May 13 2011

Raise your hand if you don’t know who Superman is


Quick: describe Superman’s origin story as briefly as you can.  Where he came from and what his deal is.

Did you do it?  Great.  If your description included the words “alien”, “Krypton”, or “American way”, I can almost guarantee you got the basic gist of it correct.  If you said “I don’t know” then congratulations, you don’t exist.

I mean, am I wrong?  Is there anyone who doesn’t know the very basics? If so, here they are:

They even manage to cover the fake physics of super strength, complete with some Mark Trail style nature drawings, all in one page.  But if that’s not condensed enough for you, try this:


That’s Superman tossing off his entire origin in a thought bubble. Not much more to it than that. But if you really hate reading…

There.  They took out all the pesky sentences for you.  Four iconic panels and you’re done. Everything you need to know.  Actually, wait a sec.  I’ll do ya one better:

One panel, apparently written by a caveman (ONE AND SAME!) and you’re ready to enjoy yourself some Superman stories.

My point is this:  I challenge you to find any potential moviegoer who was unaware of the above premise, and yet the new Superman reboot, reportedly called Man of Steel, will be yet ANOTHER origin story.

I’ve mentioned the origin problem of superhero movies on the podcast before, and written about it in one of my first articles for the site, my review of The Spirit.  The issue is that these films feel the need to give you a detailed walkthrough of the hero’s early years, partially because it establishes their character motivation, and partially because the fact that Daredevil was blinded as a child, or that Plastic Man used to hate broccoli until he tried it in olive oil may be vital to the plot.  That’s all well and good, and I love a well-told origin.  The problem comes in when the origin overtakes a huge chunk of the movie, eating up precious time that could be spent on the actual story.

Now, I’m not talking about a film like Batman Begins which is really and truly ABOUT the origin.  In that case, the origin itself is the entire story.  I’m talking about movies that could have been tighter and more focused if they weren’t saddled with all that setup up front.

"I may be invulnerable to bullets. But not to sadness. You see, it all started when..."

And even if you yourself are from another planet and have somehow avoided hearing Superman’s backstory.  Guess what?  It doesn’t matter that much.  You can still enjoy a Superman movie.

You don’t need to spend thirty minutes watching Superman grow up on a farm just to establish his homespun American ideals.  Maybe instead, Superman is flying over Kansas and offers to help the locals with some superspeed harvesting, after which he reminisces for a second about his own cornfed upbringing. You don’t need to actually see Krypton explode to get across that he feels alone on Earth.  Maybe he’s invited over to Lois’s parents’ house for dinner and is reminded both of his own adopted parents and the biological ones he never knew.  Two scenes and a few lines of artful dialog. Less than ten minutes of screen time where you’re also moving other plot elements forward instead of wasting time hashing out stuff we already know.

I just realized that I don’t even know if Lois’s parents are still alive in the comics.  And I don’t really care.  It’s nice trivia when you’ve got the time for it, but it’s not that relevant to understanding and enjoying the character.

So please, Man of Steel, I know Chris Nolan and David Goyer are involved, so I don’t want to tell you what to do.  But please.  Please can you spare us another origin story?

May 9 2011

What a wonderful time to be a nerd


I was at the movie theater this weekend and saw this…

It’s an ad for X-Men: First Class and it isn’t new.  It’s been standing there for more than a month, but its importance only struck me recently.

Blade was probably the true beginning of the modern resurgence of superhero movies, but for me, the most important was X-Men in 2000.  As a longtime comic fan, it seemed crazy to believe that Hollywood was not only capable of taking superheroes seriously (Singer’s movie was about social equality as much as guys who can shoot lasers from their eyes), but that they could manage to turn a profit in the process.  In other words, the people who scoffed at spandex and capes went to see the movie too.  The casting of Patrick Stewart, literally everyone’s first choice for Professor X, put the icing on the cake, proving that those involved were fans themselves.

After X-Men, came another Blade, Spider-Man (finally!), Daredevil, an even better X-Men, Hulk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy, Punisher, an even better Spider-Man, Catwoman, yet another Blade, Elektra, Fantastic Four, and the most well regarded of the lot, Batman Begins.  This was all in the first five years of what was then still being called a fad, even by me.

Certainly these are not all excellent films.  I had forgotten Elektra even came out. But to a lot of fans it was important that they simply existed and be just good enough to prevent the critics from saying “Well, that’s it for superhero movies!  Trend’s over!  Pack it up, Hollywood, this cash cow is dry.”  Because then the party would end and we’d all go back to the universe we came from, where superheroes are silly.  Neither profitable nor respectable enough for  theaters.

We endured Singer’s yawnable Superman reboot, as well as the film it spawned through neglect, the bitterly disappointing third entry in the X-Men trilogy. We cringed nervously at Ghost Rider and hoped Nicolas Cage would shoulder most of the blame.  We had high hopes for the Fantastic Four sequel.  It looked better than the first one.  And it was.  Though not by much.

We pretended Spider-Man 3 was “fun”.  Then we saw Iron Man and remembered what fun actually meant. There was another Incredible Hulk for some reason, but that was okay because there was another Batman too.  A dark and moody (as well as long and preachy) tale of the Dark Knight we knew from the comics.  Re-imagined for the screen, but only by degrees.  The tone, the themes, and most importantly the characters that made Batman great were present.  And right.  And the rest of the world liked it too.

There were others, of course.  Niche ones like Watchmen and Kick-Ass.  Flat-out imitators like Sky High and Zoom.  Blatant cash grabs like My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Superhero Movie.  But the point is this: It’s been over a decade since X-Men was released.  And amazingly, we are still here.

I just paid good money to see a movie about Thor (hear my thoughts on this Wednesday’s podcast!)  Not the regular old Norse god, I mean Marvel Comics’ Thor. What’s more, Sam Jackson shows up as Nick Fury, and there’s a three-line cameo by an Academy Award Nominee playing Hawkeye.  GODDAMN HAWKEYE.  The high school version of me never thought he would see anyone play Hawkeye outside of a convention.

And more are coming, folks!  We’re going to see a Captain America movie that contains the line “A weak man knows the value of strength.”  YES.  They get the character.  There’s a Green Lantern film that not only acknowledges the cinematically expensive proposition that there are thousands of other alien Green Lanterns, but actually makes them a central part of the plot.  The guy who did Firefly is directing an Avengers movie that will actually attempt to tie together Marvel’s cross-movie continuity in the same way the comics do.  These are pipe dreams made manifest.

That ad for the new X-Men prequel (which I hope is as weighty and thoughtful as its most recent trailer makes it out to be) made me realize that for ten years I’ve been holding my breath.  Waiting for the other shoe to drop and the superhero fad to end.  I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I think, at least for now, the dream has come true.  Superhero films are just another sub-genre.  An offshoot of fantasy, sci-fi, whatever you want to call it.  There will be good movies.  There will definitely be bad ones.  But there will be movies.  For the first time, we live in a world where it’s possible for the heroes we love on the page to come to life on the screen.

If this is just one big What If… story, nobody tell me.