Man of Steel : A Spoiler-Heavy Review

This is late. This is soooo late. And it’s far too long. Ugh. What is wrong with me? Why do I even exist? I shouldn’t. I’m sorry.

I love Superman. That’s why I wrote this piece almost one year ago (and this piece shortly after that. Just in case you wanted to give my site some traffic or whatever. It’s cool, though, it’s totally cool. Just…y’know, if you want to). And I want you guys to know, I was REALLY hoping that Man of Steel would, against all my expectations, be an amazing film. I know that sounds egocentric…because it very much IS. When a superhero movie comes out (especially a superhero as iconic as the Man of Steel) I can’t help it: I DO feel like it should be tailor-made to my sensibilities. I also nitpick it to death and pass judgment on it when it fails to live up to my ludicrous standards. And, as I feared, I was right about Man of Steel. It wasn’t the great movie I desperately wanted it to be. Now the viewing experience itself wasn’t terrible, but it reminded me of The Dark Knight Rises: a film that’s enjoyable on the surface, but immediately falls to pieces upon closer examination. I hope this list adequately explains how I can be a Superman fan and not be a huge fan of his latest cinematic “triumph.”

NATE’S HATES

1. The Cinematography

I am not the hugest fan of Zack Snyder. I was desperately hoping that Brad Bird or Darren Aronofsky or even Martin Campbell would snag the director’s spot for Man of Steel. But once Snyder was on board, I figured we would at least get some decent action scenes. Maybe slow-motion would actually be a great way to depict Kryptonians battling. But guess what? Zack Snyder decided to abandon his strengths and cling even tighter to his weaknesses.

First of all, everything is shot through a color filter. Krypton is a drab parade of different shades of brown. Earth is a bleak gray wasteland. An ultimately pointless scene in which Zod invades Kal-El’s mind was obviously written into the movie so that Snyder could show off his “visionary” style of film-making  and cram in some of the same kind of “subtle” and  “symbolic” imagery we’ve come to expect from the man behind Sucker Punch.

The action scenes are especially disappointing because Snyder uses no slow-motion, which (as I said) could have really worked in this instance. But no, everything is fast-paced, hyper-edited, and out-of-focus. Perhaps that works for, say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or the Bourne series, or even the most recent James Bond movies, but not here; not when you’re showing alien demigods battling for the Earth’s future. That kind of conflict should feel epic, and it doesn’t (weirdly enough, the most “epic” battle scene is the one that’s the most similar to Superman Returns, in which Superman destroys an inanimate object that causes him pain).

2. Plot Problems

Let me lay out a few of these in roughly chronological order. And yes, this one’s going to be a long segment:

How is Jor-El, genetically engineered to be a scientist, able to easily defeat Zod and his troops, genetically engineered to be perfect soldiers? How does the Phantom Zone work? If it’s another dimension, Why does there have to be a giant ship, and freeze-y tubes?

How could Superman’s suit (complete with the symbol of the House of El, no less) be in a scout ship that arrived on Earth 20,000 years ago? Did Jor-El (or his AI) program the ship to build it? If so, why make it blue, red, and yellow, colors that we haven’t seen exist on Krypton? Why doesn’t the suit look more like the armor that Jor-El wears instead of the body stocking that Kryptonian soldiers apparently wear under their combat suits?

What exactly gives Superman his powers? Jor-El said that the Earth’s lighter gravity gave him his ability to fly, and the radiation from Earth’s young sun supercharged his cells, right? The whole thing about earth’s atmosphere was just a throwaway line at the time; something about it being more nutritious than Krypton’s. Well, that line apparently only existed to justify the moment when Superman is on Zod’s ship and he blacks out and loses his powers. Why? Not because of the sun. Not because of the gravity. Because Zod’s ship artificially duplicates Krypton’s atmosphere. Now I know that an atmosphere is determined by the gravitational pull of a planet and that it contains ultraviolet solar radiation, but did we really need to be SO scientifically accurate that it seemingly contradicts Superman canon? Was it just to be “realistic”, Nolan-style? Weirdly specific time to do it. Why not just say it was red sun radiation?

How did Krypton’s destruction free the prisoners from the Phantom Zone? Why was it so easy for a prison ship (that Jor-El designed, by the way) to be taken over and converted into a vessel of war? How has Zod aged appropriately over a span of 33 years, but Faora hasn’t? Why would Zod reveal his presence to earth, when it would have been so much easier to search the internet for references to alien activity, locate Lois Lane, discreetly abduct her, use the brain-raping technology we know they have, and take Kal-El by surprise? I’m assuming that would have been just as easy (if not easier) than creating a broadcast that automatically translates words into every known language on earth, so why did Zod take such a big risk and tip his hand? Because he has “a flair for the dramatic”? WHY? He shouldn’t be susceptible to that kind of vanity if he was really genetically engineered to be the perfect soldier, right?

And if  Zod’s ultimatum was some kind of psychological tactic intended to terrify and intimidate, it failed; Earth still tried everything in its power to resist his incursion, and all the broadcast did was give them time to mobilize. Plus, you don’t need to break the spirits of a population if they already aren’t a threat to you AND you intend to completely destroy them, not subjugate them, right? For that matter, why did Zod NEED to terraform the Earth into a Krypton-style planet? His explanation was “We don’t want to endure years of pain adjusting to these abilities like Kal-El did.” WHAT? What kind of soldier throws away a tactical advantage like that? They spent more than three decades living in a flying prison! How could that be worse than spending a little time getting used to your completely AWESOME GODLIKE POWERS?! Plus, his argument is completely moot, since only a few minutes later he’s completely adjusted to his powers and he’s fighting Superman to a standstill!

For that matter, why does Zod need Earth to be the new Krypton? If he has a world engine that can terraform ANY planet into a duplicate of Krypton, why inconvenience himself by choosing Earth? He says he has no interest in the powers a yellow sun gives him, so why Earth? The whole reason Superman resists him is because he plans to use the codex to repopulate Earth with Kryptonians. Easy solution: find another planet (there are plenty of them, as Zod would know), use the world engine there, tell Superman you have no interest in threatening his adoptive planet, and then he’ll gladly cooperate and help you find the codex and use it. Or, why not use the world engine BEFORE coming to earth, show up in a non-threatening vessel, and tell Superman you need his help to revitalize Kryptonian culture. Boom. Done. Remember, this version of Zod doesn’t have anything personal against the House of El (unlike Zod in Superman II). He was even friends with Jor-El. He should have no reason to punish the earth, and he shouldn’t have any animosity against humans or Kal-El. He just wants the codex, which is not an inherently dangerous item.

Of course, Jor-El DID imply that Zod wanted to eliminate the bloodlines of Krypton that he deemed impure or whatever. Now, let’s leave aside the fact that Zod (as he himself states) was genetically engineered for the sole purpose of protecting Krypton, and therefore shouldn’t be:

A) capable of starting a destructive civil war that divides his people during a planetary emergency.

B) jeopardizing Krypton’s future by eliminating any portion of a highly-structured gene pool perfected over generations of planning.

If Zod is willing to destroy the traditional version of Krypton to begin with, why not use his own people as templates for a new Kryptonian society? You know, his loyal followers, the highly skilled people all willing to die for him? Just have them start breeding, or have the creepy German guy whip up some clone-ish stuff. They have the technology, since they were going to use the codex anyways, and Zod already planned on rebuilding Kryptonian society in his own image.

Speaking of all this genetic engineering stuff, Faora has a line during her fight with Superman that is infuriating in its scientific…uh, notness. As they fight, she brags about how he will lose because he still has morality. She, on the other hand, does not. Why? Because she has evolved beyond it. Because she has…what the hell, guys?! Seriously?! First, Faora is one generation removed from Superman; she has not evolved anything that he, a YOUNGER Kryptonian, doesn’t have too. Also, if she has no morality, then why is she doing any of this stuff? You don’t orchestrate and participate in a planetary rebellion, travel across the galaxy for decades, and constantly put your own well-being at risk in order to rebuild your home if you don’t have a set of morals. Faora has to believe that what she’s doing is right. And guess what? Zod, also a genetically engineered soldier, HAS MORALS! He explicitly stated that he did what had to be done, no matter how unpleasant, in order to protect and preserve Krypton. MORALS! But hey, even if Faora was born without morals, it wasn’t because she evolved past them: she was genetically engineered. That’s not evolution. That’s LITERALLY INTELLIGENT DESIGN.

Okay, that was exhausting. Moving on to the other problems. Oh yes, there are more:

3. Jonathan Kent is a Prick

Putting aside the irritation I endured with Kevin Costner’s predictable monotonous drawling  (I think I’ve heard him refer to it as “acting”), Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan Kent is an awful parent, an awful mentor, and an awful role model. He tells his son that he has to decide for himself whether he’s going to be a good or bad person. It’s not a good idea to use your powers to help people, he warns, because the world isn’t ready for you, and they’ll reject you. He wants Clark to stay with him in Kansas and be a farmer, yet at the same time he keeps telling him that he’s going to change the world and that he must find out for himself what his glorious destiny will be. And when he tries to rescue the family dog (yes, the DOG) from a twister, he refuses to let his son save him because he has to keep that side of himself a secret. Are you processing this? DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHY THIS IS TERRIBLE?! When your son is an all-powerful alien, you owe it to him and the world to at least TRY to teach him right and wrong and, raise him to have compassion for his fellow man. The Jonathan Kent of the comic books did. The Jonathan Kent of the first Superman movie did. But from this paranoid, morally ambiguous Jonathan Kent, we only get empty platitudes, grandiose speeches, and the worst parenting style since Robert Downey Sr. Bottom line: Superman should have become a hero BECAUSE of his parents, but in Man of Steel he becomes a hero DESPITE them.

4. Superman Can’t Be Bothered with Bystanders

Superman’s respect for all life is a common thread in all of his depictions. That respect is evident in virtually any battle he finds himself forced into. If he has to fight an enemy, his first priority is to either move the battle away from a populated area or find a way to clear out civilians and cut down on collateral damage. In Man of Steel, Superman couldn’t care less about bystanders. When Zod threatens his mother in rural Kansas, what does Clark do? Tackle him, and fly them both OUT OF an isolated cornfield and INTO a busy urban area. Oh sure, he tells the civilians to get inside because it isn’t safe, but then he proceeds to destroy the town around their ears. Gas stations blow up. Helicopters crash. Buildings are reduced to rubble. Of course there are casualties, and now Superman is just as responsible for their deaths as Zod is. And that final battle? Oh, my God. We can see horrified spectators watching. We can see these two titans of destruction leveling skyscrapers and construction sites and blasting their heat vision left and right. PEOPLE ARE DYING, SUPERMAN, AND YOU ARE KILLING THEM.

That climactic moment when Superman has no choice but to snap Zod’s neck in order to save some humans? Fine with it. In the comics, he executes Zod and Faora with Kryptonite when they leave him with no alternative. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial at all. But I also say this: given his blatant disregard for the THOUSANDS of people he and Zod endangered during their little scuffle, Superman killing Zod for the sake of a small family of tourists and then screaming in anguish has a hollow ring to it.

5. Clark’s Too Old For Pranks

It was a short scene: Clark is a cook at a truck stop diner in the middle of nowhere. A pretty waitress gets harassed by Thaddeus D. Redneckington III, and Clark steps in. He shows restraint when the trucker makes fun of him, pushes him, and pours beer on his head, because he is a mature adult. Two cops (who are apparently also sociopaths) find that funny instead of, like ASSAULT or something. Clark leaves, upset. Thaddeus leaves the diner hours later, only to discover that–Wha?! His truck is completely wrecked and the shipment of timber he was hauling is ruined! BA HA HA HA! Boy, Clark was a real cut-up when he was a teenager! Of course, that was before he became a mature adult and–Wait, he’s 33 years old?! How is destroying a man’s livelihood, a company’s profits, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment any better than beating up the guy?! I thought the whole “33 years old” thing was a clumsy and unnecessary reference to the Superman/Jesus parallel, but I don’t even think teen Jesus would be that petulant.

6. Golanitis

I’m quite proud of this one, actually. “Golanitis” is a term I have invented (unless the internet did it eight years ago in which case I’m sorry). The “Golan” is a combination of Christopher Nolan (also his brother Jonathan when applicable) and David S. Goyer, the men behind the Dark Knight trilogy. “Golanitis” is a condition the characters in their movies suffer from. It renders them incapable of saying anything in a short, simple, or even remotely understandable way. Instead they have no choice but to deliver stilted, melodramatic, and pretentious yet endlessly quotable dialogue that:

A) Awkwardly telegraphs huge plot points.

B) Reminds the audience that the movie does indeed have a theme, and is indeed serious and important because Hans Zimmer’s score is getting louder.

C) Is initially intended to answer a question or make a point, but instead devolves into a long story or symbolism-heavy speech that ultimately does neither.

D) Makes a great Facebook status because it sounds deceptively profound; bonus points if it can be used out of context in support of a political, religious, or personal agenda.

E) All of the above.

See, it’s easy to use superheroes (especially Superman, given his Christ-like attributes) to stage a morality play. That’s not inherently bad. But when you focus on having a big, important, serious, thematic motion picture epic without focusing first and foremost on, say, character development (or simply having a good movie with a smart plot), well, you’ll feel obliged to fill your movie with trite, hackneyed sayings that don’t sound like real people talking to one another about important things; instead, they sound like somebody reading off the inventory at a motivational poster factory. If you want a perfect example of how a superhero film avoided this trap despite having an inherently silly premise and requiring a massive suspension of disbelief, watch The Avengers. Joss Whedon knows how people talk, how to let a story’s themes speak for themselves, and how to give a colorful and absurd popcorn flick something it MUST have in order to matter: subtlety and genuineness.

ON THE PLUS SIDE/IN CONCLUSION

Now for some positive things about the movie. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I appreciated the acting talents of Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, and Christopher Meloni. Even though the idea of the Nolan boys and David S. Goyer controlling the DC Cinematic Universe makes me anxious, I’m happy that Man of Steel takes place in a shared universe. I enjoyed the church scene. I liked the overall idea of Superman and humanity earning one another’s trust. Lois Lane knowing who Clark Kent is almost from the beginning is a good change. All of these things make me hopeful for the future of DC movies. We’ll get there eventually.

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Remake This: Jonah Hex (2010)

Oh, this hurts to look at.

Josh Brolin. John Malkovich. Michael Fassbender. Michael Shannon. Aiden Quinn. Upon reading those names, one could be justified in assuming that I just listed the cast of a well-acted, award-winning film. If you just made that assumption, I apologize for misleading you, because Jonah Hex is not that type of movie. It’s more of the joyless, grating, incredibly stupid, heartbreakingly disappointing type of movie. The tragedy? It totally didn’t have to be. Let’s talk about the sad, sad, tale of a great comic book antihero and the terrible movie he didn’t deserve.

SOME HISTORY ABOUT THE CHARACTER

I own this issue. It’s lovely.

Jonah Hex, created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, is a beloved and very unique DC Comics character from the 1970’s. At the same time that the Western genre of film was transitioning to its revisionist period (Jeremiah JohnsonLittle Big ManThe Outlaw Josey Wales, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller all came out during the 70’s), Western comic books were also following the trend and becoming more violent, cynical, and melancholy.

Introduced in the pages of All-Star Western before landing a starring role in Weird Western Tales and eventually his own eponymous title, Jonah Hex was a rough character. He was raised by Apaches, he fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and he unintentionally got his fellow soldiers killed when he tried to surrender to Union forces. Later, half of his face was hideously scarred in a duel to the death with an Apache warrior. These experiences hardened Hex into a cynical loner, and he became a ruthless bounty hunter. And yet he often tried to do right by good people when he came across them, which usually ended up causing more suffering for everybody. Hex was on the run from his past and he didn’t much care for his future; he was just trying to make an honest day’s living by killing people who deserved it. Like a lot of revisionist Western fiction, Jonah Hex defied the traditional American view of the Old West as a heroic place full of noble, hard-working men embodied simpler, purer times. If you’ve seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, this description might remind you a bit of that movie, but interestingly enough, Jonah Hex first debuted in 1972…four years before Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece! I’m not saying that Hex was the inspiration for it, but it IS an intriguing idea, yes?

Anyways, Hex has continued to be a favorite among comic readers. His original title was cancelled in 1985, but he starred in a very strange series (simply titled Hex) that had him time-travel to a post-apocalyptic future and fight zombies; in my opinion, it’s worth a read just for the weirdness. In the 90’s, he starred in several miniseries that followed the precedent set by Hex and combined Western and supernatural/horror themes (In one such miniseries, called “Riders of the Worm and Such,” the creators parodied two famous albino musicians, which led to a lawsuit and…oh, just look it up here if you want the details. This is getting too weird). In 2005, a new critically-acclaimed Jonah Hex series was started, and it introduced a lot of new fans to the character. When DC cancelled all of their titles for The New 52, they brought back the old All-Star Western series, which stars Hex. Even though he didn’t regularly interact with DC’s modern-day superheroes, Hex has appeared through flashbacks and time-travel in the original Batman cartoon, as well as Justice League UnlimitedBatman: The Brave and the Bold, and his own DC Showcase short film (I believe it was included with the DVD of Batman: Under the Red Hood). So there you have it. Comic fans love him. Western and action film buffs SHOULD love him. Sounds like a good idea for a movie, right?

WHAT HAPPENED?

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’m not a stickler for accuracy when it comes to big-screen comic book adaptations, and I stand by that. The source material is a good jumping-off point, but if you can tell a good story and retain the essence of the characters without aping other people’s work, you totally should. That being said, if you miss the point of what makes your protagonist special, you are in trouble (and so is your audience).

When I heard there was going to be a Jonah Hex movie, I thought “Awesome!” They’ll probably use the original adventures from the 70’s and 80’s as a reference and get the Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti from the current series as creative consultants! Maybe they’ll even write the script! It’ll be a great throwback to Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and maybe it’ll even rescusitate the genre!” Then I heard that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the geniuses behind the Crank series and the abysmal sequel to Ghost Rider (not a very high standard to meet, guys), were going to writing the script, and I got nervous. If the Jonah Hex movie was going to be an introspective character study or a redemption story or have any legitimately dramatic scenes whatsoever, why on earth hire the guys behind this? And then the director was announced. James Mangold? Nope. Michael Mann? Huh-uh. William Friedkin? Of course not! Then who? Why, Jimmy Hayward, of course. You know, the guy who directed Horton Hears a Who? You know, because nothing goes together like this:

And this:

I tried to stay positive. Tried to trick myself into believing that Jonah Hex would be a decent film. I mean, the cast list looked great (with the exception of Megan Fox, but she was playing a prostitute, so maybe it would work!). But then the movie poster you see at the top of this page was released. What? Well…Josh Brolin and Michael Shannon wouldn’t do this to themselves unless it was a good career move, right? And then…the trailer. Oh, the trailer:

Yeah, it was hard to stay optimistic after that. Anachronistic rock music. Ridiculous gadgets. Wretched and unnecessary special effects. I don’t know why the studio listened to Hayward, Neveldine, and Taylor when they insisted on completely ignoring the source material and getting their inspiration from The Wild Wild West movie instead of The Outlaw Josey Wales, but we all suffered for it. As a loyal DC Comics fan, of course I saw it in theaters, and of course I was shattered. It was awful, a “comic book movie” in the worst way: light on plot, heavy on loud, dumb action scenes. In the next few sections, I’ll break Jonah Hex down and tell you what I did and didn’t like. Rest assured, that first section won’t be long.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Some of the actors do a good job. Josh Brolin really swings for the fences. He and Michael Fassbender are in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns in a nice, understated performance in a cameo as Hex’s now-deceased best friend. Will Arnett plays it straight as a military man who recruits Hex to save Washington D.C., and somehow he works as a buttoned-down authority figure. I can’t even comment on whether or not Michael Shannon did a good job, because he wasn’t in the movie long enough for me to tell.

2. Jonah Hex’s origin is updated nicely. In the comics, it takes a long time to find out how Hex came to be the man he is. It’s a good story, but it would take a lot of time to squeeze it into a movie. But I have to say that, for the most part, the version that Neveldine and Taylor went with isn’t too shabby. It’s just streamlined: Hex, tiring of constant fighting, realizes that his unit’s guerrilla tactics are getting out of control, so in order to save lives he switches sides and stops them. His best friend Jeb Turnbull is killed, and his commanding officer Quentin Turnbull (also Jeb’s father) goes nutty, escapes capture, and vows revenge. Years later, he find Hex, kills his family, and brands the initials “QT” on his face. Hex refuses to look at those letters every time he sees his reflection, so he uses a heated ax to burn them away, severely disfiguring the right side of his face in the process. It’s a good origin: it stays true to the spirit of the character, keeps the essentials, and discards the extraneous details. Unfortunately, things immediately go off the rails after that, but I’ll elaborate in the next section.

3. Megan Fox is pretty. She doesn’t really do a good job in this movie; her accent is quite annoying, to be honest. Her character contributes very little to the plot. But she is very pretty, that I will grant you.

Horrifyingly tight corset notwithstanding. Jeez….

WHAT NEEDS TO NOT BE IN THE NEXT (HYPOTHETICAL) JONAH HEX MOVIE

Rather than simply list things I didn’t like about Jonah Hex, I will also elaborate on why I didn’t like them and what I WOULD like to see. After this movie came out, I immediately added it to my “Movies to Make/Remake/Reboot in the Unlikely Event that I Come Into Money” list. So here’s my list of mistakes in Jonah Hex and how they can be avoided:

1. Use your cast better. As I mentioned, Josh Brolin, Will Arnett, Michael Fassbender, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are good in this movie. But Aiden Quinn is totally wasted as a boring President Grant and John Malkovich is phoning in his performance from at least three states away at any given time. Megan Fox is about what you would expect. The biggest waste of all is Michael Shannon. Yes, Michael Shannon is in this movie. The academy award-nominated star of Revolutionary RoadBoardwalk EmpireTake Shelter, and the upcoming Man of Steel. One of the most intense and interesting actors currently working in Hollywood. It was first announced that he would play Doc Cross Williams, the voodoo-practicing owner of a sinister travelling circus in Jonah Hex, and that he would be a secondary antagonist (Cross Williams was originally introduced in the 90’s in a spooky Jonah Hex miniseries called “Two-Gun Mojo”).

When the movie came out, Hex did visit a travelling circus, but guess what? Michael Shannon gets MAYBE three seconds of screen time! WHAT?! Well, it turns out that Neveldine and Taylor wanted to use his character in sequels, so they got Hayward to cut out his scenes. Yes, that’s right: those two coked-out morons were so arrogant that they decided to save their best actor for sequels that weren’t even guaranteed. Hey guys, you know what MIGHT have been a good way to get the studio to commit to a sequel? A MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE BY AN ACADEMY-AWARD NOMINATED CHARACTER ACTOR! The lesson to be learned here is simple: make good casting choices and be certain you have a director who knows how to get good performances out of them. Oh, and USE FAMOUS ACTORS IF THEY’RE ALREADY CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO WORK FOR YOU!

2. Don’t complicate things with bizarre unexplained bad CGI  magic. There’s no magic in the original Jonah Hex stories. The 80’s and 90’s set a precedent for that sort of thing, so I don’t think it can be said that the filmmakers behind the movie ignored the source material, but they made a very odd choice in deciding to give Hex the power to communicate with the dead. Right after his origin is laid out in the first few minutes of the movie, it’s explained that Hex was rescued from certain death by Indians and nursed back to health, but apparently because he had been “on the other side” for too long, he gained the ability to touch dead people and bring them back to life, but only for a few minutes before they turn into ashes, and the longer they’ve been dead, the longer it takes for them to turn into ashes because they’ve been….never mind. But trust me, it’s confusing, it doesn’t fit the tone of the movie, especially since the villain is the non-mystical Quentin Turnbull and he’s using a big cannon that isn’t magic at all. Necromancer Hex feels unnecessary. Worse than that, it feels like a cheap excuse for Neveldine and Taylor to throw in some EXTREME special effects and sped-up footage. It distracts from the rest of the story. Maybe if Cross Williams were the real villain and Hex actually had to fight zombies or something, but that doesn’t happen.

3. Anachronisms are not your friend. A quick word to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: Guys, I know period pieces can be intimidating (especially if you are an idiot who doesn’t want to do any actual research). However, if you are committing to a movie that is set in a specific time and place in the past and there will be people in your audience who KNOW what did and didn’t exist back then, you owe it to them to not ruin things. Maybe you think you’ll be cool and have futuristic technology and deliberate anachronisms as a stylistic statement. Well, stop thinking that. We already have The Wild Wild West to remind us NOT to do that. And if you still REALLY want to throw in some goofy stuff, you should still learn what is physically possible and at least TRY to make the suspension of disbelief a little easier for the audience. And if you really wanted to do a fun, dumb summer blockbuster that doesn’t take itself seriously, you shouldn’t have used a revisionist Western comic about a scarred, cynical bounty hunter who wears a Confederate uniform! AND…even if you STILL wanted to ignore the source material, rip off The Wild Wild West of all movies, and not bother making a movie that takes itself too seriously, DON’T CAST JOSH BROLIN, AIDEN QUINN, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, MICHAEL SHANNON, AND TELL THEM ALL TO PLAY IT STRAIGHT!

I know Neveldine and Taylor have their defenders but…c’mon. Look at them.

Speaking of the source material, here’s the most important thing:

4. Understand your source material. I think that’s the biggest failure with this movie. The Jonah Hex comics are, for the most part, grounded in reality. If there was a gunfight, people would die. There were no futuristic, gimmicky weapons; when a character fired six shots from their revolver, they were out of ammo until they reloaded. No one had Gatling guns mounted on their horse or a crossbow that fired sticks of dynamite or a super-powerful magic artillery cannon that could destroy Washington all by itself (all things that are in the movie). The appeal of Jonah Hex wasn’t in the scrapes he got into: it was in how he confronted the moral dilemmas he found himself faced with, how he outwitted his opponents, and whether or not he chose to learn anything from these encounters.

Everything that happened in Hex’s original adventures, as well as his second series from the 00’s, happened in a historically accurate setting. There weren’t any super-stylized fight scenes or mammoth explosions or plots that threatened the entire nation. Hex’s most important battles were with himself. It usually bothers me when comic book movies take themselves too seriously, but in the case of Jonah Hex, I don’t think the filmmakers took their movie seriously enough. Hex ISN’T a superhero. He’s Josey Wales, Paden from Silverado, and Jeremiah Johnson all rolled into one. This was the one time, THE ONE TIME, when we really needed a comic book movie to be “realistic” and “grounded.” So if Jonah Hex ever rides onto the big screen again, I hope the folks in charge do their research and focus on the man and his demons (metaphorical demons, you guys! NOT ACTUAL DEMONS!). Everything else will grow from that.

IN CONCLUSION

This movie is only three years old. If it feels like it’s been longer, it’s just because it was a huge box office bomb, making back only about a fifth of its $47 million budget, and everyone immediately forgot about it. Which, now that I think of it, is a good thing. Normally, I’d say you have to wait about five years for a reboot, and at LEAST ten for a hard remake, but for me, a reinterpretation of Jonah Hex can’t come soon enough. I know Warner Brothers won’t want to risk another flop, and I know that other DC characters have priority, but hey: it could happen, right?

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the character, I recommend any of the vintage Jonah Hex stories (many of them are collected in DC Showcase graphic novels), as well as Gray and Palmiotti’s series from 2005-2011. And of course, the latest volume of All-Star Western is only about 20 issues in right now. Check them out.

Star Trek Into Darkness: A Spoiler-Heavy Review

I think they used “Sabotage” one film too early.

I love the Star Trek franchise, although I consider myself a casual fan (not sure what the term for that is. Trekker?). When it comes to the Trek movies, I tend not to nitpick small details. The story and its themes are what’s important to me. Star Trek (2009) was about dealing with pain and loss, the uncertainty of the future, and learning to depend on others. It almost had to be about those things, since fans had to come to terms with the retirement of the original timeline. Anyways, Abrams’ first film was very good (though it had its problems), and it did what it needed to do: get Kirk in the chair, divorce itself from the rigid continuity of the original series, and rustle up some new fans. Hollywood being Hollywood, a sequel was inevitable. Four years later, Star Trek Into Darkness has warped into theaters. Is it as good as the last one? Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: no, because it’s better. What?…Why yes I WOULD like to elaborate at great lengths! Onward!

KIRK, SPOCK, AND THEIR BROMANCE

“Did they ever put this ‘Everything is gray now’ business up to a vote? I feel like they didn’t.”

It always bothered me how quickly Kirk got to command the Enterprise in the first movie. He basically from a cadet to the captain of the Federation’s flagship in a few days! It was a little rushed. But Into Darkness acknowledges that it WAS rushed. Kirk DID take command of the Enterprise too early. He depends too much on luck. He’s irrational. He exploits the loyalty of his crew. He really SHOULD spend a little more time at the Academy. People like Kirk: he’s smart, handsome, charismatic, and a risk-taker. Which is great, but those qualities allowed him to bypass the system and become responsible for a starship before he was ready. After all, it takes wisdom and experience to learn when to take risks and when to avoid them. That’s where Spock comes in.

In the first movie, Kirk and Spock spend a long time at odds with each other. Eventually, they develop mutual respect and admiration, but their inevitable friendship is only hinted at by Spock Prime. Into Darkness delivers on that promise by showing us how much one needs the other. Kirk must learn to keep his emotions in check and look at things logically. Spock has to accept his human heritage and understand that emotion is not a weakness. At the beginning of the film, Spock is willing to sacrifice himself on Nibiru so that its inhabitants can live (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), and Kirk doesn’t understand how he can accept his fate so easily. Spock, meanwhile, is the voice of reason for the vengeful Kirk after Pike dies. By the end, their positions are reversed: Kirk makes the logical decision that his life is worth the crew’s, and he sacrifices himself to save them without hesitation. Spock, moved to tears by Kirk’s death, is acting on anger when he goes after Khan moments later. Maybe some die-hard Wrath of Khan fans didn’t care for the Kirk/Spock role reversal in the final act, but I thought it was a great callback to the volcano scene. In that moment, Spock was deliberately unemotional about death, and Kirk couldn’t see the bigger picture. Neither could comprehend the other’s thought process until the whole ship and crew are threatened; Kirk is forced to start thinking like Spock, and vice versa. After the events of Into Darkness, it can truly be said that Kirk and Spock are friends, because they’ve learned from each other: they now fully understand each other’s perspective, and they’re better men for it.

VILLAINY

“Yes, Khan Noonien Singh is my birth name! Why does everyone always ask me that?!”

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably amazing as Khan/John Harrison. In the original timeline, it’s remarked that Khan is noble in his own way, and he makes a great foil for Kirk because they have many similar qualities. The same is true in this film. Khan is a cunning and savage fighter, and he has no use for rules or limitations. In that way, he’s very much like Kirk, just distorted to the extreme. Indeed, both men are aggressive, determined, and fiercely protective of their people, but Khan is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, damn the consequences; Kirk has to learn the danger of that kind of attitude.

I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that Nero from Star Trek (2009) wasn’t a particularly compelling villain, but thanks to great writing and an intense, nuanced performance from Cumberbatch, we don’t have that problem here. Interestingly, in his first appearance on the original Star Trek show, Khan was initially going to be a big Nordic guy in order to hammer home the whole Nietzschean ubermensch concept. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cumberbatch’s casting was a clever nod to what almost was.

MAKING THE MOST OF AN ALTERNATE TIMELINE

WOO WOOOOOOO WOO WOO WOO WOO WOOOO (Imagine that noise coming from a theremin and you’ll get it)

Into Darkness makes excellent use of the alternate timeline concept established in the first film. The chain of events that brings the Enterprise into conflict with Admiral Marcus and Khan can be traced back to Nero’s attack on Vulcan and Earth. The Federation’s leadership realizes that it’s vulnerable, so it becomes more paranoid and militaristic, aggressively exploring as much space as possible. They find Khan (Presumably aboard the Botany Bay), realize who he is, and exploit his strategic genius in order to prepare for inevitable conflicts with the Klingons and other threats. It’s an interesting idea that Khan, despite being from the past, would have a better understanding of weapons than people living in the more peaceful 23rd century. We can also see less obvious signs that Starfleet has become more militaristic: the uniforms are darker, more official looking, and certainly not what we would expect from benign explorers (whether they were meant to or not, they reminded me of the Soviets). At any rate, the story manages to address 21st century terrorism and our responses to it without appearing heavy-handed, not an easy accomplishment.

I saw Into Darkness with a friend who had seen the 2009 movie and nothing else from the Star Trek franchise. He also thought it was great, and I believe that’s evidence enough that Abrams has succeeded at making Star Trek accessible to new audiences without alienating old fans. The references to the original timeline were enjoyable (though not too excessive), and I think it was smart of Abrams to have Into Darkness mirror The Wrath of Khan without blatantly stealing from it. In a way, it’s comforting to know that some things are MEANT to happen, regardless of the timeline we’re in.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EVERYBODY WHO ISN’T KIRK, SPOCK, OR KHAN?

Given the huge focus on Kirk and Spock’s budding bromance, the supporting cast is surprisingly well-developed. Even though he’s not in the movie for long,Bruce Greenwood’s Admiral Pike adds a lot to the story. Into Darkness confirms his status as Kirk’s surrogate father, and their scenes together are really touching; we can tell that they genuinely care about each other. Uhura has more to do this time around, and her interactions with Spock are a little more believable. It doesn’t look like we’ll see the resurrection of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship that anchored the original films, but Karl Urban is more comfortable as McCoy this time around, and the character’s friendship with Kirk is strengthened; he also gets to participate in more of the action, which is fine by me. Scotty continues to be comic relief, but he plays a major role in the movie, demonstrates his expertise, and gets some good dramatic moments as well. Peter Weller and Alice Eve are also great as Admiral and Dr. Marcus, adding emotional heft to the Enterprisetussle with the Vengeance.

NITPICKS (OKAY, FINE…I DO HAVE A FEW)

There are some minor things I would have changed. I will now list them:

1. Sulu and Chekov have nothing to do. I wanted to see Sulu fence again and I wanted Chekov to see some combat.

2. Not enough Klingons. Especially disappointing, given their awesome redesign. Here’s hoping the next one will be about them.

3. Always nice to see Nimoy, but his cameo felt really forced and didn’t contribute much.

4. I was fine with the naked cat ladies because…well, OF COURSE they would be unclothed after spending the night at Jim Kirk’s place. But the scene with Carol Marcus changing in the shuttle was an unnecessary, blatantly obvious chunk of cheesecake trailer-bait.

5. I don’t expect anybody to agree with me on this one, and I admit it’s weird, but I REALLY like the design of the Starfleet flight suits in Into Darkness, and I kind of wish they had been the new standard uniform. It seems really unfair that the female crew members have to wear skirts all the time.

I know. I know! I KNOW, OKAY?! I DON’T KNOW WHY I LIKE THEM EITHER!

6. Okay, this isn’t actually a nitpick at all, because I loved Cumberbatch as Khan, but I can’t help but wonder how Benicio Del Toro would have done in the role if the rumors about his casting had turned out to be true. I bet he also would have been pretty amazing. Just an observation.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FRANCHISE?

Obviously, J.J. Abrams is moving on from Star Trek, which is for the best. I mean, even if he weren’t, we’d still have to wait another four years until the next movie in the series, and I REALLY don’t want to wait that long to see what happens with these Klingons! That’s where I think the series is headed, by the way (at least IT BETTER BE!). If Brad Bird were to take over like he did with Mission Impossible, I wouldn’t be too broken up about it. To be honest, I’m much more excited for the next Trek than I am for episode VII of Star Wars. But hey: here’s hoping Abrams gets better results from copying George Lucas than he did when “paying homage” to Steven Spielberg.

Iron Man 3: A Spoiler-Heavy Review

I love this poster.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

I saw Iron Man 3 last night and I loved it. I mean LOVED it. I was satisfied with Iron Man 2 (unlike plenty of other folks) but it had its flaws, and it certainly didn’t fill me with as much joy as the first Iron Man did when I saw it in theaters. But when I heard Shane Black was going to be co-writing and directing the most recent installment, I knew we were going to get something special. In case you didn’t know, Shane Black is responsible for writing the first two Lethal Weapon films, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Action Hero, and for directing Robert Downey Jr. back in 2005 in the excellent comedic noir thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which he also wrote. I’m a fan of all those movies, especially the last one I mentioned, so you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that Shane Black was writing AND directing Iron Man 3. I was not disappointed; the movie I saw last night was heartfelt, hilarious, and full of jawdropping action. I can think of very little I didn’t like about it. And because I can’t contain myself when it comes to Iron Man, I have to talk about it at length to no one in particular. For the sake of convenience, I’ll assume you’ve already seen it. Sound good?…I don’t care. HERE WE GO!

THE PLOT

The Extremis story arc from The Invicible Iron Man  comics ran from 2005-2006, and it always kind of irritated me. Despite being well-written and beautifully illustrated, there were just elements of the story I didn’t care for. I won’t go into everything that went down in the comics, but the story basically ended with Tony Stark embracing the Extremis technology in order to defeat a criminal who had been augmented with it; he integrated it into his armor and his body, so that he could operate his tech faster than thought and essentially became a living computer. I won’t pretend like my ideal of Iron Man is  more valid than other fans’, but I didn’t like that. Tony is Iron Man, but he’s still Iron Man when he isn’t wearing the armor; it doesn’t define him, or at least it shouldn’t. So of course I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to discover that Shane Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce essentially had the same notion! We’ve never seen Tony so effective without his armor, and it reminds us that he’s plenty dangerous with just the random stuff a ten-year-old kid can gather up from around the house. And, at the end of Iron Man 3, Tony decides that he’s got everything he needs to be complete and the armor had become a distraction for him, so he destroys the armor he has and removes the arc reactor from his chest (with surgery of course). Given the fact that Tony operated without any kind of life-support system for years in the comics, I don’t see any reason to think that we won’t see Tony as Iron Man again. I suppose there’s another, somewhat controversial plot element I ought to address. So I will. But first, an aside.

I’ve read every single issue of The Invincible Iron Man that exists. EVERY. SINGLE. ISSUE. Years ago, Marvel thought it would be cool to release digital versions of their comics on CD-ROM so as to be “hip.” They had one for all of their main characters, including Iron Man. I have plenty of hard copies of my favorite issues, and plenty of graphic novels, but between the 500 issues of The Invincible Iron Man on the aforementioned CD-ROM and the remaining issues I collected to fill in the gaps, I’ve read pretty much every appearance of Iron Man in the Marvel Universe. I remember watching reruns of the Iron Man animated show from the ’90s (it was terrible, but it was Iron Man). So yes, I’m quite the Iron Fan. What I’m about to say next, I don’t say lightly.

It MIGHT have something to do with this fellow.

 Are you ready? Come closer…closer……GUESS WHAT?! I DON’T LIKE THE MANDARIN! THAT’S RIGHT! Yeah, I think The Mandarin’s dated and dumb. Marvel should have let him die with the other racist stereotypes from the Cold War era. But no, he stuck around for decades afterwards, even acquiring this weird status as Iron Man’s greatest foe. I still don’t like him. He’s got magic rings (I don’t care what kind of techno-babble he uses to describe them; they might as well be magic, the way they’re shown to work), he thinks he’s a modern-day Ghengis Khan, he wants to rule the world (with the occasional variation in his plots as time goes by), he has super martial art powers, and he lives in a palace in the mountains of China. You know what all of that says to me? Meh. MEEHHHH. Even at his most sleek and modern, the Mandarin never seemed any different from Fu Manchu or Shihuan Khan from The Shadow series. I was actually thrilled when Ben Kingsley was announced as the Mandarin and he was revealed to not be Chinese. I figured that at least his motivations and personality would be different from the stuff we usually see in the comics. So when “The Mandarin” was revealed to be a besotted stage actor being manipulated by the REAL villains? YES. YES. In addition to being a remarkable ego-free performance from Sir Ben, we sidestepped all the weird awkwardness we would have gotten if The Mandarin actually was some kind of Far Eastern warlord. And, without being TOO obvious about it, Black’s decision to have unethical American businessmen be the REAL villains makes for good political commentary (and it keeps the theme we had from the last two movies with crooked executives pulling strings as well). Plus, having “The Mandarin” be an actor who was desperate for work is consistent with the theme the movie has of the best intentions and goals being twisted for unethical purposes. So no, I don’t agree with people who were disappointed with The Mandarin’s depiction in Iron Man 3, and yes I’ve read the comics, and no I don’t think he’s worth much in the comics either.

A word or two about Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, the real villain of the movie. I think he does a great job portraying a sort of anti-Tony. When Sam Rockwell played Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, it didn’t quite work. I saw what he was going for, but it rang false for me. He was never threatening in the slightest, and while I didn’t care that Hammer was altered from the comic books to be closer to Tony in age, I DID feel that he needed to keep his ruthlessness. Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 is never in control, and he’s never shown to have any deeper motivation than competing with Stark Industries for government contracts. Aldrich Killian, on the other hand, is a great character. He starts off as a brilliant, eager-to-please, nobody who has nothing but ambition. Tony’s rejection is what gives him the motivation to move forward with Extremis and reinvent himself. He wants to be like Tony in the sense that he wants the same kind of power and respect, but unlike Tony, his defining moment as a scientist was divorcing himself from morality and taking what he wanted regardless of the costs. At the same time, he also can’t completely divorce himself from the validation he craved as a nobody. Which he recognizes. Guy Pearce gives Killian the charisma, confidence, and borderline lunacy that makes him a perfect dark mirror for Tony.

Oh, and I don’t know if this was controversial for anyone, but I also should mention that I don’t care if Rhodey is in the Iron Patriot armor. I know Norman Osborne was in the Iron Patriot armor. Who cares? If I were the United States government and I had access to mobile weapons platform, OF COURSE I’d call it Iron Patriot and not War Machine! Especially after the events of Iron Man 2. I didn’t care for the Iron Patriot armor in the comics, or much of the Dark Reign saga either, for that matter, so I prefer to see the Iron Patriot armor in something I DO like.

I really like how Tony’s relationship with Pepper is shown to be deep but not untroubled. Clearly they’re meant to be together, but also to fight a lot, too. And Pepper finally gets to wear the armor for a bit AND kick some tail in the finale! You’ll notice, she’s never not instrumental in saving the day at the end of an Iron Man movie. Incidentally, how does Gwyneth Paltrow get progressively MORE glamorous with every one of these movies she’s in?! Really, how?! WHAT IS YOUR SECRET GWYNETH PALTROW??!!

THE ACTION

What to say about the action except that it was breathtaking? I was worried that the final fight with all the armors vs. the Extremis operatives was going to be boring and repetitive, but man was I wrong. The plane crash scene was fantastic (I applauded), and as I mentioned before, I loved seeing Tony in action without depending solely on his suit. Black was able to combine really well-choreographed action set pieces with expertly timed humor, and it works wonders on film. I really hope this isn’t Black’s only foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Speaking of…

THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

As promised, Iron Man 3 is not a tie-in to any larger story. That was one of my biggest problems with Iron Man 2, so I’m glad they learned their lesson. Not that the events of The Avengers weren’t referenced; in fact, it was really cool of Black and Pearce to make Tony’s PTSD from his near-death experience in that movie serve as his motivation in this one. The reason Tony can’t sleep, can’t stop building armors, can’t stop improving his techonology is that his technology almost failed him in New York that day; it’s got to be better. And he has to deal with The Mandarin and the Extremis operatives by himself because he needs to believe that he can still cut it, not just as a superhero, but as a scientist. Seriously, Shane Black and Drew Pearce are real champs. I wish them success. I have to say, though, I would have preferred a post-credits scene that was a little juicier. Maybe there isn’t enough out there to work with yet. But hey, there’s always the next Thor movie.

Remake This: Krull (1983)

In the wake of the original Star Wars trilogy, the late ’70s and early ’80s saw a wave of movies attempting to cash in on the public’s renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy. On the plus side, we got a revitalized Star Trek franchise. But then, we also got Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, so…yeah, mixed bag. See, the vast majority of movies inspired by the success of Star Wars were pretty…um, uninspired. And most of the ones that did turn out well, like The Last Starfighter, weren’t exactly original. But there were a few such films that stood out, and one in particular that (in my opinion) REALLY stood out. I am of course referring to the awesome Sci Fi/Fantasy mashup that is….KRULL!

What is Krull?

Good question. Krull is a movie set on a distant planet (also named Krull) that exists in an unknown galaxy. I know what you’re thinking. “A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away? How original.” And perhaps you’d be right, if Krull were a desert planet, or one with futuristic technology. But it’s not. Its people use swords; they live in castles and cottages and caves; some of them practice magic (with varying levels of success, but more on that anon). Yeah, that’s right: Krull is a world of high fantasy. At least until…

The Story:

Here’s where things get kooky. Remember how I said Sci Fi/Fantasy, not just Fantasy? Well that’s because, as the movie starts, Krull gets invaded. By aliens. A giant telepathic shapeshifting alien known as The Beast. His ship, a monstrosity called The Black Fortress, touches down on Krull’s surface and disgorges an army of laser-wielding shocktroopers called Slayers. They promptly lay waste to the countryside. Naturally, an army of technologically advanced monsters will make whatever petty quarrel your kingdom has with another kingdom seem silly by comparison; it’s time to unite. The two rulers of Krull decide to do just that. One king’s daughter marries the other king’s son, making the two kingdoms one. Apparently Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa have had the hots for each other for a while, so they’re cool with it.

But guess who isn’t cool with it? THE BEAST!!! Slayers attack the castle where the wedding is happening and kill everyone except Colwyn (they meant to, though. It would be weird if they didn’t even try, right?). They capture Lyssa and take her to The Black Fortress, so The Beast can make her his bride. Why? Well, because there is an ancient prophecy about her:  “A girl of ancient name shall become queen, she shall choose a king. Together they shall rule their world, and their son shall rule the galaxy“. The Beast wants to rule the galaxy, so he figures he’ll try the old kill-everybody-they-care-about-and-promise-them-power-on-the-off-chance-they’re-willing-to-overlook-that-whole-killing-everybody-they-care-about-thing-from-earlier trick. So he’s holding her hostage in the Black Fortress, which randomly teleports to a different part of Krull every day, and Colwyn wants her back. With the help of an old seer, a gang of oddly pleasant escaped convicts, a not-very-talented “wizard,” and a brooding cyclops, Colwyn has to find an ancient magical weapon of great power, find the Black Fortress, get inside before it vanishes, fight his way through scary foot soldiers with laserthingies, rescue Lyssa, and kill The Beast. Yeah, it’s pretty intense.

Here’s the trailer:

…Are you still there? Good. I only want people who are committed to this! Now that we’ve weeded out the nonbelievers, let me explain why that wasn’t as stupid as you thought it was.

What’s Great about the Movie:

1. The Premise. One of the things that makes Krull unique is the fact that it’s a mashup of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres. The idea that Krull is in the rough equivalent of our earth’s Middle Ages is really cool; its buildings, costumes, and weapons have a vaguely familiar medieval look about them, but they’re also exotic enough to remind us that this is another planet. It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Krull has its own unique history, traditions, and legends and myths.

2. Almost Everyone Gets a Character Arc. Seriously, this does not happen often in movies. Hell, these days we’re lucky if the main character in an action movie has any character development whatsoever. But that’s what’s so fascinating about Krull. You’ve got the main protagonist going through the basic Hero’s Journey arc, the convicts who are reluctant to help him but eventually come to care about their mission, the bungling wizard who overcomes his cowardice, the melancholy cyclops who embraces his destiny; I could keep going, but just see the movie instead of reading about it, okay?! GO!

3. The Score Is Amazing. James Horner really knocked it out of the park on this one. There’s a reason why the man’s got two Oscars under his belt (I could list all the movies he’s done, but you could just Imdb it if you’re curious, so why bother?).

4. The Writer and Director Were Clearly Passionate About Their Project. Peter Yates directed this movie. He was responsible for some of the best dramas of the late 20th century, but with Krull he was able to balance lighthearted adventure and dark fatalism perfectly. He also got the actors to take their roles seriously when it would have been easy to play it camp. As a result, the film is fun, but a little more introspective and atmospheric than other Star Wars rip-offs. I think Yates’ direction is largely responsible for that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give credit to Stanford Sherman, the writer. He wrote a lot of camp; it’s what he was most well-known for (I won’t lie and tell you all of his work is good, but I will say that Sherman’s post-Krull fantasy, The Ice Pirates, is a hilarious and self-aware parody of the genre). Maybe it’s because he had so much experience writing deliberately silly scripts that he was able to give Krull the right amount of self-awareness. Not enough to make it a comedy or parody, obviously, but enough to remind the audience that its primary goal is to entertain, and we don’t have to take it too seriously.

5. It’s Fun to See Famous Actors, Both Old and Not So Old. Like any good post-Star Wars sci-fi/fantasy, Krull features a few veteran classical actors slumming for a paycheck. But it also has a few faces modern audiences will certainly recognize:

SEE! ON THE FAR LEFT! IT’S CHARLIE BUCKET’S TEACHER! oh, and Liam Neeson too, or whatever.

5. The Set Design of the Black Fortress is Inspired. The Beast’s lair/spaceship/love nest is super trippy. The environment constantly changes, whether it’s to keep intruders out, or prisoners in. At times, it seems like the place is alive. Maybe it is.

So Why Remake It?

My philosophy for remakes is simple: you should only attempt it if you think you can tell the story of a movie  in a better or more unique way. I try to reserve judgment on remakes until I’ve seen them, because there’s a good chance that they might be just as interesting (if not more so) than the original, like the newer versions of The Italian Job or Ocean’s 11. But in order to justify a remake, the original has to have untapped potential. After all, what did the remake of Clash of the Titans do besides suck all the joy and fun out of a silly but earnest fantasy film? And did the new Fright Night really say anything that the original didn’t? With Krull, though, there is potential to expand on the story, especially since its concept (more than the actual story) is the best part. Since I just mentioned some of the great strengths the original has, let’s look at a few ways a remake could tell the story better:

Better Special Effects. The original has some great set designs, as I mentioned earlier. If they ever remake Krull, they should NOT use green screens or depend too much on CGI when practical effects will do. Some of Krull‘s greatest triumphs are in the clever application of practical effects (there’s an especially well-done scene with an evil shapeshifter that terrifies me to this day). However, there are several moments in the film where I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. The magic effects look bad, and many of Krull’s locations and wildlife aren’t nearly exotic as they ought to be. I think some creative applications of modern motion picture technology would take care of that.

2. Exploit the Setting. Some movies spend too much time with exposition. Krull doesn’t spend enough time with it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really cool to imagine what another planet would look like during its equivalent of a medieval period. What would be different about it? What wouldn’t be different? Unfortunately, in the movie, we don’t get much more than a taste. Most of the action occurrs in the wilderness, with a small group of heroes against The Beast and his Slayers. We don’t get to see the cities and villages of Krull, nor do we know why the two kingdoms were fighting one another to begin with. We can tell from conversations and quick glimpses that Krull has its own religious ceremonies, ancient myths, prophecies, holy people, and even a class hierarchy. But the movie just assumes we know all this stuff, and doesn’t bother to elaborate on it (I’d like to think that Sherman had a lot of Krull’s history and mythology figured out in an early draft of the script, but I haven’t researched it, so it may just be wishful thinking). I propose a few scenes and some dialogue here and there to make us understand Krull a little bit better, especially when it comes to the magic users we meet in the film and their past. Oh, and there should also be a ton of animals (domestic and otherwise) on Krull that are unique to that planet. They don’t have to look SUPER different, but just enough to remind us that we’re not on Earth. Finally, I think we need to see a much larger portion of the planet; different continents, different races, different climates. Even if it’s just for a brief amount of time, this establishes The Beast as a threat to the WORLD of Krull, not just the (apparently white, mostly male) kingdoms of Krull.

3. Jettison the Damsel in Distress Subplot. This one’s easy. Even though Lyssa is smarter and a little more determined than your average damsel trope, she spends the entire movie trying (halfheartedly) to escape from The Black Fortress. Except for the beginning of Act 1 and the end of Act 3, she doesn’t have much to do. So let’s not have that. Instead, at the opening of the film, let’s have Lyssa be a warrior. She’s a battle-hardened commander for her father’s army. Instead of showing her and Colwyn falling for each other off-screen, maybe they meet face-to-face in battle and almost kill each other. Over time, as their kingdoms fight again and again, they develop a grudging respect, then a friendly rivalry, then…something more. On their wedding night, almost everybody gets killed, but the two lovebirds escape, and they decide to kill The Beast. This way, instead of simply rescuing a princess, the motivation for storming the Black Fortress is revenge and security, and Lyssa and Colwyn are equals on this quest. Sure, The Beast still wants to seduce Lyssa, but that’s part of a bigger campaign of psychological warfare he’s inflicting on all of the heroes. Now we don’t see the Black Fortress (at least not from the perspective of the heroes) until the end of the movie, which increases the uncertainty and terror as the adventurers force their way in.

That’s all I would suggest. I honestly think, if these changes are implemented, everything else would fall into place.

In Conclusion…

At the time of this post, Krull is about 30 years old. Hollywood is fast running out of movies to mine for ’80s nostalgia, and I think this one is better-remembered than people realize. And hey, even if nobody remembers it, they’ll still pay to watch a movie that looks exciting enough…Right? Well, it doesn’t really matter if they remake Krull. I don’t need an excuse to wax nerdrantical about movies I like. I never have; you can ask literally anyone who knows me.

Need I reiterate that this is all opinion-based? I guess I will. It is. As you have undoubtedly discovered, I am heavily biased in the movie’s favor. HEAVILY. So there you have it. I unironically enjoy Krull a great deal and I recommend it to anyone who likes space operas, high fantasy, or both. Give it a watch and let me know how you feel about it, and whether you feel a remake is a good idea. Let me know in the comments which films you think deserve to be remade, and what you would change if you could. Feel free to stay if you want, but I’m going to get a sandwich. And no, it doesn’t matter when you read this. Odds are, I’m getting a sandwich then, too.

P.S. At the time of this posting, Krull is available, in its entirety, on Crackle. I hope it stays there for a while, but who can say? Pay attention to their description of the film; it’s accurate. And don’t listen to those Poindexters at Imdb and Rotten Tomatoes!

Why I Support The Superior Spider-Man (For Now)

Spider-Man! Spider-Man! Scary, threatening Spider-Man!

I love Spider-Man. He was the first superhero I cared about, my introduction to comic books. True, my preferences have changed a great deal since I was eight years old, but the webslinger will always hold a special place in my heart. Whether actively reading them or not, I always try to keep track of Peter Parker’s adventures. And his most recent adventure…well, it’s made some waves, hasn’t it? We’ll get to that in a bit, but first I’ll go ahead and establish my credentials:

1) The first comic I ever read was Spider-Man Unlimited #1.

2) I saw the 2002 movie adaptation the weekend it came out, and bought Peter Parker/Spider-Man #44 on the same day. It was the first comic I purchased with my own money.

3) I still have the giant poster of Spidey (as drawn by John Romita Jr.) that used to hang over my bed when I was younger.

4) One of my most prized possessions is a “Spidey Super Stories” vinyl record my grandmother gave me.

5) A few years ago, I embarked on a quest to read as many issues of Spider-Man comics as I could (legally) get my hands on. I have read issues #1-545 of The Amazing Spider-Man (with issues #546-697 I’m a little more inconsistent), and a healthy chunk of the other titles (which include the aforementioned Spider-Man Unlimited, as well as Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man and plenty of others).

Allow me to put this information in perspective. I didn’t share it in order to brag (if anything, I just proved that I’m better at wasting time than the average person). I do not pretend to be an expert in Spider-Man, or comic books in general. I certainly don’t have the time or dedication to commit  all the comics I read to memory, nor do I know enough about sequential art, psychology, philosophy or literature to claim that my opinion is somehow more valid than another fan’s. That would be extremely snobbish. No, the reason I took the time to detail a decade and a half of Spidermania is to assure you, the reader, that I “get” Peter Parker. It has been rather rudely suggested that I do not “get” him  multiple times (both in person and on the internet) since I made it known that I am actually NOT outraged by recent events in Spider-Man comics. And not only am I not outraged, but (GASP!) I think it’s a good idea?! abuhbuhbuhbuhbuhWHA?!?! Yeah, that’s right. I’ll explain myself in a bit, but first let’s take a few paragraphs to enlighten those of you who haven’t heard the Spider-news.

(I’m sure my blog is well-read internationally, so I’ve prepared a multilingual spoiler alert. Though I suppose it doesn’t help if the rest of the post isn’t multilingual. But I will NOT let the five minutes I invested in Google Translate go to waste!)

Spoilers below! Spoilers sont ci-dessous! Spoilers están abajo! Spoiler sind unten! スポイラーは以下の通りです!

If you who haven’t heard, Peter Parker is dead. Well, sort of. It all started when the Webhead’s old enemy Dr. Otto Octavius (AKA Dr. Octopus) learned he was dying. Turns out, the lab accident that turned him into a supervillain also exposed him to dangerous radiation. The radiation interfered with his body’s ability to heal injuries. After years of getting beaten up by pretty much every major superhero in the Marvel Universe, Otto’s body couldn’t handle the strain, and it was shutting down. Knowing his days were numbered, Doc Ock used one of his Octobots that had access to Spider-Man’s brain patterns from an earlier incident when……forget it. They switched minds. There. Okay? If you want to know exactly how it happened, read Amazing Spider-Man #698-700 and support the industry.

Anyways, while he has access to Peter Parker’s memories, Octavius doesn’t have any emotional connection to them. He’s got Peter Parker’s life and none of his scruples! But Peter, in Octavius’s body, is able to escape and confronts his nemesis. Unfortunately, Peter isn’t able to regain his own body before Octavius’s shuts down. In a last-ditch attempt to save his legacy, Spider-Man forces Octavius to relive all of his most profound experiences as Peter Parker. Having been deeply moved by Peter’s life of heroism and sacrifice, Octavius swears to his dying enemy that he will carry on as Spider-Man. With that, Peter (in Octavius’s body) dies, and Amazing #700 ends with Octavius vowing to use his scientific genius and Peter’s values to become…”A Superior Spider-Man.” That’s the status quo for the new ongoing series, The Superior Spider-Man.

Naturally, people were upset. Before The Amazing Spider-Man #700 was even released, the news of Spidey’s death leaked, and hardcore fans reacted with exactly the maturity and open-mindedness one would expect….Yeah, that was sarcasm. They sent death threats to the writer. A bit of an overreaction, but I understand the rage. I do. I felt much the same way in 2007 when the infamous “One More Day” story arc ruined Spider-Man for me for years. I’ll talk about “One More Day” a little bit later on, because it is relevant, but not in too much depth (mostly because this exists and it says everything there is to say about “One More Day” much better than I ever could). Suffice to say, I hate it. HATE IT.  So as I said, I understand the anger. But Superior is a horse of a different color. “One More Day” was a betrayal, not only of the reader’s trust and linear storytelling in general, but of the spirit of the character and his core philosophy (You know, “With Great Power Come Great Responsibility.”). If anything, Superior is a reaffirmation of those things, but from a much-needed fresh perspective. Here’s two reasons why I believe it needed to happen:

1) Spider-Man had become stagnant.

Before “One More Day,” Spider-Man was doing well for himself. He had a good relationship with the NYPD, a stable marriage with Mary Jane, a fullfilling day job as a teacher, and he was a member of the Avengers, the most prestigious superhero team on the planet. This was good. After all, Peter isn’t a teenager or an aimless twentysomething anymore. He’s an adult. He’s matured since he was an awkward sophomore in high school. Therefore, he should understand by now that “great responsibility” applies to all areas of his life, not just the part where he patrols NYC in tights. Joe Michael Straczynksi and Peter David, the writers of Amazing and Friendly Neighborhood, understood this too. In fact, it was JMS who rescued Peter from a very forced marital separation with Mary Jane and had Aunt May (finally) learn his secret identity as Spider-Man. The characters were all stronger for it. And then came Joe Quesada.

Joe Quesada, the most diabolical supervillain in the Marvel Universe

Joe Quesada, Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief in 2007, decided that Spider-Man wasn’t exciting anymore because he was married. In Quesada’s book, married people don’t deserve our attention (even if they’re superheroes) because married people are uninteresting by default (and yes, Joe Quesada is married and has a child, so I don’t know what that philosophy says about him as a person). Determined to completely destroy Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s wedded bliss as quickly and nonsensically as possible, Quesada conceived of  “One More Day.” Thanks to that poorly executed solution to a problem that didn’t need to exist, Spider-Man went back to being a single guy who lived with his Aunt and couldn’t hold down a job. You see, some writers feel the need to have Peter’s personal life be a constant nightmare of broken promises and disappointment, because that makes his suffering even more noble and it’s easier for us to figure out that being Spider-Man is such a big sacrifice for him! Because in this life, doing the right thing and being a good person should only be rewarded with PAIN AND SUFFERING!! THAT’S GOOD STORYTELLING, RIGHT??!!! @#$%*&!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! aldhgkldaghdklghklasghklh…..

…Sorry about that. I had a rage-induced stroke.

By magically erasing twenty years of character development, Marvel compromised Spider-Man’s credibility. Stories about Peter struggling to make ends meet, find love, and balance work with superheroics just didn’t cut it anymore. Not for me, anyways. Even when Dan Slott took over in 2011 and started putting out some good stories, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d read them before. It just seemed like Spider-Man should be done with this uncertain stage in his life by now (comic book timelines are pretty fuzzy, but I figure Peter’s got to be at least 30 at this point). I know Marvel didn’t take my opinions into account when they decided to cancel Amazing and launch Superior as part of their MARVEL NOW! line. No, that was just an attempt to boost sales and compete with the buzz generated by DC’s New 52. But by cancelling Amazing, they unintentionally broke the cycle.  We don’t have to re-tread the same old storylines for another decade or two just to get back to pre-“One More Day” territory. Instead, we get to explore territory that is both familiar AND new.

2) Otto as Spider-Man provides a fresh perspective on the “great power/great responsibility” thing.

Otto Octavius having Spider-Man’s powers is a really neat idea. It’s especially interesting because, when you think about it, Otto basically IS Peter Parker. Well, minus the nurturing environment and life-changing revelation about personal responsibility. The parallels are all there: Otto and Peter are both men of science, who were rejected and tormented because of their shyness and intelligence. Both were exposed to radiation in a lab accident that unlocked their true potential and changed their lives. Both were initially driven by insecurities and unchecked egos. Their paths only truly diverge when Peter’s Uncle Ben dies as a direct result of his own selfishness. Otto never has anything like that happen, so he goes right on using his power to take what he wants and hurt anyone in his way. Still, Spider-Man and his archnemesis have more in common than either of them would prefer.

“Mr. Parker…Is that a clawed spider-gauntlet?” “SILENCE, WORM!!…I mean…no, it is not.”

Now I know that’s not a perfect comparison. It wouldn’t be too hard to poke some holes in that analysis, I have no doubt. I leave that to you, if you feel so inclined. We’ve seen over the years how Peter Parker has been shaped by his experiences and his “great power/great responsibility” creed. How will Otto react now that those things have been forced upon him? As we saw in Amazing #700, he is deeply affected by those memories, so much so that he promises to carry on the legacy of his most hated enemy. Cool! But….Otto is still a different person, with different priorities and a different upbringing (he was raised by an abusive blue collar dad and an overprotective, smothering “Science Mom.” Get it? Because “Dance Moms,” but Otto liked science and she….never mind). How might those difference affect him now that he is a “hero?” Will they affect him at all? Otto’s journey as Spider-Man raises so many questions: Are superpowers and convictions all one needs to become a hero? Will living as Peter Parker be enough to redeem a former supervillain after a lifetime of hate and violence? Can his ego handle the fact that all of his accomplishments from now on will be credited to Peter Parker and Spider-Man instead of Otto Octavius and Doctor Octopus? Will he be more responsible in his personal life than his predecessor or less so? Does he know where his mind ends and Peter’s begins? If Otto’s ruse is discovered, could Peter’s friends and family ever believe he has changed? Does he believe he has changed?

These are just some of the questions I want to see Dan Slott tackle in The Superior Spider-Man (And Chris Yost in The Avenging Spider-Man, come to think of it). Maybe he won’t answer any of them. Maybe this new direction will crash and burn. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before Peter Parker comes back to life and the cycle resumes. We’ll see. But for now, I have no reason to be anything but optimistic. If nothing else, this whole business has made me genuinely excited about Spider-Man for the first time in years. Right now that’s all I need. Excelsior!

As always, I value input; it helps me improve this blog and it keeps the conversation going.

P.S. I mentioned Peter David earlier. He’s a great writer who’s done splendid work for both Marvel and DC. Over the holidays, Mr. David suffered a stroke. He’s recovering, but it will be a slow and expensive process. Here’s a link to his website, which explains how you can support him and his family while still fulfilling your comic book/science fiction/fantasy needs. 

Let’s Talk About Sex. And Aquaman. Okay Fine, Just Aquaman.

Aquaman, AKA Arthur Curry AKA Orin of Atlantis, is a DC comics character. He rules the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. He was a founding member of the Justice League of America. And for some reason, most people, comic book fans or not, consider him a joke.

I would be hard-pressed to name a superhero who has received more undeserved ridicule than Aquaman. Yes, I said “undeserved.” Because Aquaman is awesome. In fact, Aquaman is one of the most consistently entertaining comic book characters in existence. If you agree with what I just said, bless you. Congratulations, you’re one of the enlightened few. You don’t have to keep reading this. Go have a celebratory Filet-O-Fish and know that I love you. But, if you don’t agree, or more likely you don’t have an opinion one way or the other, allow me to attempt to change your mind. I’m like 98.7% sure I can. So, let’s dive in (heh):

Why People Think Aquaman is Lame:

Short answer? Super Friends. See, the Super Friends cartoon did NOT treat Aquaman right. Unless the adventures of the team involved a water situation, he didn’t get to do anything. Virtually the only power we ever got to see him use was his power to communicate with fish, which he didn’t use very creatively. Often we’d see him riding a giant seahorse when travelling underwater, which is pretty difficult to do while retaining your dignity. So yeah, Aquaman as he appeared in Super Friends was kind of lame. Since that was the only exposure to the character that most non-comic book readers had, that was how they remembered him: as a grinning idiot on a giant seahorse who was completely useless on land.

Of course there are some who haven’t watched a single episode of Super Friends and still don’t think very highly of Aquaman. That’s probably because the value of his powers isn’t visible on the surface. Superman can fly, has heat vision, and he’s invulnerable. Batman is a brilliant detective and a master combatant. Wonder Woman is an Amazon! Aquaman…can talk to fish and he lives underwater? Um…no contest, right? It looks that way, to be sure, but let’s take a closer look at what being able to talk to fish and living underwater really means.

The Powers: 

Telepathic communication with fish might not seem like the coolest of metahuman abilities, but it isn’t just fish that Aquaman can communicate with: IT’S ALL SEA LIFE. That includes everything from microscopic bacteria to sharks to whales to prehistoric monsters unseen by human eyes. And, contrary to some of the parodies of him that you may have seen, Aquaman doesn’t just politely ask sea creatures to do his bidding, he commands them to. It’s a very powerful telepathic skill. And it doesn’t just work on sea creatures from EARTH, either. In one issue of The Justice League of America, he is able to communicate with and influence an enormous telepathic space parasite that bore some resemblance to a giant starfish. Any creature that came from a marine environment is vulnerable to his telepathy (and hey, if humans evolved from creatures that once lived in the sea…well…).

Now, let’s turn a critical eye to the rest of Aquaman’s powers as well. What kind of advantages would a person whose body has adapted to living underwater possess? First, you’ve got the constant crushing pressure from the ocean. Therefore, his body has adapted to these pressures. He can also swim over 10,000 feet per second. Combine that with the fact that he needs to be able to resist strong currents and extremes in temperature and you have one very tough man. On land, he’s invulnerable to machine gun fire, he can lift several tons at once, and he basically doesn’t ever need a jacket. Let’s not forget that his vision is adapted to underwater conditions, which essentially means that he can see perfectly in total darkness. Oh, and he’s been known to wield the trident of Poseidon, a magical weapon he won in a battle with Triton. So you tell me: does that sound like the kind of person you’d want to piss off?

The Attitude:

Aquaman’s had a pretty rough life, even by superhero standards. Now, I know that Super Friends and some of the older comics depicted him as a happy-go-lucky moron, but times have changed since then. Don’t believe me? Here’s a summary of the problems he’s had to deal with over the years:

1. His mom died (I think that’s canon again).

2. His dad died (I think that’s also canon again).

3. His half-brother is a supervillain who wants to kill him and/or steal his throne.

4. His arch-nemesis killed his infant son.

5. The death of his infant son caused his marriage to crumble and his wife left him.

6. His subjects are fickle and have overthrown him more than once.

7. Surface dwellers pollute his territory and steal its resources.

8. His hand got bitten off by piranhas when another supervillain stole his powers and turned them against him.

9. He once had to unite all five cities from the lost continent of Atlantis to withstand an invasion by the alien race that colonized them eons ago (admittedly it’s a long story).

10. He’s half human and half Atlantean (usually) and neither world fully accepts him.

Given all of that stuff, it’s not hard to see why Aquaman has been called “Conan the Barbarian underwater.” He was a serious-minded brooding hero long before it was in fashion. He doesn’t put up with disrespect, he doesn’t play around when his friends and family are threatened, and he doesn’t care if you like him or not. Not only that, but he’s the king of a sovereign country. Sure, he has lost the throne before, but he’s never lost it for long. Atlantis is an ancient society where magic and science have developed side-by-side; they have powerful armies with powerful weapons. Aquaman has no qualms about calling on his army when he needs it; he doesn’t have anything to prove by trying to face enemies alone. Oh, and his kingdom is recognized by the UN, which means diplomatic immunity wherever he goes. Yeah, it’s good to be the king.

So there you have it: Aquaman’s awesome. He’s got great powers, a unique personality, and a lot of other cool stuff going for him that you’ll have to discover for yourself. That’s it for me. Thanks for reading. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know.

P.S. If you would like to read some of the best comics starring Aquaman, I’d recommend The Atlantis ChroniclesAquaman: Time and Tide, and Aquaman vol. 5 by Peter David. They are some of my favorite comics, despite some 90’s silliness. Most of them I believe are available digitally on comixology. Additionally, Geoff Johns is doing some great stuff in the Aquaman title for DC’s New 52. Highly recommended. You can also read JLA: Year One, by Mark Waid and Justice by Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Finally, Aquaman makes some excellent guest appearances in the Warner Bros. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons.

R.I.P. Joe Kubert

Sgt. Rock and Easy Company.

The comic book world is poorer today for the loss of legendary artist Joe Kubert. You can find out the details of his life and death and contributions to the comic book industry somewhere else if you want to, but I just want to express how much the man’s art meant to me personally. If it weren’t for a huge stack of torn and yellowed issues of G.I. Combat I found almost fifteen years ago at my grandparents’ house, I doubt I would appreciate comic books as much as I do today. I’m sure the writing was excellent and complex (G.I. Combat was ahead of its time where mature storytelling was concerned), but the only thing that really matters when you’re eight is the art. It either grabs your attention and keeps it, or it doesn’t. Joe’s always did. It still does. That’s the nice thing about truly good stories: they last.

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Joe Kubert’s illustrations from these old war comics would be remembered long after they were first published. They’ve been collected into graphic novels and reprinted in comic encyclopedias many times over. More importantly, they influenced me profoundly when I was young. In the pages of G.I. Combat, they were my introduction to the world of comic books. Seeing how much I enjoyed the comics they already had, my grandparents started buying newer ones for me and my siblings. That’s how I got hooked on Spider-Man, which is why I went to see the 2002 film version the day it came out. As soon as I left the theater, I went into a bookstore and bought my first comic with my own money. Ever since then, comics have been an integral part of my life, and Joe Kubert’s art is directly responsible for that. Like I said, Joe couldn’t have known what a profound effect his work would have on my childhood decades later. But if nothing else, it brought a lot of joy into my life. I can’t think of a better legacy for a comic book illustrator. Thanks Joe.

Why I Love Superman (Part 2: Addressing Criticisms of the Character)

Last time, I discussed my views on Superman. They were very positive.  I am of the opinion that Superman is the quintessential superhero, with rich potential for consistently excellent high-concept stories. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. I see a lot of anti-Superman sentiment these days, be it on the internet or in conversation with friends. For the most part it seems to be coming from non-comic book readers rather than hardcore nerds. This is probably because they only have the Superman films and a handful of cartoons to judge him by. Now, the nicest thing I can say about Superman’s appearances in other media is that they have been a bit…um, inconsistent. Sadly, there’s been a lot more bad than good. So hey: if you’ve never read a Superman comic, but you saw Superman IV: The Quest for Peace when you were seven and you think he’s lame, I completely understand. You get a free pass. Stick around, you might enjoy finding out that you’re wrong.

But I have heard plenty of negative things about Big Blue from the other side of the aisle as well. And if you’ve been reading comics as long as I have and still think Superman is lame, or even that he’s less interesting than other superheroes: well, shame on you. Shame. You should know better. You have Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Superman: Birthright, and All-Star Superman and Kingdom Come and Must There Be a Superman? and countless other stories starring the Last Son of Krypton to serve as evidence to the contrary. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Well, no matter. In the next several paragraphs,  I’m going to examine the three most common criticisms of Superman (or at least, the three I seem to hear the most often) and do my best to explain why I don’t think they’re valid. Here we go:

1. Superman is not relatable because he has too much power. 

“I know you’re stronger, why would you even AAGGGHHH!”

This one is, without a doubt, the most popular argument I’ve heard from the anti-Superman camp. On the surface, it has merit. After all, Superman can lift mountains. He can fly faster than you can think. He can use his heat vision to put a crater in the moon while he’s sitting on the Kents’ front porch. How can a character who can do all of those things possibly be as relatable to young people as, say, Batman, who uses only his wits and skills to fight crime? In fact, no superhero can come close to matching Superman in terms of power. So how can a character who’s virtually all-powerful and indestructible be relatable to readers?

Well, here’s your answer: Superman is plenty relatable. It doesn’t matter how powerful he is or how often he wins. See, people in the comic book world toss around the word “relatable” a lot. A lot. It’s like a mantra to them. But to me, the word has lost its true meaning over the years. A character being relatable doesn’t mean that their circumstances resemble yours. No, a relatable character is one whose behavior is realistic and nothing more. If you, the reader, can understand why a character does what he does, mission accomplished. You can relate to them. You don’t have to agree with their actions, nor do they even have to be the actions you would have taken in the same situation. As long as the writer has clearly explained them to you and you think to yourself  “Yeah, that makes sense,” then congratulations; you’ve just related to a fictional character. Have you ever met someone who, despite their flaws, is smart, responsible, thoughtful, kindhearted, and selfless? I know I have. Well, go read a Superman comic. If it’s a good one, you’ll be able to relate to Superman because you know that there are people with similar qualities who might do the same thing if they were in his position. Pretty cool, huh?

Before I move on, I just want to bring one thing up. Even if you believe that a superhero’s life circumstances do play a part in making them relatable, consider this: taking away the elements in their lives that require suspension of disbelief, Clark Kent’s existence is probably much closer to yours than Bruce Wayne’s. After all, Clark had a relatively normal childhood, works a regular 9:00-5:00 job (one he’s probably stressed about losing since nobody reads newspapers anymore), he’s married, he lives in a modest apartment that costs more than it should because it’s in the big city, and his co-workers take advantage of him because he’s a nice guy. Bruce Wayne was raised by his butler, travels the world, drives a luxury automobile, lives in a mansion, runs a billion dollar company, and attends or hosts charity balls and parties all the time. Which one of these two men has a life that’s closer to yours, hmmm?

2. There is no tension in Superman stories because he doesn’t have enough weaknesses.

“And magic! It, uh, it turns your kids into demon worshipers! Yeah…”

 I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. Hell, you might have even used it yourself. Superman’s only real weakness is Kryptonite (well, that and magic, but it’s mostly comic book nerds who know that). If the baddie is going to be a real threat, he’s got to have Kryptonite, right? That’s got to get boring after a while, right? And if he doesn’t have Kryptonite, the fight’s over before it starts, right? And okay, if magic counts too, that’s only one other kind of villain Superman can fight who might be able to threaten him. Batman and Spider-Man have to worry about dying in a thousand different ways on their adventures. That gives them tension and drama that Superman just can’t have, because as much as he might pretend to the contrary, he’s immortal!

I have several responses to this argument, which might actually be the easiest one to address. First, a truly creative writer can give his villain plenty of ways to take down Superman without using Kryptonite or magic. There are plenty of examples to draw from, but I won’t go into detail here (red solar energy, sensory overload, distraction from the real target, cutting off oxygen, mind control, etc.). Second, it’s truly sad if the only thing that makes our heroes interesting is how easily they can be killed. I’m all for comics having serious themes, but an obsession with the mortality of the characters appearing in them damages their escapist element to a degree I’m just not comfortable with. Third, Superman’s conflict with villains is not where the tension comes from (or at least, it shouldn’t be). It’s on a bigger scale than that.

I talked about this a little bit in my last blog post, but it’s worth restating. Superman has the power to remove a great deal of suffering from the earth. He could disarm every country with nukes. He could unseat dictators. He could alter the landscape of nations in order to put more space between warring people groups. With the technology he has access to at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman could probably fix most of the world’s problems.

But he can’t. Well, he won’t. He has too much respect for free will to do that. Superman always worries about whether he’s doing too much already. What if his attempts to help earth are actually keeping its people from realizing their own potential? What if they become so dependent on him that they won’t know how to solve problems on their own? In fact, that’s one of the reasons that Lex Luthor, Superman’s archnemesis, hates him so much. He worries that the Man of Tomorrow might someday try to use his power and resources to rule the world in order to save it. Admittedly, Lex doesn’t exactly have the planet’s best interests at heart, but he’s got a point. Superman could rule the world if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s too responsible and too humble to presume that he knows what’s best for everyone. And he’s too concerned that he’s already limiting the natural development of earth and its cultures. That’s where the tension in Superman stories comes from. It comes from Superman’s mission to inspire change, not force it. If you’re American, you might find that conflict especially relevant today. Understand that when you read Superman comics from now on, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy them more.

3. Superman’s Clark Kent disguise is dumb.

“But, I’m mild-mannered! Superman’s not mild-mannered!”

 I almost didn’t include this one because it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the other arguments I’ve mentioned, and it is also quite easy to address. So real quick, here we go: no, glasses and a different hairstyle are not a good enough disguise to fool so many people. But that’s not the most important part of Superman’s disguise. It’s about muscle control, practiced mannerisms, body language, a different voice, baggier clothing, and an overall attitude. Keeping in mind the fact that the Clark Kent disguise was developed by Siegel and Shuster before TV or decent quality photographs, and there you are. If you want, watch the scene in the first Superman movie where Clark switches personas back and forth while trying to decide whether to tell Lois the truth about Superman and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

Now, I know there are other, more specific complaints about Superman that you may have. But, if you think about them carefully, you’ll see that they probably can fit under the umbrella of the three broader issues I listed above. If not, let me know. We’ll talk. As always, this was an opinion piece. If you disagree, I understand. I’m just trying to give some love to an icon who deserves it. Superman is still relevant, you guys. Maybe now more than ever. I hope this helped if you doubt that.

Why I Love Superman (Part 1: How I See Him)

I watched The Dark Knight Rises this past weekend. It was great (EDIT: Having seen TDKR multiple times since, “great” is not the word I’d use now. Impressive, perhaps. Maybe even entertaining. But “great” is giving it too much credit). One of the previews we got to see before the movie was a minute and a half teaser for The Man Of Steel, Zach Snyder’s Superman movie. Since the movie won’t be released until next summer, there obviously wasn’t much interesting footage. What little I did see disturbed me, though. Right from the beginning, the logos for DC comics and the production studios were displayed in the same black and gray as they were before The Dark Knight Rises. Then we see gray overcast skies and a depressed, bearded Clark Kent working as….a fisherman I guess. Then we hear Kevin Costner give a voiceover about how Clark has to decide what kind of man he will be. Then a reeeeallly short clip of Superman flying, and that’s it.

Like I said, they probably don’t have much footage to work with at this point, and certainly not enough for me to make a definitive statement about the quality of the movie. But, until I see evidence to the contrary, I now have no reason not to assume that this new Superman film will be grim and full of angst (similar to what Tim Burton was planning to with the character for his failed Superman Lives film). And that’s too bad. Because I love Superman, and I don’t want to see his character altered to reflect the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe that is what most moviegoers want to see. Maybe they want all of their heroes to be flawed and unstable and perpetually brooding. Because that’s the only way they can be “interesting”, right? Well, I don’t think so.

Apparently Superman killed Mystique and wears her skin as a trophy.

You see, I love Superman. I’ve always loved him, and I always will. Not so much for what he can do (which is admittedly awesome) but for what he represents: our potential. I don’t mean flying and invulnerability and heat vision. No, I mean our potential as a species to become better people. Someday maybe we can also be selfless, compassionate, and noble. Those are the characteristics of Superman I most admire. I’m less interested in the Man of Steel than I am in the Man of Tomorrow. To me, Superman symbolizes everything that is good about us. He is all of our best qualities externalized. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

We don’t like being reminded that most of the time we aren’t living up to our potential. We want heroes who are like us instead of heroes who are what we could be. We’d rather have a hero who is motivated by negative emotions and a tragic past, who copes with his issues instead of trying to overcome them. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those kinds of characters, it’s true. But I don’t believe we should be content merely with heroes that cope. We need heroes who learn from mistakes (whether their own or others’) and move past them, heroes who grow and change with time. We need heroes who do what they do to help people, not to make themselves feel better. Superman is a hero for all of the right reasons, and he is a hero in all the right ways. So how should movies depict Superman? How should comics be depicting Superman? Well, here’s my take:

When I think of the Man of Tomorrow, I think of him as being the synthesis of two of my favorite fictional characters (maybe these choices will seem a bit random to you, but I grew up watching both of these guys on a regular basis, so I can’t help jumping right to them). The first of these is James McKay, the main character of William Wyler’s 1958 western film, The Big Country. He is a retired sea captain who moves west with his fiancee, only to discover that everyone there, including said fiancee, expects him to constantly prove his manhood in public displays. But McKay has sworn off this foolish behavior. His father died years before in a pointless duel of honor and he doesn’t want anyone to go down that same path. He has a quiet determination, he’d rather talk than fight (but fight he does when he finds it necessary), he shows mercy when he has the chance to kill his enemies, and he tries to broker a peace between two warring families of ranchers.

Movie posters used to be WAY cooler.

I’d highly recommend you watch The Big Country if you want to know more about the movie. It really is a gem. The thing that stood out to me the most, even as a child, was how cool McKay was. He’s not a western hero in the traditional sense, but that’s the point. His conduct throughout the movie essentially shows the audience that traditional western heroes aren’t really that admirable. Far more admirable is a man who wants to solve problems with words rather than guns. He doesn’t show favoritism to either side, providing solutions to their problems and pointing out their foolishness when they need to hear it the most. By the end of the movie, McKay’s actions and his sincerity have convinced many of these antagonistic ranchers to hear the wisdom in his words. Some of them don’t, or at least, they don’t care. But that’s the way it always is, right? (Psst! That applies to Superman!)

The second fictional character I see in Superman is Jean-Luc Picard, my favorite captain of the Enterprise. While James T. Kirk is certainly an awesome dude, I have to say that Picard really lives out the creed of Starfleet and The Federation of Planets the best. It’s pointed out more in Star Trek: The Next Generation than any other Trek show that Starfleet is not a military organization. The crew of the Enterprise are primarily explorers, ambassadors, and relief workers. Occasionally they do have to fight battles, but it is always as a last resort, when there are no acceptable alternatives. Picard, more so than Kirk, really exemplifies those principles.  He has some flaws, of course, but that just reminds us that humanity can always improve, even in the enlightened era of the 24th century.

“Make it so.”

One thing I want to specifically mention is how Picard interacts with less advanced cultures. Starfleets’s number one rule is called the Prime Directive, which forbids interference with the development of alien cultures. While he sometimes interprets the Prime Directive a bit loosely as the situations dictate, Picard upholds the spirit of it at all times. He understands that some worlds are just not ready for the kind of knowledge and power he has at his disposal. Whatever choices they make, it must be them making the decision. If Picard used Starfleet’s technology to solve all of a more primitive society’s problems, they would eventually lose the motivation to solve problems for themselves. This leads to all kind of conflicts within the show, of course. When should the Prime Directive be broken, if ever? How much assistance given to a world that desperately needs it is too much? (Pssst! See how this also applies to Superman?)

I hope you could see how all this tied into Superman. But allow me to spell it out just in case I wasn’t clear enough: this is how I see Superman. Obviously there have been many writers over the years who have tried a number of different approaches to the character, and many of them have been successful. But this is the approach I feel is best suited to The Man of Steel: a fusion of James McKay’s wise outsider with quiet strength and Jean-Luc Picard’s philosophical ambassador of the future.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, and if that’s the case I apologize for wasting your time. But do me a favor: if this has piqued your curiosity even the slightest bit (whether you agree or disagree), watch The Big Country, and a few episodes of Star Trek: TNG (“First Contact”, “Who Watches the Watchers”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “Wounded”) just to get a feel for what I’m saying. If you like your Superman to be more of an action hero than a philosopher, I get that. I do. I know I used to feel the same way. If you like a darker hero, I also understand. Sometimes dark heroes do seem more interesting than “boy scouts.” This post was purely opinion. Anyways, stay tuned for part two, in which I discuss some of the criticisms of Superman and whether they stand up to scrutiny.