Thursday, June 7, 2012

Whedon's Vengeance!

It wasn't until I tried drawing a superhero that I really understood that the entire genre is weird fetish porn, and it's geared mostly to gay men. Every fight scene in every superhero comic is actually a sex scene, usually man-on-man, and drawing this was actually embarrassing once I realized what was going on. I felt like I was unexpectedly participating in someone else's sex life.

I had planned to draw a four-issue limited series of people in leotards, but once I realized how much time I would spend framing crotch-shots in a porno that would be marketed to an audience of children, I slowly backed away, shut the door, and pretended I never saw a god-damned thing. I might give it a try again if I can figure out how to de-porno superheroes, but that's one serious creative challenge.

I'm still gay-positive enough to be in the audience for superheroes, though, and romance is what made the Avengers so much fun. The whole old-fashioned forties-style meet-cute, witty banter, and rescue romance has made Iron Man and the Hulk my favorite fictional couple.

Take a good long look at the interactions between Stark and Pepper Potts and tell me I'm wrong. While sitting through the credits, I mentally wrote the Hulk and Iron Man into that David Sedaris story where he's dating Mike Tyson.

Spoiler alert! The Hulk was Tyson.

Oh, and I'm not going to bother scanning for specific spoilers below. If you are concerned about knowing too much about The Avengers, go to your right and click on something else instead.

So the missus and I spent weeks talking about seeing The Avengers. Before we got together as a couple, I'd loaned her comics, and have kept them available to her ever since. And we've watched Joss Whedon's TV shows a number of times, and spent much conversation on them. So The Avengers, a superhero movie directed by Joss Whedon, was a thing for us.

We planned and we planned, and the days drifted by, and then all of a sudden she went and saw the damned thing with her friend Ruby. And then she came back and started bugging me to go see it. "I want to talk about it with you while I still remember it!"

She has a sweet, gentle way of finding one of life's pleasures and coming at one with it, brandishing tasty foods or afternoons out as though they were weapons, thrusting them at one again and again until one screams for mercy. In this case, a remark that I'd made about not liking a particular theater spawned a flow of defense that wore me to a nubbin -- "The three-dee is excellent! It's very good!" is a statement I heard about eight times a day for about four days. So by the time I saw The Avengers, I had built up a good, solid store of resentment for it ahead of time.

Turned out what the missus had really wanted to talk about how cool the Hulk was. Well, the Hulk was cool. Really cool. Actually cool enough to be an acceptable excuse for four days of nagging -- I had to sympathize. I want to tell people how much I loved that rag-doll thing he did, and that sucker punch.

I'm not sure I could call it a good movie, but it was great fun. Let's get my bitching out of the way right off the bat.

I thought the plot didn't really make any sense or have any real meaning, so all the talkety-talk and lip-flapping was boring aside from the one-liners. I'm not saying I couldn't follow what was going on, but it didn't mean anything. Loki was the bad guy, and that's why everything happened, the end. That's just not a story, which is why I got so caught up in imagining the Hulk/Iron Man romance. Which is why I didn't mind that much.

Before seeing it, I'd asked the missus if it was a real Avengers story. "What do you mean?"

I'm supposed to say 'spoiler alert,' right? Spoiler alert!

I said, "They beat the crap out of each other, then figure out they should beat the crap out of someone else, and then they beat the crap out of said third party or parties."

"Yeah, it was a real Avengers story, all right."

She was right. And as a story, I found it unsatisfactory in the same way all Avengers stories are unsatisfactory. This was actually a sign of good, capable craftsmanship, of true and effective adaption on Wheddon's part -- which is why I have a hard time telling whether or not this was actually a good movie.

And in the whole superhero-as-porno issue, well, I may be able to enjoy watching a couple of guys in tight leather engaging in sweaty touching activities but I am heterosexual, and this movie doesn't have much for folks who like to see women's secondary sexual characteristics.

And of course, we wind up being presented with the eternal question posed by almost every superhero team ever. Half the group are weapons of mass destruction, and the other half are Cirque du Soleil performers, and seeing them in the same theater of combat is ridiculous. Cap, Natasha, and Bart should have headed for shelter with the rest of the non-combatants.

That said, I liked it a lot.

Best superhero action I've ever seen in a movie, and the best use of 3d in action sequences. Despite my bitching above, the fights felt like actual sequences of events and exchanges of blows rather than a series of staged shots, and the use of 3d to guide the viewer through scenes of battle was both meaningful and exciting. All of the cool visual tricks used to make the fights pop also helped the viewer understand what was going on.

I mean, damn. That is the kind of thing that should be standard, but isn't.

And while the Hulk is a fantastic fucking concept -- Oppenheimer becomes a were-H-bomb? That shit is gold! -- I've never actually liked many portrayals of the character that much. The take on him in the Busiek/Larsen Defenders was pretty funny, I'll admit -- he was like Namor's pesky kid brother.

But this one is absolutely my favorite, and he gets the best line in the movie, and it's one of the best superhero lines ever. (Oh, brother, I sound like I'm twelve and I always will be.) The Hulk is frightening, hilarious, and his ass-kickings deliver an entirely satisfying thrill of vicarious viciousness. The world breaks properly throughout.

This movie really felt like a comic book.
And it felt tightly crafted, thoroughly controlled. This may not be Whedon's artistic masterpiece, but as a working director he has never been this good. As a creator, sensing this progress in craftsmanship was a deep and genuine pleasure.

Look, it used to be that superhero comics provided the sympathetic reader with a type of action that could be found nowhere else. Now, that style of action is at its most effective in the movies, at the theater.

As much as I love comics, the type of appeal offered by mainstream superhero material strikes me as best realized as a movie like The Avengers. As I watched this movie, I felt a continual sense that this movie really got it -- and it might have made superhero comics creatively obsolete unless they dig past the explosions and into the personal kind of material that can't be done by a cast and crew of thousands.

(Mind you, you get me in another mood and I'll go on for hours about how superheros have long since dead-ended American comics and how creatively bankrupt they are, but that is my way.)

And the whole reason I write this piece? An eerie moment! Some sort of psychic phenomenon! (And this will not make sense to you unless you've seen the Avengers and sat through the credits to catch the Easter Egg.)

While watching the trailers, I was thinking about Marvel movies, and I thought of how badly they've screwed up the filming of the Galactus trilogy.

"They just couldn't let him have the purple outfit," I thought. "That's the whole problem with these Marvel movies. They have no love for the big ugly purple man. No love, and no respect. And you can't have comics without the big ugly purple man!"

I swear, this is true.

It's not often I'm so pleased to be wrong! Fucking Thanos? Oh, this is going to be crazy. I feel like an idiot for liking this one so much, and I want the next one already!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Story-Like Objects and the Totoro Nut

(For those just tuning in -- The Oaf is pompous. The Missus derives a certain mild entertainment from this. Joss Whedon is a television and film writer and director whose work combines action/adventure with soap opera. Buffy and Angel were interconnected, horror-based TV shows developed from a film; Firefly was a science-fiction TV show that led to the production of a movie, Serenity, that ended the storyline. Zoe, Wash, and Book were characters from Firefly and Serenity. Fred was a character from Angel, and she was not a guy. Chris Claremont is a comic book writer best known for his work on the superhero comic book The X-Men, and a clear influence on Whedon. Hayao Miyazake is a [wonderful] cartoonist and animator, and his movies Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are favorites of mine. And by "Ugh!" the Missus means fighting and perspiring and people getting bitten and buried and hurled and bludgeoned and losing an eye and all such various forms of tsuris.)

The Missus: I think I might watch Serenity again.

The Oaf: Huh. I kind of assumed that I'd watch Serenity every time I went through a Firefly phase, but now that you present the option, I might skip it. It kind of left a sour taste in my mouth.

The Missus: I know what you mean. I was watching Buffy again, and I stopped when they got to the hyenas.

The Oaf: That's where we stalled out last time we tried watching it together.

The Missus: Well, who wants to keep watching all that... Ugh!

The Oaf: I hear you. When Whedon killed Book and Wash in Serenity, it was totally unnecessary.

The Missus: I think he did that for spite. He was saying, "Fuck you" to the people who run the movies.

The Oaf: Nah, I don't buy that. He was trying to make a big dramatic ending, and he did it the way Claremont would have, by killing someone. It's a product of the climate where he learned his storytelling chops.

The Missus: I guess. It still sucks, though. I didn't care that much about Book, but Wash...

The Oaf: That's because he and Zoe were in love. When he died, the audience lost that love. It was a cheap shot, and it didn't serve any dramatic purpose. It was like that shit that happened with Fred at the end of Angel; if it had been the result of a character failing or if it had somehow grown out of the situation, it would have meant something. That's what makes fiction different from real life. In real life, shit happens and it makes you feel, but in fiction, shit is made to happen and sometimes it feels like simple cruelty on the part of the creator. A lot of storytelling, especially cinematic storytelling, has been so systematized that it's more like filling out Mad Libs than any kind of creative process. That's how you get these things I think of as story-like objects, where the characters walk onstage at the right time and all the explosions happen where they're supposed to and it means fucking nothing. When Whedon throws out stuff like this and all the kung-fu vampire shit, it's just a form of packing material. I mean, I like his and all, but it's his affection for his characters that keeps me interested. The rest is filler, and sometimes it gets in the way. The man has comic-book cooties, I hate to say.

The Missus: You have bad guys in your book.

The Oaf: Yeah, and I literally tell the reader that all that stuff is bullshit and too much of it makes you feel stupid. But you're right. You're right. I weaseled with symbolism, poetry, and satire, but I weaseled some. That's one of my major creative goals, actually. To do something substantial that really feels wholesome. That's a tough nut to crack. That's why I've been watching Miyazake so hard the last ten years or so. There are some crappy people in Kiki's Delivery Service, but in Totoro, everyone just cares and wants the best for each other. The dramatic impetus comes from the woman being sick, and the way it's handled does seem like a natural source of difficulty rather than authorial cruelty. He got through a whole movie with nothing but good people in it. I want to do something like that someday. The difficulty is that it's such a simple problem.

The Missus: What do you mean?

The Oaf: All you have to do is write about people so well that the reader cares about them even if their problems aren't any kind of big special deal, or even if they don't have problems. That's all it takes. It's that easy.

The Missus: ...

The Oaf: That's all you have to do. That's all there is to it. It's simple.

The Missus: ...

The Oaf: ...