Another Weird Trigger for Insight

I was just the right age for the first Spider-Man film. I was twelve, maybe eleven, when Spider-Man was released at the end of my first day at a Star Wars convention. At the theater, my dad and my friend and I saw a lot of the same faces from the convention. The same sci-fi space opera nerds were also comic book geeks, which should be sort of obvious. Back in 2002 there was a really palpable enthusiasm for a superhero movie’s release. I saw a Stormtrooper take off his helmet and put on a Spidey mask. People cheered at the opening credits. I got goosebumps, partly because of their enthusiasm and partly because, even if I wasn’t alive for the forty years between Spider-Man’s introduction and his theatrical debut, I had gone back and loved him in my little span of time. Hollywood was filming the “unfilmable,” which is the same thing Hollywood said about the Lord of the Rings. Nothing’s unfilmable. Executives just try to suppress their imagination for as long as possible.

I went to a comic book club at the Fort Wayne public library when I was ten. The older kids were discussing the ins-and-outs (relatively, the utter minutia) of heroes. What they thought about ___ Crisis, or whatever. I asked if they knew anything about Pokemon and they laughed at me. That’s a totally fair response, especially in that environment. I’d do it now.

So my parents got me Marvel encyclopedias for one of my childhood birthdays. Hulk, Spidey, and the X-Men. I still have them. I remember poring over them, memorizing every character and their respective powers. I read every comic book I could get my hands on, but there were a lot of back-issues too expensive for my little allowance. Also, the 90s were a dark time and tried to be “gritty” and “adult” in ways that would offend my parents if they looked over my shoulder. So I read a lot about Cable without often having Cable issues in front of me. Did you know that one time Magneto ripped the adamantium out of Wolverine? Woah! The X-Force kills people! This picture of Mojo and his Mojoverse actually sort of scares the hell out of me!

The second X-Men film came out on a middle school band trip to St. Louis. It’s the best (was the best?) in that film series and definitely better than the first. I remember taking glances at my friends after the film’s best scenes, locking eyes and wordlessly asking them, “Are you seeing this? Can you believe they were paid millions of dollars to film this? This is so good – is this what we missed out on for not being alive in the 60s?” I saw X2 in the theater at least three more times.

What happened later in the decade is that the money got to be too much and the egos got to be too big. Executives wanted too many villains in Spider-Man 3 and dudebros got to direct X-Men movies and you tried to justify it, you tried to make it seem okay, you wanted that enthusiasm but it wasn’t really there. “Well, we have Venom now. That’s cool. Angel was in his movie for a total of four minutes and still got on the poster hanging outside. Better than nothing, right?” The movies started to suck and the directors and actors knew they sucked and everyone moved on. I remember remaining optimistic that 4 will turn it around! Spider-Man 4 will be great, X-Men 4….uh, clearly I hadn’t watched Superman 4: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

It’s like I became resentful at every reboot announcement. Now Peter Parker isn’t a dorky anxious kid you can relate to, he’s handsome and hilarious to everyone and has no trouble – but he watched Star Wars once! The X-Men are attractive young hairless nobodies plucked from the Disney Channel, because we need people on the covers of teen magazines! Those movies aren’t bad. They’re okay. I just don’t care. I’m not overwhelmed and no one is cheering the opening credits. There are my favorite characters, doing what they do, as I have seen them do for the past 15 years, but this time it’s purely for money. Older kids don’t high-five each other walking out of the theater of The Amazing Spider-Man, they just walk back to their cars in silence, remembering almost nothing, and wait a month for the next shot. No one falls asleep in the backseat on the way home with a smile on their face.

The movie I saw tonight, X-Men: Days of Future Past, ends up justifying my theater experiences since 2000. It takes what I saw as the hairless tween nothings and weaves them into the “classic” (lol) series that got me so excited. It doesn’t leave me in the dust. It recognizes its own past, gives meaning to experience. Hell, to make sense of a lot of it you have to see the bad movies. To get the most you have to suffer through the past like I did. That’s all I’ve ever asked for: consequence. What I’m watching, reading, listening to should matter, it should have ramifications for the rest of the story. (As a complete aside, me saying “listening to” spawned a realization: I love mewithoutYou because their albums and songs establish continuity. Demon Hunter mostly sucks because they made one okay album they’ve been repeating for the past twelve years.) Sure, I’m not saying X-Men represents the highest caliber of art. It reestablishes my favorite parts of the series with time travel and retcons. Shoot a bit higher than X-Men, and for God’s sake don’t let Brett Ratner near a dead fish much less an important franchise, but try to give me the same feeling I had tonight: a smile on my face for the film I’m watching and for what I watched as a kid. I’m out of the 18-24 age bracket and am getting closer and closer to leaving 18-35, and Hollywood could ditch me for being old and constantly reboot in order to let new middle school kids standing outside the Smithfield Cinemas see the origin, new and cleansed and ready for accepting Teen Choice Awards. But with this one movie, one little two hours of my life that I’m never really going to expect, I knew my own childhood wasn’t totally whitewashed.

I’m not saying DoFP is this amazing, important experience to everyone. It’s a really good comic book movie, and if you don’t have my own history then that’s really it. It speaks to me – and that’s sort of wrong, because no one was thinking of me when they made it. They just did what came naturally, and I’ve been along for the ride for most of my life.

Advertisements

Molasses

In sixth grade, John Ehler and I waited over four hours for Cell to be defeated.  The promise that Cell’s story arc in Dragon Ball Z would conclude was true, though Cartoon Network gave no hint as to how long and drawn-out the process would be.  Long, drawn-out monologues were bookended by Nerf gun commercials.  My mom would eventually call us upstairs to eat some dinner, and by the time we went back into the basement, Cell was still talking into the camera.  That was anime for me, for a long time.  If it wasn’t Pokemon, it was DBZ.  I had a DBZ BIG DOGS t-shirt, though, thankfully, I never ventured into the button-up variety.  At some point, children of 2001 heard that anime was stupid and dumb and our anticipation for the daily Toonami was easily released.

Later, I would learn that DBZ was an example of the shonen anime style.  Shonen focuses on young males aged ten and up.  The ridiculous length of story arcs, along with the ridiculous abilities and ridiculous muscles on the heroes, is obviously enrapturing to a sixth grader and not a twelfth grader.  Part of growing up, I feel, is picking the bones of youth.  Understanding what was a fad and what carries sentimental value is important to the adult consumer.  I’ve picked up the manga Bleach because I want something enjoyable to read, because I’ve wished to satiate an eager fan, and because I need to pick the bones of sixth grade.  It might not be Dragon Ball Z, but the structure is similar.

Bleach starts off with light-hearted enjoyment, even while the terminology is going bonkers.  The premise, that of Ichigo Kurosaki becoming a Soul Reaper to protect his family from what basically amounts to “evil ghosts,” is entertaining and borderline incredible.  Much in the same way I’ve always assumed Dragon Ball is incredible (without ever having watched it), the beginning ten volumes of Bleach construct scenarios that continuously cause me to empathize with the principal characters.  Your basic Japanese dress-school and perverted friends appear, as do familiar stories including the flamboyant television host without a lick of skill and the passionate remembrance of an anime character’s deceased mother.  Tite Kubo, Bleach’s lone author and illustrator, has a knack for characters.  Humor shines from each one, though in a variety of ways.  The same wacky situations exhibit different responses, and even the same primary motivations for similar characters won’t stop Kubo from giving each a personality and silhouette all their own.  Not knowing the full picture, I hesitate to say that the initial setting of Bleach is its best.  Another ten volumes later, up to twenty, I do say that it leaves a fantastic first impression.  Kubo does not reinvent the wheel with this series.  It’s a joy because of it.

As soon as the cast enters the Soul Society to save Rukia Kuchiki, Kubo’s ambition explodes into a blinding ball of fire.  While Bleach already had a large cast of characters on Earth, the “Heaven” of the series more than doubles that amount.  Rather than doling out each new character as need be, they are presented all at once in a splash page.  When Momo Hinamori cries over Sosuke Aizen’s death, you, the reader, are also expected to cry, despite not having a chance to properly meet either character yet.  As the series continues and spends more and more time in this one story concerning the rescue, one does develop feelings for the assorted Captains and Assistant Captains through a remarkable intimacy.  Even the primary cast of the first ten volumes, the heroes on their way to save the day, are sometimes left entirely out of volumes, what constitutes a real-time eight or ten weeks’ worth of content.  Characters you thought would be important until the end are cast aside.  As soon as Uryu Ishida seems important he’s ignored in favor of Shunsui Kyoraku.  Then Kyoraku is ignored in favor of Kaname Tosen, and so on.  The new terminology for this realm flows like a damn rapid, repeating “bankai” and “reishi” despite never making them seem directly important to story.  The information will rush nonstop, but the actual ramifications are slow.  By volume ten, the steadily rising line of the Bleach story becomes a vertical bar.

The setting Kubo has constructed reminds me of one of my own nerdy interests.  I’ll read a Star Wars anything, no matter how poorly done it is.  At a certain point I stop looking at the specifics of a film’s plot and simply enjoy spending time in my favorite fictional realm.  I imagine fans of Bleach share the same sentiment.  This isn’t to say the plot of Bleach is poor (it’s actually quite enthralling), but the pacing takes a backseat.  If Kubo weren’t so good at drawing cool-looking people and giving them fascinating characteristics, the pace of lots of things happening with nothing really happening would be infuriating.  Instead, I can’t help but smile while reading.  Sure, this one battle takes seven chapters, or most of a lone volume, but it has characters I enjoy, being enjoyable.  He’s all-too conspicuously making this up as he goes along, which is a tactic difficult to control.  The creativity in Bleach is at a constant, though, so it overwhelms most negatives.

I have nostalgia when reading Bleach.  I remember so vividly the equal measure of whimsical enjoyment and cries for a faster story while watching Dragon Ball Z, and I feel many of the same emotions here.  Here, however, Tite Kubo has a series that I don’t think I could give up on if someone on the internet points out some flaw in Japanese cartoons and comics.  Bleach adheres to a formula.  Yet unlike Akira Toriyama, who never could make more than five compelling characters at a time, Kubo has a party of dozens.  At Volume 20, I’m not even close to finishing the series, which has continued up to Volume 56 and is ongoing.  I would be completely amazed if the series’ ending wraps any part up with a neat bow.  Instead of stomping and complaining about an entire genre’s perceived flaws, it might be best to accept them.  Yes, Bleach does what Dragon Ball Z did, but it does so in a more compelling way.  Perhaps I’ve gone soft, but I now find those pacing issues a bit charming.  I find a whimsical, often melodramatic, often serene and beautiful, manga series endearing rather than frustrating.  Who cares about pacing when you’re this entertained?

No media should be given a free pass, but Bleach does deserve to be understood for exactly what it is.  Nothing more and nothing less.

8/10/12: Batman’s Boots Edition

Since returning to Rock Hill, I’ve mostly lazed about, with the exception of occasionally dragging myself off the computer to take care of things.  Today’s lone validation of existence was heading to the dry cleaners for the very first time.  My suit pants and jackets have dust all over them from the last time I took them out and wore them (my father’s father’s funeral), or at least from when I dropped them all on the dirty floor after the ceremony.  For years, my mom would be the one taking our laundry to the dry cleaners, so I’m entirely unfamiliar.  The dingy buildings the service usually rests in had me wondering about “quality” of something I had no measure of judgment over.  The one I randomly walked into, right across from the dorms at Winthrop, seemed nice enough.  I half-expected to walk in and see an angry guy yelling about spilt coffee and throwing around racist slurs, but maybe that’s just because of movies.

Speaking of movies (did you notice the segue, did you, huh) I’ve since seen The Dark Knight Rises for the second time, with my dad.  The measure of hyperbole, both good and bad, in TDKR’s critical consensus is to be avoided.  I have to agree that The Dark Knight was a better film overall, but that doesn’t make this “horrible.”  Expectations shouldn’t get so ridiculously high that the same film can come out  missing one scene and be a tragedy.  Anyway, Bane is a character I love to death, and he’s relatable in all the ways your Hot Topic wallet chain-wearing kid wants The Joker to be.  My criticism remains, that the ending gets way too convoluted and then brushed aside way too quickly, but it at the very least tries for something more than, say, The Amazing Spider-Man.  Even a sincere thought is appreciated.

My feelings on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish Version) were also pretty positive, though with caveats.  If you’ve heard anything about the movie, it’s probably about how brutal and painful-to-watch the two (three?) rape scenes are.  When artists get all “I should be able to talk about anything with my work,” I tend to agree, but some topics are sensitive and need to be treated with respect.  The scenes in Dragon Tattoo are disturbing, and for the rest of the movie I prayed to the high heavens that it wasn’t just for shock value.  It turns out the scenes were relevant, character-building, and tone-setting.  The Swedish title is even Men Who Hate Women, so, you know, earned, I guess.  I don’t think of myself particularly squeamish in regards to depictions of violence or sex, but there is a line of acceptability, separating the needed versus the perverse.  Director Niels Arden Oplev puts one tiny finger right across that line, but you’ll probably find yourself justifying it by the end.

Aside from all that, it’s a pretty slick and engaging mystery tale.  Neat.

I perused the blogs of a couple of women I used to see, this morning.  The more I looked, the more I realized their similarities.  Part of that may be me reading into things, or it may be proof of a “type.”  They both have many a text post where they ramble on about whatever political or social issue is eating them up on the day, which isn’t exactly noteworthy if I do the same thing myself.  What I think is noteworthy is that both seem unchallenged.  More than unwavering, but unchallenged.  I know both are loners, with one who establishes quick and fruitless friendships while the other shuts out most of the sentimental world.  My theory is that they both rely on Tumblr or Facebook likes for the validation of their words, rather than proving those words right by conversation and impersonal argument.  The internet acts as a quick and dirty tool for enabling others.  It’s ridiculously easy to be a “friend” on the internet if all you have to do is click a Like button, while a friend in physical form requires more immediate communication.  Don’t let me be a crotchety old person or anything, because I am well aware of the overlap.  I simply believe we’ve all convinced ourselves that clicking a button is a sign of something deeper, when all it really is is the most casual note of observation.  Hell, I’ll get someone to like this WordPress post.  They’ve done it before, and I don’t know them, and rarely am I invested enough to suddenly call them best friends.  I imagine the physical equivalent is slowly nodding your head at someone completely across the crowded room, which would probably be seen as creepy.

Anyway, one cross-section I noticed was that of “Critical thinking is so dumb!  It challenges me, and that would make me uncomfortable!”  Every post similar to this will get at least ten Likes from some kid desperate for an Internet (Girl)Friend, and I don’t think anyone in the process realizes the harm they’re doing.

8/1/12: Biscuits & Gravy Edition

Home is home.  I went out of my way to help remove a stump from the front yard, basically to justify my lounging about in a different environment.  Tools!  Gloves to avoid splinters!  All sorts of experiences I don’t have in my little bubble.  In thirty years I will build a shed and blacken my thumb with a hammer shot and look in ecstasy at the “new experience.”  Anyway, my dad put a chain around the stump while I accelerated the van forward, which went reasonably well and didn’t tear up the entire front yard and all the power to the neighborhood.  I consider that a plus (pluses are when life avoids turning into something Chuck Jones produced.)

Before all that, I tried some of the LittleBigPlanet Karting beta before it ended yesterday.  The game is exactly what you’d expect: Mario Kart with lots of customization.  There was a time and place where you’d trip over at least twelve Mario Kart clones before reaching the counter (Crash Team Racing, Konami Krazy Racers, Bomberman Kart, even Chocobo Racing for God’s sake), but LBPK feels fresh.  Obviously, the formula isn’t fresh.  It’s Mario Kart.  But, with the exception of 2010’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, that style of game is out of favor.  I don’t want a renaissance of the genre, but a good one every couple of years is sufficient.  The LittleBigPlanet series demands a focus on customization, often in favor of the “tightness” of gameplay, but that means it can have a longer shelf life.  Not only are the racing and aesthetics fun, but so is the possibility of encountering new characters and tracks years down the line.

Playing LBPK also reminded me of how much I’m looking forward to PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, which is a direct ripoff of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series.  It’s astounding that there aren’t more direct ripoffs of SSB, considering how much they sell.  Nintendo’s games are both very original and very infrequent.  It was seven years between SSB Melee and SSB Brawl, and it may be another between Brawl and the next iteration.  In that time, why not let another crew take a chance with the same style of game?  I’m down for non-Nintendo ripoffs between the official releases.  All the buzz about what Sony is doing reminds me of Darksiders, which no one could discuss without mentioning its similarities to The Legend of Zelda.  Instead of throwing it out to the wolves, players embraced it, totally okay with an off-year LoZ.  While publishers keep chasing the copy-Call-of-Duty model, I do wish they’d start copying other things, too.  Why is it that The Great Giana Sisters is the only 2D Mario ripoff I can think of?  Try some more!

Of course I have to mention that I saw The Amazing Spider-Man last night, and of course I have to repeat many of the same points you’ve heard somewhere else.  The film simply has no reason to exist, especially as a hardline reboot.  It’s an alright flick, overall, but it lacks the overwhelming joy of “we are seriously making a spider-man movie oh man how awesome is that he finally hits the big screen this is so phenomenal.”  It’s just Spidey, doing what he do, which is putting money in Sony Pictures executives’ pockets.  Money is the reason it exists, moreso than any good or bad qualities.

First off, if you have any money to spare and haven’t seen Batman yet, Spider-Man is good!  Let’s get the positivity out of the way, to prove it exists.  I will never, ever tire of watching Spider-Man fight his rogue’s gallery in Hollywood blockbusters.  The character’s powers and abilities give variety to the action scenes, and it’s rarely predictable.  Spidey receives two important characteristics that the Sam Raimi-directed films slacked on: wit and scientific intelligence.  The Lizard is an inspiring choice for a villain, not for reasons as much as fight scene brutality.  And Emma Stone plays a pitch-perfect Gwen Stacy, once again stealing every production she’s in.

What I heard long before the film’s release was that it would be better than the Raimi films because Sony had hired “better actors”.  On the whole, this may be true, but in adaptations you must cast those who fit the roles rather than those who have accumulated more Oscar nominations.  Some may say Sally Field is a better actress than Rosemary Harris, which is fine, but Harris is the better Aunt May.  For nearly everyone besides Emma Stone, this is the case.  Andrew Garfield is the most egregious, and his portrayal (or the writing’s) of Peter Parker is almost completely off-key.  Far be it from me to stomp around complaining about “his suit is slightly different!!!” like people did on the first one, but these issues feel substantial.  It’s not a character evisceration like last year’s Green Lantern, but a miscommunication.  In The Amazing Spider-Man, Parker doesn’t wear glasses because he needs them.  He doesn’t.  He just wears them to look…cool?  Hip?  Relevant?  Like he’s in an ironic band?  He looks, acts, and talks exactly like the coolest kids in my high school would, but the character is written to be an outcast.  I guess he is an outcast, because he wears glasses.  Like all nerrrrrds.  Parker is an angsty teenager, sure, but by the end of the movie he hasn’t grown out of it.  His love for Gwen Stacy is handed back to him, apropos of nothing, even though this character is supposed to be a gigantic nerd who struggles in his daily life.  Things just happen.  When Parker actually dons the mask and becomes Spider-Man, there’s no triumphant moment of seeing him adjust or realize his moral standards.  The death of Uncle Ben isn’t a driving factor, it just sort of happens, there, and people cry and get over it by the next scene.  All this shoddy work is backed, justified, as director Marc Webb would say, by “Well, we’re closer to the comics!  He meets Gwen first!  He builds his web shooters, they’re not organic this time!”  The actual plot and characters of the film are pale in comparison to the original Raimi films.  Rather than do things like make people important or give scenes meaning or include a story arc, it relies on faith that long-time comic book fans will forgive all the flaws as long as there are a couple little things closer to the original series.  Holy crap, I almost forgot to mention that at one point, in a scene with Gwen, I almost thought to myself “Is Spider-Man going to date rape her?”  Half a joke, of course, and I know Marvel would never let that happen, but you don’t want your nerdy outcast character to come across as a douchey fratboy.  Sure, the Spider-Man of the comics has wit, but not at the expense of the emotion.  He also grows into an attractive man, but this is after he grew out of his shell.  Andrew Garfield is a witty, attractive guy, but that’s not appropriate for high-school aged Peter Parker.  Don’t just turn a webcam on and say “I LIKE FOOTBALL AND ALSO STAR WARS” and pretend that saying the name of a sci-fi series gives you Asperger’s.  The character is designed to struggle, and eventually succeed, not succeed and then succeed and then explain it away with a “yeahwell..enghhh…” and shuffling of feet.

It’s fluff, is all, and many Spider-Man comics over the years have been such.  The Raimi films were criticized for having too much emotion, but the polar opposite doesn’t make it better.  (It makes it worse, considering how important characters are to Spider-Man.)  (Unless you want to make a complete spin-off, which is fine as long as you don’t half-ass the other points.)  The Amazing Spider-Man, had it not been so successful to warrant a sequel, would be one of those comic book movies you find on Netflix in two years, remark “Oh, yeah, I never saw that one” and watch, then come away entertained, but not enthralled.  It’s a decent film that ends up right in the middle, but the past fifty years of Spider-Man material has built itself on being better than average.

Oh, yeah.  Hahahahaha, Bing!