James is Reading “Batman #37”

Following up on the post from a couple weeks ago, my friend James wrote up a discussion of Batman #37 by Tom King and Clay Mann.  It is delightful.

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Masks, costumes, and hidden identities have a long tradition in humanity’s art. They let performers on stage and page become someone else. They let the audience engage in figuring out who a masked person might be, or heighten dramatic tensions when they know about identities but certain characters do not. There’s just something about it that we all understand at an intuitive level. I think our collective cultural baggage surrounding masks and costumes and hidden identities is one reason superheroes are such an enduring presence in pop culture. Something about the tension between who we show the world, who we are to ourselves, and who we can be when we hide both those things is deeply resonant.

Cover of Batman #37 by Tom King & Clay Mann. (Cover by Mike Janin; Image credit: Comic Vine)

When our super couples arrive at the “Gotham County Fair” and a person dressed as a Wonder Twin informs them that it’s super hero night and all attendees have to wear costumes, I was wearing a very wide grin. Of course costumes have to play a role here. And, when our super couples realize they can’t just show up as their super-alter-egos, I’m making a bit of a squee noise. From the third page on, Clark Kent is wearing Batman’s actual costume. Bruce Wayne is wearing Superman’s blue tights and cape. Lois dons Catwoman’s costume and Selina wears Lois’ dress. After swapping costumes, our super couples emerge into the County Fair surrounded by people also wearing superhero costumes. I’m just floored by this point – even rereading makes me giggle. I’d imagine long-time fans of DC comics could find a lot to enjoy in the actions of the various other “heroes” running around the County Fair.

The super couples do some cosplay. (Artwork by Clay Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Okay, enough with the entertainment value of the costume-swap. The real meat of the issue, like the previous #36, is in the dialogue between pairs. Last time we had the couples negotiating over who should call who when their investigations forced them into the same hallway. We learned a lot about how much both Superman and Batman respected each other but that both also felt the other didn’t need them. My take is, that’s a dangerous place for two people to be in. Feeling like someone you respect doesn’t need you leads to darker and more vengeful feelings. Put those feelings in the hands of a superhero and it’s a world of trouble. Beneath all the farce and fun of the setup is a potentially explosive situation.

After the couples do some typical County Fair stuff (tunnel of love, eat some corn-dogs, etc.) they split into male and female pairs. While Super-Bruce Wayne-man and Clark “the batman” Kent are talking and hitting balls in a batting cage, ace reporter Selina and catwoman Lois have a chance to talk to each other. Both Lois and Clark begin their respective conversations by expressing disbelief at the prospect of Bruce and Selina being a couple, but then the couples diverge. Lois using introspection about her father’s wishes as a way to connect with Selina. Clark, on the other hand, changes the subject quickly to one of competition: he challenges Bruce to hit a ball he throws. This challenge becomes a bit of a preoccupation for both men. Later we find them not engaging in conversation with their partners but, instead, thinking about the challenge.

The boys discuss whether Bruce could hit a ball thrown by Clark. (Artwork by Clay Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Just like in #36, the ongoing conversations between pairs are visually situated in different ways at different points of the issue. Toward the end, as Bruce talks to Clark and Lois talks to Selina, the frames alternate between both pairs and both conversants. Taken together, pages 19 and 20 present a 3 x 6 grid of frame that offers a bunch of really interesting ways to read. Like the elevator “silos” of the prior issue, changing up the order of the conversations yields interesting results. The similarities between all of the points in the conversation lead to a really crucial frame in which Clark realizes that the biggest reason Bruce and Selina are getting married is because they’re lonely and their status as hero and reformed villain means they can be there for each other across the trick hidden identity / alternate life territory that goes with being Batman and Catwoman. Because that loneliness was rooted in Bruce’s loss of his parents as a child and Selina’s absentee father, Clark was able to relate to that feeling. Lois, though she has her family, also expresses some distance from her father, the general who wanted her to become a professional soldier. They close out the conversations with Lois reassuring Selina that right and wrong are a bit blurrier than she was raised to believe and Clark reassuring Batman that he’s going to be able to navigate this new and tricky relationship because he “does alright in the dark.”

Also, they are all eating ice cream cones the whole time. I can’t even. It’s ridiculous. I love it.

Ice cream makes everything better. (Artwork by Clay Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Our heroes leave the Gotham County Fair and change back into their standard costumes (but not street clothes). Having reached an understanding, Lois and Clark are officially invited to Bruce and Selina’s wedding. Still somewhat preoccupied by Clark’s challenge, Bruce agrees to try and hit a pitch thrown by Superman. They depart the Fair to a baseball stadium somewhere. I won’t spoil the ending.

Some stuff I loved:

  • Obviously the whole costume swap was endlessly entertaining to me. Adding the layer that our heroes are walking around this fair surrounded by other people in hero costumes is just icing. It also makes almost every frame super detailed and interesting. There are probably easter-eggs I’m not aware of embedded in the background.
  • At one point, a guy dressed as Rorschach swipes Lois’ purse and runs away quoting Ayn Rand. No, really! Superman uses his x-ray vision to provide Batman with some coordinates for a precision baseball toss to the back of this guy’s head. It’s later revealed that Selina pick-pocketed the thief at the same time. There is probably something to say here about objectivist moral philosophy and relationships. There is also probably something to say here about Alan Moore.   ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Bruce and Selina are more into PDA than Clark and Lois.
  • There’s costume commentary sprinkled throughout. Bruce thinks the Supersuit is itchy and Lois blames it on not getting the suit washed enough. When they’re changing costumes, Clark informs Bruce that the “S” stands for hope. Bruce’s bat, meanwhile, stands for “bat.” Selina’s Catwoman get-up is stretchy.
  • Clark is Superman. While he is going incognito as intrepid reporter, Clark Kent, he wears glasses. The glasses are, traditionally, the only thing that he really does to be in disguise. He doesn’t need the glasses but when he dresses up in Batman’s outfit, he keeps wearing the glasses. It’s a real treat to see a guy wearing the full Batman regalia, mask and everything, and he wears glasses over the top. I chalk this up to one key difference between Batman and Superman. Batman is intuitive. Superman is not – he doesn’t have to be because his powers negate the need to be intuitive. Why do detective work when you can see through walls and hear things miles away? So any time Superman is in disguise, he wears glasses.
  • At some point Selina obtains a gigantic pink stuffed cat and she keeps it the rest of the evening. This is never explained.
  • Lois brings a flask. But. Like. She didn’t know they were going on a double date when they set out to solve a mystery in #36, right? Lois brings a flask everywhere?
  • Without spoiling the ending, the frame showing Superman’s fingers as he prepares to throw a pitch to Batman indicate he is throwing a curveball. I’m telling you, these guys are way preoccupied with this whole pitching/hitting challenge to the point that they’re getting in each other’s heads.
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Guest Post: James is Reading “Batman #36”

My friend James, who occasionally shares his thoughts on all things education at his blog Forms of Inquiry, has written up a post for me about a Batman story that’s very much about the barriers that men often have to overcome to build and maintain friendships with one another, which is totally not subtext for anything personal at all.  This is probably the kindest thing James could have done for me in the last month, and on top of that it makes me want to track down and read this issue if not Tom King’s whole run on Batman.

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I have this tendency to read comics when they refer to important events in the storylines of various heroes. It’s probably not the best habit as I’ve never read a full series from beginning to end unless it’s later been put together into a collection. So, when I heard a little while back that Batman and Catwoman had gotten engaged, I filed it away to be sought out later. Some free credits at Amazon gave me a chance to pick up some issues from Comixology and I wanted to write about a deeply entertaining two-issue storyline beginning in Batman #36. Mea culpa.

Cover of Batman Vol 3 #36. (Cover by Clay Mann & Jordie Bellaire; Image credit: Comic Vine)

So, Batman #36 opens with Lois Lane asking Superman to call Batman and Superman objects because, obviously, it should be Batman who calls because he’s the one getting engaged. Besides, he’s busy. Meanwhile, Batman is having the exact same conversation with Catwoman. She wants him to reach out. He doesn’t feel like he needs to make the call. Besides, he’s busy. This parallelism runs through the issue and is one of the big reasons I love it so much. At the heart of it, Tom King is really showing how two very different men handle roughly the same situation – only, it’s not some crisis or villain. It’s friendship.

All the while, both couples are actively engaged in some typical crime fighting. Lois and Clark are investigating why chemicals keep going missing from derailed trains. Bruce and Selina are chasing down some plutonium working its way through the underworld. I find it all somewhat hilarious to see heroes discussing their respective relationships while doing heroism as any of the rest of us might multitask work and personal life.

Superman is busy. (Pencils by Clay Mann, inks by Clay Mann & Seth Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While they chase down leads, Lois and Selina are pressing their partners to make an effort, any effort. The women finally make some headway as each man breaks down exactly why he won’t call the other. Batman respects Clark’s ability to be an alien from a dead world and yet take the pain of loss and alienation and turn it into a symbol of hope. That Superman choses to be the hero is remarkable to Batman. On the other hand, Superman is super impressed that Bruce transformed his loss and grief into, you guessed it, a symbol of hope. Likewise, Superman thinks Batman is remarkable because he has no powers, only his wits and will. Both heroes tell their partners that they believe the other man is the better man. Both men assume the other doesn’t really care them. Both assume the other person doesn’t need them. And then both couples exit the elevator and come face to face.

Super couples step out of a couple of elevators. (Pencils by Clay Mann, inks by Clay Mann & Seth Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire)

As the conversations progressed, the layout of the comic was such that you could read it in two ways: the typical right to left then down of an eight frame page or you could read them vertically as two columns on each page. Either way provides an interesting parallelism in conversation and shows the super-couples working their way into a building. The same building, it turns out. Then, as they make their final points about not reaching out, they find themselves exiting parallel elevators and parallel frames. Now the heroes are shown in a “wide shot” with 5 wide frames cascading down the page. I especially like the way the men are almost motionless for the whole page but Catwoman is peeking around from behind Batman and then Lois juts her hand out and introduces herself. When an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, it appears their respective partners are the ones who can resolve the situation. The moment is interrupted by the bad guy they’ve been chasing – the same one, it turns out – but he is dispatched quickly.

Double-dates can be a lot of fun. (Pencils by Clay Mann, inks by Clay Mann & Seth Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Unable to avoid talking to each other anymore, our super-couples are about to go on a super double-date. There is probably a lot more at stake here than a double-date might imply. Although Selina’s criminal past is something barely mentioned, the audience knows about it and we also know that Superman tends to operate in a bit more of a binary view of morality. If Batman does his work in a grey area, Superman is doing his in black & white (yes, that is also a newspaper pun, I know). Both heroes are integral to the wellbeing of the world and are founding members of the Justice League. Both respect each other, clearly, but that respect hides a kind of insecurity that could prove really dangerous. It’s easy to go from “he doesn’t need me or care about me” to indignation and hatred. I think this issue does a good job showing us what kind of head-space these men are in. I’m sure many people have experienced friends beginning new relationships, marriages, etc. Some may have friends who’ve entered relationships that aren’t good for them and seen it cause strife within their group of friends. People take sides, they stop hanging out – it can all go pretty badly. What Batman #36 asks us is, what happens if that group of friends includes peer superheroes, especially someone like Superman?

Some stuff I loved:

  • The parallelism made manifest in the layout’s “elevator shafts” dialogue frames.
  • Lois’ messy desk and sticky notes all over her computer. When she is handed another one, you can see her looking at her monitor and then she turns and puts the sticky note on the filing cabinet behind her. I am that person all the time. I know she felt her monitor was a better place but it’s already full!
  • Selina knows Superman’s identity and it shocks Bruce. Lois knows Catwoman’s identity and it shocks Clark.
  • Catwoman is rarely standing upright and is often climbing on things. Like a cat. She’s a cat. Woman.
  • Superman’s super sight apparently couldn’t see Batman and Catwoman sneaking into the building and it really seems to bother him.
  • The heroes enter a fight saying each other’s taglines.

Reading “Funeral in Smallville”

The first half of All-Star Superman is not as good as I remember it being.  It has its high points (“The Gospel According to Lex Luthor” is still a darkly funny examination of Superman’s arch nemesis, even if current real-world context makes megalomaniacs who fawn over authoritarians and fascists more scary) and it has some real low points (the two-issue Lois Lane arc is garbage in too many ways to be redeemable).  The sixth issue of the series falls somewhere in between the extremes; it’s not a bad story, but it’s also not a terribly memorable one.

“Funeral in Smallville” acts as something of an origin story for Superman.  It’s not The Origin Story (Morrison and Quitely dispense with all of that on the first page of the first issue in a terse four-panel layout that hits the high points without belaboring a story with which readers are almost assuredly familiar) so much as a snapshot of one of the defining moments of Superman’s personal history.  In many continuities, Superman operates as an adult in a period of time after the death of his adoptive father Jonathan Kent.  This is a significant moment for the character because it marks his transition from relying on Jonathan’s advice and guidance in building a moral compass to learning how to navigate his role in the world independently.  In Morrison’s Silver Age inflected version of this event, Jonathan Kent dies while young Clark, as Superboy, is busy trying to corral a Chronovore, a multidimensional creature that eats time.  It’s a weird, nonsensical explanation for Clark being unable to get Jonathan emergency help when he realizes he can’t hear his father’s heartbeat, though I suppose the point is to prevent a scenario like in Man of Steel where Clark disregards the safety of other people in the middle of a large scale emergency.  It wouldn’t look good for Clark to abandon his fight with the Chronovore to save his father when other people could be injured by his withdrawal (again, never mind that this story sets up a cadre of future Supermen who have traveled back in time for the express purpose of dealing with the Chronovore so Clark doesn’t have to get involved).

Anyway.

Aw, Clark. (Pencils by Frank Quitely, inks & colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

The reveal at the end of this issue is that one of the future Supermen, the Unknown Superman of AD 4500, is actually the Superman we’ve been following in this series come back in time to try to prevent Clark missing Jonathan’s death.  That he fails in this task is a poignant moment when you couple it with young Clark’s immature assertion that he can save everybody and what we’ve seen of Superman in the present so far where he never stops watching for opportunities to save people from danger.  This is a story about Superman’s limitations in the midst of a series that’s exploring if he can reach an unlimited state.

The biggest complaint I have with this story is that while its emotional core is solid, it’s also heavy with Silver Age fluff.  Morrison and Quitely build in cameos by Clark’s high school friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang, include the thoroughly absurd Krypto the Superdog (no explanation is offered for why Krypto is around in Clark’s past but he’s never mentioned in the present), and has clunky expository dialogue like, “It just turned Farmer Stone’s cows in the hamburgers they were destined to become!”  This stuff’s supremely goofy, and it can be really entertaining, but it clashes terribly with the significantly more grounded scenes showing the Kents contemplating Clark’s growth and what the future holds for him.  I’m not a huge fan of the juxtaposition in this issue.

Reading “The Gospel According to Lex Luthor”

It occurs to me that Grant Morrison spends the first half of All-Star Superman exploring what he thinks is at the core of several iconic Superman characters (to review, Superman has everything under control and kind of doesn’t trust humans; Lois Lane is only concerned about her status in relation to Superman and only realizes the patriarchy is a thing after getting high on “alien chemicals”; and Jimmy Olsen is a hapless schmuck who believes that Superman’s safety takes precedence over that of Earth); they all hark heavily back to the Silver Age, for which I guess Morrison has the most nostalgia.

Issue #5 of All-Star Superman features Morrison and Quitely’s take on Lex Luthor, the seminal Superman villain.  The last few decades have tended towards treating Luthor as something of a secret villain; starting with John Byrne’s Superman reboot of the late ’80s, The Man of Steel, Luthor has been depicted primarily as an ultra-wealthy businessman who engages in clandestine criminal activity.  This version makes him a nice foil to Superman, since Luthor’s status makes it impossible for Superman to confront him directly, even though many of his schemes are designed to directly attack Superman.  There was even a period in the early ’00s when Luthor got himself elected President of the United States and Superman couldn’t do anything about it, even though he knew that the country had elected a supervillain (oh, to have an actual criminal mastermind heading into the White House instead of, well, you know).

This is only the first time Superman saves Luthor from accidental death in this issue. It’s funny until you start to think about the fact that Luthor’s a danger to everyone on the planet and these moments of secret heroism enable him to continue in his delusion that he deserves to rule over everyone. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman and Travis Lanham)

Morrison totally ignores all that history though, instead opting to present Luthor as he was originally conceived and depicted from the ’40s into the ’80s–as a criminal genius who openly flouts society in favor of flagrant supervillainy.  Morrison’s Luthor begins the series in a position where he’s pretended reform, but some investigative journalism from the Daily Planet reveals that he lied about that; he’s swiftly arrested after Lois’s dad (he’s a general) stumbles across Luthor in the middle of enacting the scheme that leads to Superman becoming overloaded with solar energy so that he’ll die.  We catch up with him again at his trial where the judge lists off the names of some of history’s most destructive and dangerous men (including Hitler) as the people Luthor takes as his personal role models.  There’s nothing subtle about this version of the character; he’s an unapologetic narcissist and megalomaniac; his only weakness is his obsession with Superman’s apparent superiority to him (the plot that kicks off this whole series is brought about by Luthor one day realizing that he has crow’s feet while Superman still looks the same age as always).

Now, here’s the thing that Morrison does in this issue which I love.  Luthor is an arrogant jerk even when he’s locked up in maximum security prison with other supervillains; in fact, he goes beyond arrogance into blatant carelessness.  The conceit of this issue is that Clark Kent has scored an exclusive interview with Luthor while he’s awaiting execution on death row.  Clark goes to the prison where he finds Luthor tinkering with projects that appear harmless, and in an interview that spans a prison riot and a harrowing underworld escape (for Clark, not Luthor), we see Luthor expose himself to mortal peril multiple times only for Clark to clandestinely save him.  Before they leave Luthor’s workshop, Clark saves him from electrocution by a faulty extension cord, and Luthor doesn’t even notice.  That’s just how smug he is.

A reminder that Luthor is always dangerous, even when he’s ridiculous, even to Superman. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman and Travis Lanham)

And this is the thing that Morrison does which is so great.  Luthor is a genuinely scary supervillain.  He’s brilliant, motivated, and completely unconcerned with anyone besides himself, but he’s also terribly dependent on the mercy of Superman.  He can’t acknowledge this fact, but it clearly terrifies and infuriates him.  If not for Superman’s largess, Luthor probably would have gotten himself killed long before this moment, and the world would be a better place for it.  Even more striking with all this is that Superman continues to protect Luthor because he sees Luthor’s potential; the man could do incredible things to improve the world if he would just get over his obsession with besting Superman.  I think Superman’s a little naive on this point (Luthor listed Adolf Hitler as one of his heroes!), but he’s in a position where he can allow himself some naivete.  Aside from the most recent scheme that has succeeded in getting Superman to die a very slow death, Luthor can’t hurt him, and he’s able to prevent Luthor from hurting others.  This dynamic strikes me as an unconscious expression of privilege in action; when you have someone who can’t actually be harmed by another person’s nastiness, they are much more easily able to be forgiving; considering that the rest of the world recognizes rightly that Luthor is a clear and present danger to everyone, Superman’s mercy seems misplaced here.  Considering that the issue ends with Luthor escorting Clark out through a secret passage he burrowed with the help of one of his “harmless” inventions before returning to his cell, it’s clear that the only person capable of keeping Luthor in check is Superman, and he has a case of the Pollyannas when it comes to his arch nemesis, who we know has already succeeded in killing him.

Reading “Superman’s Forbidden Room”

The second issue of All-Star Superman serves the purpose of citing much of the continuity that Morrison is going to gleefully pull from in building his version of Superman’s world while also establishing the stakes of the larger story being told.  We know that Superman is dying from his recent trip to the sun, and here he tries to come clean with Lois Lane, someone whom he’s deceived for the length of his career.  This is a timeline where we’ve never seen anything like Superman revealing his secret identity to Lois, let alone them getting married; their relationship appears to be founded more on all the weird stuff of the Silver Age Superman (thoroughly catalogued at Superdickery) where Superman just went to absurd lengths to keep people from finding out who he is.  That Lois begins the issue totally skeptical of Superman’s confession to be Clark Kent is a nice way to put all the terrible stuff he did to her in the Silver Age in a context that makes narrative sense, and then it takes an absurdly dark and delightful turn.

The key thread for this issue is Lois’s skepticism of Superman suddenly coming clean with her.  It gradually escalates into full blown paranoia as Lois decides that Superman is actually plotting something sinister when she stumbles into a room filled with superscience and diagrams of Lois’s body.  This all culminates with Lois shooting Superman with a green Kryptonite gun (he’s fine; green Kryptonite no longer hurts him after his sun supercharge) and Superman revealing his birthday surprise for Lois: a day with the same superpowers as him.

Lois being all action-hero-y when she’s at the height of her drug-induced paranoia. Notice how she’s drawn in a nonsexualized way and her fears revolve around being forced to be Superman’s mate. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant)

What’s fun about this issue is the way Lois descends into her paranoid state; Morrison never breaks from her perspective throughout the issue, so we see a very logical internal progression, even as Superman does everything he can to be totally upfront with Lois.  He shows her all the wonders of his Fortress of Solitude, which is a cool premise by itself for an issue.  There’s no major conflict happening here other than a minor lab accident that we don’t know about until the very end.  It’s just Morrison throwing all his favorite parts of the Superman mythos out there for Quitely to illustrate and letting us marvel at it all.

Of course, there is a dark side to this issue.  Lois’s paranoia is induced by exposure to a toxic substance, but her reasoning that it’s suspicious for Superman to come clean after he’s lied to her for years isn’t wrong.  As the audience we know that Superman is trying to get his affairs in order because he’s going to die, but this issue does give us an opportunity to consider how it all looks from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what we know.  There’s a certain paternalistic edge to Superman’s actions here (not his hiding Lois’s birthday present, but his decision not to tell her that he’s dying), and it’s uncomfortable that Morrison asks us to dismiss Lois’s concerns at the end of the issue just because her paranoia’s been artificially elevated.  This is the unfortunate duality to the premise of All-Star Superman that our hero is at the peak of his abilities, and because of his elevated consciousness he knows best in all situations.  Morrison and Quitely fully embrace the tradition of Superman as a messianic figure, but they overlook the fact that he’s still mortal with finite, if vast, knowledge of the universe.  We’re supposed to trust that Superman always makes the right choice, but in this little issue that’s just about his relationship with Lois we get a relatively deep exploration of the problem with entrusting a single person with so much responsibility.  It’s one of the few moments where Superman’s flaws are highlighted in an otherwise optimistic, idealistic series about him.

Here’s Lois before she’s exposed to the gas. She’s shown naked in the shower, in a pose that doesn’t seem anatomically possible (her feet are flat on the floor, but her legs are flexed like she’s on tip-toes), wondering if “Superman’s girlfriend” is going to get what she wants. The more I think about this issue, the grosser it feels. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant)

On the art side of things I have just one complaint about Quitely’s work in this issue.  I normally love his stuff (his figures never look like unblemished mannequins the way you get in some other artists’ superhero drawings), but there’s one panel in this issue where he draws Lois taking a shower to get ready for her dinner with Superman.  The showering itself isn’t a problem, but the pose that he puts Lois in bugs me immensely.  She’s standing flat-footed in the shower, but her back is arched and her legs are flexed like she’s wearing heels.  It’s a small complaint; this is one of the few times in an issue that otherwise depicts Lois in action running around deserted hallways where the objectification is blatant.  I don’t think we ever seen anything like this again in this series, but it catches my eye every time I read through the issue, and it bugs me.

Despite all this, the issue ends on a high note, with a splash page of Superman presenting Lois’s birthday gift to her, with the promise that next time we’ll get to see them operating as equals, at least for a day.

So I Just Saw Justice League: War

After I watched The Flashpoint Paradox a few weeks ago, I was really looking forward to checking out the other two DC Animated movies that are currently on Netflix.  I watched Son of Batman first, and it was alright, but it didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me (I kept getting distracted by the absurdity of Talia Al Ghul’s wardrobe, which consists of an unzipped catsuit at all times, even when she’s hanging out with the League of Assassins where everyone else is dressed up like a ninja; it really threw me out of the story).  Then I got to Justice League: War, and I was much more satisfied with this movie.

In light of all the recent discussion about Batman v Superman, I always find it interesting that there’s so much focus on the live action side of DC superhero adaptations when Warner Bros. has had a phenomenal series of animated adaptations for over two decades, first with their various animated series of major properties and then in the last ten years their steady production of self-contained movie adaptations of famous comics stories (I was at my local video store the other day, and on a lark I went to check out their animated section to see if they had any other DC movies; Warner Bros. has produced over twenty animated films in the last ten years).  In the last couple they’ve moved towards adapting recent significant comic arcs, which is where Justice League: War comes in.

Justice League: War is a retelling of the Justice League’s origin story in DC’s recently retired New 52 continuity.  It features Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Shazam, and the Flash at the beginning of their careers when no one yet really knows what to make of superheroes.  Because of an invasion plan being carried out by Darkseid, these heroes, despite not being inclined towards teamwork, are thrown together in order to foil Darkseid’s plans.  Because this is a team-up story, no time is spent on origins for the cast except Cyborg, whose injury and rebuilding occurs as a matter of course in the movie’s first act; everyone else only gives bits of background information in passing.

The visual style of this movie is really engaging on top of everything else. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

What I find most interesting about this story is the way the heroes are characterized.  Going back to Batman v Superman, I’ve seen a lot of discussion of the way the two central characters are represented in ways that are so inconsistent with their previous popular depictions.  Batman’s supposed to be so steeped in paranoia that he resorts to using tactics that are far more brutal than what’s seen in other versions of the character; Superman’s apparently a rather selfish figure who’s spectacularly failing to connect on a human level with the people he’s supposed to be protecting.  I don’t particularly care for cynical representations of these characters (even Batman at his most fascistic is still supposed to be a principled hero), but I can see why someone might want to explore them in a scenario where they have real failings connected to the circumstances surrounding their extraordinary power.  In Justice League: War, you don’t get any of that.  Batman comes off as a little insular when he first encounters Green Lantern, but it quickly becomes apparent that Batman’s the only member of the nascent Justice League who understands that they need to cooperate in order to stop Darkseid (late in the movie he gives Green Lantern a pep talk explaining that they’re just a couple of regular guys who have gotten caught up with actual superhumans, and working together is going to be imperative to saving the world, then he hops a ride to Darkseid’s homeworld in order to rescue Superman by himself; Batman is a ball of contradictions, but he’s a likable one here).  Superman, in contrast, is kind of a jerk.  He’s arrogant when Batman and Green Lantern first meet him (perhaps justifiable since Green Lantern immediately attacks him instead of trying to talk, like Batman suggests, and they’re clearly not a match for him), and he continues to be a showoff throughout the rest of the movie (he and Wonder Woman have a clear mutual admiration society going on in a nod to their eventual romance in the New 52).  Superman’s characterization here doesn’t have any concern with his usual significance as a symbolic figure; he’s the team’s big gun, and that’s the extent of his value here.

The rest of the team’s characterizations are interesting, though I’m not nearly as well versed in their histories to be able to comment extensively.  Hal Jordan and Barry Allen’s depictions are pretty consistent with what’s seen elsewhere; Hal has a level of confidence that’s not fully backed by his proficiency with his power ring, and Barry’s just a nice guy who thinks it’s cool that he gets to hang out with superheroes.  Diana is written in that mode that’s common to her origin stories where it’s assumed that she’s completely unfamiliar with modern Western society; I find this a little irksome, because some naivete is okay (a scene where she tries ice cream for the first time is charming), but when it translates into her not having a basic understanding of diplomacy (she bails on a meeting with the US president because she gets tired of waiting even though she’s explicitly in America to meet with the president) it feels like the writers are equating coming from a culture with a substantially different technological level and social structure with being an idiot.  Shazam acts just like most of the teenagers I know; he’s exactly as annoying as he should be (my complaint about him stems mostly from the fact that he’s not treated as being on the same level as Superman; I’ve always understood that DC’s Captain Marvel was supposed to be a peer of Superman, but with a magical bent to his powers rather than a sci-fi one; perhaps there was some readjustment in the New 52 and the character’s renaming that puts him on a lower tier that I don’t know about).  Cyborg has the most fleshed out character arc, since this is also his origin story, and it hits those beats perfectly well.  The whole time I was watching though, I kept thinking back to this essay about the problematic nature of Cyborg’s character in context of the DC universe and how this retelling of his origin fails to correct any of those issues.

Setting aside characterization, both the good and the bad, this movie’s remarkably satisfying in other ways.  The animation’s excellent, and the battle scenes are choreographed in a way that keeps them engaging (and unlike certain live action adaptations, the writers don’t forget that regular people are endangered by all the chaos the supers are causing).  If you’re interested in seeing a Justice League origin movie, you really could do a lot worse than this one.

So I Just Saw Disney’s Hercules (2)

So Hercules is Superman is Jesus.

It’s an interesting bit of parallelism that’s going on there, since in all three cases we’re dealing with men who find themselves in a place alien to their innate nature looking to do right by their fathers.  Oh, and they all, while being alien to their environment, are simultaneously native to it.  The native part relates to their sense of humanity, and I think that reflects a pretty cool feature of our own relationship to divinity (or, if you aren’t religious, things which are greater than us).  For all the division we strive to create amongst ourselves so that we can put everything into comprehensible boxes, our largest cultural heroes embody a sense of unity with those things that are different from ourselves.

Nifty.

Anyway, drawing the discussion back down to consider just parallels between Hercules and Superman, we have the narrative of the hero being separated from his birth parents through fate, adopted by humble farmers who represent the simple, salt-of-the-earth human culture that will help temper any innate inclinations towards greatness, and the hero’s slow realization of his potential which blossoms into acceptance and celebration by the masses that fostered him.

It occurs to me at this point that this heroic archetype is kind of a sausage fest.  I’m wondering if there are any female versions that we might consider as well.  If anyone has any suggestions, let me know in the comments below; I’ll ponder this question myself in the meantime (also, if we can’t think of any examples, then why is this not an avenue that’s been better explored?).

The parallels aren’t limited only to Hercules and Superman, though.  Like I mentioned last time, I see some similarities between Hercules and Superman’s supporting cast.  Megara and Lois Lane share the rather dubious distinction of being the hero’s intrepid love interest who finds herself stuck being a damsel when everything about her character says that this is not the role she should be playing (we’re introduced to Megara when she’s in the middle of negotiations gone wrong with Nessus the river guardian; she insists she can handle things herself when Hercules shows up, but he rather ham-handedly takes it upon himself to save her anyway; as for Lois, just look at any depiction where her nose for a good story leads her to get captured by the villain).  On the flip side, Hades and Lex Luthor are villainous foils who are jealous of the birthright of their opponents (Hades wants to rule Olympus where Hercules rightfully belongs as a son of Zeus, and Luthor has a pathological envy for Superman’s innate power; both villains are also immensely powerful in their own right; Hades rules the underworld and eventually holds dominion over all mortals, including Hercules, and Luthor, in his more gonzo depictions, has so much power, influence, and raw talent that he can manipulate events on a global scale in his favor).

So Hercules is a movie that cribs extensively from the Superman narrative as it explores the question of what makes a legitimate hero.  A lot of the movie’s second half deals in a parody of contemporary pop culture where celebrity is synonymous with heroism, which isn’t necessarily a poor critique, though it’s not terribly well developed (drawing parallels between Hercules’s popularity and the cult of personality surrounding famous athletes isn’t bad, but the fact that Hercules really does go around helping people in concrete ways kind of underscores the absurdity of the comparison).  There’s also a bit of subtle commentary on the fact that Hercules becomes a hero because Hades keeps trying to kill him (in this version of events, it’s Hades who instigates all the challenges that represent Hercules’s famous labors).  It reminds me of Unbreakable, but much more lighthearted and with a less plodding pace.

Of course, this is a Disney movie, so we have to take that parody of pop culture and turn it into some kind of wholesome moral (for the kids), so eventually Hercules learns that the characteristic of a true hero is not just helping people, but selfless sacrifice as expressed in his willingness to die in order to save Megara from being dead (an act that parallels how Megara ended up in Hades’s service in the first place, which leaves me wondering why Hercules gets immortality for doing it, but Megara gets eternal servitude and an ingrate ex-boyfriend; double standard much?).

Ultimately, I think this adaptation suffers quite a bit from stylistic overload.  Heracles as a subject has a lot of material associated with him (the stuff that gets referenced in Hercules is honestly just skimming the top) that could make for some really interesting storytelling opportunities.  Instead, what we get with Disney’s take is something that heavily borrows its themes and structure from contemporary pop culture (the connections between Superman and Hercules strike me as too intentional on the part of the directors to simply be a product of archetypal storytelling) while using the source material as a sort of window dressing.  The aesthetics of the film do some interesting things in referencing Greek art and drawing on a more contemporary musical tradition, but in the end it feels like mostly flash with little substance.