Monthly Archives: October 2018

A New Origin

Captain Marvel’s new series, The Life of Captain Marvel, sees Carol taking some time to reassess. In the aftermath of infighting with Tony Stark and some other less than great events, she goes to her family’s summer home in Maine to spend some time with her mom and injured brother. There’s a lot of self-reflection, some reveals of family secrets… and a Kree hunter after, presumably, Carol. Because who else?

The Kree hunter closes in on the Danvers house and prepares to wreak havoc. Carol steels herself for a fight, only for her mother to reveal that the hunter is here for her. Turns out her mother is a Kree warrior, who for years has been living a quiet life on Earth. And she has superpowers.

As the next issue reveals, Carol’s Mom, Mariel (or Mari-Ell, as she was once known) was a Kree special operative, sent to Earth to asses it as a potential threat. But she met Carol’s dad, fell in love with him and Earth, and abandoned her mission. So Carol’s not the only superpowered alien-ish woman in the family; her mom is too. Flying and punching hard is in her blood.

This is a significant retcon of Carol’s old origin story. Originally, she was caught in the blast of the Psyche-Mangnetron, a Kree device that gave her the powers of the original Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell… yeah, Kree names are weird). Now, Mar-Vell was, at the time, an on-and-off-again love interest for Carol. She was up to her own things, of course, but in this skirmish she was the bait Yon-Rogg used to lure Mar-Vell in — essentially, she was the damsel. Long story short, Psyche-Mangnetron goes boom, Mar-Vell saves Carol, she gets Mar-Vell’s powers. All because of an accident that’s essentially caused by two men fighting over her.

Now, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel saw this get changed a bit; now there was a time-traveling Carol Danvers (long story) watching the fight play out, all the time knowing that she could jump in there, stop it all and never have to deal with the powers and responsibility. She chooses to let it play out, to let herself become who she now is. The difference this makes is pretty neat: Carol now has a measure of agency in her powers. It didn’t just happen to her randomly, it’s as a result of (future) her making a choice. She has a hand in her own creation.

But it was still an origin intrinsically tied to a male character. Those powers weren’t inherently

hers, rather a byproduct of wanting to be like Mar-Vell. It’s not the end of the world, by no means, but it’s still a pretty lackluster origin, especially given that Carol’s tenure as Captain Marvel has pretty much eclipsed Mar-Vell’s.

The new explanation for her powers reframe all of it. All this time she had latent Kree warrior abilities, but it took the Psyche-Mangnetron to activate them. As Mari-Ell tells Carol, her powers are “Not borrowed. Not a gift. Not an accident… They’re not anyone’s but yours. They never have been.”

It’s a huge change in a comic that’s full of them (For example: Carol’s father’s alcoholism and controlling nature was because he was scared of Kree threats coming for them; during the night he told Carol he wouldn’t pay for her college [that led her to run away and join the Air Force], Mari-Ell was pawning her wedding ring to pay for Carol’s tuition [hey, look, more female agency!]). Carol Danvers’ powers are innately hers, passed on to her by her mother. It mayn’t seem like a really big deal but it puts Carol front and center of her own narrative. This is important since Carol, as a character who’s been around for ages, has a lot (and I mean a lot) of baggage with her. By placing Carol and a maternal legacy at the center of her genesis her story is able to be that much more hers from the get go; Marvel’s major female hero’s backstory is no longer based around a male character. This retcon isn’t the Biggest Retcon in Comics Ever, but it’s still a really cool step forwards and one I’m totally onboard with.

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First Man(liness)

I’m a little tired of manly manliness in cinema. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always have a soft spot Predator, Die Hard, or a good Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s 2018 and I’m kinda tired of that being the MO for male characters, especially manliness for the sake of manliness, like that 50s stoic, silent masculinity. In short, I’m really tired of ‘traditional’ masculinity, especially when it’s idolized and unquestioned.

Which leads me to First Man, the new movie by Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (excellent!) and La La Land (ehhhhh). First Man centers on one of my favorite topics: space exploration, particularly the effort to put a person on the moon, hence, y’know, the title. I like space. I think the Apollo Missions were terribly exciting, always have — I was one of those kids who absolutely consumed space stuff. That love of space was enough to beat out my trepidation about watching another Chazelle movie after La La Land.

Now, First Man is a very well made movie. It makes space travel terrifying in the best way possible, it’s claustrophobic and there is so little under your control. The movie really makes you feel that terror, and oh, it’s such a thrill. It’s such a shame, then, that square in the middle of that is Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.

I don’t know much about Armstrong as a person; I haven’t read biographies and I only know him for his role in space exploration. I don’t purport to really know what he’s like as a person. I do know, however, that I found Gosling’s portrayal to be very frustrating. See, in First Man Armstrong is a very stoic character. We see him crack once or twice — in the aftermath of his daughter’s death, for example — but beyond that he’s borderline emotionless. Maybe there’s a world of emotion going on behind his face, but we’re never afforded a glance inside.

Throughout the film, Armstrong’s stoicism is portrayed to the point of blandness, he doesn’t really seem to feel much (which again, could be argued away as being due to his daughter’s death, but we’re never really allowed to know) and instead his main quality is that he is a driven, quiet man. While other astronauts are bantering about space he is silently committed to getting to the moon. He’ll take part in some family stuff, but at the end of the day, he is Quiet and Manly, focused on going to space. Other astronauts dying just makes him more committed, in addition to having Manly Fear so we know he’s scared (but not too scared). Gosling’s Armstrong is the epitome of that silent, stoic, 50s masculinity, and, as far as the movie is concerned, all the better for it.

First Man doesn’t say much of anything about Gosling’s version of masculinity, aside from extolling it (the other astronauts don’t have the right attitude, his wife [like all of Chazelle’s female characters] just doesn’t understand). Because, as the movie implicitly argues, Armstrong did such great things, and because he embodied this brand of masculinity, clearly it’s great. Underlying the movie is an adoration of his stoicism and drive.

And I am so damn sick of that brand of masculinity. I’d be fine with Armstrong in First Man being a selfish prick if he got called out on it and it was recognized as being a flaw; but instead the movie loves him for it. I’d be okay if we saw some more self-doubt behind that heroic facade, but he is constantly in the zone, never weak, never emotional, always masculine. There’s no real antagonist for that masculinity to butt heads with; no warring factions for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to outdo in A Fistful of Dollars, no equally over-the-top villains for John Matrix to vie against in Commando. Rather the doubts raised by his wife and friends fall like the words of a straw man on Armstrong’s manly, too-determined-to-listen ears. It’s frustrating, especially when recognized as the predecessor to the modern toxic masculinity that’s so problematic today.

And it’s 2018, for crying out loud! Masculinity doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined! Consider Chris Evan’s Captain America/Steve Rogers. There’s no doubt that he’s a Manly Man; dude’s jacked, he fights for AMERICA! and is a superhero. He’s also the nicest, sweetest member of the Avengers, the one who sees the best in everyone and supports those around him. He has his doubts and questions; he’s weak at times, but he presses on. His strength isn’t so much his muscles and physicality, but his gentle heart and belief in others. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in Creed is a boxer and the inheritor to both his father and Rocky’s legacies. But for all the machismo you’d expect in a boxing movie, we also see him doubt ridden, trying to make relationships work, and being called out on his masculine bullshit. In my beloved Pacific Rim, is Raleigh, a male main character whose primary role is providing the emotional support so other characters (particularly the Japanese woman Mako) can reach their full potential. None of these characters are any less ‘manly’ for these traits, rather in them we see a more complex, fuller, and more welcoming depiction of masculinity.

In the same way that a feminist approach to storytelling challenges the teller to create narratives where women are given agency and allowed to appear in a variety of roles, so too does it desire an allowance for male characters to take on more interesting dimensions. If Neil Armstrong was the embodiment of that style of stoic, selfish masculinity, couldn’t First Man have explored what was beneath that outer shell? Was he a husk of a man so bound by his need to be in control? Or was there genuine, painful emotion behind it? Could the narrative have questioned whether having all that to get to the Moon was worth it, rather than ending with him and his wife reconnecting? We’ve gotta get over this old-fashioned, idealized sort of manliness. It’s 2018, there’s more than one way to be a man.

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Classically Petty

Don Quixote is a pretty important book, to put it mildly. Often counted one of – if not the – greatest book ever written, it’s definitely something you can categorize under Serious Literature. It’s also home to some outstanding pettiness and a magnificent middle finger to fan-fiction.

The book was hugely popular right from when it was first published. It didn’t take too long for another writer to think there was something to this delusional adventurer and faithful pseudo-squire and write his own sequel under the name Avellaneda. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote’s author,  clearly didn’t take kindly to his characters being used like this, and took several shots at the unofficial sequel when his Part Two came out a decade later.

Notably, Part Two sees many of the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encounter both aware of and fans of Part One. The book was published in this fictional world too, and when he sallies forth on his new adventure, Don Quixote must reckon with the reputation of his fictionalized self. Not only that, but Don Quixote discovers that there is another book out there (by Avellaneda!) about him and his adventures, and this one is patently false. Quixote is very unhappy with this version of himself as it gets details about him wrong. He’s so mad about it that he ups and cancels his plans to go take part in the jousts in Zaragoza. You have to realize, that at this point in Part Two one of Don Quixote’s big goals has been to go and compete in these jousts (as a noble knight like [he envisions himself] himself would). All that is tossed aside because the fake-fictional version of Don Quixote jousted in Zaragoza and the real-fictional Don Quixote wants absolutely nothing to do with his fake-fictional self. Don Quixote (and by proxy, Cervantes himself) doesn’t want to give any credence to Avellaneda’s sequel and so the book makes it abundantly clear that Don Quixote did no such thing.

That, in and of itself, would be a nice meta attack on Avellaneda’s fan-fiction, but Cervantes goes further. On his way home, Don Quixote meets a Don Alvero Tarfe — a character from Avellaneda’s Part Two. They get talking, and Don Alvero claims to be a good friend of Don Quixote, which Don Quixote says is impossible because he is the real Don Quixote. Over the course of their conversation, Don Alvero — a character originally from Avellaneda’s unofficial sequel, remember — takes back any statement about having met Don Quixote prior to this encounter. And then a notary is summoned and Don Alvero makes a sworn affidavit, because as far as Cervantes is concerned, there’s no such things as overkill when it comes to discrediting Avellaneda.

Seriously, there isn’t. Don Quixote returns home, and vows to become a shepherd. That’s it, Don Quixote’s done, no more adventures with our errant knight-errant. Oh, and then, lest some wannabe-Avellaneda wants him to take up the mantle again, Don Quixote promptly falls sick, recants all his knightly desires, and dies.

Yep, Don Quixote dies at the end. Spoiler. And the narrator firmly states that Don Quixote went on no other adventures than those in Part One and Part Two and any piece of fiction that suggests otherwise is full of crap.

That’s right, Cervantes straight up kills off his famous main character just so no one else can play with him.

Look, I’m sure there’s something to be said here about Cervantes’ overly tight protection of his creation and some valid fuel for an in-depth discussion of Death of The Author as it pertains to fan-fiction and adaptations. Maybe even something about metafiction as it pertains to Don Quixote. But honestly, the whole point of this rant essay was to tell you about what a petty rascal Cervantes was. Would’ve thought Serious Literature could be so catty?

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A Dearth of Asians

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about Silk. The superhero, not the fabric. I’ve mentioned her on the blog before, and I do really like her, and am bummed her book ended. My friend quipped that I should be, she’s, like, the only Asian hero in Marvel. I protested, there was also Shang-Chi, and Amadeus Cho, and, and, well.

That’s about it.

We decided to include Kamala Khan, after all, Pakistan is in Asia and we have a bad tendency to think of ‘Asian’ as meaning only East-Asian. There’s also Jubilee of the X-Men, and that’s about where we ran out of steam, concluding that, dang, there really is a dearth of Asians in Marvel comics.

I did some googling while preparing for this post, and found a couple lists of Asian Marvel characters. There’s a small number of minor characters like Wendy Kawasaki who serve as support for the major heroes. There are definitely a good helping of Asian villains, with The Mandarin, Ezekiel Stane (he’s half-Asian!), and Silver Samurai being the most obvious. Then one list I found cited Mantis as an example which is weird because, well, she’s green and has antennas. But apparently she’s half-Vietnamese (and played by a half-Korean actress), so, I guess she kinda counts?

But the point stands; it’s really, really disappointing when you can count the major Asian heroes in Marvel Comics on your fingers. It’s not like I don’t have a horse in this race, what, my whole being half-Asian and all; but c’mon, it’s 2018. Surely there should’ve been an Asian Iron Fist by now or some such. In all of Marvel’s alternate realities, why don’t we get an Asian Tony Stark (you would literally have to change nothing about his story), why not have Shang-Chi a founding member of the Avenger on another Earth?

There’s pushback on these so-called ‘legacy’ characters: “Why make Iron Man or Jessica Drew Asian when you could just create A Whole New Character?” The problem with making A Whole New Character is that it takes a lot of work for them to become as wedged into the public consciousness as, say, Spider-Man. Sometimes, it works — take Kamala Khan who took up the Ms. Marvel mantle but has very little in common with the original Ms. Marvel — but then Silk remains woefully under-appreciated and even Amadeus Cho flew under the radar until he became a Hulk. Giving new characters — particularly minorities — the keys to a flagship means they get a huge PR boost: Look at Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel! I say this a lot, but oftentimes representation means giving up your seat at the table. It means in this universe Tony Stark is Chinese and ‘Stark’ is a lousy transliteration of a Chinese name. Or maybe when someone gives up the mantle they give it up for good (I’m looking at you, Thor).

I’d be remised if I neglected to account for the improvements that have been made. Kamala Khan and Silk are both relatively recent additions, and the former is wildly popular. Shang-Chi and Amadeus used to be, well, less than ideal. Shang-Chi’s power was Being Really Good At Kung-Fu and Amadeus’ was Being Really Smart, two abilities which, well, for a Chinese and Korean-American character, are really kinda stereotypical. But! Recently that’s changed! Shang-Chi is still Really Good At Kung Fu, but Jonathan Hickman saw him join the Avengers and shine as a badass. More recently, Gail Simone has had Domino training with him who in turn sees him as a) aspirational, and 2) really hot. Meanwhile, Amadeus became the Hulk and has joined the Champions and goes on adventures where he’s not just known for his smarts. We may still have precious few Asian superheroes, but, hey, the ones that we have are getting better.

Folks, I talk a lot about diversity and representation on this blog — to the point where I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record. And while I do celebrate Marvel and all the forward motion they’ve made, I do still want, well, more. Silk will always have a special place in my heart, not only because she gets to do the Spider-Man thing, but because her comic had a distinctly Asian-American bent to it. Big Hero Six is a movie that makes me smile when I think of it, not just because of how heartwarming it is, but because Hiro is someone like me. Stories are personal, and I want to get to be a superhero.

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