June column up at PopMatters

The latest “Worlds in Panels” posted yesterday. I consider the different articulations of time and space in comics and film with the SHIELD helicarrier as a case in point.

On the page, as opposed to on a 30-by-70 foot movie screen, the helicarrier as spectacle is more an idea than an experience. More significant is what the helicarrier signifies in terms of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s power and purpose. Jack Kirby’s concept is a useful signifier for an agency charged with planetary surveillance and protection, and that symbolic function is more important within a comics narrative than is its role as a technological wonder.

Read the column.

The question of adapting comics to film is a recurring topic for me in the column. So, for additional reading:

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Re-appreciating Wes Anderson

I have been taking note of early reviews for Moonrise Kingdom because until it opened at Cannes, I had not known that Wes Anderson had a new film coming out. Elbert Ventura’s Reverse Shot review makes a couple of points about Anderson that resonate with me.

Just the release of the Moonrise Kingdom trailer set off impassioned reactions from both sides. In the context of such contentiousness, the movie itself almost feels like a rejoinder to critics—an artist doubling down on the very thing that drives the haters batty. But in the clear light of day, Moonrise Kingdom reveals something else: an artist who could care less about what we think—and who couldn’t do anything about it even if he did.

It is, particularly, the “couldn’t do anything about it even if he did”, that struck me as a new way of seeing Anderson and his body of work. I certainly am not a “hater”, but I had gone from unreservedly looking forward to his films to hoping that maybe he would show me something different, at least in a significant way. I think that The Darjeeling Limited (2007) is a more “mature”, for lack of a better word, version of what Anderson does, and thought, and still think, that is worth acknowledging.

Ventura comes back to this point at the conclusion of the review:

Moonrise Kingdom is the work of an artist who either is oblivious or doesn’t care about his polarizing status. The demand, from even some supporters, was to grow up. Instead, he followed up a stop-motion animation film—the terrific Fantastic Mr. Fox—with a deeply felt tribute to adolescence. (Little did we know that the less successful Life Aquatic and Darjeeling were his stabs at growing up.) Moonrise Kingdom is familiar, there is no question, but Anderson comes by his repetitions honestly—he might not know any other way to make movies. But there is no calculation here; style has not calcified into shtick. This is who he is, and who he’s always been.

As already confessed, I am, or was, in the “grow up” camp, but was also entirely charmed by Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), so much so that I had not given a thought to Anderson returning to any other kind of film until now. Ventura’s final lines, defending Anderson’s work as the reflection of a sincere and deeply rooted aesthetic and set of themes, has refreshed my perspective, and I am looking forward to Moonrise Kingdom in a way that I would not be but for this review.

Read Ventura’s full review: http://www.reverseshot.com/article/moonrise_kingdom

Kelly Thompson at She Has No Head! – Dear Marvel: Please Stop Ruining Everything

Earlier this week, Kelly Thompson posted a new column on CBR reacting to Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada’s statement, reported at Ain’t It Cool News, that, in effect, there is no combination of actor and character he can think of that would make for a viable female-led franchise from the Marvel Universe.

Thompson points out how disappointing this is in the wake of The Avengers and the critical role played by Black Widow in that film. She also underlines the absurdity of the statement, particularly coming from someone with the word “creative” in their job title. Most hilariously, she uses a series of images of characters and actors to show what a colossal failure of imagination this claim is given the whole universe of choices available to Marvel producers.

Most saliently, she points out that, increasingly, there is little rational basis for assertions like the one made by Quesada. Whether one is looking at who goes to see movies, including genres like the superhero film, or who leads a film, there is no reason to assume that a) women won’t go or b) that female-led films are box office poison. In the face of successes like The Hunger Games, as well as the other films pictured in the column, and the fact that a substantial part of the audience for movies like The Avengers is female, the idea that featuring a woman in a Marvel film is to necessarily court disaster is ridiculous.

Simply put, what matters more than who leads a film is whether it is well made and is backed with the intent to build the audience. If you hire hacks, people with no vision for the character or an understanding for the genre, and show no faith in the film in promotion and publicity, then your movie will fail, regardless of character or actor. I can’t believe that Quesada truly thinks that not only is there no combination of character and actor that would make a female-led franchise from the Marvel universe work, but that there is also no combination of creative talent and Marvel/Disney resources that could make that same franchise a success.

One of the insights derived from semiotics about concepts like gender is that, in many language systems, certain categories of people and things become “marked” in ways that privilege some identities as “normal” and marginalize others as deviations (hence, the need to be “marked”). What is “normal” is left unmarked. In American English, “female” is a marked category while “male” is unmarked.

This is clearly illustrated in fields like college sports where the unmarked term, “basketball”, “soccer”, “lacrosse”, etc., signifies men’s teams, while women’s teams are marked by the term “women’s”. At some universities this is further bolstered by applying the term “Lady” in front of the school’s nickname, as in “Lady Bulldogs” or “Lady Wildcats”.*

While less starkly illustrated in fields like popular film, does anyone think of Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America as, primarily, “male-led” titles? I suspect that these are thought of as, simply, “superhero” films. I also suspect that the only context in which the gender identity of the leads in those franchises matter is in the context of discussions like this where the real issue is the success or failure of female-led movies.

The people behind the scenes at Marvel clearly made a decision at some point that The Hulk would be a key part of their movie plans and they have stuck to that decision despite financial disappointment and creative problems related to the character. It is worth pointing out that, creatively, this seems to have been a good decision despite the difficulties encountered on the way to The Avengers. If the same initial decision had been made with regards to She-Hulk, I don’t think we would have seen a second film devoted to the character, let alone found her in The Avengers (and, of course, in light of Quesada’s comment, it seems pretty clear that this scenario is a flight of fancy in the first place. Plus, did you see what just happened when going from “Hulk” to “She-Hulk”?).

The problem here is that “female superhero” is a marked category, and the gender identity of those characters is made into an issue that, for the moment at least, is deployed as a reason not to make movies based on women characters from the Marvel Universe. Meanwhile, as Thompson notes, ” … if we blamed box office failures on the gender of the star we’d simply have no films. There are thousands upon thousands of failing films with male leads, but nobody suggests that we stop making them because people don’t want to see movies with male stars…because that would be INSANE.” Films with male leads are just films, while films with female leads are female films. Whether the latter “succeed” or not is secondary to the fact that they are always already constructed as deviations from what is conceived of as “normal”.

And it is this perception of inherent strangeness, not some absolute lack of creative choice or available talent, that keeps the Powers That Be, like Joe Quesada, from seriously considering the possibility of making and supporting a movie with a female lead. That same perception also explains why the reporter at AICN is able to glibly follow Quesada’s comment with their own  – to wit, “I’m thinking I might agree with him on this one actually” – and also why so many find it easy to offer rationalizations for why such a film won’t work (scan the comments on the column to see this in action).

Read Kelly Thompson’s column at CBR: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/05/21/she-has-no-head-dear-marvel-stop-ruining-everything/

*College sports is also an indication of how language can change. The “lady” appellation, for example, is increasingly archaic, even though it can still be found in use at certain schools and among certain groups of fans. I’ve also noticed that, in the past few years, as women and girls playing sports comes to be a seen as normal in some contexts like basketball and soccer, some sports reporting agencies have started to mark both categories of teams, using abbreviations like “mbb” and “wbb” in their tickers, for example.

Film Crit Hulk Reviews Mark Ruffalo’s Performance as Hulk

This piece was being pushed around Twitter yesterday, and for good reason: it is a thoughtful and close reading of a character that could only be written by a critic who is also a fan, or at least who loves the character under examination. Film Crit Hulk looks not only at Mark Ruffalo’s performance in The Avengers, but also at Bruce Banner and The Hulk and what makes them compelling fictions. Ruffalo’s rendition of Banner is placed in the context of other interpretations, with Bill Bixby’s portrayal as a baseline.

One observation made here that I think is true for not only The Hulk, but for most comic book heroes (and villains) with dual identities is that casting, and getting “right”, the “civilian” aspect of the character is crucial to making the alter also interesting. As Film Crit notes, whatever identification viewers might have with The Hulk hinges on the identification one has with Bruce Banner. Yes, there is something appealing about thinking about being a big, strong, essentially invulnerable force that can smash whatever it wants, but it is only in knowing Bruce Banner that The Hulk becomes a character and not a spectacle.

One shot from The Avengers that I think shows what Film Crit Hulk notes as the compellingly contradictory nature of Bruce Banner/The Hulk, particularly in this incarnation, is one where Thor and The Hulk have just finished off a group of Chitauri, including one of the ‘big fish’. The two stand side-by-side and the Norse God turns to The Hulk, clearly thinking that they are going to share a moment, when Hulk punches Thor out of the frame. This is what it means to be Bruce Banner/The Hulk: always angry, able to battle alongside his compatriots, but unable to pause and savor the moment. This shot got a huge laugh from the audience in the theater I was in, which also goes to Film Crit Hulk’s analysis of the character and Ruffalo’s performance. I don’t think that there would be as much knowing joy from the audience if they were not on his side, sympathizing with his pain, as well as marveling at The Hulk’s strength and raw emotion.

You can read Film Crit Hulk’s essay in The New Yorker here: http://t.co/h6MQZ8lW

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