Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.

Marvels 25th Anniversary Hardcover

marvels25thI have a very deep and abiding fondness for Marvels, a four-issue series that celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Written by Kurt Busiek and beautifully illustrated by Alex Ross, the series was, as its title might suggest, a love-letter to the Marvel comics of old, particularly those of the 1960s when the comics were at their absolute peak. As a lad who grew up in the 1970s reading the b&w reprints published here in the UK, Marvels hit me as surely as if I had grown up in America in the 1960s reading the monthly four-colour originals.

Through the lens of newspaper photographer Phil Sheldon, Marvels took the proposition that the Marvel superheroes were real, and that Phil personified our own, mortals-eye view of the incredible larger-than-life figures and events that the Golden Age and subsequent Silver Age Marvel comics of the 1960s portrayed every month. Phil witnessed and photographed the original Human Torch, Prince Namor’s attack on Manhattan, the Fantastic Four’s battle with Galactus and the death of Gwen Stacey. Along the way Phil questions the role and purpose of the superhuman Marvels that had changed his world forever, and begins to weary of the continuous need of people and media to first idolise and venerate these heroes to superstars and then turn on them, belittle them, ridicule them.

marvels25thbRevisiting key events in Marvel history through the eyes of Phil is a journey of deep nostalgia for those of us who grew up with the comics, reliving adventures that enthralled us so. Nothing in any Marvel Studios Infinity War or Endgame could be as monumental or terrifying as the Galactus saga created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and nothing in any Spider-Man movie could be as heartbreaking as the death of Gwen Stacey, an event that changed comics forever. Its this last section, in Marvels issue 4, that so deeply affects me. When I was a kid, Spider-Man and its characters was as real as any movie ever could be, and Gwen Stacey just as real as anyone I read about or saw on television. Its not just the usual Marvel hyperbole that her death changed comics forever- the event signalled a watershed moment, and the treatment of it in Marvels was beyond perfect, it elevated it to something profoundly moving. Re-reading it in this new edition for the first time in a few years now, it was as breathtaking and emotional for me as it ever was.  Its a moment when its clear that Marvels itself isn’t ‘just’ a comic- its a genuine work of art.

marvels25thcI bought the original paperback collection of Marvels back in 1994, and its sobering indeed to realise that this new hardcover edition celebrating its 25th anniversary last year marks such a passage of time. Somehow the distance in time to its original publication is getting close to the original distance between Marvels and the 1960s comic-books it was a tribute to. Alex Ross’ beautiful artwork is as breathtaking now as it was back then- indeed in some ways its arguable that nothing has equalled it since. This edition actually reprints the 25th anniversary’s Marvels Annotated, which features a lengthy examination of each issue with panel by panel annotations that pick up references to the original comics and insights from Busiek and Ross about creative choices and technical details. This only reinforces my deep awe and respect for what they achieved. Coupled with additional background material, a Marvels Epilogue one-shot that serves as a coda to the original series and the original scripts and series proposals, this whole package is as definitive as any fan could hope for.

…and another…

ditko.jpgWoke up this morning to more sad news; the American comicbook artist Steve Ditko, co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man, has passed away at the age of 90. Its the kind of news that can’t help but colour the remainder of the day.

By all accounts, Ditko was something of a recluse who shunned publicity and harkened from a time when artists and creators were ill-rewarded for their work- his creation of Spider-Man in the 1960 with Stan Lee should have made him fabulously rich, but didn’t (Marvel of course has gone on to make a fortune from the character over the decades from the comics, merchandising and movies). Ditko also co-created Doctor Strange, and I noted with some satisfaction that the recent Doctor Strange movie had visuals that referenced the trippy images that Ditko conjured up for that comic. Like a lot of comic artists of that era (Kirby, Buscema, Kane, Colan etc) Ditko had a unique visual style all his own.

Ditko’s original Spider-Man strips are likely the definitive Spider-Man (although as I grew up I preferred the John Romita period for the more ‘sophisticated’ stories of their time, today the DItko era is clearly the most evocative). If I find time today I will reach for my Marvel Omnibus of the Amazing Spider-Man that features Ditko’s run on the strip and re-read one of those glorious issues that I loved so much as a kid reading the British reprints in the early 1970s.

But yes, sad news, and again, as I noted in my previous post, another great icon/name of my youth and cultural-scape has passed. I know its an inevitable side-effect of my own ageing, but it remains awfully depressing that so many of them are fading away. Two consecutive posts such as this are lousy reasons to write here, and I sincerely hope a third is a long time in coming….

Marveling at Dr Strange

dr strange12017.15: Dr Strange (2016),  Blu-ray

They make it look so easy, don’t they? It must piss those boys at DC right off, seeing Marvel Studios parading its expertise at putting comicstrip adventures up on the big screen. Its pretty amazing really. When you really think about it, all this superhero nonsense is inherently juvenile, silly nonsense, but its actioned with such earnestness and conviction that audiences just lap it up. Why audiences are so ready for tales reduced to base concepts of good and evil and larger than life heroes and villains, modern mythologies to replace the Gods and Devils of old, I don’t know. I suppose that in this fairly-new millennium these superhero films function the same way as the Bonds and Star Wars of before, perhaps even on a bigger scale. The appeal, after all, is pretty universal- these films are hugely successful worldwide, across all kinds of racial and territorial boundaries. In an increasingly complicated and uncertain world, there is perhaps an appeal to simple heroes and villains.

So yeah, we can go about this review in two ways. On the one hand, Dr Strange is terrific entertainment with an engaging cast and pretty remarkable spectacle. On the other, well, its fairly routine Marvel Studios stuff. The film seldom really surprises and pretty much telegraphs much of what happens well in advance, particularly if you are familiar with Marvel’s output. Of course, that familiarity might be part of the charm of these films- all together they represent the Mother of All Box Sets, and there is an undeniable comfort blanket in losing yourself within this Marvel Studios universe, in just the same way as the comic Marvel universe had an escapist charm through my childhood. Barring a few missteps, those 1960s strips that I read in the 1970s weekly reprints of my childhood have been brought to vivid life- and most of those missteps are a personal thing regards updating 60s strips to our modern world. Yeah, I can’t help that, its just a personal thing- Spiderman’s New York will always be a 1960s Mad Men episode to me; it just feels odd in a modern world of mobile phones and computers seeing guys dressed up in funny costumes.

Heres the elephant in the room of course- its all looking so easy for Marvel, and yet DC seems to be finding it all so difficult. Likely that apparent ease is nothing of the sort and hides some really tricky work in the background, but up to now they have pretty much pulled things off very well. We have not seen Marvel blunder into making an artistic and commercial dud. At this stage, I doubt we will; if Marvel Studios ever does begin to stumble for success, it’s all the more likely it will be from audience fatigue rather than bad movies.

dr strange.jpgSo Dr Strange is a pretty strong Marvel movie and another addition to its roster of cinematic heroes. It isn’t perfect but it is reliable fun. And yeah, when I think about those 1960s strips by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and how so much of them have been transposed to the movie screen here, it is frankly astonishing, how well it comes off without feeling camp or silly. Other than that, I don’t have much to really say, other than I really need to watch it again, as some of those big effects sequences were so busy I sometimes lost track of what the hell was going on- I kept thinking of that line from Jedi – “There’s too many of them!” There was so much going on in some of those mind bending effects shots.