Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

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Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

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But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

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Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Remember To Save What Keeps Us Human: Looking At “Childhood’s End”

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Childhood’s End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In the twentieth century, Clarke was considered to be one of the three greatest science fiction writers, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

The story that has stood the test of time for over sixty years. Now, after various failed attempts (Stanley Kubrick once tried to make it a movie, and the BBC did a radio adaption in the 90s), Clarke’s favourite of his own novels has reached the small screen thanks to the efforts of Matthew Graham and the Syfy channel.

But does the adaption live up to the source material? Well… yes. Many of the things that made Clarke’s writing great are alive and well on screen, yet so are his weaknesses. Some deviations from the source material don’t seem to hurt, but neither do they improve the story much.

Let me explain myself.

This show perfectly adopts the atmosphere that Clarke was once so famous for. There is a real sense of scale and power to Childhood’s End. When you are told to believe that the events of the show are affecting the whole world, you really believe it. Clarke’s novels always gave an impression of size and, just like in the books, when spaceships appear in the sky above Earth in the show, you really get a sense that they are vast. His ideas have enormous scale, and that scale is represented perfectly in the series.

Unfortunately, like Clarke’s books, the characters aren’t quite as impressive as the world they inhabit. Yes, they serve a purpose, and can be charismatic and cool, but you never quite invest in them the way you should. Character development takes a back seat to the grander, more fascinating story being told. As a result, it’s hard to care about the characters’ complicated relationships.

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Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren

However, credit must still be given to Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren for giving what otherwise is a bland and tired trope some charisma and weight. In addition, Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodericks manages to pour in some good emotion, and the wonderful Charles Dance as the alien “supervisor for Earth” Karellen turns out to deliver an absolutely stellar performance.

But like I said, characters are a secondary feature. The story and its ideas are what sells.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky. The human race is told not to be afraid. A peaceful alien invasion proceeds, with aliens titled the Overlords now watch over the skies of planet Earth. They have decrees that it’s time for the world to become a utopia—but at what cost?

The book is split into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Similarly, the show is split into three two-hour long episodes titled The Overlords, The Deceivers, and The Children. Though the names are changed, the focus of each episode mostly correlates with the novels’ plots.

The Overlords begins with an ominous flash to the future, in the ruins of a post-apocalypse, where a man named Milo stumbles through the wreckage of a city and claims to be the last living human being.

With that to hang over us, we are thrown back in time to our present-day Earth, with the arrival of giant spaceships in the sky, and the grumbling tones of Charles Dance introducing himself as Karellen. Karellen proclaims himself to be the supervisor for Earth, and he has come to pull humanity into the future by ending war, poverty, starvation, and every other blight on Earth.

The Ooverlords choose a farmer (though in the book it was a UN secretary) named Ricky, a calm, self-assured, almost painfully all-American boy as their liaison. Ricky is periodically brought to the Overlords’ ship. Karellen advises him, and there is slowly a real sense that the two have become friends. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the show.

Together, they end war, pollution, famine, and slowly transform the world into a better place. There is some resistance to the Overlords, but it is quickly defeated. During this time, a young wheelchair-bound boy named Milo is shot through the heart. A beam of light comes down from the sky, and  Milo is suddenly alive again and able to walk. Milo then tells an old man who he shares a friendship with that he wants to grow up to become the first person to see the Overlords home planet.

 Everything is wonderful, but as Karellen continues to stay in the shadows, Ricky becomes more frantic and paranoid as to why his alien friend won’t reveal himself. When Ricky finally catches a glimpse of his friend, he decides that it’s better that the Overlords go unseen. Then, after fifteen years on Earth (fifty in the book), Karellen reveals himself to the world.

Cloven hooves for feet, horns, bright red wings, and fiery eyes—Karellen looks like the devil.

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Charles Dance as Karellen

Episode two, The Deceivers, might be the weakest of the three episodes. This is not the fault of any particular element. Episode two must deal with the consequences of the first episode while setting up for the finale. That’s a lot to do, and its storyline is hindered by some sub-par new characters. While we are invested in Milo and Ricky, it’s hard to care about the new Greggson family and their seemingly possessed children. Meanwhile, when Ricky falls ill from exposure on the Overlords’ ship, it simply seems like a way to continue to include him now that his role has been fulfilled. Milo is still fascinating as the only human to still yearn for answers, but he’s mostly just waiting around to take the spotlight in the finale.

The quality of episode three, The Children, is somewhere between the two preceding episodes. Ricky’s inclusion seems pointless, though with some nice beats, and the Greggsons’ story continues to be annoyingly flat. Their deaths in the climax occur without any emotional resonance. We simply don’t care about these people.

Nevertheless the Greggsons do serve a purpose. They help show that, though humanity has reached utopia, it has done so by sacrificing its imagination and its culture. The world may be perfect and free from all evil, but it’s a dull perfection. This is contrasted by the small community that rejects the Overlords’ help, and lives as the humanity of days gone by, in which culture, creativity, and scientific inquiry are seeping back in. They are also included in the series because their child, Jennifer, grows to possess psychic abilities, linking her to all other children and showing the eventual fate of Earth.

It’s Milo who takes the final spotlight however. As a man who grew up wanting to be a scientist, he is distraught to find that scientific inquiry on Earth is dying, and he’d like to know why. Milo believes there is a time distortion that occurs when the Overlords travel from their world to Earth, so he hides aboard their ship, thinking it will be a forty days journey between worlds.

Milo is awakened on the planet of the Overlords, and it is there that their true purpose is revealed to him before he is taken back home. He was wrong. As Milo stumbles through the wreckage of the Earth, eighty years after he left, we are finally back where we began.

As the Earth crumbles around him, Milo asks Karellen to save something, anything of Earth culture, so that it may survive them. Karellen obliges, and as the Earth vanishes from the universe, music remains.

Music floats in space as a symbol of the culture and creativity that once was the human race.

Childhood’s End is by no means perfect, nor is it an exact replica of Clarke’s great novel. The inter-human relationships fall flat, to the point that I didn’t even bother to mention some of them here. But the story is as beautiful and fascinating as it was on the page, a story that I’ve only partially spoiled here—if you’d like to know it all, go watch for yourself! The love and attention payed to Clarke’s story has resulted in six hours of television that are definitely worth watching.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Trying to Be Happy – Exploring the Issue of Humanness in “Swiss Army Man”

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image source: aintitcool.com

Human bodies are weird and gross. They are scary, and we are often ashamed of them. Our bodies can make us feel alone. However, our bodies are beautiful.

Life is weird and gross. We are often afraid of it, and ashamed of being afraid. It can be lonely. But life is also beautiful.

Trapped in our bodies, and trapped in this thing called life, we don’t have to be alone.

This is the message I’ve taken away from a movie which opens with Paul Dano almost committing suicide on a deserted island before he spots a dead body on the beach, pulls the pants off Daniel Radcliff’s corpse, and uses his super powered farts to ride him like a jet-ski away from an island into the ocean while singing joyously. I cried a little bit.

Yeah. You heard me. Super farts made me cry.

For the majority of Swiss Army Man, there are only two characters: Hank (Paul Dano) and the dead body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). For the first half hour of the movie, Hank carries the corpse that saved his life with him through the woods while he searches for civilization, with a dying phone.

Why does Hank carry the body with him? Perhaps it’s an act of compassion from someone lonely, perhaps anything with a face will do for company, perhaps it’s a sense of duty to the body of a human being that once saved his life.

On his journey through the wilderness, Hank slowly discovers that Manny’s body has special powers that might help him survive. He can fire projectiles from Manny’s mouth, he can light his farts on fire like a rocket. When Hank gets dehydrated, Manny vomits up clean drinking water. This is already an insane premise for a movie. But wait, there’s more.

“I need you to help me get home,” Hank says to the dead body, because he hasn’t got anyone else to talk to. “Okay buddy?”

Okay buddy,” answers Manny, and this is when everything begins to slide into place.

Swiss Army Man flits around several different genres of cinema, many of which I normally don’t enjoy, but loved here.

I don’t really enjoy survival movies, but I thought this one was magical.

I don’t like most musicals. I feel the same way about acapella as Indiana Jones does about snakes, but here I found both not only fitting, but moving. I have already downloaded the soundtrack.

I only sometimes enjoy coming of age movies, and while I would understand the label, I don’t think it fits here. This is a story about coming to life, and coming back to life.

I do love buddy/friendship movies, which this absolutely was, exploring the vulnerability of male friendships without the tiring bravado that so many Hollywood movies bring as a filter. This is instead a story about two young men exploring their feelings about themselves and each other, as well as their bodies and the world beyond them.

I would also say that parts of this movie are a romance. At one point, Manny and Hank seem to be falling for one another (represented in the music like everything else, with the line “are we falling in love?” sticking out among the lyrics). And yes, maybe what could be considered the third of a four act movie does end in a kiss (but not for the reasons you’d think), but I would argue that the movie quickly transcends that.

Manny and Hank become a kind of platonic ideal of friendship, with all the honesty and awkward grossness of being human. This is fitting, since the audience must occasionally wonder if Manny is even real, or if Hank just went mad after so much time alone.

All of this is backed by a surprisingly beautiful soundtrack, mostly featuring the voices of the two actors themselves. It is only once the two characters finally stumble back into the real world do we finally remember how alien the world that the two have been hiding away in was, free from the shame and limits of the society we have created.

Swiss Army Man isn’t for everyone: it will make some uncomfortable as it touches on the grossness of our bodies and the strangeness of what it feels like to connect with another human being. I will say that in a world where movies feel constantly over-saturated with reboots and sequels and generic nothingness, Swiss Army Man stands out as something I’ve never seen before.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

4 Heroes. 4 Movies. 4 Mistakes. 4 Puns.

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image source: d.gr-assets.com

There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.

Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.

I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.

The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.

Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.

1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.

In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.

Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.

A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.

Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)

See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.

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image source:vignette2.wikia.net/marveldatabase/images

Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.

In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.

None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.

The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.

In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.

If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?

2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds! 

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image source: cdn1.sciencefiction.com

Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer? 

I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.

This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?

Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.

The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.

And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.

So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.

I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.

3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire

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image source: s-media-cache-ako.pinimg.com

Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.

Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.

That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).

So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!

The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.

In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.

So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.

We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.

We can handle it.

4: Family                                                                     

Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.

The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.

Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.

Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.

Give us the Fantastic 4 movie we deserve!

– Contributed by Ben Ghan

Not My Superman

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Image source: http://hypable.com

The twenty-first century is home to a world that is perhaps a little darker and more complicated than the century that came before it, and our heroes should reflect that.

Or at least, that is the message that some people like to spew to justify a darker, more violent and morally ambiguous Superman. Some portion of our world has become convinced that the Superman who appeared on screen in 1978 just isn’t enough, and that The Man of Tomorrow should be just as grim and uncertain as we all feel the world has become. A simple, righteously smiling Man of Steel just isn’t compelling anymore.

Well, I’m sorry, but today I’m here to disagree. We don’t need a forbidding, morally ambiguous Superman wreaking havoc, nor do we need a Superman who is aware of his immense power.

I think I’m going to focus my argument by citing what I consider to be the best collection of Superman stories in the last twenty years.

From 2005 to 2008, a special out-of-continuity series was commissioned by DC. It was written by the great Grant Morrison (JLA, Batman Incorporated, New X-Men) and drawn by the exquisite Frank Quitely (New X-Men, Batman and Robin, The Authority). This series was called All Star Superman. It was meant to be a Superman tale without the constraints of continuity, and one that would “strip down the Man of Steel to his timeless, essential elements.”

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Image source: http://comixology.com

Apparently the original inspiration for the series came from when Morrison was at a ComiCon and saw someone dressed as Superman who wasn’t posed impressively or flexing. He wasn’t menacing or snarling like the cinematic Superman of the last few years.

In this interview with Newsarama, Morrison describes how “He was perched with one knee drawn up, chin resting on his arms. He looked totally relaxed… and I suddenly realized this was how Superman would sit. He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”

That is what Quitely’s first cover of the series shows: a Superman sitting in the clouds, smiling serenely. It is a Superman at peace with the world. Compare this image of a breathtakingly colourful and unthreatening hero with the tiniest of smiles playing about his lips, to the character’s most recent movie posters: grim and colorless, snarling and aggressive like someone is shouting “Henry, anthropomorphize threatening masculinity!” from behind the camera.

It shows a basic insecurity about the character being portrayed.

This kind of gentle, almost alien kindness is what makes Superman so fascinating all throughout Morrison and Quitely’s book. We have plenty of dark, brooding protagonists, and sure they are interesting, but let’s be honest—they are also a dime-a-dozen. In a world that Superman has to share with Batman (a.k.a. the king of brooding), does making Superman’s disposition as dark and conflicted really do anything to make his character stand out? I think a much better way of showing just how different Superman is from Batman, and indeed from any other hero, is to really show that smiling, almost alien innocence Quitely captured on his cover.

Another problem people often have with the man in red and blue is that being invincible makes him boring in a fight. Perhaps this is why Lex Luther is so often his greatest foe. Lex is human, and Superman, being the hero that he is, can’t simply punch his way through him. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the only way to inject tension into a Superman battle is either with another Superman (Zod) or by hitting him with kryptonite, which is also incredibly boring.

I’m realizing as I type this that movie studios seem to be terrified of letting Superman battle anyone other than Lex Luther or General Zod, and I could probably spend the rest of this post just babbling about how cool Brainiac would be in a movie, but I won’t.

Zach Snyder and many other people’s solution to this problem is to make his fights bigger, to make Supes knock down cities while battling a god to the death. I understand the argument that Superman had to kill Zod at the end of Man of Steel, but I also point out that it was the writer’s decision to engineer that situation. I would instead argue that a good Superman story is one where violence and murder would never become the only choice.

In fact, I would argue that the best Superman story is one that doesn’t come to blows at all.

Yes, I can hear how shocked and indignant you are. “A superhero without a battle? Boooo!” But you know, with Superman being the most powerful person in the world, what’s the point? I think Superman is a far more compelling character when he is just simply, honestly trying to do the decent thing.

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Image source: http://comicvine.gamespot.com

Think back to the original Christopher Donner movie in 1978, which is the most enduring image of Clark Kent/Superman, and you’ll realize that there is actually very little violence in that movie. It is this huge blockbuster film that has stood the test of time, and it’s all about Superman saving people. He barely throws a punch the whole time. He catches a helicopter, derails a nuke, time travels, and hilariously kicks a football out of the stratosphere, but there is barely any violence. That’s because the character sitting in the clouds in All-Star Superman with that easy smile on his lips doesn’t need to be violent.

Speaking of the comic from which I seem to be pulling my whole argument, I think it’s important to share the most important page from within its story.

A teenage girl, with tears on her face, is standing on the edge of a high roof. She’s working up the courage to jump.

Then, behind her, the panel is filled with that familiar mix of blue, red, and yellow. “Your doctor really did get held up again, Regan” he says, and you can see the surprise on the girl’s face to suddenly not be alone. “It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”

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Image source: http://comixology.com

And he hugs her.

That, I think, is the Superman that we need right now, more than ever. We don’t need an angry, grim goliath of strength knocking over cities or being forced to kill the villain. We don’t need a boy scout trying to out-grimace Batman.

We have other heroes to be our violent protectors, to be grim and complicated and scary.

But that’s not my Superman. That’s not the character dreamed up by two Jewish-American immigrants who were just wishing for a saviour in the form of a decent person. Superman doesn’t need to evolve to adapt to darker times. He was born out of the imagination of two young men terrified of the rise of the Nazi regime. What is darker than that?

Superman doesn’t work as a dark, complicated character, because that isn’t the point of him.

My Superman is the one sitting up in the clouds with a smile. My Superman is Christopher Reeves telling Lois Lane she shouldn’t smoke.

My Superman is the one who stops a teenage suicide, and holds us all tight. When Superman says “Trust me,” that girl on the rooftop believes him. Because who should we trust more than Superman?

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Daredevil Season 2: Here Comes the Man Without Fear

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Image source: http://www.superherohype.com

There’s a moment in the third episode of this season where, faced with fighting his way down a whole building of armed thugs, Matt Murdock gives a quick grin from under his mask, and then with a sudden violent and terrible fury he roars, smashing out the lights overhead. At this point, I almost unconsciously pointed at my screen, and whispered, Here comes Daredevil, the man without fear.” Because this is a character with such a long history, with titans behind the page like Stan Lee, Jeph Loeb, Ann Nocenti, Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and Mark Waid, there are many different interpretations of the character.

So of course, Netflix’s Daredevil can’t be any one of those specific incarnations. But there is such love, understanding, and attention to detail being put into not only the incredible Charlie Cox’s performance but behind the camera as well that it’s just dazzling. Through all the years and runs of comics, the people on this show really know what makes Daredevil Daredevil. Not just the man, but the world he exists in and the characters around him.

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Image Source: http://www.superherohype.com

Let’s start this review with the Punisher as portrayed by Jon Bernthal. Yes, this is the Punisher we’ve been waiting for. Episodes one to four of this season play like the Daredevil vs Punisher movie, and while I don’t mean to belittle the greatness of the remaining episodes, those first four make for a spectacular bit of television. Punisher is brutal, unforgiving, and terrifying. He’s also uncomfortably understandable, occasionally sympathetic, and at one point genuinely heart-breaking. Some of the best scenes of the season aren’t the (incredibly good) fight scenes, but the dialogue between Daredevil and Punisher, two figures who, in a way, are trying to do the same thing. In Matt Murdock’s own words, Frank Castle is actually a good man, he just doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong anymore.

Even though after the first four episodes, Daredevil and Punisher only directly cross paths a few  times, that isn’t how it ends. Much of the middle of this season is taken up by the trial of the Punisher: Frank Castle vs the people of New York. This is where we get to see Elden Henson’s “Foggy Nelson” and Deborah Ann Wolf’s “Karen Page” shine.

Foggy is a real lawyer. This was a criticism of Daredevil’s freshman year, that the lawyer side didn’t get much… lawyering. This time we get some real lawyerly stuff. All throughout the trial, Foggy (who didn’t want to defend the Punisher in the first place) absolutely shines. He’s smart, sincere, and really sells it as a guy who only just now realized that he’s good at his job.

Karen, on the other hand, goes a different way this season. Honestly, it feels like the writers weren’t initially quite sure what to do with Karen this year. She and Matt strike up an almost-romance, but that kind of fizzles out. She also develops a rapport with the Punisher during his trial, because if last year taught us anything, it’s that Karen enjoys the company of dangerous men. (He dresses like the devil and punches? Nice. He straight up murders bad guys? Nicer). But eventually, it was her involvement in the old world of the New York Globe that I liked.

If there was any element of season one I initially missed, it was the grim, world-weary detective work of reporter Ben Urich. But slowly, Karen slips into his shoes. She makes a good reporter, and she was always a better investigator then secretary. So while this role is a departure from the comics, it’s a welcome one. Her interactions with Ellison, Ben’s old editor, bring a smile to my face.

The awesome Rosario Dawson also returns as Claire the nurse, as does Matt’s priest, Father Lantom (portrayed by Peter McRobbie), but both in a far more minor capacity. They are Matt’s voices of reason, and in a season of an increasingly unreasonable hero, it makes sense that their voices take a back seat.

But, when talking about this second half of the season, you might be wondering, “Where did Matt go?” Enter Elektra Natchios. Much of her background from the comics has been changed, but the important notes stay the same. She was Matt’s old college flame, she very much enjoys violence, and she’s got some secrets in the dark.

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Image source: http://www.superherohype.com

Elodie Yung’sElektra” brings a sense of escalating violence, of spinning out of control, and of the giddy embracing of a more fantastical life. She does it very well, and manages to bring more to the role, to create a far fuller and more interesting character than any version of Catwoman who supposedly tempted Batman on screen. She is continually there, like a younger echo of Daredevil’s old mentor Stick, reminding him his life in the mask is so much easier than his life in the dark-red glasses.

Unlike characters like Spider-Man, who constantly throw their costumes in the trash, Matt Murdock likes being Daredevil. That becomes a part of the conflict later in the season, as it becomes easier and easier to just put on the mask and beat a bad guy then it is to put on a tie and try to survive the world as Matt Murdock. This is why, unfortunately, we see very little of Matt Murdock in the Punisher’s trial, although when we do see him he is something to watch.

In an attempt to avoid spoilers, I’m going to avoid talking about the last few episodes of the season. However, I think it’s fairly okay to say that yes, The Hand (cult of evil ninjas) are the bad guys this season. They never quite match the threat or emotional investment of Wilson Fisk or Frank Castle, nor is their evil plan ever fully, properly explained, but I think we’re going to be seeing them again.

In a way, it feels like the writing room of Daredevil was as divided as the characters themselves, with half wanting to do the Punisher, and the other half wanting Elektra and The Hand. So we got both. I won’t complain, really. I do think that the two halves of the season could have coalesced a little more tightly. But I’m a guy who likes all the big names in one room. I can’t always get what I want.

While the action in Daredevil has always been something else, it’s easy to admit the dialogue and pacing in its second season are a big improvement. A problem near the end of season one was the pacing. It became very slow, almost stretching to the point where I have trouble remembering certain episodes. But this time around, the pace continues to pick up, getting faster and faster. The characters can talk about their different ideas of justice, and heroes, and their relationship to the city, without it ever becoming bulky or heavy-handed.

New York City is as much a character as Matt himself. He really does love his city. Daredevil manages to capture a bit of the superhero mythos that many of its big screen counterparts have lost. It’s that strange, possessive idea that the city belongs to its heroes as much as the heroes belong to their city.

“My city.” Matt says this many times throughout the series. Not “in my city”, “our city”, or “this city”. “My city”. It’s a sentiment echoed by Karen, and Foggy, and even the villains.

This is the way Daredevil feels about Hell’s Kitchen. It is a deep, emotional attachment to the roots of his city, making his city almost something mythic to be protected and understood. This, more than anything else, is who Daredevil is.

This is a show that understands its characters with incredible depth and nuance. This is Daredevil, and the Punisher. That is the Hell’s Kitchen of the Daredevil comics. Honestly, I think I can just say: job well done. When is season three?

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

I Aim to Misbehave – The Confusing Gender Politics of Firefly

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Image Source: vodzilla.co

Warning: Spoilers ahead, potentially offensive language, and mention of sexual violence.

Let me be upfront about this: I think the space western Firefly might be the greatest television show to ever be axed before its time, and its sequel Serenity is a damn fine movie. Yes, I’m willing to die for these beliefs, though that ain’t exactly Plan A.

However, as much as I love Firefly, I’m often left with a not-so-shiny and unsettling disquiet in regards to the roles of women in the ‘verse and the roles available to women in Firefly.

When a bounty hunter sneaks onto the ship, he beats Mal senseless, and threatens to shoot Simon. But what does he do when he encounters Kaylee? He ties her up, and says that if she screams for help or alerts the others, he will rape her.

The threat of rape is pervasive in this show, and often comes up in relation to the Reavers, insane cannibal pirates who roam the edges of known space. As if it’s not enough of a threat that the Reavers will kill and eat those that they capture, it’s stated repeatedly that they also rape their victims. There was a disturbing proposed episode that wasn’t made, in which Inara is captured by Reavers, but I’m going to refrain from critiquing what we know of episodes that never got made. Instead, I’m sticking to what we have.

Interestingly, the criticism I’m about to make is (mostly) unapparent by just looking at the crew of Serenity itself. Zoey is the second-in-command, a gun-toting veteran and decision-making badass, who isn’t emotionally removed or cold, and her marriage with pilot, dinosaur play expert, and “leaf,” Wash, is a playful dynamic of equals. Zoe is an African American woman in a position of power, who gained that position through skill, and because she is truly the best person for the job.

Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. She’s sweet and clever and capable, and she manages to have the ‘verse’s most adorable crush on the fugitive Dr. Simon Tam without it diminishing her character at all. Kaylee is great. If I had to be any character on the show, I’d be Kaylee.

I do sometimes have a problem with the treatment of River Tam. She plays into the damaged little doll trope—more of an object to be looked after than a character. She is literally disguised as an object in cargo in the show’s pilot episode, where Simon describes her as “more than gifted, she was a gift.”

However, even in her case, River is slowly developed as her mental state improves and as it becomes clear that she is actually displaying psychic powers. Still, River never gets to be quite as fully fleshed a person as she should be, and she is far more often a catalyst for the plot than a character.

Now we get to Inara, and I’m not going to make the criticism you think I am. In truth, her role as a Companion feels more akin to a paid spiritual advisor than a sex-worker. Inara is strong and respected, she picks her clients, and her occupation is honorable as opposed to degrading—in fact, more so than anyone else on the ship. But apart from her character, Inara is the motivation for the lead-in to my criticism.

Firefly lasted only fourteen glorious episodes, and in every single gorram one, somebody gets called a whore. When Mal calls Inara a whore, or some random guest character calls any given female character a whore, it is always playful, but never apologetic.

This might be easier to swallow if it was a conflict set between only Mal and Inara, but it’s not. All the female characters the crew meet tend to be well-rounded, fantastically three-dimensional characters, more so than in almost any other show I’ve seen. However, nearly all of them also happen to be prostitutes.

Please don’t misunderstand my criticism. These are all characters acting with their own agency and by their own choice. They have often found their way to good status, and none have pimps or are controlled by a male figure. But that so many of these characters are prostitutes stands out.

In the episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal accidently gets married to a girl named Saffron. The episode spends its first half promoting the notion that a woman isn’t something to be owned or bartered or possessed by men. It’s actually a fairly on-the-nose feminist message. But there is something strange about its delivery, as it’s a man explaining feminism to a woman.

There is also a great scene halfway through, where Shepherd Book informs Mal, “If you take sexual advantage of that girl, you will be sent to the special level of hell, the one reserved for child molesters and folks who talk at the theatre.”

It’s a hilarious scene, especially Mal’s affronted reaction, but it also serves as a reminder to the audience that sleeping with someone under any term of false pretense is wrong. Now this shouldn’t be shocking, but please remember that we live in a world of TV where sleeping with a woman under false pretenses is often played as a source for comedy.

So later when it turns out Saffron is a former Companion like Inara, it’s a little jarring. Yes, she was trying to trick everyone and steal Serenity, but it is indicative of a larger problem.

Other than Zoey and River, every female character in Firefly gets ahead by using their “feminine wiles.”  Even in a scene of backstory, we learn Kaylee got the job as ships mechanic because she was sleeping with the original mechanic, and then fixed the ship when he couldn’t. While this doesn’t diminish or demean her, why is it that Kaylee gaining her position had to do with sex?

It’s strange when the crew goes in to defend a whorehouse on a Western planet from rabid misogynists. There’s no problem with the women themselves, the rabid misogynist men are clearly the villains, but this continued subtext that women can only forward their independence through their sexuality is problematic.

Now, the common defence of this is that Firefly is an American Western set in space. There is a great twisted Civil War metaphor, where Mal and the Browncoat independents actually represent the Confederate South. The show’s creator Joss Whedon has even admitted this to The New York Times. So the thing is, it is clear that the show’s creators could pick and choose what elements of Westerns they wanted to keep.

But the problems with gender remain. It is worth noting that all of the derogative language or negative actions against women in the show are almost always answered with enormous cosmic justice, whether the offending characters are shot, stabbed, kicked into an engine, or thrown into space. It is made clear: misogyny is not welcome.

The one real exception to this terminal punishment is Jayne. But it’s interesting that when Jayne says something piggish, everyone gets mad at him for it. He is representative of traditional masculinity, and nobody puts up with it. Actual gender on the crew of the ship is no boundary at all. Everyone is treated equally, and everyone is equally capable.

But what does all this mean? Did Firefly have a more concrete plan or message it would have developed later? If we’d been given more time, would we have started to see female guest characters with more diverse careers?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m grasping at straws or if this is a real problem. I’m not sure if this argument is heading anywhere either or if I took it far enough. And if I did, would it just devolve into vague hand gestures and a shrug? It’s confusing for me to argue this while also arguing that Firefly has one of the most dynamic casts of fully developed female characters I’ve ever seen in a TV show. It’s so confusing it’s almost dizzying, and I’m not quite sure how to reconcile these things. There really is only one certain conclusion I can draw from all this:

Jayne is a girl’s name.

I think the only solution is for me to go binge watch Firefly and then Serenity again on Netflix, and no power in the ‘verse can stop me.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan