Monday, November 18, 2013

What I Liked About 'Thor 2', and What It Says About Marvel

I'm not going to say that 'Thor 2' was the best of the Marvel movies to date. The plot is very generic fantasy in its tropes and basic structure (ancient enemy, ultimate weapon that's buried instead of destroyed, said enemy returns looking for its old weapon which is now in the hands of a single, Natalie Portman...) and while I don't think that Malekith was quite as under-baked as some of the reviewers, he was kind of a waste of Christopher Eccleston. (Seriously. You get a guy like Eccleston, you give him some good speeches. Malekith didn't make speeches, because he was fully convinced that there was no need to justify his actions. I'm okay with that--when you've decided that the universe is a mistake and needs to be erased, there's no real point in explaining that to its inhabitants. But it means that Eccleston doesn't talk much, and he's an actor who's good at giving speeches. Just think of his scenes in '28 Days Later', which are all about self-justification, and you'll agree.

But what I did love about 'Thor 2' was its sense of playfulness, its understanding that there's something just a little bit goofy about a series of films whose hero is a big doofy guy who thinks that "hit things with a hammer until they stop moving" is an actual strategy. Thor wanders through the world like this big, glorious, crazy chunk of four-color simplicity, and some of the best gags involve the ways that he interacts with mundane life. (The symbolic heart of the movie is the tiny little gesture he makes when he comes into Jane Foster's apartment and hangs Mjolnir up on the coat rack.)

This sense of fun infuses the whole movie. The big final battle is as much farce as it is drama; Thor and Malekith chase each other through dimension-spanning portals in a fight that owes as much to Looney Tunes and Benny Hill as it does to Lord of the Rings. (Oh, sorry, there's something of a spoiler there...although if it really surprises you that there's a big fight at the end between Thor and Malekith, I suspect you're not really the film's target audience. Although you'll probably be blown away with shock when Thor wins--oh, sorry, more spoilers there.)

The point is, this is a film that's not afraid to lose a little dignity to gain a lot of charm...and it vividly contrasts another problem with comics these days. (On top of all the other ones I mentioned in all my other posts.) Marvel is absolutely terrified, at least in its comics, of looking silly.

I think the root of this is that Marvel has, for a long time, been aiming its publications at kids. And kids love to laugh as much as they love to be frightened, to be excited, and to be grossed out at mushy stuff. When the Hulk talked in his big, dumb, "Hulk smash puny humans! Bird-nose shouts too much at Hulk!" patois, it was meant to seem silly and goofy, because that helped humanize the Hulk and make him less of a monster. When Daredevil fought villains like the Leap-Frog and Stilt-Man, you were not supposed to see them as necessarily a figure of utter terror.

But nowadays, Marvel comics are written by adults for adults. Or, more accurately, they're written by adults who hate having to explain to people that comics aren't just for kids anymore, for adults who hate having to explain to people that comics aren't just for kids anymore. They have a pathological fear and loathing of anything that might smack as "childlike", because they're afraid that some non-comics fan will spot that one panel as their first exposure to comics since they were five, and they'll look derisively at the fan and say, "You actually read this stuff?" Or worse, "You actually write this stuff?"

So humor has been banished. Everything is, if not grim and brutal, at the very least to be taken absolutely SERIOUSLY. Everyone is serious about everything they do, and every villain is a serious threat to humanity that must be fought by serious heroes being seriously serious. The only humor still allowed is to make fun of how silly things used to be; everyone can mock the way that the Hulk used to talk, but nobody seems to understand that it was a joke. Even when we're not getting on-panel disembowelings and villains raping women to show how evil they are and the other trappings of arrested adolescence, the pathological avoidance of anything that might be considered "fun" is almost total. (Maybe this is why Squirrel Girl and Deadpool are such fan favorites. They actually get to be...gasp...silly.)

So again, I find myself gravitating to the movies, where Thor has to take the London Underground to get back to his battle for the sake of the universe, and Jane Foster's best friend calls his hammer "Mew-Mew". Because it is silly, it remembers that the whole idea of superheroes are wonderfully and gloriously silly, and it understands that it's not something to apologize for. It's something to embrace. Because, in the immortal words of Terrance Dicks, "What's the point of growing up if you can't be childish sometimes?"


Tony Laplume said...

The exception that proves this rule is Brian Michael Bendis. Marvel doesn't have anyone else who writes like him. The other guys are exactly as you describe. But Bendis presaged the Avengers films era. And he's their top writer.

Dougie said...

Beautifully put. Even the more overtly humorous or absurd comics- Aaron's WolvieX, for example- have a dark, disquieting heart. Everything is bleak and joyless- which is pretty much the vision of the tattooed fanboy bellowing his manpain: "Take my gloom seriously, Mom!"

Anonymous said...

I agree about the lack of silliness. It's why Penguin has to be a crime boss and Riddler a detective, because all Bat-villains have to be psycho. And they're not psycho, so there you are.
But I don't believe for a minute that Stan Lee wrote Daredevil's rogue's gallery with an eye to kids. Daredevil just has a mediocre rogue's gallery. -Fraser

Unknown said...

If you were talking about DC, I'd agree with you. But Marvel? Right now? Are you kidding?

Hawkeye's main villains are a bunch of guys in tracksuits who say "bro" a lot. The last issue was over-the-top comedy with Kate trying to be a detective and looking ridiculous.

Superior Spider-Man, on the surface one of the "darkest" and most disturbing comics Marvel is making, is actually a showcase for old-school ridiculousness. The latest issue had its hero Doc Ock giving a corporate speech which included the passage:

"A revolution in start-ups! An overthrow of the technology sector! Mark my words, and mark them well... together we will rule the world of science! And in celebration of our first day, there is cake in the cafeteria!"

If you think Dan Slott doesn't intend for his supervillain to be goofy, you're not reading the book.

Then there's Superior Foes of Spider-Man, where a bunch of silly supervillains sit around and argue with each other, then break into a pet store and steal a puppy.

Young Avengers is about a bunch of teenagers fighting someone named "Mother", and then going to bars late. Yes, that's actually what it's about. And it's constantly doing fun and inventive things with the language of comics, just for the gee-whiz of it all.

Wolverine and the X-Men is the craziest X-Men series there's ever been, which never ever ever takes itself too seriously. I pulled out the latest issue, and on the second page there's a little alien Brood with a hideous face, sharp teeth but also a suit, tie and glasses talking to two new students.

The newbies: "There was a flying aircraft carrier outside! I think this whole place is about to be under attack!"
Broo: "That's highly probable. But aroud here we try not to let a little thing like that ruin our whole day. Shall I show you where we hold the math classes? That's my favorite part of the tour."

And that's just a random piece of dialogue. The whole comic has been like that for almost 40 issues now.

There's FF, which has Mike Allred drawing the team of Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa and some random pop singer that Johnny Storm was dating doing zany things. Lately the series has featured time-travelling Julius Caesar, the Watcher on a date and the son of the Impossible Man.

So basically, I don't know what you're talking about. Are there Marvel Comics which try very hard to be seen as serious? Sure. You'll get no one arguing that Jonathan Hickman's Avengers is light. But for every one of those, there's a Mark Waid Daredevil.

Tony Laplume said...

Mory, you're providing us with a bunch of exceptions that prove the rule. The whole idea of Superior Spider-Man is that it's not at all what a typical Spider-Man comic is about. Peter Parker himself was always a wisecracker, but his stories were equally always uniformly grim, ironically until Slott's era where he started getting everything (except that pesky marriage to MJ back) that he always wanted. When you reference the purposely indy-flavored Hawkeye or the purposefully nostalgic Waid Daredevil (anything but another rehash of the Frank Miller saga, it seems) or (an attempt to make a young-people-TV-show comic book) or Wolverine and the X-Men (which is clearly not the main X-Men title), you're just not talking about the mainstream Marvel at all. Slott can only get away with the Doc Ock Spider-Man these days because of the way you're describing it now. He realized that if he was going to keep pressing that storyline, he had to make it fun. And as with a lot of things about the arc, that's a kind of genius approach.

But still, you're not making a strong argument against this central thesis.

Unknown said...

Seven comics aren't enough to make a point with? Wow. What, Marvel has a problem unless every single comic across the board decides to not take itself too seriously?

The fact is, Marvel is giving a heck of a lot of leeway to its trusted writers to write in whatever style they like. And the result is a lot of different styles.

Some of Marvel's writers like to have a lot of levity. And some, like Hickman and Remender, who I would argue are writing the flagship Avengers and X-Men comics in The Avengers and Uncanny Avengers, respectively, (Seriously, Uncanny Avengers. I will happily defend this statement at length if prompted.) do extremely goofy new things like having the Earth become sentient by growing a giant brain out of a beach, or Honest John the Living Propaganda, but do it with a straight face. It's a style, and when they're replaced by other writers we'll have something else. It's not a linewide "problem", even if you don't like it.

(Not to mention, if the goal is to be seen as "for adults", I don't think Captain America's excursion into Dimension Z or the UN-backed, AIM-run country where all the ministers are supervillains are trying too hard.)

If one style isn't to your taste, there are other writers with different styles. There's Iron Man, trying to sleep with an alien lady who kicks him out when she sees his mustache. There's Uncanny X-Men, which just had an issue about Emma Frost training a kid whose power is looking like other people by getting him to pick up people in bars. There's Avengers Assemble, where a few months ago there was a plotline with Tony and Bruce racing each other to deal with a threat first with their preferred kind of science. There's Thunderbolts, which I don't like but which from what I gather isn't played with a straight face. There's Fearless Defenders, where the superheroines' boyfriends sit in a bar and bitch about them. There's Deadpool, where, Deadpool.

So what's the "mainstream" Marvel, exactly? Just Infinity?

Tony Laplume said...

Remender was patently recruited because he was so unusual. He's basically the Marvel Zombies of Marvel writers, another exception that proves the rule. It doesn't matter how many exceptions there are. If more of Marvel's writers are following the Bendis lead, that still doesn't mean that Marvel as a whole doesn't represent what it always did, which is take itself incredibly seriously. The movies are a separate reality in the same way. They're entirely self-referential. It helps, sometimes to be a comic book nerd while watching them, to understand for instance the whole significance of the Thanos cameo at the end of Avengers, but the majority of the people who watch these movies will never read a comic book in their life. To them, these movies are as close to comics as you can get.

And they aren't really. We know that. The mainstream audience doesn't. In Marvel comics, as a rule, continuity is king just as continuity is the whole reason the Avengers movies are so popular, but using a continuity that is steeped in decades of lore. The whole reason Slot can get away with Superior Spider-Man at all is because of the state Doc Ock was in when he came aboard. He was a shell of himself. His story had more or less come to an end. But like any good comic book character, he rallies. He sticks around. His story stubbornly refuses to end.

And so he becomes Spider-Man. Y'know, for some reason. It makes for a good comic, a good story, precisely because Slott is acknowledging how these stories always go. They're built to be temporary. When the mainstream press grabs hold of a major story like this, or in most other cases the "death" of an icon, whether it be Robin or Superman or Captain America or even the Human Torch, the public at large takes it at face value. Comic book fans know better. Of course we do. We know how Superior Spider-Man ends. And Slott knows we know that he knows, too.

So he's having fun with expectations. Those expectations exist because even Dan Slott acknowledges despite this apparent contradiction that Marvel comics are generally all of a kind. They are generally not like what he's doing. Even if you pick apart every title in their current catalog, the rule is the rule is the rule. If it's something else, it's not the rule.

Marvel takes itself extremely seriously. That's how the whole Marvel phenomenon came about. That's why we have Stan Lee instead of Jack Kirby representing how it all began. Stan Lee self-mythologizes with the best of them. Marvel believes whole-heartedly in its own mythology. That's why all the movies are so keen to explain what archetypes their characters follow. But again, the approach is different. Especially in the Avengers cycle. These movies are produced in conjunction with Disney for a reason.

Disney is never going to let a Christopher Nolan do a Dark Knight. No "Demon in a Bottle" here.

Need I go on? O please, say I can!

Unknown said...

Sure, let's continue - I'm having fun.

First off, you really have to stop using the phrase "exception that proves the rule". I've just cited something like half of Marvel's entire output, as not following the rule we're talking about. It's not an "exception to the rule" if there's more of the exception than there is of the rule you're trying to show! At this moment in time, lightness, fun, and silly juxtapositions with ordinary life are no longer the exception - they're the rule.

No one thought it was out of the ordinary when Secret Avengers popped up with tongue-in-cheek dialogue like this:

"Hold on, I remember you. The Leviathan thing. Marcus, right? Marcus--"

"Nick Fury. His name is Nick Fury now."

"Really? Because I seem to remember Nick Fury being-- hey, wait, is this like the Bond thing where the new guy gets the same name as the old guy? 'Cause it never made sense to me why the new guy would visit the grave of the old guy's wife--"

And during a chase scene later, Nick Fury Jr. says: "Is it possible the one Bond was having an affair with the other Bond's wife or something?"

"You know, I'd have to watch it again."

That the book had so much humor in it wasn't considered noteworthy, because Marvel is not characterized these days by overwhelming self-serious grimness like it arguably was a few years ago.

Again, if you go looking for a lack of self-awareness in Marvel comics, you'll find it, because their line-up is very diverse right now. But the one or two series that could use some lightening-up do not constitute a linewide problem.

Now, as for Stan Lee, what you're saying is completely backwards. From Amazing Spider-Man #39, page 3, panel 2:

Narration: "We don't want you to think that the average city is crawling with costumed high-flyers, but in another section of the teeming metropolis we find--"
Spider-Man: "Just my luck-- I feel as though I'm catching a real heavy head cold! Of course it could be just an allergy!"

That's right, the guy who you say was all about the archetypes is making fun of the fact that it seems like there are superheroes everywhere (a fundamental necessity in a superhero universe), then his mighty archetype catches the common cold. I think you need to go back and read some Stan Lee-scripted comics; you might be confusing him with someone else.

Tony Laplume said...

It may very well be that more of Marvel's writers are trying to copy the Bendis formula, or ape what the movies have been doing. That's just bad business, because the people you're trying to please won't care one iota. And that just makes the company's defining element into a joke rather than making the whole thing more lighthearted.

Exception to the rule!

The point of there being a rule at all is because Marvel either plays it incredibly straight or they do something like a whole series of Marvel Zombies comics. It's all or nothing. No real tonal shift here. It's not even Howard the Duck (a character that was probably forever ruined by an unrepresentative movie).

Bottom line is, you can use every single title the company currently offers to contradict the grim thesis, but you should know all well as I do that this is just a fad. And you haven't even mentioned Deadpool! That's the one consistent character that should prove your point of the rule not existing. But for years that character struggled to be anything but a cult character. The fact that he's actively being published now with probably about as much support if not more than he's ever known should tell you something.

As far as Stan goes, I'm not sure what you're trying to prove. His Spider-Man, even his X-Men, was all about rebelling against the archetype, thereby creating a whole new rigid archetype of the perennially hard-luck hero (when no other heroes have remotely this kind of bad luck, and they all do exactly the same thing the same way, except with more wisecracks from the Wallcrawler).

Stan is was and always will be a shameless self-promoter, because it's far easier than admitting how much help he got, or that his big belief in the relatability of his superheroes is all sound and fury, symbolizing nothing. We're currently in the thick of the Marvel age of movie popularity because...four decades later, mass audiences finally got around to seeing that. They'll get over it. This Avengers phenomenon is happening because of the event culture, not because anyone particularly cares for any of these alternately grim, alternately can't-take-anything-seriously characters.

Which is not to say that these characters are bad, but that it certainly doesn't help when someone like you blindly buys into the whole thing without realizing what's really going on. But, that's the true Marvel Method, and it has been all along.

(I'm officially getting tired of talking about this, which is why my language is shifting a little. Perhaps we're at the agree-to-disagree point...)

John Seavey said...

@Mory: Thanks for your comments! I'm not sure I see as many of the writers you and Tony mention as "exceptions", because so much of their humor tends to be self-referential jibes at the expense of older eras of comics. 'Hawkeye', to choose an example, isn't po-faced or dark...but most of its comedy does seem to come from poking fun at the idea of trick arrows or a glorified carny becoming an Avenger. It uses humor to lampshade the inherent absurdity of its premise, instead of embracing said absurdity. I liked comics more back when they embraced the crazy...and I do like the occasional creator, like Dan Slott, who seems to do exactly that.