Author Archives: Stuart Young

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

Make Mine a Double: On Being a Pod Person

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“STUART” SAYS:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the first film I remember seeing that actually terrified me. I was so young — I saw it when I was still just a highly impressionable child — and the concept driving the film was utterly, perfectly terrifying:

What if your loved ones were replaced by emotionless duplicates? Worse, what if you were replaced by an emotionless duplicate?

Everything the same, everything slightly different. Existential dread in a teatime SF film.

The heroes: Kevin McCarthy’s square-jawed doctor and Dana Wynter’s plucky divorcee look like they can handle themselves. Still, they are strangely vulnerable.

The cure: medicine and psychiatry will save the day. Or could it be that excessive rationality is actually part of the problem?

Minimal special effects: the fanciest come when the pods split open to reveal their duplicates.

Screenplay by Daniel “Out of the Past” Mainwaring. Directed by Don “The Verdict” Siegel. McCarthy’s voiceover is classic noir, as is the framing device where he tells his story to disbelieving authority figures. The only difference is that, instead of the police, he is talking to doctors. And the whole thing plays out in bleak black and white.

And oh God, the ending! It seems tame now, but my innocent young mind couldn’t cope with the stark ambiguity. I was terrified that pod people had actually taken over the earth and that they were such perfect duplicates that nobody had even noticed. My friend tried to ease my paranoia by talking me through it logically: if pod people had taken over the world we would know we were pod people, and as we didn’t, we couldn’t be.

I eyed him suspiciously: “But that’s exactly what you’d say to me if you were a pod person!”

“STUART” SAYS:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers wasn’t the first film I remember seeing that actually terrified me. I was a little older — I saw it when I was an adult — but even so, the concept driving the film remained utterly, perfectly terrifying:

Everyone you know — all your friends, all your rivals — is replaced by an emotionless duplicate. Would your love survive? Would your hate?

Everything different, everything eerily similar. Existential dread in a late night shocker.

The victims: Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams appearout of their depth; ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Still, they have hidden strengths.

The problem: pop psychology and New Age pseudoscience will condemn the day. Or could it be that credulity is actually part of the solution?

Minimal special effects: the fanciest come when a pod duplication goes horrifyingly wrong.

Screenplay by W.D. “Peeper” Richter. Cameo by Don “Dirty Harry” Siegel. Sutherland’s cynical everyman is classic neo-noir, as is his struggle to unravel the conspiracy theory. The only difference is that, instead of dealing with corrupt police and politicians, he is dealing with alien invaders. And the whole thing plays out in bleached, soulless color.

And oh God, the ending! It was bleak beyond belief, yet my jaded adult mind was able cope with the horror. That inhuman screech, overlapping a terrified scream as the last human emotion echoed around the world. My friend had trouble understanding the ending, so I talked him through it: a pod person pretending to be human was indistinguishable from a human pretending to be a pod person, until that final moment of revelation.

I eyed him suspiciously: “Should I be worried that you’re called Stuart, too?”

 

Magick, Madness, and Outsider Art: The Lovecraftian Path to Happiness

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Four

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NOTE: This is the final part of a four-part series in which Stu Young explores the works and influence of H. P. Lovecraft in an attempt to tease out themes of heroism and optimism among the more familiar themes of horror, gloom, and despair.

Although Robert Anton Wilson claims that Sir John Babcock, the hero of Masks of the Illuminati, is “the typical Lovecraft narrator” and has him muse that “Encounters with death and danger are only adventures to the survivors,” Babcock does on occasion find himself getting a thrill from his exploits. Admittedly, he compares this to the novels of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard rather than anything by Lovecraft, but then, in the year in which the story is set (1914) Lovecraft hadn’t had any tales published yet. (Not that this stops Cthulhu popping up for a quick cameo.) But despite Babcock’s vacillating feelings towards his adventures, Masks of the Illuminati ends happily.

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Meanwhile, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, a visit to Miskatonic University turns up a John Dee translation of the Necronomicon, and shoggoths make several cameo appearances during the course of the story. Yog-Sothoth also turns up several times in Illuminatus! but is constantly trapped in various types of pentagons and eventually absorbs Hitler into itself, thus condemning old Adolf to eternal torment, which shifts Yog-Sothoth from villain to borderline hero, kind of like the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park.

(Does anyone else feel weird about Yog-Sothoth being a hero? Even viewing him as an anti-hero seems wrong; it’s so out of character. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis and wanted to try a new direction in life. He probably bought himself a shiny new sports car as well. Just so long as he doesn’t start shagging younger women again, because we know that never ends well.)

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Wilson liked mixing historical figures into his novels, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Aleister Crowley, along with many other real people, all turn up at various points. For the purposes of this discussion, the most interesting cameo by a real-life figure come in Illuminatus! when one of the novel’s protagonists pays a visit to none other than Lovecraft himself, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters in his stories might be real. The protagonist then asks why, if Lovecraft doesn’t believe in monsters or magic, did he cut short a quote from Eliphas Levi’s History of Magic in his short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft replies, “One doesn’t have to believe in Yog-Sothoth, the eater of Souls, to realize how people will act who do hold that belief. It is not my intent, in any of my writings, to provide information that will lead even one unbalanced reader to try experiments that will result in the loss of human life.”

Such a response raises the question of how people really do fare when they allow the influence of Lovecraftian fiction to infiltrate real life. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the British ritual magician Kenneth Grant, who blended the Cthulhu Mythos into Typhonian magic. 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

Lovecraftian Legacy

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Two

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NOTE: This article is the second in a series. It follows directly on from Part One, which sets the stage.

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Having established that Lovecraft’s stories can be at least vaguely cheerful and optimistic, and that they can also feature feats of heroism — not always at the same time, mind you — let’s take a look at some other writers who have played by this particular set of Lovecraftian rules. As we do so, please bear in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive study, but is instead just a quick rundown of the stories I’ve read in this area. There’s whole reams of stuff I haven’t got round to looking at yet.

And to repeat my warning from the last installment, you should STOP READING if you spot any titles you’re planning to peruse at some point in the future: here be SPOILERS.

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard is best known for writing heroic fiction. But it is not always of an optimistic nature, and this links up with the fact that some of his stories show a distinct Lovecraftian influence and occasionally even take place within the Cthulhu Mythos.

Take, for example, his short story “The Worms of the Earth,” in which the king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn, enlists the help of monstrous creatures that have long been banished beneath the earth to aid in his fight against Roman invaders. Bran finds his revenge against the Roman who sparked his vendetta is soured when the man is driven insane by the sight of the creatures, so that when Bran slays him, it’s not an act of vengeance but one of mercy. Bran ends up deciding the creatures are too foul to be used even against his hated enemies. This isn’t exactly heroic fiction at its most cheerful — but it is indeed still heroic fiction. Read the rest of this entry

Eldritch Optimism: A Kinder, Gentler Rereading of H. P. Lovecraft

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part One

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Novelist Jonathan Ryan recently wrote an essay,  “Meaning to the Madness,” that was largely devoted to exploring the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Teeming Brain head honcho Matt Cardin wrote a response. There was then a Teeming Brain podcast (the first ever) about the whole thing. And now I’m writing this column inspired by all of them. Hopefully someone will then write a piece inspired by my column, and so on, until we take over the entire Internet.

Now, while Jonathan and Matt* centered their discussion around the nature of Lovecraft’s philosophy, I’m personally fascinated by this particular comment from Jonathan’s original essay:

[T]here is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules.

(* I’m going for the informal approach here and fully expect any references to my own good self in any future pieces on this subject to be in the form of “Stuey baby.”)

It’s easy to see what he means. The protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories always wind up going mad. Or dying. Or going mad and then dying. But, being a contrary fellow, I’ve decided to try and prove that it is possible to write uplifting stories while still playing by Lovecraft’s rules. Not only that, but I’m going to prove that Howard Phillips Lovecraft — or Howie-poos, as I like to call him — did himself, on occasion, write stories full of sunny optimism. Yes, that’s the same H.P. Lovecraft who suffered night terrors as a child and witnessed the mental health problems of both his parents, whose father died of tertiary syphilis and who himself suffered a nervous breakdown and died of intestinal cancer.

I do like a challenge.

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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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