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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: reboot

lost_world

The past is a work-in-progress.

Look at dinosaurs. When I was kid, brontosaurus was a lethargic lizard so obese it wallowed in swamps to support its weight. Read Lost World—Conan Doyle’s, not Michael Crichton’s—and T Rex is an enormous bullfrog. Nowadays sauropods are lithe warm-bloods with whip-action tails, and the former King of the Dinosaurs is a queen of scavengers.

It’s sad to see the old guys go, but a revisable history is a good thing. It’s evolution in action. Old paradigms die out as newer, fitter interpretations replace them. And no one knows that better than the comic book industry. Back in the early 80s, DC was so bogged down in lost worlds—Earth 2, Earth 32, Earth 387, Earths A, B, C and C-, Earth Prime, Earth X, Earth Quality—their writers couldn’t move under the weight of the multiverse. Something had to give.

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Enter Crisis on Infinite Earth, king of all scavengers. The 1985-6 maxi-series chomped through decades of DC history, swallowing the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages and spitting them back out as one shiny new Earth called, well, New Earth.

It was more than just a reboot. DC had already done that in the late 50s, evolving its old guys into new costumes and origins. But their new New Earth arrived with a whole history. Literally. I bought a copy from my college comics shop. Suddenly I was being told that characters I’d never heard of—the Question, Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Blue Beetle—had always been around, paling with the usual Justice Leaguers.

I thought: Captain who?

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The answer was simple. He and his friends were the scavenged imports from Charlton Comics, DC’s latest business acquisition. But instead of setting the new roster up on their own multiverse planet—Earth Charlton—they wove them in post-Crisis. And readers just had to swallow them.

And keep swallowing. Because Crisis was just a gateway drug. Soon DC was rewriting its past every decade or so, constantly reimagining character histories with forward-looking updates to satisfy new fans. But to get the old high—that euphoric sales boost—the dose kept climbing. So for their 2012 re-write, the newest of the New Earths restarted its titles on the rock bottom foundation of “No.1.” But not its history. That’s still a shifting swamp.

Maybe it’s the influence of comic books on larger culture trends, or maybe comics make explicit a process that might otherwise go less noticed, but superhero history is not the only history in crisis.

After a landslide election in Japan last December, New York Times commentator Paul Krugman wrote: “In Japan governments come and governments go, but nothing ever seems to change — indeed, Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, has had the job before, and his party’s victory was widely seen as the return of the ‘dinosaurs’ who misruled the country for decades.” The Economist has since featured Abe as Super Yen Man:

The Economist

The flying dinosaur king has also returned with a revisionist pen. Prime Minister Abe wants to replace Japan’s 1995 apology for the suffering it caused in Asia during World War II with a “forward-looking statement that is appropriate for the 21st century.”

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That’s the assignment DC gave Mark Waid in 2002: “reimagining Superman for the 21st century.” But the secret mission behind Superman: Birthright was to align DC’s comic book continuity with the popular TV show Smallville. The same way Abe wants to align his nation’s apology—issued by a Socialist Party Prime Minster—with his newly repopularized brand of hawkish conservativism.

When Abe was Prime Minster in 2006, he revised an education law to “restore patriotism” in schools. That’s the same year China started writing Mao out of their own school texts. The Marxist template that dominated Chinese history since the 50s had grown too obese to support—and, frankly, a little embarrassing. Like Superman’s pet super-monkey from the 50s. Better if he’d never been there in the first place. Mao who?

U.S. textbooks are no different. Look at Texas. In 2009, their state board approved a science curriculum championed by a chair who said “evolution is hooey.” Their 2010 Social Studies guidelines were guided by a board-appointed consultant who opposed income taxes because they violate Scriptures. Every state in the country fights some version of these battles, with every subject in perpetual flux. Curricula keep evolving. They always have. Go back to the 30s, and most Biology and Social Studies textbooks preached eugenics, a fact conveniently missing from, say, my kids’ middle school and high school history books.

And, what the hell, Scriptures are revisable too. Last spring, the Mormon Church issued a new and improved edition of its book of Doctrine and Covenants. Turns out the ban on black priests wasn’t the will of God but a human misstep. Ditto for multiple wives, since monogamy is now God’s standard for marriage. It’s not exactly a reboot (Brigham who?), but certainly a refresh. The Mormon Church, like DC, is aligning itself with the 21st century. You could say it’s just another business decision, a way of grounding a fan base, but I wish the Catholic Church would revise a few scriptures too. Polygamy and racism aren’t the only dinosaurs that need to die out.

“What we’re seeing with these changes,” according to religion professor Terryl Givens, “is the privileging of history over theology. It’s a kind of acknowledgement that the Mormon Church is rooted in a past that is replete with historical claims.”

That means multiple and contradictory claims, a bog of them. Comic books are rooted in the same muck, but since all those histories are overtly make-believe, only fans feel it when the foundation shifts. But that’s useful training. Out here on the non-spandex-wearing Earth, we have pastquakes all the time. Our multiverse is pocked with lost worlds.

If we’re going to keep rebooting, we should be as upfront about it as DC and the Mormon Church. Change what you like, but don’t pretend you’re getting away with anything. And don’t forget the next breed of writers is waiting behind you, their whip-action pens uncapped.

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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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