Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
August 2011

Now With 60% More Nerditude!

Marvel Movies 2011

Marvel movies!

You knew this was coming, didn't you?

And no, I haven't seen Green Lantern. Sorry. I was going to. But I had to wash my seriously?ryanreynolds?really?andbythewaythanksforditchingthe-blackguyweallsawonthejusticeleaguecartoonguys! hair.

Ahem.

That's actually a hair color, you know. Jennifer Garner promotes the dye.

I am enough of a comic geek to have seen the truly terrible 1990 adaptation of Captain America, in which the Captain rides a motorcycle, romances his 70-year-old flame, and . . . does other stuff. It's been a while, but I remember, even then, how terrible it was, and how the stunt drivers didn't seem to know a thing about actual stunt driving.

So my standards are low. They have to be. Captain America, Thor and Iron Man are all dang hard heroes for a studio to get right. Daredevil actually has a lot more promise as a move hero. So does Punisher. Dark avengers with twisted psyches are familiar stuff in our world. Norse Gods, billionaire playboy POWs, and aw-shucks World War II soldiers are harder.

So while Cap and Thor's (and for that matter, Iron Man's) films aren't high art, they are fun, diverting and even rewatchable, and that is, believe you me, an achievement.

As for X-Men: First Class, well . . . read on.

Thor:

Thor works on the pseudo-Shakespearian themes hard enough to distract us from some of the silly assumptions, thin characterization and just plain cheese.

Branagh wisely ditched the comic's human identity for Thor to be trapped in, but kept the central conceit: Thor has been arrogant and impetuous and has to get knocked down a few notches.

Loki, his brother, appears to genuinely care for Thor, but he grows increasingly schemy and snakey throughout the story. His double and triple-crosses are exciting, for all that anyone with a passing knowledge of Norse myth can see them coming. He and Thor's daddy issues make for a good set of King-Lear-Lite dynamics.

Branagh wisely wove the Norse God myth into a modern, science-fictional setting. They are a more benevolent Q continuum, with less omniscience and more pomp and pageantry. And they have a sparkly wormhole bridge. And some of them are black and Asian.

It's fun, reasonably consistent, and it's a sensitive man's superhero. Chris Hemsworth struts around without a shirt, but he also smiles and turns into a perfect gentleman in order to please Natalie Portman. The romance works fairly well, but Thor gets better character than his lady love. While he gets to go from arrogant to vulnerable, she stays at a one-note sexy-smart scientist level, serving mostly as a foil for him to fall in love with and to help him humble himself. At times she recalls the missteps of Iron Man 2, where Gwyneth Paltrow's previously nuanced character became shrill.

"Romantic foil for a superhero" is a tough role for an actress, especially since few parts carry the dramatic meat Margot Kidder got from Lois Lane. Paltrow and Portman spend a wee bit too much time running around worrying about their man. They have more acting chops than Kirsten Dunst in the Spider-Man movies, but they don't get to do as much with them.

Which leads me to:

Captain America:

Hayley Atwell in Captain America, on the other hand, is one of the best parts of the movie, since she is so cool and collected that she automatically throws off the over-earnest, aw-shucks Steve Rogers. She's a fantastic foil. Most importantly, she is never shrill.

In one scene, where she is irritated with Steve because of his naïve reaction to the women who keep throwing themselves at him, he picks up his "vibranium shield" and, still trying to make nice with her, asks, "What do you think?"

She shoots the shield three times with a handgun. Totally cool, she answers, "I think it works."

Like Thor, Cap works because the title character is given a nice dramatic arc, and grows to be a whole person while remaining vulnerable. Steve Rogers is a skinny kid with a lot to prove: his parents died heroically in World War I, his best buddy is going off to fight in Europe, and he is, as a shrimpy asthmatic, 4F and a regular target of bullies. He would no doubt like to be a hero, but he would settle just for going to the front and dying in battle.

His desire to fight in World War II is freakishly obsessive. In boot camp, he keeps scrambling under barbed wire and climbing rope ladders even while he's wheezing and flagging. But when he's asked about it, he simply states, "I don't like bullies."

And we buy it. Chris Evans, even when his head is digitally transferred onto a skinny little actor, is totally convincing. He's willing to get shot full of chemicals and be doused in Vita-Rays (how's that for a 40s-sounding term) for the chance to get shot at by Nazis.

Like Thor's growth from arrogance to humility, Chris Evans portrays Cap as a boy growing into a man. What matters in this movie is not that Captain America wants to fight. In the beginning, skinny little Steve Rogers has nothing to lose. But by the end, he has a faithful coterie of oddly international soldiers serving under him, the faith of the American people, and Atwell's love, and he still chooses to sacrifice himself.

What? That's no spoiler. You know he's frozen in ice and wakes up in the present; it's telegraphed right there in the prologue. Come on. Man up.

Good things aside, this movie is a ball of clichés coated in cheese. Fistfights galore. A Nazi mad scientist villain who vants to be a god, herr Captain! Contrived romantic drama. Lasers in the 40s. Motorcycle chases through the woods.

It's a retread of much of what director Joe Johnston did in The Rocketeer in 1992. I watched it again recently, to prep for Cap. Clichéd as it is, in the hour and forty-five minutes of The Rocketeer, there is no moment where you won't have fun, and Captain America is just as much fun.

Quibbles: The film has a tortured relationship with actual history. Hydra is the bad force, and painted as a separate arm of the Nazi party to avoid any direct Nazi atrocity connection. That doesn't keep them from screwing up other history, though. Black and Japanese-American soldiers are co-mingled with white soldiers in Italy in 1943, when each ethnicity was relegated to its own division, respectively the 92nd Infantry Battalion for blacks and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for Japanese-Americans. The 92nd didn't hit Italy until 1944 as well. Are we supposed to think that these black soldiers in American uniforms are Algerians?

I suppose its silly to complain about historical revisionism in a movie where a super-powered dude runs around the Italian front liberating soldiers, though. But in the case of the segregated battalions, it really does matter. Which leads us to more historical revisionism in:

X-Men: First Class

The X-Men, and this film, are unlike the superheroes of the Avengers franchise. Bryan Singer's first two X-Men films were a thinking man's superhero team. Mutants stood in for persecuted groups, whether they be persecuted for race, sexual orientation, or disability.

X-Men: First Class is the first X-Men movie since Singer's that looked like it would remember this fact, and to portray characters whose lives have been genuinely destroyed by hatred. I looked forward to this one. Singer produced it. Director Matthew Vaughn actually improved on one of Neil Gaiman's weaker works in Stardust and turned a terrible comic into a half-decent movie in Kick-Ass.

First impression: It seems to be the best of the Marvel movies this summer. Smart, full of textured characters, three who make a significant journey, and packed with action.

On reflection, though, it is the most disappointing.

X-Men: First Class didn't have the potential strikes against it that Thor and Cap managed to overcome. The Xavier/Magneto bromance was rich and deep in the comics continuity already, and all it took was a good script and two good actors to pull it together. Raven's splendid arc had been mapped out on numerous other characters -- from shame to selfhood.

But this movie, supposedly about liberation from racism, promptly kills off one black character and turns another one to the dark side. Wha?

It's emblematic of the problem at the core of First Class, but we'll get to that. There are a few other things to discuss first that keep First Class from the heights of the first two X-Men films.

The "Bond-ization" of the film that gives it a lot of drive weakens it. Kevin Bacon, as Sebastian Shaw, is a scenery-chomping supervillain with his own submarine. He chafes a bit as a typical villain, akin to the Red Skull, in this movie where a major character is an embittered survivor of the Holocaust and another seeks to reconcile humanity to its persecuted class.

Submarine chases, shootouts, and scandily-clad sexpots fill this movie, and it's hard to concentrate on a message of harmony for humanity when it's mixed with such light, gratuitous fare. I like Emma Frost in her lingerie. It's a valued X-tradition. But when she is tied to a bedpost and choked, it sure shifts the tone of a film that seeks the heights of Singer's brilliant X-Men United.

Michael Fassbender's performance as Magneto is a definite highlight, especially opposite James McAvoy's Xavier. Fassbender had a lot to live up to. Ian McKellen became Magneto effortlessly in the first two films, portraying a man possessed by his dark conviction.

In Singer's first film, Rogue asks, "Are you going to kill me?" and Magneto responds, "Yes. Because there is no tolerance. There is no peace." I believed him. I believed that this man has seen the worst humanity had to offer and has come away with nothing but hatred. (It was Ian McKellen, and he could portray a compelling sea sponge.)

Fassbender, thank goodness, became Magneto to a T in this film, prefiguring Magneto as a man whose anger might morph into something more dangerous and despotic. In a chilling scene near the start of the film, he murders three leftover SS commanders with cold conviction. When Xavier taps into his few remaining good memories of his mother, Fassbender weeps, but it doesn't break his conviction. It just shows the evidence of the pain behind his hatred.

But. He, or rather Vaughn, fails. In the crucial scene, near the end, Sebastian Shaw monologues about the superiority of mutants and Fassbender and, after he beats Shaw, says, "I agree with everything you've said, but you killed my mother, so I must kill you." He goes on to become the megalomaniac supervillain we know and love.

Problem: I just didn't believe him.

I was trying to figure out why. Fassbender doesn't do anything wrong in this movie. He's utterly magnetic (snap!) in every moment he has onscreen, in the same way McKellen was.

At some point, Vaughn and the scriptwriters failed to convey his transferred hatred from Shaw and the Nazis (those dang Nazis again!) to humanity in general.

It speaks to a very subtle flaw in the movie. Ultimately, Matthew Vaughn isn't making a movie about prejudice the way Bryan Singer was.

I like to joke that you can easily tell that Bryan Singer is gay and Matthew Vaughn is straight, given the former's preference for pulling off Hugh Jackman's shirt and the latter's preference for women in lingerie. It goes deeper than that, though. Singer, perhaps because of his sexuality or just a better sense of story, really understood what it was like to be hated and feared.

Vaughn gets a lot of meat into the character's arcs. But he did the same thing in Kick-Ass and the movie still failed to matter.

In Singer's X-Men, Wolverine and Rogue became a microcosm of the persecuted who feel subhuman. Xavier and Magneto became the debate between militant separatists and tolerance advocates. And even among the action, the silly comic book plot twists, and the fact that our main character was a snarling, metal-boned unkillable claw dude, we thought.

In First Class, we just have wonderful character arcs, but the characters are really there to fight, take their clothes off, and fight some more. It is a good movie. Like Cap and Thor, you will have fun.

But it's not what X-Men should be.

And that is a damn shame. Because unlike Cap and Thor, who are second-rate, oddball superheroes that managed to succeed onscreen, the X-Men have Marvel's richest mythos, and after Spider-Man, are the most easy heroes to identify with. Raven, Xavier and Magneto should stand for more than this.

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