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The Importance of Being Trailer: The Difference a Shift In Tone Can Make

Well, a funny thing happened on my way to the forum, today.  I had intended on writing about Batman v Superman and the dangers of over-stuffing films, but with the new Suicide Squad trailer and Wonder Woman footage that dropped last night, I wanted to take this week instead to discuss trailers and -following up from last post- tone.

One of the biggest problems I’ve had (as indicated last week with regards to Fantastic Four) with the DC Cinematic Universe has been it’s Grimdark Aesthetic (grimdark, for the uninitiated, refers to an overly gritty, grim tone).

kid batman and superman

“Who’s your favorite superhero, Jimmy?”
“I like the one that tells the other one he’s going to make him bleed!”

When Suicide Squad was announced, everyone was a little surprised…introducing DC villains and the Joker in a film without Batman? Unheard of! (Though we later learned that Batman IS in the film both through the trailer and through living in Toronto) We were also shocked when Will ‘Holy Shit, Seriously? Will Smith?!’ Smith was announced as Deadshot.  With A-Listers Smith and Margo Robbie (Harley Quinn) in place, producers pulled another coup by courting Oprah for Amanda Waller (the role eventually went to the eminently talented Viola Davis; a much better choice).  Already there was something different and neat about this film.  Writer/Director David Ayer kept talking about fun, but our confidence was shaken considerably with the reveal of Juggalo Joker (albeit with the caveat that Heath Ledger’s casting was also met with anger and guffaws.  Granted, he didn’t have a fucking grill, but that’s neither here nor there…)

Jared-Leto-Joker-Suicide-Squad-1.png

Fucking magnets…how do they work?!?!

In spite of this, the first trailer looked vaguely promising…just having Will Smith as a DC villain is already interesting enough to warrant attention, as is the first cinematic appearance of fan favorite Harley Quinn (with extremely promising casting of the yet untested Margo Robbie) and Jared Leto -continuing to prove that he’s a goddamn wizard when the camera is on- proved his Joker, despite the questionable design, was still going to be worth the price of admission.  It was necessarily expository (Waller sets up the premise in voice over), gives glimpses of the main cast and essentially builds to a reveal of the Joker.

But it didn’t read as fun.  It read the same way the other DC Cinematic trailers had: gritty, dark, IMPORTANT. ACTION-Y.  Complete with unnecessarily dark cover of a classic song by a tragic-sounding children’s choir.  FOR EMPHASIS AND IMPORTANCE. Here it is for reference:

So, some neat stuff, but worth being excited about? Meh.

But all that changed about two days ago, with the release of some new images, followed promptly by a new trailer.

In today’s post, I’ll be taking a look at how the tone and narrative surrounding Suicide Squad had changed and why: in addition to getting me genuinely excited for the film, this shift also signals hope for the DC universe and how -yet again- a grimdark overlay can set films up for failure.

One Look? One Look? I’ll Show You One Look!

Here’s the first image of the cast that was released:

Suicide Squad first look.JPG

But which one is Keyser Soze?!?! Smart money is on Margo Robbie.

The image gave fans lots to mull over: it was our first look at how far they were going to go with Killer Croc’s look (hint: exactly far enough!) We got further confirmation that Will Smith was actually in the film (which still seems pretty unreal), and the direction they would go with Harley Quinn (I’ll cover the many looks of Harley Quinn in a future post, but to whet your appetite, here is the range of costumes and looks the film had to choose from…mercifully they found decent mid-ground):

Harley Looks

…As you can see, things have kinda been going downhill since her original look from the 90’s.

We also got final confirmation about who would comprise the Squad (the roster in the comics has changed a lot over the years.)  The characters from left to right: Slipknot (a master of knots and ropes/50 Shades of Grey Aficionado/Expert Arctic Air pilot), Boomerang (think Green Arrow, but with trick boomerangs instead of trick arrows. Played by Jai ‘Oh, for god’s sake stop being in things’ Courtney of A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys ‘fame’), Enchantress (the one standing, she is a magic user possessed by a witch), Katana (crouching, wields a sword called Soultaker that captures and draws power from the souls of those she kills with it), Rick Flag (an elite soldier; was supposed to be played by Tom Hardy, but he was too busy playing ‘get the Oscar nom!’ in the woods with Leo), Harley Quinn (Formerly obsessed with the Joker), Deadshot (The Fresh Prince; super skilled sniper), Killer Croc (a Batman villain with a genetic condition that gives him reptilian looks…in some versions, like this one, he eats people), and El Diablo (a gangster with pyrotechnic powers).  They looked fine, but also at home with the tone of the Superman and Batman photos we’d seen so far: gritty, dark, grim.

Here’s what we got two days ago:

suicidesquadjpg-c73bff_765w

Each of these images has its own breakout poster focusing on the individual characters: they’re funky, interesting, colorful: these suggest a much different film than both the first image and the first trailer.  Usually, these are the kinds of posters that fans make (like the spectacular Mondo posters) but here we are with an official series of posters that are a far cry from anything else we’ve seen from the DC Cinematic Universe so far.

This was followed by another poster:

Suicide Squad poster new

io9 has a great analysis of how these posters contrast with the Batman V Superman ones here, but -in a nutshell- writer Whitbrook describes the Batman V Superman posters thusly:

“The difference is stark. Everything’s so muted. The characters look either mildly concerned, or outright bored. All the personality and vibrancy these characters should have—Batman! Superman! Wonder Woman! The World’s Finest!—is just drained, replaced by an endless malaise.”

Suddenly, Suicide Squad was looking much different from the rest of the DC Universe, but that could just be savvy marketing…after all, the discount bins of the world are full of garbage made to look desirable by great ad campaigns…

terminator salvation poster Sigh

But the fact remained that regardless of the posters, the trailer still felt tonally incorrect.

Until this dropped yesterday:

And with that, shit got real (interesting)

Tonally New Trailer and Friends

Tone wise, this trailer is much more alive: we get to know the characters, see them in action, the film seems fun and snarky, rather than gritty and grim. Even the use of Bohemian Rhapsody (as sung by Queen, not the Glee Club of the Damned) gives the film a more fun and distinctive vibe.  Suddenly, I know what this film wants to be and happily it’s not another grimdark DC flick.

But it is a little familiar…remind you of anything?

If you’re like me, you greeted the announcement of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a resounding ‘What the fuck?’ but this trailer completely turned me around. It was so unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had a sense of fun and play that none of the other films had (being familiar with James Gunn also helped in this case).  But really, above all else, two things stand out in this trailer: the humour and the music.

When I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) at Boomerang sneaking a beer in a combat zone, I realized Suicide Squad had hooked me in a similar way.  So, why the sudden turn-around?  Guardians, already being a long-standing success, can’t be the reason for the recent shift in marketing focus (though you can be damn sure it’s success as a fringe property helped this -and the ill-fated Sinister Six film that I’ll be talking about in my next post- green-lit).  While it’s entirely possible that we’re just getting too close to the film to continue to pretend it is tonally similar to Batman V Superman (hell, even Ben Affleck describes Suicide Squad as having ‘a cool cousin’), I think the final push that caused this shift lies in the spandex-clad hands of another hero altogether: Deadpool.

The story of how the Deadpool movie came to be is a fascinating one that I’ll be delving into close to the film’s release date, but in the meantime: Deadpool is a smart-cracking, meta-character (that is aware he’s in a comic) and often engages in hyper-violence and the eating of chimichangas.  After a long campaign led by Reynolds himself (and some conveniently leaked test footage), Deadpool was green-lit and has engaged in one of the most brilliant campaigns of fan service I’ve ever seen.  From the first trailer (which featured a joke about not putting him in a costume that was neither ‘animated or green’ -burning the much maligned Green Lantern film), to a delightfully violent fake-out announcement that the film would be getting a PG-13 rating (fans were furious) followed by Deadpool murdering the announcer and declaring the R-rating, to the recent campaign of parody posters, and finally, the above trailer.  This is a film that by all conventional super hero film logic should not be possible (hard R, sex jokes, swearing, hyper violence…all the fun things studios can’t stand being anywhere near their super hero films; particularly as the rating limits their audience intake.  This was a huge issue on Watchmen and even Live Free or Die Hard, which famously censored John McClane’s ‘Yippie Kai Yay, Motherfucker’ and continues to be an issue with Deadpool, even spawning a campaign led by an eight-year-old to get a PG-13 version released) but despite this, Deadpool has become more hyped that even the new X-Men film.  In large part, this is because of how fully the film has embraced its tone: it knows it’s a different beast and it’s reveling in it.  Consequently, we know what we’re in for, we know whether we’ll be excited or not, and this weird movie can just let its freak-flag fly.

While there may not be a link between the three marketing campaigns, the parallel sends a clear message: regardless of the cinematic universe your film exists in, the tone of the film -not the universe- needs to be front and centre.  By allowing us to see the film as director David Ayer has been describing it for the first time, Suicide Squad has gone from being a curio to a project of genuine interest.  If, however, the marketing had continued to depict the grim, en sepia world of Batman v Superman, we might have no idea why this film was interesting until it was too late.  Now, good or bad, Suicide Squad can stand on it’s own.

I’m now quite unexpectedly eager to be there on opening night to find out. 

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The One That Got Away: Reading the Ending of a Spider-Man story that I began reading in 1995.

The local comic book store for me growing up, was an almost literal hole-in-the-wall called Altered States and was too far away for me to get to by myself.  This severely limited my comic book reading, as I would seldom be able to obtain the next issue in a story arc and thus would be left hanging indefinitely.  I therefore stopped reading comics, having read too many interesting (or plain confusing) middle-of-an-arc issues that never got resolved.


Well, I guess that’s the ending.  Who the hell was that ghost guy with the beard back on that snow planet? I’m confused.
What’s a “The Force”?  Only seeing the middle of a story sucks.

One of these stories has haunted me since reading it; it fully captured my imagination, excited me, and left me with such a lasting impression that even now, seventeen years later, I want to know.  I guess to a certain extent, I need to know-to have closure to a story and narrative that has lurked in the back of my memory since childhood.  I imagined all manner of ways the story could end, but resolved myself to not knowing.

Today, I am going to re-read this story and its finale and finally see how the story ends.

But first, I’m going to write a primer from memory, to describe the scenes that grabbed me and what I remember of the plot and action of the story; to commit to digital paper the bits and pieces of the story that are still lurking in the corners of my mind.  We’ll see how they shape up.

So: Spider-Man: Planet of the Symbiotes.

In the beginning, there was Venom.

This one eats brains…instead of trying to win a date with Tad Hamilton.

As a kid, Venom was one of my favourite characters.  The idea of an inky alien creature that granted all the powers of Spider-Man but fueled by aggression and violence, that knew Peter Parker’s identity and that sought to destroy him personally as well as in battle was incredibly engaging.  The two characters interact wonderfully, with Venom testing and challenging Spidey in ways he normally isn’t, and Spidey proving time and time again that ingenuity and superior intelligence trump brute strength and pettiness every time.  Venom is the more powerful super hero, but Eddie Brock (the hard luck reporter who merged with Venom) is weaker than Peter Parker.  When done right, it’s a fantastic dynamic (one explored very well by the cartoon, but also in the game Maximum Carnage, which granted a longstanding childhood dream of getting to play as Venom.)

As a result, I was always excited to stumble upon a comic book that dealt with these two characters and so in 1995, one of my very infrequent trips to the comic book store (it was too far away to reach except by bumming a ride from my Mom, until I got better at biking, but by then I was going there for Magic the Gathering instead) yielded this story: Planet of the Symbiotes, starring Spider-Man, Venom, and (sigh) The Scarlet Spider.

Wasssssssuppppp??!!  He’s about as relevant as that catchphrase, now.

This was during the that bizarre time when Marvel’s editors decided that the Clone Saga ought to be more than just a story about Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly; instead, they wanted to swap Ben in as Spidey and transition Peter out.  They knew they couldn’t rush this, so they gave the Scarlet Spider his own series for a bit, building him up as a hero in his own right before letting him take on the mantle.  The reasoning for this, I’d imagine, was similar to the train wreck of One More Day: to clear the slate on Spider-Man, ditching a lot of the messy backstory and baggage, such as marriage to pave the way for new direction and new relationships, etc.  Even though I hated the idea of swapping in a new (albeit kinda the same, since he’s a clone) Spider-Man at the time, it still makes more sense to me than the bizarre “deal with the devil” retconning of One More Day.  In any case, at this point, Scarlet Spider was just another neat Marvel character running around and (god forgive me) I thought he was really cool.  The costume was striking, particularly the external web shooters.  I was even okay with the blue, sleeveless hoodie (I repeat, blue, sleeveless, hoodie.) because it was the 90’s and fashion was legally dead.

Sorry, everyone.

More important to me, however, was the Spider-Man and Venom team-up as well as a further exploration into the nature of the Symbiotes.  To this point, the most we’d gotten was Carnage, Venom’s twisted offspring, which was a wicked cool character visually and (though he became a bit of a joke) allowed us insight into Venom itself, but not its race.  The promise of a full invasion was hella exciting.  Like the first time someone suggested that there could be multiple Mandalorians and mocked up a video of an army of Boba Fetts: one Venom, awesome.  Lots of Venoms, even more awesome.  Here’s what I remember of the story:

I picked up mid-stream (at issue 4 of 5), with the invasion having already begun.  There is a frame from this that I obsessed over as a kid, because I didn’t quite understand what was happening in it, wherein a newscaster delivers the fact that Symbiotes have taken over heroes across the country, including SYMBIOTE CAPTAIN AMERICA and, I think, symbiote Wolverine (though that may be my memory combining later images of symbiote Wolverine from the Web of Darkness video game).  The image of Captain America as a symbiote was awesome and I remember getting really excited about the potential for seeing lots of Symbioted up heroes and how awesome they could be as enemies.  Then the Symbiotes invaded the studio and there’s this frame of the newscaster being infected and his toupee is flying off his head (in one of the stranger tropes of the 90’s that essentially dictated that every reporter has a hairpiece.) I understood the toupee thing, but I had no conception of toupee glue and as such was fascinated by the small square of glue stretching up to the rug as it flies off his head.   I was fixated in the way only the young and the curious can be and still vividly remember that one frame, because of the time my young mind spent working through it.  It is one of maybe two images from a comic that I retain from youth.  (The other was an awesome issue of GI Joe wherein Snake-Eyes infiltrated a Cobra facility and thought he heard enemies hiding beneath the floor and thus stabbed his sword through the ground into an enemy ninja’s hand.  The concept of a sword piercing one’s hand stuck with me.) The irony of this, of course, is that this one frame in one of the more minor moments in the book, but one that obviously had a major effect.  I hope I get a chance to tell the illustrator someday that his one random panel struck such an odd chord with me.

The city is in a zombie-film-esque state of emergency, with destruction and empty streets; the Scarlet Spider has lost his hoodie (which perhaps is the source of his power, like Mr. Butlertron’s magical soothing red cardigan?)

…I would still watch this.  Wesley.

And so, refusing to be hoodie-less Scarlet steals a hoodie, tears off the sleeves, and uses a sharpie to add his spider logo to it.  This was my first real exposure to the Scarlet Spider and I still can’t look at his costume without my brain quietly reshaping the logo to be hand drawn with a sharpie (I also, at one point, considered buying a blue hoodie and drawing the logo on it.  I was cool like that.) From there, he meets up with Spidey and Venom, who realize they need to shut down a Stargate-esque thing that is allowing the Symbiotes to invade Earth.  I don’t remember much beyond that aside from the final frame, where the heroes arrive to find an army of Symbiotes guarding the portal (also, the Symbiotes without hosts look silly.). “Oh, damn!” I thought, “This is going to be crazy!”

It would basically be like turning off Kill Bill Vol. 1 right here.

…and that’s all I got.  I re-read that issue several times and imagined a few possible finales but eventually moved on.  Pre-Internet, it was hard to keep tabs on characters; I got most of my understanding of the direction Spidey, Scarlet, and Venom were going through Wizard Magazine (about comics) and ToyFare which was my mainline infusion of the history of comics, cartoons, super heroes, and cult films and to which I can attribute the majority of my understanding of all of the above (it was one of the wittiest, best researched magazines I’ve ever read, for a long time.  The key writers went on to create Robot Chicken.  It was my first point of contact for Evil Dead, Battlestar Galactica, and most of the Marvel Universe beyond the X-Men and Spider-Man.  I still re-read back issues whenever I’m home and still find myself laughing out loud).  Through Wizard, I learned of the weird direction Venom took (they kinda forgot who Eddie Brock was, had him defending an underground city for a while, then he died…now he’s a whole different story).  I saw bits and pieces of the transition of Scarlet Spider into Spider-Man (I read a couple issues of it…Peter, believing himself to be the clone, retired but still present in the book) and even managed to catch the death of Ben Reilly (when flagging sales reminded Marvel that their clone thing was dumb) which allowed the ‘he was a clone all along!’ moment that signaled Peter’s return to his own damn series.

“Wow, that was crazy.  I sure hope nothing like this ever happens again.  Especially not a deal with the Devil that erases countless years’ worth of character development!”

Now it’s much easier to pull up a wiki or a review to find out what’s going on with a favourite character; the information is available and out there and as such it’s harder to have a hanging question like how these heroes beat the Symbiotes…which is kind of a shame, to some extent.  Without the limited access I had as a kid, wouldn’t have this neat connection to this one random story.  Which catches us up to today.

A little while ago, I was in a used bookstore and found the complete Clone Epic (as they dubbed it) across five thick volumes.  I didn’t want the whole story, but it occurred to me I might be able to find the Planet of the Symbiotes story in one of them, and sure enough, flipping through one I found my newscaster with his glue-tab.  It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since and I’ve been waiting for time to read it and write this.

So now, without further ado, on to Planet of the Symbiotes!

Glue-tabs and all.

PLANET OF THE SYMBIOTES:

Okay, so here’s the main issue with the five part story: much like Knightfall it is played out over several series.  The difference here is that the same writer is on all of them, so there’s some continuity there, but there is also some flat-out awful illustration as the 90’s was often so good at.  Also, because the story boils down to a character study in Venom, we get the same “I must protect innocent bystanders, but at what cost?!” speech about ten times.  It wears thin quickly.

As it turns out, I ended up with the best issue of the bunch in my young hands; the illustration is solid, the story makes sense, and there are a number of awesome moments.  It feels very much like Dawn of the Dead, which is of course a huge win.  At one point (where Scarlet gets his new hoodie) they are exploring an abandoned mall, everyone having barricaded themselves into their homes and the mood is actually very creepy.  It’s a lot of fun and includes some great panels, such as one where a symbiote is quietly sneaking onto a mannequin in the background.  They don’t make a big deal out of it, but it feels like a great little homage to zombie films of the like.

Also, the ending is far more epic than I remember; the Stargate (Actually called a Stargate, lol) is arrived at, but the symbiotes aren’t the biggest problem: Carnage has escaped and begun eating symbiotes and thus arrives, 40 feet tall and attacks our heroes.  Epic.

No wonder the ending haunted me this long.  As a kid, Carnage was also one of my favourite enemies; he was scary (a serial killer whose symbiote merged with his blood, so he could only summon it by bleeding) and could turn his hands into weapons.  Awesome.  This ending was right up my alley back then even though the moment itself escaped my later memory.

So, my issue was as much campy fun as I’d hoped.  The problem lay in the other issues; while this one pulls off a nice, Romero-esque alien invasion of Earth thing, the others wildly careen from Venom breaking up with his suit after fighting (I kid you not) “Neo-Luddites” who are using technology to destroy technology.  Seriously.  There’s an entire issues about this.  Spidey talks about Luddites every few lines, “We’ve got to stop the Luddites!” Awful.  And then Venom breaks up with his suit, after almost eating an evil Luddite’s brain, he asks, “Wait, is what we do my idea or your idea??” The suit (which looks ridiculous when not on Brock under this writer’s pen) goes out into the woods (presumably while the Charlie  Brown theme plays) and cries.

In case you missed it, the bad-ass alien symbiote that almost killed Peter Parker and became a brain-eating super villain was lonely so it went and cried.  Ugh.

So, emo symbiote summons other aliens to it by crying and they invade en masse.  The next issue deals with Scarlet, Spidey, and a sonic gun wielding Eddie Brock (whose long, luscious hair is now short cropped and appropriate again) battle symbiotes at the Stargate only to get pulled into it themselves.  Annnnnd here comes the awful.

They end up on a symbiote controlled planet, where the symbiotes are draining the native species of their life force (it should be noted that the aliens look exactly like the Aliens from the classic sci fi film franchise Aliens versus Predator…you know, before James Cameron and Ridley Scott fucked it up with those awful Alien films with that chick from Ghostbusters.  Hacks.)  So, they fight a bunch, the Venom symbiote has a weird “we need to talk” moment with Eddie Brock where they decide to team up for a bit in the Symbiote equivalent of “friends with benefits.”  The symbiote then explains how its species are a) addicted to strong emotions in their hosts and b) drains them til they’re dead then moves on.  BUT our very sensitive new friend wanted a forever friend (awwwwww…) so it merged with Peter Parker and then moved on to Eddie Brock.  The other symbiotes made fun of it for this, so it was super happy to have new friends.  But then they both broke up with it and it became sad.  Seriously, it’s like George Lucas wrote this origin for Venom.  Awful.

Right, so they get back to Earth and run around Romero style in the issue I read as a kid, ending with them ready to fight Carnage.

Then the artist shifts again (weak) and the fight with Carnage boils down to throwing a propane truck at him and running away.  Venom realizes if he can make the symbiote cry enough and amplify it, they can cause all the symbiotes to go comatose.  They do that (by merging on a molecular level, painful and ”””’permanent”””””*    *until no longer necessary, like when Eddie SELLS THE VENOM SUIT in recent comic history), but it actually kills them all.  It’s a lackluster issue, but there is a genuinely badass quality to the fact that Venom wiped out its entire species to save Earth.  And then there’s a throwaway line from Mary Jane akin to, “Eh, everything’s back to normal!”  Sigh.

So, all-in-all, the story that’s been haunting me did turn out to be a lot of fun still (which was a pleasant surprise, given how terrible the first three issues were) and I’m glad to be reminded of the 40 foot Carnage; so I’m left with kind of a strange experience.  I fully expected my story to be kinda terrible and have a ‘that would have been so cool as a kid…’ moment, but instead I still found it a lot of fun.  It reads like a cross between Terminator 2 (all the symbiotes in this one are sneaky and T-1000 esque) and Dawn of the Dead.  With Spider-Man.  Awesome.  But the other stories are genuinely awful.  They over-complicate and weaken the character of Venom immensely and while they certainly help move along the “he’s a hero now!” agenda, they weaken his time as a villain quite considerably.  Like the Star Wars prequels, there’s stuff we just don’t want or need packed into those issues.  There’s also the wildly inconsistant art, a lot of which is just generally awkward and ugly.  There are He-Man action figure proportions to some scenes and the suit on its own looks kinda like a wacky-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man.  And chiselled butts.  Man, they like drawing Venom and Scarlet’s chiselled butts.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to have taken this little trip down memory lane; I had mis-remembered the Symbiote Wolverine (though Cap was still cool) and who knows, maybe in another 17 years I’ll re-read it again and see what’s what.

Incidentally, while reading an unrelated io9 article, I was reminded what Eric wore all season in True Blood…

You heard it here first.  Eric Northman is a clone of Peter Parker.

Additional Reading

Clone High: Mr. Butlertron is a robotic butler on the incredible cartoon Clone High.  The episode being referenced involves Mr. B lending villainous Principal Scudworth his “soothing red cardigan” that helps him get closer to the students.  It turns out to be magical.  Like the show.  I’ll be doing a post on this show in future, but I can almost guarantee it’s better than anything else you could be watching right now.  Ever.

A Team-Up Worth Watching: Why “The Avengers” (might) Rock

*Quick note: This week marks the launch of a new feature here on Wha Happen? Trek-A-Day, where I endeavor to watch an episode of Star Trek a day from the first episode to the last, commenting along the way! Here are the first two posts! “e1: The Man Trap” “e2 Charlie X

I am hella excited about the Avengers movie: not because of the trailer, or the cast (both of which are superb) and in spite of the fears raised by the lackluster Iron Man 2 and Thor and my general apprehension about super hero team-ups; but because The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Brian Hitch proved how awesome The Avengers can be, when treated properly.  Regardless of how the film plays out, Millar made a true believer outta me and I’m here to bring his word to you.

And that word, is Horny Hulk.

But before we get to that, let’s unpack the super team a bit and why I generally have a bias against them.

I was always of the school of thought that super hero team-ups suck.  The occasional cameo from another hero in the same universe?  Cool, but an actual team always left me feeling like I was getting watered-down versions of my favorite characters.  Justice League?  Batman’s douchey-ness gets dialed way up, Superman becomes a one-sided leader voice box (this happens to Cyclops frequently as well), Wonder Woman is mysteriously super important though being generally ignored otherwise…flip the universe and you get the same in Marvel: Captain America is the boy scout, Iron Man is the lovable rogue/loner, and suddenly Thor, the god of thunder, has nothing better to do than be on-hand to fight whatever random threat could probably be dealt with by a regional team like the Fantastic Four or The X-Men?  Bullshit.

So why am I so damn excited about the Avengers movie other than that the cast rocks and it’s directed by Joss “I-Can-Do-No-Wrong” Whedon?

Remember when you didn’t know who these guys were?  Dark times.  Thanks, Joss.

(These are Nathan Fillion of Castle and Firefly and Felicia Day from The Guild, Buffy, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and my dreams.)

Well, much like many of my childhood assumptions and prejudices about comics, lately there have been a slew of great books that have completely shattered my bias like The Hulk smashes puny humans.  In this case: Mark Millar and Brian Hitch’s The Ultimates which basically curb stomped by hatred of super teams by brining each character a voice and story worth listening to and some of the most outrageously awesome moments I’ve ever read in a super hero comic.  I read it last year and was grinning like a kid through most of it the same way I did the first time I got to play as Venom in Maximum Carnage on SNES.

 Between this and the soundtrack by Green Jelly, I was sold.

The Ultimates is a part of the alternate Marvel Ultimate Universe, which was launched as a way to create a fresh, new, accessible world not weighed down by the 40+ years of storytelling that proceeded it.  Neat.  While the Ultimate Universe eventually fell into old habits (to the point they had Magneto kill off most of it) when it launched, it brought some awesome new ideas, one of which was: let’s figure out what Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and lesser known Ant Man and Wasp (the former apparently getting film treatment from Edgar “Hot Shaun Pilgrim of the Dead Fuzz” Wright…awesome.) look like in this new universe.  A key factor of this universe is that it is all being created together, with all franchises aligned from the start (rather than getting mashed together later in their runs) so for instance: 1) An attack by Magneto is the first super villain attack in this universe EVER. 2) Mutants: hated and feared, the way they started out. 3) Heroes like Nick Fury weren’t running around in World War II and still looking like they did in the 40’s (instead, he’s Samuel L. Jackson.)

 “I have had it with these motherfucking plotholes in this motherfucking Marvel universe!”

Also, none of these characters have ongoing comics to contend with; they only exist and are introduced in The Ultimates.  I think this is the single best feature of this series as it dodges the awkward “But wait a sec; Batman is lost in a subterranean labyrinth this week in his book, but in Justice League he’s on a space station and everything is fine? WTF?!” This allows for one, epic, introductory mega-story with one voice, one vision, and the result is a cinematic level of precision.  The Avengers film is mostly in the clear here too, as Marvel has been moving their entire film franchise toward it since Iron Man, meaning the film won’t appear out of thin air (amazing how much groundwork you can lay in two minute scenes after the credits).  This is a good sign.

The two story lines of the first volume are both awesome showcases of how the team works together (or against each other, as the case may be): the first involves the much bullied Bruce Banner taking his Hulk serum to avenge his wounded pride and finally get to bone Betty Ross (Millar infuses the ego-only idea into the super hero equivalent of Mr. Hyde leading to some of the best Hulk lines of all time, featured below; Hulk is particularly angry that Betty is on a date with Freddie Prinze Jr.)

Something Hulk and Sarah Michelle Gellar have in common.

This dynamic is a lot of fun and reminiscent of the good old’ “Occasionally you have to fight the Hulk” days of comics and is hinted at in the trailer; looks like Stark is going to be a dick to Banner a lot…could the heroes have to fight the Hulk?  Awesome.

The secondary plot is a good contender for the film and a favourite of Marvel: alien infiltrators.  The Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters have been villains in a lot of Marvel arcs, and in this case stage an Independence Day (or ID4 as we super hip kids of the ’90s called it) style super invasion.  Big set pieces, lots of action, and a finale which involves unleashing the Hulk and hilariously telling him that the aliens insulted him, leading to a good old’ fashioned alien smack down and ending with the almost unkillable  former Nazi (they were headed up by Skrulls looking to weaken the planet for invasion) with the single most epic Captain American panel ever (including the lead up page):


Now granted, you need to take this with a shot of Apple Pie and Freedom Fries, but this was just after 9/11 and there was still a pre-Iraq War need to feel good about being American again and what better way is there to do that, then punching a Nazi alien in the face while insulting the French?

Between these epic stories, we get the emotionally charged ‘man out of time plot’ for Captain America (see below) and the heartbreaking and sickening domestic abuse of Ant Man (also below) to create a super hero epic in the truest sense of the word.

Because of its isolation from ongoing series, The Ultimates runs a lot like a film: the plot arcs link up, the characters are introduced and given moments to shine or be scummy, there’s wit, adventure, and genuinely awesome action sequences.  It’s a team book that makes sense, rather than just a reason to have all these characters do things together.  It’s The Fellowship of the Ring rather than ‘Elf, dwarf, and human fight fantasy things’ (starring Jeremy Irons, here). It’s given me hope for a team-up movie, particularly since it’s being handled by Whedon who knows damn well how to tell a multi-character story:

 Remember this?  Yeah, he wrote it.

And you’ve got at least four actors who perfectly embody their characters (Chris Evans as The Human Torch-I mean, Captain America; Robert Downey “I am actually Tony Stark in Real Life” Jr; Chris “No longer just Captain Kirk’s Dad” Hemsworth as Thor, and Samuel L. Jackson, rocking out as himself, oddly having his name mispronounced as “Nick Fury” throughout the film.) and some awesome supporting hold overs (Jeremy “I’m every action hero” Renner, Stellan “Eric from True Blood‘s father” Skarsgaard, and that guy who plays Loki!) and Scarlett “…” Johansson, who still has yet to prove herself as the Black Widow (Unless her arc involves falling in love with Bill Murray in Japan, in which case she fits the role perfectly).

So, The Ultimates:

Captain America:

This version of Captain America is pretty much the Cap we see in the film, a little more bad ass than I’m used to seeing, but in a great way.

Proving Boot beats Science every time.

Millar begins the story with an epic war scene and we get a good, healthy dose of Captain America the super soldier rather than super hero.  It evokes the tone and flavour of Marvels in all the right ways, making him feel like a cameo in Band of Brothers rather than a brightly coloured super hero punching Hitler every few pages.  Like his film counterpart, he’s got a little more edge, Millar also gives him a bit more of a bad ass action hero feel.

This is all layered nicely with some genuinely touching ‘man out of time’ moments, like when his sweetheart from the war (now elderly and married to his best friend) won’t meet him because he still looks the same, whereas she is ashamed of her age.  It’s a heartbreaking scene and cuts a nice contrast to the action.

Iron Man:

Pretty much the Tony Stark of the films.  He’s Downey Jr, through and through-which is particularly entertaining given the Downy Jr. jab featured below:

 Yeah, that guy’ll never make a comeback.

The sense of humour and swagger are well entrenched and Millar also set the groundwork for the playboy millionaire elements of Stark used in the first film; this includes everything from Stark proudly declaring that if he wasn’t drunk for the big final fight he might have called in sick, to him being AWOL at one point, because he had flown Shannon Elizabeth to the International Space Station for her birthday.  It’s a really fun Tony Stark and one that Downey Jr has been able to carry so damn well in the films.

Guess Tony Stark saw American Pie as well…

Hippy Thor:

The Son of Odin represents the 99%.  Occupy Asgard was a rousing success.

This is all kinds of awesome.  Free of having to work in the whole Asgard angle, this Thor is an environmentalist who claims he can control the weather.  No further explanation is given in The Ultimates and Thor staunchly refuses to help the team until his environmental agenda is met by the US government.  Awesome.  He’s a wacky, rogue-ish figure who gives about as much of a shit about stuff as Han Solo in A New Hope.  And yes, he still wields epic thunder.

Ant-Man:

Also known as Giant Man, Hank Pym is a longstanding (heyoooo, …cuz he’s giant) member of the Avengers, but Millar epically catapults him from second string hero to show stealing super asshole.  Pym is mostly responsible for bullying Banner into trying the Hulk serum and also emotionally and physically abuses his wife, Janet (who in this mythology is a mutant who is hiding in plain sight because Pym covers for her, saying a serum of his gave her powers).  This is one of the most shocking and emotionally raw moments I’ve seen in a book: after slapping her around the room, Janet turns into her Wasp size and flees under a dresser.  Pym’s horrific response is to unleash an army of ants on her, which are seen gruesomely swarming her as giant Hank coldly utters:

The death of Gwen Stacy shows a super hero failing to save the girl, this shows the super hero becoming a real world villain, like William Stryker of God Loves, Man Kills, this is far scarier and poignant than any ‘take over the world scheme’ typically associated with comic villains.  And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.

Side note: Janet does survive, and Captain America royally wrecks Pym’s shit in an epic super hero beatdown with higher stakes than any of these weird ‘wouldn’t it be cool if this hero fought that hero?’ fights Marvel keeps throwing together (this year: The Avengers vs The X-Men.  Whoop-dee-dee.  Sure hope no one dies; I would hate to have to wait three whole issues for them to come back to life…)

The Hulk:

Here’s my favourite.  When Stan Lee came up with the idea of the Incredible Hulk, he wanted to flip the idea of Jekyl and Hyde or Frankestein’s monster by saying, “What if this guy were on our side?” Neat.  But after 40 years, done.  (Case in point, in the mainstream universe Bruce Banner and the Hulk are two separate entities during it out.)  So instead, Millar brings us back to the glory days, when pretty much everyone had to fight the Hulk at some point because he was unstoppable and had a hard-on for smashing things.  But instead of heroic, tortured Bruce Banner, we get sniveling, bullied Bruce Banner; full of pathos, but also an angry, bitter character (who, incidentally, reminds me a lot of Harold Lauder from Stephen King’s The Stand). Banner has science envy against Pym and is generally teased and bullied by the other Ultimates, including this brilliant scene which sums it up:

When he eventually Hulks out, the Hulk is single mindedly hunting Betty, starting out with one of the best lines of all time:

Horny Hulk.  Priceless.

To an increasingly desperate Hulk begging her not to leave Banner; it’s the ego at it’s rawest, all insecurity and desire but personified by the Incredible freaking Hulk.  He is also pretty well determined to eat people; the final effect is a wildly scary monster made of a character we’ve known for a long time.  Here’s hoping he shows up in the film.

Hawkeye and Black Widow:

Are introduced as the black ops agents of The Ultimates, their opening scene a loving homage to The Matrix where they show up like ballets in black trench coats and sunglasses and kill a tonne of aliens in an office building.

 Hawkeye and Black Widow Reloaded and Revolutions, however, were massive disappointments.

 We’ve already had a taste of these characterizations in Iron Man 2 and Thor, which is another big hint as to the tone of the Avengers film in relation to The Ultimates.  Renner has proven he’s naturally awesome (hence taking over the Bourne franchise from Matt Damon and being groomed to take over the Mission Impossible franchise from Tom Cruise) and Johannson, who has disappointed in past, is the only female lead in a Joss Whedon film, which should mean she’s incredibly well written and given lots of opprotunity to be awesome: the real test will be if ScarJo can rise to the occasion.  We’ll see.

Civil War:

 Captain Confederate Union didn’t have quite the same ring to it…

Despite how many signs there are that The Ultimates will be the primary influence on the Avengers, there are a few other things at work in the current Avengers mythology that may well impact the film; epitomizing Marvel’s love of hero vs hero scenarios was Civil War, an ideologically fascinating scenario weighed down by too many tie-ins and writers, which lead to a messy, bloated affair.  However, the core conflict is worth a look:

The government decides that super heroes need to be registered, secret identities made transparent along with powers, gear, etc so they can better be policed and controlled.  Tony Stark, long having been an ‘out’ super hero is fully supportive of this act, whereas Captain America (also very publicly Steve Rogers) determines that this is an infringement of super hero’s rights to privacy and thus goes rogue…and Marvel’s super heroes go to war with each other.  This includes family divides amongst the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man revealing his identity (don’t worry, it gets written out in One More Day) and siding with Iron Man (for a bit) and all sorts of other hijinx.  The issues range from writers favoring their own character (Depending on the writer, Tony Stark is an arrogant fascist or Captain America is a simple minded douchebag) and plot holes (in his main series, Daredevil was in jail…one of the other series writers included him in a fight in their book…whoops?) and a whole jumbled mess of ridiculous, culminating in the arrest of Captain America and his subsequent assassination (by a brainwashed Black Widow, no less…) The only real lasting consequence of this has been a shift in the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man; since his resurrection Cap and Iron Man have sorted their shit out a bit, but the basic ideological difference has become a permanent facet of their relationship and will doubtless be present in the film (whether this leads to blows is anyone’s guess).  Whedon has always had a flair for opposing viewpoints (Buffy and Faith, for example) so it should be a solid dynamic.  Again, we’ll have to see.

So ULTIMATELY (see what I did there?!? lolololol!) I’m excited for the Avengers film because frankly, I’ve already read a fantastic one.  The Ultimates is a popcorn action flick, interspersed with some incredibly quiet and nuanced character moments (such as Captain America meeting his aged sweetheart and Hank Pym’s remarkably scary domestic abuse); it’s a team-up where every character makes sense and brings a genuinely unique power set to the fight.  They all get moments of brilliance (even cameo characters like Quicksilver, who proudly declares that if you slow down the footage of the final fight against the aliens, you’ll see that he was actually the key factor in victory, met with a collective rolling of eyes by his teammates) and to my mind that’s what a good team needs.  Weirdly, The Expendables managed this really well, giving each character a moment to shine, while still keeping the focus on the main two personalities (in this case Iron Man and Captain America).

 Yep, just complimented the character structure of The Expendables.

Whedon is also one of my favourite writers and directors, and while he certainly isn’t being given complete freedom (Downey Jr is insisting he’s going to improve the script through ad libbing) and he’s working for the Disney-owned Marvel Films, he’s the right guy to try and pull all these factors together.  Whether or not he succeeds, I feel confident that a failure by him would be a noble one, rather than an insulting mess (like X3 or Blade Trinity).

It’s a super hero team up that I think can work…I sure hope Whedon and team prove child me wrong, the Millar and Hitchens did.

It can be done, it has been done…let’s just hope it can be done on film.

Recommendation: Essential.  It’s just a damn good time and a great, fresh take on the characters.

Additional Reading:

The Ultimates 2: I haven’t read this yet! Same creative team playing with a much more established Ultimate Universe.  Follow-up to come.

The Ultimates 3: Who Killed the Scarlet Witch?: Avoid at all costs.  After the Ultimate Universe fell into old habits and sales started dropping off, Marvel tried this as a lead up to Magneto destroying most of the world.  It ranks amongst people’s worst of the worst…look forward to a review of the one at some point too.

Civil War: A friend of mine read each an every issue over the span of a week once and was left very frustrated; there’s some great stuff going on in this arc, but the aforementioned inconsistencies and problems hold back all of the good stuff and leave the reader with very little to be happy about.  Boo-urns.

The Expendables:  This is an old school, over-the-top ridiculous action film…but knows it, which is awfully refreshing.  Remember when everyone in an action film was kinda awesome (see: Argyle, the limo driver who helps save the day in Die Hard); Stallone, who to be fair knows action films, does a great job of juggling the characters, he gives them each some time to shine without diluting the story by doing so.  It reminds me of films like Predator where we got a good taste of who each mercenary was before they started getting killed.  To my mind, it’s a fine example of how to make each hero matter, if only for a few minutes. (Tarentino does this well in Inglorious Bastards as well, but sadly doesn’t give us enough time with each…they’re all deeper than The Expendables and often worthy of their own films.)

 YOU WOULD WATCH A MOVIE THAT WAS JUST THIS.

Toy Story: This speaks volumes of Whedon’s ability to write minor characters; I can tell you a little bit about every single character in this film.  They’re memorable and fully of personality, so even a minor moment such as Hockey Puck’s little shrug tells an engaging story.  So damn good.

Spider-Man Rex: A Greek Tragedy (The Night Gwen Stacy Died)

Spider-Man, as a character, is no stranger to tragedy.  From the first, famous moment where his Uncle Ben is killed by a criminal Peter Parker could have stopped, Spider-Man has always been defined by his failures rather than his successes.

 See?  Defined by failure.

In large part, these large scale failures are one of the reasons Spider-Man has always appealed to us nerdy folk, in particular while growing up, because Spidey loses.  He does his best, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out and this humanizes a super hero and brings them down to earth, to our level.  This is as true of the small scale (brilliantly summed up by Peter failing to deliver a pizza on time because he was saving the day in Sam Raimi’s incredible Spider-Man 2) as the large scale.  It’s the human fallibility that really resonates and Peter’s reaction to his failures that makes him truly heroic.  He inspires us to work past our failings (be they nerd related, growing up, or just being) and to continue to strive for the best.
While this all originates with Uncle Ben’s death, this theme echoes throughout the Spider-Man mythology, with Peter constantly struggling with the danger to those closest to him because of his super hero status (I distinctly remember this being a running theme in the awesome 90’s cartoon).  Many of these failings come from Spidey’s tragic flaw, which in this case is hubris; now for those of you lucky enough not to be saddled with a classics degree (calm down, ladies, I’ve only got a minor) hubris is roughly the Ancient Greek term for pride, most often associated with coming before the fall.

 Like this mother fucker.

Spider-Man’s hubris is, in fact, the constant flaw that defines the character; ironic given his awkward teenage insecurities.  But before we get too deep into all that, here’s a quick primer on Spider-Man. For those unfamiliar with Spidey’s history, when nerdy Peter Parker (aka The Reader, just like everyone wants to be Bella in Twilight, or Harry in Harry Potter-until Neville becomes cool) gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains heightened strength (spiders are strong), the ability to crawl up walls (cuz spiders can do that), spider-sense (um, sure!), and builds web shooter arm bands (see the earlier nerd comment.  Except he’s a bankably smart nerd).  Then he fights crime, right?

Nope.

Instead Peter becomes a wrestler!

 It always ends in tragedy.

One day, after wrestling the hell out of some people, Peter stands by and watches as his employer (a shady promoter who had just stiffed him on his winnings) get robbed.  While Peter could easily have stopped the thief, instead he shrugs and mutters “Not my problem.” Much to the chagrin of the promoter (Oooooh, I hate come-uppance!)

Later that night, Peter finds that said criminal has killed his Uncle Ben (in another robbery, this guy was basically Dillinger) and Peter could have stopped him.  Now happily, his Uncle had a prophetic saying that he repeated enough that Peter (along with just about every comic book fan of all time) remembered it and made it his mantra:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Kinda makes you wish this was posted somewhere on Wall Street, doesn’t it?

Which brings us up to speed, pretty much.  Spidey vows to use his powers for good and proceeds to save the day 90% of the time.

But it’s the 10% we’re after today.

Spider-Man, as an alter ego of Peter Parker is, in a sense, Peter perfected.  Like how Morpheus describes your avatar in The Matrix, Spider-Man is the witty, confident, capable avatar of Peter’s hopes and dreams.  He nabs the bad guy, gets the girl, and action is his reward.  Look out, here comes the Spider-Man.  But here’s the rub; because Spider-Man is so confident and quick with the one-liners, his failures are magnified by his actions leading up to them.  In a lot of ways, Spidey’s failings are like Romeo and Juliet: it’s a comedy until people start dying.

Julie Taymor presents: Spider-Man Romeo and Juliet.  Losing millions of dollars at a theatre near you this summer!

There have been a bunch of deaths in Spider-Man’s run, but they all pale by comparison to the death of a character named Gwen Stacy.  If you’re a product of the 90’s like me (and once viewed ‘rad,’ as a perfectly good way to describe something tubular.  How whack was that noise?) you probably only know Gwen as ‘that random blonde girl who TOTALLY moved in on Spidey’ in Spider-Man 3 (unless you’re one of the lucky few who managed to block that travesty from memory, in which case I hope you’re having fun at memory-blocking-Disneyland!)

But in truth, Gwen was Spidey’s first girlfriend, not Mary Jane Watson, whom kids of the 90’s will remember from the cartoon, and movie goers will remember from the films.  Gwen and MJ were around at the same time and originally created a bit of a Betty/Veronica style love triangle for Peter, with Gwen (the smart, responsible, daughter of the Chief of Police) juxtaposed against MJ (the hip, fun, artsy party girl, who is secretly a bit damaged).  Now, keep in mind, a lot of this was during the 70’s, where the lingering desire to be hip made MJ the much more attractive persona.  Gwen was sweet, MJ was fun.  Stan Lee and his writers team threw the reader a curve ball by introducing MJ (seeming to set her up as Peter’s love interest) and then having him get together with Gwen.  This was not to last (Gerry Conway, the writer of this incredible story, admits that he found MJ a fully fleshed-out, deep female character in a comic world of dully, sweet, pretty girls) and her death defined the Spider-Man mythology forever.  In a world of ret-cons and remarkably short-sighted character revivals and abuse (Gwen was sadly not saved the indignity of a ‘secretly this was happening!’ storyline), stories that actually define a character and permanently change their trajectory are few and far between, but  The Death of Gwen Stacey does just that: it’s a Greek tragedy starring Spider-Man and his hubris facing off against his greatest foe, The Green Goblin, and facing the greatest failure of his career.  It’s also one of the best written stories I’ve ever read, combining an understanding of character, story, and writercraft that rivals any in the field.

Like many comic collections, The Death of Gwen Stacy has some weird hold overs from the issues prior: Spidey has just got back from fighting the Hulk in Montreal…

 You wouldn’t like Hulk’s bagel without schmear!

And consequently Spidey has caught a cold “because (he) isn’t used to those below zero temperatures” in Canada (I kid you not) and thus is feeling a bit under the weather, when he finds out that his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco from the movie) has taken LSD again and is dying (there’s a hard line anti-drug message running throughout that reminds us of the concerns of the day.  Future readers will likely say the same of our obsession with terrorism and national security).  Harry’s father is the villain Norman Osborn, aka The Green Goblin (Willem “Boondocks Saints” Dafoe) who has forgotten he is The Green Goblin due to suspense building amnesia (the best kind!).  Now this all collides when the stress of his son’s condition and the collapse of his evil business causes Norman to…(drumroll) magically remember he’s the Green Goblin! Which is a big problem for Peter since Green Goblin is the only person who knows Spidey’s secret identity.

This is a showdown readers had been waiting for, but the teased death on the cover of the issue suggests that either Norman, Harry, or maybe even Spidey’s Aunt May will be the one to  bite it…instead, the Goblin goes looking for Peter and finds Gwen.  Here’s where things get good.

Spidey quickly realizes where Goblin has Gwen (the George Washington Bridge) and goes to save her.  Even though he’s sick and a little off his game, he’s very nonchalant about the whole thing; it’s super hero business as usual, to the point that he basically has a checklist he’s following:

 “…and then I need to pick up milk!”

Finding Gwen alive is a good start, Spidey trades a couple blows and quips with the Goblin (though he can feel he’s weakened), but then Goblin does a fly-by and knocks Gwen off the bridge, as she falls, Spidey fires off his web and catches her long before she hits the ground.  Below are the pages in question, I would absolutely recommend taking a moment to read them:

These are to my mind, the perfect Spider-Man pages.  Spidey does everything he can to save her and acts like he did, right up until the moment he realizes she’s dead.  And even then, the small, sad “I saved you…” is one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a comic.  A huge part of Greek tragedy is the anagnorisis, or moment of realization, where the character’s flaw (in Spidey, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Achilles, hubris) is laid bare and the hero is forced to confront themselves.  What really gets me about this is that Spidey is joking about being charming and talented right up until this revelation; this is how death works, I think.  There’s that moment, particularly amongst us comedian folk, where we’ve been going about our lives, making jokes etc, unaware of the phone call that’s coming with news that someone has died.  They are already gone, but we are unaware, and when word reaches us, immediately we regret our jovial actions committed in ignorance.  It was impossible for us to know, but we feel that regret nevertheless.  That moment, for me, is captured in this scene.  It’s as beautiful, relatable, and human a moment as I’ve ever seen or read and frankly, makes me forget for a moment that the purveyor of said moment is a man in red and blue tights dressed like a spider.

And then there’s the snap.

This is one of the most hotly debated frames of comic history, because the interpretation of this simple, four letter word changes everything.

Spoiler alert, time travelling comic book readers of the 1970’s!!!

Here’s the question (not ‘to be, or not to be,’ contrary to popular opinion):

Was Gwen still alive when Spidey caught her? (The Goblin claims the shock of the fall killed her) Or, did Spider-Man snap her neck by stopping her momentum so abruptly?  Ultimately, the result is the same: Gwen wouldn’t have survived the fall and Spidey couldn’t have reached her any other way, but the question is an important one for Peter.

Happily, it is never resolved.

Even the writers can’t remember who added it or why, nor their intention.  The result has created its own mythology and their (self admittedly fallible) memory matters less than the result.  This is one of the great debatably vague moments in comics, that isn’t infuriatingly ambiguous (like the lack of promised answers about the Island in LOST, or a certain Battlestar Galactica character ‘resolution’ that basically amounted to the writers shrugging, taking their ball, and going home) as it doesn’t affect the outcome; instead it lets us engage the work with interpretation.  Like a great work of literature.  (Since we are in the comic realm, there have been multiple re-hashes of the moment and various explanation; but like all good mythology, none holds a candle to the original story).

Peter’s response is appropriate to an epic hero as he gives in to his anger and vows to slowly and deliberately kill Norman Osborn in retribution for killing “the only woman (he’ll) ever love” (don’t tell MJ).  Once again, charming, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man vows to murder his enemy for revenge.  Awesome.  This is like watching Superman lose it and start punching heads off, or if Batman started carrying a gun.  This is an interesting new take on the Great Power, Great Responsibility mantra, as it becomes a righteous fury rather than a call to mend and defend.

All kinds of epic.

The resulting fight is essentially Spider-Man wrecking the Goblin, ending in Osborn’s death by his own Goblin Glider (just like Dafoe in the film) and a grieving Peter being comforted by MJ.  This first embrace of darkness will lead Spidey to all sorts of interesting places, most significantly the symbiote costume and Venom (most beloved super villain of my childhood -assuming Darth Vader is not a super villain).  It marked the maturation of the character from comic clown to epic hero.  This is a major turning point for the character and altered the tone and direction of the franchise to this day; the entire ending battle of Spider-Man is a Hollywood-ized version of this, with MJ standing in for Gwen and Spidey managing to save her.  And the ghost of Gwen still lingers, particularly in the minds of people, like Sam Raimi, who grew up with her as Spidey’s girlfriend (hence her unnecessary presence in Spider-Man 3) and may well be the next generation of Spidey fan’s default love interest as she is going to be in The Amazing Spider-Man film reboot played by the incredible Emma Stone (who would actually make a pretty kick-ass Peter Parker, if you think about it).

But nothing Gwen has done, or will do, will ever matter as much as her death.  It shocked readers, changed the direction of one of the most beloved and important super heroes of all time, and opened the door for other huge deaths at Marvel comics, most significantly Jean Grey in the Dark Phoenix Saga.  Without it, we likely wouldn’t have our tone shift in Batman, or our nifty new movies.  But most importantly, her death allowed the Spider-Man myth to perfectly align; by presenting us (and Peter) with the inherent hubris of his character, the cost of being a hero, and by reminding us that failure is not the end, merely an obstacle or a lesson.  Spidey keeps going.  Usually he saves the day, sometimes he fails; but he’s a hero, and that’s what heroes do. 

And that’s what we should do.

Recommendation
Essential reading.  There are a small number of works that elevate the form to literature (though increasingly more so, thanks to writers like this) and this is one of them.  The art is powerful, the script incredible (a favourite example smacks of Dickens: “Like a man ridden by some demon hag, he races from his son’s room–runs out into a night moist with the hint of tomorrow’s rain.”) and the significance, as explored above, is legendary. Not to mention, it’s an awesome super hero story. It also has one of the best uses of comic convention I’ve ever seen, by withholding the title until the final panel and commenting on it: Opening page: “There are quite a few things we could say about this issue–but we won’t…As for its title: that’s something we’d like to conceal for a while.  But we promise you this, pilgrim–it’s not a title you’ll soon forget!”  Final page:

Additional Reading
The Death of Captain Stacy: Talk about a one-two punch.  Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy (played for a second and a half in Spider-Man 3 by James “Farmer Hoggett” Cromwell) was the equivalent of Comissioner Gordon in early Spider-Man stories.  He disapproved of Spidey, which led Peter to consider hanging up the costume to be with Gwen.  Then, Stacy dies a hero, helping Spidey save a bunch of people and in his dying breath tells Spidey he knows he’s Peter and tells him to take care of his daughter.  This death rocked the Spidey universe and helped Gwen mature as a character, but also served as an incredible red herring when the decision to kill Gwen was made.  Surely they wouldn’t kill both of them, right?

Marvels: Only a brief note on this, as I’ll be covering it in a future post: this is the first graphic novel I ever read and hands down one of the best.  Each page is painted by the legendary Alex Ross and tells the story of a regular guy trying to cope with the arrival of super heroes into the world. It runs from the Golden Age heroes of WWII right through to the current age and features Gwen heavily in it’s climax.  It is one of the best takes on the mythology I’ve ever seen and the only Gwen story since her death that is worth your time.

The further adventures of Gwen Stacy: I mentioned indignities earlier.  At one point, Spider-Man finds Gwen running around New York, which throws him for a loop, but hen he finds out that she’s a clone…90’s Spider-Man was allllllll about the clones.  Remember this asshole?

That’s right: sleeveless spider-hoodie.

And then they really screwed the pooch.

See it turns out that Gwen had an affair with Norman Osborn, in complete violation of, and in opposition to, everything we ever knew about the character ever and had secret kids with him that grew at a super rate because of Goblin DNA and….ARRRGGGGHHH!  This is the worst kind of cash-in and sadly all too common in modern comics.  Best ignored forever (even the writer has expressed many regrets that it ever went to press and had essentially been told by his editors that he could scrub it out of continuity when they rebooted the series, but was then denied.).  In the Ultimate Marvel Universe she also dies, but then her clone becomes Carnage.  Nifty!

Hubris: A quick note on the other hubristic folk mentioned in the post: King Oedipus (or Oedipus Rex, dig?) declared boldly that he would save Thebes from plague by finding the murderer of the previous king, an unsolved crime identified as the root of the affliction.  Oedipus does this without any knowledge of the murderer’s identity, but is convinced he can do it, because he already defeated the legendary scourge of Thebes the Sphinx by answering its riddle (“What’s the tricksy hobbiteses have in its pocketsies, eh, Precious?” pretty sure that was it.) He also killed an old man on the road once…oh, damn! That was the old king! And his father!  Balls!  When all is laid bare, Oedipus (who was warned this would happen) realizes his pride led him to a horrific discovery and thus takes out his eyes, while his Wife/Mom kills herself.  Yeeeehaw.

Agamemnon, meanwhile, was the brother-in-law of Helen of Troy and led the assault on Troy.  However, in order to launch said assault, he had to sacrifice his daughter to a pissed off god.  Needless to say, his wife was less than pleased.  Upon his triumphant return, Agamemnon ignored all the telltale warnings, convinced of his victory and safe homecoming…and then his wife and arch enemy dropped a net on him and hacked him to death with an axe.  Fail.

And finally Achilles, whose pride led him to war (he was offered a long, anonymous life or a short glorious one…we don’t get the term ‘Achilles heel’ because he survived.) and caused his best friend/lover to get himself killed because Achilles was sulking over wounded pride.  Double fail.

…and knowing is half the battle.

Spider-Man 2: One of my favourite films, Raimi’s first two Spidey films hit me just right.  They spoke to where I was at the time and featured classic storytelling and Bruce Campbell as the snooty usher who is ultimately the only villain to defeat Spider-Man.  Raimi had me somehow doubting that Peter would get the girl, had an incredibly sympathetic and interesting take on Doctor Octopus, and packed it with great scenes.  Great stuff.

Spider-Man 3:  Annnnnnnd here’s the trainwreck that followed.  Partially Raimi’s fault for trying to inject too many old school characters (why were the Stacys even there?) while being forced by the studio to add Venom inexplicably played by Topher Grace.  Raimi has admitted loathing Venom a number of times and it shows, the character going from being the uber awesome monster of the cartoon and comic to a kinda weak pseudo-Spider-Man.  There’s also a huge dose of emo angst (the other films were angst too, but this one was angst on speed) including the ‘now I’m evil’ hair Peter adopts during his dance number.  Also, it takes an awful lot for me to dislike a Bruce Campbell cameo, but they found a way.  Boo-urns.

Spider-Man the Animated Series. There have been a lot of these, but the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the 90’s one.  Complex, deep, and encompassing many comic plots (including a version of the death of Gwen Stacey featuring MJ being thrown off a bridge into a vortex where she (and subsequently the Green Goblin) get lost in space and time.  It was really well done, for the time.  The show can be terrible (like all things 90’s!) But also kinda magical.  Also, this theme song is all kinds of wacky.

How to Understand the X-Men in One Simple Graphic Novel

First, a confession: the Platonic ideal of the X-Men for me has and will always be the 90’s cartoon version (inspired and influenced heavily by the iconic Chris Claremont/Jim Lee run, X-Men: Mutant Genesis). No matter what else I read, see, or what kind of action figures I’ve got (and trust me, there are lots) the X-Men who live in my head are the colourfully costumed team of Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit and Jubilee (yep, even Jubilee…)

My power is failure!

Now despite falling in love with these iterations of the X-Men, I was always conscious (in a hilariously limited pre-Internet age way) of the greater mythology; through assorted comics, books about the X-Men, that awesome arcade game, Wizard and ToyFare magazines, and trading cards, I came to know Colussus, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, and all the rest (most of whom also showed up in the cartoon) even some who were made-up for the show…

Don’t forget Barkley from Star Trek: The Next Generation!  …I mean, Morph!

What I didn’t realize at the time, was that a man named Chris Claremont had essentially defined the X-Men books for all time with his iconic run, including above all else The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of the Future Past, two stories that still resonate heavily in comic mythology. But ultimately, there is one story that really sums up the greater themes of the X-Men, themes I was absorbing sub-consciously as a kid, but which now read very clearly in the films as well as comics; namely, the X-Men are closeted outcasts trying to save the very people who hate and fear them. This set-up has been used at various times and various writers to handle everything from racism to homophobia (even going so far as to tackle -with decidedly mixed results- AIDS with the mutant Legacy virus story arc; a disease that targets only mutants and affected their ability to produce healthy cells, with both heroes and villains being affected and often hiding their positive status from each other, using terms such as LV Mutants)

Little known fact: Pyro originated the role of Roger in RENT.

So what story sums up all these disparate elements?  God Loves, Man Kills is a graphic novel built by Claremont to be the definitive X-Men story, one that would read as true about the nature of these characters and their situation in the future (pretty much now, according to the 80’s original printing) as it did at the time. While the characters have all changed and grown (and died and been revived a bunch of times), this story managed to capture the very essence of the X-Men and as such is required reading for understanding why this particular myth is important. The question is, why?

The basic premise of God Loves, Man Kills has been reintegrated into a variety of mediums, most notably Bryan Singer’s excellent X2: X-Men United: the graphic novel follows the disturbing rise to power of the anti-mutant Reverend William Stryker, who is on a personal crusade to wipe out these ‘abominations’ called mutants. His rhetoric and argument are disturbingly familiar, evoking a lot of the hate spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church about…well, pretty much anything.

 Yep, they’re an X-Men villain too.

The basic argument being, since mutants are homo superior rather than homo sapien Styker argues that they are not human and thus deserve no human rights. From the murder of his infant son (who is born a mutant) to the betrayal of his most loyal support when it is revealed that she is a mutant, Stryker is hate and bigotry incarnate, but worse still, he’s popular. In a notable scene early on, Charles Xavier debates Stryker on TV and the X-Men, watching from home, can’t help but note that although Xavier’s arguments are sound, Stryker is calm, charismatic and playing off people’s fear -sound familiar in today’s media? Claremont has given us a villain Wolverine can’t punch, Cyclops can’t blast, and Xavier can’t outsmart. He’s not a super villain, he’s a real life villain, which is perhaps even more terrifying.  His defeat at the hands of a regular cop, trying to prevent a murder and a riot, is perfect. An ordinary monster can only be stopped by an ordinary man.

Then he brings the violence. God Loves, Man Kills opens with one of the most poignant and heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a comic: two children are running, the older one telling his little sister to forget about their mother and to keep running. They make it to a playground before the little boy is shot. Then as the little girl holds her dead brother, with tear-stained cheeks she asks her assailant, “Why?” to which the attacker, part of Stryker’s mutant hit-squad responds by shooting her and saying: “Because you don’t deserve to live.”

The two children are then strung up by swings in the playground with signs around their necks reading “MUTIES” to greet the students coming to school in morning. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Matthew Shepard in Laramie (dramatized in The Laramie Project).

And then, Magneto, the arch villain of the X-Men and a Holocaust survivor, finds them and gently brings their bodies down and delivers the respect and horror the event evokes. I’ll be covering Magneto in a few weeks in more depth, but suffice to say that this one moment sums up why Mageneto seeks to rule the earth more than any other: he experienced one genocide and seeks to prevent another by seizing control. This theme runs throughout the book, right up to the grand reveal of Stryker’s final solution, which is to use Xavier’s massive psychic powers to kill every mutant on earth (also used in X2). This is Magneto in fine form, a complicated, sympathetic, and ultimately correct villain, whose only defeat in this book comes from Cyclops reminding him, “We’re humans too.”

In addition to covering religious and sexual intolerance, Claremont manages to hit the racism issue too, in a series of three perfect panels, in which young Kitty Pride (a closeted mutant and the Jubilee of the 70’s, the young person we’re supposed to identify with…although she’s a helluva lot cooler than Jubilee…) gets in an argument with a fellow dance student who fires off some anti-mutant slurs before calling her a mutant-lover. After her black dance teacher Stevie and Colossus break up the fight, Stevie tells Kitty not to sweat it, that they’re just words; to which the wounded Kitty responds, “Suppose he’d called me a nigger-lover, Stevie?  Would you be so damn tolerant then?!!”  A few panels later, we have Stevie alone, shaking and crying, admitting to herself that Kitty is right.

This scene kinda floored me; it just beautifully summed up how this series explores issues (much like the unbelievably awesome Battlestar Galactica abortion episode). A racist probably won’t read an anti-racism comic, but a kick-ass story about a guy with built-in claws and another dude who shoots lasers out of his eyes? Hells yes.

Racist Thinking 101: Well, I won’t watch Crash, but this is awesome!

Now, that isn’t to say the comic doesn’t have it’s issues, it does: most notably, the style of comics at the time is very different from what we read now (the team spends a lot of time explaining what their powers are and how they work; think anime-style “My optic blast has stunned him! That will give Colossus enough time to grab him!” “Using my strength, I’ll grab this bad guy, who Cyclops stunned with his optic blast!”) and there’s a hilarious focus on reminding the audience how young these characters are supposed to be (they’re just like us!). It’s not bad writing, by any stretch, it just takes a bit of mental adjustment.

So if like me, you’ve cared about these characters since you saw them fly around the X-Men logo randomly every Saturday morning (or now, late at night, several drinks in on Netflix) this is an incredible window into the very heart of the mythology. It’s also just an incredible story by a master of the franchise and can help fill in that little gap on your soul left by watching the horrendous X3.

Boooooooooooo

God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson

Recommendation: Essential reading. Sums up the entire franchise and the reason this myth is important. Surprisingly relevant today.

Additonal Reading
Dark Phoenix Saga, the definitive story of the Claremont arc. While this sums up the mythology, Dark Phoenix shook comics to their core and permanently changed the X-Men. I will be covering it in an upcoming post.

Days of the Future Past: Also set to be covered in an upcoming post, this story covers a horrific future where Sentinals have killed most of the X-Men. Think the kickass opening sequence of Terminator 2, but John Conner is Wolverine. Awesome.

X-Men: Mutant Genesis: The end of an era and the beginning of another, this was the end of Claremont’s X-Men run, and the aesthetic picked up by the cartoon. (Anyone else remember when Pizza Hut had an X-Men promotion? They were giving out the first issue of this run. Never ate at Pizza Hut more in my life…)

Battlestar Galactica “The Captain’s Hand” s 2 e 17: An incredible episode that managed to strike at the core of the show’s premise: with the remains of humanity in the 10,000s, the President, a former pro-choice proponent before the war, has to put aside her beliefs to outlaw abortion to save the human race. Rarely does a show manage to use it’s premise to explore an issue in such an interesting way.

X2: The definitive X-Men film, but ultimately hindered by not having a proper follow-up (imagine if Peter Jackson had handed Return of the King over to Michael Bay). The film deals with Colonel William Stryker (Brian ‘I was the original Hannibal Lector’ Cox) using his mutant son to orchestrate a mutant/human war and then kill all mutants. Also lays the groundwork for Dark Phoenix and features the most awesome Nightcrawler scene of all time. Alan Cumming 1, White House 0.

X3: Uh oh, someone told Bret Ratner he could make a movie…pretty much throwing subtly under a bus, X3 is a mess involving important characters (that Cyclops guy I’ve heard about once or twice) getting killed off-screen, Dark Phoenix being Jean Grey in a dress. AN EVIL DRESS! Professor X being a douche for no reason (surprise! I’ve secretly been giving Jean Grey psychic lobotomies this WHOLE TIME!), and about the most generic ‘we didn’t get this hyper specific maneuver right at the beginning of the movie because we didn’t work as a team…but wait, here is the exact circumstance again…only now it works! Yay!’ moment I’ve ever seen. It’s not all bad (Wolverine kills a tonne of people in a forest. Awesome) and has a beautifully sad moment with Xavier-less Magneto as a sad old man playing chess alone in a park, trying to regain his powers. Fantastic. Not sure how these two great scenes managed to sneak in; maybe they were deleted scenes from X2…

X-Men cartoon: Take it with a grain of salt, It can get kinda silly and convoluted, but ultimately, a fantastic microcosm of important X-Men stories and characters. And it’s all on Netflix. Hells yes. Not nearly as coherent or polished as the Bruce Timm, Paul Dini Batman,Superman, Justice League, and Batman Beyond series, but still worth a watch, for the epic theme song, if nothing else.

*Please note, not all images are taken from God Loves, Man Kills