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Monday, November 10, 2014

Birdman

Birdman is a complicated film. There's a lot going on in it, and it is saying a lot about a lot of different things. In all this, it is strengthened by technical virtuosity and truly remarkable performances by pretty much everyone involved, but especially Keaton who, to be fair, is certainly given more opportunity than anyone else.

Alejandro Inarritu has called the superhero genre "cultural genocide" and "very right wing." This second accusation is pretty old and has been maintained by a large number of comics critics and creators since at least the 1950s. When Frederic Wertham and Gary Groth both agree on something, I'm not certain they're right. I've spent some time arguing against this idea that there is something inherently fascist about superheroes, so I'm going to pass on it here, partly because -- among all the things Birdman is saying -- this is actually not even close to the most interesting.

Even the accusation that superhero films are "poison" and "cultural genocide" is not really the focus of this film; the criticisms directed at superhero films are really more about action films in general, and America's obsession with the big box office weekend, the entertaining "popcorn film," the blockbuster. Birdman has a very clear argument about these movies, and that is that these movies are illusions. They are distracting phantasms which indulge our desire for psychological numbness. There's a very good reason why we all want to be numb: because we are all basically alone and our existence has no larger meaning. We all know this, but we don't want to confront it, and so we go into narcissistic denial over this simple cosmic truth. We fantasize about incredible power (and here's where the superhero genre is the best example) because, ultimately, we lack all power. Much of this is explained in a key moment in the film by Emma Stone's character Sam, when she, fresh from rehab and so at least briefly inoculated against psychological numbess, shouts to her father, in a rage, that he has no value, that the universe does not care about him, and it never will. The dread which haunts Keaton's character Riggan Thomson is basically existential, and his various hallucinations (and despite what some critics like to say about reality being inseparable from illusion in this picture, Inarritu actually makes everything pretty clear, at least until the very end) are his mind's attempt to impose order and some measure of control on a chaotic and oblivious world.

There's a second point being made in this film, one much more intimate and not existential at all, and that is about confusing love with admiration. This, too, is spelled out in the film, a film which is filled with people who want love but accept admiration instead, who want to love but instead offer praise, who want admiration and end up accepting love, and who admire but, in giving voice to that, instead offer love. In all these cases, the people involved can't tell the difference. To be popular is to be wanted, to be desired is to be looked-at, and everyone is confusing respect with intimacy. Which isn't to say we don't want both; we do. But they scratch different itches and love and admiration work differently. The first is basically private. The second is basically public. And as our 21st century social society becomes increasingly public, intimacy becomes increasingly hard to find and preserve ... or even recognize. We all want love, but it's so hard to make and keep a one-to-one personal relationship. Instead, we embrace circles of a thousand facebook friends or twitter followers. And the craziest part is that those social networks are actually easier to create and maintain in our new world than an honest personal relationship based on intimacy and, yes, respect. Who has the time for THAT anymore?

As a film, Birdman is very "meta." Keaton, who resurrected the role of Batman for American cinema back in '89, is playing a former Hollywood superstar who was famous for a superhero trilogy twenty years ago. Ed Norton, whose public reputation as a prima donna is based on his dedication to the art of acting, plays an incredibly talented egotist who can't get it up unless he's on stage, because that's when he is at his most "real." And although the movie is called "Birdman," it's really based around a production of Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a story I teach every semester in my freshman English class. In a movie which is always showing us multiple versions of itself, Carver's story is also one with multiple versions, one which was famously altered by its editor before being published, and one which Keaton's character Riggin has obviously altered yet again for his stage performance. All of this is very intricate and will no doubt give critics, scholars, and readers much to talk about in the year to come. About ten minutes into this film, I realized it was, like the Watchmen graphic novel, basically made to be the subject of a dissertation.

But, amidst all the black comedy and the suffering, there's also some pretty simple, pretty straight forward messages in this film. First, good art, Inarritu maintains, is about reality, depicting the human condition in a way so sincere that it is painful and, in this way, helping us to learn something about that human condition. Second, what we learn is that human beings are desperate for affection. And that, in turn, is because we sense our oncoming mortality. We understand, deep in our bones, that we are a quintessence of dust. Our life -- and these lines are quoted in the film -- is a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Is it so surprising that we seek shelter in larger-than-life heroes? And is it so terrible? Inarritu may find any suggestion that superhero stories might be meaningful to be pretentious posing. But I can respectfully disagree with him on that score while still finding much in Birdman to admire.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rats!

Yes, that is a rat in a pointy wizard hat. I couldn't help it!

"Rats Magica," my alternate campaign setting for Ars Magica, has been published by Sub Rosa magazine. In Rats Magica, players take on the role of six inch rats with incredible (at least, for rats) magical powers. They contend with unhinged cat familiars, an expansionistic Bee King, hired rat catchers and, of course, the Order of Hermes, who wants to use them for arcane experiments and make them all pet familiars.

The art for this article is just so wonderful. I couldn't believe how awesome it all looks. You can check out Sub Rosa here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Comic Books to Film: Gotham

A decade and a half ago, the X-Men film made a gajillion dollars in its opening weekend and, as a consequence, the "Young Bruce Wayne" television series then in development was abandoned in favor of the pot of gold surely waiting at the end of every summer blockbuster rainbow. Today, with plenty of failed super hero movies behind us, we seem to have made a 180: television can't get enough superheroes. Arrow is popular and, from what I hear, smartly written (it takes more than Green Arrow to get me out of my cave). Agents of SHIELD was widely panned by fans last year (and by critic Andrew Wheeler in a bewildering example of narci-masochism penned for the otherwise-excellent ComicsAlliance) but hit storytelling gold when, the very week Hydra was revealed on big screens in the Captain America, we discovered Agent Ward was a wolf in sheep's clothing. It felt like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was moving forward in real time. I was hooked. This season we're getting Gotham, Flash, and Constantine, Daredevil and three other shows are in development for Netflix, a Supergirl series was just picked up, and even Powers got off the ground. What's next? Not even Plastic Man would surprise me at this point.

This week Gotham debuted and Agents of SHIELD kicked off its second season. I watched both and really enjoyed both. Today, let's talk about Gotham.

Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and, especially, Year One, made me a member of the Jim Gordon fan club, so I'm a soft sell on Gotham. Ben McKenzie's Gordon is a bit too clean-shaven and crew-cut for me; Miller always drew him with that great Tom Selleck stache. But he totally sells this role and his performance is both nuanced and compelling. Donal Logue is great as Harvey Bullock, a more famous replacement for Gordon's original partner, Flass. I'm used to thinking of Bullock as a good guy not a corrupt cop, but I'm totally prepared to go with it in this case as long as the show keeps Logue on screen.

There was a lot going on in this first episode, and that was probably the only thing I didn't like. A young Selina Kyle had bookend scenes and her constant cat-posing was just silly. I suppose that's exactly what a kid who styled herself Catwoman would do -- walk around posing like a cat even when no one is watching -- but I don't think the director wanted me to laugh at those scenes. Poison Ivy and especially Riddler get better first appearances, but most of the criminal world-building this time focused on Penguin. Other than the fact that Oswald doesn't like his Penguin nickname, a writing shortcut I find overdone, this is the most interesting version of the Penguin I've ever seen. When a show can convince me the Penguin, of all people, is interesting, they're doing something right.

Penguin's boss is Fish Mooney, an original character created for this show. I like her, and creating her is a great decision. We know she's going to die, because she's not a famous character (they certainly aren't going to kill off Penguin, for example), but she is tough, glamorous, and dangerous. There's something weird going on with her character as well; one of her first lines establishes that she is vain about her hair, but when she nearly clubs Penguin to death with a baseball bat (!) I swear I think I saw her check to see if her wig was in place. I definitely want to see more Fish.

Barbara and Rene Montoya were unexpected. When I first saw Barbara on screen, my first thought was "That had better be Sarah Essen," because Erin Richards would have made a phenomenal Sarah Essen. But no, she's Gordon's fiancée instead, who was something of a non-entity in the comics, a mousy, brown-haired, stay at home mom completely overshadowed by the blonde, tough as nails, and brilliant (remember: the first person to deduce Bruce Wayne was Batman), Sarah. This Barbara is going to be a much stronger character, while Sarah has been promoted into obscurity. She's now Gordon's boss, but never leaves her desk and doesn't seem at all interesting. And then there's Rene, who apparently has a history with Barbara! For those new to Gotham City, Rene Montoya is lesbian, and when she walks into Barbara's art gallery and Barbara responds with a testy, "I'm engaged now..." this can really mean only one thing: Gotham's writers have shifted the love triangle off of Barbara-Jim-Sarah and onto Jim-Barbara-Rene. Wow. That is gutsy.

We also got Alfred. Now, it would be hard for me to pen a better paean to Alfred Pennyworth than those already written by Chris Sims, but let's just sum it up with: Shakespearean actor, Special Forces soldier, part-time surgeon, and Batman's butler. Alfred is so cool, you have to get someone of Michael Caine's caliber to play him. And while what we got of Alfred was all right in this pilot, I definitely would like him to get more screen time. What I don't especially want is to see more Bruce. He's finely played and actually well written. I have no complaints with that. But this isn't a show about Bruce Wayne and I don't want it to become one. Is it possible to have a show with more Alfred and less Bruce? I don't know. But I hope so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monster Manual Podcast

Last week I got to talk with Steve Townsend, one of the freelancers who helped write the newest Monster Manual for D&D. Steve wrote half the background text for the book, every odd letter (A, C, E...) which means he got to write Giants but not Dragons. Still, pretty jealous.

I've been playing the new D&D a little and I enjoy it. It looks like a solid game.

You can hear our podcast here: http://mikelaff.podbean.com/e/monster-manual-behind-the-scenes/

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the Closing of BigKatt's

Friend, colleague, and -- most importantly -- my fellow nerd Nicholas Yanes has written a great piece on the history and closing of one of Florida's most important comic shops. His focus is on the place BigKatt's had in the community: how it was a family-friendly place for not just a generation of readers and gamers, but a place where they could bring -- and raise! -- their kids.

Being the kind of guy that he is, Nicholas did not ask me to repost his article all over the internet, so I'm doing it anyway.

Check it out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"I Don't Think Anyone Is One Hundred Percent Dick"

Mike Lafferty invited me back for the BAMF podcast to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy. We were also joined by Walt Robillard of SUPERS fame and Ade Smith, who brought his usual jaded British cynicism. How we ever get by without that, I cannot tell you.

I was really helped by reviews I read which noted the film's dependence on science fiction films from the '80s. I'm talking about the post-Star Wars era. Do you remember there was a time when Star Wars was dead? Before Tim Zahn's influential books opened the Expanded Universe? Anyway, we got SF films like "The Last Starfighter" and "Enemy Mine" and similar flicks, and there's a lot of those pictures in Guardians.

You can check out the podcast here.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Latest Podcast: Super-Villainy. (Is that even a word?)

This week I was a guest on Mike Lafferty's BAMF podcast, along with Chris McGlothlin (just nominated for his 8th Ennie, this time for work on the Emerald City sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds), Walt Robillard (author of the SUPERS RPG and Zenith Comics), Chuck Rice (distinguished game designer and author of Too Many Things To Mention) and Ade Smith, whose accent needs no introduction.

Our topic was super-villains: good ones, bad ones, how they differ between companies, and so on. I talked a lot about by current writing project, the Super Villain Handbook, and Chuck's new zombie apocalypse RPG got me into a conversation about The Walking Dead.

As always, I learned a lot, and it was a real pleasure to be invited.

You can listen to us here.