Monday, November 20, 2017


IFC viewing

When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko forged the modern Marvel universe, their superheroes came with flaws: Spider-Man was burdened with guilt over an act of selfishness that came back to bite him; the Thing was bitter over his monstrous condition, blaming Reed Richards for it and taking his frustrations out on the Human Torch; Dr. Strange was an arrogant SOB who had to learn humility before he could master the mystic arts.

Then, in a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided move, superheroes became "relevant": Green Arrow's sidekick took drugs; Iron Man became an alcoholic; Green Lantern was criticized for not helping "the black skins."

Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns escalated this trend to Olympian levels. Because they were popular, everybody tried to copy their success, and we've lived with the consequences ever since.

Superheroes - people with paranormal abilities who wear gawdy costumes and fight psychopaths out to conquer the world - aren't real (in case you might have forgotten), but for decades, comics writers and artists have bent over backwards trying to make them "realistic," as if by doing so they'll remain relevant, when it was Hollywood and Madison Avenue that did that. When you have the chutzpah to show Doctor Doom shedding a tear at Ground Zero on 9-11, you've lost the struggle for superhero "realism" for all time.

I'm more convinced than ever today that superheroes should abandon any and all attempts to be "realistic" and "relevant" and become weirder and more bizarre and further removed from reality instead. Kirby understood this better than anyone before or since (though Grant Morrison comes close). He put a silver-skinned alien on a surfboard and made it cool! And that was only the tip of the drafting table.

All this said, there have been some worthy attempts made in the "realistic superheroes" motif in comics, and television and film are learning how to do likewise.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy made him a geek superstar, James Gunn was merely... Super. His breakthrough feature film, after coming up from TV and Troma horror, contained elements of the things that made Watchmen unique for its time: superheroism as a form of delusional psychosis; the difficulty of being one without powers or training; the mask as a cure for sexual impotence, etc., fused with a wickedly dark sense of humor.

In the words of Billy Joel, however, it's just a fantasy. It's not the real thing. If Super were truly "realistic," the Crimson Bolt (and Boltie) would've been arrested long ago at the least; at the most, he wouldn't have lived to earn his "happy" ending.

I'm willing to let it slide because I enjoyed the movie (Ellen Page is adorable, in a twisted way), but do you see what I mean about "realism" in the superhero genre? Kirby would've had the Crimson Bolt take on two-headed fire wolves from Dimension Z and not apologized for it.


  1. I feel about the realistic superhero trend the way I feel about those serious episodes of comedy shows, or as they used to refer to them, "a very special episode". There is nothing wrong with just being funny. And there is nothing wrong with being a fantasy figure.

  2. Do they still do "very special episodes"? They probably do, but I'll bet they don't refer to them as such. That's become such a cliché.


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