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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: X-Men

Carrie 2013

Let’s hear it for menstrual blood.

Radioactive spiders, super-soldier serums, shouts of “Shazam!”, they’re all second best attempts to transform puberty into the fantastical. But puberty already is fantastical. Blood spilling from your genitalia? No warning, no spider-senses tingling, just a biological transformation as instantaneous as a gamma bomb.

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Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hinted at it first, when a teenage Jean Grey’s taxi pulled in front of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngster back in 1963. Later writers replaced Miss Grey’s mutant menstruation with a telekinesis-spilling car accident when she was ten (an increasingly common age for menarche, though the average is still twelve). When a teenage Rogue arrives at the School in 2000, the grown-up Dr. Grey tries to spell it out for her: “These mutations manifest at puberty and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.”

Yep, you heard right: “triggered by periods.” Even X-Men director Bryan Singer buries the horror of menstruation in the middle of the sentence. That’s why we need Stephen King. It takes a horror writer to spill the blood.

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Like Jean Grey, Carrie White is a telekinetic mutant who discovers her powers at puberty. But King doesn’t beat around the proverbial bush. He puts us in the girls locker room when Carrie menstruates for the first time and bullies pelt her with tampons. “The period,” explained King in an interview, “would release the right hormones and she would rain down destruction on them.”

King’s Ewen High School in Chamberlain, Maine is far far away from Professor X’s “exclusive private school in New York’s Westchester country.” Stan and Jack’s mostly male, mostly pre-pubescent readers weren’t ready for a Jean Gray tampon scene. In 1974, when Carrie was first published, The X-Men were in reprints.

I doubt King was aware that his main character was a knock-off of Marvel’s second Silver Age superheroine. He was just trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t “scared of women” (someone had accused him of writing only about “macho things”). He typed the menstruation scene and then tossed it in his wastebasket. “I hated it,” he said. It took his wife to fish out those first three pages and bully him into writing a couple hundred more. Next thing Sissy Spacek is getting herself nominated for Best Actress.

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The Brian De Palma film was still in production when Chris Claremont relaunched the X-Men in 1975. When Carrie White leapt from paper to screen the following year, Jean Grey was transforming from Marvel Girl to Phoenix. Kirby penned Jean cowering on the cover of X-Men No. 1. Lee admitted that he sometimes forgot what her powers were (he misidentifies telekinesis as “teleportation” in that first issue). But Dave Cockrum’s Phoenix explodes across X-Men No. 101, and soon Claremont makes her the most powerful mutant on earth, dwarfing even Professor X.

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By 1980, Dark Phoenix is swallowing stars like air. Which says a lot about the circularity of cultural influence. It only took four years for the inspiration for Carrie to become Carrie. King’s mutant murders everyone at her prom and razes most of her hometown. Jean Grey takes out the population of an entire planet, but the result is the same: both pregnancy-ready women have to die.

Carries bleeds out from a mother-inflicted knife wound, while Jean superheroically commits suicide. Carrie’s hyper-religious mother stabs her because Mrs. White considers her own daughter an abomination against God. Which is true of Miss Grey too. Mutants are the engine turning Darwin’s God-usurping evolution. Mutations that increase the likelihood of reproduction are Naturally Selected. You might think telekinesis would be pretty damn adaptive, but it’s top two female specimens died before they reproduced. Otherwise menarche would be accompanied by more than just internal explosions.

Of course Jean and Carrie don’t stay dead for long. I’ve lost track of the number of times Jean has returned and/or been cloned. Stephen King never wrote a sequel, but his first-born mutant was resurrected for a film sequel, a stage musical, and a made-for-TV remake designed to launch a series. All were flops. So you have to admire Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce for wading anew into all that pig and menstrual blood. She’s not scared of women either.

Carrie wasn’t her first choice for next project (the producer came to her), but when Peirce reread the novel, she realized: “Oh, these are all my issues: I deal with misfits, with what power does to people, with humiliation and anger and violence. Carrie has gone through life getting beaten up by everyone. She’s got no safe place. And then she finds telekinesis — her talent, her skill — and it becomes her refuge. And I thought, Wow, this is an opportunity to make a superhero-origin story. With her period comes the power. With adolescence comes sexuality, and with sexuality comes power.”

In other words, the best thing about Peirce’s Carrie are the vaginas. Not that we ever see one. She opens with Carrie’s home birth (the amniotic-soaked Bible on the stairs is a nice touch), but Julianne Moore’s dress hem hides everything else. I ducked my head behind the surgical screen during my wife’s c-section, but I can report that the table rocked with the doctor’s sawing and the floor required a mop afterwards. But horror movie horror is about controlling horror (usually by exaggeration) and so paradoxically lessening its effect. Peirce at least knows where the horror crawls out from.

Soon Kick-Ass actress Chloë Grace Moretz’s vagina threatens an appearance during the shower scene (with a brilliant nod to Hitchcock), and the first objects she moves with her mind are all those tampons. Then the whole movie is drenched in half-births. Carrie’s water breaks when she explodes a drinking cooler in the office of a principal scared to say the word “period.” When Carrie’s mother locks her in a womb of a closet, Carrie cracks a slit down the length of the door; an hour later Mom is midwifing herself through the bloody opening. Carrie cracks a larger slit under the car of the bully who turned her into Red Phoenix. The girl dies half-born, her crowning face caught in the vagina dentata of the bloody windshield. Carrie, like her sister Jean, finally ends her own life–though the crack in the tombstone keeps at least the vagina motif alive.

Ultimately, the new Carrie doesn’t add much to either De Palma’s or King’s, both of which at least spoke to their times (read Gloria Steinem’s Ms. essay “If Men Could Menstruate” if you’re in doubt). But the real horrors remain too much in the visual subtext (and that includes the Columbine shootings). Why not employ all the powers of CGI to show infant Carrie struggling out of the birth canal? Why not show the harrowing, bathroom stall moment when Carrie inserts her first tampon?

Metaphors are nice and all, but Carrie remains too marooned in the 70s. Or maybe our culture hasn’t really grown in those forty years. We’re still the same horrified middle schoolers cringing through Sex Ed class.  We’re still scared of women.

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The Wolverine movie

Best thing to be said about The Wolverine came out of my daughter’s mouth in the parking lot afterwards: “I forgot I like superhero movies. I always think they’re going to be stupid. But that was good. I want to be a superhero!”

She’s sixteen. She also did a good parody of Hugh Jackman’s lumbering walk as we looked for our car.

My twelve-year-old son said afterwards (SPOILER ALERT!): “That was Magneto? He’s really old.” Sadly the warmest reviews praise the two-minute preview bit during the ending credits. Which can’t be that much of a surprise since there are X-Men 2015 posters all over the lobby.

The reviews also said (I skimmed a lot while deciding whether I could subject my family to yet another superhero movie this summer) the train scene was really cool. I’m apparently one of the few people in the U.S. who saw The Lone Ranger and so could live longer than the semi-immortal Wolverine and never want to watch two guys fighting on top of a train ever again. I felt that way after Skyfall as well. Hell, I felt that way after Spider-Man 2. But don’t worry, this time it’s a bullet train, which not only changes the physics in a fun way, it means the scene is short.

Even my wife (she sat through The Long Ranger too) liked the train, but not as much as the clothes. They were beautiful, she said. Except Hugh Jackman’s. He wanders the whole movie dressed like a lumberjack.  Which is loads better than the leather and/or spandex outfits all other superhero movies require their leads to shimmy into at least once in the third act. It’s literally a surface change, but it says a lot about the deeper structure of the film.

With one or two gratuitous exceptions, director James Mangold allows very few superpowers room to fly. Sure, masked ninjas are kinda the same thing, but it’s okay because we’re in Japan. Since the bad guys zapped his mutant healing, Jackman spends this round closer to a garden variety martial arts pro than the Man of Adamantine. Think 007 if Q could figure out the claw-popping tech. He also apparently has a license to kill. People got quite bent about Superman snapping poor General Zod’s neck earlier this summer, but Wolverine slices up two hours worth of bloodless PG-13 bad guys without a moral shrug.

But despite such stalwart formula-bending, the film still operates wholly within superhero movie expectations. More specifically, superhero movie 2 expectations. Somewhere in Hollywood it is written that in his second film the hero will temporarily relinquish his accursed powers in an attempt to live a more human life only to learn the noble necessity of his lonely plight and renew his do-gooding mission. See the above mentioned Spider-Man 2. And Superman II. Christopher Nolan shook things up by yanking Christian Bale’s bat tights off at the start of his third movie, and the Fantastic Four franchise crammed the Thing’s arc into that unfortunate first flick. I’d call it a Last Temptation of Christ thing, but I’m on vacation and so not in the mood for the analysis of bloated superhero-as-savior imagery.

I should probably also mention that the Wolverine screenplay is based on a 1982 comic book by Chris Claremont, but I never read it. I was suffering my brief, too-cool-for-comics phase in junior high. Though I do remember seeing the cover and thinking, “Really? Wolverine gets his own series? Aren’t they milking that a little thin?” Which explains why no one in Hollywood ever phones me for advice.

If you count his cameo in X-Men: First Class, Jackman has played Wolverine in six movies, the seventh currently in production.  He was 31 when X-Men premiered and 44 now. Though his anti-aging mutant powers are way way better than mine, Hugh is not that spry young thing he once was. That massive musculature looks like the product of lots and lots of effort—not the ole born-that-way mutant privilege.

And that’s true of the superhero movie in general. It’s working really really hard to maintain its supremacy, but the skin pulled over all that muscle is looking a bit grizzled. As my son would say, “He’s old.” Fortunately for every Toby Maguire there’s an Andrew Garfield, and a Henry Cavill for every Christopher Reeve. Who do you think will be playing Wolverine when my son takes his twelve-year-old to X-Men XX?

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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