Tuesday 28 August 2012

Secret Identities, Origin Stories and Never-ending Continuities: On Superhero Films and Some of their Problems

Having seen The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises this year (liking them all to different degrees), I have been struck by a few things that seem to continuously manifest themselves as the superhero genre has migrated from the four-coloured pages of comicbooks to the silver screen, and problematically so, I would argue.

This post will focus on three things: secret identities, origin stories and never-ending continuities. All of these (mostly) seem to become problematic in the genre's transition from one medium to another.

Let's start off with secret identities. This conceit is central to the superhero genre. It is not that there aren't exceptions (the Fantastic Four leaps to mind, for instance), but most superheroes do have them. And they have them for a reason.

While fans love debating which identity is any given character's "true" identity (e.g. is Superman really Superman sometimes pretending to be Clark Kent, or is he Clark Kent sometimes pretending to be Superman?), the idea of the dual identity is deeply rooted in another idea: that doing what heroes usually do tends to go together with making enemies of the more violent kind, who would just love to know about all the hero's relatives and friends in order to hit him/her where it hurts.

Now, recent superhero films tend to pay a faux tribute to this concept. Sure, Spider-Man is still Peter Parker when Andrew Garfield plays him, but the secretly bit is kind of whittled away. After a while, Garfield is leaping about without mask more than with it, it seemed. And before long, a bundle of other characters know fully well that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Don't get me wrong: I like Marc Webb's reboot. In some places I think it is superior to the Raimi "trilogy" (e.g. hello mechanical web-shooters!), in others less so. However, among the things I find really off-putting is this failure to grasp the importance of keeping the secret secret.

While The Avengers also fails in this – Tony Stark is publicly Iron Man since the ending of his first film; Captain America is running around without mask as much as with mask (which I'd say is fairly public); Hawkeye has done away with mask altogether (I excuse Black Widow, since she hasn't been masked in the comics since the 60s, I believe); and Thor has done away with a civilian identity altogether – with the exception of the overly maskless Cap (who had a good hood and all), the context makes it work better; consequently, I am more forgiving here.

Secondly, we have origin stories. These stories are crucial to superheroes in that they are the central to the character, a sort of frame for what he/she is and why. However, as such, they are backdrops defining the characters, but not necessarily stories that needs to be told as the main story – front and centre.

I understand that origin stories are tempting when a superhero is adapted to the big screen. After all, it is a central story and possibly the story with which a larger audience is somewhat familiar (if familiar at all). Still, I find the notion that every (yes, I am exaggerating) superhero film has to be an origin story, unless it has a number behind the title (in a manner of speaking), highly annoying. Add to this the recent trend of rebooting every franchise within three films or so (if that), and you not only have a continual stream of origin stories reaching the big screen, but a continual stream of versions of the same origin stories over and over again. Originitis is killing off potentially good stories by repeating till fade.

If you want to see a good example of rebooting, watch Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk. It is clearly a reboot, with a different version of the origin than that presented in the earlier Ang Lee film. The story of Leterrier's film, however, is not that origin story. That story is neatly presented to the viewer in the credits sequence at the opening of the film, basically doing what I mentioned above: it provides a frame for the character. The story that follows is another story, and one I really enjoyed at that.

Part of the problem with originitis is that it blocks the creative process. Not only does many if not most heroes carry with them any number of other classic stories or story arcs that could potentially be adapted into film or drawn upon, there is also a great narrative strength in the fact that these characters as a general rule are constructed to carry continuous stories in unspecified numbers. That is to say, new stories ought easily be folded in and presented, on the big screen just as easily as in a new issue of the comicbook.

Which nicely leads us to the final thing on my agenda, i.e. never-ending continuities. Superheroes are the type of characters who are mythic in nature. In revisiting Raimi's conclusion to his Spider-Man trilogy earlier this year, my friend Zaki Hasan wrote: "I've often heard superhero stories likened to modern mythology as a way, perhaps, to make the former sound more important than they are, but the big difference is that, unlike Robin Hood or King Arthur, there's no Sherwood burial or flight to Avalon for Batman or Superman or their ilk." While this would seem to contradict my preceding statement, I would rather suggest that Zaki here fails to distinguish (quite usefully, I would argue) between myth and legend. Myth carries with it the cloth of mythology, which more than anything is a vast canvas of interrelated character about whom stories upon stories upon stories are told. Compared to the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood, who more clearly have dramatic arcs, the gods of the Norse men or the Greek were religious stories of continuous example. Basically, the idea of character clearly supersedes that of plot (which is not to say that the latter is altogether insignificant).

Superhero stories belong in this category too. There is not a finite number of Spider-Man tales to be told, but a multitude of possibilities. What is important is the character, and whatever stories he can carry. Any of these stories needs to have a beginning, a middle and an ending (like all stories do), but they need not be the beginning (originitis) or even more importantly the ending of the character.

With this in mind, the current trilogyitis (going hand in hand with the originitis, it seems) only forefronts the issue. Instead of creating an interesting version and allowing others to play with the concept in the same playground – building a cinematic continuity that allows for (if not necessitates) interesting links to be made and stories to intermingle and build upon each other – it appears as if more or less every director wants to mark his/her territory so badly that they pee all over the place.

And it should not be necessary. Marvel Studios has successfully shown that cinematic continuity is not only possible, but a hugely successful concept (I willingly admit that part of me wept a little when I read an interview in which Shane Black, director of Iron Man 3, talked about his film as the concluding part of the trilogy). Whedon's Avengers not only builds upon the preceding films and serves as their culmination; it suggests further stories. Quite possibly an endless supply of stories.

The idea here is not that a (nigh) endless sequence of stories need be told, but rather that any story should suggest itself as part of such a sequence even if the sequence itself never exists.

To give an example, and return to the distinction between myths and legends, or fairy tales, I would like to quickly bring up Tim Burton's two Batman films. Now, I will confess to being a huge Burton fan, and I do like his Batman films, but there are some elements that has never sat right with me. And I pegged what the problem was fairly early on in life: Burton's genre par excellence is the fairy tale. Almost any Burton film corresponds to this literary genre. Now, the fairy tale, much like the legend, is very much plot driven. In fact, the former is probably a bit more so than the latter, since the plots of legends seem more obviously centred on central characters (e.g. King Arthur or Robin Hood), whereas the characters of fairy tale to a much greater degree are more easily reducible to types (e.g. Snow White or Cinderella). In a fairy tale, the beginning, middle and ending are the beginning, the middle and the ending: in a nutshell, the be-all of plot and story.

So where does this leave us with regards to Burton's two Batman films (after all, there are clearly two, which would seem to contradict my point)? Well, fairy tales solve their plot permanently, and quite often violently. Not that superhero stories do not use violence, but mostly death is kept out of the equation (obviously with exceptions). Or if death occurs, the reader usually craves a body (mostly withheld) in order to believe this "death" is in any way permanent. What I am getting at here is the idea of rogues' galleries, of arch enemies, of cycles of enmity and battle. Burton notably kills off both the Joker and the Penguin, removing them from that continuity after their first appearance (in this context, it is worth noting that Nolan did an even greater injustice to Two-Face in The Dark Knight, not even allowing the character a full appearance before removing him). These are two classic arch enemies in Batman's rogues' gallery and to Burton they simply appear expendable at the altar of plot and story, as if a single story is enough not only to characterise these characters or their relationship to the Batman, but also to tell all there is to tell about the characters.

I am reminded of a brilliant little Batman story I read as a teenager back in the late 80s (notably before switching to reading American comics in original). The title, which sadly escapes me in detail, was something with "circles" or "symbols", or similar. The point of it, which has stayed with me, was Batman meeting a gypsy fortune-teller, while searching for the Joker. In her reading of Batman (whether by tarot or crystal ball, I forget), she sees the cyclical nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker (something which both Frank Miller and Alan Moore respectively touch upon in The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke also). The story was not long, as I recall. I'm not sure if it would have been a full American issue even, but it really nicely pinpointed this phenomenon, which somehow strikes me as a core concept in the genre: the villain always (okay, another exaggeration, but bear with me) returns. And the hero avoids killing the villain, because killing is not what heroes do.

To wrap up, I sincerely hope the trend is turning. I hope that secret identities will become secrets to be kept yet again. I hope that we will get more than just origin stories on repeat. And I hope ever so much that we will get more middles. Middles all the way up, to borrow from an old saying about turtles.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Munsch's Paper Bag Princess: A Book Ahead of its Time

I first encountered author Robert Munsch and illustrator Michael Martchenko's wonderful children's book The Paper Bag Princess in its board book version last Christmas, when I gave it to my son after having been recommended it by friends. And it immediately blew me away, even in that abridged format (I have since read it in full too).

In a day and age when gender roles and social structures relating to them are continuously under examination and critique, and we struggle to find the balance between allowing our children to fall into the pre-ordained roles and to be different, it is refreshing to note that one of the more radical takes on this in terms of children's literature is a book first published in 1980 (i.e. 32 years ago). Granted that it is sad that the book is still needed, but social structures do not change over night. It is a slow process. But this book, now in its 69th printing, is a good starting point.

So, what is so fantastic about this little book then, you wonder? I will tell you. But before I do, I feel obliged to tell you that there will be spoilers ahead. If you want a chance to read this story in full with unspoiled eyes, stop reading this post now, find a copy of the book and return here once you have read it.

The Paper Bag Princess is the story of Elizabeth. She is "a beautiful princess" (nothing radical there), who is "to marry a prince named Ronald" (nothing radical there either). After this somewhat traditional opening, things take a turn off the regular path. A dragon appears, burning down the castle, Elizabeth's clothes and kidnapping Ronald. Having lost her prince and her clothes in this dramatic and unorthodox fashion (after all, traditionally we would of course have expected Ronald to don a knightly suit to save his fair princess' hand), Elizabeth does not sit around and mope; she dons an unburned paper bag as clothing and goes after the dragon.

Not surprisingly, she finds the dragon, but yet again, the story deviates from our traditional expectations where we would have expected Ronald to be the party leaping into action, because Elizabeth not only shows cunning and great intelligence in her dealing with the dragon (there are after all some male heroes who prefer brains to brawn too), but also a restraint from using violence. The dragon is vanquished without a single drop of blood (Elizabeth's or the dragon's) being shed, swords being drawn or any blow being struck (although, a lot of trees could be classified as collateral damage, I guess).

And so the prince is saved, and traditionally, this is where we would expect to get back on the marriage track. However, this is not a traditional story. Prince Ronald complains about Elizabeth's appearance – hello! a princess dressed in a paper bag is no princess – at which point Elizabeth, quite logically, sees him for the bum he really is. And seeing that, she makes the only sound choice at hand, i.e. she dumps him.

The closing line of the book – "They didn't get married after all." – is great, both in the context of the story and the literary tradition it simultaneously works in and against.

While I think it ought to be mandatory reading for all young girls, I certainly encourage all parents to share this gem of a book with their children. Perhaps first and foremost because it is a very good read and beautifully illustrated, but not less importantly because it forces us to look at traditional views of princes and princesses critically, and turns them upside-down. And that is plain healthy – for everyone. 

Saturday 30 June 2012

Cutting off Limbs to Gain Better Balance: On Gothenburg University's Decision to Cancel Italian

June has been a month full of weird waves at the Faculty of Arts at Gothenburg University. The Head of the Faculty and her upper management proposed to close down teaching in Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Russian and Italian, and move Chinese, Arabic and the non-fiction translator programme to other Departments and even other Faculties, in an attempt to cut down costs (which the upper regime of the University itself demands of the Faculty). It should be added that similar purges had already been performed (e.g. on Dutch and  Slavonic languages) and the sentiment that arose at the Department of Languages and Literatures  in response to this latest attack brought an old poem by German pastor Martin Niemöller to mind: 

First they came for the communists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. 

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

While no lives hangs in the immediate balance in the current situation (at least not in the sense of literal executions hanging in the air), Niemöller's poem does seem appropriate in the sense that silent acceptance always seems be a dangerous path in matters like these.

In this case, however, the codes of silence have been broken and voices have spoken out loud and been heard (and with at the very least some effect) – I will link a number of relevant articles and documents in Swedish below, for anyone interested in some of the particulars. The Faculty Board held off on axing three of the endangered languages, but Italian became a seemingly inevitable casualty. The problem remains: one language down, three seemingly still do go in this round, and the idea of moving things to "other research environments" is maintained if not yet practically executed.

Now, the Humanities have long been in dire straits on a global level, as has been discussed by many thinkers (notably including Martha Nussbaum). In that sense, there is nothing new here. What is increasingly frightening, however, is the willingness, nay even eagerness, with which the Head of the Faculty and her cohorts go about trimming off sibling disciplines. Especially when these sibling disciplines are at the front and centre of what the Humanities are all about.

The prevailing image here is one of an entity devouring itself from within, rather than fighting external hostile conditions and debating for its own survival. The Faculty appears as a wounded giant, desperately hewing and hacking off limbs to gain better balance, while standing ever less firmly positioned on the ground.

The current affairs, not yet fully settled of course, seem to suggest a Faculty Management hostile towards language education and research. And yes, let us add further indication of this: the Faculty was recently offered to host a new Language Institute – and turned it down. It now looks like said institute will be established at the Faculty of Education instead, and I hope you will forgive a dystopian mind for thinking that whatever languages eventually remain at the Faculty of Arts may well be asked to move to the institute once it is up and running.

If that bleak vision actually holds true (and believe me when I say that I hope not), I wonder how long it will take for the Faculty of Arts to crumble. Because if any of the subjects within the Humanities can justify themselves somewhat more easily with regards to the general public, I would say that it would be the languages. And the need to chip away at the Humanities themselves will hardly go away with the loss of languages.

But, if you will pardon a paraphrase of Niemöller, the Head of the Faculty may find that when they come for her and hers, there are no languages left to speak out with.

Assorted links (in Swedish):

The assembled professors at the Department of Languages and Literature on the matter.

The response from the Head of the Faculty.

The Head of the Language Faculty in Uppsala weighs in

An interesting comment by Doctor of German and journalist, Magnus Pettersson Ängsal.

The Students' Union at Gothenburg University makes the students' voices heard. 

Psychologist Gabriela Koszyk's comment is worth reading.

The Faculty Board minutes, featuring the decision to cancel Italian and give at least a brief respite to the other languages.