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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: superhero movies

The 2015 bombardment of superhero films is over. It was a relatively light year, just Avengers 2, Ant-Man, and the franchise-flopping Fantastic Four. But Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment have twenty superhero films in various states of production, all of them due in theaters by 2020.

Back in 1978 superheroes were so rare in Hollywood, the first Superman included the subtitle The Movie. So you may think of costumed do-gooders as relatively recent invaders of the silver screen, but they leaped to theaters long before landing in comics. 2016 promises Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America 3, and X-Men: Apocalypse, but 1916 saw three rounds too.

laughingmask the-purple-mask judez

In Arthur Stringer’s The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale plays “an easing going idiot” working as a millionaire’s personal secretary by day, but at night he dons the guise of the mysterious Laughing Mask. By the end, he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.

Francis Ford joined Hale as the similarly clad Sphinx in The Purple Mask, only this time the masked hero has a masked anti-heroine to woo too, Grace Cunard’s lady thief and so-called Queen of the Apaches, the first celluloid superheroine. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

But the first most influential superhero film award goes to Louis Feuillade’ Judex—a partial reversal of The Iron Claw since Judex begins as a vengeance-seeking blackmailer disguised as a personal secretary before falling for his boss’s daughter. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s batcave of a bedroom and discovering his make-up kit. Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the Phantom of the Opera unmasking, but shot a decade earlier.

My favorite superhero silent film, the 1927 classic The Russian Affair, won Best Picture in 2011.

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That’s because it exists only in the opening sequence of director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. But the invented film shows how popular masked heroes were in the early 20th century. The Russian Affair—as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair—features the fictional silent star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comic book superhero. Raffles, Tarzan, Robin Hood, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Lone Wolf, they all transformed themselves into silent superheroes, most unheard now. Except for Zorro, which The Artist inserts into Valentin’s fictional filmography, replacing the very real Douglas Fairbanks.

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Judex had barely exited American theaters before Fairbanks was skimming issues of All-Story for his own pulp hero to adapt. A year later, the Judex-inspired Zorro was an international icon. Hazanavicius even reshoots the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro wardrobe. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards didn’t exist for another decade.

The 1928 Alias Jimmie Valentine was going to be a silent adaptation of O. Henry’s gentleman thief tale, but MGM called the stars back to record the studio’s first talkie instead. Fairbanks’s 1929 Three Musketeers sequel included his spoken prologue, but his talking Taming of the Shrew flopped later that year, as did his final Private Life of Don Juan. Hazanavicius’s gives his alter ego a tap-dancing afterlife, a superpower not in Fairbanks’ repertoire, so the real Fairbanks was replaced by a new breed of action heroes, some of them actual supermen.

tarzan        buster crabbe tarzan

Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller took his last gold medal in 1928, Buster Crabbe in 1932. Both went on to play Tarzan. I watched Weissmuller on my aunts’ TV, one of those crate-sized machines that flickered as the cathode ray tubes heated. I’m thankful my aunts didn’t keep the battle scenes I doodled on scrap paper, all those blowdart-blowing savages gunned down by white hunters. All Hollywood sandpits, I surmised, were seven feet deep, designed to swallow everything but a victim’s groping fingers.

MGM did the same to Fairbanks and every other ex-star unable to adapt.Not that the superhero sound era was an easy transition for Hollywood either. MGM only started their talking Tarzan franchise because they had the footage.

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Trader Horn, the first big budget film shot on location, was a disaster. The production team returned from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever fit into a single movie. Trader Horn came and went in 1931, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels that returned Burroughs’ superman to the pop culture spotlight.

After Christopher Reeve retired his cape following 1987’s catastrophic Superman IV, Tim Burton rebounded with Batman, but otherwise the 90s are a 1930s reboot. Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. Billy Zane in The Phantom. Alec Baldwin in The Shadow. It’s hard to remember a time when the Marvel pantheon wasn’t pounding box offices, but Hollywood once preferred retro-heroes. Disney’s The Rocketeer sported 30s curves, even though the character debuted in comics in 1982. That’s why Jim Carey threw on a yellow zoot suit along with the 1987 The Mask comic book. When Sam Raimi of later Spider-Man fame couldn’t get the rights to the Shadow, he cast Liam Neeson as a modern master-of-disguise instead. Darkman isn’t any good, but it does show how much comic book superheroes were a mutation of their pulp predecessors, an evolutionary process repeated in film.

It took a couple of decades, but the double flop of Seth Rogen’s 2011 The Green Hornet and Disney’s 2013 Lone Ranger and Tonto may have finally closed the theater doors on the 1930s. According to that math, are Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment being over optimistic with their 2020 projections? If the 30s are finally over, how long can DC’s early 40s and Marvel’s early 60s continue to last?

 

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Iron Patriot from IM3

The culminating twist of Iron Man 3, declared Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “signals both the making of Iron Man 3 and, with any luck, the possible unmaking of the genre.” It was an early review, so Lane had to be coy about specifics, but a few weeks and a few hundred million box office dollars later, we can take the spoiler gloves off and just say it:

“This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.”

Oh, wait, sorry, that’s not Iron Man 3. That’s Glenn Greenwald on Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the twelve-year-old foreign policy franchise formerly known as the War on Terror has another two decades of sequels left in it.

What I meant to write is completely different. That Iron Man 3’s supervillianous corporate  technology genius invented his own Osama Bin Laden to mask his R&D and drive up government demand for his ever-expanding arsenal of military products, locking American and the rest of the planet in a self-perpetuating cycle of unwinnable war. But that’s just a movie. The kind that now pretty much defines the Hollywood blockbuster. Director Shane Black even goes the extra metafictional mile and includes the villain’s blue screen movie studio, the same corporate tech keeping Tony and his pals alive.

Iron Man and War Machine without the CGI

“From here on,” writes Lane, “the dumb-ass grandeur around which superheroic plots revolve can no longer be taken on trust.” Greenwald thinks the same about Obama. The war on terror, like the Hollywood superhero, will never end on its own because so many “factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.” Black lifts the edge of the curtain, but that glimpse will hardly unmake or even marginally slow the onslaught of forthcoming productions. Captain America 2 is shooting in D.C. as I type. That’s D.C., our nation’s capital, and so not technically a Warner Bros or Marvel Entertainment branch office.

The modern superhero movie first took flight in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (the subtitle says it all), with the total number of productions tipping just over forty in 2001. How many since 9/11?  Fifty. In less than half as many years. So, no, 9/11 is not the box office superhero’s origin story. It’s merely the transformative accident that doubled his powers. Like the Golden Age’s Blue Beetle. When his comic book incarnation debuted in pre-war 1939, the Beetle was just another mystery man in a domino mask and fedora. Listen to his first radio broadcast a worn-torn year later and the guy’s ingesting the power-inducing 2-X formula from his pharmacist mentor.

Novelist Austin Grossman recently told my Superheroes class that when he started writing his supervillain-narrated Soon I Will Be Invincible in 2001, he had to ask himself, “Am I just writing about a terrorist?” Austin’s brother, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, penned his own superheroic response, “Pitching 9/11.” The short story is a sequence of failed pitches for adapting 9/11 to screen. Here’s my favorite:

“Lonely, misunderstood Dominican elevator repairman (John Leguizamo?) finds himself trapped by fire after the second plane hits. In agony from the heat and smoke, near death from asphyxiation he jumps from the 83rd Floor. Instead of falling he hover in midair, then rockets upward. The trauma of the attack, and of his impending certain death, has awakened latent superpowers he never knew he had. A handful of others have undergone similar transformations—they hover in a cluster over the collapsing buildings, like so many swimmer treading water. As the roof sinks away below them into nothingness, they choose colorful pseudonyms and soar away together in formation to take vengeance on evil everywhere.”

Lev’s other pitches include scifi thriller, Discovery Channel documentary, and a filmed performance piece, but superheroes are the ready-made absurdity 9/11 was meant for. Diverting the path of an airliner? That’s a job for Superman. The pre-emptive prequel would star Batman. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, President Clinton was so annoyed with the lack of options for taking out Bin Laden he said to one his generals: ‘You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.’”

Substitute “ninjas” with the superhero team of your choice and you’ve got your very own dumb-ass grandeur plot.  But according to Blake Snyder (a friend leant me a copy of his Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need), the Superhero genre isn’t just about “guys in capes and tights.” It’s what happens when an extraordinary person is stuck in an ordinary world. In addition to Bruce Wayne and the X-Men, Russell Crow’s Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind are his go-to examples of misunderstood Gullivers shackled by Lilluputians.

I’m more than a little skeptical about Snyder (he argues Miss Congeniality is a better film than Memento), but he has a point. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Superheroes soared after 9/11 because Hollywood cast America as the planet’s mightiest super being and the rest of the word population as those moron Lilluputians willfully misunderstanding him. Weren’t they listening when Bush Sr. explained New World Order?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the lone superpower, to be loved and respected by a planet of grateful mortals. When some of those ingrates go and topple the Fortress of Solitude, what choice does America have but to declare a War on Lilluputianism? “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war,” laments Greenwald, “has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation.”

But then in his own superheroic plot twist, Obama, days after his Assistant Defense Secretary was arguing for an unlimited renewal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, declared: “This war, like all wars, must end.” The Associated Press boiled the President’s 7,000- word speech down to a sentence: “Barack Obama has all but declared an end to the global war on terror.”

Congress is balking of course. And so is our Democracy’s fourth branch of government, Hollywood. While Obama declares war on perpetual war, Marvel has two superhero franchises in post-production (Wolverine, Thor), three filming for 2014 release dates (Captain America, Spider-Man, X-Men), and another four announced for 2015 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Ant-Man). Throw in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that premieres next fall, and the superhero war isn’t dialing back—it’s surging.

But all those capes and tights flying across our screen have been an inverse shadow of real troops on the ground. So what happens when we finally leave Afghanistan? What happens if the drone war on al Qaeda really does die down? I’m no pre-cog, but the pop culture tea leaves are telling me 2015 will be the last big year for dumb-ass superhero grandeur. Though I wouldn’t underestimate Hollywood’s shapeshifting powers either. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness were already in theaters, literally blowing up their representations of the U.S. drone armada, when Obama dropped his own policy bomb of a speech.

Box office superheroes will endure. Just scaled back to their pre-9/11 levels, where they belong.

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