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.