Do Heroes Fight Skybeams? (Accidental Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming)

Last week I shared some thoughts on the latest installment of the DCEU, Wonder Woman. I tried to stay focused on that film, but found myself floundering around with broader thoughts concerning superheroes in cinema. A friend and I were discussing Wonder Woman and he suggested that (spoiler ahead!) the scene of Diana courageously crossing No Man’s Land was the most heroic moment in a superhero movie since Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was willing to remain maskless in front of dozen of onlookers in order to save their train car from disaster.

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhRZB-nqOU

In light of our conversation, I have been pondering this question: When was the last time a key moment in a superhero film revolved around the hero saving someone in an act of heroism? I’m not asking about pieces of dialogue where characters plan to evacuate bystanders or brief clips of people being pulled from danger. I’m asking about scenes that portray the heroism of the character, scenes that display courage or sacrifice.

Frankly, I can’t think of any such scenes that have occurred in any recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Many of those films revolve around some larger conspiracy or larger-than-life foe. Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, while MCU high points, are more concerned with internal conflicts within the superhuman community. Would it be so bad to see The Vision get a cat out of a tree (which could be both endearing and hilarious!) or watch Bruce Banner serve in a local free clinic as he steps back from the life of an Avenger? Batman hasn’t stopped a mugger since Batman Begins in 2005. Say what you will about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.  Brandon Routh’s Kal-El is in the business of helping people.

Why have we as the audience traded heroism for the sky beams? It appears that studios believe we desire for higher powers like the Avengers or Justice League to confront insurmountable alien forces rather than reflect what courage, conviction, and compassion look like in the streets. The Avengers team rarely interacts with regular civilians in any substantial fashion.  Instead, foes and threats remain abstract to such an extent that they’re not even allegorical or symbolic for real world conflicts and tragedies.

I thought this post would largely be about my disappointment over this trend in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, over the weekend I saw Spiderman: Homecoming. (Surprise Minor Spoilers!) If you saw Captain America: Civil War, you know that that was Spidey’s first appearance in the MCU. This next MCU installment follows Peter Parker as he fights street crime in the snazzy Stark-spider suit given to him in Civil War. He desires desperately to be an Avenger and to take his fight beyond the streets of New York City (and mostly Queens). The film’s big baddy, played by Michael Keaton, who makes his money selling alien technology left over from the wreckage of the alien attack on NYC (in the first Avengers film). Keaton plays the Spidey villain, Vulture. I could write a post just on Vulture and his relationship with Spider-Man throughout the film It’s fascinating.

As I mentioned, Spider-Man wants to be an Avenger. He spends his after school time at his “Stark internship,” where he saves cats, helps old ladies, and thwarts bicycle thieves (sorta). At the end of each day, he leaves a voice message for Happy Hogan (so cool to see Jon Favreau again) which recaps all his activities and asking when he can speak with Tony Stark again.

Yet, by the film’s conclusion (spoilers) Peter Parker decides to remain “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” The events of the film and the parallels between Vulture and Spidey convince Parker that he is needed in the neighborhood. This is in stark contrast to whatever larger-than-life conflict the Avengers are wrapped up in. Although Spider-Man will enter cosmic-grade warfare in Avengers: Infinity War, for the moment Spider-Man chooses to be the local hero. While giving an elderly woman directions and being awarded with a churro isn’t exactly the action of blockbuster cinema, there is a groundedness to this hero that much of the MCU and DCEU lack. Spider-Man’s The Vulture and Wonder Woman‘s Ares are foes that embody familiar realities. The Vulture is a villain born out of economic hardship.  Ares incites the chaos of war.  Both economic hardship and pervasive war are the subject of daily news headlines. Whether it be the Chitauri of The Avengers, or Ultron in its sequel (not to mention whatever Lex Luthor is doing in Batman v Superman), there is little to nothing these threats that make our heart ache for justice. By the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was even aching for justice and mercy for Keaton’s Vulture.

Why do our superhero movies so regularly lack heroism, compassion, and a human connection? Wonder Woman’s exposed sprint to draw enemy fire in No Man’s Land is an act that inspires the enlisted soldiers to storm enemy lines. Tom Holland’s Spidey is a beat cop of sorts, who also performs even the most menial of favors. How do our movies define the word “hero?” Is the servant leader such a far-gone concept in our popular culture that our heroes can only be known as they fight large, structural oppression? Not only that, these structural oppressions in the MCU are a conspiracy of some hidden evil, and make light of the structural oppression that does exist.

Perhaps Tony Stark’s admonishment to Peter Parker “to stay close to the ground” reflects his own regret at not focusing his justice at the grass roots (in light of the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). While such a pivot would be fascinating and likely welcomed by film goers in the MCU, a conflict on the scale that is promised by Avengers: Infinity War brings little promise of that.

What kind of heroes do we desire? If we want to define heroes strictly in a mythological sense, god-like beings alone fit the bill. But if we want heroes that truly inspire us to live for others, then our heroes must defined by actions of selflessness and mercy. So far Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are the heroes that do just that.

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Wonder Woman: The Hero We Deserve (Minor Spoilers)

I have always been a fan of DC Comics. The pantheon of DC heroes is simply iconic. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have largely defined everything we expect in superheroes. DC is still going strong in the DC: Rebirth titles, which I wrote on here. Decades ago, these heroes set the bar. So imagine my disappointment when the DCEU, was turning into a total mess of a cinematic universe. I, for one, did not despise Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as much as many audiences and critics. There was plenty I enjoyed about both films. Yet, it became apparent that the masterminds behind the DCEU did not understand what these iconic characters were truly about. The comicbook nerd in me could explain away the elements that seemed to betray the nature of these characters. I could buy a Kal-El who recently turned superhero being neglectful of human life while fighting Zod then snapping his neck in a fit of rage. I considered this to be a great moment for Supes to make his trademark commitment to protect all life. And I was intrigued by the idea of a Batman so devastated by the murder of Robin and so jaded after years of crime fighting that he was less discriminate in his preservation of life and his pledge to not use firearms. Such a dichotomy would have made for a fascinating dynamic between a young Superman and a seasoned Batman. But instead we got this.   And director Zack Snyder was adamant that his revisioning of the iconic heroes was his final intention. It seemed the DCEU would only ever offer us brooding, angsty, negligent superheroes who are so caught up in their own depression that they play fast and loose with human life.

But low and behold! One hero has entered the DCEU with the conviction and uncompromising virtue we comicbook nerds expect from DC Comics. Here are some Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman!

Much has been written about the role of gender in Wonder Woman and the hopes that this film will encourage studios to tap into the treasure trove of female superheroes (superheroines?). These reviews are well worth the read. I have high hopes for how Joss Whedon, who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will handle the character of Batgirl, and I am curious about the portrayal of Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey/Phoenix in the next installment in the X-Men film franchise. But the gender study of Wonder Woman and the future of female superheroes has been discussed at length by others. What this film brings to the table is something that has been lost in the world of comicbook movie franchises: a hero with conviction, compassion, and idealism.

The film begins with Princess Diana growing up on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. Her mother, Hippolyta, tells her how Ares, the God of War, rebelled against Zeus and incited war amongst an otherwise peaceful humanity. It is the purpose of the Amazons to defeat Ares should he appear again, and, to that end, on Themyscira resides the weapon “the Godkiller.”

The plot thickens when the English spy, Steve Trevor, crashes onto Themyscira while fleeing German ships, and brings the reality of World War I to Diana’s attention. The unprecedented chaos and the moral ambiguity of the first World War stands in stark contrast to the idealistic paradise of Diana’s homeland, The Princess of the Amazons is adamant that the God of War has returned, and that it is her duty defeat him and return peace to humanity. The rest of the film follows Diana as she, with a ragtag squad of soldiers, penetrates the Western Front in search of General Ludendorff (a real historical figure) who she is convinced is actually Ares.

Spoiler Alert: Diana does succeed in killing Ludendorff. However, it is immediately evident that her understanding of war, humanity, and Ares himself is incomplete. I’ll let you find out who is actually Ares in this film. What is important is that Diana quickly learns how integrated good and evil are within human persons. In light of this, Diana must nuance her convictions and discover her role amidst the chaos and joy of human existence.

The element of Wonder Woman that I find the most well crafted is Diana’s integration into early 20th century western Europe. Once she and Steve Trevor are alone on the boat sailing away from Themyscira, she begins learning about this mysterious new world in a fish-out-of-water style of story. Yet the brilliance of Allan Heinberg’s screenplay, Patty Jenkins’ direction, and Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana, is that Diana’s convictions about justice, compassion, and the need to defeat Ares, never waver. While she may wear the clothing of the period and learn small pieces of etiquette, Diana remains uncompromising in who she is and what she believes is her mission. The film’s climax does little to undermine her core commitments to justice –which is a far cry from Snyder’s murderous Batman. Rather, she is forced to understand her convictions in a new light as she experiences the epiphany that the evils of the world are enmeshed in the human experience and not the machinations of one deific figure. These new revelations do not change Diana’s character, but call her into a deeper understanding of the principles she learned in her youth. What makes Diana heroic at the beginning remains what makes her heroic at the end. In fact, her powers are very much secondary to her convictions which is more than I can say for Superman in Man of Steel.

Wonder Woman stands out among superhero films because Diana’s heroism clearly inspires heroism in others throughout. This is most apparent when the troops push across No Man’s Land, following her fearless drawing of enemy fire, breaking the stalemate between the English and German forces. Unlike Man of Steel‘s assertion that the House of El crest (the iconic “S” emblazoned shield) means hope, or Bruce Wayne’s verbal desire for Batman to “become a symbol,” in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Wonder Woman does not require such verbal articulation because her actions and countenance convey exactly these things.

I have more to say on superheroes. But that is for next week. In the mean time, go see Wonder Woman. 

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Jacob Travlers Goes on an Indefinite Hiatus

Can I share a secret with you all? Writing fiction can be challenging, especially if what one is writing is a long, plot driven narrative that requires cohesion and few (hopefully none) plot holes and incongruities. Frankly, The Life and Times of Jacob Travlers has turned out to be more than I can chew in this season of my life.

When I first began this story, I aspired to write a serial epic in the style of the pulp stories of the late 19th and early 20th century. I was very much hoping to channel my inner Edgar Rice Burroughs (without the racism) and Charles Dickens (likely without the same wit and charm). The original title for this section was Pulp Fiction Friday! I was hoping to encourage other writers I know to take on the task of writing a serially published story so my readers would have a new chapter every Friday from three or four alternating tales. Each story would get a monthly installment, and several genres would be represented.

That was the portion of the blog that I was most excited for.

Alas, writing serial fiction requires extensive planning and forethought, so writing week to week is a poor strategy. While it certainly worked for the first couple of seasons of Lost, it is also a reason the show floundered in the middle, killed off characters without reason, then crashed into an ambiguous ending with unanswered questions.

I certainly hope to bring Jacob Travlers and his adventure to the world wide web again. I have notes and scribbles and other such gris for the proverbial mill. But I’m not sure how soon that will be. Consider this an indefinite hiatus.

I thank you for reading what four chapters I do have posted. I will continue to share with you all where my imagination goes and what musings come to the surface.

Peace, fellow pilgrims.

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