society maintains towards these “freaks” because of their massive property damage and pseudo-celebrity attitudes [I’m looking at you, Tony Stark] still resonates with audiences. It is as if we are continually perplexed by the superhero’s interactions with our society, and the hope that they shall always continue saving humanity. The Avengers is just what it is promised to be-a witty, action packed, Marvel stamped [via Disney] money making monster. I just hope the sequel provides more character depth.”

Adele Irwin: “I found the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the most intriguing. Each as individuals are likable characters with level headedness, senses of humor, and scientific intellect. Their friendship within the Avengers is appealing because they bond before the entire group comes together. Rarely have alliances between Superheroes been seen up to this point in our reading, making the collaboration between these two characters within the Avengers group entertaining and original to me, taking the superhero trope of selflessness to an entire new level.”

Shannon Nollet: “The Avengers, unlike some of the earlier superhero stories, gives a female a strong role. Not only is the Black Widow human, but she is able to fight the aliens just as well, if not better, than her male companions. No longer are the women simply the damsel in distress or doting love-interest. In Whedon’s The Avengers, women fully take part in the action.”

Chris Levy: “Each character has a well-defined fatal flaw, and these flaws almost lead to the failure of their mission. Tony Stark has major humility issues, threatening his ability to work with the others. Captain America’s long slumber has caused him to be somewhat outdated. Thor is not mortal, and thus does not truly understand human behavior. As the Hulk, Dr. Banner’s flaw is obvious, while the Black Widow struggles to put her dark past behind her. These characters are superhuman, yet still struggle with flaws like every other human.”

Zabriawn Smith: “My favorite character and message was Captain America. The time capsule jokes by Tony Stark were hilarious, but when it came time to battle it the old stars and stripes that led the way. I enjoyed the theme of returning to roots to move forward. He had a lot more edge than he did in the comics; seeing Captain America allow one of his teammates push his buttons was startling and eye-opening.”

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Does the world really need another Fantastic Four movie?

If you saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the answer is no. Some things deserve to die.

Despite horrific reviews (one and a half stars on RottenTomatoes.com), Fox made a decent profit on the first Fantastic Four film. They spent $100 million and grossed $330 million. (You do the math). But the sequel only pulled a fizzling $160 million profit. Columbia’s Spider-Man sequels drew less than their original too, but for Spider-Man 3 (released the same year Rise of the Silver Surfer) that meant $890 million.

Is Spider-Man an intrinsically hotter commodity than Fantastic Four? Obviously. But Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are all lower on the pantheon, and Marvel grossed $448, $623, and $367 million on each. Columbia is only making The Amazing Spider-Man because Spider-Man 4 died in development. They didn’t want to start over, but it was the only way to continue the biggest grossing superhero series in history.

Which is why the execs at Fox are weeping as they eke out the remains of their X-Men franchise, while watching their Daredevil and Fantastic Four rights grow radioactive mold. Meanwhile, Marvel keeps marching out third tier heroes to other studios for yet another round of blockbusters.

For Fox there’s only one solution. A reboot. And not just because Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm is the least convincing blonde in the history of film. She and the rest of the cast signed three-film contracts, but the internet is ripe with new casting rumors, including Bruce Willis as a CGI Thing. Sadly, Green Lantern writer Michael Green is still the top name for screenplay (did anyone at Fox see Green Lantern?). Chronicle launched Josh Trank’s name into the director race. Personally I would head back to Peyton Reed, who was once attached to the first film. He wanted Renee Zellwegger and George Clooney in his cast and, more importantly, envisioned the film as a period piece set in the early 60’s. Which is the direction the reboot should go.

Period piece? I know, it sounds all fuddy duddy, Downton Abbey in spandex. But hear me out. Fantastic Four: The Reboot needs to be a period piece because the team’s origin story is tethered to a unique moment in American history. Take away the space race and the cold war, and the FF are just Four Freaks in search of a plot. Their superpowers (all knock-offs of Golden Age heroes) don’t matter. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could have stolen from Aquaman, Flash, and Hawkgirl, and nothing central changes.

Marvel became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 60’s because Lee set his action in the moment. Heroes over at DC existed in a world disconnected from current events. The Man of Steel never battled the Iron Curtain. But the FF did. In fact, their creation was premised on it. Mutant-transforming cosmic rays were less about romanticizing a new frontier than literalizing national anxiety over the cold war.

The FF both embodied a national urge and critiqued it. Which is one reason why the 2005 Fantastic Four felt so pointless. Super genius Reed Richards radically miscalculates the effects of radiation exposure and turns himself and his closest friends into monsters. Why? Um . . . ? Writers Mark Frost and Michael France had nothing.

But in 1961 that error is the whole story. The super genius foolishly rushed his team into space for one reason. Russia. Look at the first issue:

“An angry Ben Grimm confronted Dr. Reed Richards . . .

Ben: “If you want to fly to the stars, then you pilot the ship! Count me out! You know we haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays! They might kill us all out in space!

Sue: “Ben, we’ve got to take that chance . . . unless we want the Commies to beat us to it! I—I never thought you would be a coward!”

Ben: “A coward!! Nobody calls me a coward! Get the ship! I’ll fly her no matter what happens!!”

The FF are punished for and are victims of their and their nation’s collective hubris. Reed is Dr. Frankenstein. The FF are Godzilla. The Thing (the one original and utterly unchangeable character in the cast) is a variation on the monsters Kirby was drawing in the 50’s, but now incongruously warped into the figure of a superhero.

There’s a reason Silver Age superheroes regard their powers as curses. The magic word wasn’t “Shazam” anymore. It was “radiation.” As in end-of-the-world fallout.

Which also explains the failures of both Hulk film adaptations. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk rebooted 2003’s Hulk, and now The Avengers is rebooting the character again. Why’s Bruce Banner so hard to get right? Because the guy was making nuclear bombs. Something that in the early 60’s was considered both terrifying and essential to the country’s survival.  A blessing and a curse. A monster and a hero.

Stan Lee only invented the Hulk because the Thing was so popular. Kirby even drew him as the Frankenstein creature: flat head and grey skin. And he drew the same hubris-smoldering pipe in both Bruce’s and Reed’s right hands.

So what happens when you drop the Hulk or the FF into the 21st century?

Very little.

Marvel Comics is rebooting the FF in comic book form this week. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa prefers to call it a “refresh.” He promised to give the team a “contemporary sensibility.” So his updated “Season One” characters have cellphones and Twitter accounts. Which sounds perfectly harmless. He just wants to “blow the cobwebs off,”not “alter the fundamental DNA of the Fantastic Four.” But those cobwebs are period-specific. The DNA is intertwined. Sever the origin point from its history and the story is pointless.

So why does Aguirre-Sacasa’s new Reed rush his launch? To hide it behind a U.S. Space Shuttle mission, and to woo his girlfriend. (Sorry, Roberto, that just doesn’t get the job done.)

But I know period pieces are a tough sell. The approach was fun for X-Men: First Class, but if Twentieth Fox demands something 21st century, then their writers will need to modernize more than just the FF’s social network. Newt Gingrich would like to reboot the space race, but not even unemployed NASA workers care about moon colony statehood. George W. promised a manned mission to Mars as early as 2010. But unless Iran and al-Qeda start calling for a Muslim solar system, that’s only half the equation.

So without the U.S.S.R., what are 21st century Americans really terrified of? That’s easy. Not being America any more. America the superpower. America the uncontested world leader. The greatest threat to our collective self-image isn’t Communism or Islam or anything else that can stoke cold war nostalgia. We’re terrified of becoming irrelevant. We’re threatened by anyone not willing to follow us. It’s not us against the world. It’s us against our fear of the world’s indifference.

So the FF space launch should be a genius billionaire’s bid to put Americans on Mars.  The FF is racing the world. Literally. They rush the launch to beat the multi-national team about to debark from the International Space Station. And the FF win. Sure, their ship explodes and they nearly die, but what matters is American exceptionalism. And there’s no fuller embodiment than the American superhero. Forget Mars. The original FF didn’t make it to the moon either. But they achieved their goal. They returned extraordinary.

A blessing and a curse. A monster and a hero. That’s America, folks. That’s the DNA Fox needs to reboot. The world may not need another Fantastic Four movie, but we do.

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My son is obsessed with Marvel Heroscape. He ordered it himself with grandparent Christmas money. I’ve never seen him choose to play a board game rather than a video game before. And though I’m thrilled that his eyes are peeled away from his laptop, Nintendo, and Wii screens, it means I’m playing a lot of Heroscape too.

My university is also gearing up for its Mock Con right now. Every four years Washington & Lee simulates a Presidential Convention for the party currently out of the White House. Four years ago they predicted Hilary Clinton would edge out Barack Obama for the Democrat nomination. So did I.  But that’s only their second error since 1948. No one’s got a better record. And, hey, hypothetical match-ups aren’t easy.

Look at Heroscape. Their Marvel Mock Con requires a close analysis of a complex set of specialized abilities and frustratingly random dice rolls.

For the most part they get it right. The Abomination begins with a slight advantage over the Hulk, but once wounded, Hulk’s rage attack is unbeatable. Spider-Man and Venom, though bragging different attack and defensive Spider Sense levels, come down to a coin toss. Iron Man and Dr. Doom at first appear equally matched, but when my son and I faced them off, Iron Man’s double attacks bettered Doom’s higher single attack three times in a row.

The only upset was Captain America.

Though his physical abilities are capped more-or-less within human range, the guy’s unbeatable at close combat. That means face-to-face, like, say, on stage at a debate. With his shield deflection, he can actually get an opponent to kill himself. Sort of like Rick Perry’s campaign-ending “oops” moment during the Republican debates. Cap is also a brilliant Tactician with long coattails, aiding all adjacent candidates with extra die roll on attacks and defenses.

The best way to kill him is long range attack, AKA political ads. Red Skull also poses a problem. Sure, the super-Nazi is weak on defense (a measly three dice), but he’s also a Master Manipulator. He can control Cap’s mind once each round, making the emblem of Democracy do his evil bidding. (Which might also explain why President Obama has duplicated the Bush foreign policy since he took office.)

In the Marvel universe, Captain American led an underground resistance against the Superhero Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act). But rather than see his country torn in half by partisan combat, Cap was ready to surrender to his adversaries. Unfortunately, a sniper (another form of long range attack) assassinated him first. A scenario I imagine has crossed the mind of the first African American President of the United States more than once.

Perhaps the cross-over series DC Versus Marvel Comics is the better political allegory. Cameron got that for Christmas too. The two parties evenly divided the first six battles, leaving the last tie-breaking five to fan votes. Marvel got more, but rather than allow one side to win, the two worlds merged into the Amalgam Universe. Here opponents were recreated as combinations of themselves. Batman and Wolverine became Dark Claw. Superman and Captain American merged into Super Soldier.

Which offers another explanation for the Obama Presidency: To defeat Bush, Obama had to absorb half of him.

Romney is a different kind of mash-up. He’s not the moderate center of two extremes. It’s as if the original Romney—the one who championed gay rights, abortion rights, socialized health care—was abducted and replaced by the Romney of some mirror universe. Newt Gingrich time-traveled from the 1990’s in attempt to defeat him, but to no avail. Now nothing stands in the way of Dark Romney’s plot to conquer the Republican party one Mock Convention at a time.

I predict Washington & Lee University will succumb to his Master Manipulation this Friday.

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