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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

Guest blogger, Madeleine Gavaler

It feels creepy to say this about a middle aged man I’ve never met, but Joss Whedon has profoundly changed my life, from providing my role models in the darkest days of middle school to shaping my choice in picking the college where I will be spending the next four years of my life. In preparation for leaving for Wesleyan, I’ve been cleaning out various corners of my bedroom. Of all the toys I’ve accumulated over the past eighteen years, I kept three things: crudely made action figures of Spike, Tara, and Willow.

 

I first watched Buffy with my family when I was about thirteen and have continued to binge watch it every couple of months since. Without my emotional prejudice I would still think the show is the best ever made, but it is so much more to me than a well-written, intricately plotted masterpiece. Buffy is the first thing I can remember watching with strong and imperfect female characters who were lovable and flawed and who I could always look up to. Watching little blonde Buffy kick ass and defy stereotypes and Willow transform into a more confident and capable version of herself was what got me through my middle school years. On “blonde joke Fridays” I would imagine Buffy Summers kicking my algebra teacher Mr. Almanza in the face, and when my lunch table referred to me as “the ghost” and wouldn’t let me speak, I remembered how ghost Willow saved the day in the Halloween episode.

In this world devoid of Black Widow movies and pay equity, I would like to think that my obsession with Whedonverse characters speaks not only to my geeky antisocial tendencies but to the problems in representation. Buffy Summers is both feminine and a badass.

Tara and Willow are an adorable couple, but they made such an impression on me because they had the first lesbian kiss I can remember seeing.

Angel’s Fred Burkle is undoubtedly an objectively wonderful character, but she is so important to me because she went from being a damsel in distress to running her science laboratory.

Fred se sert de ses connaissances pour aider Angel

Firefly’s Kay Lee is a sweet mechanic with a healthy attitude about sex.

All of these fictional women are so important to me because they’re not just characters in shows I watch, they’re examples of identities that are okay to have. I know this is so cheesy, but the characters Joss wrote validated and still validate my goals and myself.

I spend a fair amount of time on the feminist side of the internet, a place where Joss is not always loved. I think a lot of the criticism about his portrayal of rape and racism and certainly darling Natasha Romanoff’s characterization is valid, and yet I am still full of admiration for this rich white guy. I have my own complaints about his treatment of characters and I’m not blind to his problematic moments, but I will always respect his portrayal of strong female characters.

I no longer need Buffy to beat up my bullies, but I find just as much comfort in Joss’s characters as I enter season four of my life. Whether it is loss of a loved one, starting a new part of your life, heartbreak, or vampire attack, Joss has written a weirdly applicable and comforting story about it. I’ll never understand why season four of Angel happened or why on earth Bruce and Natasha, but I will always be in awe of how one person could create my favorite horror movie, Shakespeare adaptation, musical, and short lived sci-fi Western. I couldn’t be more excited to attend his alma mater, and I hope it’s nothing like UC-Sunnydale and I don’t have a demon roommate.

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 amedia.whas11.com_images_southern_avenger_top_pic_470x264

A sure sign you’re running for President: firing your racist sidekick.

Last summer Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, by “mutual decision,” accepted the resignation of his aide Jack Hunter, AKA the Southern Avenger. Rand is having trouble climbing out of his father’s Libertarian shadow along with all those shadowy white supremacists the Libertarian brand attracts, so Hunter’s views on Southern succession, the Lincoln assassination, and whether “a non-white majority America would simply cease to be America” were declared a “distraction.”

Hunter also retired the Southern Avenger (he reportedly adopted his radio shock jock persona during a conversation with a bottle of Jim Bean), but not before co-writing Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Hunter did not co-write the sequel, Government Bullies, which was an even bigger “distraction” because the Senator plagiarized it instead. That would get him expelled from my college, but the White House has different standards.

I teach at Washington & Lee University, in a smallville known as a War-Between-the-States tourist Mecca, so I’m familiar with all brands of Southern Avengers. The remains of not one but two Confederate generals rest within a half-mile stroll of my front door. Confederate flags are common—though, unlike Mr. Hunter, most folks don’t sport them on superhero-style masks. Even Captain Confederacy (a creation of comic book writer and former Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Will Shetterly) retired his mask when his series moved to Marvel’s Epic back in 1991. The comic was set in an alternate universe in which the Confederacy won the Civil War (apparently the same universe Newt Gingrich visited for his 2005 Gettysburg novel). After Shetterly retired his first Captain, he has a black woman take over the identity, draping Old Dixie across her breasts.

captain-confederacy-kate-williams-1

If that sounds implausible, then you didn’t attend my town’s council meeting in which Southern Avengers protested the banning of Confederate flags from city flagpoles. I can’t criticize since I used to wear the same image across the back of concert t-shirts, believing it represented nothing more than a subgenre of rock. I was sixteen and still preferred Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets over R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction.

Civil War reenactors, another common spectacle in Lexington, VA, attended the council meeting too.  W&L borders the Virginia Military Institute where I watched a legion of gray-clad and hoop-skirted extras cheer a regal Stonewall Jackson while shooting a scene for the 2003 Gods and Generals. W&L declined the film company’s request to shoot on our campus. For Somersby, crews shoveled the historic downtown streets with dirt and angled the Exxon station out of shots. I’ll watch Jodie Foster in anything, but I like Somersby for its time period. Reconstruction is way more interesting than the Civil War.

Marvel movie guru Joss Whedon agrees. He started writing his TV series Firefly after reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Whedon also took an undergraduate class from Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation, a seminal study in American frontier mythology. Whedon sets his distopic future six years after a Civil War with a dispossessed Confederate soldier (he sings “We shall rise again” in the premiere) for a space captain. “Mal’s politics,” says Whedon, “are very reactionary and ‘Big government is bad’ and ‘Don’t interfere with my life,’” attitudes Senator Rand and his former sidekick sing about too. But unlike the Tea Party, Whedon sees both sides: “sometimes he’s wrong—because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can’t see that, because he was a Vietnamese.”

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Actually Mal is the very Caucasian Nathan Fillion, but his second in command, like the second Captain Confederacy and at least one of the flag-wearing protesters at the Lexington council meeting, is an African American woman (AKA, Gina Torres). Whedon’s Confederacy never had slavery. Which is why his take on the Reconstruction is both watchable and a complete cop-out. In some ways, I prefer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ dispossessed Confederate soldier, John Carter. He heads West to dig gold and fight Injuns but ends up on Mars instead—where, surprise surprise, he gains superpowers and champions a ruined race of aristocrats against four-armed apes and green heathens. The Princess of Mars gave me allegorical whiplash, but at least Burroughs’ politics aren’t hard to decode. The South is dead, long live the South.

John Carter and Mal Reynolds are both Reconstruction-fueled space cowboys, which makes them descendants of the real life Southern avenger Jesse James. During the war, James fought as a Missouri bushwhacker against local Union militias.  After Richmond fell and General Lee surrendered, the pardoned general-in-chief served as president of my university. Jesse James kept fighting. He saw his campaign of train and bank robberies as resistance to Republican-lead Reconstruction. After his murder in 1882, dime novelist converted him into a gunslinging Robin Hood. Like the more recent Southern Avenger, James was also a political columnist. Jack Hunter wrote for the Charleston City Paper, where his articles remain online because his editor refused his request to remove them. James wrote his diatribes for the Kansas City Times, where the owner was a fellow vet working to restore ousted successionists to office.

Jesse James dime novel

Missouri elected Democrat Senator Francis Cockrell in 1875, who went on to serve five terms before retiring. To the best of my knowledge, Jesse James was never his aide nor helped him plagiarise any books, but the senator was evidence that the Radical Republicans (their term) had lost control of Reconstruction. The era formerly ended in 1877 when President Hayes withdrew the last federal troops. Their departure also marks the end of the South’s most famous team of masked avengers, the Ku Klux Klan. They’d started as a social club of Confederate vets in Pulaski, Tennessee, but grew into paramilitary groups that openly murdered opponents and police.

Like the X-Men, the Klan also wore identical costumes while lead by a man codenamed “Cyclops.” The X-Men attract an impressive range of southern mutants, including Rogue, Gambit, Cannonball and the Blob. Technically DC’s Swamp Thing is a Southerner too, since he crawled out of a Louisiana swamp, but he and his superhero kin are no Southern Avengers. Superman first battled the Klan on the radio 1946, and he’s been followed by the Defenders, Black Panther, Batman, and both the Justice League and the Justice Society.

Hell, even the Southern Avenger hates racists now. Hunter blames all those old slurs of his on that pesky mask: “Whenever I put on that wrestling mask, I took on a persona that was intentionally outrageous and provocative. I said many terrible things. I disavow them.” The unmasked Hunter now criticizes fellow Republicans who dismiss “the idea that racism is actually a problem. I used not to see it. For that, I am very sorry.”

That’s more of an apology than the Confederacy ever offered its African American population. I wouldn’t call it superheroic, but if the Southern Avenger can transform himself, maybe there’s hope for the rest of our disunited States too.

kkk-danieb

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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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Dear Joss,

Hey, I’m a big fan, seen all your stuff, love it all (except maybe season one of Dollhouse, though the unaired pilot was brilliant). So I’m embarrassed to confess I only streamed Cabin in the Woods on Amazon recently, and I have to say, yes, totally brilliant too. So much so I was thinking, since you’re Mr. Marvel now, why not a mash-up? I know, you’re way way too busy with Avengers 2 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to draft another script. So I’ve gone ahead and done it for you.

Open with a shot of a corporate building and pan down to an entrance sign, “Zarathustra Technologies,” with a yellow school bus parked in front. A guide leads a high school group through the complex as a nerdy kid peels away to investigate a temptingly open lab door: “Arachnid Gene Modification.” As he studies the array of weird, glowing spiders, one descends on a thread and bites him. He slaps it, but too late, he’s already pale and sweaty. Spider arms rip through his sides as he transforms into an enormous, harry spider. It stands there a moment, screeching in confusion, before rows of hidden machine guns pivot from the walls and blast it into twitching pulp.

Cut to Control Room monitor of same image. Three TECHS frown down at the mess as they argue: “Told you the DNA sequencing was off,” “You always say the DNA sequencing is off,” “So next time maybe listen,” etc.

Roll credits as we travel down the row of screens, each monitoring a different room in the complex with a different nerd suffering a different transformative accident: a shelf of chemicals tipping over, a slippery walkway above a vat of toxic waste, a massive machine whirring out of control, a metal door sealing shut beside a countdown clock, etc. The TECHS press buttons, sip coffee, and record data from the staged mayhem, while continuing to banter.

“Okay,” one asks, “who we got next?”

A new bus pulls up and exiting jocks and cheerleader types jostle aside the newest NERD. One of the techs is reading his file in a voice over, revealing their improbable depth of knowledge and so long-term monitoring and manipulation. He’s not a great candidate though, just barely made the cut, but what the hell. He enters the building last.

A female tour GUIDE in Clark Kentish glasses (she’s cute but bumbling) is describing an antique gamma cannon, now a harmless lobby display. Only wait, why did that light start glowing when she bumped against that button? It charges up as she strolls unknowingly in front of the massive barrel. The NERD, the only one aware of the impending disaster, shoves through the jocks and cheerleaders to push the GUIDE to safety as he’s soaked in a roar of distorted green light.

He stands there, shocked, but when nothing else happens, the crowd of teens cracks up. The TECHS, however, applaud (“Nobody ever saves the girl anymore!”) before readouts indicate no change in NERD’s gamma levels. Damn it! They must have fired a dud. GUIDE thanks him as she climbs to her feet and adjusts her glasses. They shake hands in an awkward moment of mutual romantic dizziness—interrupted by one of the TECHS talking through the bluetooth in her ear to keep the tour moving before they get bottlenecked.

The Arachnid room is ready for a reboot. GUIDE fumbles through her lines, distracted when she sees NERD lured by the open door. She’s torn between protecting him and doing her job. “Don’t!” she calls. “Don’t, um, stay behind too long. We’re stopping in the cafeteria next.” Jocks and cheerleaders cheer as the tour moves on and NERD enters the lab.

This time we see the TECHS orchestrating everything and the difficulty of lowering a spider on a puppet string. They miss twice before the spider grabs his arm. They applaud when he slaps it away, then freeze, waiting for the reaction. Except nothing happens. Readout scans show zero change. He must have slapped it away before it bit him. Man, this kid is lucky! When NERD catches up to the tour, GUIDE squeaks with surprise and pleasure, nearly hugging him then awkwardly stopping herself.

Meanwhile, someone very important in a black suit arrives in the Control Room. The TECHS snap to and give a progress report on the Zarathustra Project, which we glean is a secret, internationally funded R&D program designed to produce a Homo Superior, a literal Superman.  BLACKSUIT is highly agitated at the lack of progress, watching as the TECHS narrate two, simultaneous events on the monitors.

A nerd is lead into the basement where a walkway “breaks” by remote control, dropping him into toxic sludge. Another nerd is lured into a lab where a shelving unit tips onto him as he stands on an exposed wire. The BLACKSUIT is thrilled, until TECHS report that the kid is dead. “Dead? What happened?” “We dropped a shelf of chemicals on him.” “While electrocuting him.” “It tends to kill people.” “98%.” “You have survivors then?” “Well, ‘survivor’ is a strong word.” “And not so much with the present tense really.” Discussion escalates until a TECH notices the other kid climbing out of the sludge—which, hey this looks promising. His vitals are stable, and, wow, the toxins are bonding to his cells. The kid slumps onto the walkway as his arm turns into a new swamp-like substance. The TECHS are cheering! Except, uh oh, the readouts. His arm is dripping away. They watch as he melts into a brackish puddle.

BLACKSUIT is hysterical with disappointment. TECHS try to calm him down, explaining this is how it works everyday here. “But today,” BLACKSUIT blurts, “is not every day! Today is surprise inspection day!” This hardly seems like news to the TECHS, since BLACKSUIT is there already. “No,” he continues, “not me. The Watcher is coming down.” This cracks up the TECHS. “The Watcher? Coming down from, what, his Fortress of Solitude on the moon? He’s going to visit us puny humans?” Actually. Yes. BLACKSUIT received a moon transmission this morning. TECHS are stunned. “The Watcher hasn’t come down to earth in decades, not since , since—” “1938. When we agreed to begin the Zarathustra Project or face his wrath. And today he wants results.” All look at the monitors. They’re blank except for GUIDE and her one remaining tour group.

GUIDE is explaining something, when she steps away to respond to her bluetooth. “The Venom Room? That’s crazy—we haven’t even finished preliminary—” She flinches from the shout in her ear, then tells the group they’ll need to take a little unscheduled break, please make your way back down to the cafeteria again. Everybody but NERD, who she leads down a restricted corridor. He looks nervous, especially when they end up alone in a dim lab—is she making a pass at him? She pockets her glasses and walks toward him sexily, but then stumbles on something. She puts the glasses back on, but tries to keep up the sexy thing—while behind his back a strange oily substance crawls from a centrifuge the TECHS have just switched off and unlocked. GUIDE continues to distract NERD as she watches it over his shoulder. Her lips approach his as the black goo nears his back.

But as it is about to engulf him, she can’t do it, and shoves him to safety. The substance strikes her hand, congealing around it. TECHS are cursing, “What the hell is she doing?” But then NERD dives full force at the black goo, until it releases her hand and swirls around him instead, coating him and slithering into his mouth and nostrils. BLACKSUIT nods. “Wow. She’s good. We could use her in ops.” “Nah,” says a TECH, “total klutz.” NERD is now lost in a black blob as TECHS study readouts. The symbiont is acclimating to the host. GUIDE stares, horrified at what she has done. Excitement builds in the Control Room—until the black goo pours from his body, inert. GUIDE rushes to his side, but can’t embrace him because he’s vomiting out the black remains. TECHS argue about what went wrong (“Told you it wasn’t stable!” “You always say it isn’t stable!”), until BLACKSUIT cuts them off. It doesn’t matter. He’s just received official word on his cell: The Watcher is on his way.

NERD and GUIDE have found a table in the cafeteria. He’s picking off the last of the black goop as she sits down with a tray, nearly dropping everything. She laughs. “I don’t know what it is about you, but I swear II go weak in the knees when I’m near you.”

Romantic interlude continues while behind them a new high school group arrives in the lobby. Another guide runs through the gamma cannon routine, only this time no one notices the warning light, so she just stands there waiting to be rescued. TECHS wait too, someone’s finger on the fire button. The guide gives up and moves on as a couple of goof-offs play with the cannon. When one sticks his face into the barrel, TECHS fire it. He staggers back as the group laughs. They stop laughing when his skin turns green and his muscles rip through his clothes.  He’s turning into an incredible . . . BOOM! He explodes across the lobby.

More cursing in the Control Room. “Well, at least we know the cannon is working.” A TECH blinks, realizing something: “But that means—” She’s cut off by shouts that the Watcher is in radar range, he’s descending!

Outside a spaceship drops through the clouds to hover above the Zarathustra building.

GUIDE and NERD are talking at their table when she looks up, alarmed.

The ceiling of the Control Room peels back in the glow of a tractor beam as the WATCHER levitates through the opening. He’s pretty much Marlon Brando in his white Jor-El costume from the 1978 Superman.

GUIDE jumps up from the cafeteria table, leaving NERD as she shouts: “Sorry, gotta go!”

The WATCHER addresses the Control Room in pompous, alien-Brando speak. He is done waiting. The time for Earth to produce a specimen worthy of propagation is upon them. Report your results! TECHS and BLACKSUIT whisper-argue among themselves, until BLACKSUIT steps forward. “Although we have made tremendous progress, I am afraid that we have not yet achieved—”

WATCHER cuts him off. He’s not talking to the humans. He’s talking to the figure stepping into the Control Room behind them. It’s GUIDE. There’s no longer any klutziness to her. She discards her glasses and emits a cocoon of light. When the light recedes, she’s a Superwoman, complete with regal red cape. She reports: “Father, the humans have failed to evolve. I regret to report that I have encountered no genetically adequate mates on this planet.” WATCHER: “Then they have given us no choice.”

WATCHER looks up, and his ship begins to emit a column of light that penetrates the building. BLACKSUIT rushes forward, begging for more time, pleading to spare humanity—they can still produce a Superman! WATCHER smiles. He agrees. The cosmic rays bombarding the building will do exactly that. Sure enough, BLACKSUIT and TECHS are transforming: one’s skin begins to blister; another’s bones bend under his weight; a third shimmers in an invisible force field; the fourth grows orange and craggy. The transformations continue until a TECH self-immolates in a ball of flame; another oozes across the floor in an elastic puddle; the third claws at her face, unable to breathe through the invisible field; and BLACKSUIT expands into a giant orange rock.

BLACKSUIT’s body grows so big it crashes through the floor, smashing down level by level until landing on a cafeteria table as NERD jumps out of the way. WATCHER floats down afterwards, not bothering to pause over the transformations taking place. Each floor has its own flavor: X-men mutations, 50s scifi monsters, horror classics, etc. GUIDE follows him, but she looks upset at all the suffering.

When they arrive at the bottom, NERD is staring up at them, confused and horrified but not . . . transforming. WATCHER cocks his head. He asks his daughter why this one is immune to the rays, but she can only grin with relief that NERD is okay. Red rays shoots from the WATCHER’s eyes, allowing us to see NERD’s internal organs, his skeleton, even close-ups of his DNA. WATCHER raises a hand and the ship rays stop. The writhing bodies on each floor relax and begin to return to their human states. WATCHER is smiling now too. He has found a worthy mate for his daughter. The NERD is a spontaneous mutation, a being higher on the evolution scale than the mere humans that produced him.

NERD is trying to take this all in—the cute GUIDE is really a Superwoman from another planet whose father wants them to have babies together—when WATCHER gives the planetary extermination order.

Wait, what?

GUIDE explains: “Your planet has produced its superman, you. The rest are superfluous.”

“But you can’t!” NERD grabs her arm, and her knees go weak. Literally. She can’t stand. She’s collapsing. WATCHER looks alarmed for the first time. The NERD’s mutation doesn’t just make him immune; he’s kryptonite to them. And so he must be destroyed!

GUIDE shouts no! as her father turns his eye rays into lasers, blasting through tables and rubble as NERD leaps out of the way. Eventually NERD is downed and cornered and WATCHER steps up for the kill. GUIDE tries to stop him, but she’s too weak. He squints and his laser beams strike NERD in the chest. Nothing happens. He’s impervious to this too. WATCHER blinks, intensifying the rays, as NERD stands and walks toward him through the beams. They grapple, excess laser radiation flashing, until NERD grabs WATCHER’s head and forces him to shoot his eye rays straight up through the openings in the floors, straight up to the ship, which explodes. WATCHER collapses.

NERD pulls GUIDE out of the rubble, but can she really be redeemed after okaying the extermination of the human race? Maybe he finds her dying, her body no longer super after being exposed to him, and they kiss during her final breath. WATCHER should stagger to his feet behind them, bloodied and clearly no longer so super either, and just as he’s about to crack NERD’s head open with a piece of debris, BLACKSUIT clobbers him. Remember BLACKSUIT was the big orange rock that fell through the floors, and so he’s normal again, though almost naked in rags.

Should GUIDE and NERD have a happy ending? That’s your call. Seriously. Call me. I can dash out the rest of the dialogue and have this ready for production by, when are you free, 2019? You think J. J. Abrams is too busy to direct? We should talk about that too. I’m sitting by my phone right now.

Sincerely,

Chris

The Avengers (2012) Director Joss Whedon on set

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

1. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a homicidal monster who deserves the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bombing. (True/False)

2. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a sweet-natured adolescent who fell victim to the corrupting influence of his terrorist older brother. (True/False)

If you circle “True” for either one and “False” for the other, then you are probably living a happy life in a world free of ambiguity and cognitive dissonance.  A comic book world. Superheroes and supervillains slice the universe into unambiguous halves, absolute good and absolute evil. No overlap, no gradations, no headache-inducing Venn diagrams, just the world reduced to black and white.

It’s also the world Tsarnaev lives in. “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” he said before his arrest. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.” Tsarnaev was arraigned in Boston last Thursday, and though Massachusetts hasn’t executed anyone since the Golden Age of comics, Attorney General Eric Holder may still try for the death penalty. It’s what all supervillains deserve.

Except are comics really that simple?

“It all started long ago!!” shouts Moleman in Fantastic Four #1, “Because the people of the surface world mocked me!”

moleman

That’s the improbably sympathetic motivation of Marvel Comics’ first supervillain. Stan Lee’s caption labels him an “evil antagonist,” but by the end of the issue, Reed scoops him up the way I used to grab my tantrumming son when he was a toddler. Reed even lets the little guy escape, reasoning that “It’s better that way! There was no place for him in our world . . . perhaps he’ll find peace down there . . . I hope so!”

Issue two and Reed is letting more supervillains go free. It turns out those nasty shapeshifting aliens just want to live a “contented” and “peaceful existence”: “We hate being Skrulls! We’d rather be anything else!” So he tells them to turn into cows and hypnotizes them to forget their race’s earth-conquering ambitions. Problem empathetically solved.

cow image

But is this how comic books are supposed to work? Aren’t supervillains the cultural standard for one-dimensional evil? Of course this is only 1961; the Silver Age had barely launched. Maybe Lee and Kirby were just warming up. FF issues 4 and 5 we get the real villains. The return of the Gold Age Sub-Mariner and the birth of that ultimate arch-nemesis Dr. Doom!

Except, wait, Sub-Mariner is a poor amnesiac stranded in a Bowery flophouse until the Human Torch dunks him in the harbor. Then he swims back to Atlantis to find “It’s all destroyed! That glow in the water—it’s radioactivity!!The humans did it, unthinkably, with their accursed atomic tests!” His vow to destroy the human race is revenge for the loss of “My family—my friends! My undersea kingdom!” It doesn’t make him a nice guy, but evil? (Would the last survivor of Krypton have responded differently if Earth had A-bombed his home?)

Even Dr. Doom isn’t innately bad, just “badly disfigured.” He was once a “brilliant science student” before his “forbidden experiments” literally exploded in his face. Lee introduces him as an “evil genius,” but later reveals that those tragic experiments were an attempt to contact his beloved mother in the nether world. Next thing he’s a persecuted gypsy seeking revenge on the baron who killed his father. When What If tackled him in 1980, the writers averted that disfiguring accident all together and, what do you know, Doom becomes a superhero.

Before Stan Lee inherited the world of costumed do-gooders from his Golden Age forebears, supervillains were villainous, pure and simple. Luthor wanted to conquer the world for the same unexamined reasons that Superman wanted to protect it: Plot requirements. Forget psychological motivation. It was World War II. Readers needed good guys who were all good, and those good guys needed bad guys who were all bad. But 1961 was a different world. As much as America hated Commies, they were no replacement for purebred Nazis. Comics were ready to reflect the cultural shift.

Lee did not invent the figure of the sympathetic villain. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature or Milton’s Satan. Or, for more immediate influences, Tolkien’s Gollum and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, both published in 1955, a year before Silver Age superheroes started their return to newsstands. When Moleman swallowed his first atomic plant, Alfred Hitchcock was already famous for replacing the dog-kicking moustache-twirler of early motion pictures with his own brand of monster, “an ordinary human being with failings.” Moleman is only a few months and a few ticks past Norman Bates’ mother-loving Psycho. A decade later the motif had grown so culturally rampant that when The Who’s Pete Townsend was writing his second (and, alas, never finished) rock opera, he composed the quintessential sympathetic bad guy theme song, “Behind Blue Eyes.”

But Stan Lee did more than ride the zeitgeist. His villains changed only because his heroes changed too. He kept the two yoked, with the universal constants of good and evil flowing up and down their moral seesaw. The victimized Moleman is possible because the Thing is such a jerk. Every time Ben badmouths Johnny or throws a punch at Reed, one cosmic unit of sympathy rolls to the villains’ half of the universe.

Only comic books maintain that equilibrium. Ms. Highsmith’s diabolically talented Mr. Ripley is a lone (and lonely) figure; because his murders are investigated by irrelevant lawmen who soak up little narrative attention, our horror and admiration pivots only on Ripley. Even when sympathetic villains are coupled with worthwhile protagonists, our emotions operate separate pulleys. We can, for instance, feel pity for Gollum (the poor guy started out as the hobbit-like Smeagol before the Ring deformed him) without Frodo losing any of his own hobbity (if rather homoerotic) goodness.

King Kong, HAL, Tony Soprano, they all have their fuzzy side, but none demand a corresponding give-and-grab from an orc-mannered protagonist. Comic books are different. Once Stan Lee recalibrated the universe from its Golden Age settings, other writers obeyed his narrative logic as if obeying laws of physics: When superheroes are assholes, supervillains have to be the nice guys.

Look at Dr. Impossible in Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible. His quest for world domination is just his way to make superhero bullies respect him. Especially that obnoxious jock CoreFire, the biggest jerk in his middle school of a multiverse.  Joss Whedon’s Captain Hammer is worse. Dr. Horrible of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a tender-hearted sweetheart. Sure, he wants to rule the world, but, unlike Hammer, he would never steal another guy’s gal and fake his way into her bed.

Alan Moore revolutionized comics in the 80s by pushing Lee’s laws of conservation to their ultimate end. The homicidal Rorschach skids so far down the moral seesaw, there’s nowhere for his nemesis Moloch to go but into retirement. He’s just some old guy (albeit pointy-eared) terrified of superheroes jumping out of his refrigerator. Rorschach’s own teammate gives Moloch cancer and then a bullet in the brain. Moloch is purely sympathetic. Why? Because the villainy of those Watchmen tips the scales over. There’s no room for supervillains in Moore’s lopsided universe. The so-called heroes hog all the traits, both good and bad.

When Bob Kane and his writing team dealt out the Joker in 1940, he was an unabashed lunatic. His nominal motive was theft, but he took way more demonic glee in his murders. Why? No reason. Not till Alan Moore gave one in his 1988 The Killing Joke. Turns out the Joker was a sweet young newlywed before grabbed by some thugs and set up as their red-hooded fall guy. Next thing Batman’s knocking him into a vat of chemicals, and what crawls out is now tragic by contrast. Moore’s supervillain rewrite was only possible after Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns. Miller emphasized the Dark over the Knight, catapulting Batman into the old Joker’s half of their ying-yang universe.

By the time Mark Waid and Alex Ross put out Kingdome Come in 1996, there was no longer any difference between the new generation of supervillains and superheroes. Right now I’m reading Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors. The students are all “adorable” middle school Molemen in the making. I bought it for my son because his favorite novels are about misunderstood supervillains or misunderstood sons of misunderstood supervillains. Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius, Eoin Colfer‘s Artemis Fowl series. More evidence of seismic flattening.

Gladstone creators Mark Andrew Smith and Armand Villavert uphold Lee’s principles of cosmic proportion too. Good and evil have completely leveled out. Superheroes and supervillains are pals, staging fake battles in order to prevent a “return to the draconian days of old.” One retired villain does volunteer garden work at the school: “It’s relaxing and peaceful for me.” The same quiet fate Reed gave those shapeshifting cows from outer space.

Or, as one Skrull declares in the final frame: “Mooo!!”

If I could, I’d transform and hypnotize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev too. Yes, he’s a terrorist monster (3 dead, 260 wounded). And, yes, he’s also a nineteen-year-old scholarship student who people considered “a sweet guy” with a “heart of gold,” “a lovely, lovely kid,” “so grateful to be here in school and to be accepted, ” “a model of good sportsmanship,” “never in trouble,” “not the kind of guy who would hurt anyone,” someone who “believed in people,” “one of ‘us.’”

His twenty-six-year-old and conveniently dead brother, Tamerlan, is uglier, a competitive boxer arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. His YouTube account includes a playlist of terrorism videos. He bragged, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”

We don’t understand you either, Tamerlan. Which is the heart of our mutual problem.  It’s easy to call you a monster and go back to our unexamined lives. Who doesn’t want to live in an old school comic book? They call it the Golden Age for a reason.

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I’m pretty sure I saw the first Twilight movie. Though I might have it confused with a really good parody my daughter showed me on Youtube (Edward was Santa Claus). I started reading the novel too, in an attempt to understand what was enthralling my then tween daughter. I set her copy down just before the baseball scene. That was maybe four years ago.

So I am no expert on things Twilight. And yet I feel I have inhaled more than my fair share of Edward Cullen from our cultural ecosystem. If I recall correctly, Ms. Meyer paints him in superhero shades, a cursed but noble superhuman who uses his powers for good. It was, for example, very noble of him not to kill and eat Bella when she smelled so delicious in science class. That’s some serious restraint for a soulless monster who literally lives to devour women.

But he’s not the first. Edward might not literally have a soul, but his soulful self-restraint recalls a colony of similarly abstinent vampire hunks. The BBC’s Being Human featured three seasons of the AA-esque Mitchell struggling to stay on the blood-sucking wagon, followed by season four’s equally valiant and tortured Hal. Before Joss Whedon turned his attention to men in leotards, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator sired not one but two vampires-with-a-soul, the angsty Angel and the bad boy Spike.

But Buffy owes both those lovers and most of her name to Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, who introduced Blade the Vampire-Hunter to readers of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula back in 1973. Though soulless as any other blood-sucker, Blade kept his vampire virginity and so earns the all-time abstinence award.

But he’s still not the first vampire trying to be good. That goes to Barnabas Collins of the 1966-71 soap opera Dark Shadows. Introduced as a temporary side character, the lovelorn Barnabas saved the show from cancellation and was soon taking a serum to restore his humanity. (Something Johnny Depp finished for him earlier this year.)

With a few very notable exceptions (Le Fanu’s 1872 “Carmilla,” Catharine Deneuve in The Hunger), vampires are men. Octavia Butler’s Shori from her novel Fledgling is a personal favorite, the proverbial rule-proving exception. “Most vampires,” Butler told an interviewer, “I have discovered are men for some reason. I guess it’s because Dracula; people are kind of feeding off that.”

Feeding indeed.

When I taught Fledgling in my contemporary novel class (Thrilling Tales), I asked my students to describe a typical vampire.

“A guy who hides in the shadows and jumps out and bites women.”

And what would you have if you took out the fangs?

After a moment of awkward mumbling, an intrepid senior spelled it out: “A rapist.”

The first was Lord Byron. Or “Lord Ruthven,” as Byron’s personal physician, John William Polidori, thinly disguised him in his 1819 short story “The Vampyre” (begun by Bryon during the ghost story gathering that also spawned Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein). Polidori plucked the vampire from eastern European folklore and recast him as a seductive aristocrat feeding on high society women. In other words, Lord Byron. “The Vampyre” sparked the first vampire craze (imagine Edward Cullen singing in two simultaneous opera adaptations) and the enduring undead genre.

Byron, of course, did not have fangs. Just a penis. Which remains the not particularly veiled subtext of most vampire plots. Stoker’s Dracula is about a foreigner buying the house next door and penetrating the neighborhood’s daughters and fiancés. It’s also about property. Women, like other Victorian real estate, do nothing but lie very still while men make their transactions.

Which, oddly, is why I think the genre has endured. The figure of the seducer opens one of culture’s favorite taboos: women’s pleasure. We’re less terrified of the topic than the Victorians, but not as much as you’d like to think. A lunch table of high school girls knows that sex drive is supposed to be a boy thing.

Which is why vampires are so useful. If you’re being seduced by superhuman means, how can you be expected to defend yourself? Your failure to resist your sexy attacker isn’t your fault. All you can do is lie back and remain innocent.

And if it feels good? Well, that’s not anybody’s fault either.

And, since you’re enthralled and all, who can object if some of that vampire urgency seeps into your own blood?

Which brings us back to Edward and his neutered cousins. Remember how startled he and Bella were the first time they kissed? How she was the one overcome with passion? It’s as if the laws of thermodynamics apply to arousal. Bella’s longing is possible to the degree that Edward suppresses his. If you tame the rapist, you claim his libido for yourself.

My tween daughter started reading the Twilight series because her older friends were, girls she literally looked up to, young women now in their second years of college. My daughter now admits that she liked boys in elementary and middle school, but that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to talk to one, only stare creepily from across a science classroom. That’s where Twilight came in. And Vampire Academy, and House of Night, and the other books I kept buying her for birthdays and Christmases.

Edward and his clan have something to teach boys too. Culturally, we tell young men they’re supposed to have voracious appetites. That they’re supposed to value sex over the body they happen to be having it with. That a penis really isn’t all that different from a set of fangs.

Edward and Angel and Mitch and Barnabas and Hal and Blade and Spike, they’re a reminder that being male isn’t permission to think like a rapist. Grow a soul, boys. Join the human race. Joss Whedon (did I mention he majored in Women’s Studies?) played out this plot best, evolving Spike from literal rapist to president of the tortured soul club over the course of seven seasons. But he never dumped the leather jacket. Even reformed bad boys are allowed to keep a little of their signature badness.

I’m not necessarily endorsing vampire sex. But it has its uses, a kind of safe sex practice zone of the pubescent imagination. My daughter has since outgrown vampires, even regards her former Twilight obsession with a sophomore’s embarrassment.  Which I suppose should alarm me more. What does it mean when you’re done with metaphorical sex?

She saw the first half of Breaking Dawn last year with her boyfriend, who apparently has a blood phobia and had to leave for a light-headed stroll in the theater lobby.

That’s the kind of vampire a father has to like.

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It was a big weekend. Obama officially launched his reelection campaign, the French equivalent of a Tea Party President lost his, and The Avengers swept box offices. The Monday was also the anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Coincidences? Obviously. But revealing ones.

The Avengers is a love-to-hate-you letter to Adolf Hitler. Marvel Entertainment is telling us that without a supervillain to focus us, America can’t reach its superheroic potential. And it’s not just any supervillain we need. The Cold War’s Evil Empire only gave us nuclear deterrents. Global warming just gives us something to bicker about. But Hitler, he gave us unity.

Nazi nostalgia is ingrained in the superhero formula, but director-scriptwriter Joss Whedon makes it explicit. Nordic ubervillain Loki declares his dictatorship in Germany, and the star-spangled Captain America is the first to sock him on the jaw. The World War II hero is the heart of the film, showcasing the “old fashioned” patriotism that launched Golden Age superheroes and still keeps them afloat.

But America has changed in seventy years. Our worst enemy isn’t a Democracy-stomping dictator. It’s ourselves. We’re like a bunch of superpowered leotards bounding off in contradictory directions. We waste our time smashing our hammers against each other’s shields. The Avengers are at their worst while Loki is chilling in his cell. No threat, no unity.

Once things start exploding though, we know how to rally. Democracy is messy, but when it really matters, it works. Even narcissists like Tony Stark, the ultimate 1%-er super-CEO, eventually fall into line. Those equally self-righteous religious types finally stop talking about Asgard and start taking orders from the American flag. Why? A cop on the street voices the question, and Whedon answers: anyone standing on the front line blocking bullets for you (or whatever those shiny blasts of energy are) is the guy to get behind.

Being truly democratic, the team also includes some of our darker sides on its roster. Black Widow reminds us of all the blood on our national ledger and our collective need to atone for it. And lest we think the ledger ended with the sexy Soviet Union, Hawkeye murders his victims right on screen. But it’s okay, he was brainwashed by a demagogue, so let’s not torture ourselves by counting up the number dead (in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq). It’s the lesson that matters: America is always angry, always capable of unthinking destruction, but we can learn to control that rage and use it for good.

The trick is how to inspire unity. Nick Fury learns that barking orders isn’t enough. You have to make us want to be a team. Sure, trading cards are dorky, but they’re about childhood. They’re about believing in simple truths. So what if Nick dipped them in blood for dramatic effect? He did it for the right reason. Which I guess means Whedon does too when he plays the 9/11 card at the end of the film. It’s okay to copy ground zero memorial footage as long as you show America coming together as a result.

Though it turns out disunity is important too. Fury isn’t just taking orders from upper ups. Some in-fighting is necessary. It’s evidence of our national health. In fact, it makes us stronger. So when the space portal opens and the legions of doom descend, we’ll be the best team possible. Not a government mandate, but a grass roots majority guided by its own (slightly manipulated) will.

Too much government is a will-devouring dictatorship, too little is nation-splintering anarchy, but The Avengers serves democracy just right. It’s the baby bear balance suitable for all political persuasions. It’s also a nifty way to earn $417 million in two weeks.

When the fight’s over, we splinter again, and that’s okay too. Because we’ve reminded ourselves and the universe that America is always secretly ready. Plus, now that we’ve proven we can pull together, we’ve earned the right to be free of government surveillance. Fury and Whedon turn off the cameras, and we all go home feeling good about being Americans. We can hardly wait for the next catastrophe to make us all feel even better.

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