A Movie Entry – Superman vs Batman

No, this is not about the impending sequel to Man of Steel.  This is a collection of my rambling thoughts on the original sets of four movies for both Superman and Batman.  Despite the differences between the superheroes themselves, the movies ran an oddly parallel course as far as initial inspiration, execution, and eventual decay.

Superman vs Batman
In my opinion, the first installments were the best.

The crew for “Superman” wanted to make a movie that was, I believe, sincere.  There is a lot of potential silliness in the concept and the bar to suspend disbelief is pretty high.  Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, fly, shoot heat beams from his eyes, ice breath, capable of keeping up with the Flash, nigh invulnerable, and only weak to a glowing green rock and magic (which wasn’t in the movie).  But the crew, especially the director Richard Donner, was committed to making the audience, as even the movie tagline said, “believe a man could fly.”  And it worked.  The movie made a man flying believable as well as making Clark Kenting believable (frankly, I’m not sure which was the more difficult task).  Overall the cast did a great job (see if you can find the old “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Christopher Reeve is trying out for the part of “Superman”).  Where there some plotholes?  Yes.  Was there a big flaw with the ending?  Yes.  But it is still an excellent film.

The crew for “Batman” wanted to return Batman to his dark gothic roots, and director Tim Burton was an ideal choice for that.  In truth, there is a lot of potential silliness in the concept of Batman as well, which was demonstrated in the 1960s television show and much of the Silver Age comics.  The casting was initially quite controversial, as Michael Keaton was more well-known for his comedic roles.  No one was arguing with Jack Nicholson though, but from what I’ve read, he extracted a heavy price for his participation.  While Superman was set in a modern world, Batman was set in what appeared to the 1940s/1950s, which means this was as close to real-time as the franchise has ever been (as Batman’s original inspiration was the 1930s movie The Mark of Zorro).  And it worked.  Batman was vengeance; he was the night; he was BATMAN!  Overall the cast did a great job.  Where there some plotholes?  Yes.  Was there a big flaw with the ending?  Yes.   But it is still an excellent film.

Superman 2 vs Batman Returns
Lex Luthor was a great starting villain for the first movie, so the next threat level was other Kryptonians.  Additionally, Clark Kent had made the decision that he would rather be human than an alien god so he could really be with Lois Lane.  Naturally, he suffers some pains of being human, but nothing compared to the problem of Zod!  Sadly, executive meddling started before the second installment of “Superman” was finished, so the director’s cut is a bit different from the theatrical release.  Still, a pretty good movie.

The Joker may have been too good a villain to start with, so the next movie upped the stakes with two villains, kind of.  This was the introduction of Catwoman, although not with the same backstory as the comic books.  The problem with this movie was too much of Burton and not quite enough Batman.  It was just a little off in tone and story, and while still a good movie, it had more problems than the first.

Superman 3 vs Batman Forever
And here executive meddling dominated both movies.  The original directors were off the project.

The same actors were signed up for Superman, and that was one of the few enjoyable aspects of this movie.  Superman had now been turned into a parody of the character with a plot as ridiculous and campy as any 1960s Batman episode.  Heck, Richard Pryor was a lead character.  The plot was convoluted and contrived, and the only part I enjoyed was Superman fighting with Clark Kent to pull himself together.  Sadly, the potential of that metaphor was lost in the slapstick-fest that was the rest of the movie.

Michael Keaton extracted himself from the franchise and I honestly don’t think Val Kilmer was a bad choice; I think he didn’t have anything to work with.  This movie upped the stakes with two outright villains, Two-Face and Riddler, although we get practically no backstory on Two-Face and what we get of Riddler is ridiculous.  To be fair to Jim Carrey, I think he was really trying to channel Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the 1960s series, who actually was by far the creepiest villain in that show (which I know isn’t hard) and honestly pretty creepy in his own right.  He had that thousand-mile stare…  But if two villains wasn’t enough, the people behind the movie decided to reinvigorate the franchise with Robin.  Fine, I guess.  This movie was already too campy for what had come before, and the focus was clearly more on merchandising (“where the real money from the movie is made”) than the story.

Superman 4 vs Batman and Robin
Oh, my lord, the franchise killers.

The last installment of “Superman” still had the original cast, whom I hope was paid very well for their efforts.  There were subplots that went nowhere, a heavy-handed main plot that would have been too heavy-handed for a “He-man” moral, plotholes even a four-year child would pick out (there is no air in space) and an anti-Superman villain who clearly should have been played by Dolph Lundgren (hey, two “He-man” references) but sadly was not (although I’m not sure that would have helped).  The special effects were laughably bad, and a bit of Google Fu leads me to believe that’s because the studio that produced this was kind of infamous for stealing the funds (no, it wasn’t Bialystock and Bloom, but I could see them producing this…).  It was awful and sad and I felt sorry for all the actors involved in it.

Fourth movie, third Batman/Bruce Wayne, and clearly the worst of the lot.  Two new villains, a new sidekick, more bad one-liners, and more Bat-gadgets clearly designed to be sold in children’s fast food meals.  I’m thinking Barbara Gordon was only added to sell a female action hero to little girls.  I’ve pretty much said all there is to say about this movie and where it went wrong.

The Score
I believe they tied.  The first movie was the best, the second was pretty good even if there were some oddball bits (for “Superman” it was due to executive meddling and for “Batman” it was due to Tim Burton being a very strange man), the third was a sharp turn downward in quality on every level, and the fourth was just scraping the bottom of the barrel.

However, if I want to bring in long-term impact, I would say “Batman” edges out “Superman” here because the movies (at least the first two) directly led to the creation of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series.  Sure, there was a Superman animated series too, but it just wasn’t quite as good, although enjoyable enough.

There is a lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of the two original sets.  Both sets succeeded because the production crews put forth an honest effort to reproduce the source material.  The risk paid off in box office dollars but someone high up thought they could make more money, or make the movies more cheaply, or probably both.  Both sets failed because the production crews failed to be true to the core of the main characters.  Superman became slapstick-y and heavy-handed, and Batman became, well, slapstick-y and heavy-handed.  Superman is hope, and Batman is justice.  Production crews that understand such simple amalgams will most likely produce successful movies.  Those that don’t understand, well, the results are obvious.

A Writing Entry – Author Avatar

This does not refer to my fantasy novel, but rather this trope.  In short, an Author Avatar is when an author inserts themselves into a story.  Usually this is pretty obvious, and in the worst cases results in a Mary Sue/Gary Stu.  Generally, few authors would insert themselves into a story if they didn’t want to be the hero.  Those that insert themselves into the story to have bad things happen to them, well, that’s indicative of some deeper issues that I’m not going to get into.

I have said before that I believe it’s almost impossible for a writer to keep some part of themselves out of their characters.  Some try to actively shun this, such as Terry Pratchett, who says that none of his characters are like anyone he knows.  Other writers have more obvious inspirations, such as Charles Dickens, who based one character on his wife’s friend (whom he apparently didn’t like very much) and was most upset when he admitted it.  Although not confirmed, it’s strongly suspected he based the character of Mrs. Havisham on a real person.

However, I also think it’s ill-advised to consciously put too much of oneself or one’s friends and/or family and/or acquaintances into one’s works.  I will grant that the one person I know best is myself, which means surely I can get that character down accurately.  The problem, of course, is that most people see themselves through a lens darkly, myself included.  It’s really, really hard to write oneself in a way that isn’t, well, improved, shall we say.  Hence, the Mary Sue/Gary Stu.  Even if the Author Avatar isn’t perfect, there’s a real risk the story is just some kind of author fantasy.  Viewed from that perspective, “Twilight” tells the readers much more about Stephenie Meyer than she perhaps really wanted people to know.  Then again, considering how many women though they were just like Bella Swan, perhaps that tells all of us much more than we want to know about humanity…

So, why do this?  Well, I can of course only speak for myself, but I think it’s because I want my life to be awesome.  I saw a question that was supposed to be inspirational which was, “If your life was a script, what would you write?”  Or something to that effect anyway.  My first thought was, “Well, I’d have superpowers.”  Also, I’d have a henshin.  This tells you something about me and why I play role-playing games.  I like fantasy because, in theory, I’d like to live in a more fantastic world.  Note – in theory.  In practice, a fantasy world has many of the same problems as this one but with (potentially) the added problems of incompetent wizards, scarily competent witches, time-traveling aliens, new life and new civilizations, enemies from a past life returning for vengeance, enemies from the future traveling to the past for vengeance, crazed sorcerers trying to take over the world, crazed cyborgs trying to take over the world, attempting to re-take a lost kingdom back from a dragon, destroying an artifact of great evil, suffering from a radioactive spider-bite, and so on and so forth.

But still the idea is so very appealing.  What would it be like if I had superpowers?  What would it be like if I could throw fireballs?  What would I do with a starship?  What would I do if I could write the script to my own life?  One of my favorite internet comic book reviews does just that in his videos.  One, to highlight the ridiculousness of some aspects of comic books (for instance, mysterious characters are stupid and should explain themselves), but two, because he can.  He is literally scripting part of his own life, so he’s a hero in it.  I’m kind of jealous for that.  My own job, while necessary, is not the sort likely to endow me with superpowers or any magical items.  The biggest fights I get into are with inanimate objects and occasionally hedges.

I must confess I actually do write Author Avatar-type stuff down.  And then I hide it away and never, ever let it see the light of day.  I’m not proud of producing Author Avatars, even unintentionally.  One of the first novels I wrote, which embarrasses me now, follows the adventures of two people who are pretty much me and the person I was dating at the time.  Yeah, I know, it’s lame.  I think I can salvage the story, one day, but for now I’ve shelved it and resolved to be more careful.  I really try to avoid basing characters on myself and people I know.  How they interpret my characters is up to them, and since human beings as a whole are not as unique as we think, it’s not unlikely my characters will resemble people I know whether I have them in mind from character creation or not.

I’m not saying there isn’t drama in real life, or real life situations.  Plenty of authors write modern fiction.  That’s just not for me, although I have made rare exceptions.  Sometimes real life shows a potential for drama that I can’t ignore.  Sometimes it’s not very nice.  “Squandered Blessings,” for example, is drawn quite a bit from my real life.  Some of my short stories for the now defunct “Pagan Edge” e-zine were also drawn from my experiences.  And of course the character of “Dave” in my “Nevermore” stories is in fact my friend Dave, who should really have his life turned into a Coen brothers movie (the hardest part would be getting the story into a screenplay format).  But that’s my thanks to Dave for giving me the idea (along with a few others) and even contributing.

Otherwise the characters in the stories are not me, or people I know.  This is a conscious choice on my part.  It helps keep me from getting too involved in the story in a way that isn’t going to turn out well.  In general, I don’t think stories starring Author Avatars are very good and I want to write good stories.  Do I base my characters on my experiences?  Certainly.  I don’t claim not to.  Do my characters sometimes exhibit traits I personally exhibit, or have hobbies that are the same as my own?  Yes.  Do I have favorite characters?  Yes, but that can be a different problem.  My job as a writer is to tell stories, not tell my audience how awesome I’d be as a superhero.  Honestly, I don’t think that would be an interesting story to share.  I’m not saying that can’t work for other authors (although I think it’s a shady proposition to begin with) but it certainly doesn’t work for me (hundreds of pages of never-to-see-the-light-of-day-fan-fic bear this out; trust me).

In short, I am an author, not an author avatar.

A Movie Entry – 10 Things I Learned From Captain America 2

Apologies for missing on Wednesday and having a short one today; I spent most of my afternoon fighting with a hedge and while I think I was ultimately triumphant, that hedge gave me hell for my victory.

No spoilers, at least nothing you can’t guess from the trailers:

1) It really should be titled, “Captain America and the Badass Normal Avengers”
2) SHIELD has ALL the money
3) Captain America is charmingly literal-minded sometimes
4) Captain America’s alignment is “Lawful Good,” but he can get away with it
5) If a villain is going to try to plant the seeds of doubt, the villain really ought to provide time for those seeds to potentially grow
6) It is a very bad idea to try to kill Captain America
7) It is an even worse idea to try to kill Nick Fury
8) Bad guys are never helpful for no reason; if you don’t know why they’re being helpful, you damn well better find out
9) The difference between a badass normal and a superpowered hero is that while a badass normal can surive nearly being blown up (because this is a comic book movie), the superpowered hero not only survives but actually can walk away
10) The litmus test to tell fans from non-fans is how they react during the teaser-sequel trailer

Fan’s reaction – Uh, oh!  Well, I know how this ties into “Avengers 2…”
Non-fan’s reaction – Huh.  That didn’t make any sense.

By the way, go see it.  It’s quite a good movie.

Storytelling Failures – Marvel’s Illuminati

This is an odd hybrid rant.  One side of the mash-up is the utter failure of the stories involving Marvel’s Illuminati (thus far) and the other side is the mash-up is that this is a retcon that I, were I tyrant-in-chief, would have not allowed under any circumstances and probably would have chewed out the writer(s)/editor(s) who suggested it.

By the way, this is spawned because the company that runs Marvel’s subscription service is fairly terrible and this is the third time my friend with the subscription has received a comic he is not technically signed up to receive.  Third.  In two years.  Yeah.  So this time instead of Ultimate Spider-man, he got New Avengers #1, which is misleading on pretty much every level.  It’s not #1; according to the recap page it’s actually #16.  It’s also not the New Avengers that I’ve discussed before and the group is not in fact even Avengers but the Illuminati.  It’s also not even new because this set of comics is up to issue #3.  That’s a lot of fail, especially considering this is not even the comic my friend subscribed to!

So, time for some backstory.  There are reasons I dropped Marvel, and this dumbass retcon was one of them.  Oh, yes, while I usually try to be measured in my criticisms and often regret being too sharp (still sorry about the Superior Spider-man thing, but how was I supposed to know the end goal was to bring Peter Parker back?), this is not one of those times.  I find the concept of the Illuminati to be so detrimental to the characters, the stories, hell, the very fabric of Marvel’s 616 continuity, I will be much less than measured…  Also, this will be long.  Long and ranty.

So anyway, a bunch of things tend to happen in Marvel that should attract the attention of certain people and never seem to.  This is both a plothole but also a fact that is almost necessary for suspension of disbelief.  Apparently, people who write comics picked up on the obvious plothole of people not talking to each other and apparently didn’t understand that is not a plothole to pick at.  They should have watched the ST:TNG episode “Tapestry;” it’s not a perfect analogue, but sometimes picking at loose threads in the continuity causes the whole damn thing to unravel, which is kind of what happened here.  While I do indeed complain that an alien invasion in the Fantastic Four should damn well get the Avengers involved, for many of the stories the fact that such groups tend to not talk to each other is the only way to believe the outcome.

Anyway, long story short (too late) Marvel writer Bendis (whom I normally like but wow do good writers sometimes make horrendous mistakes), got the task of fixing the universe, which in this case meant explaining why the hell Reed Richards never talked to Charles Xavier who never talked to Stephen Strange and so on despite the fact they logically should have.  Via a retcon in 2005, suddenly the Illuminati, a group consisting of Prof X, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Blackbolt, Dr. Strange, and Namor, had existed since right after the Kree-Skrull War (abouts 1971-1972 in real time).  So this means over thirty years of comic book history was suddenly retconned to have had this group existing all the time and doing whatever it is that they do.  And what did they do?  F*#k up royal is what they do.  Here’s a brief summary of events that actually impact Universe 616.

1) They meet and decide that such men of power and benevolence should try to talk to each other and prevent another war like the Kree-Skrull War, but in secret, because that’s in no way what villains do.  Initially Black Panther is invited, but he basically tells them they’re being self-righteous [Denis Learys] and that heroes totally do not meet in secret to decide the fate of the world.  He leaves, and the others continue to secretly meet because clearly they are not villains, right?

2) They decide to go to the Skrull Empire and show off how badass they are to convince the skrulls to never invade Earth.  They promptly get themselves captured, tortured, and experimented on, until they finally escape, leaving the Skrulls with much more intelligence on the defenses of Earth than they had before that little stunt.  Spoiler alert!  This did not turn out well.

3) Tried to stop the Beyonder and the Secret Wars II.  Spoiler alert – it totally did not work.  Also, the writers of that set of stories apparently couldn’t be bothered to read the original Secret Wars II and consequently had numerous continuity errors.  Spoiler alert!  This is a trend with the Illuminati.

4) Tried to convince Marvel Boy, a Kree warrior, to protect Earth instead of take it over.  Shockingly, this worked.  It’s pretty much the only thing that did, and honestly it should not have taken Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Prof X, Blackbolt, and Namor to convince this kid to be a hero.

5) The Sentry is retconned into existence and they discuss the matter and Iron Man decides the Avengers will take him into their fold.  Spoiler alert!  This does not turn out well, although I concede this may not have been their fault.

6) After the Hulk smashes up a whole bunch of stuff (as he is wont to do), including Las Vegas, Iron Man tells the group (minus Prof X) that they should shoot the Hulk into space and maroon him on a deserted planet.  Namor is the only person who dissents.  Namor.  Yeah, Namor, the guy who periodically decides to destroy/conquer the surface world.  Namor, the anti-hero, is the only one who thinks it’s wrong do this action and he stands by his principles and leaves over it.  NAMOR.  Well, the others shoot the Hulk into space.  Spoiler alert!  This also does not turn out well, and it is absolutely and completely their fault.

7) Despite dissolving the group over Iron Man starting Civil War, for some reason Mr. Fantastic, who has been collecting Infinity Gems (don’t know how the Infinity Watch felt about that), gives them to his former best buddies to protect them.

8) Hey, remember that time the Illuminati shot the Hulk into space and marooned him on a deserted planet?  Well, it wasn’t deserted because the geniuses couldn’t get the shuttle to hit the right planet, and after some contrivance, Hulk heads back to Earth for revenge!  Because that’s totally what heroes do!  And instead of you know, taking responsibility for being totally unheroic douche-bags, the Illuminati end up in a big fight that managed to destroy everyone’s characters.  Except Namor, because he told the Illuminati where to stick it in the first place.  (Note – I think “World War Hulk” is an epic fail of storytelling too)

9) Hey, remember that time the Illuminati decided to preen and posture and warn the Skrull Empire that they were total badasses and instead got their idiot selves captured like chumps?  Yeah, well, with all that extra intelligence the Skrulls invaded Earth, secretly.  It sucked.

10) Hey, remember that time when Mr. Fantastic gave all his best buddies the Infinity Gems to guard?  So, naturally, someone came after those gems.  It sucked, especially since the baddie was a C-list arcanist (I don’t care who was possessing him) and shouldn’t have been a real problem.  This set of events ended with Captain America being given custody of a gem.  That actually was a good idea.  Sadly, one of the few this brain trust has come up with.

11) So in the issue I just read, apparently a bunch of universes are colliding and this could be the end of 616.  Black Panther (remember, the guy who wisely said “screw this!” at the beginning) loses all common sense (or is subject to a dumbass “creative team”) and decides to get the band back together!  You know, the one he was part of for like five minutes before he realized how stupid the idea was.  And he gets all of them, even Namor.  Well, except Prof X, since he is dead and has had his brain eaten by the Red Skull, so he’s replaced with Beast.

I’d like to pause a moment and point out of this group (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Namor, Blackbolt, Mr. Fantastic, Beast, Black Panther), five of them have been or are Avengers, but they’re still not Avengers!!!

Anyway, to try to prevent the worlds from colliding, they try the Infinity Gauntlet, which doesn’t work (because the Living Tribunal said it would never work again, but apparently the writers didn’t actually know that because who could be bothered to read up on the continuity and just declared it didn’t work or else there would be no plot).  All the Gems are destroyed (which they can’t be) except the Time Gem and Captain America is rightfully upset about the whole existence of the Illuminati.  Naturally, as perhaps the only hero (big damn or otherwise) left in the Marvel universe, Cap attempts to convince them that they are wrong and so Iron Man asks Dr. Strange to wipe Cap’s memory of meeting the Illuminati, and Dr. Strange is totally okay with that, because heroes absolutely wipe the minds of other heroes to hide the existence of their secret and totally not villainous club.  Based on my knowledge of narrative structure, and the history of the Illuminati thus far, I predict this will not go well, and it will be their own damn fault.

12) And then there’s all the stuff the Illuminati didn’t do, which if not spelled out is implied by their very existence.  Every major event that occurred between their retcon and the present that they utterly failed to prevent – The Korvac Saga, the Phoenix Saga, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Inferno, the Nefaria Trilogy, Days of Future Past, the Trial of Magneto, Avengers Under Siege, Acts of Vengeance, the Phalanx Covenant, Operation: Galactic Storm, and so on and so forth.  All those major events happened despite, in theory, the Illuminati existing and, you know, talking to each other to prevent such things from happening.

Intermission – I’m going to take a moment here to quell my rage by slamming my forehead into something hard until the pain goes away or slamming back shots until the pain goes away.  Either way, I should feel better, by which I mean not on the verge of a Hulk-like rampage, not that I feel better about this [expletive] mess.

Storytelling Failures:
The two biggest failures with this whole concept are character and plot.
Character – I know that people have different character amalgams, but the Illuminati does not fit the character of any of the men involved, except maybe Namor.
a) This is NOT heroic – Yeah, so heroes don’t typically get together for secret meetings to discuss the fate of the world.  That’s kind of a Legion of Doom or Masters of Evil sort of thing.  So the only person that makes any sense to be in this kind of shadowy and morally ambiguous group is, well, Namor.

b) Dumbass! – For this to exist, all of these men would have to exercise the kind of poor judgment more typical of a caffiene-addled, hormone-crazed teenager, and that’s a bit insulting to caffiene-addled, hormone-crazed teenagers.  Sure, let’s barge into the homeworld of the Skrull Empire to show off what kind of badasses we are!  That’s totally a good idea!

c) Incompetent! – Not only are they all arrogant, terrible people, they are utterly, completely, and unbelievably incompetent!  These are people who regularly save the world and yet apparently can’t prevent terrible things from happening and cause more terrible things to happen.  Their incompetence is so complete I’m left wondering how the hell they ever saved the world to all!

Plot -
a) Unraveling the tapestry – This concept only creates plotholes.  Huge, gaping, universe-breaking plotholes.  For example, it is the job of the Sorcerer Supreme to stop magical, extra-dimensional incursions into the universe.  But for those of you unfamiliar with the Inferno, it was, briefly, a magical, extra-dimensional incursion into the universe.  The X-men stopped and Dr. Strange was nowhere to be found.  The cause of the problem was the demon-sorceress Magik.  Now, by the tenuous logic of the universe before the retcon, which is that these people don’t talk to each other, a reader could assume Strange was absent for an event he obviously should have been present for because he was off tending to some other magical, extra-dimensional incursion (so, you know, Tuesday).  But once it has been established that Xavier knows Strange, there is no logical reason why he wasn’t involved.  Because, logically, Xavier should have called in Strange for help the minute he realized Magik was a demon-sorceress.  Whether or not this would have actually prevented Inferno I don’t know, but it does make a giant gaping plothole that this was never even addressed.  And that’s just one of many examples.
b) Been there, done that – Also, heroes acting like villains?  Ooooo!!  That’s so original and has never been done before and I hope the sarcasm is screamingly obvious.  Was that really the best they could come up with in 2005?
c) Made it worse – They caused huge, earth-shattering, terrible crises!  The retcon of the Skrull Empire bluff just made the skrulls more determined to take over Earth.  Flinging the Hulk into space directly led to World War Hulk!  Did Marvel really think it needed the heroes to f@#k up this royal to create drama?

Retcon:
1) What narrative possibilities are created with the retcon of the Illuminati?
a) Retconning events that were unexplainable, or merely unexplained.
b) New stories featuring them.

2) What narrative possibilities are eliminated with this retcon?
a) The ones already presented for the 30-some odd years of events.
b) Closing up loopholes without this retcon.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe?
a) The members of the Illuminati are no longer heroes.
b) The members of the Illuminati are $#*&ing idiots who cause huge problems like World War Hulk, do not even try to prevent problems like Inferno, and basically fail at every effort to improve the world.  They didn’t even prevent another alien invasion!

4) How does this retcon effect all events subsequent to the Kree-Skrull War?
a) The members of the Illuminati are no longer heroes.
b) The members of the Illuminati are #@$!ing IDIOTS.

In short – Is this narratively necessary?  NO!  No no no no no no no no NOOOOO!  The universe was fine without the Illuminati, plotholes and all.  This retcon actively made the universe worse!

I-I just don’t understand.  I see the kernal of an idea that someone thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”  But the execution is an utter failure.  I can see this working if the Marvel Bullpen had come up with it in 1972.  Was this an effort to address the obvious plothole that these people should have been talking to each other all along?  Trying to shoehorn in a retcon of this magnitude is ridiculous, and the result is ridiculous, and I have difficulty understanding how the “creative team” didn’t see the obvious pitfalls of doing this.  I can also see the appeal of the idea of all these heroes turned villain even if that’s overdone.  But the Illuminati are incompetent.  Why take some of the most important people (and generally competent heroes) and turn them into bumbling morons?  The way these stories play out is almost more of a farce or satire of the idea of Illuminati.  Is there a joke here I’m just not getting?

This isn’t a failure like One More Day.  That was a self-contained story with fairly minor ripples in continuity (although oddly it also made a whole bunch of otherwise awesome people impotent failures).  But the idea of the Illuminati is a Pandora’s Box of fail.  As shown with the brief summary that’s been presented in this rant, there is no end to the damage that can be done.  With the Illuminati in theory existing since 1972, and incorporating characters from every major Marvel title, nothing that’s been written is safe from further meddling through this mechanism.  Any story that has already been written can be modified or completely undone.  And the result of trying to use the Illuminati to write a new story is equally problematic as evidenced by “World War Hulk.”

Seriously, what is even the hell?  What the @#$%ity #@$% was the Bullpen thinking when this idea was approved?  Where did it start and how did it end up this parade of failure and suckitude?  How could nobody see the damage this was inflicting on legacy characters and the continuity of the universe (which already has as many holes as Swiss cheese)?  What was the benefit supposed to be?  New stories?  Then tell NEW stories goddamn it and quit retconning old ones.  And tell good stories, not ludicrous revenge fantasies starring a villain Hulk as a God-mode Gary Stu.

There is not enough *facepalm.*  There is not enough *headdesk.*  There is not enough booze.  I have no words to describe how much of a failure the Marvel Illuminati is from a storytelling standpoint and from a retcon standpoint.  When a writer lacks the words to describe something, that demonstrates how serious the problem is.  I can think of words – fail, incompetent, stupid, dumbass, [expletive], waste, moronic, idiotic, poorly thought-out, ill-conceived, terrible, awful, illogical, inconsistent, horrible, contrived…

But all of these seem inadequate.  Frankly, I find this kind of thing to be symptomatic of a larger issue in the two big comic book companies – a complete lack of respect for internal logic and story consistency.  In other words, this was badly written.  And while I know there were ways to write the plot of OMD in a way that wouldn’t have been a complete failure (although I would have still hated it), I don’t think there was any way this could have worked.

In short, I think the Illuminati was an unworkable, bad idea from the start that was made worse through bad writing.  I also think no amount of good writing could possibly make up for the bad premise.

Hey, I just found the right word to describe this: UGH.

Yeah.  Just… UGH.

A Writing Entry – Don’t Sue Me

This actually has nothing to do with lawsuits or fear of legal repercussions.  This is about Mary Sue (not the website).  Not familiar with Mary Sue?  I’m sure you’ve met her before, or her spear counterpart Gary Stu, although they very seldom go by those names.  Mary Sue and Gary Stu appear in all kinds of media – books, comic books, television, movies…  Mary Sue and/or Gary Stu always know the right thing to say or do and everyone loves them for it.  Oddly, while the other characters in whatever media tend to fawn all over Mary Sue and/or Gary Stu, readers/viewers tend to be much less fond of them.  This is not true in all cases, and quite often the creator of such media with Mary Sue and/or Gary Stu tend to love them as much as they think everyone else should.

A Sue/Stu is of course one of the worst kinds of characters in media.  Often Sue/Stu is an Author Avatar or Author’s Pet, which doesn’t help matters at all.  A Sue/Stu is almost more of a caricature than a character since there’s no character development involved and a Sue/Stu generally starts out nearly perfect.  The status of a Sue/Stu is somewhat subjective.  One person’s Mary Sue is another person’s Bella Swan.  Heck, there are even online tests to try to determine the Sue/Stu status of a character.

Here are some of my criteria for determining if I have encountered the dreaded Mary Sue/Gary Stu (which gives me guidelines for traits to avoid when writing my own characters):
1) Practically perfect in every way
Actually, Mary Poppins may be the only Mary Sue I can think of whom I didn’t hate, and whose Mary Sue-ness was in fact central to the movie.  But in pretty much other case of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, the perfection is kind of a byproduct of lazy writing (or Author Avatar).  Mary Sue/Gary Stu doesn’t have any real flaws that might actually be interesting in any way.  Any flaws they do have are minor, such as being clumsy or perhaps having a slight stutter, and such flaws are supposed to come across as totally adorkable.  Yes, I know I’ve protested against heroes with too many flaws, but that’s a different argument.  Even if Mary Sue/Gary Stu has a background that should leave them emotionally troubled, they’ve come away from the events stronger and better.

2) Loved by all
Mary Sue/Gary Stu are so perfect and nice with no substantial flaws that everyone loves them.  While superficially it may seem as though Mary Sue/Gary Stu’s utter perfection should be annoying, as well as the fact they have mad skillz (see below) and can pretty much do no wrong, that only makes them so much more endearing.  In fact, the only people who don’t dote on their every word and deed are usually bad guys.  That’s how you can tell they are bad guys!  And sometimes even the bad guys secretly love Mary Sue/Gary Stu but they just can’t express it and that’s why they do bad things.  Aw, so sad.

3) All the mad skillz
Oh no, the hyperdrive is about to explode and there’s no one who can fix it.  The ship is doomed!  But wait, Ensign Mary Sue/Gary Stu happen to have studied some obscure theory on hyperdrives and have a plan that’s so crazy it just might work!  And of course it does.  Obscure arcane text no one can translate?  Mary Sue/Gary Stu can!  Door only opens for someone of a long-extinct bloodline of sorcerers?  Hey, it turns out Mary Sue/Gary Stu are actually descended from the Powerful Sorcerer.  Is there anything Mary Sue/Gary Stu can’t do?  No, no there isn’t.  They can actually do anything and definitely much better than anyone else.

4) Stronger Than Everyone
Not to be confused with “strong as s/he needs to be,” which is a different trope, although Mary Sue/Gary Stu do often fall under this.  This is especially egregious with superhero/villain Sues/Stus.  The idea is basically that you can throw the entire Justice League/Avengers at this bad guy and s/he just shrugs it off with barely any effort.  I’m not talking about Lex Luthor barely compensating for Superman pulling some trick he didn’t think of and emerging victorious.  I’m talking about your Prometheus or Harvest or Deathstroke or Green Goblin who take punches to the face by Superman or Luke Cage and just laugh it off.  I’m talking about villains who at every turn claim to have anticipated the heroes’ moves so even a defeat is just a minor part of a much larger chess game.  Or alternatively, the heroic Sue/Stu who, after the entire League of Awesome Heroes is beat down, pops up with some earth-shattering power that hereforeto hasn’t even been hinted at and saves the day.  The power they have defies all internal story logic that has so far been established.

So what’s so wrong with Mary Sue/Gary Stu?  Well, ultimately Mary Sue/Gary Stu are very flat characters.  They start perfect, continue to be perfect, and end perfect; there is no character development.  And since they are so very perfect, there’s never any real drama about whether something bad will happen to them.  No matter how much they stutter or trip or walk into danger, they will come through unscathed and probably have saved the day/won the guy/won the girl, or otherwise done something good.  Writing Mary Sue/Gary Stu is contrived to make the protagonist so very awesome.  Ostensibly the audience is supposed to root for Mary Sue/Gary Stu and love them as much as everyone else.  I don’t.  I despise Sues/Stus no matter what names or alignment they have.  When good guys, I don’t root for them to win, and when bad guys, I just smack my head against a wall in disbelief as they mop the floor with all the heroes.

I actively try to avoid Mary Sue/Gary Stu in whatever guise they take in whatever media they appear in.  I also actively try to avoid writing Mary Sue/Gary Stu because such characters are just bad writing.

Categories: Random musing, Writing Tags:

A TV Entry – I Heart the A-Team

Does anyone else have the problem where the “Indiana Jones” theme turns into “The A-Team” theme in their heads? No one else? Just me? Okay, well, there you go.

The Premise:
This show started in the early 80s when nearly all dramas were the brain-child of the late great producer Stephen Cannell. Like many shows in the 80s, this one used the intro to helpfully narrate the conceit. “Ten years ago (so Vietnam) a crack commando troop was sentenced to military prison for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped and fled to the Los Angeles underground. If you have the money, and you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.” Or roughly that. Also, it turned out they did commit the crime, but were under orders to do so, and the orders were subsequently lost or destroyed. And there was never any explanation of what the “Los Angeles underground” was either (it sounds like it should be a level of some first-person shooter). Anyway, for a show about ex-Vietnam military fugitive mercenaries, there was surprisingly little blood and almost no one ever died or even got shot. The show ended with the A-Team barely evading the authorities, until the mid-point of the series in which they started working for the military. I didn’t like that premise as much.

The Characters:
The group was a four-man band, with occasional sidekick or companion of the episode (or perhaps more of a five-man band with a rotating Chick). You may argue that perhaps I have the Lancer and Smart Guy mixed up, but I think there’s no doubt as to the other two.  And honestly, the did switch things up a bit in the show so these tropes aren’t absolute.

The Leader – Col. John “Hannibal” Smith (after the great general). A distinguished gentleman in his 50s with a penchant for cigars, elaborate (and not always convincing) disguises, and overly complicated plans that usually came together. Interestingly, when Hannibal means business, he’ll put gloves on, if he’s not already wearing them. Woe be to the bad guy if Hannibal puts his gloves on while they’re talking. Often accused by other members of “getting on the jazz.” Oh, sure, sometimes even he’s put off by Murdock’s antics. But he really, really enjoys the scheming and in particular the winning. He is never the only sane man; in his way, he’s as crazy as Murdock.
“Ever notice you run into the nicest people in tanks?”

The Lancer – Lt. (I don’t know if it’s first or second) Templeton “Face Man” Peck. Con-man, grifter, ladies’ man, but not exactly a gentleman. He could get nearly anything if given enough time. Often put upon for his skills in acquiring what was required for the mission. Typically tried to avoid being punched in the face, for obvious reasons. In certain circumstances, he was the only sane man. However, in other circumstances, Face got on best with Murdock of any the team. My impression was that Face served as a sniper in Vietnam (which is part of the Lancer trope).
“Don’t smile at me like that! That’s not even a smile; it’s just a bunch of teeth playing with my mind!”

The Smart Guy (and probably a Cloudcuckoolander as well) – Captain H.M. Murdock (I never found out his real name; in the show he said it stood for “Howling Mad”). He can pilot anything with wings, and sometimes things without wings, and sometimes things he’s built from scrap. Partially responsible for B.A.’s fear of flying, perhaps not entirely without cause, but then again, their missions are sometimes pretty dangerous and crashing is always a risk.
“No, no, no, no! I merely relocated the aircraft with extreme prejudice because of a total loss of thrust and lift functions!!!”
He was actually not on the lam. He was a patient in the VA hospital’s psychiatric wing. Even as a kid, I always thought Murdock acted like a sane guy who only has a dim idea of how crazy people behave. But as I watch the show now, I see the writers snuck in some phrases that indicate that while Murdock probably acts crazier than he is, he actually probably is suffering from severe PTSD. He’s also the only one who still calls Hannibal “sir.”
“I’m not nuts! I’m condiments! I got promoted!”

The Big Guy – Sgt. (again, I don’t know precisely what rank) B.A. Baracus (the incomparable Mr. T). He was the big guy. He wore about seventy pounds of gold jewelry between the rings and necklaces. So ’80s he could not be more ’80s. In fights, he tended to throw people over tables and bars and take punches like they were nothing. And yet he was quite soft-hearted, especially when it came to children. And he was also deathly afraid of flying, although with Murdock as the pilot, I’m not sure I could blame him. This lead to the rest of the team drugging him, tricking him, or outright knocking him unconscious to get him on a plane. Probably the most sane man on the team and least tolerant of Murdock.
“Shut up, fool!”

The Chick - The first season (and some of the second) they also had Amy Amanda Allen (Triple A) who was the stereotypical plucky girl reporter (and how she didn’t end up in Levinworth herself I’ll never know). She often helped the A-Team find cases and then went on the mission to report about it. She left somewhere in the second or third season and there were a couple of replacements, but eventually this band member was dropped. This is actually too bad as she ended up in danger far less often than say, Face.
Amy – “Hannibal’s plans never work right. They just work.”

The Bad Guy – There were two types of Bad Guys: the villain of the day, and the military.
a) The villain of the day was of course the main antagonist in the team’s mission. Drug lords, corrupt small-town police, mobsters, and so on, tended to be on the receiving end of Hannibal’s plans. One would think, in fact, every small town was at the mercy of a corrupt sheriff if this show was anything to go on.
b) The A-Team was pursued by the military police and sometimes would almost nearly get caught, until they actually got caught and were forced to work for the military. The MPs weren’t really bad guys. The A-Team were fugitives as far as they knew. They were just trying to do their jobs and weren’t adverse to taking care of the villain of the day if their paths should cross.

The Plot:
Team gets mission (most episodes started with Hannibal in an elaborate disguise to feel out his client to make sure they weren’t feds). Then they set out to rescue someone or find something which usually involved an elaborate con. Sometimes they had to start with an elaborate con just to break Murdock out of the hospital, although sometimes the show started with him already busted out, or him just flat-out making a run for it. The bad guys actually think they can win against the team. Hannibal makes a plan. It may or may not go right (actually, it probably won’t go right). The military may or may not show up to attempt to thwart them. The team will probably have to build something awesomely implausible, or implausibly awesome. And in the end the plan comes together. Also, despite lots of gunfire (I mean LOTS) no one ever dies. No one even gets shot. Well, that’s not exactly true. A couple of times the team members do get shot but that’s because the gunshot is a plot point.

The Result:
Ridiculous ’80s fun. It was disposable. It was all in good fun. And it’s still fun to watch. The show didn’t take itself too seriously, which seems to a rarity these days. Cars jumped over obviously hidden ramps, lots of stock footage was used, huge explosions could be set off with the merest of light breezes if that made the fight scene more awesome.  Heck, the intro (which I linked to) included a Cylon walking past Face, which is an inside joke/reference to the actor’s work on the (at that time) recent series “Battlestar Galactica.” Oh, sure, the acting isn’t the best in the world. And logically, of course, the A-Team’s van is only one of the most distinctive vehicles ever and should have been easy to track. And pretty much everything they ever built probably wouldn’t actually work. When the villains did manage to capture the A-team, they never seemed to learn not to put the highly trained crack military unit in a room full of everything they need to escape (although I suppose they didn’t already know that; however, once the ARMY locked them an army base’s ARMORY). It’s quite formulaic, which is unfortunate since some episodes would have been more interesting if they had deviated from the formula. And sure, it would have been nice to have a female character who was not the token Chick (and following Amy’s exit, any steady female character [as opposed to Face's date of the day] would have bene nice too). But Hannibal and Face are smugness personified, Murdock is crazy, or maybe not, but entertaining either way, and B.A. is sheer ’80s awesomeness personified. I wouldn’t recommend watching too many episodes in a row, or thinking too hard about the plotholes (of which there were many). Still, it’s upbeat and enjoyable and I really appreciate that.  If you need a fun show to watch, and you can find it on Netflix, maybe you can watch… the A-Team!

A Comic Book Entry – Fifty Shades of Gray

Or, another entry title that does not actually have anything to do with porn.

This primarily concerns comic books but also fantasy and some movies in a general sense. I do tend to rage on about the continuing darkening and edgening of comic books, but this does run into other media as well.

The Impetus:
I’m not ranting to rant. I’m not exactly angry. I’m sad and disappointed in a medium I used to really enjoy. This entry stems from a conversation I had with a most learned friend of mine who spends a great deal more time analyzing art and pop culture than I do. He said that superhero comics were over. I of course disagreed, because, as I said, this is a medium I used to really enjoy. I wish I could recall our conversation in this entry, but his main thesis was that there were no new stories to tell. I objected, but the more I thought about it, and reviewed my previous blog entries, the more I realized how right he was. I realized that’s the heart of my frustration with modern comic books. It’s not the dark and edgy that’s the problem. Dark and edgy is only a symptom of the problem.

The Bias:
Superhero comics are a fantasy. They are escapism. And yet Dan DiDio is on record as to wanting to reboot the DC Universe in a post-9/11 world. Guess what I just realized (because I am sometimes slooooow on the uptake)? The New 52 was launched in September of 2011. Yeah, 9/11. So my question is why? Why reboot a fantasy universe into a dark, paranoid, fear-filled, post 9/11 world? Seriously, can anyone answer that for me? Because I think this is what I am missing when so many people claim to like Man of Steel. I actually live in a dark, paranoid, fear-filled post-9/11 world. When I read superhero comics, I want to escape from that. I don’t want harsh reality messing up my escapism fantasy. I want heroes to win and villains to lose because that’s fantasy. Hell, if I want to read about a paranoid, fear-filled post-9/11 world, I’ll read the news.

I want to make it very clear that I do not object to “dark” shows, comic books, books, movies, what have you. Everyone has different tastes and likes and dislikes. Camp is not for everyone; horror is not for everyone; romantic comedies are not for everyone. I’m not advocating a return to the black and white morality of eras long past that probably never existed anyway. Morality is gray, and that’s fine for the real world. But in a fantasy? Well, does everything have to be so gray? This rant is lamenting the loss of diversity and how by making everything dark and edgy, everything becomes more of the same.

The Background:
Part of the reason the Dark Ages of Comics started and sold so well was a backlash against the silliness of the Silver Age. This isn’t quite fair, though, as the Silver Age had since passed into the ’80s, which was an odd time for comics. Some stories had premises that were just as insane as any Silver Age comic but the characters were handled in a more mature fashion. I would argue even in the ’80s (and perhaps even earlier), comics were not strictly for children, Comics Code Authority aside. The Dark Ages transformed subtext and nuance into in your face sex and violence and gore. Of course it sold well! Whether or not all that sex and violence and gore really made a more mature comic (or any medium) is a different matter. I maintain the Dark Ages hasn’t ended. I’d argue the Dark Ages has only deepened.

Problem the First:
Anti-heroes became more popular than actual heroes. In an effort to continue to be mature and edgy (or justify the sex, violence, and gore as necessary elements), writers started making the heroes more like anti-heroes.

Problem the Second:
Writers have always had a difficult time writing anti-heroes. It really is very difficult to pull off a character who has little to no regard to any rules but his/her own and yet is someone the audience can still cheer for. So this has lead to a lot of confusion between an anti-hero and a [Denis Leary].

Problem the Third:
Trying to be realistic. The problem with this is that “realistic” is kind of the wrong goal for a comic. Alice in Wonderland has to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Comic book readers are no different. So in this way “realistic” is impossible. Orphan aliens either can fly and shoot laser beams from their eyes or they can’t.

Also, in the cases in which some heroes’ powers can be made more realistic, is this really a good goal? Consider Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy. That actually dealt with the real world consequences of being Batman, which were that within 10 to 15 years tops, Batman would be too crippled from his years of fighting to continue to be Batman. Yes, realistically, Batman’s crimefighting career would be about as long as a professional athlete. The human body is amazing but cannot withstand that kind of punishment. Batman would have to retire before 40.

Frankly, audiences don’t really want to deal with the reality of these situations. This is why Batman is still just shy of 40 years old after a 70+ year comic book run and Aunt May will never, ever, ever die despite being 206 years old. “Relatable” is a better goal, and Stan Lee had already done this with great success with launching Marvel Comics. I fail to see how making media that is at the heart of it a fantasy more realistic is an improvement.

Problem the Fourth:
Desperate marketing. As of the writing of this entry, Marvel has eight X-titles and eight Avenger titles, not to mention solo titles featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Hulk and TWO solo Wolverine titles (his mutant power really is multi-tasking). Despite the number of characters available to the writers they use many of the same characters across titles, which doesn’t actually leave a lot of room for new characters. DC has been releasing 52 titles every month (I’m not sure if they’re still churning out that many but that was the idea). This seems like it would be great for diversity, but unfortunately churning out that many titles doesn’t leave room for allowing poor-selling but well-written title develop a steady fanbase. Thus unless a title is an immediate hit, it’s cancelled and replaced for something DC knows will sell, like Batman.

Problem the Fifth:
An increasingly cynical society that doesn’t understand why Batman doesn’t kill, doesn’t understand why Superman doesn’t kill, and doesn’t believe in a utopian society of Amazons. Characters that are paragons of virtue are seen as lame or outdated relics of a long-gone age. On the flip side of this, villains are somehow more evil than before in many cases (compare Universe 616 Red Skull to Ulti-Red Skull and then weep). I may write more about this later on something I have tentatively dubbed “Lobo Syndrome.”

The Result:
Characters that are all the same. There’s a loss of fantasy in exchange for something only resembling reality. There’s an emphasis on a certain type of character, and any characters not that type are discarded in favor of that type in the name of profit and relevancy. This self-selects against new characters gaining any ground and a fanbase. And when heroes are less virtuous, villains must be more villainous if only to provide a distinction between the two. As heroes slide towards villainy, villains reach the limit of villainous behavior and the distinction is blurred. Heroes all look the same, villains all look the same, anti-heroes all look the same, and everyone looks the same as everyone else.

The stories also start to blend into each other. Narrative options are increasingly limited both by the lack of diversity in the characters but also in the cynicism of the writers. Specifically, there is increasingly no third option. Now, I will grant that a hero that always seems to win the unwinnable by taking a third option starts to look somewhat like a Mary Sue. Too many third options can also start to look like deus ex machinas, which is lazy writing or contrivance. On the other hand, the Sadistic Choice is supposed to be dramatic. The reader is rooting for the hero to somehow take that third option. Failing to do so is heartbreaking. But when there’s never a third option and someone is going to be lost to the Sadistic Choice, then the Sadistic Choice loses its dramatic power. I’m not saying everyone should live every time, but hollow victories undermine the power of the hero. Stories are increasingly not allowed to be hopeful. The only options are anger or despair or cynicism.

To make a long entry short (too late), to me (and my learned friend) so much of the available mainstream works (DC/Marvel) are the same thing over and over again. By that I mean that the books aren’t all drawn the same, of course, or all written the same way, but when I read them, I end up feeling the same way. While the particulars of the plot and characters may be superficially different, the twists, turns, and character development are similar enough that each one I read leaves me feeling exactly the same way.

Thus, the result is fifty shades of gray that ultimately blend into one big morass of anti-heroic blah.

The Raging Fanboy

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