Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why the X-Men Are Broke

In principle, M-Day was an excellent idea: clear the table, get rid of 90% of the excess mutants clogging up the Marvel Universe, reorient the X-Books after a long spate of creative floundering. Consider for a moment just how repetitive so many of the storylines and events of the mid-to-late 90s actually were, how redundant the hundreds and hundreds of faceless cannon fodder minions and nameless conspirators lurking under every rock of the mutant world. Eliminating mutant powers from the vast majority of the world moots a large percentage of these problems. Ideally, the moment House of M finished they should have hit the ground running with a new direction, new storylines, new villains, new directions for old villains, new themes and a streamlined cast.

But that's not what happened. Instead of accepting the new status quo and moving forward, the books rebelled against the idea on the most profound level. This was perceived by some as a passive-aggressive reaction on the part of the creators to M-Day itself, an idea seemingly imposed by editorial fiat. From the moment M-Day hit, the X-Men's major goal was undoing its effects. They took to speaking of themselves as an "endangered species." The books got grimmer and more inward-looking, obsessed with picking at the threads of this one singular moment in franchise history. It's now been five full years since House of M and the books are still obsessed with the resolution of that one storyline.

When I first heard about "No More Mutants," I just assumed the mutant status quo would simply be returning to pre-1990 levels. Up through the end of Claremont's initial run, mutants were still very rare: meeting a new mutant under any circumstances was notable, and every mutant was significant in some way. After 1990 or so, however, new mutants began to show up in simply absurd quantities, often attached to any number of hopelessly generic paramilitary mutant supremacist groups or shadowy government agencies. The problem persisted throughout the subsequent decade until, during Morrison's run, he took the idea to its logical conclusion and simply posited a world wherein mutants had become a significant portion of the population. House of M took this further iteration to its logical conclusion by giving us a supposed utopia wherein the mutant plurality entirely transforms civilization. M-Day should have cut through this untenable status quo and given the creative teams more room in which to move about. In the process they could restored what had historically been one of the book's most reliable engines for conflict and story generation - the process of discovering new mutants, something that had become a particularly uninteresting idea in a world filled with literally millions of mutants. But maybe if mutants weren't quite so common, the stories could return to treating them special.

After M-Day, there was one bit of dialogue I kept waiting to see. You could have had any of the main characters say it, although maybe it would have been best coming from the Beast or Cyclops. Essentially, I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to say "you know, maybe not having so many mutants isn't a great tragedy - honestly, it was all we could do to keep ourselves from destroying the planet many times over. Maybe having the genie back in the bottle isn't such a bad idea. We're all still alive, at least, we're still human, and that's the most important thing." You get the picture: everyone became obsessed with resurrecting the mutant race, finding new hope for the species. It was all they could talk about, the only thing they could write stories about. None of the characters - not that I ever saw - ever actually articulated the idea that having less mutants wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

And this touches on the real underlying problem: the slow-motion car-crash that has been the storytelling "solution" to M-Day has gutted the books in a truly profound way. The reaction to M-Day has made them thematically unintelligible in a manner I don't think many people have yet realized.

Pop quiz: what are the X-Men about? It's simple, even the average American moviegoer knows the answer: prejudice and minority rights. It has been present since the very beginning, even back to Stan's brief tenure. The X-Men have always represented the idea that minorities are first and foremost human beings, and that specific differences can always be overcome by the appeal to larger commonalities. Furthermore, it is accepted as a given that minority communities can and should demand equal rights and representation based on these commonalities. Most thematically-linked X-Men villains were historically split between two camps: human bigots who believed that mutants were less than human and therefore deserved to be segregated or exterminated, and mutant chauvinists who believed that mutants were more than human and therefore deserved to rule or exterminate mainstream humanity*. The X-Men we situated precisely in the middle of these conflicts: mutants were neither worse nor better than humanity, they were humanity.

There was another thematic detail which has long since been abandoned which I also think was crucial to the overall shape of the series: it was for a long time established that two mutants would not necessarily breed "true" - that there was no guarantee mutants would breed more mutants any more than two normal humans who gave birth to one mutant would necessarily breed another. That maybe isn't how mutation works in the "real world" - but this isn't real genetics, either, this is a specific dormant X-gene placed in humanity's ancestors millions of years by 500-foot tall space gods and activated primarily by atmospheric radiation. It may have seemed like a small matter to have, say, Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor's child be a regular human, but it was thematically important because it reinforced the fact that these mutants really were just a part of humanity, no different than people with ginger hair or double-jointed thumbs. Of course, that was all long gone by the time you had Wolverine's kid show up with identical Wolverine powers. If mutants always breed true, then they are one step further to speciation, and if they can be legitimately called a distinctive species, then the civil rights metaphor at the heart of the franchise gets a lot harder to sustain.

But that's not how it is anymore: Cyclops 2010 talks just like Magneto 1980, or Apocalypse 1995. Mutants are a species separate from humanity, they must protect themselves from humanity, they must act to ensure their own survival at all costs. The moment the X-Men started talking like this, they obliterated the moral argument at the heart of the franchise. Reading this latest X-crossover - the supposed climax of all these post-M-Day plot threads - it becomes progressively more clear that not only are the X-Men themselves backed into a corner, but the people who write the books are as well: they need to realize that they've turned the characters from staunch integrationists into de facto separatists.

* This obviously doesn't include thematically nominal villains like Arcade or the Limbo demons or the Brood or any of the Japanese mafia folks who've taken up space in the books over the years - but it's worth pointing out that the profusion of these non-mutant threats was a direct consequence of the fact that the books were always concerned with more than just core thematics, and pulled from a wide variety of genre tropes in order to craft an interesting long term soap-opera serial. This kind of cross-generic fecundity is good for the long-term health of any franchise: it's always good to have a strong thematic core to which to refer back, but never to the extent of making the books monotonous. Think of it this way: if every Spider-Man story were explicitly and solely about power & responsibility, then the books would be unbearably boring - Spider-Man stories can be about lots of things, even if they're all still a little bit about power & responsibility. Same with the X-Men: they're all a little bit about "protecting a world that hates and fears," but ideally the storytelling engine is versatile enough that they can be and have been about lots of other things too.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stuff I Heard

The New Pornographers - Together

Is it time to give up on the New Pornographers? I've got a general rule of thumb when it comes to these things: one off album can be a fluke, two bad albums is a trend. Challengers was somnolent and portentous, this is slightly more spritely but still difficult.

Normally, I'm all for bands changing and evolving. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a good band become a great band through hard work and ingenuity. But the inverse of this is that there is nothing worse than seeing a great band derailed as they lose touch with their core strengths in favor of . . . well, I don't know. I think that AC Newman probably thinks he's onto something since he's produced two albums in a row in this general vein, but I'm just not buying it. Especially galling is the fact that his recent solo joint, last year's Get Guilty, was actually pretty good, but would have definitely benefited from the muscular punch of the rest of the Pornographers.

This is turgid and uninteresting, frankly a chore to get through. Perhaps the singular unifying thread throughout the band's first three spectacular albums is just how effortless they seem: there's a joy that can't be faked and a contagious energy. Although each track is perfectly polished they still project the illusion of spontaneity. In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that Twin Cinema would be their last truly great album - although it was by no means inferior to either of its predecessors, its very big sound lay the foundation for their next move towards a further estrangement from the group's relatively no-frills origins in favor of a burgeoning infatuation with making every song sound like an ELO pocket symphony. Sure enough, Newman indulges his inner Jeff Lynne here, and the result is awful: the songs sound nice, except that there's no thrust, no movement. It's all layered choruses and stutter-stop rhythms. It's like watching a movie that keeps promising to do something but which keeps doubling back on itself to retell the first three minutes. It's exhausting, and it's not fun. The New Pornographers used to be effortless, now all I can hear is the effort.

The only good thing about Together is that it makes you want to flip around on the ol' iPod to hear "Letter to an Occupant" and "Miss Teen Wordpower" and "The Bleeding Hearts Show" all over again. And then you get sad because you realize that they've lost it completely and will likely never do anything even half as good again.

I reserve the right to change my mind six months down the road, but I've already spent the better part of a week listening to this album and trying to hear the "return to form" that everyone else is going on about. Still waiting . . .

(Here's the one half-decent song on the album:)

The National - High Violet

I'm new to these guys, so I don't know if this is a characteristic release or not. But I can say after listening to the thing half-a-dozen times this last weekend, it's pretty damn strong. I can't remember the last time I was so immediately impressed with an album. This sounds like some seriously next-level, Yankee Hotel Fotrot, Gimme Fiction shit right here.

What I like about these guys is that their sound is relatively unique: there are guitars and bass, sure, but it's really all about the interplay between Matt Berninger's stately baritone and Bryan Devendorf's intense drumming. On first listen it's an odd dichotomy: Berninger's voice is so smooth and level that it's practically a monotone, whereas Devendorf's drumming is so manic that is veers damn close to straight-up jungle a few times throughout. And yet somehow these two disparate parts really come together to create a remarkable effect. The year is almost half over but I don't anticipate hearing many better albums before January.

New Young Pony Club - The Optimist

One of the most frustrating parts of being a critic - even a really half-assed critic like myself - is that sometimes, despite all your efforts to proselytize on behalf of worthy causes, sometimes it just doesn't stick. Case in point: the New Young Pony Club. Their 2007 debut Fantastic Playroom was one of my favorite albums of the entire previous decade. I wrote an embarrassingly glowing 9/10 review for Popmatters. But the album was nevertheless roundly ignored after an initial bout of polite, if distinctly muted and entirely unenthusiastic praise (I think it received a Mercury Prize nomination, if that matters for anything). The Optimist is, if not better, just about as good as their first, and yet it hasn't even received the perfunctorily polite reception of their debut. The press has been decidedly mixed. Furthermore, it's been roundly thrashed by all the usual suspects who usually thrash former buzz bands who fail to live up to their supposed buzz - I won't bother to link, but neither Pitchfork nor Popmatters were particularly thrilled.

What the hell, people? Am I the only one who can hear how awesome these guys are? I'm not going to sit here and belabor the point. Everyone who I've ever convinced to sit down and spend some time with Fantastic Playroom has come away convinced. Is it because they sold their first single to an Apple commercial? Yeah, "Ice Cream" was kind of annoying, but if you listen to the first album you understand pretty quickly that "Ice Cream" was essentially a novelty song about fucking, and no real indicator of the band's sound other than sharing the general milieu of 80s-indebted post-punk. Or rather, perhaps it would be better to say, if you listen to the rest of the album, you understand that "Ice Cream" is satire, a poke in the eye of the male-dominated indie rock world, a world - despite the ostensibly progressive politics embodied by most bands - wherein women are still valued primarily as objects and not subjects, and the only appropriate role for a intelligent woman is either a predatory femme fatale or a fresh faced ingenue. Tahita Bulmer's lyrics are stridently feminist, and deal frankly with the ways in which women are commoditized and dismembered in order to be bought and sold in the culture - practically chopped into bite-size pieces for easy digestion. Given this, it's more than a little ironic that the band suffered as a direct result of being written off as a gimmicky dance-pop act defined by a sexy lead singer with a pouty voice.

Take my word for it: this is a good album. If you liked the first one, you'll like this one as well, and if you haven't heard the first one, you should hear them both. The comparison I made back in 2007 was that Fantastic Playroom reminded me of nothing so much as the Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food, and if I can be allowed the conceit of extending the metaphor I'll say that The Optimist bears more than a passing resemblance to Fear of Music - it's still clearly the same band, but there's a newfound emphasis on minor keys, a new confidence in exploring the down beat. I am again confirmed in my opinion that the New Young Pony Club are one of the best bands in the world - or would be, if anyone else was paying any attention.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

There was some really good back and forth in the comments section for Monday's post that I think merits some extra discussion. In Monday's post I very strongly asserted that the Mandarin is Iron Man's arch-nemesis - just like the Joker is for Batman, Doctor Octopus is for Spider-Man, etc. (Spider-Man's arch-enemy is NOT the Green Goblin - Doc Ock is the truest reflection of Spidey's core themes and personal conflict, the Goblin is just a gimmick crime boss who got pushed to the big time because he was plugged into the book's soap opera in a way that permanently warped the strip's dynamic for the worse. But I digress.)

Anyway, longtime commenter moose n squirrel rightfully called me on my assertion. he wrote:
Putting aside the fact that the character is a monstrously racist caricature, the Mandarin is utterly peripheral to the core themes of Iron Man as currently understood, a remnant of a time when the Yellow Peril loomed large in the American id in the form of Mao's China, and when Iron Man spent most of his time fighting official enemies of the State. The first film already satisfied the concept's inner jingo by having Iron Man blow up a bunch of brown people in Afghanistan, which is to say, the movies (and the comics, for that matter) have moved on to a more contemporary racial scapegoat. When you start dragging out the Yellow Peril, you might as well have Tony Stark go up against the international conspiracy of Scheming Jew Bankers while you're at it.

The insistence on introducing the Mandarin to the Iron Man movies reminds me of people who kept clamoring to see the Dark Phoenix Saga in the X-Men films, despite the fact that the weird mix of space opera, SM and 19th century cosplay that makes up the story of Phoenix has exactly fuck-all to do with the various themes and metaphors that have made the X-Men stories work over the years. But hey, it's remembered fondly by fans, so who cares if it makes any sense?
It's hard to disagree with the core of that argument - that, at his heart, the Mandarin is too egregious of a racial caricature to be tolerated; and additionally, those facets of the Mandarin's character which may have once placed him as Iron Man's legitimate ideological opposite are no longer as central to the Iron Man's thema.

Fair points, both. I confess, however, I am more sympathetic to the first point than the second point: dealing with the troubled - unpleasant - downright awful - racial legacy of some of our most cherished strips (and Iron Man is certainly far from being cherished in the same way as The Spirit or Terry & the Pirates) is a persistent challenge for anyone who takes the medium seriously. (And, obviously, it's not as if all these problems with representation disappeared with the civil rights era, as we saw just last week in the case of Ryan Choi.) I can't dismiss the validity of these claims by simply making an appeal to the historical importance of the Mandarin's character: you could make a similar claim that fighting demoniacally exaggerated caricatures of Japanese soldiers is an integral part of the Sub-Mariner's mythos, and you'd you'd be just as dead wrong.

But I think the Mandarin is a better character than that. Partly this is because a lot of work has been done in the ensuing decades since his creation to rehabilitate him, but this is itself a product of the fact that many generations of creators have seen the Mandarin as Iron Man's de facto arch enemy. From a purely mechanical perspective, whether or not the character should be Iron Man's arch-enemy is secondary to the fact that he undeniably is. Almost unique among heavy-hitter Marvel villains, he is still used sparingly - but whenever he does show up, it's usually a Big Deal. And Tony Stark treats it as such: when he showed up recently in the last storyline of the pre-Fraction Iron Man, they took pains to show that Iron Man was more afraid of the Mandarin than anyone else on the planet - more than Doom, more than the Red Skull, more than the Hulk. Creators over the years have worked hard to sell the Mandarin as a top-shelf threat. If you get rid of the Mandarin, you're left without any character to fill that void in Iron Man's mythos.

Asserting that the character doesn't fulfill a function - or rather, fulfills an anachronistic purpose in Iron Man's current status quo - is, I think, a subtle misreading just what Iron Man is about. There actually is a fairly complex core to the character, and it stems from his position not as the symbol of technological futurism - a reading that is certainly valid but has been over-emphasized in recent years - but as the avatar of a certain, crucial element of American cultural identity. Techno-futurism - and the knee-jerk optimism this implies - is certainly a part of it, but it's not the only part. Iron Man is also a blatant symbol of American exceptionalism, and the idea that America can assert itself on the world stage simply by virtue of its technological and economic hegemony. This can be both good and bad: as a fantasy, it's nice to imagine an agent like Iron Man who can represent American values when fighting international criminal conspiracies and world-beating warlords, but also - and one thing the new movie got very right - it would be scary as shit if an American decided to proclaim himself world policeman, with or without the tacit support of Washington, based simply on his own understanding of right and wrong. In the 60s Stan Lee accepted these ideas fairly uncritically - let's not forget Tony Stark began his comics career as an arms merchant touring the battlefields of Vietnam, and spent much of the 60s fighting Communists, which is something even Captain America didn't do very often (most of his run in Tales of Suspense is spent in WWII flashbacks, laying retroactive groundwork for Cap's WWII career that is still used today). But later on, when Vietnam was widely recognized as a mistake (even by many who argued its merits in theory) and America entered an era of heightened self-consciousness, Tony Stark transformed into something a bit different: a character who, almost unique among high-profile superheroes, could be unlikeable.

I think this is a really important facet of Iron Man that not many people discussed openly until Civil War: it's not as if Stark's high-handed self-justification was a new development, he has been making awful choices and alienating friends in the name of personal righteousness for decades. He was an alcoholic, and after he recovered from that he alienated most of the world by declaring open war on anyone who had stolen his armor technology. (If you recall, that was the first time his actions put him and Cap at each others' throats - he broke into a federal prison to incapacitate the Guardsman armor used at the Vault and ended up cold-cocking Cap, back when he was briefly just The Captain.) His whole history since then has been filled with dramatic, catastrophic overreach followed by personal tragedy and setback. It's always been OK to dislike Iron Man because it's been hardwired into his character for decades that he does unlikeable things. And therefore his status as an avatar of American exceptionalism is no longer just an uncritical acceptance of technological triumphalism and an aggressive, supposedly "humanitarian" foreign policy - America is also a high-handed son of a bitch who is congenitally unable to perceive its own faults. And I don't think, in this respect, I'm reading too much into the character here: this has been Iron Man's accepted characterization for about 35 years.

So if Iron Man has changed to reflect America's post-60s identity, than the Mandarin has also evolved - haltingly, it is true, but measurably - to reflect our concept of The Other. Again, this is hardly hidden subtext: China was profoundly humiliated by hundreds of years of foreign - Western - domination, and by the time of their civil war in the mid-part of the century, nationalist sentiment was the driving force in the country's desire to reclaim lost territory and reassert political sovereignty over all aspects of Chinese life. (This also at least partially explains Chinese intransigence in any and all issues relating to international intervention in their internal affairs or the internal affairs of other countries.) The Mandarin is a Chinese nationalist par excellence, a supposed descendant of Ghengis Khan dedicated to driving out foreign influence from the mainland and reasserting the strength of imperial China. He isn't just an enemy to American interlopers but to the Communist regime and to international capitalism as well. He is, at the risk of simplifying a much larger concept, the return of the repressed - the final result of Asia's profound humiliation at the hands of the industrialized West, a nationalistic monster willing to do whatever is necessary to expunge Western influence from his homeland. And, of course, this also begs the subsequent revelation that, at least in terms of Iron Man's position as a frequent catspaw of and ideological stalking horse for American imperial ambition, the Mandarin is 100% in the right - if Tony Stark is going to climb into his one-man weapon of mass destruction suit and carry out thermonuclear gunboat diplomacy writ large, he deserves to get his ass kicked.

But even after I've spent all this time laying out the case for the Mandarin, we're still left with the question of whether or not, even if there is a good idea behind the Mandarin, is it a story we can realistically tell? Because, really, this isn't a researched term paper on Frantz Fanon and Homi K. Bhabha, this is an arm of the Walt Disney Company putting out a movie with toys and happy meals. Even the most well-reasoned and even-handed portrayals of otherness in fiction can still smack of cultural ventriloquism. But then there is the danger of going too far to the other end of the spectrum, where there are almost no villains of color in comics, and every black / asian / hispanic / gay / etc. character is an absolutely moral and righteous pillar of society - which is great and all, but sort of sidesteps the idea of true diversity. After all, shouldn't there be a proportionate number of black arch-villains? We wouldn't be having this conversation if Iron Man's arch-enemy was a blond German descendant of Charlemagne, or an Italian relation of Cesare Borgia.

But even the most strident conservative is going to get queasy over images of blond, vaguely Aryan superman proxies beating up on ethnic minorities. I mean, when was the last time (outside maybe of Ennis's run) you saw the Punisher blowing away a crowd of black gang members? There's something not quite right about seeing a white European clad in deaths' head iconography killing members of an economically underprivileged minority group - even if, you know, there are a few African-American and Hispanic drug dealers here and there.

So we're left with moose n squirrel's initial position, which I can't in all honesty dismiss even if I think a good argument an be made to the contrary. What is to be done? Do we need to have an Asian-American redefine the Mandarin so that he can be fully utilized in the future? That worked wonders for the Black Panther, who was given a remarkably successful "soft" reboot in the late 90s by black creators, a direction which stuck and turned the character from an occasional bit player in the Avengers to a headliner in his own right (even if mass popularity is still elusive). Or is it stupid and blatantly pandering to wait for an Asian creator to come along and give us all a - well, what would we call it? A "Chinatown pass"? - an all-clear to use the character in good conscience again? I dunno.

All I know is that if they ultimately decide to forgo the Mandarin for the next movie, I'll settle for Ultimo: nothing screams toyetic quite like a hundred-foot-tall robot from space bent on annihilating all life on earth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cool Exec With a Heart of Steel

So, after venting my inner Adorno the other day, I finally got the chance to check out Iron Man 2. And, no lie, I loved it. I thought it was a great film - well, maybe not a "great film" in the same way Contempt is a "great film," but you know what I mean.

I've seen a lot of criticism, and in fact have seen a few blurbs to the effect that the film has been critically panned. I don't understand, I freely admit: if you were on board for the first, this is in every sense of the word a direct continuation of that one, with the added bonus of actually having better battle scenes and better villains. I think some of the problems with the critical reception have to do with the fact that these current Marvel films really do represent a real attempt to translate serial storytelling techniques to two-hour motion pictures - as strange and awkward as it seems, they succeed as often as they don't. The key storytelling bywords here are shorthand and accumulation: the filmmakers aren't merely assuming that you have a general familiarity the first film, but are hoping that you actively remember the key points of characterization, plot and theme. They give you enough to pick up as you go, but really no more than you might expect from the recap dialogue in a Shooter-era issue of Avengers. They expect you, the audience, to be able to connect the dots on characterization and theme from the first film without having to spell everything out again: the point is to accumulate meaning across multiple films without having to repeat themselves. Rhodey and Tony's friendship is deep and occasionally fraught - Rhodes is the only person allowed to call Tony on his bullshit. This is never explicitly stated in the film, but if you remember the first movie this one builds and elaborates on the dynamic already introduced without wasting time reestablishing for those who came in late.

One of the strengths of serial storytelling in general is that it can be remarkably economical when done well - and it's interesting to see it attempted on such a large scale. There really aren't many examples - certainly the Lord of the Rings films proved that it was possible to bank on the extended attention span of movie audiences to queue up for each individual part of a three-part film - a film, I should add, that makes almost no concessions for people who don't pay attention throughout the entirety of the 9+ hour running time. Star Wars did it without suffering, basically building on the (justified) assumption that anyone who wanted to see Empire Strikes Back knew what happened in Star Wars. On the contrary, the Indiana Jones films aren't really a series at all - each film is entirely modular, capable of existing independent of the others. Most series are more like Indiana Jones than Star Wars. But Iron Man 2 really isn't Iron Man 2 so much as Iron Man Part Two, if you see the difference.

I've seen more than one blurb that says, in essence, that this film doesn't have the emotional thru-line of the first film - that's it's emptier, basically. But I think that kind of criticism is more-or-less a willful refusal to meet the movie on its own terms: the meat of the exposition for Tony Stark's character happened last film. If you've seen that one, you can understand the shorthand references to all of Stark's personality defects, physical disabilities and self-abusive habits without having to have it spelled out in triplicate. Of course, I don't want to overstate my case here, at the possible risk of convincing you that Iron Man 2 is a far subtler film than it actually is. It's not particularly subtle - well, that's an understatement, it's not subtle in the least. But it's not dumb, and it expects you to have a working knowledge of the first film so as to hit the ground running. Getting all the major expository character development out of the way in the first films so that subsequent movies can get down to the brass tacks of having more action? That's the point.

It's only going to get "worse" from here on out, the more these films begin to bleed into each other. The major problem with the idea of subsequent ensemble films like The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. is the possibility that the more major characters you add to the franchise, the higher the risk of storytelling illegibility. It's an old rule but still mostly true: the more major characters you have, the harder you have to work to keep the balls in the air. The Avengers film will be supremely dense, if nothing else - but whether or not it is watchable will depend primarily on how well they lay the foundation in the next few Marvel films. One of the reasons why the later Batman films were such a mess was that in a movie with 4-6 main characters, you have to take the time to elaborately introduce and establish each character, and in the process the structure becomes so intricate and gnarled that the film collapses under its own weight. For all the moving parts in Iron Man 2, it was still a remarkably light touch, covering each narrative base with precisely the amount of emphasis necessary, no more and no less. Don't know who Nick Fury is? Well, that's probably because you missed his establishing scene at the end of the last Iron Man, its no fault of the filmmakers.

But yeah - good film. It's really quite remarkable how well they translated the Iron Man visual to film. it's true that there's something "missing" - I think the rather generic looking armor design misses something of the charm of the best Iron Man designs. I'd love to see an attempt at the more classic, streamlined red & gold, something not quite so busy. War Machine stole the show every moment he was on screen - that is still a great design, even considering it's really only a monochromatic upgrade.

The main problem with the film was that as cool as War Machine and Whiplash 1.0 were, the major battle at the end still boiled down to Iron Man vs. generic robots, and even when Whiplash 2.0 showed up he was, well, another robot, more or less. As many things as both Iron Man films get right, they suffer from a lack of great villains. It isn't hard to figure out why: on the one hand, the films hew close to a thematically consistent military hard sci-fi feel, with - so far! - no room for more fantastic sci-fi or fantasy elements; on the other, they're afraid of pulling the trigger on the Mandarin because, well, they don't want to risk getting picketed by the Asian Anti-Defamation League or publicly denounced by the Chinese government. So, in one fell swoop you've precluded the likes of Ultimo, MODOK and Fin Fang Foom (all integral to Iron Man's rogue's gallery), and without the Mandarin you're left without the character's defining arch-nemesis. I mean, yeah, you can make the case that Tony Stark's "real" arch-nemeses are corporate robber barons like Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer, but who's kidding who? Batman needs the Joker, Spider-Man needs Doctor Octopus, Iron Man needs the Mandarin. Without the Mandarin, and without the weirder end of the Marvel Universe, you're left with a pile of thugs with gimmicks taking orders from dudes in business suits, or even better, other dudes in inferior metal suits whose origins are usually tied to Communist Russia. If Iron Man 3 is about the Melter and Spymaster, well . . . they'll need more than Mickey Rourke to make the Melter compelling is all I'm gonna say.

Although I would absolutely love to see them attempt the Spymaster on film - the world's greatest superspy, who also wears a bright navy blue and canary yellow jumpsuit with a huge round target on his chest. Nothing screams espionage quite like it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Why does anyone care about superhero movies? I don't mean, anyone period, obviously a lot of people, non-nerd "civilians," go to see them. Specifically: why do comic book fans care about superhero movies?

Why do Twilight fans care about the Twilight movies? Why do millions of people who read Dan Brown books flock to see the exact same stories played out in live action on the big screen? Why do Tolkien fans get so excited about seeing Frodo and Co. on the big screen? Why do Jane Austen fans swoon at watching that damned undying BBC miniseries adaptation of Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time?

If you think about it, the phenomenon doesn't make a lot of sense. Perhaps there is something to be said for the idea that the current era of visual media has fundamentally crippled our imaginations to such an extant that we can't regard any open text as being "closed" until we receive corresponding visual input. And of course, once we see the movie version we've received the "definitive" version, the version set in our minds eye whenever we care to re-experience the original text.

There are many, many people in this world who loved the Spider-Man films without ever feeling the need to experience more Spider-Man in their lives than was provided onscreen. But there are also many Spider-Man fans who enjoyed the films as well. I wasn't one of them. It seemed as if every concrete decision that was made to visualize Spider-Man's universe onscreen closed off just as many of the open-ended possibilities that make the comics so endearingly fascinating. The best thing about classic Spider-Man, for me, is just how shabby the whole enterprise is - all the characters are threadbare, all the costumes have a garish, dime-store novelty, all the motivations (even Spider-Man's!) are just a tad pettier than you would expect. But that mood will never be precisely replicated onscreen, and the faux-epic, sincerely empathetic jingoism of Raimi's films is a poor substitute for the essentially pitiless texture of Lee & Ditko's original stories. So why do fans care about these movie at all? Why are fans somehow validated by the existence of a big-screen version of their favorite books?

I dutifully watched them all but found the big-screen Lord of the RIngs films to be remarkably bloodless, big on spectacle and certainly enjoyable for all that, but not a patch on the books. And with that the obvious question is, why did they make these movies? The real answer is that they wanted to make a lot of money and Tolkien's characters could sell a lot of action figures. But then another "real" answer is that a group of filmmakers were very excited by the challenge of bringing to life some of the most amazing spectacles ever seen on the big screen. So, if you confront this motivation, why did they think the books needed to be adapted in the first place? Were they somehow "incomplete," in need of Peter Jackson's vision before they could be rendered whole?

So why do these things get fans so excited?

The success of the Iron Man films is no reflection whatsoever on the strength of the comics, its a reflection of the durability of the original concept - entirely separate from the idiosyncratic talents of the men and women (mostly men) who have brought Tony Stark to life - to be molded and mangled to fit a two-hour consumer infomercial. Iron Man is an interesting case because, i would argue, he lacks the type of truly defining charter run that characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the (All-New, All-Different) X-Men enjoyed. I sat down a couple years back and reread from somewhere around #150-200 of his first series. In one or two sittings, it was remarkably good. On an individual basis the issues themselves were no more than mediocre, but taken as a whole it was a long-form serial that gained energy and momentum from its size and scope. Whatever pathos the characters of Tony Stark and James Rhodes has was teased out over the course of years, not months, the kind of time frame that flatters the limitations of cheap melodrama and allows careful long-term plotting to reveal thematic details that, given the limitations of the serial format, can only with great difficulty be communicated more concisely. How can these charms be communicated onscreen? Quick answer: they can't.

So why do we get excited that Iron Man has been bowdlerized by the movie business? Iron Man! Hardly Fritz the Cat - and yet, there you go, the folks behind Iron Man are afraid to put the Mandarin on film for fear of being criticized for perpetrating a disgusting "yellow peril" caricature. The absence of a real "arch villain" is undoubtedly the most palpable absence in the Iron Man films, and the fact that they can succeed on a raft of B-listers like Whiplash and Justin Hammer is frankly amazing, and a testament to the fact that the moviemakers are adamant about hiring good people to flesh out seriously skeletal concepts. So it's an advertisement for action figures - there is nothing at all novel in that observation - but why do we line up to see the advertisement? It has no impact whatsoever on all the Iron Man comics I loved or loathed growing up. And yet we line up all the same for the cheap thrill of seeing a childhood idol come to life on the silver screen, just as ten-year-olds across the globe thrill to seeing Harry Potter walk and talk in real time.

Are our imaginations so sclerotic that we depend on Hollywood to legitimize our fantasy, or is it that we are simply trained to see a motion picture adaptation of a text - any cultural object, from The Da Vinci Code to the Bible - as the apotheosis of our culture? Because, frankly, all the superhero movies that have ever been made have done nothing more than convince me how good the originals are, even in cases such as Ghost RIder where the originals weren't even that good to begin with.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Invincible Iron Man #25

Whoa, imagine that, the issue hitting the shelves a week before the movie is actually a good jumping on point for new readers. Might sell a whole couple dozen more copies!

Anyway, this is pretty good, no surprise there - Fraction has been playing a very long game on this book for the last two years and we're just now seeing some of the threads from the very first story pulled together. I thought the first story, with the "living repulser weapons," was a pretty steep misfire, but everything since Secret Invasion has worked very well. It's funny: usually creators complain about having to work around status-quo-shifting crossovers, but Fraction was only able to really get into a groove on the book when he had the constraints of Dark Reign to push against. Who knows whether this new "Heroic Age" direction will hold up as well - I'd personally be content with issue after issue of Tony Stark traversing the globe and apologizing for being a dick to everyone. But the most amazing thing is that, somehow, Fraction was able to achieve the impossible: make Stark an interesting and sympathetic character once again, after years of mistreatment. It almost makes you think they had a plan like this all along . . . but nah, that's giving them too much credit.

I will confess to a little bit of disappointment that the new direction didn't also serve as an impetus to finally get rid of that stupid Extremis crap that's been clogging up the stories for years. I think giving Stark legitimate super-powers - regardless of how much they might initially seem like a natural extension of his traditional reliance on technology, takes the character too far from his core appeal. But if the execution is right I suppose we can chaulk that up to a minor quibble.

Anyway, one more thing: there's a bit in here about Stark pulling out of the weapons manufacturing business, and the plot hinges on the military's pissy reaction to this decision. The only problem is - Stark has already pulled out of military contracting so many times over they years that the announcement is meaningless. He hasn't produced weapons since, what, the 70s? the 80s? I don't remember off the top of my head but this has already been a plot point many times over the years.

Justice Society of America #38

Bill WIllingham and I, we've had our differences in the past - like, you know, the fact that Fables is a transparent exercise in right-wing fantasy world-building, like a D&D campaign written by a overly literal-minded Tucker Carlson impersonator. His superhero work has generally been decent, if not spectacular. I genuinely liked Shadowpact: nice mix of characters, fun adventures. But this? This is perhaps the least original comic I've ever read in my life.

Let's see - alternate future where Nazis take over and kill everyone, all the superheroes live in concentration camps, but they're just biding their time until they can turn the tables on their jailers and undo the damage to timeline. That's not a plot, that's a pattern, like if you were making your own prom dress out of Sears & Roebuck flower-print curtains. Plus, like, in twenty years the Nazis will have managed to completely conquer North America and exterminate all the ethnic minorities? Really, Bill? Because even with evil Nazi superheroes I don't know if a very small splinter-group of neo-Nazis could overcome, you know, 300 million odd people very resistant to the idea of being part of the Fourth Reich.

So - yeah - this is pretty bad. Like a faded photocopy - and what was briefly one of DC's sales powerhouses goes down in a soggy mess of horse manure.

Deadpool: Merc With a Mouth #10

I'm just going to come out and say it, regardless of whether or not you believe me: this is one of the best comics on the stands. It's kind of a shame that it's been retroactively "revealed" to be a 13-issue limited series. At least the current storyline will be able to finish. But for the meantime?

This is pretty awesome. Basically, this is the platonic ideal of what a comic book like this should be: loud, fast and funny, with lots of gross monsters and sexy babes. It's really no more complicated than that. Special consideration must go to Bong Dazo, who has proven himself to be a distinctive talent of note, hitting it out of the proverbial park with every consecutive issue. Let's take a look at a particularly well-done action sequence from this issue:

Extra special credit for colorist Matt Milla, who manages to keep Dazo's very dense linework and composition readable and clear through the judicious use of contrasting colors to draw the eye across the page.

Look again at that first page: see how the eye is drawn downward in a left-to-right direction by the repetition of the red circle of Deadpool's rifle scope. Also, the letterer has placed his word bubbles and captions near the red circles, creating a perfect synergy in terms of how the eye is pulled compositionally and how the reader's eye naturally flows towards the text. Finally, on the bottom panel of the page, the figure of the Zombie Absorbing Man is pushed aside by the blast of DP's bazooka, shooting in a left to right direction, taking the reader from the Absorbing Man's reaction to the shot through to the shot's true target, what is revealed in the next page to be . . . a support column for the Chrysler building.

The next page is equally interesting: the two cramped insets in the top left corner, placed in a right-and-downwards direction, pulls the eye across the page along with the huge mass of debris about to fall on the Absorbing Man. The shape of the falling rubble frames the empty space at the bottom of the page, directing the reader's attention towards the suddenly very small figure of the Absorbing Man, about to be crushed. And of course, Deadpool's red uniform pops out against the background, and Dazo never forgets all the little details - like the beads of cartoon sweat falling from his head as he hoofs it off the page, Bugs Bunny-style, bending under the weight of his monstrous bazooka, six-pack of beer still securely attached to his samurai sword.

The next page pulls out of Dazo's typically packed compositions for a full splash - and boy, does he know to draw piles of shit blowing up good. But even here, look at how the damage is framed by the figures of Deadpool's posse staged across the bottom of the page, with the bright flesh tone of Dr. Betty's - um - copious amounts of skin, as well as Bob's bright yellow AIM costume drawing the eye down across the muted grays and blues - a sideways direction also indicated by the gray plumes of smoke rising from the wreckage like arrows pointing the eye towards the page's resolution.

It's probably very easy to overlook Merc With A Mouth among all the other superfluous Deadpool books on the market right now, but this is exactly what I had in mind when I said that a sudden rush of multiple Deadpool books might result in some good stuff bleeding in around the edges. This is an extremely well constructed over-the-top adventure book designed by people who are obviously having a blast with the opportunity to produce a purposefully, delightfully exaggerated adventure serial. Bong Dazo especially is a talent to watch, appearing seemingly out of nowhere with both a distinctive style and a rock-solid understanding of storytelling basics. This is good stuff, and deserves a critical reappraisal before it disappears.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Best Comics Month Ever, The Saga Continues

(Please go here, here and here for more
on the unfolding saga of February 1966.)

Maybe not quite as iconic as Spider-Man lifting heavy
machinery off his back, but damn close, no?