Once again, the
silly superhero season is upon us.
As the Avengers prepare to battle that Ultron thing (at least in the U.S.; in some markets overseas the battle has already been joined), more superheroes will be coming out of the screens in the movie complexes and the toy stores and the fast-food joints and whatever other merchandising the companies have in store. There will be more this summer, this fall, this winter, next spring and on and on and on until the third for fourth decade of the 21st century probably. Back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s of the last millennium, we had been waiting for flying cars; instead we got flying Spandex-clad superheroes.
Superheroes or superhero-related shows haven’t all been relegated to the summer, television has had a bunch of such shows going on for a while to mixed success. But it’s summer, and that mean big, bombastic movies, and so we’re getting ’em, like ’em or not.
I suppose the big one is Avengers, Age of Ultron. I gather the plot is about Tony Stark screwing up and instead of making a robot mind to aid people instead makes one that decides to just replace them all. Leave it to the movies to tap into our collective angst: Big Important Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been warning us that Artificial Intelligence might be a dangerous thing to be messing with. Yeah, when’s that ever stopped us?
As I’ve said before, I’m not all that charged up by superheroes. The stories just repeat themselves ’cause it’s easier to recycle an old villain that come up with a new one. I will to admit enjoying — and also being a bit surprised — by one or two or three. Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly; to a lesser extent the first Avengers movie and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two, though, were less interesting because they dealt with some amorphous threat from outer space while Winter Soldier stayed on Earth and dealt with real, imminent threats to privacy and government overreach. That made it more immediate and more topical, a rare thing in superhero movies.
As a tiny counterpoint to the big Marvel release this week, DC has been dropping trailers for its next big film, Batman v. Superman, which has nearly a year to go before we see the whole thing. No, it doesn’t look promising, but at least it does seem to be addressing a big issue from the end of Man of Steel, the wanton destruction of the city and the deaths of thousands. We’ll have to wait to see if it’s just a trailer-tease or if the issue is really addressed, but I like to think that the makers have been pressured to respond by the criticism about that ending. (Evidently the Avengers do sort of mention the destruction that occurred at the end of their first movie, but they’ve also evidently moved their battles overseas. Less of a problem if it’s some foreigner’s city that gets flattened.)
The Batman trailer also illustrates a pet peeve of mine (outside of being, dark, colorless, hopeless and dreary), and that’s how superheroes get a pass on the laws of physics. When Superman started in the comics, he was just a powerful man. He didn’t fly, he just leaped pretty far. Gradually, he gained the ability to fly (along with X-ray vision, super breath, super hearing, etc., etc., etc.) Now he not only flies, he hovers. How the hell does he do that? If science fiction writers tried to do that with their protagonist, they’d be laughed out of the convention unless they had a sound, plausibly scientific explanation. Even fantasy writers have to keep their magic consistent, so if they give the hero hovering ability, it better have a solid root in the general magic realm. So superheroes are neither SF nor fantasy, but a class of genre fiction all their own. Akin to myths, legends and gods — yea, verily I say unto you, superheroes are the new gods for the allegedly rational 21st century.
Despite what Warner Brothers, DC, Marvel and Disney would have you believe, those superheroes aren’t the only ones around. Other comics, other novels, even a couple of movies have explored more rational attempts at explaining superheroes and how they work. However, I’m going to focus on one, a series worth reading because it explores how having super powers can be a curse and how so-called heroes can have feet of clay. That’s the Wild Card series edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. There are several books out and the latest, Lowball, has just been published.
I also lied because I’m going to plug another different take on superheroes, and, yes, it’s my own book, Tyranny of Heroes. (This is my blog and I’ll shill my books if I want to.) My superheroes don’t mess around, they take over the word, they kill their enemies and they make sure everyone on the planet behaves themselves. And, of course, they change history, which is explored by an underground what we would call blogger, except the Internet is closely controlled by the Supers, so our underground writer has to resort to more prosaic methods. (Remember mimeograph machines?)
Information on getting the e-book is available at the right where you see the cover. (And, OK, I’ll admit it, I’m looking for some sales here. I think it’s a good book, and if you agree, please tell your friends. But please give it a try.)
The biggest movie of the year, the one filled with wit, adventure and interplanetary travel, the one that pulled in the biggest box office (though summer 2014 box office numbers supposedly aren’t that great) and probably will kick-start a bevy of movies with these characters mixing with characters from other parts of the Marvel universe, left me cold.
I don’t have much interest in a lot of the superhero movies mostly because I have no interest in the comic books they are based on. Many stories in the comics have gone just totally batty and the characters hard to identify with. They occupy worlds unto themselves, where laws of nature — a.k.a. physics — are ignored while the human drama becomes little more than soap operas. This was a condition of superheroes from the get-go; Superman has never made sense but he’s a hero to us because he’s a fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. He’s taken a dark turn lately, so we’ll have to see if he remains at the pinnacle of human possibilities or he becomes just another overpowered costumed avatar grubbing around the shadowy corners of our dark natures.
I wasn’t planning to see the Captain America films at all, but the response to them, including by friends whose judgment of superheroes and superhero movies I trust, intrigued me so I watched the first on DVD and saw the second in the theater. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the better of the two, partly because of the struggle the captain has to make to adjust from the years of the so-called “good war” years to the America of the nervous, divided and cynical society of the 21st century, a century when we were supposed to be exploring planets and getting ready to go to the starts. The other big reason it appealed to me was Cap’s decision to take down the giant surveillance apparatus being put together by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Oh, Nick Fury, you have changed so much from your Howling Commando days.) This explores, though only minutely, the idea that superpowered humans, or those who control superpowered humans, will try to take over control of everyone and every thing in the world. It’s a natural outgrowth — look at mundane human society — those with the physical power to conquer and rule generally tend to do so.
(Time out for blatant self-promotion: This is the theme explored in my book, The Tyranny of Heroes, which has a Superman-like character, a Wonder Woman-like character, and a Captain America-like character as a triumvirate in charge of a league of superheroes who have taken over the world and rule with an iron hand [literally in one case]. Links to the e-book sales sites can be found elsewhere on this page.)
Where the movies faltered was in bringing the comics version of global evil, HYDRA (although it was a hoot watching Robert Redford mutter “Hail HYDRA” as his character was dying). I suppose the plot-driving Object of Desire — you know, the tesseract, orb, power crystal, ring, sword, whateverthehell — comes from the comics, too, but I tend to also ascribe it to lack of imagination among the movie writers. That damned Object of Desire stuff is spilling over to many of the Marvel movies, including the one this post is supposed to be about, Guardians of the Galaxy. (Not to be confused, as a couple of theaters did, with Rise of the Guardians, a “family” film about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy and Jack Frost joining forces to keep the bad guy from destroying children’s dreams — hey, am I seeing a pattern here?)
The whole movie is centered on the Object of Desire, who has it, who loses it, who controls it, what they want it for, who it bites in the big climatic scene. And in the end, it makes no difference whatsoever. Yeah, the Evil Guy wanted it to take over a world or something, and in the end died for it, but the object itself, after all that destruction, is not changed. And it is placed where it can be — and will be, you bet — stolen by another Evil Guy and here we go ’round the merry-go-round again.
Said Evil Guy — looking an awful lot like someone who took his style clues from north and south Native Americans, Egyptians and the Na’vi of Pandora — wants to use the orb-thing to destroy a planet (don’t they all?). A large part of the film is our heroes trying to keep it from him, but they fail. All the Evil Guy has to do is touch the thing to the planet’s surface and zap! no more cities and people and stuff. So, he jumps into a small one-person shuttle, using the craft’s small radar profile to weave his way through planetary defenses, lands on an isolated spot, raises the orb, says “Sayonara, suckers!” and slams the thing into the ground, completing his mission (comic-book science allowing him to survive his own evil).
No! He does not do that! He aims his gigantic spaceship directly at the main city, sparking evacuations of said city (we are told everyone got out; do I see fallout from Man of Steel here?) while scrambling the defenses. I have to admit, the visuals are amazing, particularly when the one-person defensive ships link into a huge net and encapsulate the enemy spacecraft. This whole sequence, except for a few plot lapses, is pretty exciting. But, alas, it shares a fate with other exciting, amazing sequences in other movies, that being a worthy thing trapped in bad film.
Meanwhile the subplots — our main characters hate each other at first, are captured, bicker, join forces, are beaten and lose the Object of Desire, bicker, are disheartened, listen to a speech that inspires them, gird their loins, bicker, go out and beat the tar out of the bad guy, recovering Object of Desire — are playing out the way they’ve played out in the various Captain America, Thor, Avengers and many more superhero movies to come. A lot to come — Guardians suggests moviemakers are going to scrape the entire Marvel pantheon for future films (Howard the Duck?!). The result being the creation of another walled universe called Marvel the way a walled universe of Marvel comics exists. Members only, thank you.
Rocket Raccoon is problematic for me, too. Every time I heard the name, my brain kept digging up the old Beatles song Rocky Raccoon from the white album. Well, what do you know? Wikipedia says the writers of the comic-book version based the name on that song back in 1975. The 2014 Rocket Raccoon (Rocky Raccoon checked into his room/Only to find Gideon’s bible … Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt/To help with good Rocky’s revival … oh, uh, sorry) bothers me because I just don’t believe those words are coming his mouth. The body is too small, the lungs are too small, the vocal chords are too small. His voice should be pitched higher. Well, comic-book science, right? I suppose they’ll explain it by referring to the biological manipulation that created him. But still … it’d be nice if someone made the effort.
I have no trouble with Groot. Odd, you’d think, ’cause here’s more comic-book science in making a plant-man. His sacrifice at the end saves everyone, but in true comic-book tradition, he comes back. And man, does he have the moves.
The other characters? Meh. The hero is a “loveable rogue” — ha ha, like we haven’t seen that before. His fixation on his mother’s mix tape is supposed to be endearing, but it’s irritating, especially when he puts it above the mission and his friends. Look, if he was that smart — probably is, but comic-book plotting, right? — why didn’t he copy the music, then keep the tape in a safe place? It’s not like there wasn’t any technology around him. Plus, after 20 years, he’s lucky that tape wasn’t at least stretched, making his music sound a little more … alien. And, of course, the non-human aliens have the technology to play 20th-century cassette tapes, and, of course, they’re grooving to American rock-and-roll music. That’s like hacking an alien computer with an Apple MacBook.
And I am sick to death of giant space ships falling on cities. It’s as if writers and producers got together at a secret retreat a few of years ago and said “OK, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ll drop big honkin’ starships on hapless cities. Captain America, you can use those flying carrier things, they’re big enough. Avengers, we’ll count the big invading bugs as space ships for now, but you gotta do better next time. That thing the purple-faced guy is riding would be great. Look, think about it, OK? I mean, come on guys, this is the Next Cool Thing.”
And these misfits have the gall to call themselves “guardians of the galaxy.” The Milky Way Galaxy is hundreds of thousands of light years across and could contain 400 billion stars and probably billions of planets. You’re going to patrol all of that? Right. And who knows what’s on the other side? You could run into really powerful beings with super-dooper-holy-mackerel technology, stuff that’ll make your orb look like an LED Christmas light. With just a flick of a mighty wrist, they could just sweep away the entire Marvel and DC universes (no matter what studio) and say “OK, we’re starting all over and we’re going to do this with logic.”
I’d pay to see that.
Superheroes are everywhere. You’d think they were gods or something.
Humanity always has had a yen for something greater than itself, someone or some thing that will fight for the oppressed and right the wrongs in society.
Because it’s so hard to do it oneself, right?
Super-strong and/or super-smart creatures of myth go back as far as golems and Herculeses and messiahs and archangels, but for our purposes, superhero history starts in April, 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1. The cover sported a man in red-and-blue tights smashing a car into a boulder as (presumably) the crooks flee in terror. The man in tights was Superman, as if any American born after 1938 couldn’t tell.
Superman was a big hit almost immediately and still is going strong, fueling a billion-dollar business today with video games, movies, comic books, graphic novels (thicker comic books, some with hard covers, to make them at least look sophisticated) and all the assorted merchandising therefrom. Superman’s got more staying power than any battery-operated bunny and he’s known worldwide. Children whose great-grandparents picked up Action No. 1 have a broad choice on which Superman story to follow. If you’re interested in Superman’s personal history and all the permutations to this point, and about the men who created him, Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Random House) is a fine account.
Tye did an excellent job for me in tying together the many threads that are Superman. As each generation changes to the next, publishers feel a need to update their superheroes lest they be become obsolete or even worse, unhip. This has led to the many variations of Superman and his ilk: Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel (and Junior, Mary and Uncle), Ant Man, Aqua-man, The Human Torch, Plastic Man, Wonder Man, The Shield, Sky Wizard, Magno the Magnetic Man, Red Raven, The Green Lama, Iron Man, The Flash and so on and so on to just about infinity. Some of those are oldies and long gone, some are oldies but still around and even more have yet to be discovered. It’s a wide, wide world in the realm of the superhero.
My first experience with Superman was in the ’50s when he seemed … boring. Either he was in a romantic tiff with Lois Lane or Lana Lang or some other “LL” girl or he was being warped out of shape by the various colors of Kryptonite, or he was – temporarily, always temporarily – about to be eliminated by Brainiac, that ‘LL of a guy, Lex Luthor, or that guy with the all-consonant name. Bizarro was the interesting character; his warped being and that warped world he lived in much more interesting than the latest lecture on how superbeings must always do good. And I couldn’t stand Jimmy Olsen.
The arrival of the Marvel superheroes didn’t do much for me, either. Yeah, I know Marvel saved or reinvented superheroes (depending on your point of view), but they were all too whiny and too inward-looking. They were superheroes, for goodness sake, couldn’t they come to some conclusion and then get on with saving the world? And yes, the art was great, but the characters … meh. Mostly. Occasionally one stood out. The Thing, the Hulk, Captain America, Fin Fang Foom. (Wait – that last isn’t a superhero, is it? He’s one of those weird Jack Kirby monsters who were often more interesting than the superheroes.)
And the Marvel villains – talk about going off the scale! Planet-devouring gods. Mystic bald-headed advisers. A man with metallic arms attached to his side. A shiny surfer (in a ploy to show the surfer crowd that superheroes can be cool, too).
DC couldn’t just stand by in the face of all this, so their supervillains started getting bigger and badder. Until one came along who could kill Superman. For a while, at least.
This points out one of the basic problems of superheroes: they need enemies that can fight at their level. If you’re a superhero, just arresting bank robbers, thieves, corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs will get boring after a while. So, eventually the Lex Luthors, the Brainiacs, the Dr. Dooms, the Jokers, the Galactuses, the Doomsdays, the Doctor Octopuses start appearing. And with each iteration, they get meaner, more destructive, and more personal in their vendettas. Only on rare occasion is a villain destroyed; but usually they just slink away, only to come back later. Or escape the insane asylum
This constant recycling of bad guys became a problem for me. In the superhero realm, this has to do with prohibitions against killing. In the real world, it has to do with the writers unable to come up with a new villain. Look, shoot ’em, punch ’em, break ’em , zap ’em, pulverize ’em– just get rid of them. Granted, it’ll be hard to replace the Joker, but it’ll be a good challenge for the imagination.
Batman is a special case, of course. He’s not a superhero in the strict sense; he has no power that enables him to fly or move mountains or drop tanks on bad guys. He’s been carrying the trauma of his parent’s death for 70 years now, and he’s gotten darker and darker, until he’s just this paranoid, angry vigilante hiding in the shadows. But that’s part of his charm – if you can call it that.
There’s talk the new move will make Superman darker, too. Tye makes a good point in that Superman cannot really become this because he’s too embedded in the American mythos. In the 74 years of his existence, Superman has become the symbol of what’s good about America. Naive, maybe, but with the optimism and a belief in himself. Just like the country he represents. A dark Superman will suggest that the optimism is misguided at best and worthless at worst. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the country, but as so goes Superman, so goes the nations’ future.
It’s all tied into these generational changes. Each superhero must be reborn, his (or hers) backstory altered to fit the mindset of the hip young, the ones with money and a driving thirst for entertainment. This has led to that tangle of threads mentioned earlier that threatens to engulf all of the superheroes. This is also a failure of storytelling.
Tales of a different set of superheroes (and superlosers) has worked around that problem. The Wild Cards series doesn’t come out in comic-book form but as novels and anthologies (thus perhaps too daunting for some people). Edited by George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin; he does do other things besides Game of Thrones, you know) and Melinda Snodgrass, the series has been going since 1987 and is up to 21 books, soon 22. The series came out of a role-playing game and started with a core group of writers sharing the Wild Card universe. New writers have been picked up along the way, helping solve the staying-relevant problem. The generations not only pass in the real world, they pass in the series, too. The original superheroes have aged, some have died, others have just disappeared; and still others have been born (or mutated) since the series began so there’s always a new crop of heroes. And villains, who come out of the same source as the heroes.
That source was an alien virus deliberately spread into Earth’s atmosphere. Its effects on humans varies; you can become an Ace with nifty superpowers, or you can become a Joker with terrible physical consequences. All this certainly stretches credibility, but it’s better than bites from radioactive spiders, mystical magic, lanterns from space and vats of acid.
The stories are about humans dealing with the cards they are dealt, and it’s not always for the better. Power has different effects on people; not every man endowed with superpowers is going to fight crime and battle for truth, justice and the American way. And other people – heads of corporations, dictators of nations – are going to want to exploit those powers for nefarious reasons. Even reality TV enters into the Wild Card universe. How hip is that?
(A Wild Cards movie is in the works, but if you want to familiarize yourself before then, you can always start at the beginning with the original Wild Cards anthology called, um, Wild Cards. Tor books has released a revised edition with a new story added. Or you can start with the latest, Fort Freak, for a good introduction; Lowball, the 22nd book, is due this year).
As mentioned, the Wild Card heroes at least have ready-made villains instead of having to wit for someone to arrive out of the mist. This idea of superheroes having no one to fight is one of the premises of my own superhero novel, The Tyranny of Heroes. (You didn’t think I was talking about superheroes just for the heck of it, did you?) The heroes – 54 of them, just to make things interesting – descend upon Earth at about the same time Superman did in his universe, during the Great Depression. They start out like Superman did, catching crooks, smacking down nasty landlords, dealing with greedy capitalists etc., etc. They help with big government projects like Hoover Dam while taking care of the Mafia-connected gangs that terrorized the population. Unfortunately for my superheroes, though, there isn’t anyone who can challenge them. So what do they do? Well, they do what I’ve always thought people with superpowers would do – they take over the world.
At first, they are reluctant to accrue too much authority. But World War II persuades them that humanity needs guidance and they’re the only ones who can provide it. Good intentions begin to go awry, as they often do. In trying to fix this problem or stop that injustice, they slowly usurp the powers of the government. Not just the USA government, but all governments. Soon the superheroes are not just in charge, they are dictators. A benevolent dictatorship to be sure, but in securing the world’s safety they have to take draconian actions, meaning dissidents go to jail, certain ideas are crushed, censorship is the norm and all nations must follow the American ideal.
Is that so bad? There are no wars big or small; civil rights are guaranteed for all; electric cars dominate the roads; mag-lev trains crisscross continents; nuclear weapons are banned; every country is economically secure; air, land and water are unpolluted; and national borders are open with passports a thing of the past.
The downside? Humans haven’t gone into space. You want to study Moon rocks? The Supers will bring you all the samples you want. You want to know what Saturn looks like up close? The Super will take videos for you. You want to live in space? Well – it’s dangerous out there and not inviting at all. Humans haven’t explored their own planet much, either. It’s cheaper to send a Super to the bottom of the ocean than it is to build an expensive machine to protect frail humans. The world might have mag-lev trains in 2014, but personal computers are just barely appearing in the marketplace. The Internet isn’t even a dream and cable TV has yet to be strung. Cell phones? Never heard of them.
Scientific and technological advances are under Supers control. While research has eliminated diseases such as smallpox, polio and malaria, everyone in the field must adhere to the Supers rules – or be bounced out (sometimes literally). And often politics plays a part – look at the debacle the Supers made of the AIDS epidemic. (I know what some people are going to say about the politics of all of this, but they will be wrong. This is a fable, not a manifesto.)
Of course, most people are quite satisfied with the way things are. Life is good, why rock the boat? But there is that minority that sees the status quo as a dead end for humanity. They struggle to point out the loss of national sovereignty, the denial of due process, that civil rights don’t exist if dissidents face imprisonment in Alcatraz – or worse. Arrest, trial and execution cane be swift then the overlords have powers way beyond mere humanity.
Still, the Supers have secrets of their own, secrets that could undermine their authority. This is why they keep their origins a secret; this is why research into Super DNA is banned. But they can’t stop human curiosity. One man who feels his family is threatened by the Supers suddenly is becoming a real irritant under their superskins.
Then the Supers suddenly face a threat that does have the power to destroy them, but from a direction they never expected.
The Tyranny of Heroes is an e-book. Clicking on the picture at right will take you to Amazon.com. For now, you’ll have to go to Barnes & Noble through your browser.