Saturday, February 9, 2013

Platypus Thoughts: Millar Time

Apparently long-time Marvel Comics writer and 20th Century Fox superhero “guru,” Mark Millar says that a Justice League film is a good way to lose $200 million. Can someone in the audience tell me what is wrong with this picture? It is not that Mr. Millar is wrong. A Justice League film has the potential to be a nine-figure atom bomb like 2011’s Green Lantern but his reasoning for why such an endeavor would fail bothers me.

“I actually think the big problem for them is the characters are just too out of date. The characters were created 75 years ago, even the newest major character was created 68 years ago, so they’re in a really weird time...The actual logistics of each member of the Justice League is disastrous, and you put them all together and I think you get an excellent way of losing $200 million.”

Mr. Millar has always entertained the notion that Superman and his cohorts were too “outdated and irrelevant” to the point where it borders on obsession. When I peel away his reasoning, that most of the Justice League members should be collecting old age pensions, it falls apart when I take the longevity of Marvel’s stable into account. Captain America is pushing seventy-five himself, the Hulk and Thor are now fifty, and Iron Man will be turning fifty this year. I fail to see how DC’s characters are irrelevant because of their age when Marvel’s characters are not exactly a breath of fresh air themselves. Never mind the fact that the current incarnations of the Flash and Green Lantern predate Marvel by a few years (1956 and 1959, respectively.) That would be akin to a seventy-five year-old telling me he is not a senior citizen because his neighbor is ninety-five.

Logistics, on the other hand, is where Mr. Millar may bring up a valid argument. Let us hear what he has to say:

“Now the stuff I grew up with… I adored the DC stuff growing up but really, how do you do a movie about Green Lantern,” asks Millar, “his power is that he manifests green plasma from his imagination and uses them as weapons against someone? Even that in itself if you just imagine then watching a fight scene with a guy who’s like a hundred feet away making plasma manifestations fight someone – it’s not exactly raucous, getting up close and personal.”

This statement demonstrates how Mr. Millar knows very little of why the Green Lantern film was a failure. There was and is nothing wrong with the concept behind it: a dying member of an extraterrestrial police force gives test pilot the most powerful weapon. It was the horrible writing abysmal execution that torpedoed it with its rushed plot that was thin on characterization, packed with needless exposition, and overuse of computer-generated imagery to name a few. Furthermore, I fail to see how Green Lantern’s ability to generate plasma constructs through his ring would make fight scenes any less exciting because it is not “exactly raucous” or “up close and personal.” Especially when many of the Marvel films to not heavily depend on close-quarters combat.

Take Matthew Vaughn’s (who also directed the film adaptation of Millar’s Kick-Ass) X-Men: First Class where neither Charles Xavier nor Magneto possessed powers that required them to get up close and personal with Sebastian Shaw and his associates. Likewise for Banshee, Havok, and Emma Frost. Similarly, neither Iron Man nor Thor needed to get into a physical confrontation because of the nature of their abilities in the Avengers. Iron Man could dispatch enemy combatants from a hundred feet or more with his armor’s repulsor rays and Thor could just as easily summon lightning and hurricane-force winds with Mjolnir and that did not make the film any less enjoyable. Conversely, Green Lantern can produce swords, axes, and other close combat weapons with his ring to physically engage with his adversaries (like Sinestro) similar to how Thor uses Mjolnir as a blunt weapon against the frost giants. Also, given Hal Jordan’s brashness, it would make more sense for him to engage in close-quarters combat because of his ego.

Millar, quite frankly, is grievously mistaken in his assumptions over Green Lantern’s failings. The Green Lantern franchise has the potential to become DC/Warner Brothers’ answers to Lucasarts (and now Disney’s) Star Wars. However, the management was too eager to jump on the superhero bandwagon 2008’s Iron Man started and they paid for it in disappointing box office returns. Perhaps DC Comics and Warner Brothers should watch the original, unedited Star Wars trilogy and read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Methinks they would learn more from those sources than from Mr. Millar’s ill advice.

Moving on…

“The Flash has door handles on the side of his mask and if he doesn’t wear that mask, I’ll be pissed off, you know what I mean? They’re in a weird, weird situation – if you’ve got a guy who moves at the speed of light up against the Weather Wizard and Captain Cold or whatever, then your movie’s over in two seconds.”

I see it as bad omen when Mr. Millar begins with a criticism of the Flash’s costume. Partly because the wingtips on his “ears” not only invoke the mythological imagery of Hermes/Mercury, but also speaks to the characters streamlined design that hails from the jet age. Perhaps, Mr. Millar is correct in that the Flash’s speed makes it difficult to give the character dramatic tension when he could theoretically solve any problem in a matter of nanoseconds but it is not impossible. A potential film could easily borrow from Barry Allen’s post-New 52 origin and adapt the “Move Forward” storyline with Mob Rule. While some Rogues like the aforementioned Weather Wizard and Captain Cold may not be conductive for a film format due to the nature of the characters but Gorilla Grodd could still give the Flash trouble with his telepathic powers and raw savagery. Talking gorillas from a hidden city may stretch the suspension of disbelief, but would it be more of a stretch than let us say, a city of technologically advanced space Vikings in a distant galaxy?

Then we have Mirror Master, who can conceivably keep the Flash on his toes with the light motif, or the potential for a Reverse-Flash down the line. Plus, with the Flash’s history of traveling through time or to parallel worlds, there is a wellspring of potential.

I am beginning to wonder if Mr. Millar simply lacks imagination.

“You can get away with stuff in comics that in live action’s just a bit sucky – the best one is definitely Aquaman. Aquaman can’t even talk under water. If you think about it in comics it’s fine, you just have a speech balloon, but how do you have Atlantis and people talking under water? Are they gonna talking telepathically? Is it going to be body forms?”

Okay, this is beginning to get more ridiculous. Out of all the reasons not to produce an Aquaman film, Mr. Millar is worried about how the people of Atlantis are going to speak underwater? Given the possibly Shakespearean drama from a plot where Aquaman is locked in a struggle for the Atlantean throne with his brother, Orm (AKA Ocean Master), I would believe that any such concerns regarding how they will speak underwater is secondary. I could cite examples of how Wonder Woman, and even Firestorm, could have the potential to be great concepts but the problem here is that I believe Mr. Millar, in his capacity as a creative consultant for the pending Fantastic Four film reboot, is simply trash talking the competition. I also detect some lingering acrimony from the controversy over censorship of his run on The Authority might factor into his criticisms as well. Personally, I do not know why a website such as SciFi Now would consider Mr. Millar a “superhero guru” when is a decent, if not good, writer at best. Why not ask Kevin Feige, how has overseen the Marvel Cinematic universe? How about more acclaimed writers like Millar’s former partner, Grant Morrison, or academics like Ben Saunders? Millar’s criticisms strike me as shallow, unimaginative, and I fail to see why I should take them seriously.

However, does he have a point? I suppose. As a friend of mine said in response to the original draft of my commentary, one of the major obstacles to a Justice League movie is that it would appear to be a desperate attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Avengers and the ill-conceived Green Lantern film does not do much to allay those fears. But Mr. Millar is especially off base in his claims that Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and so forth are irrelevant due to their age and the nature of their abilities. I will also put my friends assertions that Iron Man and Thor’s abilities are “more accessible” into dispute. Jane Foster herself paraphrased Arthur C. Clarke in Thor when she said, “Magic is science we do not understand yet.” So if Mjolnir and the Bifrost are products of technology that is far more advanced than anything found on Earth, then why Green Lantern’s ring, a piece of alien technology, is less believable than anything found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The same applies to lightsabers and hyperdrive from Star Wars, which movie going audiences had little difficulty in suspending their disbelief for, but I digress. Maybe it is simply the wrong time for DC and Warner Brothers to try to shoot for the Moon in a cardboard box when Marvel already won that race, which Mr. Millar is attempting to convey but lacks the eloquence to do so.

Yet Marvel may have shot itself in the foot with the Avengers because how can they top what many believe was nirvana for comic book geekdom? Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and perhaps the Hulk are all viable franchises but what else does Marvel have to use? 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises and Columbia holds the rights to Spider-Man to which both companies will keep producing films for to hold said rights. That leaves Marvel with Daredevil? Luke Cage? Black Panther? Captain (formerly Ms.) Marvel? I seriously doubt that any of those characters, aside from Daredevil, are capable of carrying a film by themselves. I enjoy Edgar Wright’s work but I do not have any reason to believe that he can rescue ­Ant-Man from obscurity than he could with Scott Pilgrim. Nor do I believe that Guardians of the Galaxy will be a roaring success because those characters are on an even lower tier than Daredevil and Ant-Man. When I give it more thought, perhaps it is a better idea for DC to shelve their plans for further Green Lantern or Flash films and carefully watch what their competition is doing. After all, despite their terrible luck with non-Batman or Superman films, they have done a respectable job with their properties on television with Arrow as their latest example. Perhaps they can learn a few lessons if Marvel’s cinematic universe implodes under the weight of its own success.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Platypus Thoughts: Alternate History + Superheroes = ?

Superheroes and alternate history are two subgenres of science fiction that have always appeared to compliment one another but very few writers ever dared to combine and exploit to its fullest. One reason for this is continuity, the holy grail of all comic book geeks. Ever since the debut of Superman in 1938 and the Fantastic Four in 1961, the Big Two of the comic book industry more or less on a floating timeline that prevents their characters from aging (though continuity is far murkier for DC after two major reboots and countless smaller retcons.) Superman could be BFFs with Joseph Kennedy in 1963 then be shaking hands with Ronald Reagan twenty years later without aging a single day. Another reason is because both companies, especially Marvel, pride themselves on verisimilitude by making their universe superficially similar to ours so neither company has fully addressed the social and geopolitical implications of the effective demigods in their midst until recent years with Marvel’s Civil War and DC’s 52.

However, one can consider Marvel’s “What If?” titles and DC’s Elseworlds line alternate history to some extent. These titles largely centered on the individual histories of their characters like “What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” or “What if Sgt. Nick Fury Fought World War II in Space?” rather than historical events from our world. Some scenarios such as “What if Captain America Were Revived Today?” from What If? (vol. 1) #44 possesses some trappings of alternate history. For example, Namor the Sub-Mariner took a different route when the Avengers pursued him in Avengers (vol. 1)  #4 so he never discovered the group of Inuit who worshipped a frozen Steve Rogers and thus never hurled Captain America into the ocean for the Avengers to find. The Avengers eventually disbanded without Captain America, but more disturbingly, a janitor working at a government facility awakened the mentally unstable 1950s Captain America and Bucky from suspended animation and convinced them that the United States was in danger from subversive elements. As such, the impostor Captain America and Bucky became involved with a political movement that transformed the United States into a police state until a crew of American sailors found the true Cap in the Arctic.

Marvel, aside from a dalliance with a robot Stalin, waited almost twenty years to dip their toe into the alternate history ocean with Neil Gaiman’s 1602. While not technically a What If? issue, the mini-series has a point of divergence (a Captain America from a potential future goes back in time to the failed Roanoke colony and aids in their survival) that causes various Marvel characters to appear nearly four hundred years before they should have. Instead of being the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury is Elizabeth I’s chief intelligence officer whose apprentice is Peter Parquagh, an ersatz version of a nameless friendly neighborhood webslinger. However, one of the more intriguing elements of Marvel 1602 is Gaiman weaved themes from X-Men into late Elizabethan history, particularly James I’s persecution of the “witchbreed” or mutants and how Magneto is ostensibly a grand inquisitor for the Spanish Inquisition but hides his illicit activities behind his position. 

This fascination with alternate history continued with the fourth volume of What If? in late 2005. Unlike most issues of the title, which were largely self-contained worlds, this volume of the series took place within in a single timeline where Captain America’s genesis occurs in the American Civil War as opposed to World War II and the Fantastic Four were Russian cosmonauts. Being more of an aficionado of American history, I prefer the Captain America one and appreciate how Cap because more of a physical manifestation of the American spirit during one the nation’s most troubled periods rather than symbol. Because of this Cap’s presence shortens the Civil War, prevents Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and his origins in Native American mysticism sparked a cultural craze that prevented the Indian Wars of the 1870s. Out of the six What If? (Vol. 4) one-shots, only Captain America and Fantastic Four address the broader strokes of alternate history whereas the other four are more character-focused. Unfortunately, Marvel did not revisit this timeline as they did Marvel 1602, but they are well worth the effort of searching through the odd long box for.

Meanwhile, DC, like their marvelous competition, has only dabbled in the realm of alternate history with its Elseworlds line but there are a few notable examples such as Batman: Holy Terror written by Alan Brennert and illustrated by Norm Breyfogle. The point of divergence for this story is that Oliver Cromwell lived ten years longer and the United States became a totalitarian, theocratic state. While I have never read the issue on account that it has been out of print for over twenty years, a cursory glance of the synopsis on Wikipedia was enough to pique my interest and should do the same for other alternate history enthusiasts. DC’s Tangent imprint, introduced in 1997, operates under a similar premise where there are not only vastly different versions of Superman, the Flash, the Atom, and even obscure characters like the Sea Devils but the presence of superpowered beings radically altered history from what we know. The central premise behind the imprint is that an alternate version of the Atom intervened in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which resulted in the destruction of Florida and Cuba. As such, Atlanta became an underwater city populated by merpeople, their technology advanced further than the mainstream DC Universe, and the hippie movement was in its infancy when the nineties rolled around. 

Dan Jurgens, the man who killed Superman and the brain behind Tangent, justified this divergence when he told Comic Book Resources:

“While the DCU Earth is essentially the same as our own, no more advanced in terms of technology or communications despite the existence of those qualities within the super-powered community, Earth Tangent is greatly influenced by all of that. Earth Tangent's economic, geographic and political landscapes are defined by the superhero community, whereas in the DCU those aspects exist unaffected by the superhero community.”

Jurgens brings up an excellent point about a medium that birthed the trope, “Reed Richards is Useless.” Take the Flash’s rogues gallery for example, Captain Cold and his cohorts possess technology that can generate temperatures near absolute zero, alter weather patterns, and even transmute the 118 elements. Why did the scientists and business leaders not reverse engineer the technology after the Central City Police Department confiscated it? The Tangent imprint gives something of a look at such a world and is perhaps a blueprint for how ambitious writers should combine the two genres.

Some could argue that Superman: Red Son is an alternate history and I suppose it is to some extent. The premise is simple enough: baby Kal-L lands in Ukraine in 1938 instead of Kansas. However, my impression of the mini-series is that if it is alternate history, it is about squishy as bag full of marshmallows (or a Type X on Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility.) Its writer, Mark Millar, makes reference to even greater civil unrest in the late 1960s under surviving JFK, a war against communists in the South Pacific in 1983, and a second American Civil War in 1986 without too much elaboration. Granted, there are constraints to the medium but it is clear that the focus is more on Superman as a seemingly benevolent leader of the Soviet Union and his rivalry with Lex Luthor than on the butterflies that a Soviet Man of Steel would create. That is not to say Red Son is not worth reading, it is more fantasy than alternate history. 

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is the mirror image of Red Son in terms of realism and setting. In fact, the world of Watchmen could be a reflection ours until 1938 where the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 inspired a wave of costumed vigilantes, and again in 1959 with the creation of Dr. Manhattan. Alternate history is one portion of Watchmen’s complexity that Moore executes extremely well. Dr. Manhattan essentially gave the United States the strategic advantage in the Cold War and practically won the Vietnam War single-handedly but that also becomes a disadvantage because he is also the lone reason why the Soviet Union stays in check. Hence, Moore makes the consequences of his departure realistic as evidenced by the Soviet invasion of Pakistan and bringing Earth closer to the brink of Nuclear War. However, there are also several other economic and cultural consequences as well. The good doctor’s ability to synthesize lithium allows for the mass production of electric cars, hence reducing the United States’ dependence of foreign petroleum, and the appearance “real” superheroes essentially led to the death of the medium in the late forties so pirate comics like “The Tales of the Black Freighter.” (Though I wonder how Indian fast food became so popular with the American public instead of McDonalds.) Watchmen is practically required reading for all comic book fans, but to read it again from the prism of an alternate historian demonstrates how well the two genres blend.

One of the things I admire about alternate history is that it posed a question Marvel asked when they released a new title in February 1977, “what if?” Personally, I am not as interested in the typical “What if the Axis won World War II?” or “What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War?” as I am interested in smaller events like “What if a more moderate candidate sought the democratic nomination in 1972” or “What if Lucille Ball decided not to sell Desilu Studios to Gulf+Western?” because even the smallest pebble can create many ripples. Marvel 1602, Tangent Comics, and Watchmen demonstrate that alternate history can blend with the fantastic as peanut butter tends to do with chocolate, and they are only the tip of the glacier. In a universe populated by gods, aliens, and immortal cavemen who could alter the flow of history well before the 20th century, the myriad of scenarios to use as story fodder is practically endless. Is there a writer ambitious enough to push this hybrid genre to its creative limits?

Only time will tell.