Tag Archives: Marvel

Pushing Plausibility

Comic books are weird. Especially superhero comics, what with alternate realities, time travel, dying but not really dying, planet-eating-monsters-turned-life-bringers, and telepathic cosmonaut dogs. Like I said, weird.

Comic book movies, however, are typically more tame. Let’s go back a decade or so; the major blockbusters based on properties from the big two, Marvel and The House That Batman Built (DC), had been, mostly, normal-ish. We had Batman and Superman running around, who are so ingrained in popular consciousness they’re basically normal. Same with Peter Parker and the X-Men, as well as an outing with the Fantastic Four. It’s relatively grounded stuff, Superman’s an alien, Batman’s a rich ninja, the X-Men are mutants which makes sense. The Fantastic Four got space powers, and Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. Everything’s SCIENCE!’d away into plausibility. Green Goblin gets a suit instead of being an actual goblin-esque thing, and the then-recent Batman Begins gave Scarecrow fear toxins and made Ra’s al Ghul also a ninja. Y’know, grounded and realistic like.

Then Marvel started making their own movies. Which started with Iron Man, about a guy who builds a high tech armor in a cave with a box of scraps. Still reasonable, yeah? The Incredible Hulk came out the same year and had green rage monster through science, so, relatively normal. Same with Iron Man 2 which brought about some AI and more armor and stuff, but still grounded.

Concurrently, we had Nolan’s The Dark Knight which took its reconstruction of the Batman mythos to new heights. What would be the effects of a bat-dressed vigilante in the modern world? How could that work? The Dark Knight makes it work tremendously, creating a cool, albeit grim take on a character that positioned the superhero film more as a thriller than outright saving the world. Which, given that superhero/comic book films can ascribe to whatever genre they darn well please, made sense enough. If anything, though, The Dark Knight said that realistic superhero movies could work. And it was really really good.

But back to Marvel Studios. After Iron Man 2 they released Captain America and Thor. The former had a super serum’d super soldier fighting World War II against a dude with a red skull for a face and various other ridiculous war machines. Pulpy fare for sure, like Sky Captain except better. Thor, however, had Norse gods. Which, given that this was supposed to take place in the same world where Tony Stark and his box of scraps existed, was a little outlandish.

‘cuz Thor’s magical. Not, like, Harry Potter magic (that’d be weird!), but Lord of The Rings magical. The filmmakers (and Marvel Studios) let us into it gently, though; Thor and friends are alien-ish people and there’s some handwaving involving sufficiently advanced technology seeming like magic. Thus by the time The Avengers introduced us to portals and aliens and mind controlling staves, things were with the realm of possibilities. The Marvel world was shown to be weird, so exploding people in Iron Man 3 and Dark Elf spaceships in The Dark World made sense in a way.

Guardians of The Galaxy made it weirder, pushing a space opera story into the world, but that took place on the periphery. For now, anyway.

So along comes Doctor Strange, eight years after Iron Man. And now there’s magic. Like magic magic. Harry Potter magic with spells and stuff.

But we’re willing to believe that this takes place in the same world where Tony Stark built a suit of armor because over the past several years, Marvel has slowly been opening up their world. In 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight were relatively similar, both were creating ‘realistic’ versions of comic book characters. Tony Stark’s armor and arc reactor were plausible enough inventions that seemed just a few minutes into the future; Batman using sonar from cell phones was a creepy enough extension of contemporary tech. But while Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy continued its form of reconstruction by further grounding Batman, Marvel Studios threw off the training wheels and got weird – but slowly, such that by the time Doctor Strange rolled around magic wasn’t too farfetched.

Point is, now things can get weird. Next year we’ve a movie coming out involving Thanos fighting the Avengers and the Guardians, which is the ridiculous culmination of ten-odd years of storytelling through a variety of films that have progressively embraced more and more offbeat and weird things such that a super-powerful alien with a glove of doom fighting a team that includes a sorcerer, talking tree, African king, and archer isn’t that weird. Which makes total sense for a movie based on a comic book.

Y’know that saying abut slowly boiling a pot so that the frog doesn’t jump out? That seems to have been Marvel Studios’ MO with its films, slowly bringing the weird so that by the time things have gone totally bonkers we’re totally on board. There’s an element of restraint there (eg: saving the Thor and Hulk buddy movie) that makes the payoff that much better. So yeah, bring the weird, and make Cosmo a member of the Guardians already.

Note: I realize that I got distracted in this thing and there’s a whole rant here about how The Dark Knight and Marvel Studios both reconstruct the superhero narrative but in different directions. Consider a pin put in that.

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An Asian American Superhero

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Silk when she first showed up in the Spider-Man comics, but it was when she got her own series – and a narrative no longer intrinsically tied to Peter Parker – that she really came into her own.

But on the on the one hand, yeah, another webslinging spider-themed hero? We’ve already got a lot with Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and Miguel O’Hara in books of their own; do we need one more? The thing is, Silk brings with it – like each of the other spider books – a unique story and character.

Obviously, there’s Silk/Cindy Moon herself. One of the things that hooked me into the book is something somewhat shallow, but terribly important: Cindy is Korean-American. Yes, I know, I’m ranting about diversity again. But listen. There are precious few Asian superheroes, even less so with their own books. There will always be a thrill in getting to see someone who looks like you represented.

But Cindy’s Asian-ness isn’t just a lip service done through line art and surname, the story in Silk features distinctly Asian elements.

So quick recap, Cindy got bitten by the same spider that gave Peter Parker his powers, but due to some bad news involving spider-killing vampiric Inheritors (it makes sense in context), Cindy was locked alone in a bunker until the threat was over. Released early, Cindy is looking for her family who have disappeared during the years she was away.

Still with me? Now here’s the thing, the decision to lock Cindy away is not a malevolent one, in fact Silk does great work to ensure that while we know it’s a really sucky situation, it was one done out of love. As Cindy follows the trail of her parents, she finds that they never stopped trying to find a way to cure her and protect her from the Inheritors. When Cindy finally finds her parents – after traveling to the Negative Zone, teaming up with a dragon named David Wilcox, and discovering her mother is the badass, undead slaying Red Knight – it’s a happy, heartfelt reunion.

Never along the way does Cindy ever think that finding her parents isn’t worth it. She’s posed as a villain for Shield and takes a job at J. Jonah Jameson’s Fact Channel, all in an effort to discover what happened to her parents. The central theme of the arc, one espoused firmly by Cindy, is family first. It’s a story of unquestioning filial piety, one that is returned in kind by Cindy’s parents. Now, family loyalty is by no means a uniquely Asian thing, but Silk‘s emphasis on it allows the book to strike a wonderful narrative balance between an Eastern focus on community and the self-determinism more prevalent in Western narratives. Are you beginning to see why I keep harping on diversity being important?

That said, Cindy doesn’t live a merry angst-free life. Her time in the bunker did a number on her, and so Cindy seeks counseling. Her sessions often provide narration for her adventures as she confides in her therapist, which is a fun narrative tool in itself, but the portrayal of therapy as being something both normal and healthy stands out as special in comics. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a way for Cindy to work out anger issues and the newfound stress of getting used to a modern life (and being a superhero). It’s a profound addition that subtly destigmatizes getting help while allowing space in Cindy’s life to focus on her family without too much angst.

You know what’s coming next: This is why diversity in fiction is important. Sure, you could have had the looking-for-family narrative with anyone, but by attaching it to a Korean-American family you instill it with a little more weight and offer a representation of a different way of looking at the world. Silk is a wonderful book because it does all that and tells a plain good story while it’s at it.

Man, ain’t diversity grand?

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Superhero Stardom (A Response)

There’s a recent New York Times article I came across that laments how the rise of the superhero genre has conflated actor-stardom with character-stardom. The article itself doesn’t really chase down the points too well, but the central gist (as far as I can see) is that in the recent slate of films, characters have come to trump actors. As Wesley Morris suggests in the article, when you watch Oceans Eleven, it’s George Clooney doing all the cool stuff as Danny Ocean; but when you watch Rush, you don’t see Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, you see Thor as James Hunt. And as more big name actors get roped into superhero films (Cate Blanchett’s gonna be in Thor: Ragnarok!), it’s more actors being roped in to playing a specific character.

Which makes Morris’ point of view seem a little weird. He implies that the fun of Ocean’s Eleven is seeing the star-studded cast play off of each other, whereas Civil War is more about watching the characters interact; the former being better. Which begs the question of whether or not you’re supposed to forget that it’s an actor playing a character and not something happening before you.

Now, the attitude here feels a lot like that kid who’s angry you got the same toys they did. For ages, the idea of a superhero has been derided. Like science fiction and fantasy it was that genre, one that no serious actor would get involved in. Heck, we even had a movie called Birdman which was all about how superhero films and all their sequels was where art went to die. Except now they are, and with it, taking on (and being known by) personae that they don’t get to create per se. Superheroes are a cultural mythology, why else are we able to discuss who’s the “better Batman?” Taking up the cowl means playing someone bigger than life. Kinda like being the next guy to play James Bond.

Hang on.

See, this is where things start to get a little weird (and Morris’ argument starts to fall down). Daniel Craig’s Bond is sharply different from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. I mean, sure, they’re the same character, just done differently. Same with Clooney, Bale, and Affleck’s Batman. There’s still some wiggle room in really getting to build a character.

But, all the same, the more recent superhero movies are very much adaptions of the comic books; someone like Batman’s very much in the public consciousness, more so than, say, Star Lord was in 2013. It would make sense, then, that casting Chris Pratt as Peter Quill would allow for a straight shot of an adaption.

Except, again, it’s kinda not. Star Lord as he appeared in the comics was quite different from the one in Guardians of the Galaxy, more authoritative and less bumbling, though still prone to having everything blow up in his face. Much of Peter Quill in the film — and who he’s become in the comics these days — grew out of Chris Pratt’s performance and James Gunn’s script. So sure, it was based on something, but there was still a big room to build there. Heck, you can see it with all of the MCU characters.

In spending a chunk of today trying to pry apart Wesley Morris’ article I kept losing track of his point (which may be because he doesn’t back it up much). In any case, based on the title, is about the changing role of celebrity that the uptick of superhero film franchises has brought about. Which, alright, sure; but we’ve also changed from the studio system of the ‘50s. Marvel with the MCU (and, Fox with X-Men and DC with their attempts at catchup) are working on a new form of storytelling, one that sits somewhere at the nexus of film, television, comics, and those old serials from forever ago. Maybe it’s time that the nature of stardom changes, what with the steady rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. After all, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

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A (Civil) War of Flaws

Civil War came out. This post it about that. Yes, that’s all the intro I’m giving.

Marvel’s done a fantastic job of giving their characters major flaws. Look at the original (cinematic) Avengers: Iron Man’s selfish, Captain America’s noble to a fault, Thor’s proud, The Hulk’s, er, angry, Black Widow doesn’t trust anyone, and Hawkeye’s just the archer (okay, so he’s more the cynic). It’s these clearly defined character defects that make them clash so well, something made overt in the first Avengers when Loki’s scepter has them arguing in the lab. Flaws make characters interesting. The Avengers wouldn’t be half as fun if everyone got along like sunshine and rainbows, instead they spend half their time arguing and trying to get over themselves.

It’s because it builds on that central tenet that Captain America: Civil War succeeds so well. The question posed to the Avengers in the film is simple: should they report to a higher authority? It’s a question of authority and also who’s responsible for the Avengers’ actions. The creative team behind Civil War deserve major credit for making the question, herein rendered as the Sokovia Accords, feel nuanced, with no side feeling altogether right or wrong.

But that’s all plot stuff, and, as the last eight years of Marvel Cinematic Movies have proven, the best of part of these movies are the characters.

And so the divide of the Avengers falls firmly along character based lines. Tony Stark, who’s selfishness has given way to guilt and paranoia, sees the Accords as a safeguard. Furthermore, they’re a way for him to further absolve himself of guilt; he can be part of a tool to make things right, going where the majority feel he and the Avengers are most needed. Conversely, Steve Rogers’ nobility and idealism has him see the Avengers as guardians. They’re there to fight threats no one else can and they need the freedom to use their own judgement. Where Tony wants approval, Steve believes that they’ll do the right thing no matter what. It all fits into their established characters, characters which, for good measure, get set up again quickly in the film’s opening.

Thus, Civil War’s divide is one built on flaws. Many characters’ allegiances comes out of fears and flaws. War Machine and Falcon are loyal to Iron Man and Cap and so will follow them. Black Widow and Vision see the Accords as an insurance against an unknown danger; Scarlet Witch fears control. Black Panther is nursing a grudge. Even Cap’s idealism is tempered with asking “what if they send us somewhere we don’t want to go?” The battle lines develop naturally rather than arbitrarily. The combatants have a horse in their fight and it becomes personal.

To see this done wrong, you don’t have to look much further than Batman v Superman. There the central question is one guy going “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and cause massive collateral damage” and the other saying “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and brand people.” That Batman and Superman’s eventual fight isn’t born out of an escalation of tensions and faults makes it pointless at best and arbitrary at worst. They start out not liking each other and spend the movie prepping for a fight until they’re manipulated into coming to blows.

Civil War has Steve and Tony start out amicable before the Accords cause an ideological split. It’s the reappearance of the Winter Soldier driving a wedge deeper between them, plus a couple other turns that happen so that by the time they really come to blows it is an inevitable extension of their (flawed) characters. Civil War led it’s hero-fighting-hero with character, Batman v Superman relied on a contrived plot; so while the audience feels apathetic watching Batman fight Superman, the fight between Captain America and Iron Man is brutally tragic.

And so we’ve come full circle. Tragedy is born out of flaws. Creon’s pride is his downfall in Antigone. Othello’s jealousy costs him everything. And in Civil War, it divides Captain America and Iron Man.

Man, aren’t character flaws great?

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Jessica Jones: Not Your Victim

I’ve been watching Jessica Jones on Netflix, because it’s Thanksgiving Break and there’s a new Marvel show out so what do you expect me to do? I’m eight episodes and, so this post will contain some spoilers.

Right off the bat, there’s the fact that after Agent Carter, this is the second MCU property to have a woman front and center. And to the sides too. And basically everywhere you look. Jessica Jones doesn’t skimp on filling out roles with women, whether they’re Jessica’s best friends, lawyers, or even annoying neighbors. Female characters in Jessica Jones are given the breadth and depth male characters are usually afforded.

More telling is Jessica Jones’ own subversion of the typical “Strong Female Character” template. As women become more prominent in fiction we tend to idolize characters like Black Widow or Imperator Furiosa; women who kick ass and take names. But characters like Sansa Stark fall by the wayside since they don’t fight back, at least not physically Never mind her steady mastery of politicking, she’s nowhere near as interesting or ‘strong’ as her sister, Arya (I disagree vehemently, but that’s for another day). Now, given that Jessica Jones literally has super strength, it would seem that she would lean towards the action-sort of a strong character. Yet many of Jessica’s biggest and best moments aren’t her throwing a punch. Throughout the show, Jessica will put herself in situations she would rather run from but instead will face up to despite the emotional weight. Whether it’s facing up to a villain she knows will bring up personal trauma or even trying to comfort someone when what happened is still eating her up inside, Jessica shows strength in ways that don’t involve punching thugs.

What Jessica Jones does, though, is rewrite the victim narrative. Jessica spent time under Kilgrave’s mind control and she shows the trauma and PTSD from it. When he comes back, the space exists for there to be a vengeance narrative; where she finds him and kills him. Through a cruel twist of fate, however, Jessica needs him alive. Which means she has to actually confront the man who destroyed her life. When she finally does, she yells at him; explicitly accusing him of rape. Though Jessica was a victim, she’s not the helpless witness while the CSI folks do their thing. The show lets Jessica make a choice about how to react to what happened to her, and she isn’t limited to the traditional revenge thing or running away. She can confront her rapist and prove that she’s more than what he did to her.

Which brings me to one more thing Jessica Jones does so differently from a lot of other shows: its depiction of female sexuality. With the exception of very few, the general consensus of pop-culture is that women aren’t supposed to enjoy or desire sex without being labeled ‘sluts.’ In Jessica Jones however, the consensual on screen sexual encounters — of which there are more than a few — are all either initiated by a woman or ones where she’s enjoying it. Furthermore, there’s a great emphasis placed on intimacy and not just physicality. We see Jeri and her mistress/girlfriend in quiet moments, cuddling in the back of a car rather than as sapphic eye candy. Although there are sex scenes intended for mature audiences, the women don’t seem to be “on display” for the camera and the male gaze. Quite the opposite in fact, since Luke Cage is clearly set up to be a person of desire. It helps that he’s smoking hot, but the show is shot so that Luke is clearly the eye candy for Jessica and the audience, and not the other way round. Of course, Jessica’s relationship with Luke is one of equals and something that I’d need another 800-odd words to get through.

Point of all this to say, Jessica Jones is a fascinating show — and I haven’t even gotten into its plot proper yet. If anything, Jessica Jones does a fantastic job of reworking the typical display of sexual politics in pop-culture. On that show a victim can be strong, women can do or want anything, and, dang, Luke Cage is hot.

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How Do You Make An Avengers?

Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out here in the States in a few days, which makes me realize that we now live in a time where time can be measured in Avengers movies. Which makes me think about three years ago when I was eagerly waiting for the first one to come out.

It’s important to look at just how sharply The Avengers affected the current blockbuster landscape. The idea of a bunch of characters from separate films coming together in one movie was a very novel idea, outside of maybe Alien vs Predator. Now, ever since The Avengers made approximately all the money, DC’s been working fast as they can to establish their pantheon of superheroes. Amazing Spider-Man 2 spent much of its time trying to set up as many plot points for there to be a variety of spin offs. There’s even been an attempt to revive Universal’s horror movies with the intention of having Dracula, et al team up. Ever since The Avengers proved that it works, there’s been a big push to establish these so-called shared universes.

Of course, that’s missing that one of the things that made The Avengers work was that it wasn’t rushed. Marvel Studios spent five movies and four years building up their characters and their world. By the time The Avengers came out, audiences were at the very least aware of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America through good old pop-cultural osmosis. That done, they still took time to set up each character — including lesser known characters like Black Widow.

Furthermore, Marvel Studios hired a writer/director with a reputation for being able to handle ensemble casts. Joss Whedon’s only other movie at the time, Serenity, was able to reestablish the crew of the titular ship for people who both had and hadn’t seen the show. He had a similar task in The Avengers: establish six heroes, their boss, a couple minor characters, and a villain while also weaving together a coherent plot. The Avengers worked, due in no small part to Whedon’s writing.

The other thing about the shared universe concept is that it’s different from your typical movie production. There are grand story arcs that each film has to navigate around and fit in alongside. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is being run more like a television show than a typical movie series. Kevin Feige, executive producer on all Marvel Studios films, is effectively the showrunner of the series. He’s come up with the big ideas and found writers and directors to do each ‘episode.’ Once again, getting Joss Whedon onboard for the first two Avengers films made sense, most of his experience has been within the constraints of television. The Dark World was directed by someone who’d worked on Game of Thrones, and the Russo brothers, who did The Winter Soldier, directed for Arrested Development and Community. It’s also the Russo brothers who’ll be directing Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, showing again Feige’s predisposition to those used to working in television. But this is still a novel form of filmmaking, and it’s one that Marvel’s making work.

I’m as excited to see Age of Ultron as I was to see The Avengers three years ago. Of course, I’m approaching this movie from a different perspective than I did the last year. And I don’t just mean someone who now actually reads comics, either. I’ve spent the greater part of the last three years at university studying storytelling and narrative. All this to say, I’m really impressed with how Marvel’s been handling their universe. It takes a lot of work and there are a host of missteps they could have taken.

So come Thursday evening I’ll be sitting in an IMAX theater in Kips Bay. I want the movie to be good, because I want to see Marvel keep expanding their movie world. That and I can’t wait for the Captain Marvel movie.

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Not Another Peter Parker

I’ve had a relatively busy couple weeks, which means less time to see movies and play new games, so more yammering on about recent events (either that or wax on about Agent Carter again, but I’m waiting on that one.

So let’s talk about new news, comic book news. Namely, Spider-Man’s going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to standing alone. Which is cool, because we’ll finally get to see Spidey swinging on the big screen while Iron Man and Cap stare disapprovingly. But then, a new Peter Parker’s being cast, thereby throwing out Andrew Garfield and giving us what’ll be the third live-action Peter Parker in barely twenty years. In other words, we’ve got ourselves another Spider-Man reboot.

Another!?

I really enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire. He struck me as feeling more like a teenager, felt a bit more true to my idea of Pete. Then there’s the question as to why we even need a reboot in the first place. The original Amazing Spider-Man would have worked in fairly neatly with the MCU, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though a narrative train-wreck, hit a key moment of the Spidey mythos that could really deepen future installments. But fine, an all-new Spider-Man. Again.

I think some of my disappointment/frustration on this part stems from the fact that we’re getting another Peter Parker. I do wish Marvel had been willing to really shake things up. Why not have Miles Morales as Spider-Man? Sure, they’d have to play around with his backstory some, but it’d be really interesting to have someone else in the suit (and also because I still want to see Donald Glover as Spider-Man, even if he’s steadily outgrowing the role). We’d get a really new Spider-Man with a new inner-life and a new arc. And a little diversity doesn’t hurt once in a while. Granted, Peter has his, well, Parker-ness – but that’s been done. I want things to move on. Heck, at this point, why not really upend things and throw Spider-Gwen in, or even Mayday Parker or, heck, anyone but Peter Parker.

What’s especially bothersome, is that because of Spider-Man’s inclusion on the Marvel slate, Black Panther, Inhumans, and – most importantly – Captain Marvel have all had their release dates pushed back (And Thor: Ragnarok, but that’s not important at the moment). We’ve just had Marvel turn a bunch of no-name superheroes into megastars, and Ant-Man, another lesser-known hero, has a movie due out in a few months. It’s disappointing to see them take such a safe bet.

Now, yes, Spidey in the MCU is really cool. If they use him right, he can bring a new point of view to the series; he’s usually the kid, he’s a bit naive, and he’s not as mature as the other heroes of the MCU. Like Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel who’s arguably the new Peter Parker of the comics. A movie about her would be a welcome addition.

But hey. Kevin Feige’s involved and he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing and Spider-Man brings with him characters like Jessica Drew and Venom, so that’s cool. I’m bummed that the new movie will be pushing back fresh faces and I do wish that if we had to have a new Spider-Man that it’d be someone else after under the cowl. But the movie’s not out yet, so who knows, maybe it’ll be really good.

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