Latest column on continuity between the MCU and the comics

My latest “Worlds in Panels” posted earlier this month. I reflect on what reads like a radical narrative break between Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU):

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), which includes TV and film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been formally disbanded and many of its agents have been forced underground (sometimes literally) and Maria Hill has taken a a job with Tony Stark. Until opening up Uncanny X-Men, it had not occurred to me that these events also represented the first major disjuncture between the comics and the company’s growing film and television franchise.

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Latest Worlds in Panels: narrative in the Marvel Universes

Yesterday, my newest column posted at PopMatters. I look at narrative closure in relationship to Marvel’s comics and the films in The Avengers-related films.

Despite the number of critics who will bemoan the lack of originality in Hollywood, pointing to the endless stream of sequels, remakes, and adapted works, only the Bond films come to close to mirroring Marvel or DC comics in their historical depth and density as an ongoing series, but even this comparison only works in relative terms. In 50 years, there have been 25 Bondmovies. For any one of Marvel’s ongoing series, it would only take two years, plus one month, to generate the equivalent number of issues, and depending on publishing schedules, that level of output might be achieved in closer to a year.

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Latest Worlds in Panels: reflecting on comics and Geek Girl Con 2012

My new column posted at PopMatters yesterday. I revisit my review of the first Geek Girl Con and (sort of) flip my thinking on attendance by Marvel and DC:

In my review of last year’s convention I made the case for Marvel and DC to be in attendance. After this year, I think a case could also be made for the major publishers to stay away, leaving fans and individual creators and small presses the freedom to define the comics agenda at Geek Girl.

Read the full column.

ALPHAS Season 2: “Alpha Dogs” & “When Push Comes to Shove”

The X-Men have always been used as metaphors for difference, opening discussions of discrimination and fear of the Other that can be refracted back onto the positions of different identities in ‘the real world’. Mutation is a complicated and heavily negotiated category in the Marvel Universe. A good argument can be made that the social significance of that category is the primary theme of the X-Men across all media. Less commonly explored is mutation as a form of personal identity, or what being a mutant means for the individual. There are hints of this in some stories involving Rogue, her decision to take the ‘cure’ in The Last Stand, for example, but overwhelmingly the concerns that animate stories featuring the X-Men are about how mutants are regarded by non-mutants.

The personal aspect of identity, what being different means for me, is emerging as a central theme in the current season of Alphas, and is a good example of how the series not only appropriates from X-Men, but also spins in different directions. The issue of personal identity and Alpha-ness is central to both episode three of season two, “Alpha Dogs”, and episode four, “When Push Comes to Shove”.

The narrative in “Alpha Dogs” revolves around the idea of a fight club for Alphas. This premise is repeated across science fiction and fantasy television. In just the last year, I’ve seen episodes of Lost Girl and Grimm founded on some version of a fight club for super-natural or super-powered beings. Invariably, these clubs are shown to be wrong somehow, either because bloodsport is inherently inhumane or because the event is corrupt. “Alpha Dogs”, written by Eric Tuchman and directed by Nick Copus, surprises by departing from this formula.

While there is corruption at the heart of the procedural part of the narrative in this episode, it is not shown to be intrinsic to the fight. Rather, the arena is shown to be a place where Alphas gather to be with other Alphas and to explore their abilities. For Bill, the effect is therapeutic and the episode ends with him showing up to throw down even after the case is closed.

Bill’s ability to do this is rooted in whatever mediation technique it is that he learns from Kat, a technique that frees him to use his powers without his usual fear of debilitation or death. The return to the fight club is a way for him to see what this freedom means, not for Rosen, or for his job, but for himself.

“When Push Comes to Shove” focuses on Nina, and the way that she has been written up through this episode reminds of how Grant Morrison wrote Emma Frost for New X-Men, at least in her willingness to work her will on others. However, whereas Emma Frost acts with a casual confidence about her abilities, and station, Nina is acting from insecurity. For her, her Alpha powers seem to carry the paradoxical fear of both getting and not getting what she wants from others.

It isn’t uncommon for super-powered characters to have personal tragedy come from, particularly, not understanding their powers when they manifest. Again, Rogue is a good case in point, Bo in Lost Girl is another, as is Liz Sherman from Hellboy/BPRD (there’s probably some significance to all of these examples being women, but I’m not prepared to think that through here). In most of these cases, the incidents tend to involve quick and deadly results. While Nina’s dad ends up killing himself, what I appreciate about how writer Adam Levy and director Omar Madha handle this story in “When Push Comes to Shove” is the way that Nina is not directly responsible for the outcome, but indirectly through her naive use of her power as a kid who just wants her parents to stay with her.

The revelation that Nina has been pushing herself is interesting, but I’m glad that the episode does not dwell on this notion as it opens a lot of questions about how her power works that I’m not sure the series is prepared to answer. As a metaphor for how deep her sadness and insecurity goes, the single shot of her engaging this move is effective.

In “Alpha Dogs” we also learn more about Stanton Parish, and while narratively he is primarily the Alphas analog to Magneto, making his personal story and power more like Wolverine’s is an interesting idea. There is clearly some significance to his being, in effect, the ‘first Alpha’ and how he responded to learning of his difference from others. This story, however, brings us back around to the social significance of Alphas. There are other indications, such as Kat’s awareness of being an Alpha before encountering Bill and Cameron, that the series is building toward more of an exploration of the social as well as the personal aspects of otherness.

In regards to the latter, I could also comment on Rachel and her efforts to cope with her heightened senses, or Gary and his mother, as well as looking at Bill and Nina. What I appreciate about Rachel’s and Gary’s stories is how they show Alphas as perhaps having been grown from Chris Claremont-era X-Men in dealing with the interpersonal relationships of the characters and incorporating aspects of soap opera into a superhero story (the kind of love triangle between Nina, Cameron, and Danielle also, obviously, reflects this influence, too).

Thus far into the second season, to the extent that Alphas can be read as an X-Men clone, it is at least being made from the stronger parts of the latter’s DNA, while also showing itself to be something other than just X-Men by another name.

See also: “On ALPHAS and X-MEN“.

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

Follow Film Crit Hulk on WordPress and on Twitter.

August Comics

Here are the best books I read from my tfaw box this month:

Generation Hope #9 (writer: Kieron Gillen, art: Jamie McKelvie, colors: Jim Charalampidis, with cover art by Slavador Espin) is the title that I am citing from this month’s serials.

I’m glad to have been pulling this title from the beginning. Hope’s mission brings the X-Men back to their roots, finding and helping young people come to terms with who they are and what they can do. This issue shows the urgency in that task in a particularly poignant way, but where the stakes are more individual and personal than epic. The dorm room conversation before everything goes wrong is perfectly scripted as a lead-in to the demise of the young mutant and its aftermath. The ending with Kenji and Logan provided the right kind of emotional payoff to a story that is nicely self-contained, while also drawing on X-history and character history in a meaningful, and not pedantic, way.

McKelvie’s character designs also help to tell the story. His English university students look fresh, modern, and youthful, just right for the dialogue and for the way the story plays out. The series of panels where Laurie/Transonic takes off from the air are striking, particularly the way that she is made to look like a bird-shaped missile. While I read comics in part for serialized narrative, I also appreciate when someone can turn out a great story that stands on its own, and this issue is a prime example of a one-off that works well, both on its own and as part of the series as a whole.

In trades, I am still working on Finder, but I did make time to read a few other books, including Batgirl: The Flood (writer: Bryan Q. Miller, pencils: Lee Garbett and Pere Perez, colors: Guy Major, inks: Jonathan Glapion et al). I’ve had this collection for awhile, and had been avoiding it because, at this point, reading the current Batgirl is like watching a TV show that has been canceled before anyone really thinks it should have been. Whatever investment you have in the characters and the narrative is going to be if not wasted, then unfulfilled.

That aside, this book is still, above all, fun to read. I also like the scale of the storytelling, which is more about everyday crime and craziness than world-ending doom. The final chapter here, where Stephanie and Kara have a night on the town that goes wrong, encapsulates the energy and best qualities of the series: sharp dialogue, witty asides, a good nature, and action-packed. I assume I can look forward to one more collection before having to say good-bye, but these books will be on my shelf for a long time, and I hope that A gets around to discovering them.