Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

Rainn Wilson turns manboy avenger in “Super”

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in "Super"My generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world, forever trying to mix childhood power fantasies with adult realism.

GenX moviegoers are themselves a curious mix of light and dark. On one hand, we long to lose ourselves in fantasy, immersing ourselves in films like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings.” While on the other, we revel in darkness and depravity, struggling to redeem dark themes and anti-heroes with touches of absurdity and humor.

I’d say Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate GenX filmmaker. “Pulp Fiction” is a perfect mix of light and dark — adult sleaze delivered in a candy coating of pop culture and noir clichés.

Super” is another attempt to mix comic book idealism with real world angst. When Frank D’Arbo’s wife leaves him for a smooth-talking drug dealer, he decides to find a comic book solution to his real world problem.

Inspired by a TV hero named “The Holy Avenger” (played by an awkward, dreamlike Nathan Fillion) Frank decides to sew a costume and become “The Crimson Bolt.”

Anyone who tried this in real life would quickly become The Crimson Stain, but this isn’t a genre tribute like “Kick Ass.” This is a surreal fairy tale about loss and desperation, told through the eyes of an emotionally-shattered beta male.

The film is hard to love because it can never quite decide what kind of film it is. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

“Kick Ass” tried the same trick and succeeded only because it abandoned realism in the third act and went full comic book for the finale.

“Super” never goes full-on superhero, it’s just mildly improbable throughout. Frank suffers random beatings and gunshot wounds, only becoming bulletproof for the triumphant (and disturbing) finale.

The film has its own kind of integrity because Frank really is mentally ill. He spends the whole movie walking the line between heroism and sociopathy, proving that every Batman must have a little Joker in him as well.

This is particularly well done in the film’s finale, when Frank does “the right thing” in a very bad guy way. A tonal failure if you’re trying to appeal to a GenX audience, but wicked fun if you’re trying to provoke them.

“Super” is constantly pushing and pulling on our expectations, veering wildly between slapstick comedy and buzzkilling gore. Most superhero films pander to the audience. This one seems calculated to provoke them.

The most provocative element for me was how the film used Ellen Page. Libby starts out as a screenwriter’s fantasy, an emotionally-retarded geek girl who works in a comic book store. If they’d cast a plainer actress it might have worked, but Page is way too hot for the role.

This is a shame because her performance was amazing. Libby is exactly the kind of thrill-seeking comic book geek who would fall for Frank, but Page is so pretty her looks seemed to be fighting against her dialog.

Wilson hits a dozen strong emotional notes in the film, but his treatment of Libby was my favorite bit. He insisted on treating her like a kid sidekick, while the audience was seeing a young woman.

In this sense, Frank’s mental illness gives him a kind of purity. He’s not merely pretending or lying to himself. He’s so in love with his wife, so blinded by religious conviction, so committed to his own insane course of action, he can’t see Libby as an adult, even when she forces the issue.

“Super” gives us one of the hottest cosplay seduction scenes ever filmed and then ruins it, almost immediately, with a terrible scene of realistic violence.

The scenes are framed so you can’t remember one without the other, so your brain gets stuck in a quantum state, constantly switching back and forth between brutal realism and sexy costumed fun.

I think this is the real point of “Super.” The film isn’t trying to teach us or entertain us; it’s trying to confuse us, to screw with our expectations and intentionally dredge up conflicting emotions.

This isn’t a dark morality tale or a costumed romp. It’s a little bit of both, swirled in a bowl but never quite mixing together.

I can’t say I enjoyed “Super” but I’m going to remember it. I’ll remember the sharp cuts between fantasy and realism, and I’ll remember the angry, queasy feeling it left me with, as I tried to fit the story into a clean narrative box.

“Super” was funny, dark, violent and confusing. With any other film those shifts in tone would be a kind of failure, but with “Super” I think they were the whole point.

Written by Not Jaffo

June 5, 2011 at 02:27

Posted in Comics, Culture, Movies

Is America still good enough for Superman?

D.C. Comics stirred up controversy all over the Net last week when Superman promised to renounce his American citizenship.

It happened in Action Comics #900, in a story written by David S. Goyer. In it, Superman joins a group of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, creating an international incident. Iran claims he’s acting as an official representative of the U.S. government and calls it an act of war.

The story opens with Superman getting scolded by the president’s National Security Advisor. Superman accepts the rebuke and says he can no longer tolerate having his actions associated with the U.S. government. He declares his intention to appear before the U.N. and renounce his citizenship.

Superman reminds us that he’s an alien and should therefore look at the “bigger picture.” He says, “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy.”

This story can be interpreted in two ways. The first (most charitable) interpretation is that Superman is giving up his citizenship for our own good. He wants to protect America from the consequences of his actions. Viewed in this light, renouncing his citizenship can be seen as Superman acting in America’s best interests.

But most comic readers, and most people who hear the news, are not going to interpret it that way.

There is a very ugly subtext in this story. Superman is essentially “getting in trouble” for doing the right thing. The U.S. is ready to declare him an enemy of the state. When he first lands at Camp David, a Marine sniper is pointing a Kryptonite bullet at his head.

Kryptonite bullets aimed at Superman's head

This is not a pro-America story. People are reacting to it emotionally because Superman is a powerful symbol – a distinctly American symbol, carried forward into another time.

There are a lot of cultural forces in conflict here. I’m fascinated by this story because it’s a great example of how our culture has changed since Superman was introduced.

There are two big trends driving this story. First, my generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world. Comic book films are a billion-dollar industry, and modern comic books aren’t really aimed at kids anymore.

Superman vs. HitlerThe second trend is more cultural. Superman is a Modern Age hero, but we’re living in a postmodern century. Superman came from a world of sharp contrasts and clear lines, when good was good and evil was evil – a four-color hero making black and white choices.

But that world is long gone. Even in childhood, our national fairy tales have been replaced by lessons about moral ambiguity. Our kids are trained to accept all cultures equally, to consider all perspectives and feel sympathy for underdogs.

Our parents and grandparents were taught to worship America. Modern kids are trained to question America – to look for chinks in our national armor and focus on America’s mistakes.

But Superman wasn’t made for this world. He was made for an older, simpler world where America was always right and its enemies were always wrong.

Modern storytellers have done amazing work, redefining old-fashioned heroes for a postmodern world. The shelves are full of outstanding books based on this contrast, from Mark Waid’s “Kingdom Come” to Brad Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis.”

But Goyer’s story doesn’t strike the same note with me. It feels ham-handed and coarse – turning Superman into a political creature in a way he was never meant to be.

Goyer’s presentation of Superman as an alien isn’t just a postmodern conceit, it’s a betrayal of the character. Superman’s story is an immigrant’s story – an old-fashioned immigrant story lifted straight from the ’20s and ’30s.

He came to America as a child and adopted our values. In those days, that’s what America was – a set of values that anyone could adopt. It didn’t matter where you came from; if you were willing to work hard, play fair and deal honorably with your fellow man, you could wear the label “American” and be part of something that was bigger than any national identity.

Superman was the ultimate symbol of this transformation, proof that anyone could come from tragedy and ascend to greatness. But now America has changed. Our perception of America has changed.

Modern children don’t see America as a set of values anymore. Today America is just another nation on the map — no better, and often much worse, than the others. Superman is an unambiguous symbol of good, and a good hero can’t represent an evil country.

That’s the statement I think Goyer is making in Action Comics 900. America isn’t good enough for Superman anymore. How can he stand for “Truth, justice and the American Way” when we can’t even define what the American Way is?

The concept of an American Way has been swept aside, replaced by a postmodern muddle of guilt and shame. I understand the temptation to throw stones at DC Comics, but I would rather use this as the springboard for a larger discussion.

Does superhero morality really belong in the adult world? Can we see America in context and still be proud of it? Can we admit our mistakes and still celebrate our virtues? Is patriotism a feeling we must “grow out of” as we study history?

I think there’s still room for an American Way in the 21st century. I think we can celebrate America without ignoring history, and I think there’s still room for patriotism in the American heart – not the blind, childish patriotism of our youth, but a mature, adult patriotism that keeps America in context and takes honest pride in what we’ve done.

Written by Not Jaffo

May 6, 2011 at 19:32

Posted in Best Of, Comics, Politics

And one for the geeks

I am continually amazed by Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick. This is a comic for everybody who played roleplaying games as a kid.

Rich writes about the real experience of playing Dungeons and Dragons. Not the ridiculous media version or the pathetic pop culture stereotype, but the quirky, funny, and surprisingly touching experience of solving problems and telling stories within this particular set of rules.

His latest panel is particularly poignant. His protagonist, blown out of the sky by one of the bad guys, is calling on every resource he can think of to save his life while plummeting to the ground.

An average writer would bend the rules or have the hero pull another trick from his sleeve, but Rich Burlew is an old-fashioned storyteller, and he knows exactly who he’s writing for.

Written by Not Jaffo

April 24, 2007 at 06:35

Posted in Comics, Games

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