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.

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.

Thoughts On This Summer’s Superhero Films

This summer was very exciting for comic book fans, to say the least. The Avengers kicked it off, The Amazing Spider-Man kept it going, and The Dark Knight Rises is ending it. Now that I have seen all three, I’d like to share a few thoughts on each. What makes them different, what I liked (or didn’t like) about them, and where I’d like to see the franchises go.

1. The Avengers:

An excellent movie. Probably the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. Part of the reason was that it so completely embraced the fact that it was a superhero film with a silly premise. Joss Whedon understands that characters’ circumstances do not have to be realistic in order to make them relatable, but their behavior does. And he found a way to have each of the Avengers grow or learn something by the end of the film. And the message of flawed people putting aside their egos and grudges in order to serve the greater good is certainly inspiring.

Tom Hiddleston needs to be mentioned. He simply must be. Here is a classically trained Shakespearean actor, who manages to infuse a comic book villain with so much internal conflict and vulnerability that you can’t help but love him, even as he commits atrocities. Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor was my gold standard for supervillains on the big screen last year. Little did I know how much he was going to up the ante this time around. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

And I haven’t even mentioned the action. Oh, the action! Creatively shot, unrelenting, and fantastically choreographed. The only real complaint I have with The Avengers was that I would have liked to see a few more female members on the team. Agent Hill just seemed a bit…shoehorned in to make up the lack of girl power. Oh, and I would have liked maybe an extra scene explaining how Bruce Banner was able to start controlling the Hulk so suddenly.

As for the future, I don’t know exactly what I’d like to see. I think the Infinity Gauntlet will be happening, but it really deserves its own movie, so maybe the next Avengers flick could be on a smaller scale. Hydra resurrected? Naw, that’s probably for the next Cap movie. Ultron? As long as  they don’t have another invasion scheme, maybe. They could set him up in the Ant Man movie (WHICH WILL BE AWESOME).

2. The Amazing Spider-Man:

I figured this one might be an improvement on the original, but…wow. Almost all of the problems I had with the original trilogy were fixed by Mark Webb’s reboot. The acting is stronger from EVERYBODY. Andrew Garfield is a much more compelling Peter Parker, the story flows so smoothly, the drama is handled with much more finesse, and most important of all, Gwen Stacy is Peter’s equal rather than a damsel in distress like MJ in the other movies.

I also loved how senseless and sudden Uncle Ben’s death is. There’s not a lot of dramatic buildup, there’s not a crowd gathered, there’s no time for Uncle Ben to touch his nephew and speak to him one last time. He’s dead. And the scene is that much more raw and emotional because of it. And Peter’s way of coping with his uncle’s death makes sense to me. He won’t talk to Aunt May, even though she needs it as much as he does. Sally Field also needs singling out for her performance. Too often in the other movies, Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May was just a fragile old woman who has nothing to offer but comic relief and inapplicable advice. But Sally Field portrays a woman who is hurting, who needs comfort, who can get loud when she has to. It made a big difference to me.

Some of the action scenes are a bit weak (despite Peter’s much more tactical usage of webshooters than in the past), and not enough explanation went into the Lizard’s personality or motivations once he showed up, but these are just minor issues in an otherwise refreshing take on the character of Spider-Man.

As for the future, well…it seems we have sort of a “big bad” scenario brewing, doesn’t it? Clearly Peter hasn’t learned the truth about his parents, and clearly Norman Osborn is connected, and clearly there’s the potential for genetically enhanced henchmen to start popping up. And who was that mystery man?

3. The Dark Knight Rises:

Okay, this one’s gonna be the longest, I’m sure. I actually needed some time to even begin to properly express how much I loved this movie. It was bleak and grim, yet ultimately optimistic and uplifting. I probably wouldn’t take kids under the age of 10 to see it, because it is grim and things get worse (MUCH worse) before they get better.

There were just so many things I appreciated about this film on so many levels, from subtle references to the comic books to literary allusions to social commentary. The latter was especially well done. Whereas the last film in the series was an elaborate morality play, this one doesn’t have any firm answers. Bane and his crew want to completely destroy society as we know it. The corrupt upper-class gothamites want to exploit or at least ignore the less fortunate. Somewhere in the middle is Batman, who won’t tolerate the latter, but won’t consider the former. He tries to walk the middle path, and find a solution to the city’s problems.

And of course we also got a closer look at the complex relationship that Bruce and Alfred have. For a long time, Alfred has known that being the Batman wouldn’t end well for Bruce. He actually tells Bruce something I’ve always thought was true: that Gotham needs Bruce more than it needs Batman. Bruce is the one who needs Batman to exist. He feels it’s the only way to give meaning to his parents’ deaths. He’s addicted to the cowl, and Alfred sees it. I won’t spoil the film’s ending, but it really takes your breath away when all of their conflicts are resolved.

This wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan movie without spellbinding visual effects. This one’s got ’em all. They’re intense and uncompromising, even brutal at times. But that’s The Dark Knight trilogy for you. Now, if I had one complaint, I suppose it would be that we don’t actually see that much of Batman. Maybe that’s just because this is more Bruce Wayne’s story than Batman’s, but I would have liked to see a bit more of him in the suit. I do also have to mention that the addition of so many new characters into the series in the final installment is a little overwhelming, though I had to keep reminding myself that it had been eight years since the end of the previous film.

By the way, when I said that The Avengers was the best superhero movie ever made, I meant it. I don’t really consider Nolan’s Batman to be a superhero. He’s certainly a mythic, melodramatic figure, but the tone of these movies as well as the consistent attempts at realism just make it unable for me to put them in quite the same category. If you asked me which movie I liked better, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, I don’t think I could give you an answer. They’re apples and oranges. One’s a Speilberg and the other’s a Coppola.

I don’t think Nolan’s Batman has a future. I won’t spoil anything, but a future’s just not there. If there is a reboot to prepare for a Justice League movie, I think it’s time for things to go a bit more lighthearted for the caped crusader. There are plenty of good stories to tell with Batman. And there are lots of Batman villains I really want to see on film that just wouldn’t have worked with Nolan’s approach. I have no reason to not be optimistic about the future of the Batman franchise.

Anyways, that’s it for me. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Alan Scott, The Original Green Lantern, Is Gay. Um…So What?

A friend of my brother’s who knows next to nothing about comics approached me today and asked “Have you heard they’re making the Green Lantern gay?!” At once I knew that he hadn’t heard the whole story. It’s true that all of the news articles reporting on DC Comics’ big announcement featured similar headlines–“Green Lantern Gay!”–but those headlines were a tad misleading. For those who don’t know this already, They are not making the Green Lantern gay. They are making a Green Lantern gay. See, there are five superheroes who use the name “Green Lantern”, and Alan Scott is probably the least well known. He was the first Green Lantern, but he has nothing to do with the space cops who use the same title. His ring is magic, not science. The character first appeared in 1940, disappeared in the 50’s, and came out of retirement to be a superhero once more. Since DC rebooted all of their titles last year, he has returned in the comic Earth 2 as a member of the Justice Society of America (JSA), an alternate reality version of the Justice League. And he is gay now.

There are a few different reactions I’ve witnessed since the story broke, and they intrigue me. There are people like the aforementioned acquaintance who don’t know the comics and don’t have all the facts. They are under the impression that one of DC’s most iconic characters is now a homosexual, which simply isn’t true. Of all the Green Lanterns, Alan Scott is the least recognizable. When I first started reading comics around 1997, Kyle Rayner was the Green Lantern. Before that, from 1958 to 1993, it was Hal Jordan. Even people whose only exposure to the Justice League was through the animated series of last decade remember John Stewart as the Green Lantern. So only a hardcore comic book fan who either read Green Lantern stories from the 40’s and 50’s or Justice Society comics in recent years will know or care about this particular Green Lantern.

Speaking of hardcore fans, I have seen some of their reaction to the news about Alan Scott’s sexuality. Most of it is muted. I should point out to those of you who are not comic readers that DC’s “New 52” (reboot) has many fans feeling apathetic about anything that happens in their titles these days. DC basically erased all the stories written about their characters in favor of trying a fresh new approach to things. It hasn’t really payed off for them in the long run. For every new reader they get, they lose an old one, and sales are basically back to where they started. That being the case, most diehard fans of Alan Scott just don’t care one way or the other, because this Alan Scott is not THEIR Alan Scott. The one they spent years reading about in JSA (seriously, you should read the graphic novel collections of JSA because they are wonderful). This Alan Scott is young and just starting out, not the battle-hardened and no-nonsense veteran mystery man who seeks to impart his wisdom into younger superheroes inspired by his legacy. All of the character development that Alan and the rest of the JSA have had since the 40’s doesn’t exist anymore, so who cares about this new version of him who already bears little resemblance to the character they love?

Now some fans do care about this news, and it’s in a positive way. They find it refreshing that a character with so much history has been reinvented as a superhero that LGBT readers can look up to. Comic book historian Alan Kistler is very pleased with the new direction, as are most of my friends who read JSA. That being said, there are those who feel this is somehow a betrayal of the character and is a horrible idea. Well, to them I would ask…why? So much about Alan Scott has already been changed. Why does this one thing matter to you? After all, it’s not like Alan’s love life was a big plot point in the old timeline (as was the case for almost all of the senior members of the JSA). I mean, sure he had kids, but one of them was gay. And yeah, he did marry one of his reformed villains, but she was largely ignored in the recent stories anyways. Besides, there have been gay characters in comics before. Alan Scott isn’t even the most high-profile one. The only reason anybody is making a big deal out of this is because he shares a codename with a more famous comic book character. Well, that and…

The people who are upset with this for religious reasons need to grow up. Seriously. You’re really going to single this one thing you find immoral as a reason to get mad at DC? Plenty of other things happen in comics that should bother you if you treated all “sins” as equal: scantily clad women, gore and violence, cursing, withcraft, sex (tons of sex), etc. Why, if you are willing to either ignore or downplay those other things, would a character who is in a stable and loving relationship with another person bother you so much more? Because it sends the wrong message to the children? Well, comics haven’t been for children since the 80’s so that argument doesn’t work. And nobody is forcing you to buy it. You think Alan Scott being gay “ruins” the character somehow? Fine. Go read any of the stories featuring not-gay Alan Scott from the seventy years prior to this announcement. You find homosexual sex disgusting (actual reason I’ve been given)? Well it’s a good thing it’s a comic and not hardcore gay porn, isn’t it? Comics are not written with the preferences and prejudices of anti-gay people in mind. They don’t care about the opinions of those kind of people. Nor should they.

To wrap up, DC doesn’t deserve your wrath if you’re truly mad about this. They are constantly trying to shake things up in a desperate attempt to get more readers. Don’t read the comic if you don’t like what’s in it. And be honest with yourself about why you’re upset. If this new development really effects the story in a negative way (and it could happen. Glee, anyone?), then get upset. But right now we have no idea where this story will take us. James Robinson is a gifted writer who has written lovely stories before, some of them even featuring gay characters. I beg you to keep an open mind in this regard. Please give  Earth 2 a chance. And if you don’t read comics, please understand that this is not a bad thing, nor should it change your opinion of the Green Lantern in any way.