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Captain America: Living Symbol, Heroic Symbiosis (Men in Tights, Part 4)

NOTE: This article is the final part of a series.

Captain America is the member of the Avengers who is most obviously wearing a costume. It’s not a battlesuit or a uniform. It’s not the cultural garb of a mystical race. It’s a costume. This is significant, because his costume indicates his deepest identity as a superhero. Quite simply and literally, Captain America is the living symbol of the American Dream. He stands for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Unfortunately, at least in terms of visual appearance, this makes him look like an idiot.

The Captain America film spends a lot of time disguising the costume beneath a leather jacket and army fatigues. Fortunately, the costume looks better on the screen than it did in publicity stills, where it resembled a multi-coloured boiler suit. In much the same way, the more streamlined costume he wore in The Avengers didn’t look quite so much like a piece of confectionery that had sprouted legs and started beating people up. But the problem that neither film really managed to solve is that the mask is highly unflattering. Even after replacing the silly little wings with painted emblems, the mask still looks stupid and ugly, and somehow changes the entire shape of Cap’s head from square-jawed hunk to a lump of plasticine moulded by an epileptic orangutan wearing boxing gloves. Not surprisingly, Cap takes it off as often as possible.

But in the end, does he really need the costume to be a symbol of the American Dream?


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The Avengers: Clothes Make the Iron Man (Men in Tights, Part 3)

The other big superhero film this year was The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble, as it was known in the UK. The reason for the name change was to avoid confusion with the old TV series, but that still didn’t stop thousands of people all across the Internet thinking it was funny and saying, “The Avengers? If Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg aren’t in it, I won’t watch it.” Of course, the real joke is that these wannabe wits talked themselves out of seeing one of the best superhero films to date. (Funnily enough, I see that a new American comic based on the old Avengers TV series is titled Steed and Mrs Peel.)

Built upon Marvel’s pre-existing superhero franchises, The Avengers‘ big draw for the average filmgoer was Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. He was witty, sarcastic, charismatic, and egotistical — and people wanted to see more of him. Which is unfortunate, because he spends so much time in the Iron Man films and The Avengers buried beneath his armour. In fact, he gets buried beneath lots of different types of armour as he upgrades his suit more often than most people upgrade their mobile phones. In Iron Man he starts off with a bulky grey armour before moving on to the classic red and gold look, while in Iron Man 2 he carries a stripped-down armour in a briefcase for emergencies. By the time of The Avengers, I’m told he’s up to his seventh model. In the comics he has a wide range of armours for specialised missions: stealth armour, Arctic armour, sub-aqua armour, outer space armour, Hulkbuster armour, disco dancing champion armour. (Okay, maybe not that last one. But oh, if only…)

Iron Man is the superhero most defined by his costume. Without it he has no powers. In fact, without the armour he would die: a cybernetic breastplate (an arc reactor in the films) keeps his injured heart beating. But the armour can also be a double-edged sword; at one point in the comic book series, its systems damaged Tony’s nervous system, leaving him paralysed in a wheelchair, and the only way he could walk was…you guessed it…to keep wearing the armour. At this point, you have to wonder if he ever considered changing his name to Irony Man. Read the rest of this entry

Spider-Man: Totem and Tragedy (Men in Tights, Part 2)

[NOTE: This is Part 2 of a column series titled Men in Tights. For the introduction, see Part 1, “Batman: Daemon with a Cape.”]

Spider-Man is another superhero whose origin is steeped in tragedy. When scrawny egghead Peter Parker is granted superpowers by a radioactive spider-bite, he decides to make some money by working as a professional wrestler. After appearing on a TV show and wowing the audience with his spider-powers, he allows a thief to escape, and excuses it by saying the situation wasn’t his responsibility. He later regrets this bitterly when the thief kills his Uncle Ben (no, not the bloke who makes the rice). Distraught over the death of the gentle Ben (no, not the bear), Peter realises too late that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the costume becomes a way to disguise his identity while fighting criminals, in order to protect his loved ones from reprisals. It also becomes a symbol of his redemption, although I’m not sure if that’s ever stated explicitly in the comics. It’s more the sort of thing fanboys say when they want to look clever on the Internet.

The reasons vary for why Peter wears the costume before he becomes a superhero. In the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko stories, he wears it to hide his embarrassment in case he loses a wrestling match. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis says it’s to hide his age because the wrestling promoter won’t pay anyone under the age of twenty-one. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film, as far as I can remember it’s because all of the other wrestlers wore costumes so Peter just followed suit. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent reboot by Marc Webb (resist the opportunity for a cheap pun … must stay on topic … focus, focus), Peter never even becomes a wrestler; the dual needs of explaining why he wears a costume rather than a ski-mask and why he even needs to remain anonymous anyway are explained by having a criminal promise retribution on Peter as Peter stares at a wrestling poster.

The idea that Peter needs to hide his identity from the outside world while he himself discovers his true identity permeates the entirety of the latest film. This is something that goes back to the original comic, where high school bully Flash Thompson torments Peter Parker but worships Spider-Man, Gwen Stacey loves Peter Parker but hates Spider-Man, and J. Jonah Jameson constantly illustrates his newspaper vendetta against Spider-Man with photos taken by Peter Parker. Furthermore, in “The Master Planner” saga, one of the most iconic moments in Spider-Man’s career — the act of freeing himself from beneath the crushing weight of a piece of overturned machinery so that he can get to Aunt May’s hospital and give her a lifesaving antidote — is undercut by a doctor’s comments after Peter finally gets there: “Too bad someone like [Peter] can’t be an idol for teenagers to imitate instead of some mysterious, unknown thrill-seeker like Spider-Man!” Read the rest of this entry

Batman: Daemon with a Cape (Men in Tights, Part 1)

Let’s face it, superhero costumes aren’t the most practical attire ever invented. If you’re going to fight heavily armed criminals, why the hell would you choose to wear brightly coloured spandex and a movement-impeding cape? The bright colours would draw the eye of anyone with a machine gun or death ray, and the cape would forever be catching in doors, not to mention flapping in your face every time there was a gust of wind.

Even ostensibly practical costumes that ditch the garish colour schemes and pointless capes aren’t much use. There’s a hilarious extra feature on the X-Men DVD where the actors can’t even step over a foot high wall because their leather costumes are too restricting.

So why do superheroes keep wearing the damn things? Did they lose a bet? In the case of Mister Miracle, then probably yes.

But if we look closer it is possible to discern a deeper meaning, a more serious significance to these outfits, and a whole wealth of iconography. Plus, some of the costumes are really cool.

Take Batman for instance. He wanted a costume that would strike fear into the heart of superstitious and cowardly criminals. And, just as he was pondering possible designs, a bat flew in the window. Problem solved. Except for one thing: Batman’s costume isn’t remotely scary. Let’s face it, it’s blue and grey pyjamas with pointy ears and a cape. In the frightening the crap out of evil-doers stakes it’s only one step up from Andy Pandy.

 


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Subversive Superhero: The American Dream of Captain America

Last year when I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the first time, I found it to be really good fun. The first half is probably better, where it’s like a superhero version of Bourne/Craig-era Bond/Mission Impossible/’70s paranoid conspiracy thriller. It even has a decent stab at social commentary-lite with its discussion of post 9/11 America. It also features some excellent fight sequences, probably the best I’ve seen in a superhero film. Unfortunately, the second half of the film sacrifices much of the moral complexity, turning it into a fairly straightforward good-vs.-evil scenario. The ending in particular seemed very much Hollywood wish-fulfilment (although the ramifications are explored a little more thoroughly in the Agents of SHIELD TV series).

Still, on an entertainment level the film works and does a good job of finding spotlight moments for a crowded cast. Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill is the only one who really comes away short-changed. Admittedly, a couple of plot points don’t really make sense, but I enjoyed the film so much that I didn’t really care. And certain stuff I expected it to do is being left until the sequel, which is probably just as well, as now the filmmakers can (hopefully) give those developments some dramatic heft instead of just crowbarring them into the last five minutes of The Winter Soldier. The film also gets bonus points for including Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” on the soundtrack.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard some people make of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that it’s filled with jingoistic flagwaving. Which only seems to prove these people weren’t paying attention. The film isn’t a live-action version of Team America: World Police. Granted, it ultimately comes down in favor of the good ol’ US of A, but along the way it’s actually pretty critical of modern America, and this is quite in keeping with aspects of Cap’s ongoing life in the comics that have developed over the past half century.

In point of fact, Captain America is a far more subversive character than people tend to realize. Yes, he was originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a gung-ho hero to help inspire America to get behind the idea of fighting the Nazis (his first comics appearance was before the US entered the war), but since his revival by Stan Lee in the ’60s he has often been used as a vehicle for critiquing American society. Read the rest of this entry

Unnamable but Not Undrawable: The World of Lovecraftian Superheroes

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Three

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In Part One of this series I set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to find aspects of optimism and heroism in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. In Part Two I looked at how a number of other writers, and also filmmakers — including Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Joss Whedon — have themselves produced Lovecraftian fiction with some kind of optimistic or redemptive cast.

Lovecraftian influences have also made their way into superhero comics, and today I’ll be taking you with me on a whirlwind tour of the way Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-esque ideas and themes have been used to heroic effect in colorful alternate worlds of tights, capes, and tentacular interdimensional horror.

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As early as the 1940s, Gardner Fox used Lovecraftian ideas when co-creating the mystical superhero Dr. Fate. Other comics featuring Lovecraftian elements include Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, both of which feature cults and cosmic beings and come across as “The Call of Cthulhu” with superheroes (which, let’s face it, is the one ingredient that’s really missing from that story).

Elsewhere, in Brave and the Bold #32 J. Michael Straczynski had Aquaman and the Demon Etrigan team up to tackle an unnamed monster that bears an uncanny resemblance to Cthulhu. When this Cthulhu-alike summons his fishmen minions to attack the two heroes, Aquaman responds by calling up all the marine life in the surrounding area: sharks, whales, swordfish, stingrays, giant squids — everything. The resulting armada looks tough enough to tackle any ancient god that’s senile enough to take it on. And that’s before you take into account the fact that they’re backed up by a hellfire-wielding demon and the King of the Seven Seas. There’s also a meme doing the rounds with a picture of Cthulhu rearing out of the ocean with Aquaman standing atop his head in a regal pose as he commands the Ancient One to do his bidding. “I’m useless, they said,” runs the caption. “I have stupid powers, they said.” Read the rest of this entry

Everything Old Is New Again (If You Don’t Look Too Hard)

I was reminded recently of something my English teacher once told me. In the middle of the English lesson he fixed me and my classmates with a solemn stare and imparted this great truth about literature and creativity: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”

Fortunately my teacher was an amiable sort (and corporal punishment had already been abolished) so he took my comment in good humour, recognising that it helped illustrate his point. There really is nothing new under the sun. But humanity, being dauntless, intrepid, not to mention stupid, keeps on searching. For we truly believe that one day we will find that most elusive of all creative endeavours: an entirely new idea.

Of course until then we’ll just keep on churning out the same old shit.

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