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On America: Steve Gerber’s Wundarr and the Alternate Fantastic Fours of Marvel Two-In-One #1-8

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2006 at 1:37 pm

A number of very silly things happen during Steve Gerber’s brief tenure as the writer of Marvel Two-In-One #1-8, a sequence that is part of what plok has ingeniously recognized as the longest graphic novel in the world. Silliest of all, perhaps, is the appearance of dimwitted “sky-child” Wundarr, who blunders through several issues like an overgrown toddler. First he is lusted after and then mothered by nubile Atlantean It-girl Namorita. Then he is babysat by longsuffering Ben Grimm. Eventually he just goes away, and it’s difficult to lament the departure of this “22-year-old orphan from space with the mind of an infant and the strength of an elephant” because, in many ways, Wundarr is just another in a long line of Forest Gumps—those irritating simpleton-everyman figures through which American popular culture seems determined to reflect an image of the national self as idiot savant.

That “America” is on the agenda of Gerber’s Marvel Two-In-One stories cannot be doubted. In issue #3, guest-starring Daredevil, there’s a hilariously overwrought set piece in which Matt Murdoch and Foggy’s sister, Candace Nelson, attend “an avant garde patriotism play” called America Shall Endure. With typically Gerberesque understatement and restraint, it begins with a black man dressed as a slave delivering a jeremiad to Lady Liberty, features Captain America as a white supremacist, and concludes with Adolph Hitler blowing his brains out as a suicidal personification of America! Set alongside this sort of shrill but (I must admit) amusing agitprop, Wundarr’s story feels a lot like counterpoint, providing a less critical, more romanticized take on America as a naïve “star-child”: a little immature perhaps, even dangerous, but not yet the suicidally fascist state that Gerber parodies so savagely in the avant garde theatrical provocation being stage-managed by hypnotic agents of “Black Spectre” and hate-mongering femme fatale, Nekra, Priestess of Darkness.

Indeed, by the end of this issue, Reed Richards has even come up with a way of dealing with Wundaar’s excessive energy build-up that would allow him to make love, not war: a costume that “keeps the tremendous power circulating thru him, so he can’t cause another blast.” Naturally, Wundarr’s bare-chested love-god duds include “a device in the belt buckle that will allow him to release the pent-up energy harmlessly.” Indeed! It’s as if Gerber has substituted a masturbatory Wundarr for a suicidal Hitler in this issue’s parade of national allegories. This is all quite funny, if patently ridiculous, but there is something intriguingly ambivalent about Gerber’s depiction of Wundarr. Something that reflects a deeper ambivalence that Gerber feels about America during the mid-1970s.

That is, as much as Wundarr might be construed as an idealized, or at least optimistic image of the potential innocence of American power, Wundarr is more obviously Gerber’s parody of Superman, that other great symbol of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Like Supes, Wundarr is not only super-strong, but the last of his race, the lone survivor of an exploded planet, launched into space as a baby. Lest we miss the point, Ben helpfully telegraphs Gerber’s parodic intent by mocking Superman’s famous catch-phrase.


But what is the point exactly? Does this parody of DC’s Nietzschean “overman” intend to place Superman in the category of the white supremacist “Captain America” and the suicidal Hitler of America Shall Endure? Or is the parody murkier than that? Does it mock national fantasies with one hand, while covertly recuperating them with the other, making Wundarr less a parody of Superman than a sort of tongue-in-cheek reiteration of his most ambiguous aspects? Or is it simply a meaningless filigree on the age-old inter-company rivalry between Marvel and the Distinguished Competition? It’s difficult to separate these strands, and one suspects that that is partly because Gerber has only half-worked out this mishmash of ideas and references. But it also seems likely, given the violent oscillation between utopian and dystopian versions of America in Gerber’s MTIO stories, that the ambiguities inherent in his treatment of Wundarr (parody of “fascist” America? romantic-satiric national self-image?) are symptomatic of a more fundamental ambivalence that stems, it would appear, from an authorial point of view fixed upon an often dystopian national present that nonetheless contains the seeds of a potentially utopian future.

We can see this interesting dynamic being played out particularly in issues #4 and #5 which guest-star Captain America and the Guardians of the Galaxy respectively. The story in a nutshell is that the Thing, Captain America, and Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D.-agent/girlfriend, Sharon Carter, must use Doctor Doom’s old time-machine to journey into a dystopian future-America, where all that survives of humanity is enslaved to “the Brotherhood of Badoon” and their drone-like army of “Zoms.” Their guide from the future is bewildered but sexy refugee Tarin, an earth gal from tomorrow who helps them team up with underground rebels the Guardians of the Galaxy to achieve a symbolic victory over the despotic Badoon. Captain America, “our symbol of liberty,” as Tarin calls him, pronounces the tale’s moral: “Man won’t settle for a fleeting taste of liberty. We’re not made that way. The need to be free is in our blood. Your empire will fall because it must—because we are human.”

The storytelling is not spectacular. But that’s because Gerber seems only interested in the symbolism—and more broadly in the sometimes head-spinning political allegories that his narrative establishes. As this brief synopsis suggests, the present-day Captain America, “a living symbol of liberty,” acts as an inspiration to the rebels of the dystopian future and is the spiritual source of their victory over the embodiments of oppression—the Badoon. But as we’ve already seen, Gerber’s acerbic satire of contemporary America in the avant garde patriotic play from issue #3 suggests that America is far from the ideal that Cap symbolizes for the future—heck, it even features a Cap doppelganger who hypocritically beats the black slave while preaching respect for minorities! The neat thing is that, in Gerber’s narrative, this isn’t a contradiction—at least, it isn’t a careless one. Rather, what these two stories demonstrate is the split within Gerber’s vision of present day America as a nation containing simultaneously utopian and dystopian elements.

In these stories, Captain America shifts between representing the corrupt and the idealized version of American “liberty,” suggesting that Gerber diagnoses current injustices as corruptions or betrayals of original ideals that stubbornly persist in certain peculiar but increasingly marginal forms; Gerber thus dramatizes the solution to America’s problems in the present as a nostalgic return to the ideals of the past. This is perhaps why the temporal jump into the dystopian future of 3014 A.D. feels so vertiginous. At the level of the science fiction story, it is a dystopian future that foregrounds the utopian aspects of the present in Captain America, a move which seems to celebrate at least some aspect of the present and which puts the responsibility for social transformation squarely on the reader’s shoulders. (This move is perfectly consistent with the political dimensions of Gerber’s existentialist fable in MTIO #6-7.) Yet, at the same time, the veneration of Captain America as the inspiring embodiment of liberty in this story ironically implies the need for present-day America to conduct a similar return to the ideals of the past. This strange paradox is suggested by the doubling of Captain America by future Guardian of the Galaxy, Vance Astro. As Vance explains:

You were my boyhood idol, Cap. I even saw you in action in person once, with your partner the Falcon, back in 1972, I think… I was born in 1962, Cap…but I spent most of [the intervening 1000 years] asleep, in suspended animation…aboard the first American rocket headed for the stars. I left the earth in 1988, traveling at a velocity of a million miles per hour. Even at that speed, the journey to earth’s nearest stellar neighbour required a millennium. But a mere 200 years after I left, a man named Harkov came along with a new theory that made faster than light space travel a reality. When I came out of my ship on Centauri-IV, a colony of earthmen was there to greet me! I felt as you must have, Cap, when you were released from that iceberg back in 1964, after decades.

In effect, Vance is a transplanting of the Captain America concept of “past ideals for present ills” into the future, a move that makes this future time stand as both a warning about how bad the present could become and as a symbol for how bad it already has become—a representation of the dystopian aspects of the present that Geber exaggerates in the stage-play in issue #3. The dystopia of 3014 A.D. is thus both a satirically exaggerated representation of the dangers of the present and a fictional technique for highlighting what is most potentially redemptive about it.

So what is redemptive about it, according to Gerber? What is the “utopian” element that somehow survives in present-day America? That Captain America sometimes represents?

In political terms, it’s obviously something like democracy; in social terms, it’s something like harmonious diversity, a sort of existential multiculturalism. What makes Gerber’s representation of these political and social ideals so distinctive and so enjoyable are the ways that he makes them inseparable from a critique of the traditional family—that social institution that is most strongly linked to insularity, conservatism, and aristocratic social forms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gerber’s gleeful travestying of the traditional family focuses in on the “First Family” of Marvel Comics: the Fantastic Four. There’s a significant irony here, for as I’ve mentioned before, the Fantastic Four is already a wonderful example of how Marvel Comics opened up and challenged the model of the traditional nuclear family, rather than simply reaffirming it. In a sense, Gerber seems to recognize the weirdness and a-typicality of the FF, but his project in these issues of MTIO is to push the family team’s strangeness and heterogeneity much further. It’s interesting, for instance, that the very first panels of MTIO #1 concern Ben’s irritation that Gerber-favorite Man-Thing has stolen his name—as if Gerber were announcing that the Thing was going to have to fight for his status as the family freak.


(After his space ship crash lands, Wundarr also mistaken believes that Man-Thing is his mother—quite possibly the most delectably absurdist Oedipal parody ever penned!) Moreover, that first issue of MTIO concerns the Molecule Man’s failed attempt to revenge himself on the FF, which is foiled by his inability to locate them. (He is trapped by a “nexus of mystic forces” that prevents him from teleporting out of the Man-Thing’s swamp!) The point is that we’re in the position of the Molecule Man here, for Gerber’s MTIO issues never really deliver the Fantastic Four either, even though many members of the team appear on the fringes of the stories.

What Gerber delivers instead are two alternate versions of the Fantastic Four, examples of what I’ve earlier called Gerber’s “strange communities.” In issue #4, it’s “chrononaughts” Captain America, Sharon Carter, Tarin, and the Thing who form an alternate version of the FF, referencing and changing the FF’s original use of Doctor Doom’s time machine from FF #5—an adventure in which the Thing himself underwent a strange transformation into Bluebeard the Pirate! (The presence of team-alternate Medusa, rather than Susan Richards in MTIO #4 is also a suggestive detail.) In MTIO #5, the four alternate-FF “chrononaughts” from the present are themselves supplemented by yet another alternate FF: The Guardians of the Galaxy, “four lone survivors of four lost worlds, each pledged to destroy the Brotherhood of Badoon!” Like the makeshift team of “chrononaughts” who unite for a common end in issue #4, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a team notable for their lack of blood ties. In fact, their difference and separateness from each other is hyperbolically represented by the “last-of-their-race” trope.


These alternate FFs, I think, are representations of Gerber’s ideal of social, political, and national collectivity: strange communities that are also communities of strangers, brought together for a common purpose (the defense of liberty), but with more particular individual differences and interests that are radically non-totalizable. In the case of the four “chrononaughts,” the team itself is only a temporary assemblage, the members of which will separate and recombine as the need or desire arises. Welcome to the Gerberverse: Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben reinterpreted through the lens of the Defenders.

This, at least, is what I was getting at in that earlier post for plok’s Seven Soldiers of Steve, when I claimed that

Gerber’s stories in Marvel Two-In-One (as the book’s title and concept suggest) are really all studies of the strange community motif that is not just a consolation but (I suspect) a genuine political goal… In Gerber’s work in these issues of MTIO, the strange community emerges as a vision that is at once philosophical, ethical, and political: democracy, or perhaps, “America” as non-team.

Does Gerber ultimately provide any concrete answers? Beats me, True Believer. But he definitely has a compelling way of posing the important questions.

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2006 at 5:16 am

Vol. 2, No. 6 – SPECIAL ONE YEAR BLOGOVERSARY EDITION
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In this issue:
reviews of Wonder Woman #1, The Sensational Spider-Man #26, and Green Lantern #11 / notes on recent Marvel comics, Omega Men, and more recent rentals / rants about Double Articulation: One Year Later

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

reviews

Wonder Woman #1 (DC Comics)
Alan Heinberg (Writer) / Terry Dodson (Penciller) / Rachel Dodson (Inker) / Alex Sinclair (Colorist) / Rob Leigh (Letterer)

Alan Heinberg, you do not disappoint. Wow.

This is the best first-issue relaunch of a major superhero title since George Perez released his Wonder Woman #1 back in 1987. The story is superbly paced and packed with action, surprises, and tantalizing teases. The games that Heinberg plays with the reader in this one are also cleverly knitted together by the motif of deception and unmasking that runs through the issue. And the art. Oh boy. The art! This is the best-looking Wonder Woman comic I’ve seen in ages. Without in any way abandoning their signature style, Terry and Rachel Dodson have passed through to the other side of cheesecake art. The women in this comic are gorgeous, tough, and heroic.

And then there’s the little matter of Donna Troy. Judging from some of the other responses to this issue that I’ve read, I am probably in a very small minority here, but the spread on pages 2-3 made my jaw drop and my heart beat a little faster—not with horror, but with sheer unbridled fanboy delight. Even if this is not a new status quo, Alan Heinberg and Terry and Rachel Dodson have done more to repair the damage to Donna Troy than even the combined talents of Phil Jimenez, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and George Perez were able to accomplish. It was so simple: just restore her connection to the Amazons. Suddenly, her character makes sense again. And looks better than she has since the heyday of the star-spangled red jumpsuit. A+

The Sensational Spider-Man #26 (Marvel)
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Writer) / Clayton Crain (Artist) / Cory Petit (Letterer)

So, who is this Clayton Crain dude?

I flipped through The Sensational Spider-man #26 at the comic shop on a whim this week and just about fell over. That is some beautiful artwork. I felt momentarily transported back to the gloomy brilliance of Brent Anderson’s painted covers for Somerset Holmes, that exceptional but short-lived series from Pacific Comics back in the early 80s. Crain’s computer-colored work has sharper lines than Anderson’s covers, but the sensibility is similar—and perfect for a good, dark Spidey story, which this one, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, about Spidey and his more bestial foes going feral, seems to be. Even if you don’t like the costume, there’s an image of Spider-man emerging on those creepy golden limbs from a lake on page 20 that is almost worth the price of the whole comic. Visually, Crain’s take on the new Spider-man is a throwback to the mud-caked, rainy, Gotham-style gothicism of Kraven’s Last Hunt, done up in surprisingly expressive and dynamic three-dimensional digital painting. (For a nifty video of Crain’s art-process, visit this link on his website, Hey Cat.) This is just a guest-spot for Crain while regular series artist Angel Medina takes a breather, but even if you don’t intend to buy the rest of the story, this issue is still one of the more satisfying visual takes on Spider-man that I’ve seen in quite awhile. The perfect impulse-buy.

Green Lantern #11 (DC Comics)
Geoff Johns (Writer) / Ivan Reis (Penciller) / Oclair Albert (Inker) / Moose Baumann (Colorist) / Rob Leigh (Letterer)

I forgot to mention this title during my overview of DC One Year Later series and that was a significant oversight. This book has been a strange one since its relaunch, and although I’ve enjoyed the stories and the high caliber of artists who’ve worked on them, this title has lacked the creative stability necessary to build long-term reader involvement in what is, after all, a serial, not a set of Green Lantern: Classified arcs. It’s therefore a great pleasure to see powerhouse penciller Ivan Reis take over as full-time GL artist at the same time that the title itself seems finally to be digging into some really exciting storytelling territory: the introduction of a Doomsday-like GL, the return of the Cyborg Superman, more Guy Gardner, and a tantalizing subplot involving the reformation of the Global Guardians (VERY stoked about that). What feels different about Green Lantern OYL is the sudden sense of depth and richness the events have been given, courtesy of that one year of blacked-out time. As much as I liked the austerity of that first story arc, this is what the early issues of the series were missing. The villains and subplots of this particular issue also connect Hal Jordan up to the bigger DCU in a way that I think the series needed. The Green Arrow and Batman guest spots were nice, but those aren’t the kind of continuity crossovers I’m talking about. Those were “small” stories, and it’s really great to see the seeds of larger events (such as the founding of the Global Guardians) being planted in a series that should be one of the lynch-pins of the more fully-integrated DCU.

notes

For the Record: Recent Marvel

Despite that little burst of enthusiasm a couple of months ago, I’ve been kind of wary of Marvel lately. I no longer read many of the Marvel titles that were once staples (Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-man, Fantastic Four) because I’ve been burned so many times by their false starts, rotating creative teams, and lousy storytelling that I just kind of lost interest. Those new versions of old favorites that I hang onto despite my better judgment (New Avengers, Astonishing X-men) currently test my patience as much as they entertain me. And Marvel’s latest event-comics are either vaguely depressing (Civil War) or disappointingly executed (Annihilation). So what am I enjoying from Marvel these days? Not too much, but not nothing either.

Charlie Huston, David Finch and Danny Miki’s brutal new Moon Knight series, for instance. Sick though it is, I love the ugliness, abasement, and sheer nastiness that Huston brings to the developing story of Marc Spector’s slow crawl out of (and back into?) the gutter. What Moon Knight does to his opponent in issue #2 was a real shocker and gruesomely sets the tone for a series that looks like it is really willing to visit some scary places—I’m totally hooked. David Finch’s detailed pencils and knack for prettified violence are perfect for this series; I hope he hangs around longer than he did for New Avengers. If the creative team sticks it out, this could be a classic in the making.

In a very different vein, there’s Brian Reed, Roberto de la Torre and Jimmy Palmiotti’s terrific new Ms. Marvel series. This is basically Dazzler version 2.0, harkening back especially to the slightly tougher Dazz who emerged fighting beside Wolverine and Colossus in the final few issues of her series, once it was already basically slated for cancellation. As Marvel’s new Alison Blair, Carol Danvers frets and fights her way through dangerous alien and human predators in what is turning out to be a very well-written, attractively-illustrated story of a second-rate superheroine trying to make it in the big-leagues. As his use of the Brood in the first couple of issues demonstrates, Brian Reed has an extremely good grasp of what it is that makes Carol Danvers cool—it’s not her brush with New Avengers status (as the cover of the first issue suggests), but fans’ memory of her as the underdog tag-along to the X-Men’s space-faring adventures. I wonder how long it will be before Rogue shows up (also, significantly, an old Dazzler antagonist). Great fun.

Another Marvel series that I actually look forward to these days is Fabian Nicieza, Tom Grummett, and Gary Erksine’s Thunderbolts. The series, which has been floundering since its rocky relaunch, has finally hit its stride in issue #102, which tells the origin of Janice “Joystick” Yanizeski. After the delicious reveals in this issue, I’m now going to have to go back and re-read the New Thunderbolts from the beginning, and possibly re-evaluate my earlier assessment of the story. Thanks to Tom Grummett’s slick superhero art, the title looks extra sharp, and the presence of characters like Nighthawk and the Grandmaster (who plays chess in his celestial living room!!) make this series too much fun not to love. Whew! I think I’m finally ready to relax and enjoy the ride.

Finally, although I haven’t been thrilled with most of the Annihilation miniseries, I am enjoying Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kev Walker, and Rick Magyar’s Nova. Like the rest of the Annihilation prologues, this one’s a slow-starter, but dynamic duo Abnett and Lanning are writing a nice character piece here and Walker’s pencils look sharp. If this team did a Nova ongoing, I’d plunk down my two nickels.

I’m still looking forward to Eternals and the constantly teased possibility of a new Alpha Flight. And of course, there are some other good Marvel series that still await me, either because I’m waiting for the trade or because their storylines are already so far along that I just haven’t worked up the energy to jump on board yet: She-Hulk, Runaways, Daredevil and possibly Captain America. As always, suggestions welcome.

Omega Men

I read the spectacular Adam Strange: Planet Heist recently, so I’m tickled to hear that DC is going to give the Omega Men another shot, even if it is only just a miniseries to start with. Here’s what series writer Andersen Gabrych has to say about the team line-up: “Tigorr, the take-no-BS leader, Broot the pacifist powerhouse, Doc, the TV-Headed team physician who has learned to use his healing powers to devastating results, Elu the living cosmic storm, and Ryand’r, brother to Teen Titan, Starfire, who has a whole new set of powers and a brand-new codename which has everything to do with our story. We also will pick up a new lady-member who has roots deep in the DCU’s cosmic mythos and an old Omegan will return in an entirely new way.” And here’s what he has to say about the story: “This goes right to the heart of faith, quantum mechanics, death, God, and the beauty of existential diversity. With lots and lots of kick-ass fighting, featuring guest appearances by Superman, the Teen Titans, Green Lantern, and more!” Gee, sounds almost as if it was being written specifically for, well…me! All these guest appearances sound great too, especially for a reader like myself who isn’t actually all that well-versed in Omega Men lore, but who remembers the group mainly as cool supporting players in other comics. Like many, I was first introduced to the team in New Teen Titans #24 during the Blackfire/Tamaran space-epic—the storyline that cemented my love of the Titans after the amazing Brother Blood issues. I didn’t buy the subsequent Omega Men series (despite gazing rapturously at Keith Giffen’s sumptuous cover to the first issue), but I did pick up the odd issue here and there over the course of that run and really enjoyed it. From the impressive reconstruction of the Green Lantern Corps, to the reintroduction of classic pulp-style space heroes like Adam Strange and Captain Comet, to the relaunching of fan-favorites like the Omega Men from the Perez-era Titans, DC’s gradual rebuilding of its universe continues to gather steam.

The Screening Room: Recently Viewed

My retreat from reality continues:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – I’m no doubt the first person in history to watch this film because of its Days of Our Lives cameo (thanks Tom), but am I ever glad I finally did. This film really is as special as its reputation would have us believe. Spielberg’s obsession with “family” has become increasingly grating over the years, but it is charming and even moving in this film. The unearthly little boy who just wants to see his alien playmates captures something so authentic about childhood that it makes you ache, and Richard Dreyfus is surprisingly good as the UFO-witnessing father (if you’re a sentimental slob like me, the mashed potato scene where he says “I guess you’ve all noticed that there’s something strange with dad” might actually make you blubber like a little kid). Moreover, the film makes storytelling-choices about his relationship with his family and with fellow witness Melinda Dillon that reminded me how conservative Spielberg has since become on this topic. The real treat, though, are the memorable, spectacular images of the mothership rising above the butte, of the light through the keyhole, of the little boy opening the door, of Richard Dreyfus surrounded by the childlike aliens… All of this is infinitely better than the more commercial version of these tropes in E.T. (1982). In a lot of ways, Close Encounters felt like “pure” cinema: the entire plot turns on the issue of seeing something that isn’t just magical-seeming, but something actually made of light and sound. And does it ever deliver. Maybe I’m just tapped out on the virtual datascapes of CGI, but the visual lighting effects in this film are as sublime as anything I’ve seen on screen in the last 20 years. Magic.

The Keep (1983) – I cannot convey to you how strange a viewing experience this was. Directed and adapted for screen by Michael Mann, with a youngish Ian McKellen and Lance Henrickson look-alike Scott Glenn in starring roles, this movie about Nazis who unleash an ancient supernatural being from a Romanian Keep looked like fun. (It’s also based on a novel by horror-scribe F. Paul Wilson, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past.) But you know there’s a problem when your patient and loving wife who is sitting through all this nonsense remarks, about halfway in, that it sort of reminds her of Xanadu (1980). She might have something there. The film is so lovingly made and flirts with such high-minded ideas that it’s hard not to feel a little protective of it. But not even Michael Mann’s stylish aesthetic sensibility can fully unify what turns out, somewhat disappointingly, to be a morality play masquerading as a horror film that is itself rather disconcertingly decked out in the garb of science fiction. (Its visual signature is glowing laser beams in fog and the climax falls just short of a full-fledged light-saber duel.) Strangest of all, though, is the unremitting eighties-electronica soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, which is perfect for the hilariously choreographed (and out-of-the-blue) sex scene between Scott Glenn’s “wanderer” and Ian McKellen’s daughter, but provides an odd accompaniment to the machinations and death-shudders of the Nazis at the ancient citadel, who seem to be caught in a misty, back-lit music video. I can’t really recommend it, but it has a certain charm.

The Substitute (1996) – Worse than you might think. Even if the equally appalling but at least entertaining Dangerous Minds (1995) has a place in your secret trunk of guilty pleasures, this reactionary tale of sensitive white Merc (Tom Berenger) who discovers his inner-Pfeiffer while stomping out a drug ring at an inner city high school is 114 minutes you will regret giving up. A distinctly mid-nineties example of ass-whooping with a bad-conscience.

X-Files (1998) – I remember the excitement leading up to this film…and the letdown when I actually saw it, even back in 1998 when my X-philia was at a fever-pitch. Some great visuals—Scully and Mulder in the beehive, for instance—but it mainly just felt like an overlong, poorly paced episode of the series. It didn’t help that the leads were strangely uncharismatic on the big screen. Hasn’t aged well.

The Matrix (1999) – This, on the other hand, has aged wonderfully. I haven’t seen the original installment since I was first caught off-guard by it in the theatre, but it’s lost none of its kicky gloss in the interim. Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith may actually improve with age. Near-perfect sci-fi.

The Transporter (2002) – Supremely silly and supremely awesome. I loved every minute of this slick, stylish adrenaline rush for fourteen-year-old boys of all ages. As nattily-attired ex-Special Forces “transporter” Frank Martin, Jason Stratham is the coolest action hero since Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. The beautifully-choreographed fight scenes avoid the gravity-defying sublimity of the Matrix films in favor of a slower, more deliberate, more naturalistic weightlessness: Stratham moves like a sort of Gene Kelly with guns and kung-fu. The “story” (and I use the term loosely) is ostensibly the old chestnut about how a stiff, by-the-book hero’s life is turned upside down by the appearance of a beautiful girl (Qi Shu), but the pleasures of the film rest entirely on the fetishistic precision of Frank’s wardrobe, house, driving, and ass-kicking.

A History of Violence (2005) – I find it very difficult to believe that this was nominated for best adapted screenplay (much less that William Hurt was nominated for best supporting actor). Was I supposed to take this seriously? Peter Travers, Lisa Schwarzbaum, explain yourselves. The most overrated film I’ve seen in recent memory. I watched it with a similarly bewildered group of intimates and I’d relate our post-viewing evisceration, but why bother? The comments by metacritic users Lance C., Jennifer R., Mark P., Steve A., and others say it all so eloquently already. Not good.

rants

On Blogoversaries: Double Articulation…One Year Later

Am I still here? Huh.

I’m as surprised as you are. Probably more.

You see, I’m famous for starting things and not finishing them. For flaking out at the first sign of trouble. Novels. Hobbies. Diets. Exercise regimens. I’m easily-distracted, fickle, and lazy. If I weren’t also obsessive-compulsive and a perfectionist, I probably wouldn’t be able to hold down a job, much less sustain irregular contributions to a little space on the web. And so, here it is, one year later, and Double Articulation continues to putt along, a testament to the awesome power of caffeine-fueled narcissism. And of course, to you, dear reader! When I put up that first portentous post on My Golden Age a year ago today, I harbored the secret, terrible hope that maybe as many as four or five people might read it and might find, in some small manner, that it spoke to them. And to my surprise, they did! And some of you even linked here or sent along a nice word or two.

To everyone who’s stopped by over the past year to skim through my obscure and tendentious musings, whether you’ve commented, linked, or just read, I’d like to say a very sincere thank you. Double Articulation has been a lot of fun for me—too much fun, really. Comics have long been a mainly private pleasure, so being able to spout off about them to fellow geeks and interested hangers-on has been a treat. The conversations that have developed, both here and on your own blogs, are a continued source of delight for me.

Thanks to one and all!

On Remakes: The Omen…Thirty Years Later

In Uncategorized on June 9, 2006 at 7:02 pm

[Spoilers]

As I sat in the dark listening to the teenagers behind me chatter through John Moore’s strangely subdued remake of The Omen this week, I kept wondering: why is everything so stylized? Why has nearly every scene in this picture been imagined as a hyperreal gothic homage to the old newspaper joke, “what’s black and white and re(a)d all over?” Doomed adoptive mom Julia Stiles dreams herself as a bloody gash of silk in a bathroom of cold white tile; hospital rooms are rendered in muted palettes of grey and white to offset the inevitable gift of red gerber daisies; duped and deceiving dad Liev Schreiber sprints endlessly through black and white corridors offset by a single red detail; nosey photographer-cum-P.I. David Thewlis dwells in a developing room of perpetual red light; heck, even the plant-spritzer in the white-walled Thorn estate is red! And sure, black-haired anticherub Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick scowls his way into our hearts as demonspawn Damien, but did he really have to wear a RED sweater to his birthday party? We get it! He’s the antichrist! Does the film need to broadcast it so loudly? Why is every inch of this film so relentlessly aestheticized? What prompts this impulse to alienate the audience so completely from any identification with the characters at all by overpowering the dramatic content of every scene with fetishistic, chromatic artifice?

At first, I thought that this was a simple case of cheap postmodern filmmaking. A love-affair with images and surfaces, an utter disinterest in narrative or depth. And hey, I’ve got no problem with that. My own interest in seeing The Omen—indeed my mild enjoyment of it—stemmed from precisely the expectation that it would be a slick, pretty nightmare with a hollow center. The best parts of the film were undeniably those that were the most hyper-aestheticized, artificial, and pointless: the compulsory (but lovely) bibliophilic montage of medieval woodcuts, astronomical tables, and arcane texts that has become de rigueur in recent horror cinema; the parents’ chillingly stylish nightmares; the apparently Charon-helmed passage across the misty lake to the hidden monastery; the courtyard meeting with exquisitely deformed Father Spiletto (Giovanni Lombardo Radice); Thewlis’s ornate decapitation (“That was a cool death,” the critic in the seat behind me tittered to his shushing girlfriend). (Not surprisingly, shots of these evocative scenes made up a disproportionate amount of the trailer.) Equally fun, and equally silly, was watching a perfectly (stunt-)cast Mia Farrow steal the show as Satanic Mary Poppins, Mrs. Baylock. One doesn’t go into an obviously B-grade remake these days expecting much more than this: a couple of memorable visuals, a campy performance or two, and maybe even a little scare. As long as one’s expectations are low enough (which is to say “postmodern” enough), The Omen doesn’t completely disappoint.

But there’s still the matter of the film’s more general aesthetic overkill. Why black, white, and red in nearly every scene? Sure, most film-goers are cynical enough not to expect too much in the way of an involving story, and skimming along the surface of filmic hyperreality can be fun—to a point—but did the movie really need to go out of its way to prevent us from identifying with the protagonists at all?

And then it occurred to me that even without the movie’s alienating visual gloss, I didn’t really like these characters. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we’re asked to believe that Liev Schreiber’s Robert Thorn is capable of doing something extremely silly, and as a result we lose all respect both for him and for his insipid wife Katherine. Yet the film bombards us early on (in those montages of bringing up baby) with signals that we are supposed to like and care about this sorry couple, whose marriage remains as much of a cipher throughout the film as the characters do themselves. Stiles looks puzzled throughout the movie, and who can blame her? Victimized heroine Katherine oscillates between shrill and baffling. Schreiber’s Robert, who behaves like a stunted emotional cripple bouncing between anguish and stupidity, is no better. It’s hard not to root for Damien and his nanny from hell if these nouveau riche twits are our protagonists.

And so, like David Thewlis’s improbably-connected photojournalist (he got his hands on that coroner’s report how, exactly?), I began to feel that something wasn’t right about the images I was looking at. Like Thewlis’s spooky photographs, the film seemed to bear the mysterious marks of some other plane of reality—only this time they weren’t anticipations of the future so much as ghostly remainders of some moment in the past. Some moment in 1976, to be precise: they were all traces of Richard Donner’s original The Omen from thirty years earlier.

This is what I learned when I rented Donner’s movie the next day and watched it for the first time. It turns out that John Moore’s 2006 film isn’t just a remake of the 1976 original—it actually uses the same script that David Seltzer wrote for that first movie thirty years ago too. Of course, in the new one, the signs of the apocalypse have been updated in all the tacky ways one would expect, and some of the scenes have been changed—slightly, and not always for the better. But the script of the remake, even though lines are sometimes placed in the mouths of other characters, is almost a scene-for-scene, word-for-word repetition of that earlier film. (Amusingly, many of the non sequiturial bits of dialogue from the new movie make sense once we hear the fuller version of the conversation in the original film.) This is hardly a scandal—The Omen is a remake, after all. But the remake’s lazy, relatively wholesale adoption of Seltzer’s 1976 script does explain why the characters and plot of the 2006 remake often make no sense.

Turns out, a few things have changed since 1976! This might not matter for a pseudo-religious horror pic like this, except that Seltzer’s script is so rooted in the details, dilemmas, and sexual politics of the 1970s that many of its incidents simply don’t translate well into their new 2006 context. I was puzzled, for instance, by the awkward prominence (and seeming irrelevance) of Katherine’s announcement that she intended to have an abortion, and by her equally surprising conclusion, after a bad day in the monkey house, that she “need[ed] to see someone” about her disturbing feelings for Damien. Really, Katherine? A shrink? That’s so…1976. Why not just turn on Dr. Phil? And while I’m on the subject, why all the drama about declaring your right to an abortion? One doesn’t have to be a medieval zealot to acknowledge that abortion might be a difficult personal choice for even the most ardent feminist, and this is a Catholic horror film after all, but somehow your clipped announcement to Robert still feels a little overheated. But perhaps this is in keeping with the film’s general dilemma about what to do with you; you made so much more sense as a supportive political wife who gloried in the splendor of the ambassador’s estate and felt right at home bossing Mrs. Baylock around than the uncomfortable neurotic who sighs about how big and empty the manor is and waters her own plants on the balustrade. And when, exactly, was it standard practice for psychiatrists to discuss the details of a patient’s “fantasies” with her husband? Probably about the same time that father-knows-best husbands were beginning to feel anxious about the gains of second wave feminism and that foreign diplomats apologized to obnoxious paparazzi for breaking their cameras and offered to buy them new ones, instead of pushing them down the stairs and hoping they broke their necks.

Ah well. At least it’s reassuring that some things have changed.

What becomes particularly clear when watching Richard Donner’s no less cheesy but grungier, more naturalistic, and in many ways more satisfying 1976 version of The Omen is the purpose of the alienating hyper-stylized red, white, and black aesthetic in the John Moore version. It is there not just to satisfy our postmodern craving for the simulacrum and its evil demon of images, but to distract us. To keep our natural inclination to identify with the strangely antique protagonists of David Seltzer’s mothbally old script at bay. Because, of course, if we look too hard, if we don’t yield completely to the superficial pleasures of the simulacrum, the movie’s already rickety narrative scaffolding collapses. These people make no sense in 2006. At least, I hope they don’t.

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2006 at 6:33 pm

Vol. 2, No. 5
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In this issue:
reviews of The Battle For Blüdhaven #1-4 and Teen Titans #34-36 / notes on One Year Later Hits and Misses, Mike Mitchell’s Zombie Boy, My Top 50 DC Characters, New (Old) Outsiders in 2007?, and Recent Rentals / rants about various and sundry

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

reviews

The Battle for Blüdhaven #1-4 (DC Comics)
Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (Writers) / Dan Jurgens (Penciller) / Jimmy Palmiotti (Inker) / Javi Montes (Colorist) / Pat Brosseau (Letterer)

This Infinite Crisis spin-off is a blast: a B-movie that feels like it actually matters (even if it doesn’t). Gray and Palmiotti’s twisty, suspenseful “dead” Hawkman storyline knocked me out last year, so I was happy that they were helming one of the Crisis epilogues. They haven’t disappointed. The reveals and teases have been fun, and, more importantly, the parade of semi-disposable D-list characters through Nightwing’s old stomping-ground has been a real treat—especially the Atomic Knights, the Force of July, and now the Nuclear Family(!). Can we expect a resurrected Dr. Helga Jace to show up next? Here’s an idea: since Gray and Palmiotti obviously have a soft spot for kooky Barr/Aparo Outsiders allies and villains, how about getting them to write a new classic Outsiders series. (For more on this brilliant idea, see below.)

And did I mention? Battle for Blüdhaven is a scrappy little thing: a conspiracy slugfest with teeth. Baby teeth, perhaps, but teeth all the same! The city of Blüdhaven (this one destroyed by an actual “Axis of Evil”) has become an inevitable amalgam of recent American disaster zones and the Firebrand v. Father Time face-off serves as an entertainingly broad (but still not inaccurate) riff on the polarized state of political debate in the US. Dan Jurgens’s workmanlike, virtually proletarian art-style (normally not my favorite) is a perfect choice for this mini’s muscular pulp politicking and eighties-style superhero intrigues. And bonus: he can draw Raven’s cowl properly. Young Titans artists who attempt the absurd feat of showing Raven in flight, take note.

Teen Titans #34-36 (DC Comics)
Geoff Johns (Writer) / Tony Daniel (Penciller) / Kevin Conrad & various (Inkers) / Tanya and Richard Horie (Colorist) / Travis Lanham (Letterer)

What does it look like? If it didn’t date me so severely, I’d say Porky’s. So let’s make it American Pie instead. It’s One Year Later, and the Teen Titans aren’t just New, they’re hot…and bothered. Not that it isn’t all highly amusing, but I’m old enough to remember a time, back in the stone age, when a tiny one-panel above-the-waist shot of Dick and Kory being awakened from their freshly mussed bed in the middle of the night made comics-code puritans hyperventilate. And here we have Rose Wilson, nude, handcuffed, and raring-to-go on Robin’s mattress…

…and lighting a cigarette off of Kid Devil in a scene that would put the subliminal advertising masterminds of Big Tobacco to shame…

…meanwhile, criminal super-couple Monsieur Mallah and the chrome-plated death-phallus are whispering nothings so sweet and so steeped in double entendres that I can hardly concentrate on the exposition…!

Once one wades through all the teen sex-comedy hijinks, though, one might be surprised to discover that the OYL Teen Titans are notable for something that’s been missing from the title for a long time: chemistry. The two things are obviously related. The title’s recent emphasis on bedroom farce is only the most obvious sign of a new vitality and playfulness that has entered the series in the last few issues. And it’s not all farce either—the developing romance between Rose Wilson and Kid Devil feels both genuine and sweet. In three short issues, Johns has established Rose and Eddie as sympathetic three-dimensional underdogs. Add to the mix a grieving, angry Wonder Girl and a darker, driven Robin. After three years of relative indifference (and many years before that of utter despair), I’ve finally got some Titans I can care about again.

How did this happen?

It’s no secret that the Titans have been in a conceptual muddle ever since the second New Teen Titans series folded back in the mid-nineties.

Even before that series ended, the stories of many of the characters seemed played out—particularly those characters created specifically by Wolfman and Perez for the relaunch of the original Teen Titans back in the early eighties. After nearly 200 issues, what else could be done with Raven? Starfire? Cyborg? These were Wolfman’s characters all the way, and even though he was burnt out on them, no one else seemed capable of picking up the authorial reigns. The disastrous addition of Danny Chase midway into the second series seemed only to confirm that the Teen Titans had become a team impervious to change or growth. That’s why the spectacular year-long Titans Hunt storyline was such a relief. Finally, there was a real acknowledgment that everything had to change—and change radically—in order to reinvigorate the series. Suddenly, instead of the usual faces, Raven’s mother Arella took center-stage with Deathstroke, Wildebeest, Phantasm, Red Star, and yes…even Pantha. Cyborg was rebuilt. Joey was revealed as a traitor. And it was all damn exciting—one of the best Titans stories since the five part Trigon arc that inaugurated the second series. Sadly, the renaissance was short lived. New character additions grew increasingly absurd, the series soon degenerated into nonsense, and was mercifully cancelled.

The Dan Jurgens Teen Titans reboot that ran from 1996-98 demonstrated the difficulty of relaunching the property with new faces. It didn’t help, of course, that despite a tenuous connection to Titans mythology, this was basically a new concept being marketed under a recognizable brand name. I hated everything about it, and so, apparently, did everyone else. The next Titans relaunch, helmed by Devin Grayson, bent the stick violently back in the other direction, attempting a nostalgic return to roots. But if the sense that the team dynamic had been played out was already palpable in 1996, it was even more powerfully present in 1999 as we were now faced with even older versions of characters like Troia, Cyborg, Starfire, Nightwing, and Tempest, who all improbably regressed, losing all the depth they had achieved during the height of Wolfman’s run. This version of the series occasionally transcended the oppressive weight of nostalgia (thanks to the addition of Roy Harper, Jessie Quick, and others) but on the whole, it confirmed the truism that you can never really go home again. The bewildering arrival of not one, but FIVE Danny Chases (those oppressive DEO kids) to reboot the series mid-run neatly illustrated the degree to which DC editors at that time had learned nothing from the failure of the Dan Jurgens Teen Titans.

When Geoff Johns set about launching the current Teen Titans series in 2003, he showed that he had learned the lessons of both previous flops. Like Devin Grayson he combined old and new Titans, but with a greater sense of novelty and change. Indeed, the presence of the older Titans now seems like it was a bait-and-switch strategy to lure back the old readers while foregrounding and promoting the Young Justice Titans into familiar roles. This had many obvious advantages, chief among them was that Johns’s “new” Titans felt reassuringly familiar to old fans like me. I was ready to give Tim, Cassie, Bart, and even Connor a chance just because, when combined with Raven, Cyborg, Starfire, and Beast Boy, Johns’s Titans at least looked like the (old) New Teen Titans. (Yes, I really am THAT easy.)

But, even with the bone that Geoff tossed to aging fanboys like myself, something about the new series has never felt right. For awhile I thought it might be the pacing (I miss the density of those un-decompressed old stories), or perhaps just the art, which has never done much for me. What the OYL revamp reveals, however, is that it’s the composition of the team itself that’s been holding back the new series.

Johns’s hot-of-the-press Titans interview at newsarama (which, serendipitously, was released while I was in the middle of writing this) confirms as much: “I wanted to shake the team up, and I was nervous doing it. I knew the reactions would be ‘Ravager?!’ and ‘Who the #@$% is Kid Devil?’ But because of Superboy’s death, it forced us to take chances, and I’m glad. For a long time our line-up seemed to look like the former Young Justice kids smashed together with the New Teen Titans. It was great for the first three years of the book but it was time for something new. And the OYL to me seemed like an opportunity, and a requirement, to seriously alter the status quo.” Hear, hear. It’s easy to see why Johns needed to start this series the way he did, but what we’ve been reading since his Teen Titans #1 was essentially a drawn-out transition from the often forgettable, sometimes awful Titans stories of the post NTT-era. Even with only three issues in the bank, the OYL Titans series is already far more interesting than the “smashed together” Young Justice Titans of the past three years.

Clearly, Johns has not abandoned any of his nostalgia for the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans, but now, finally, this nostalgia no longer takes the form of hollow quotation (an all-new Wonder Girl! Kid Flash! Robin!) but rather, quotes and synthesizes more creatively: Kid Devil is a kind of junior Trigon with the wounded horn-dog sensibility of a young Gar Logan, and Rose Wilson is an all-new Ravager explicitly crossbred with the dangerous Lolita edge of the original Terra. (Indeed, their budding romance hits all of those old Gar-Terra buttons all over again, but with a difference.) Rather than trying to literally reproduce the Wolfman/Perez Titans, the new Teen Titans lineup seems to be trying to reproduce the underlying chemistry of those characters that made that beloved incarnation of the team so great. Moreover, like its predecessor, it gestures at the past without being slavishly tied to it. The numerous failed Titans series cluttering up my longboxes ably demonstrate how difficult this formula is to master, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johns. The fact that the forthcoming “membership drive” storyline sounds reminiscent of Titans Hunt is a bonus. (The only dismaying note in all this is the introduction of Wendy and Marvin as “caretakers” of the Tower. Oh brother. Did someone owe Alex Ross a favor? I’m trying to keep an open mind.)

The current storyline, which sees the return not just of a cool and creepy new Doom Patrol, but the reintegration of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol into the DCU is itself cause for celebration. Whereas many of the Titans stories of the past three years have felt more like Young Justice: The Next Generation, for this fan at least, the Doom Patrol story set in the Chief’s haunted castle feels like a real Titans story—a story that grows organically out of the strongest period of the Titans mythology and promises a satisfying mix of new and old. Johns concludes his newsarama interview by noting, “We’ve been, obviously, taking a big risk with the new direction of Teen Titans but we really wanted to take advantage of the OYL jump and shake the book up.” All I can say is: it’s about time.

notes

For the Record: DCU – One Year Later Hits and Misses

The One Year Later DCU is breaking my bank account, and they’re not done yet—but who needs food and clothing? Not surprisingly, 52 is at the top of my pile every week. The weekly pace and focus on cool second-stringers gives this series a sense of realism and depth that is often difficult to achieve when dealing with iconic characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Joe Bennett’s snazzy pencils deserve extra credit for the feeling of depth that attaches to the 52 DCU: finally, someone’s drawing detailed BACKGROUNDS again. Beautiful work, Joe! Needless to say, I love J. G. Jones’s covers, the detail-oriented storytelling, the weekly cliffhangers, and those little quarter-page teasers. The weekly reponses by comics fandom add to the fun. Mark Fossen’s 52 on 52, Douglas Wolk’s 52 Pick Up, and of course DC’s official 52 Website are all icing on the cake. Finally, Mister Mind’s cocoon??? Oh Grant, you are the master of all things. A thumbnail microcosm of the new DCU.

Of the regular OYL titles, Batman, Detective Comics, Superman, Action Comics, and the Teen Titans are all better than they’ve been in ages. (Is it just me? Or is “The Crime File of Jason Bard” not hilarious?) I’m also enjoying the slick-looking and smartly-scripted Firestorm, which I just started picking up. The Best OYL title, however, may actually be one that they’ve tampered with the least. Gail Simone and Paulo Siqueira’s Birds of Prey remains DC’s powerhouse sleeper—probably the smartest and most consistently entertaining mainstream comic DC publishes.

If you’re not reading it yet, I may have to reevaluate our friendship.

Not surprisingly, Gail’s Secret Six is the strongest of the Crisis spin-offs – the high-octane weirdness of the Villains United mini continues unabated here. Gail’s crackling, bizarre, surprise-laden script continues to pull no punches and is abetted by Brad Walker and Jimmy Palmiotti’s gritty, sensual art.

As mentioned above, I’m enjoying Battle for Blüdhaven and am thrilled that Willingham is back as both writer and artist on the Shadowpact ongoing. Blue Beetle is worth your time and shows enormous promise. The most pleasant surprise of the post-Crisis spin-offs so far, though, has been Checkmate. The OMAC Project miniseries was okay, but issue #2 of Rucka and Saiz’s new secret agent book is fantastic. Rucka’s novelistic script feels like a return to the heyday of Ostrander’s Suicide Squad and Saiz’s art really classes up the joint. Just look at his rendering of Kobra, stunningly realized as a slithering blend of old Eerie Magazine snake pits and Perez’s Brother Blood. I have very high hopes for this title, which is poised to be DC’s most “adult” book, and I hope the team of Rucka and Saiz sticks together for the long haul.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few question marks or even fumbles. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. Guice’s art is exquisite, I’m enjoying the mystery that Busiek’s spinning, and digging the weird characters and exotic locales. But there’s a lot of exposition here, and there’s also something a bit hokey about the series’s undersea primitivism (eg. King Shark’s grass skirt). I want to love this, but like most good fantasy epics, this one’s probably not going to fire on all cylinders until the groundwork has been laid. I’m willing to be patient because the book is so beautiful, but with so many good titles vying for attention, I’m worried that this one may not have the luxury of a slow start. Another strange one is JSA. While I’m sure the relaunch of The Justice Society of America will be great, the Levitz/Rags/Ross/Perez story is turning out to be sort of underwhelming. With a creative roster like this I should be riveted, but I’m just kind of…mildly entertained. And then there’s Winick’s Outsiders. Before Crisis, this was the book I loved to hate—and sometimes just hated. The recent Jay Garrick reveal was nifty, but this series is a drag. Tom Bondurant has already summed up my thoughts about Hawkgirl, which has certainly been the biggest disappointment of the batch. Like everyone else, “I really wanted to like this” but Simonson’s gothic pulp adventure feels like too radical a U-turn for this series and—legend or not—Chaykin is not the right artist for Kendra’s adventures. The line work is stiff and the inking is so clotted in places that the visuals just feel murky rather than atmospheric. Despite the tepid Rann-Thanagar issues, this series was just hitting its stride under Gray and Palmiotti’s tenure. Perhaps a further reshuffling of creative teams is in order, but I’m sticking with it for now.

Mike Mitchell’s Zombie Boy

I’ve been corresponding recently with Mike Mitchell, whose nifty new self-published comic book, Zombie Boy, is now available for order over on his new blog, Mitchell Family Comics. (Here’s a link directly to a promo post on Zombie Boy.) Mike’s art-style harkens back to the wonderfully creepy EC horror titles of the 1950s—Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Crypt of Terror—but his tale of an undead teenager’s search for justice and meaning transforms the motifs of classic horror comics into a very personal-feeling existential questioning of life, morality, and authority. I really enjoyed Mike’s first 16-page effort, Zombie Boy #1, and eagerly await the second issue, which is apparently well underway. Be sure to check out Mike’s site and to give Zombie Boy a try!

My Top 50 DC Characters (The Great Curve)

Well, that was fun. Thanks Tom! At this point, no one’s interested in who guessed right, only in the freakshow of embarrassing disclosure. I therefore present my omissions and overlaps without comment, and try vainly to justify some strange choices. (Oddities are linked to their wikipedia entries.) As I look at this list now, many of the choices and rankings are objectively indefensible. How did Wonder Woman end up at #29, trumped by Metamorpho and Vandal Savage? Sorry Diana. Clearly, I shouldn’t be allowed to fill out surveys.

Glaring Omissions: Doctor Fate (50), Animal Man (47), Green Lantern/Alan Scott (46), Black Adam (45), Sandman/Dream (44), The Atom (43), Bizarro (42), Jonah Hex (40), Elongated Man (39), John Constantine (38), Booster Gold (35), Guy Gardner (33), James Gordon (32), Mister Miracle (31), Alfred Pennyworth (30), Impulse/Kid Flash (28), Power Girl (27), Flash/Barry Allen (25), Plastic Man (24), Blue Beetle (22), Two-Face (21), Robin/Tim Drake (19), Space Cabby (18) [???], Aquaman (17), Catwoman (16), Starman (13), Martian Manhunter (12), Green Arrow (10).

My Picks:
1. Swamp Thing (37)
2. Batman, Bruce Wayne (1)
3. Superman, Clark Kent (2)
4. Lois Lane (11)
5. Joker (3)
6. Robin/Nightwing, Dick Grayson (4)
7. Oracle, Barbara Gordon (7)
8. Green Lantern, Hal Jordan (14)
9. The Question, Vic Sage (26)
10. Darkseid (23)
11. Spectre, Jim Corrigan (34)
12. StarroSuch a brilliant, simple design. The horror of the swarm and its vicissitudes.
13. SolarisGenuinely frightening. The secret location of Grant Morrison’s brain.
14. Captain Marvel, Billy Batson (9)
15. Vandal SavageDC’s great Bond-villain.

16. Lex Luthor (5)
17. Phantom Stranger (48)
18. Metamorpho, Rex MasonVisually, one of DC’s most striking classic characters. A poor man’s Ben Grimm, perhaps, but Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo made me love him in BATO.
19. Adam Strange (41)
20. Hawkman, Carter Hall (36)
21. Deathstroke, Slade Wilson (52)
22. Zatanna (20)
23. Black Lightening, Jefferson PierceAnother Outsider. Anyone seeing a pattern here?
24. Cyborg, Vic Stone (51)
25. Speedy/Arsenal, Roy HarperBefore anyone was exploring the idea of the fallen side-kick, there was Speedy. One of those rare characters who seems impervious to writerly bungling and, in the right hands, potentially DC’s most interesting fuck-up.
26. Flash, Wally West (8)
27. Black Canary, Dinah Lance (15)
28. Mister Terrific, Michael Holt (49)
29. Wonder Woman, Diana (6)
30. Crazy Jane, Kay ChallisThe archetypal Grant Morrison character and a curious but not inappropriate legacy for one of William Butler Yeats’s most interesting poetic masks.
31. Robotman, Cliff SteeleAm I really the only one who thinks he belongs on this list??
32. Flash, Jay Garrick (29)
33. Wildcat, Ted GrantJSA #10. Read it NOW.
34. RavenVisually, the best Perez-designed New Teen Titan. For some reason, no one else seems capable of drawing her. For that matter, since Wolfman, no one seems capable of writing her either. Thrilled that he’s writing the new mini.
35. Wonder Girl, Donna TroyDespite the recent attempt at resuscitation by Jimenez, Garcia-Lopez, and Perez, still DC’s most ruined character. Some of us still remember, though…and carry a torch.
36. Starfire, Koriand’rPerez’s alien dream-girl is much mocked, but unfairly. On par with Raven as a superb character design. For better or worse: iconic.
37. Katana, Tatsu YamashiroJudd Winick is currently showing us why this complex female samurai makes no sense without Halo. Hopefully a reunion is in the works.
38. Amanda WallerA stereotype grown complex. As important to DC as Nick Fury is to Marvel.
39. Captain Cold, Leonard SnartBlame Geoff Johns for this one. His Flash stories sold me.
40. Shade, the Changing ManSteve Ditko’s design is stunning and the Vertigo series was a favorite. I wish they’d bring him back.
41. Amethyst, Amy WinstonBear with me. I’ll explain in more detail this summer.
42. Brother BloodTrigon was great, and probably belongs on this list too, but Brother Blood scared the crap out of me. Another perfect Perez design, though I hate what Johns did with him in the new series.
43. Blue Devil, Daniel Patrick CassidyI must have a thing for Dan Mishkin characters. I loved this comic! And Blue Devil’s look epitomizes (with Booster Gold) a period of fun eighties creativity that has been much underrated, though is happily making a splashy comeback in the current DCU.
44, 45, 46. Projectra/Sensor Girl, Wildfire, Drake Burroughs, Karate Kid, Val ArmorrVery personal choices that I will explore in more detail at some point. It’s difficult to pick a favorite Legionnaire, but Jeckie, Wildfire, and Val were three of my early obsessions, likely because, as a young reader, they each embodied fairly archetypal (and now somewhat embarrassing) ideals and fantasies.
47. Baron WinterI’ve said it before. I’ll say it again: DC needs to collect Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s paranormal masterpiece, Night Force.
48. Captain CometI have a thing for Captain Comet. I can’t explain it. Needless to say, the announcement in this post at newsarama made me very happy.
49. Doctor PhosphorousThe coolest-looking second-string Bat-villain ever. Please Grant, revive him.
50. I…Vampire, Andrew BennettBefore Anne Rice’s Lestat and friends, there was I…Vampire. Admit it, if you’d thought of it, he’d have been on your list too.

New (Old) Outsiders Series in 2007?

I know, I know. You’re sick of hearing about it. And there’s nothing more pathetic than a grown man’s nostalgia for childhood fantasy-objects. But the signs are there. They really are.

Battle for Blüdhaven currently showcases the return of off-beat Outsiders-villains, the pathologically patriotic Force of July and the Nuclear Family—Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo’s ingeniously imagined satire of the “perfect” 1950s nuclear-family that turns the fears of the Atomic Age into a clever metaphor for normative dysfunction from Outsiders (second series) #1-2.

You can’t turn around without bumping into Black Lightening and Metamorpho these days. And Katana is back in full force too, currently awaiting rescue from “Nightwing’s personal goon squad,” as Greg Rucka so aptly calls Winick’s cheerless Outsiders OYL reboot.

And…what have we here? Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham’s exquisite Villains United Special had more than a couple of classic Outsider cameos:

I also note the interesting announcement of a reprinting of the Terra stories from Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans 26-34 in trade paperback…in advance of the reprinting of these issues in the slowly emerging archive editions of the series. Where Terra goes, can Geo-Force be far behind?

And what about this late addition? (I wrote this last week, before 52 #4 came out.) There’s Halo doing her “Auracle”-speak right there on pages 1-3. I tell you, the writing is on the wall!

DC wouldn’t toy with me would they? And even if they would, surely Gail Simone isn’t so cruel! Right Gail? Um…Gail?

My new Classic Outsiders creative dream-teams: Gail Simone & Dale Eaglesham OR Justin Grey, Jimmy Palmiotti, & Joe Bennett. I’m not choosy, really. Either would be fine!

The Screening Room: Recently Viewed

Why have I been renting so many movies lately? Perhaps to make up for the pain of my recent trips to the multiplex. So, thanks Da Vinci Code!

Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) – Carnivalesque exploitation (literally) with a guilty conscience. Moody and weird; the climax—though brief—is unforgettable.

All About Eve (1950) – Joeseph L. Mankiewicz’s ultimate showbiz satire is wicked, cutting, brilliant – pick your adjective. They sure don’t make them like they used to. Plus: all the corrosive, dead-pan wit you’d expect from Bette Davis.

Rebecca (1940) – Hitchcock’s creepy and exquisitely filmed gothic romance. The Mandelay scenes are transporting and the suspense about the first Mrs. DeWinter is torturous. The spectacular first hour and denouement, more than make up for the draggy third quarter.

Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979) – Compelling, uncanny, and possibly profound. The beauty of this film is its gritty simplicity, but there’s more to its relentlessly linear narrative than meets the eye. Clint Eastwood is fantastic in the lead role. My favorite closing credits sequence ever. (Like the film itself, they are an eerie masterpiece of understatement and suggestion.)

Prophecy (1979) – Tedious eco-terror, occasionally relieved by so-bad-you-laugh monster effects. Amusing bonus for Falcon Crest fans: Robert Foxworth stars.

Appointment With Death (1988) – A somewhat inept adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and all the usual suspects. Cheesy fun, primarily for the broad, shtick-heavy performances by Piper Laurie and Lauren Bacall. Carrie Fisher is fun to watch, as always, even though her part makes no sense.

David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr (2001) – a great pair to view together, given the prominence of the road-motif in both. The latter is a psychoanalytic masterpiece, set aglow by Naomi Watts’s luminous performance (has real/fake joy EVER been so convincingly portrayed on screen?); the former is grungier, more disorienting, and completely unsettling. Robert Blake, in a hair-raising role, stays with you. And not in a good way. (On Mulholland Dr, see David Fiore’s fascinating round-up). High on these arresting nightmare visions, I let my guard down and rented Lynch’s dismal sci-fi snooze-fest, Dune (1984). This was my second try and I think I made it more than half way this time. GodDAMN that is a boring endurance-test of a film.

Just watched the fascinating Donnie Darko (2001) for the first time a couple of nights ago. Still pondering. And still humming that damn INXS song.

And while I’m on the topic of movies, let me plug my debate with Thomas over X3 one last time. If you’ve already suffered through it (and even if you haven’t) click on over to David Golding’s wonderful Pah! for another enthusiastic and intelligent take on X3. Like Thomas, David liked it more than I did; between the two of them, my resolve is beginning to crumble…a LITTLE. (Update: David has just added a second response here.)

Finally, even though it’s old news now, V for Vendetta is still my favorite superhero film of the year. Marc Singer, sharp as ever, explains why (with several caveats) in his superb review essay on the film.

rants

Various and Sundry

The LAST issue of the The Thing came out last week. Even though we lost perfect Thing-penciler Andrea DiVito a couple of issues back, this one still rankles. Way to stand behind great books, Marvel. Wow…seven WHOLE issues.

I love Blogger. Honest. And I’m reluctant to bash them for any reason, given that they have so kindly given me this wonderful little space on the web FOR FREE. But Blogger’s Image-upload function has been ignoring my desperate, tearful petitions for several days now, despite much cache-clearing and rebooting activity on my part. I’ve resorted to uploading through Hello and reformatting the pics manually – quite a trick, given my rudimentary (one might even say “stone-age”) knowledge of html. As always, dear readers, your technical advice is welcome!

Little Scott in Slumberland, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast / an X3 response-essay by Thomas

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2006 at 2:46 pm

They went to see X-Men 3: The Last Stand and what began as a polite difference of opinion has rapidly degenerated into a hair-pulling, eye-gouging cage match! Jim Roeg hated it! Thomas loved it! They’ve both spent too much time in University! Witness the horrible results below!

First there was my own savaging, uncharitable review of X3; now Thomas responds with a defense of the film so dazzling and ingenious that I’ve been momentarily stunned into awed silence. Enjoy it while it lasts, folks! And thanks, Thomas, for this erudite defense of the film – but…does this mean I have to see it AGAIN?

Little Scott in Slumberland, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast

by Thomas

The soldiers dissipate, like leaves blowing in the wind. Reality itself seems to fray at the edges. A great destructive force pours forth from Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix, and Wolverine battles against it. As he pushes steadily forwards – towards her – his costume begins to disintegrate, and then his skin. Brief flashes of the adamantium that is fused to his skeleton appear and then disappear as his flesh is torn away and regenerated once more. It’s a sublime moment, and undoubtedly visually stunning. It is also representative of the film as a whole. X-Men: the Last Stand is a complex and dazzling cinematic work that does not try to hide the machinations of the Hollywood machine that powers it, but rather reveals them like glimpses of fused metal, only to cover them back up by incorporating them into the strange reality its narrative.

The Beast looks terrible. There is no question about it. But to compare Hank McCoy to the infamous Jarjar Binks, as Jim Roeg does, is to totally misinterpret what is being done by the film and how the character functions within its narrative context. Jarjar fails completely because Lucas tried so earnestly to create a character that felt real, and ended up with a cartoon. It was not, however, the special effects that failed to integrate the CGI character into the real world environment. It was the writer/director and the voice actor who portrayed him. To suggest that Ratner and Co. were aiming for this same realism with the Beast is ridiculous. Everything about the Beast’s conceptualization and design calls attention to itself, not as an attempt at realism, but as something else entirely. Unlike the pathos producing and surprisingly convincing portrayer of Nightcrawler in the previous film, X3 uses the Beast to produce something much more along the lines of Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt”. In looking so fake, so badly constructed, so blatantly absurd, the Beast draws attention to his own reflexivity. The fact that the Beast looks so unreal explicitly tells the audience that we are no longer in a Brian Singer X-Men film.

Singer’s realism was commendable, and the sci-fi framework within which he situated his films was nearly flawless, but as Roeg points out, X3 is much more THX-1138 than it is Star Wars. The narrative comforts provided by an easily understandable science-fiction universe rooted in realism have been abandoned, and the Beast serves as a signifier of just that. The Beast is one of those shiny metal moments. His artifice tells us that the “real” X-Men director has left the building, that someone new is in charge, and that he is going to take us somewhere else entirely.

The “death” of Cyclops is another one of these adamantium moments. His “death” is handled so clumsily, so strangely, and with such artificial and false logic that it too produces the same distancing effect. Just why is the character in the film at all? There is no logical reason for his inclusion. He serves no function, and even his “death” is non-existent. X3 appears to pick up where X2 left off, in terms of both tone and narrative, but from the moment Scott leaves the mansion, something strange begins to happen. The reappearance of Jean and the total non-explanation for why she is alive, or why she has appeared there at that moment, is jarring and strange. The pacing feels all off: Scotts crying in anguish, then suddenly Jean is there, then they are kissing, then she’s telling him to take off his glasses, then she’s sucking the life out him… and then he wakes up, because this is clearly a dream sequence. It has all the signifiers of a dream sequence: nothing feels real or makes sense, yet we are pulled forward by the teleological sense that these events are supposed to happen because that-is-how-the-dream-unfolds. The only way this sequence can end is with Scott waking up. Only he doesn’t.

Not long afterwards, Wolverine and Strom arrive at the same location. It is a brilliant scene, specifically because the dream never ended. Wolverine and Storm walk through a non-realist world of mist, where droplets of water drift slowly and beautifully upwards away from leaves, rather than plummeting down upon them. When Storm uses her powers to clear away the fog, there is a brilliant reveal, and we see that our heroes have walked into a Salvador Dali painting. Across the alien surface of the dry river bed floats dozens of rocks. It is a fascinating image, carrying with it all of the power of one of Dali’s surrealist landscapes. Ratner is using the Lynchian language of dream cinema, and he is making almost explicit allusions to Dali! His Beast pushes us outside of the film, rather than draw us in, and the character of Cyclops seem to exist for no reason at all. By this point in the film it has become blatantly obvious that Ratner has abandoned Singer’s sci-fi realism and entered the realm of surrealist cinema.

It was Dali himself who first brought surrealism to the medium of filmmaking with his and Luis Bunuel’s 1929 film Un chien andalou, and the criticism that Roeg directs towards X3 (that its “a jumbled mess”, that its “all special effects and no heart”, that the narrative is subordinated to “only the symbolic”) are the same criticisms that were directed towards Bunuel and Dali’s groundbreaking film. Bunuel would go on to direct several surrealist masterpieces, all of which question the assumptions audiences and filmmakers bring with them when they enter the cinema. Jim Roeg concedes that “films must obey their own dramatic logic,” but the work of filmmakers like Bunuel actively questions that very conceit. One might argue that surrealist cinema obeys only its own narrative illogic.

Does it make sense that Wolverine and Jean would make out passionately in the hospital ward? Not particularly. X2 worked hard to establish the fact that Jean would never actually commit to someone like Wolverine, and Logan’s nobility has been established to the point where it is quite doubtful that he would ever actually partake in an affair or steal his ally’s wife. Yet there they are, making out on the hospital best, Jean’s nails tearing at Logan’s flesh. It makes no sense, and yet it feels right – in dream logic sort of way. But at the same time it also feels wrong, and Wolverine knows it. This is why he pulls away from Jean. For a moment, he realizes that they have entered a dream. He realizes the fictionality of the reality in which this scene is taking place. He would never actually consummate his desire for Jean and she would never allow him to do so, yet here they are, like some sort of twisted fantasy made real. And that, of course, is the power of the Phoenix. That is what Jean brings to this film.

Roeg’s accusation of political conservatism fails to take into account the paradoxical non-political and yet poly-political nature of surrealist cinema. The haphazard juxtaposition of the Cure narrative with the Dark Phoenix storyline, and the seemingly illogical and nonsensical construction of scene placement and character motivation in X3 explicitly resist easy categorization and homogenization. The plurality that Roeg yearns for is in fact there throughout the film, and is embodied in the Dark Phoenix herself. Jean is a force of chaos and her existence tears at the foundations of reality, as artificially constructed within the film. Once she is unleashed by Scott, notions of realism and linearity begin to crumble and disintegrate. Few of the film’s narrative choices make obvious sense logically, but when events happen it seems like they were supposed to happen (the way it does in a dream) and we, as an audience, are able to believe in them while we are experiencing them. We can enjoy the Beast, because – unlike Jarjar – he isn’t trying to look real.

Like any dream character, Juggernaut too looks utterly ridiculous when frozen in place and viewed objectively, but when in motion – like when he chases Kitty through the walls of the prison – he looks perfect and feels wonderful and right. Like most surrealist films, X3 is an experience that exists in time while you are viewing it and becomes something different afterwards. It all makes sense when you are dreaming… but afterwards? Surrealism refuses to be nailed down, to explain itself, or to present a clear political message. It is always in motion, always pushing forwards through the chaos, showing its own constructed nature, then hiding it away again.

X3 is certainly a mess, but so is Un chien andalou; a beautiful, visceral, wonderful, complex mess. Is X3 a better film than X2? Probably not. But it’s a much more interesting one. Whether it was intentional or not (and I highly doubt that it was), Brett Ratner has stumbled his way out of action filmmaking and into the world of art cinema. That is to say, challenging cinema. One looks at X3 and wonders, where the hell did they come up with this stuff? But of course, we all know the answer to that, don’t we? The comics, of course! We would never have a Hollywood character that looks as crazy and nonsensical as the Beast if it were not for comic books. We would never have the beauty of Wolverine moving towards Jean at the end of the film, nor the utter melancholy of Magneto at the chess board, robbed of his power. We would never, ever have that brilliant, brilliant scene of Jean and Xavier at her childhood home. The types of stories told in comics are the types of stories that Hollywood is totally incapable of producing on its own, because they do not fit into the template of Hollywood narratives. From Windsor McCay to Stan Lee to Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the creators of comics have been exploring the world of dreams for over a century, and thanks to films like X-Men 3, a wider audience is now able to experience the joys of surrealism.

And the wonderful thing about dreams is that they are not real. Hey Jim, the astroturf and styrofoam tombstones look fake because they are! The creators of X3 were able to acknowledge that this is fiction in a way that Singer was never able to, and to fully acknowledge that this is fiction is to open the doors of infinite possibilities. This means that the events of X3 do not have to be lasting. The cure could wear off, allowing the return of Rogue, Magneto and Mystic. Charles Xavior can live on in another man’s body. Phoenix, of course, dies only to be reborn again and again. And Scott… well, Scott never really did die now, did he? By rejecting Singer’s realism and choosing to explore a dream landscape of his own making, Ratner has moved the X-Men franchise into a space where ANYTHING is possible, including a return to the status quo of Singer’s films.

Who knows… maybe X4 will open with Scott finally waking up.

Deconstructing Brett Ratner’s X3 (2006): How to Fuck It All Up and Betray Your Principles Without Really Trying

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2006 at 1:11 am

[Spoilers]

There is one utterly magical scene in X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Although I haven’t seen the first two films recently, I’d even go out on a limb and say that it’s the single best scene of all three X-Men movies combined. It’s almost enough to convince me that Brett Ratner is as good a director as he says he is.

I’m referring, of course, to Jean, Xavier, and Magneto in the flying house. This is Wizard of Oz territory…through a glass darkly. And it is the best death scene of a major good-guy character in a sci-fi film since Obi-Wan Kenobi disappeared into his cloak with a touch from Vader’s light saber in 1977. Not even the sneaky reveal that follows the film’s final credits can spoil the tragic splendor that this scene achieves.

Why does it work? For one thing, Jean’s transformation into Phoenix is totally credible and visually spectacular—it makes one pine for the lost opportunity of an all-Phoenix script (more on the later). The slow levitation of Xavier from his chair; the terrifying moment when Jean performs the simple act of standing up; the use of silence; the distortion of Patrick Stewart’s face with a wind machine to suggest Jean’s incalculable power; the subtle, CGI Phoenix-effect that seems to blast away bits of Professor X’s skin like flakes of stone, as if he is looking into the eyes of a fiery Medusa—all of these details are just perfect. Having Magneto sprawled helpless on the floor, beneath the kitchen sink, watching these titans clash, watching the destruction of his friend and rival is a wonderful detail, rich with ambiguous affect. And then there’s Wolverine’s slow progress across the ceiling towards the sealed room, anchored by his claws, and the final awful glance he exchanges with Xavier…

Sometimes we say, a little more enthusiastically than we mean to, that a single scene is worth the price of admission. In this case, it’s literally true. It’s a shame, though, that the best scene of the film, if not the entire X-franchise, occurs about 30 minutes into the movie. What follows is a maddening hour or so of storytelling so sloppy that not even the masterful Ian McKellan (who proves once again that he can elevate anything he touches—even without Magneto’s mutant powers) and a posse of nifty new mutants can salvage it.

What went wrong?

A better question would be: what didn’t? For starters, the plot achieves virtually no dramatic tension and delivers no real emotional pay-off. Even worse, and with the notable exception of the flying house, it squanders its cast and effects, undermining potentially gripping scenes at every turn. This is most obvious when one compares Xavier’s death scene to the other two major death scenes in the film.

Or should I say death scene—singular. Poor Scott.

Not only does he lose the girl at the end of X2, and then lose her again to Wolverine in X3, he’s such a loser that he doesn’t even merit a death scene in the third film. Don’t misunderstand me: James Marsden’s preppy Cyclops (stubble or no stubble) is no match for Hugh Jackman’s studly Wolvie in the charisma department, and there’s no doubt that Famke Jansen and Hugh Jackman’s steamy grope on infirmary-table chrome is the raw material of deliciously indecent fanboy fantasy. But if Xavier’s “death” is one of the best scenes of its type, Scott’s is one of the worst—not just because it’s missing (!) but because its absence is so transparently motivated by the studio politics that mar the movie’s entire plot. Put simply: the studio clearly wanted soon-to-be-headliner Wolverine to be the film’s leading man. Exit: Scott Summers—and no mourning please. It might distract from the five-minute transformation of Wolverine from smoldering third wheel to primary love-interest.

Scott’s unceremonial ousting was also perhaps a side-effect of the expanded role for Halle Berry’s Storm. Berry, miscast from the beginning, and present only because the studio was worried that they needed a big name to draw the crowds to the first, untested X-film, is far and away the worst of the core cast members: she’s a talented actor no doubt, but she just doesn’t get superheroes. James Marsden may not have the star-power of a Halle Berry, but at this point, even if you like Berry’s stiff, bewigged den-mother performance (and frankly, I find that hard to believe), does it really matter? Is anyone really going to see X3 because they’re dying to see Halle Berry throw a lightening bolt in that absurd Jim Lee-inspired disco costume? In the comics, I’ve always preferred (punk) Storm’s leadership to Cyclops’s, and the angst-ridden showdown between Ororo and Scott for leadership of the X-Men in the Danger Room battle from Uncanny X-Men #201 is a classic. The shrug-inducing supplanting of Cyclops by Storm for leadership of the team in X3 epitomizes everything that is wrong with the film dramatically. Scott is simply removed by a fire-tressed deus ex machina and Xavier provides a lame justification for replacing Scott with Storm: he’s “changed” since Jean’s death. Huh? You mean he’s in mourning for his wife, therefore the Professor dumps him? Look into Patrick Stewart’s eyes when he tells Berry’s bewildered Storm about her promotion—not even he’s good enough of an actor to sell that explanation.

The clumsy dispatching of Cyclops is matched by (and to some extent is responsible for) the banality of the movie’s climactic death scene too. Logan’s killing of Jean should be gut-wrenching, but it feels hollow. There’s no emotional pay-off because, despite the torch he’s been carrying for her since the beginning and despite the white-hot chemistry between Jansen and Jackman, the movie doesn’t adequately establish this pair as a romantic couple on screen to make us feel the horror of what Wolverine must do. I’m sorry, but a make-out session with Phoenix and one growly “I love you” aren’t enough. Ironically, this scene would have played much better if poor dead Scott had been in Wolvie’s shoes, or even if he was simply a witness to Jean’s death (as Magneto was to Charles’s) since he and Jean at least have a fully developed relationship. Had Scott not been killed, and had he and Jean enjoyed a genuine reunion before the Phoenix completely possessed her, Scott’s anguish at the beginning of the film might have provided the basis for a truly affecting conclusion as we are forced to watch him regain his partner only to lose her again. As it is, we’re stuck with Wolverine’s unintentionally bathetic sob (the audience laughed) as the movie gives us a neat but empty simulation of a similar but much cooler scene from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men.

Yes, I know. I am a bitter, bitter fanboy, whining that the comic was better. And YES, I know that the films must obey their own dramatic logic and not feel bound to slavishly recreate the source material from twenty-some years of comic book continuity. But the film fails even on the more limited ground of filmic coherence. Its replacement of Scott with Logan is so shabbily and hastily done that the final scene between Wolverine and Phoenix is all special effects and no heart.

And this is too bad, because they almost had something great. We all understand the codes of a resolution like this: by “killing” Jean, Wolverine is elevated to the status of tragic hero. Moreover, the film’s violent climax is also a sublimated consummation of the Logan/Jean relationship. We understand that he is really killing “Phoenix,” not Jean, and in this way, Wolverine gets to have his cake and eat it too. Symbolically he “gets the girl,” but (ironically, given the circumstances) also keeps his hands clean because, technically, he doesn’t really get her: the consummation of their love remains only symbolic and sublimated—in other words, he doesn’t sleep with Scott’s girl, not even after she’s a widow. What makes this all so frustrating is that in many ways it is a perfect resolution: it maintains Wolverine’s role as noble tortured outsider who can never really have the girl, and must thus release his pent up energy in lone flourishes of Berserker rage. But because Scott’s dead, the one character whose anguish and sense of betrayal could invest this climax with some real human feeling is missing, so Wolverine is forced to inhabit the role of tortured leading man. For me, it didn’t work, because Wolverine’s supplanting of Scott’s role happens much too fast. This transformation would have worked better, I think, if it had been given more time to develop and if Scott, Jean, and Wolverine had been the focus of the film—in other words, if X3 had basically been a filmic version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and completely dropped the poorly handled “mutant cure” plot, deferring it for a fourth installment of the film. What the overstuffed, underdeveloped plot of X3 shows us, very clearly, is that the X-Men should have been conceptualized as a 4-part series (with part three set in the Hellfire Club environs), not a trilogy.

In addition to creating a pacing problem in the Scott/Jean/Logan triangle, the screenwriters’ decision to intertwine the Phoenix story with the “mutant cure” plotline has several other, more serious consequences. On a very basic level, these two plots just don’t mesh well, despite the literalist retooling of Phoenix into an id-like split personality for Jean. Even if she is pissed off with the human race, why on earth does a “level five mutant” need to spin her wheels with Magneto’s Ewok brotherhood? (Is there some rule I don’t know about that requires disappointing third-installments of science fiction trilogies to be set in rainforests? I kept expecting Wicket and friends to drop from the treetops onto the unsuspecting backs of the government’s keystone shock troops. Self-duplicating Jamie Maddrox’s tribe-producing decoy was the next best thing, I guess. Perhaps a filmmaker’s clever jab at the primitivist logic of the Ewoks whereby all members of foreign tribes seem to “look the same” to the racial outsider? We should be so lucky. And boy, do I digress…) The bottom line is that in order for Jean’s reality-altering Phoenix to “work” within the context of Magneto’s war against the mutant cure, Jean has to be put on ice for most of the film. Why is she chilling with Magneto in the woods for 40 minutes? Because Brett Ratner needs to have Wolverine kill her later in a dramatic set-piece ending. Oh, okay. But really, who wants a Phoenix with clipped wings? The more I think about it, the more I love the Warren Worthington/Angels in America allegory, which picks up where Bobby’s coming-out scene from X2 leaves off, but those few soaring moments do not make up for the script’s unforgivable grounding of the film’s other great winged wonder.

The other obvious narrative and aesthetic weakness of the “mutant cure” plot is the introduction of Fraiser Crane’s wretched Beast. Oh my stars and garters. I like the Beast in the comic books well enough, I guess, but suffice it to say that Jar Jar Binks finally has some company in the film-ruining character Hall of Shame.* What CGIed, flatulent Jar Jar was to live-action/cartoon hybrids, Hank McCoy’s blue “Furball” is to Chewbacca-style hair, body paint, and prosthetics: in both cases, the originals were far better. Did X3’s costuming department run out of money? In a single stroke, this pretentious, cheap-looking team mascot demotes the franchise from A-level film, to B- or C-level direct-to-video hackery. Everyone knew that casting pudgy windbag Kelsey Grammer as a gleefully bouncy mutant superhero was a horrible mistake (only Robin Williams could have been worse). But frankly, I’m not sure that any actor could have made this visually absurd character work on screen. As I’ve mentioned in painstaking detail before, the absolute greatest danger besetting any superhero film is the high likelihood of looking ridiculous. There’s no other way to say this: there should have been no Beast. And while I’m on the subject, having the Beast, the BEAST, deliver what was in effect a fatal blow to Magneto is quite possibly the most incomprehensible dramatic choice the movie could have made. Literally anyone would have been a better agent of Magneto’s downfall—though having Mystique/Raven deliver it directly would probably have been the most satisfying choice.

All this dramatic and narrative bungling is bad enough, but my undying ire for Ratner’s mutant fiasco is reserved for the film’s ideological betrayal of every principle that made the first two X-Men movies meaningful, pertinent, and occasionally inspiring.

The film repeatedly gestures—most gracefully in the gay-Angel subplot—at the mutant-as-metaphor-for-difference principle that has underpinned the X-Men concept from the very beginning and which is foregrounded throughout the first two films. But these gestures are belied by the film’s flagrant ideological copout, which turns the X-Men into apologists for the very forces of homogeneity and repression (embodied, as ever, by the government) against which they are usually arrayed.

Simply put: Magento is more right than he is wrong. The state does want to exterminate mutants, it will draw first blood, and this is a war. Now, I know what you’re thinking: yeah…but some of those mutants are dangerous! And what about poor Rogue? She can’t even cuddle with her boyfriend Iceman who’s already ditched her to skate chastely around the pond with Kitty! Doesn’t she deserve the right to choose whether she takes the cure or not? Not all mutant powers are good!

But don’t be fooled: this is the film’s most ingenious and underhanded trick. It’s called sleight-of-hand.

Remember that every metaphor is a comparison that has a tenor and a vehicle. In the cheesy phrase, “My beloved is a jewel,” “jewel” is the vehicle (the metaphorical symbol) for “beautiful” or “precious” (the tenor or implied concepts to which the vehicle refers). Similarly, “a mutant” in the X-Men films is the vehicle for “difference”: racial, sexual, gender, etc. It’s common knowledge that this is the basis of the films’ and the comics’ political allegory.

For those of us who approach the films with some sense of this political allegory (and how can we not? they all broadcast it explicitly), it’s difficult to argue with Magneto, whose call to arms is basically a rallying cry on behalf of difference against the tyranny of sameness (racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and all its other manifestations). This has been Charles Xavier’s argument throughout the films as well. In other words, Magneto’s call to arms makes visceral sense to most of us on the level of the metaphor’s “tenor”—i.e. its real-world referent.

So how on earth does the film justify the bizarre turnabout by which the X-Men end up functioning as government patsies in the so-called “last stand”? It does so by cunningly (and unconscionably) switching from the level of the mutant-metaphor’s tenor (real-world difference) to its vehicle (fantasy-world mutation). In other words, because Magneto’s argument and actions are morally compelling at the level of the metaphor’s tenor (in the real world, we should all fight against racism and homophobia) the film can only provide a sort of pseudo-justification for the X-Men’s actions by retreating to the level of the metaphor’s superficial vehicle, that is, by acting as though mutant powers are real and by behaving as though what’s really at stake is the right of mutants to choose whether or not they want to keep their powers. Of course, this type of “choice” doesn’t make any sense on the level of the real-world tenor (a gay or black or Hispanic person does not have the option of a “mutant cure” and the whole point of the mutant metaphor is to say that framing the question this way in the first place is an obscene mystification). X3’s sneaky switch from the allegorical level of the tenor to the superficial level of the vehicle to justify its betrayal of the franchise’s politics is an object-lesson in how popular narratives exploit the double-level of allegorical narrative structures to produce deeply reactionary forms of art—and this is only one of the ways in which the film is a giant ideological copout that undermines the trilogy’s pop-radicalism in a way very similar to that dreadful final Matrix picture.

The somewhat more obvious markers of the ideological copout I’m talking about are (1) Magneto’s “evil mastermind voice” during the rally in the woods (a voice which McKellan presents with incredible restraint, as if he was secretly resisting the absurdity of the script and, likely, Ratner’s direction too) and (2) the embodiment of the mutant cure in innocent bubble-boy, Leech, who seems to be imprisoned in (and groomed by the stylists of) one of the austere cubicles from George Lucas’s THX-1138. How do you make the X-Men fight to defend an indefensible cause? Embody said cause in a sweet, innocent little lamb! Only an evil mutant terrorist like Magneto would harm a hair on the head of such a tender darling—oh wait, he has no hairs on his head. See what I mean?

And then there’s Xavier’s suppression of Jean Grey’s Phoenix personality. Now, suddenly, the reason for the incommensurable twining of the Phoenix story and the “mutant cure” story leaps into view. Clearly we’re supposed to understand Jean’s deadly id as another justification—indeed the main justification—for the X-Men’s qualified defense of “the right to choose” a “cure” for difference. After all, Wolverine himself kills her, becoming a sort of double for Leech, a more feral embodiment of the regrettable, but “necessary” cure. And Logan cries, of course, to show us that “cures” like this are a sad, regrettable thing, but necessary all the same—for without Logan’s difficult choice, Phoenix would have us all for breakfast, wouldn’t she? (Allegorically, at least, I wish she would. Now THAT would be a movie.) The point is that, like Rogue’s tragic, alienating power, Jean’s Phoenix personality provides the film with what can only be called “moral pseudo-complexity,” implying that in some cases it’s necessary to suppress difference. You know, when it’s dangerous. (To whom exactly? When? And who are the terrorists again? Ah…yes…)

As with Rogue, at the level of the vehicle (which is to say, literally), Xavier is morally justified in suppressing the Phoenix-power. The destructive Phoenix personality can hardly wander around unfettered. Indeed, Xavier’s mental powers act as a sort of “super”-ego here, for by repressing Jean Grey’s “super” id, he is doing no more than maintaining the general balance that all people maintain between desire and repression in order to live in society without raping, killing, and eating everyone in their immediate vicinity. At the allegorical level of the tenor, however, Xavier’s act is simply a callow anticipation of Leech’s and Wolverine’s various enactments of the suppression of difference. When read in this light, against the grain of the film’s coding, but with the grain of its implicitly conservative ideology, that sad parting smile that Professor X shoots Wolverine in the vortex of Jean’s disintegrating family home is a kind of sinister passing of the torch—an implied sanction for what Wolverine “must” eventually do.

Did it have to be this way? Absolutely not. The Professor’s suppression of Jean’s Phoenix power acquires its sinister meaning only from the context of the “mutant cure” storyline in the film. It should go without saying that there is nothing intrinsically unworkable about writing an intelligent Phoenix story that is consistent with, or even strongly in tension with, the foundational principle of respecting, even loving, difference that informs the X-Men concept. But by pairing the Phoenix story with the “cure” story, the film’s producers, writers, and director have, well…fucked it all up and betrayed the franchise’s principles. All without really trying.

Because, of course, they weren’t trying. X3’s ideas, like its plot, are a badly jumbled mess. Not surprising, since much of the film was reportedly shot without a script. The movie’s abrasively conservative ideology is not evidence of a right-wing conspiracy (that would be giving Ratner and his writers too much credit); rather it is the result of letting a banal, morally vacuous story concept (we need the “good” mutants to fight the “evil” mutants!) overtake the film’s more interesting allegorical possibilities. And let’s not forget that all the major stars of this sales record-breaking franchise were only ever committed for three movies. How do you keep the X-Men juggernaut going without Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Famke Jansen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry? Transplant Xavier’s consciousness into a new actor’s body; de-power Magneto; kill Cyclops and Jean Grey. As for the rest, it’s never been hard to explain a few absences around the X-mansion: Logan is off doing his lone wolf thing in his own movie; a now human Marie (Rogue) has gone off to sow some wild oats; and Storm—well, who cares about her anyway? The deaths of the principals in X3 had nothing to do with telling a good story, and everything to do with “tying up the loose ends” so that Marvel could reboot the franchise as the New Mutants with cheaper, younger actors at some future time.

The fact that the film’s conservatism is unintended is no excuse, and has no bearing on the final product. Were my expectations for this film too high? Obviously. But the carelessness with which X3 was handled makes me angry because movie properties like X-Men—properties that have a global reach, which speak directly to kids, and which advertise their moral/philosophical pretensions—have a responsibility to follow through on the ethical vision they promise, even if those ethics are sometimes cartoonish and oversimplified. In short, these are relevant and potentially influential cultural narratives. They deserve better and so do their audiences. Didn’t someone once say, “with great power comes great responsibility”? Oh, wait, that’s right—Brett Ratner isn’t a comic book fan. Never mind.

Movies—good and bad—often contain scenes that come to stand, retrospectively, for the film as a whole. The microcosm of X3 is not, alas, the wonderful floating Grey-family home, with its extraordinarily allusive potential. It’s not even the messy, noisy, anti-climactic final battle between Magneto and his “evil” mutants, though it nearly could be. Instead, it is that awful tableau of Kitty Pryde standing on Astroturf before the cheap-looking Styrofoam headstones of Xavier, Jean, and Scott. A ghost mourning for ghosts. Is this what the once-scrappy X-Men franchise has come to? A dour simulation of gravity? An awed respect for elders? A tragic myth of origins? Let’s hope the kids of X4: New Mutants will remind us what it’s like to soar.

NEW! >> For a very different analysis, check out Thomas’s awesome response-essay defending X3 here.

NEW! >> The debate continues over on David Golding’s Pah!, here and here.

NOTES >> *For an excellent defense of Jar Jar Binks and of the newest Star Wars trilogy generally, see David Golding’s extensive film notes. (Sorry to be bashing Jar Jar again David!)