Posts Tagged ‘superheroes’

Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?

I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.

This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.

Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.

 The problem with superhero stories is making them convincing. Sure, that’s not a problem when you’re entertaining a drooling fan like me with big spectacle like Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you’re aiming to create something low key, or to draw in a bigger audience, that’s more difficult. It’s a challenge any genre writer will face if they want to reach plenty of readers, and so it’s interesting to see how Marvel and Netflix’s recent TV show Daredevil has handled this.

In my view, there’s one small element that’s incredibly telling.

Superheroes in New York? Yeah Right.

First, lets give a bit of context, because none of what I’m going to say will make sense without it.

The nature of the superhero Daredevil, aside from being the blind martial artist with super senses, is that he sits on the boundary between two worlds. He exists within a huge universe of superpowered characters in a sprawling interconnected epic of comics / films and TV shows. But he also exists as a street level hero fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood of New York.

This sets up one really obvious problem for Daredevil as a TV show. How do you reference that superhero universe while not making it sound absurd in the context of a gritty crime story?

But there’s another problem, one I discovered reading The Devil is in the Details, a book of essays on Daredevil. Hell’s Kitchen, which was a run down neighbourhood when Daredevil was created half a century ago, has become gentrified. As a setting for a gritty crime drama, it doesn’t work as well as it once did.

Given both of those challenges, how do you put the screen Daredevil in context?

Less is More

The answer, as shown in the first couple of episodes, is by bringing those two problems together and then applying some subtlety.

Almost the only link that the show directly makes to the Marvel universe, in its early episodes at least, is to reference the huge damage done to New York in The Avengers. They don’t talk about what the destruction was, thus avoiding tackling a world of Norse gods and super soldiers, but by referencing the destruction they let fans see that the Marvel Universe has affected these people’s lives. It’s the same trick that British TV show Ultraviolet used for its vampires – if you avoid using the word ‘vampire’ or ‘superhero’, and just include its implications, you can skirt around the potential absurdity.

This reference is also how they deal with Hell’s Kitchen. Thanks to the destruction done in New York, Hell’s Kitchen is a dump again. Hey presto, in a couple of lines they’ve tackled both of their biggest problems, and given the story a rich contextual background.

That, in my opinion, is some clever writing. A lot of thought and time clearly went into crafting a few seconds of dialogue, and it was well worth it. We could all learn from it.

If you haven’t already, then I really recommend watching Daredevil. It features some great writing and acting, a number of good fight scenes and at least one really imaginative one. It comes with a big warning though – it is really not for the squeamish, taking the Marvel tone as far from Guardians of the Galaxy as it can get.

And if you’re into superheroes or want to know more about Daredevil I heartily recommend The Devil is in the Details. It includes some fascinating essays, including one on the old question of how plausible his superpowers are.

It’s the weekend and I’m home alone, so as soon as I catch up on work I’ll be getting down to some reading. And in case you’re also looking for something to read, here are a few recommendations of things I’m enjoying:

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

After spending half this week talking about the first of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories books, of course I’ve started on the second. Straight away it’s setting a different tone, with the protagonist having moved from a provincial Jane Austen style story to the Prince Regent’s court, and with talk of Napoleon and hints at adventure on the continent. While I was a little disappointed by the change in tone near the end of the first book, simply because it felt out of place, a whole book with that tone is something I’m looking forward to, and I love the portrayal of magic in the glamourist world.

Plus I’m a sucker for books that combine fantasy with issues of art and power.

Ultimate Comics Spider-man Volume 5 by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez

I’m not one of these guys who’ll read anything with Spider-man in it, but Bendis writes a fantastic Spidey. I like the way he shook up the Ultimate version of the character by replacing Peter Parker with Miles Morales. Miles is a very likeable character, and Bendis’s always smart dialogue is particularly great for these characters. This volume is a take on the classic story of a superhero trying to leave that life behind, only to get drawn back into heroism. It’s particularly poignant to see a teenager face the dilemma of how to handle that. I wasn’t familiar with Marquez before this book, but his art is clear and dynamic and well suited to Ultimate Spider-man. This is tonight’s light reading, but it’ll still have depth, and that’s why I love it.

The Rebel by Albert Camus

I’m not exactly going to rush through this one. Unless you’re looking for some heavy politically-oriented philosophy then it’s not for you, and I’m re-reading it just a few pages at a time as an aid to self-reflection. But for all their image as cigarette-smoking posers, and for all the potential bleakness of their insistence on discarding old sources of meaning, I find the French existentialists uplifting. Whether right or wrong, the idea that the only true value is the one we create seems particularly important when considering art, which as a writer I do on a daily basis. And in an era when we’re bombarded with meaningless choices, Camus reminds us that people have had to fight for that freedom, and that choice can be meaningful.

It helps that the guy looks so cool on the cover. Once again proving that the existentialists were posers as well as thinkers.

And if you’re looking for something else…

I won’t be reading my own books – I know how they all end – but if you’re looking for short stories then please check them out. There’s science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and even alternate history. You can read all about them here.

What are you lot reading this weekend? Any recommendations you’d like to share?

I love it when a story does darkness well. Watching the first episode of Gotham, the new sort-of-prequel-to-Batman TV show, I was struck by how well executed that darkness was. It shows a city of dark alleys, grey skies, smoking factories and police corruption. A take on Batman where even the usually civilised Alfred has the grim air of an ex-army sergeant. In both look and content, this is a dark show, and one of the darkest facets is its morality.

 

James Gordon – I’d look grumpy too if I lived in Gotham

It’s hardly surprising that the guy running the show, Bruno Heller, is showing a city where institutions are corrupt and decisions are pragmatic rather than idealistic. This is the man who gave us Rome, a show all about the fall of that city’s republic and its transformation through war and murder into an empire. His characters can embody principles – James Gordon, the central character in Gotham, certainly does – but institutions do not embody principles, their functions are not ideal or eternal. The roles of police, politicians, even criminals are negotiated out of power relationships, the people changed by the institutions and the institutions by the people. It’s realistic, in a cynical sort of way.

I love this exploration of social institutions through story telling. We take so many of the organisations and power structures around us for granted, and TV shows in particular tend to present them in an unquestioned, unchanging light. But everything change over time, that’s how history happens, that’s what I like to see.

The ridiculously names, and yet ridiculously cool, Fish Mooney

This doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong, but it encourages us to challenge our assumptions about how society works.

If this cynical take on society sets the show adrift on a sea of moral uncertainty, then this is nicely matched by its aesthetics. Not just because Gotham is a visually grim place, but because its style doesn’t fit any particular point in time. It’s an ambiguity that fits the original comics, in which most of the characters have aged little if at all through over 70 years in print. That means that Batman’s timeline makes little sense, and we’re still expected to read stories from the 1960s as a near-contemporary part of his life, despite al the changes in technology, style and social expectations.

The Gotham city of Gotham, instead of ducking that problem by picking a timeframe, plays with it with relish. There’s hardly any digital technology on display, and the computer monitors in the police precinct appear to be bulky monochrome affairs, yet characters carry cellphones. I don’t know much about fashion, but I’d have been hard pressed to pin down a decade from what I saw. The cars, the diners, the booze bottles and performers in the nightclubs, they all contribute to an air of uncertainty over when this is taking place.

So we’re in when, exactly?

And yet that creates a distinctive sense of place and time in itself. Like steampunk and other retro-futurist genres, it mashes real and imagined period elements together to create its own aesthetic, one in which the city’s issues with powerful, institutionalised crime make perfect sense. One that you might expect to corrupt characters or to drive them mad.

Gotham holds out promise to become something fascinating. On the basis of one episode I can’t tell whether it will achieve that, but I am really intrigued.

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue Archer of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre where girls could save the world.

When I was ten years old, I played with She-Ra: Princess of Power dolls, because other dolls were downright boring next to ones who could use swords and magic. I watched the various incarnations of the Justice League and Marvel characters on television and pretended that I was a superhero like Wonder Woman.

When I was twelve years old, a movie came out that I wasn’t old enough to see yet. In this movie, an ordinary woman fought against the odds to save humanity from aliens. The movie went on to spawn several sequels, and the female lead became a hugely popular character.

Her name was Ellen Ripley. And the year Aliens came out? 1986.

Ripley

Fast forward twenty-eight years later. Count ’em: Twenty-eight. We are in 2014, and since Ellen Ripley, I have not seen another adult female character leading a movie franchise in the speculative fiction genre. (The closest thing so far is The Hunger Games, but it’s aimed at more of a teenage audience.) Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for another one. What happened?

The Wonder Woman That Wasn’t

There certainly hasn’t been a lack of trying by those who understand that this genre is for women as well as men. Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was slated to helm a Wonder Woman film. Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman! Alas, that movie never got off the ground. And now we’re left with DC introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character to Superman and Batman in their next superhero film. Apparently the studio thinks my favourite Amazon is just not strong enough to have her own movie. Which is ridiculous.

Superheroes Without Superpowers

I love the Marvel movies, but I’m disappointed that they aren’t making definite moves towards a female-led superhero film. Instead, we’ve had female characters who are part of a team: Black Widow, a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers; and Gamora—wait for it—a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers. Black Widow was done well, while Gamora had an underused backstory and was upstaged by a sarcastic raccoon and a talking tree. Neither of these women were leads. I’m tired of looking for small victories. When will we get a movie about Captain Marvel? Or another Marvel female character who is just as powerful as the men?

Men as Women

And I don’t mean a female character who is based off of a powerful male one. Marvel’s announcement of a female Thor being introduced in their comics annoyed me. I would have no issue with Sif taking up the hammer of Thor and wielding its powers as herself. But for the woman taking the hammer to be called Thor? This is insulting. Other characters have taken up Mjolnir in the past and gained the powers of Thor, but they kept their names. Why does the woman have to lose hers and be called Thor? It reminds me of Batgirl, Supergirl, and all of those other characters that were derived from male ones. Is Marvel afraid of developing a new standalone female character? That’s just sad.

Superwomen vs. Hollywood

I’ve heard all of the arguments about why a female-led movie franchise is not being made. And none of them make any sense.

Well, look what happened when we made Elektra and Catwoman. No one turned out, so clearly the appetite is not there for female-led movies. (It couldn’t possibly be because they were terrible movies.)

Women don’t go to see these kinds of movies, so we wouldn’t make any money. (Too bad that according to the MPAA, 42% of the domestic audience who came to see Iron Man 3 were women. Superhero movies in general are coming in at around 40% women in the audience. Not to mention you’re assuming men don’t want to see women superheroes. Not true of the men I know.)

We’ve already made plans for other movies, so you’ll need to wait a few years. (So change your plans. You could if you really wanted to.)

And this is the crux of it. The movie industry is made up largely of men who don’t really want to produce movies about female superheroes. So, unfortunately, I think I’ll be waiting for a few more years before I see what I want. (Some possible light at the end of the tunnel: There have been some recent rumours about an unnamed female-led movie in the Spiderman universe for 2017. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

What I’d pay money to see: Ellen Ripley facing down the leaders of The Company, also known as Hollywood movie execs. I can only imagine what she would say.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch my copy of Aliens.

Which female-led shows have you enjoyed? Who would you like to see on the big screen?

*

Thank you to Sue for the post. If you enjoyed it then please go read more of her views on the Doorway Between Worlds.

Conflict is common over the depiction of race and gender in speculative fiction. As a middle-class first-world white bloke I recognise that I’m in a very privileged position and over-represented in popular culture. But as a nerd I also recognise why people get defensive about challenges to a frequently mocked subculture. I’ve written a post about this and recent superhero films over one Curnblog. Here’s the start of it…

Where Did Storm Go? Representing Race and Gender in Superhero Films

Superhero films and the comics that spawned them are famous for their traditionally white male fan-base. It’s a fan-base to which the creators play, with the vast majority of superheroes, and particularly the high profile ones, being white men.

This raises issues for the balanced representation of gender and race and for the diversity of perspectives possible within these stories. It becomes even more problematic as these stories reach out to a wider audience, perpetuating norms of white male cultural dominance. But why is this so common? And is an opportunity for change being squandered?

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

To read the rest please hop on over to Curnblog. And while you’re there I also recommend Anthony Pilloud‘s ‘The Fallibility of Superheroes‘, an interesting article on the troubling moral structure of the Marvel universe.

 

For more on issues of representation you might also want to check out this rough transcript of a panel R A Smith was on at LonCon.

And if you have any thoughts on the subject or links to other interesting articles then please leave a comment.

Over the past fifteen years superhero films have taken huge leaps forward in quality, boldness and willingness to engage with wider themes. They’ve stretched beyond familiar heroics, exploring the political thriller with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, showing noire derangement in Nolan’s Batman films, and providing the most spectacular blockbuster ever in Joss Whedon‘s Avengers. It’s therefore satisfying to see the X-men franchise, which got this ball rolling in 2000, back in the hands of original director Bryan Singer and attempting its most ambitious film yet in X-men: Days of Future Past.

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_poster

(And yes, I know I said I’d be discussing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors today, but I went to the cinema last night and I’m really bursting to write about this one because… well, you’ll see.)

Back to two beginnings

I love the X-men films. The first one got me excited about superheroes, contributing to my later interest in comics. At the time of its release it felt fresh and exciting, with a wide range of characters, clear metaphors for civil rights issues, and fantastic action. The impressive cast, especially the ever amazing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, really helped.

Days of Future Past (DoFP) goes back to the tone of the first two films, as helmed by Singer, pulling civil rights, spectacular action and conflicted personal relationships to the fore. It also builds on X-men:First Class, the origin film of a few years ago. As the future X-men find themselves brutally hunted across a post-apocalyptic landscape they realise that their only hope is to change the past. So they send one of their number back in time to interact with their past selves and hopefully save us from a future of evil robot oppression.

And if that makes you pull a face then you shouldn’t be watching superhero movies.

So much joy

There’s an amazing amount to love in this film. Lets start with the obvious – the amazing cast. As well as Stewart and McKellen we get James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender who are, if anything, even better as the younger versions of mutant leaders Charles Xavier and Magneto. Peter Dinklage – Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones – is charismatic as ever in the role of technologist villain Bolivar Trask. The rest of the cast range from good to excellent, but were always going to be overshadowed by those five.

Singer and script writer Simon Kinberg manage to balance a huge number of different elements while still achieving a fairly coherent plot, constantly keeping the film moving. There are some great action spectacles and lovely character moments, ideas from across the X-films, comics and real history all slamming together in a surprisingly well-connected fashion.

And as with First Class there are hints of a wider alternate history that really catch the imagination, like the use of mutants in Vietnam.

The franchise problem

But fun as the film might be it’s just not satisfying, and the reason is clear. It’s all about franchise.

The X-men films have been in and out of Singer’s hands over the years. He clearly has strong views on what works and what doesn’t, so there are chunks of this film that are about setting the series back on course, writing out certain characters and bringing back others we thought were gone.

Then there’s the intellectual property (IP) battles to consider. For reasons that would take a whole blog post to explain, both Marvel Films and 20th Century Fox claim the right to use the characters Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Because superhero comic book adaptations are all about IP and farming existing ideas, Fox have asserts their right by cramming those characters into this movie. Hence a plotline where Quicksilver is recruited, saves the day and is then left behind, because they needed him in but ran out of space in an already crowded film.

That crowding is the biggest problem arising from both Singer and Fox’s agendas. There are so many characters and concepts in play here that none of them get properly explored. Characters are disposed of in even more off-hand ways than in the third X-film. Fantastic actors like McKellen aren’t given enough screen time to make use of their talents, and their presence reduces the time left for others. No-one and nothing is properly developed.

This also means taking shortcuts. Professor Xavier’s mental powers and the fact that he is crippled are two key features of the character. Both would have made it challenging to build the plot around McAvoy’s 1970s Xavier, but rather than rise to that challenge, exploring the repercussions of these character traits, the film-makers remove both elements in a crude twist that’s an even cruder reflection on drug addiction. And of course they don’t have time to explore that properly either.

So much potential, so much sadness

None of this stops Days of Future Past being an enjoyable film. It’s a lot of fun. There’s fine acting, fine direction, fine effects.

But with this talent, with these characters, with these ideas it could have been so much more. And the way it has been warped by IP concerns and an over-crowded character palette is tragic.

The lesson for people crafting stories is clear. Don’t try to do everything at once. Pick the things that matter and do them well. Quality of story and characters trumps quantity every time, even in superhero movies.