Friday, August 12, 2016

Super Villain Handbook Deluxe Edition

This book is the end point of about two and a half years of work by many people, first and foremost Mike Lafferty, my friend and publisher at Fainting Goat, and Walt Robillard, who ran the successful Kickstart for the SVH and has been a constant cheerleader for the project. I am also deeply in debt to Ade Smith, who did layout, and to my amazing artists, Dionysia Jones, Jacob Blackmon, Joe Singleton, and Joseph Arnold. Quite a few others became Kickstart backers or helped out as I crowdsourced ideas; too many to name, but you know who you are and I have not forgotten you.

It feels good to hold this book in my hands. It's 220 pages, full color, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. This book is the counterpart to the Field Guide to Superheroes project I did with Vigilance Press, and both ultimately have their roots in a course on the Heroic Epic I took with Darren Miguez back in Vegas, so long ago I honestly don't remember the date.

The original list of 40 villainous archetypes didn't change too much from my initial list all those years ago, though it grew a little to include 21st century boogie-men like the Terrorist and the Evil CEO. A handful of the characters in this book were invented long ago for the Worlds of Wonder setting, but I always had more ideas for heroes in WoWo than I did villains, which is why the Field Guide to Superheroes was so easy and the Handbook took many years. I have come a long way when it comes to collaboration; I have learned to let artists design, because they do that better than me, and I have learned a bit about how to nudge concepts artists give me into something I am more enthusiastic about writing.

One of the key parts of this book is the YOUniverse, which is a setting embracing the concept of public domain. There are several public domain characters in this book, including the Black Terror, Hugo Danner, Stardust the Super-Wizard, Women in Red, Miss/Black Fury, Green Turtle, Night Bird, Wolf Savage, and even Dracula, Robur the Conqueror, Captain Hook, and the Egyptian sorceress called the Beetle. Other public domain characters -- like Sherlock Holmes, Amazing Man, and Lash Lightning -- feature in the background of these characters even if they're not personally represented. But all the 55 characters in the Handbook are public domain, even if they did not start off that way. I did this for a very specific reason: I was tired of inventing settings which, a few years later, I could not continue writing because someone else owned them. This happened with Worlds of Wonder. I didn't want to spend all that time making something and then be unable to develop it. Mike was totally supportive of the idea of making the characters public domain, which was totally against his own self-interest. I can't express how grateful I am.

The idea of including support for running super villain RPGs came from reader feedback. I was initially cold on the idea, as I prefer games in which the players cooperate and are heroic. But as I delved into the idea and read up on what other writers had done with it, I began to see how I could help GMs and players in an all-villains game. I ended up with nine different campaign models for super villain gaming, and most of them, I would totally be happy playing in.

We priced this book at $20 which, honestly, is a steal. For a book this size, with interior color art, the fair price is at least $25 and maybe $30. If you buy the print book, you also get the PDF for free (something I first saw with Evil Hat's Fate games, and loved).

If you are interested in super villains -- how they are portrayed in comics, TV and film, the stories they tell, and the symbolic meanings they embody -- I think you'll like this book. And if you're a gamer, you'll love it.

Check it out.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad

This is where I begin by confessing that I have read very little of John Ostrander's classic, and extremely influential, Suicide Squad comic. I remember buying the first couple issues, with Deadshot and Captain Boomerang and Bronze Tiger and Enchantress and Amanda Waller, but it apparently didn't grab my interest enough to stick with it. DC has always been a harder sell for my adult-self because I don't know as many of the characters and DC can't suck me in with nostalgia on account of all those years I spent as a card-carrying member of F.O.O.M!

I also managed to avoid watching any of the many (so many!) trailers and promo spots for the new SUICIDE SQUAD film. I did, however, read that the film went back for extensive re-shoots after the two-hit combo that was BATMAN V SUPERMAN and DEADPOOL. The first film was panned for bleak and pessimistic tone and for being a confusing muddle; the second took the superhero audience by storm, proving that a film does not need to cost $250 million to be fun, edgy, or funny. I haven't reviewed DEADPOOL here and it seems too late to do so now, but I'd like to go on the record as saying I respect Ryan Reynolds as a man who not only isn't afraid to make fun of himself, but who is talented enough to do it well.

 But back to SUICIDE SQUAD, which I approached with a relatively open mind.

SUICIDE SQUAD is not a bad movie, but it is a deeply flawed movie. This flaw does not lie in the performances, which range from serviceable to solid to, actually, rather touching. Everyone will rave about Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, for good reason. She is charismatic and her tale is half the movie. But I was personally struck by Jay Hernandez's El Diablo, a character I had never heard of till now and would have pegged as "one of the guys whose head blows up to show the audience how those neck-bombs work" if I was just looking at the cast photo.

Likewise, the flaw is not in how the film was shot, which is serviceable enough if as hard to follow as you would imagine when all the bad guys are wearing black and it's always night out.

The flaw is not in the casting, though I have to agree with friend of the blog Marc Singer who notes that Will Smith is playing the wrong part. He really should be Flagg in this movie. But Smith is a talented actor and Deadshot has been re-imagined to suit him. He pulls it off. Like many, I was not quite sure what to make of Jared Leto's Joker before the film began, and I have heard horror stories of his performance on the set, but honestly his take on Joker was solid. His physical appearance has been pushed so far into "edgy" that it is a self-parody, but the performance itself is perfectly good. Honestly. I mean, if you're a Jared Leto hater, you really should not let that stop you from seeing his Joker. He's good. There's even a couple references to well-known Joker/Harley moments in this film. Fan service!

No, the flaw in this film is entirely structural, and comes from the film's last-minute rewrite, reshoot, and tonal change in the wake of BvS/Deadpool. And, unfortunately, it is obvious from quite literally the first few minutes of the film, because the two headliners -- Smith's Deadshot and Robbie's Harley -- are both introduced to the audience AT LEAST THREE TIMES EACH. And then Amanda Waller goes on to be rescued TWICE. And the people who were written into the script to die don't die, because the climax has been re-shot to make it more optimistic and less in line with "the DC Murderverse." In this, SUICIDE SQUAD resembles nothing so much as the latest attempt to make FANTASTIC FOUR, when Josh Trank's bizarre and relatively interesting body horror movie which just happened to have the names of four people from an old comic book was cut in half and given a head transplant from a lazy superhero paint-by-numbers TV pilot.

Let's take these one at a time and start with the character introductions. Now, this film has an ensemble cast and aside from Joker and Harley (thanks, B:TAS!), most people in your target audience are not going to know who any of these people are. So it is absolutely necessary to introduce them. But this film does so serially, introducing them first, and then again, and then again: once in a more subtle "let's show them to you and let you learn about them from what they do" way (Deadshot and Harley in their cells, interacting with guards) and once as pure exposition: Amanda Waller walks into a room with a few generals and just straight up shows them her laminated copy of WHO'S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE. Now, I don't know for sure which one of these two introductions was David Ayer's, but the second one feels like flop sweat. "Audiences are never gonna keep track of all this shit. They need to be spoon-fed." And then we get a purely unnecessary scene in which Deadshot makes so many head-shots that he literally burns holes through three metal targets, just to show us (AGAIN!) what he can do. And so the introductions seem to go on forever and ever, strung out all the way to Slipknot, last to appear and introduced with a single line of exposition. When I saw that, I knew my first guess about "dude whose head blows up to show the audience how that works" was wrong. If that intro had been much earlier in the film, and less time had been spent going over and over Deadshot and Harley, we might not have seen the strings, and the repeated introductions of the same characters makes the first reel of the film take forever.

The Squad loads up on a helicopter and flies out to Midway City where the big bad is. Except that ... Their mission is not to take out the big bad? Their mission is to rescue someone? And then they're done? Flagg says explicitly this. The seams of the rewrite is showing. Was SUICIDE SQUAD originally more of an Escape from New York plot (OMG YES) in which the Squad has to go into this war zone and bring out someone, but along the way they learn the real truth and take it into their own hands? I would have loved that movie. It looks to me like the whole big bad CGI fest at the end is tacked on from the rewrite. But back to Waller. We spend quite a long time working our way through the streets of the city (um... Who shot down the helicopter? How come this is never addressed? Seams. Something big was cut -- probably a big sequence in which an army is initially sent into the city, only to be converted into minions of the Big Bad, and we would see the converted-army's anti-aircraft weaponry being set up or something). And when she is rescued it's played as a climactic moment; the entire Squad is shocked to learn Waller is the person who has been trapped. And then they put her on a helicopter and she gets ONE MILE before she is shot down and captured AGAIN. 

Okay, this is just really obvious. Characters have had a lot at stake rescuing Waller. El Diablo violates his code to rescue her. She murders perfectly nice innocent people as she is rescued. The Joker shows up and rescues Harley, and Deadshot lets her escape. Big shit went down. And then, five minutes later, Waller is captured again, Harley has returned to the group, Diablo is again afraid to use his powers. It's like the whole fight to rescue Waller the first time was for nothing. The audience's investment has been wasted. The seams are showing. Unless you're John Byrne, the man who killed Wonder Woman twice in three issues, no writing team would fall back on "well, let's just re-capture Waller" unless there was simply no time, budget, or logistics for any other option. Waller's recapture sets up the new climax, with its CGI Big Bad on a closed set. I wonder what the original ending of the movie was gonna be like.

And I'm pretty sure Boomerang and Katana were going to die. Let's be honest, for a group called SUICIDE SQUAD, very few members of the team die in this movie. In THE DIRTY DOZEN, the original template for Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, only one man survives. In this film, there's Slipknot (who cares) and, in the climax, El Diablo. That's it. Everyone else makes it, and it's a big cast. Who else died in the original ending? My money is on Boomerang and Katana, because they are watered-down versions of Deadshot and Harley. Boomerang is basically a normal guy who, instead of shooting guns, throws things, killing people except with less reliability. He flirts with Katana in a way very similar to the way Deadshot and Harley bond, only not as well. He's more laughed-at than laughed-with. He inexplicably carries around a stuffed unicorn, his surrogate for Deadshot's off-camera little girl. Harley is pining for Joker, whom she actually believes to be dead for a while, just as Katana is pining for her long-lost husband. The scenes in which Katana talks to her sword are parallel to Harley's recurring glimpses at her phone, where Joker is texting her. One has a sword, the other a baseball bat. The only reason you create two pairs of characters this similar is if you intend to kill off one of the pairs to create catharsis surrounding the survival of the other pair. Boomerang and Katana's deaths become "it could have been me/us/them" moments for both Deadshot/Harley and we, the audience. But instead, out of a fear they'd be accused of "Murderverse" again, of being "too dark and gloomy", Captain Boomerang and Katana are spared. Flop sweat strikes again.

For many audiences, the flaws in SUICIDE SQUAD produced by the tortured method of the film's production may not be obvious. Viewers will complain about the beginning of the film, which will seem to repeat itself or drag. They will complain about the film "skipping around a lot" or "not making sense," as if films like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR make a lick of god-damned sense. What these audiences are really seeing is how a film becomes compromised when the studio panics. I don't know what Ayer's original film would have been like. Maybe it would have been dark and gloomy. Maybe it would have been pessimistic. But it still would have had some strong performances, a dynamic and charismatic set of leads, and a pretty interesting Joker. It would have rewarded audience investment. It would have had a better payoff. The seams wouldn't be showing.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Superman V Batman: Dawn of Justice

I think about superheroes a lot, but I also think about roleplaying games a lot. I think about games so much, that it has started to fit the definition of a critical theory: it's a lens through which I sometimes interpret the entire world. I once sat down and calculated how many hit points Julius Caesar must have had, to survive getting stabbed by all those senators only to die from Brutus's holy smite. So as I shuffled away from Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I felt old habits taking over. I began to interpret the film as if it were a roleplaying game. And a kind of comprehension came to me, when I figured out Superman's ability scores:

STR 18/00, DEX 14, CON 18, INT 10, WIS 6, CHA 15

This movie makes a lot more sense once we understand that Superman is just not very smart, and in particular has no real common sense or understanding of how and when to use his incredible power. This begins with his very first appearance: Lois and her cameraman (a CIA plant) are taken by terrorists so Lois can get an interview. The CIA agent is discovered and eventually (not instantaneously) executed. Superman is nowhere to be seen. Half the terrorists are shot by the other half, and it's only after all this that a gun is put to Lois's head, Superman shows up, and smashes the terrorist leader through a wall.

So... Where the hell was Superman two minutes ago, before everyone else got killed? He was obviously watching Lois, because he showed up to save her. But he didn't save anybody else. Were they not worth it? Was he just not paying attention? He and Lois live and work together; he knew where she was, and that she was going into a dangerous situation. I can only conclude that either a) he was too far away to save the CIA guy and all the terrorists, and got there just in time to save Lois, or b) he simply didn't care to save anyone but her. Judging by the over-indulgent use of force on the terrorist leader, the man who had the gun to Lois's head, I'm inclined to think the answer is B. But if you want to be nice, and give Superman a conscience, then the answer is A. He's not a selfish prick, he's just dumb and wasn't paying attention.

(EDIT: I first thought the camera man was obviously Jimmy. Then the camera man was summarily executed and I thought, "Well, so no Jimmy, I guess." But no, as Friend of the Blog Tommy Brownell has pointed out to me: That was effin' Jimmy Olson! Superman let Jimmy get executed. What world is this?)

Superman walks into the Capitol building to testify regarding his own actions, but never gets a word out and does this only after the media has turned against him and he is called to testify. This illustrates a key aspect of Superman's character in both his recent films: he is never proactive. He does nothing until circumstances force him to do it. He doesn't introduce himself to the world or defend his actions to the media, he speaks only when spoken to (and often not even then). When he sees a building fire in Mexico City on TV, he flies off to save a little girl, but does he put out the fire or save anyone else from it? Not that we see. Because only the little girl was on camera; the conspicuous danger in which she was placed forced Superman to save her, but this is all the assuagement his conscience demands. 

Let's get back to that courtroom, because there's a bomb in it. Let the record show, your honor, that there is a bomb in the room when a guy with X-Ray vision and super hearing walks into it. This is not a calm scene; there are protesters all over. Emotions are high. National leaders are present. Later, Superman questions his own inability to detect the bomb. He wonders aloud to Lois; either he couldn't see it, or he chose not to. While both of these possibilities are fraught with portent, in the style of this film, I offer a third, much more prosaic, explanation: he fucking forgot to look.

Superman's elementary forgetfulness and ignorance, the fact that he is a very handsome, incredibly well-built dunderhead, makes the entire last reel of the film comprehensible. Lex has kidnapped Ma Kent and has goons ready to shoot her if Superman does not kill Batman within the hour. Superman, a reporter, whose steady girlfriend is a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist, who could reasonably expect the loyalty of the entire Daily Planet staff, one of the world's foremost information-gathering organizations, a man who can move so fast he cannot be seen, who can fly at hypersonic speed, look through walls, and who can hear radio or just muttered conversation, has an hour to find his mother surrounded by men with guns and he decides, no, the only way out is to kill Batman?

When he confronts Batman, he never says, "Lex has a hostage." That four words would have stopped the fight is demonstrated by the truth that this fact does, actually, stop the fight, but only after the fight has already ended. Superman might reveal the reason why he was sent to kill Batman, but this would have deprived the movie of its purpose, and so instead Superman is an idiot long enough to get beaten in a fight.

Batman has made a spear with a kryptonite blade, and after the fight Lois takes this thing and -- for reasons that make sense only in the world of plot -- drops it into a pool of water. Almost immediately, everyone realizes this is the only thing that can kill Doomsday, and so Lois goes back after the thing she just dropped, in a sequence so contrived that I am kind of astonished by the sheer gutsiness of it. Walter Chaw has suggested the scene was a call out to Dario Argento's Inferno. I don't know the picture, so I can't opine on this, but there are enough other pastiche moments in this movie that it certainly would not surprise me. Bob Mondello alerted me to the Excalibur call-out in the film, though once I was twice shown a marquee for Excalibur, I'd like to think I would have seen it coming on my own. But back to the spear: Bruce knows the spear will kill Doomsday. Lois knows the spear will kill Doomsday. Diana knows the spear will kill Doomsday. But it is left to Clark to get the spear -- the spear that is killing him every minute he's near it. 
Superman gazes over the ruins, then looks to Batman.
SUPERMAN: "The spear is in a fountain, in the center of the building not far from where we fought."
BATMAN: "I'm on it."
WONDER WOMAN: "We'll hold him here." 
Batman raises his grapple gun, fires it, and vanishes into the ruins.

There are a lot of "what if" stories involving Superman: What if Superman was evil? What if Superman was Russian instead of American? What if Superman was Amish? Books like Superfolks or Superman's Broadway musical posit a Superman with feet of clay. So in that sense, BvS and Man of Steel are answers to the question, "What if superhuman powers were given to a charismatic loser?" In that sense, Superman resembles, more than anything, Hugo Danner. Danner is an interesting footnote in Superman-lore, protagonist of the novel Gladiator, which came out years before Superman and which we know was read by Superman's creator. Danner has superhuman powers and tries to use them for good, but no matter what he does, it all goes to shit. Part of this is because he feels completely alienated from other human beings, especially women, whom he treats so shabbily that it beggars description. Despite his incredible good looks and a circle of friends who admire him as the embodiment of manliness, everyone hates and fears Danner the moment his powers are revealed. After enlisting in WWI to use his powers for France, he murders hundreds in a single trench with his bare hands out of revenge for a dead friend only for the peace treaty to be signed, making his "victory" meaningless. Miserable, friendless and alone, he eventually kills himself by daring God to hit him with a lightning bolt. God generously obliges. In retrospect, Hugo Danner is a fascinating example of how superhero stories could have gone, but didn't. While few authors have written characters whose heroic efforts are constantly and inevitably revealed to be useless, many authors have experimented with or embraced Hugo's nihilism. And while I can't read the mind of either David Goyer or Zach Snyder, I think if Hugo Danner could watch this movie, he would feel what old friend Sara Mueller used to call "The vindication of the righteous."

Henry Cavill's Superman does not look like a slow-thinking, well-intentioned, ignoramus. Indeed, he looks incredibly good. My god, those pecs. Like, OH MY GOD. If your goal is to cast a Superman who makes every other man feel inferior: nailed it! But his emotional range is on the Keanu-scale. He has an angry face, a "what's that?" face, and a "that's so sad" face, and ... that's all I got actually. I think Schwarzenegger is a better actor. But my point is, because Superman looks so damn fine, we accept him as the superhero we expect him to be when, in fact, at pretty much every opportunity, Cavill's Superman does the wrong thing, or the good thing too late. This includes all that crap from Man of Steel, when he fights Zod in the city instead of, oh, taking it upstate to where my colleague Chris Wilhelm pointed out there are miles and miles of forest with no one around to get hurt. I don't see Superman as intentionally killing thousands in the last reel of Man of Steel, it's just that he can only think about one thing at a time and OMG ITS ZOD LOOK ZOD PUNCH ZOD.

I'd like to take credit for some big critical breakthrough here, but in fact it has long been understood that, in any team-up between Superman and Batman, Superman is often an idiot. It's the easy play to bring narrative satisfaction. This rule was first shared with me by Roger Frederick, my old college pal, who has read a lot more DC than I ever will and who knows himself some World's Finest. Quite simply, when Batman and Superman are in the same story, there's just not much for Batman to do. Superman is going to out-punch him by a thousand to one. He's Superman. Now Batman has one thing really going for him in this set-up: he's the World's Greatest Detective. So, in these team-up stories, what happens is that Batman solves all the intelligence-based challenges while Superman does all the heavy lifting. When Superman is in his own book, he's completely capable of solving problems on his own without using his fists. Indeed, his brain is supposed to be just as super as the rest of him, a biological super-computer in his head. But as soon as Batman shows up, Superman loses all his higher reasoning functions simply so that -- from a narrative standpoint -- Bruce has something to do.

And that's what you see in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Batman has top billing in this movie. Batman is the money-maker, and we're gonna shake him. And Superman is a flying idiot who can throw buildings. The writer in me is obliged to note that this is not the only way to write Batman/Superman stories, it's just the easy way. David Goyer has written a lot of superhero movies, but his opinion of comics and comics writing is low. I have no doubt that he has studied the craft of film writing inside and out. But he has not studied the craft of superhero comics, and so when faced with a dilemma that many experienced comics writers have grappled with, he does not know to learn from their example: that there is such a thing as a Batman/Superman story in which Batman is not overshadowed and Superman is not an idiot. But BvS:DoJ is not that story.

As a guy who talks about comics a lot, I often get asked -- usually by my well-meaning fellow nerds, students who want to bond with the professor over shared interests -- who would win in a fight, Hero X or Hero Y. (I was once asked this in the presence of the President of the University of California, whom I was desperately trying to convince that comics were a valid field of study. I got laughed at.) The answer is always the same: "It depends on whose comic the fight takes place in." Superhero comics are incredibly market-driven; they are a thriving testament to the continued relevance of post-Marxist theory. If Superman is fighting the Silver Surfer, what venue is this occurring in? Because if it's in a Superman comic, that means Superman fans are the ones buying the book, and every writer on that book knows that his role is to please Superman fans. Therefore, Superman will win. But if the fight takes place in a Silver Surfer comic, then the reverse is true and Surfer will win. Batman vs. Captain America, Daredevil vs. the Punisher, it really doesn't matter. The answer is always the same. These are fictional characters and we, as writers, can write whatever story we want with them. When we write that story, we make it and the heroes involved mean something. That's what's important: what the characters are saying, what they are made to mean. So if I tell a story in which Captain America and Batman fight, and Captain America wins (because he's Captain America and that's what America does, it always wins, except in stories named Civil War when it doesn't), I might also tell the story in which Batman gets the stuffing beat out of him, and then comes back for the rematch and wins, because Batman represents the resilience of the human spirit. Batman is the superhero equivalent to Robert the Bruce; he can get kicked around once, twice, three times, but eventually he will come back and he will beat you. Eventually, when he's got you figured out. It seldom takes more than two tries.

And so the fight between Batman and Superman in this movie is a metaphor for the battle between men and supermen, that's pretty obvious, and in that fight there's only one emotionally satisfying ending. Batman has no powers, Superman has every power. And so of course Batman wins. Every time. Every single time. This fight is such a no-win for Superman. If he beats up a guy with no powers, he's not a hero, he's just a bully. This, by the way, is the same reason why Hawkeye, if he is present in an Avengers comic, will always be the guy who saves the world. Because he is the underdog. On a team with a living god, an embodiment of the United States of America, and a guy who wears a tank, Hawkeye is a dude with a bow and arrow. He is the most under- of underdogs on that team, and so when the villain -- be it the Collector or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants or whoever that guy was in JLA/Avengers -- has the world in his sights, the most satisfying ending is for Hawkeye, the little guy, to be the one who kicks him in the balls. And that is why Batman will always beat Superman, unless you're totally playing that fight for laughs, and if you haven't watched the Lego version of this fight, you have a real treat in store, let me tell you.

In any case, getting back to the brawl, I think we can all see now that the only way Superman wins this thing from a narrative standpoint is by never engaging in it. But the whole movie is based on this fight, and so really Superman has already lost. There's no way he gets out without humiliation. The fight validates human beings over superhuman beings. It validates Bruce's philosophy of life. Life only means what you force it to mean; that's what he says at the end. There is no "good." There's not even an "evil." There's just the randomness that shoots your parents in an alley, and the trauma that is the rest of your life. Note that I'm not talking about broader versions of Batman here, versions in which Batman finds a meaning in the world, one that isn't about force. A Batman with a reconstructed family. A Batman that acknowledges good and evil, that there are limits to what one can do, should do, that there are requirements and expectations placed on us by society and we have an obligation to our fellow man to draw the line somewhere. That Batman is not this Batman. If this Batman has any principles, beyond winning at any cost, whatever is most efficient, I do not know them. These are cold, empty, heroes indeed. These are men who always look good, whose every physical action is perfectly choreographed, but who are soulless. Perhaps they are good symbols for modern life, but I reject their nihilistic vision in favor of a world in which there is good to be done, a world in which you and I, humble though we may be, have power and are obliged to use it in ethical ways. And, as for Superman, I reject the reading of that character that makes him an alien, estranged from humanity. The Superman we see in this movie is a very short step from Bill's interpretation in Kill Bill: a super man who sees humanity as a race of bumbling idiots, and by pretending to be one, is making a joke that only he gets.

BvS includes many shout-outs to The Dark Knight Returns -- including the memorable panel from chapter one of that book, in which Batman bursts through a wall to grab a goon armed with a machine gun, only to use the guy as a shield and shoot the other goons. I remember wondering about that panel, because wasn't one of the points of DKR that Batman doesn't use guns? But in this film, Batman is rarely without one. He uses a semi-automatic pistol to shoot several, a sub machine gun moments later in the same scene. The batmobile is armed with machine guns (Arkham Asylum is the primary means by which boys are introduced to Batman in the 21st century), and with the exception of the kryptonite spear, which proves the rule, all of his other weapons are variations on guns. If he has a utility belt, I never saw it; instead, he is always packing. DKR's Green Arrow famously shoots a kryptonite arrow at Superman, who catches it, but in this film's version of the same scene, Superman catches a grenade instead, fired from a gun. (My veteran readers -- by which I mean not those of you who graciously subscribe, but rather readers who are war veterans -- will point out to me that a grenade launcher is not a rifle. But for the purposes of Batman, a gun is a gun is a gun.)

Readers will think I am obsessing over small differences; what does it matter if Batman uses a pistol or a grenade launcher instead of, say, unclipping a gas grenade from his belt and simply throwing it? My answer is that superheroes -- like everything else -- are symbols, and they are made to mean things. Batman is a victim of gun violence; his parents were shot down in an alley before his eyes. The makers of BvS know this; they read Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman declares guns "the weapon of the enemy" as he breaks a shotgun in half with his hands. But while DKR is good enough to get quoted throughout the film, all these quotations are surface: visual recreations of a panel, throwaway dialog or incidental plot beats. At the same time the film is remixing DKR's visual style, it entirely rewrites what the characters mean in pursuit of what I can only call "the cool."

Batman uses guns in this film because guns are cool, because the mechanical sound of a gun cocking sends a thrill up the leg. In the audio vocabulary of American cinema, that sound means "I'm a bad ass," and Batman is the ultimate bad ass.

I knew going in that this film would be making a lot of hay out of Dark Knight Returns, but I was surprised by the extent to which The Death of Superman is also remixed. I was two-thirds of the way through the film when I realized that's a big piece of this incarnation of Lex Luthor, who is called Alexander Luthor throughout the film and who notes that his father, actually, is the "Lex" in "Lexcorp." Those who have read The Death of Superman will recall that, during this particular phase of the 90s, Lex had "died" and transferred his consciousness to a cloned body. Everyone thought this new person, Alexander Luthor, a man with red curling locks, was Lex's son. But while the Alexander of the source material has a massive physique (like his flowing hair, an example of Lex's overcompensation for his own perceived weaknesses in the face of Superman), this Alexander is skinny tech-nerd. He would be at home on the stage of an Apple product reveal event, except that he can't speak a coherent sentence. Of all the confusing parts of this film, Lex Luthor might be the most perplexing because, honestly, how do you fuck up Lex Luthor? The guy is a mad scientist super villain. He's not hard to do. Who thought the manic, annoying, fidgety Lex of this film was a credible villain? When Kurt Busiek relaunched Avengers after the Heroes Reborn debacle, his first villain was Morgana Le Fey. I was reading a lot of bulletin boards in those days and Busiek got a lot of flak from fans who wanted a bigger villain, such as Loki, to be the antagonist. Busiek defended his choice by saying that the first Avengers story was more about the team getting back together than fighting the bad guy, that he had intentionally chosen a second-tier villain so that the villain did not distract from what was a story essentially about the Avengers. I see a similar action at work in BvS; the film-makers need a high profile villain because that is what the audience and press demand and expect. They will be let down if the villain is not Lex Luthor or the Joker. But the real antagonism in this film is between Superman and Batman, and so our version of Lex in this film is less threatening, less dangerous. Hell, he didn't even make his own global tech empire; he inherited it from his dad. 

Wonder Woman is the highlight of the movie, and her appearance is the only moment in which my opening-night audience applauded -- and that was all the women in the audience. But as Bob Mondello noted, one of the reasons she is so great is because, since she has so little screen time, she doesn't get saddled with the over-wrought proclamations about good, evil, and the nature of human life which Clark, Bruce, Lex, Ma, and ghost-Pa all get, usually multiple times. Her theme music is so different than the rest of the picture that, when you hear it, it's like you've been trapped in a canvas sack for two hours and someone just opened the bag to let the sun shine in. There are very few moments of characterization for her, but the most telling for me was the moment in which Doomsday sends her reeling and, as she picks herself up off the ground, she grins. She's into it. She's eager for the fight. Welcome to Zack Snyder's Wonder Woman, everyone.

Apropos of nothing, I want to note that what is done to Perry White in this film is nothing less than a tragedy, almost on the scale of the deformation of Pa Kent that happened in Man of Steel. The little stuff first: his primary concern is the bottom line, though he also notes that the paper is already broke. He invades the private files of his reporters, and assigns then whimsically to whatever section of the paper catch his eye that day. But that's small fish. More important, in a film filled with cynical people, the editor in chief of the newspaper is the worst cynic of them all. He has no conviction to publish the truth, and has no belief in the reading public or humanity in general. When Lois asks for a helicopter and he thinks it's for a story, he refuses her; it's only when it becomes personal that he acquiesces. This is precisely backwards. Perry's role in any Superman story in which he appears is to be the Demander of Truth. He is not the Seeker of Truth, that's Lois. But when Lois or Clark or Jimmy are confronted by a difficult story, or pause when the stakes become too high, Perry is the person who comes in to say, "Get the story." He is Old School Journalism at its finest. He has meaning. Laurence Fishburne is an amazing actor to whom nothing good was given in this film. In his last appearance as Perry, he spent most of the last reel giving reaction shots to imaginary falling buildings. This movie is a step down from that.

The climax to this film comes when Batman withholds the killing blow from Superman because both men have a mother named Martha. I am not making that up or exaggerating. That's the reason Superman does not die in this movie. I'm pretty sure David Goyer -- who has repeatedly testified his contempt for superhero comics in general -- noticed this coincidence and decided, "That's it. That's what these guys have in common. Every guy has a mother, and Martha's name represents that." The fact that Martha Kent and Martha Wayne have the same first name has never occurred to me before, probably because she's always just been Ma Kent to me, and also probably because that's the kind of rookie mistake that happens when it's 1939, you're cranking out a dozen pages of writing in an hour, and you have no idea what you or anyone else is doing. It's the kind of embarrassing fact that writers at DC and Marvel politely ignore, but which cause Wold Newton writers to develop elaborate theories explaining that Martha Wayne did not, in fact, die in Crime Alley but, after sustaining injuries that prevented her from having any more children, moved to Kansas and met a nice farmer named Jonathan. (Please cite me when this story is in fact written.) In BvS, Batman is suddenly forced to pause by the invocation of Martha's name literally seconds after he mocked Superman's parents for suggesting that Superman should use his powers for good.

The criticism that a movie "makes no sense" is probably overused; we tend to invoke it when we see plot holes. This movie has plenty of those, and as I've said already, most of them can be explained away with the phrase, "Superman is really bad at his job." But when I say this movie makes no goddamn sense, I'm not talking about that kind of sense. I'm talking about what the movie means. And the movie's meaning is all over the place. Superman is God. Superman is just a man. Superman is a false idol, worshipped by people against his will. Batman is Man. Batman is the devil. There is good in the world. Doing good is a useless exercise. If we can help someone, we should. We don't owe anybody anything. The people close to you matter; everyone else can go to hell. Whatever this film is trying to say is so inconsistent, so self-deconstructed, that it either means nothing at all, or it means something different to everyone that walks away from it. And this last, from a purely cynical movie-making perspective, seems to make the most sense to me. The makers of BvS sought to make a film which could be all things to all people or, at least, all people willing to buy a ticket.

But they lost me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Two for Team Tondro

I am obliged to note a couple of recent publications which include my work. It was an honor to be asked to participate in these projects and I learned much while working on them.

The first is Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, edited by the peerless Gail Ashton and published by Bloomsbury. Gail asked me, "What do you want to write about?" and I said, "Anything but King Arthur." Her reply was, "That's good, because Dan Nastali has already got that handled." Properly chastised, I dove into the intersection of Dante and comics, a project which took two years and included presentations at the Denver Comicon. The final essay is titled "Nightcrawler's Inferno and Other Hellish Tales: Comics Adaptations of Dante." Besides the Claremont story -- possibly the comics adaptation of Dante most useful in the classroom -- I tried to cover every other version I could find, which included Gary Panter, "Mickey Goes to Hell", Kid Eternity, Stig's Inferno, and so on. As you can see from the cover, Tolkien and Potter are only some of the many other topics in this book. Check out the table of contents.

The second, released at almost the same time, is Drawn from the Classics: Essays on Graphic Adaptations of Literary Works, edited by Stephen Tabachnick and Esther Saltzman, published by McFarland. Stephen wrote to me and asked, "What do you want to write about?" and I suggested Beowulf or War of the Worlds, as I have long desired to write an essay on Killraven. Alas, Stephen (to his credit), said, "Oh good, let's do Beowulf." I am sad. But! The Beowulf project came out pretty good and I learned at the last minute about Alexis Fajardo's delightful Kid Beowulf series, making the essay better thereby. I refined the project at the Popular Culture Conference a couple of years ago. This book has Gemma Bovery, Dracula, Moby-Dick, Poe, Othello, Heart of Darkness, Alice in Wonderland, and a lot more. See it here.

There are more projects of mine in the pipe, but it is very encouraging to see these collections completed and released. And I am humbled by my distinguished company within them.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four is the latest addition to the long list of "Super hero movies embarrassed by their own genre," of which both Man of Steel and the first X-Men movie are both excellent examples. Do you remember the "yellow spandex" joke? Bryan Singer loved his characters and knew he was making a superhero movie, but he nevertheless thought the audience wasn't ready for one. He had to make a superhero movie that was actually a science-fiction adventure film, the Matrix with claws. And Josh Trank has, like him, made a superhero movie which is actually a science-fiction adventure film. The difference between these two movies lies in that word "love." Singer loved the X-Men. Bryan Singer fell in love with Kitty Pryde at the same age all the rest of us did. Josh Trank does not love Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny and Ben. If he did, he would not have made a movie embarrassed to be itself.

Anyone watching this movie can see the part of it that Josh Trank liked. It's the character bits that dominate the first half. Reed and Ben as kids. Reed and Ben in high school. Ben seeing Reed leave the old neighborhood. When Ben says to Reed, who insists that he can go home any time he wants, that "it looks to me like you are home," it's well done and Jamie Bell totally sells it. Whatever the faults of this movie, Bell and the other performers in the film are not the source of the problem. They were given ordinary people to play, and they played them. In the second half, their characters turn into caricatures reciting the screenplay equivalent of stock footage, but that is not their fault.

There were parts of this film that made me smile. Sue, like most of Stan Lee's heroines in the Marvel Age, was a part-time fashion designer, so naturally in this film it is Susan who makes their uniforms. There was even a moment when I actually sat up in my chair and thought this film was about to turn great -- it was when they rolled a chimpanzee into the teleport machine to test it. Because, come on, if you are going to put a chimpanzee in the machine and send him to another dimension (which should have been called the Negative Zone or Counter-Earth, by the way, not this Planet Zero crap), then surely you will use four such apes and set up the Red Ghost. Because, come on, you are putting a chimpanzee in there already! And there's four chairs in your teleport machine! I mean, you are already most of the way there! It's like launching a rocket into orbit and then deciding, you know what, hell with it, let's just circle the planet a few times and go home. WHO DOES THAT?

Sadly, there are no Russian-gorilla-version of the FF in my future. But so far, I was still with the film as a science fiction adventure flick. It had five dudes and one girl who just happened to have the same names as characters from a Marvel Comic I grew up with, which was sort of weird, but hey. That's cool. They're going to another dimension, let's see where this goes. The tension on "Planet Zero" (please see above note concerning the Negative Zone) was not bad. Victor (I am not calling him Doom, I don't care how much wine I've had, because that dude was not Victor von Doom. At best, he was a Starbucks barista who thought Victor von Doom would be a cool name and started to write it on his nametag) says, "I made it" while everyone else is saying "We did it," which is a great, efficient way to say what Josh Trank is trying to make this movie about, which is self-centeredness vs community. The crash back to Earth, the transformations, it was all okay. It wasn't the FF, but it was an okay science-fiction adventure. And then Reed wakes up with his arms and legs stretched out, and he looks GREAT. I mean, this movie is really working at that moment. That shot, with Reed stretched out and obviously some kind of lab rat, is the best single moment in the "body horror" movie that Josh Trank really, really, wanted to make instead of the superhero movie he got saddled with.

And then Reed escapes the lab and the rest of the movie is just crap.

I'm sorry, but it is. Because now Josh Trank has done all the parts he really enjoyed doing -- the character moments and the body horror and the science fiction exploration -- and Josh Trank figures that it's time to do all the superhero movie stuff now because he can't put it off any longer. So everyone learns how to use their powers in 30 seconds, we get some shots of them kicking the anonymous ass out of soldiers and jets and targets, we get uniforms and we get "Doom."

(Whose powers make no goddamn sense. Apparently he can make people's heads explode, but he only does that on Earth. When he goes to "Planet Zero" [again, Negative Zone or Counter-Earth] he can control the planet itself but ... can't do the head explode-thing any more? Because Reed and Johnny and Susan and Ben are protected by their six figure salaries, I guess. I really did wait for a moment where he tried to blow Reed's head up and Susan says something like, "it's our containment suits! They protect us from his powers!" or Reed says something like, "He can't drain our bioelectric fields because our powers have the same source his does!" or some bullshit explainer like that. Nada. I'm not saying that would have been a good solution to this crappy last reel, but it would have at least shown some effort.)

The whole fight scene and the FF's triumphant return to Earth is just such a step-by-step paint-by-numbers, with ham handed exposition of the movie's theme, a caricatured antagonist, and special effects substituting for character agency, that an audience member would be excused for falling asleep. Josh Trank's heart is not in it. His heart left when Reed crawled out of the lab.

And that is the great irony of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four. When the corporate pencil-pushers come in to take over the research lab and sell out to the government is the exact moment Josh Trank sells out the movie he wanted to make for the movie he felt his corporate masters wanted. Josh Trank should never have been hired to make a superhero movie. But he was hired, because 20th Century Fox did not want a super hero movie, only the super hero $$$. They, like Josh Trank, are embarrassed by their own genre, by the characters they paid millions for. Josh Trank set out to make a movie about body horror -- well, he succeeded. And the shocking, uncomfortable transformation that occurs is inflicted upon the film itself. The body of this film, this character-driven science fiction adventure film with sincere performers, this film that actually could have been pretty good, is exposed to transformative cynicism and disdain and turned into a "dark, grounded, realistic" ... and boring superhero movie that has no love for its source material.

Maybe that's not horror, but it is horrible.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Steven the Great

Every business has its luminaries. In the business of roleplaying games, those luminaries are people like Monte Cook, Steve Jackson, and Robin Laws. I don't personally know any of those people. But I do know one guy who is, without question, a gaming luminary, and that guy is Steve Long.

Steve rejuvenated Hero Games and the Champions RPG with his book Dark Champions, which became an instant classic and the cornerstone of a whole series of books that kept Hero Games more or less in the black for years. Marked by exhaustive research and filled with enough story for many campaigns, the Dark Champions line perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 1980s 'dark and gritty' comics, what many people now call the Iron Age. Champions was my game throughout high school and my undergraduate years, and I went back to Steve's books constantly. They were a well that never ran dry.

You'd think that would be enough for one guy. But it was not. Steve re-invented himself, joining the design and writing team for both the Lord of the Rings RPG and the Star Trek RPG, two of the biggest intellectual properties in the world. These are projects millions of fans would give anything to participate in.

As Brandon Blackmoor instructed me once, the only way to make a small fortune in the gaming industry is to start with a large fortune, and Hero fell victim to economic pressures and collapsed. And this is when Steve started what, to me, seemed like the third great phase of his career in gaming, because he got together with a couple of other gentlemen and they bought Hero Games. Famously prolific, Steve proceeded to rewrite the product line from the ground up, in the process creating a single "Heroic Universe" in which all of the games of the Hero System fit. So, for example, Fantasy Hero's "Turakian Age," a sword-and-sorcery setting dominated by an evil lich, was actually the same world as the pulp adventures of Justice, Incorporated, the modern-day superheroics of the Champions, and the far-flung adventures in Star Hero. Film audiences are used to the idea of a shared universe now, thanks to Marvel's success, but this was ground-breaking stuff in the '90s. I myself wasn't entirely sure it was the right way to go. But it had vision, and I don't think anyone other than Steve could have pulled off a project so damn big so damn well.

Somewhere in all this, Steve allowed me to join Rogues Gallery, which was the Hero System fanzine, and I humbly contributed my occasional pieces, surrounded by people like Steve and Aaron Allston and so many other amazing talents who graciously gave me helpful advice. When I applied to grad school, I applied to the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and was accepted. Steve lobbied hard to get me to move there, where I could join his gaming table and, potentially, help write on the sprawling new line of Hero Games products. I didn't take him up on his offer. Maybe I should have.

This week I learned that Steve has developed colon cancer. As I think you can tell by now, this is a guy for whom I have nothing but admiration. If there is anyone in the world who can kick the shit out of colon cancer (you have to laugh, people. You have to laugh) it's Steve.

He could probably use some help paying medical bills, but no one's asking you to throw money away. Steve has written and edited more game books than most of us will ever own. Whether your interest is in organized criminal networks or Mesoamerican mythology, Steve has written something that you are interested in, even if you don't know it yet.

Take a look at his books on Amazon.
And here's the Hero Games store, where you can browse tons of other books he has written.

Monday, November 10, 2014


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.