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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

Short film ‘The Flying Man’: A dark and faintly Fortean take on superheroes

Over at The Daily Grail, Greg describes this fascinating and very slick short film as a “fun little superhero story with a Fortean feel to it.” io9’s Observation Deck calls the title character “the creepiest superhero” and concurs about the film’s quasi-Fortean dimension. Both point out that it recalls Mexico’s rash of flying humanoid sightings from several years ago.

In more detail, and as summarized by USA Today‘s Whitney Matheson, The Flying Man “tells the story of a mysterious flying man/being who is taking out unsuspecting citizens. Is he a hero? Is he a vigilante? It’s up to us to decide. Interestingly, viewers are given no background about The Flying Man, and unlike most superhero stories, this tale is told from the scared citizens’ points of view.”

The film was directed, produced, financed, and edited by Toronto-based filmmaker Marcus Alqueres and co-written by Alqueres and Henry Grazinoli. Alqueres has also done visual effects work on a number of A-list films, including 300 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

I’m really impressed at the ominous and semi-apocalyptic tone that Alqueres and his team were able to evoke in just nine minutes — an effect that’s created not just by the great visual effects, writing, and actors’ performances, but by an excellent musical score. Seriously, how would we all feel, and how would society as a whole react, if incontrovertible evidence of supernormal powers came crashing at us like a tsunami through our televisions, computer screens, radios, and the rest of the collective totality of our flickering media web? And what if the mysterious individual displaying those powers happened to be using them in a vigilante capacity to commit public acts of mayhem and murder? In the words of The Flying Man’s official press release, the film “depicts the first appearances of a super powered vigilante, his impact in a modern society and its ethical discussion.”

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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