20 April 2014

Reworked Robins

This month DC unveiled its plans for the character of Dick Grayson after Forever Evil and Nightwing end. He’ll become a secret spy, out of contact with everyone but Bruce Wayne (and presumably not much in contact with him, either).

Of course, Agent Grayson will wear his initial in an emblem on his chest. These are still superhero comics, after all.

DC made that announcement with art of Dick looking remarkably like Tom Cruise in the first Mission: Impossible movie. Mikel Janin’s image will appear on the first issue of the new Grayson magazine, arriving this fall.

Grumpy Old Fan Tom Bondurant wrote:
DC has already undercut Dick’s grounding by fiddling with its overall superhero timeline [in the “New 52” continuity]. By pruning his Robin career (and the corresponding emotional attachment) dramatically, and possibly throwing out all of his Titans adventures, DC has left Dick with a set of skills and not a lot more. No wonder he’s turning to espionage.
DC had some professional spies in its previous continuities, some even created back in the 1950s when superhero stories had stalled out. But that’s an unclaimed area now, so it makes some sense to fill that narrative space with a character who brings his own following.

Only some sense, though. As fans immediately noted, the sight of Dick Grayson pointing a gun at the viewer on the cover of Grayson, #1, contradicts Batman’s anti-gun lessons; the fatal side of black-ops would make more sense for Jason Todd. And the surveillance-and-secrecy side would be a better fit for Tim Drake. Nevertheless, the plans have been established.

And remade. In January writer James Tynion IV revealed that he was working on Nightwing, #30, the last issue of the current volume of that magazine and (presumably) the transition to what comes next. But now the creative team on that issue will be the same who are working on Grayson: Tim Seeley and Tom King. Before previews and internet discussions, no one outside the publisher would have known anything about this. Now, of course, it’s a mini-scandal.

Bondurant also wrote that DC now “arguably has too many Robins.” As powerful as the story of a dead Robin has been, the company may be bringing all ex-Robins back. Peter J. Tomasi’s miniseries Robin Rises: Omega will grow out of Batman’s search for Damian. Meanwhile, Steve Snyder and his team are introducing a new roster of young assistants for Batman in Batman Eternal, including Blue Bird and Spoiler. Plus, Grant Morrison is working on a story crossing alternative universes. How long can that situation last?

19 April 2014

What Will “On Your Left” Mean?

In the discussion of the political implications of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Greg Carpenter at Sequart found a key in the movie’s strong opening scene. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are jogging around the reflecting pool in Washington, the former (having been injected with the super-soldier serum) much faster than the latter:
Each time Rogers approaches Wilson, he gives the same cautionary warning: “On your left.” They are the first words spoken in the new film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they lay the groundwork for much of the political perspective of the film. While this Captain America may sneak up on you—you’ll find him “on your left.”
Not everyone caught that, as Alyssa Rosenberg shows in the Washington Post:
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” returns time and time again to the idea that the biggest issue in national security is who controls the apparatus, rather than whether we should use certain technologies or techniques at all.
To be sure, there’s an inherent tension between the superhero narrative, or any hero narrative that focuses on an individual or small group of individuals, and spread-out popular power. As a result, some critics have trouble noting the moments built into superhero films that celebrate the crowd: the scenes in the first two Spider-Man movies in which groups of ordinary New Yorkers stand up to villains when Spider-Man is in trouble, for example.

In Winter Soldier, the conflict ends with the spy agency’s (unspecified) secrets being dumped out onto the internet. The directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, noted that as they were filming Edward Snowden released some secret files from the National Security Agency with the same idea. Of course, Wikileaks and Bradley/Chelsea Manning had done something similar already.

Granted, heroic narratives aren’t good at exploring the actual challenges of broad-based decision-making. Jonathan Stroud’s original Bartimaeus trilogy gets to that at the end of the third volume. George Lucas’s Star Wars films and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series declare the superiority of democracy over dictatorship, but they show actual politicking as pretty feckless. L. Frank Baum’s Oz and other magical kingdoms tend to settle for benevolent dictatorships. But the larger the fictional universe, the more stories bottom-up authority allows.

In an article for Business Insider, Jeff Gomez and one-time Robin/Red Robin scripter Fabian Nicieza analyzed how developments in Winter Soldier open up possibilities for Marvel’s overarching movie narrative:
Feige faced a daunting creative challenge for his thriving film series: while Nick Fury and SHIELD served as the perfect impetus for uniting a disparate band of dysfunctional superheroes [in The Avengers], now the filmmakers were stuck with global icons like Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man effectively bowing to a secret American military organization. That had to end, but the choice of making Captain America cut the umbilical cord? Genius. . . .

The result is the fall of SHIELD, and the vast U.S. military-industrial complex no longer stands as the leash-holder to Captain America and his superhero allies. Steve Rogers becomes apolitical, while still representing the world’s perception of American selflessness, justice, and heroism dating back to World War II.
Already the Agents of SHIELD television show is reflecting the new situation (not that I’ve watched it since the pilot). We’ll see if the next set of Marvel moviemakers can fulfill that promise.

18 April 2014

Captain America and the Threat of OIP Derangement Syndrome

As I noted yesterday, some right-wing media organizations responded to The Lego Movie with complaints that it was anti-business. (Others, to be sure, saw it as simply anti-government, and they were fine with that. Critics on the left saw it as about the danger to people of business and government intertwining, as they often warn. In fact, it’s about commercialism taking over entertainment.)

What about the other big superhero adventure of the spring, Captain America: The Winter Soldier? The directors of that film, Joe and Anthony Russo, said months ago that they were modeling it on the political thrillers of the 1970s, with a few over-the-top action sequences thrown in. They cast Robert Redford as a high official because his filmography includes Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. They even dressed him in a 1970s-style three-piece suit, and he still looks good.

Both Christian Toto at Breitbart on the right and Asawin Suebsaeng at Mother Jones on the left picked up on that anti-authority theme by saying the film wouldn’t be screened at the White House soon. Nor, they could have added on the same speculative grounds, in Congress, the FISA court, the Pentagon, or other pillars of the political center and the security establishment.

But John Nolte at the Breitbart site went off the deep end, calling the movie “a blatant $175 million ‘screw you’ to Barack Obama's surveillance state.” One might be concerned about Nolte watching a PG-13 movie without a parent since he doesn’t appear to remember anything earlier than six years ago. But his response is just a symptom of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

The big danger in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that a government agency wants to launch worldwide preemptive strikes against what it sees as threats to America or democracy. Preemptive action was the core of the “Bush Doctrine,” which Nolte cheered on his old website, now left to drift into the aether.

The “surveillance state” that Nolte blames on President Obama was in fact built by the Bush-Cheney administration. Nolte really should know that because he’s written, for example, about the Washington Post’s coverage of the NSA’s PRISM program, which clearly stated that program was established in 2007. As soon as the Obama administration came into office in 2009, it started to reveal more about the programs it inherited and to put more limits on them.

The disclosures of Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden show that there’s much more we the people have to know. Nolte offered notable praise for Glenn Greenwald for helping to share the Snowden files. Of course, that happened during the Obama administration.

Based on Nolte’s stated support for some of the most egregious Bush-Cheney policies, such as waterboarding, and his decision to become a right-wing media voice (at first pseudonymous, then openly) because he disliked opposition to the Iraq invasion, I can’t help but think that his position on security leaks would have been quite different under a right-wing President.

Likewise, if Captain America: The Winter Soldier had been released under an administration he supported, Nolte would have complained that it was Hollywood’s usual attack on anything good and conservative. That’s been his professional hobbyhorse for years.

In making the security state its major threat, Winter Soldier echoes a common theme of the American left—a theme the American right takes up only when it’s not in power.

TOMORROW: And does the movie really tackle that threat?

17 April 2014

Some People Just Can’t Lego

When The Lego Movie came out this spring, it prompted debate about its political implications. Kyle Smith at the New York Post offered a round-up of different interpretations, including:
The Economist noted that whatever its story might imply, “The film is also an hour-and-a-half-long commercial for costly toys made by a multinational corporation based in Denmark; a commercial, moreover, that people must pay to see.”

Almost alarmingly full of spectacle and movement, The Lego Movie offers us storytelling irony with sprinkles on top and let us eat it, too. It made fun of the clichés of “chosen one” plots, and it still showed the designated hero saving the day. It let us laugh at the notion of a made-up prophecy that must be true because it rhymes, and it let us believe wise words must be true because they come in the voice of Morgan Freeman. It offered a chance to laugh at cookie-cutter, feel-good pop culture, and it costarred Lego Batman.

The political “message” of the movie came in how its chief villain is Lord Business, who has also made himself President Business. Different critics emphasize different parts of his symbolic meaning, depending on how they feel about business or, at this historical moment, Presidents. In fact, he’s a plastic avatar of a suburban father who doesn’t have time to play with his son (though he does have time to play with his Legos). “Business” here has no economic or political import; it’s just what keeps Dad in the office.

The end of the movie assures us that it’s crucial to express yourself fully and flexibly, and spend time with your family, as long as you do that with lots of Legos. Lots and lots of Legos.

(I have to acknowledge here that I hardly ever played with Legos at home. We were a Tinkertoy family.)

16 April 2014

Oz on Stage as “a full-on visual assault”

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the MGM Wizard of Oz has reached Clearwater, Florida, and the Tampa Bay Times’s critic Stephanie Hayes reviewed it thusly:
Since The Wizard of Oz story has been around more than 100 years, and on screen since 1939, everyone has been conditioned to accept that flying monkeys and yellow brick roads and emerald palaces and Ambien poppy fields and smallish people who dance in curly shoes and eat lollipops are totally regular. But they're not! This stuff is wonderfully weird even today and can withstand a modern polish.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Jeremy Sams' adaptation of The Wizard of Oz for the stage makes good use of the trippy, Cirque du Soleil elements of the narrative. This is a full-on visual assault designed by Robert Jones, in a good way, with pyrotechnics, animation, moving parts, rainbows, lights and glitter — so much glitter.
There’s also a local production of The Wiz.

15 April 2014

What Captain America Missed Around the World

At one point in the Avengers movie, Captain America is excited to finally recognize one of the pop-culture references people are throwing around: “Flying Monkeys.”

You see, Captain America was trapped in ice at the end of World War 2 and thawed out only recently. When I was a lad, “only recently” meant the early 1960s, which was no longer that recent, but the basic conceit was established.

The new movie series allowed the corporate storytellers to move the date of Cap’s thawing up to the twenty-first century. Chris Evans plays him as a refugee from the 1940s trying to keep up with modern times. He knows the MGM Wizard of Oz but not much since.

The new Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie carries on that theme by showing how Cap keeps a to-look-up list consists of topics he’s missed and needs to look into. These include I Love Lucy, the Moon landing, the Berlin Wall’s rise and fall, and someone named Steve Jobs.

However, As Comics Alliance reported, a Reddit user collected screenshots from different versions of Captain America: The Winter Soldier from around the world, showing that Marvel/Disney tailored the hero’s to-look-up list for different audiences.

For Russian audiences what’s self-evidently important about the last seventy years are Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Vysotskiy, the USSR breakup, and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.

For South Koreans, it’s Dance Dance Revolution, Ji-Sung Park, Old Boy, and the 2002 World Cup in soccer.

For Mexicans, it’s the Chilean miners, Maradona’s “hand of God,” Shakira, and Neri Vela.

And so on. It would make an interesting social-studies lesson for teams to identify what all those variant items are, and why they’re as important to other culture as I Love Lucy is to ours. Every nation has a different perspective on space, it appears, and almost every nation but the US is mad about soccer.

14 April 2014

Reacting to “Kids React to…”

I grew up with dial telephones. The family of my best friend in first grade had a “princess” phone with a smaller dial in the handset, but that was as exotic as home phones got. Touchtone phones were confined to offices.

In fact, I grew up in a town that once had an exchange named “Woodland,” so a lot of the local numbers I dialed started 969- or 965-. I spent many seconds of my school years waiting for the dial to rotate almost the whole way back—and I’m never getting those back.

Since dial telephones were already established when I was a kid, they seem indeterminably old to me. Yes, my mother had stories about something called a “party line,” which was clearly ancient, but I can easily accept dial telephones as historic.

I could therefore enjoy the “Kids React to Rotary Phones” video easily. Though these twenty-first kids are baffled by the old technology, they’re also smart and lively and often able to figure out the implications of that device once the video makers explain it to their incredulous ears.

The kids display those same qualities in “Kids React to Walkmans”, but there’s a sharper edge for me. Because I remember when the Walkman was new. And cool. And, like all widely used new technology, a cause for tsk-tsking social concerns. Yes, I understand that they’ve long been superseded by, well, phones. But they’re not really old, are they?

13 April 2014

Old Teen Titans for Old Fans

DC Comics made news a couple of weeks back by announcing the end of its Teen Titans series, and then last week by announcing the start of a new Teen Titans series. As to what was new—not that much. The team has had a small membership change, but nothing more significant than what happens regularly in superhero team stories.

Newsarama asked new writer Will Pfeifer, “As you start with a new #1 issue, what are your thoughts about relaunching the title? This team doesn't look that different from the last one — why the relaunch and new #1?”

To which the correct answer would be, “Why are you asking me? You know very well how editorially driven DC Comics is these days. You know that writers don’t decide on issue numbering. You know that for decades a #1 issue has been a way to sell extra copies and draw new attention to a title.”

But Pfeifer offers a game try by saying, “…that #1 lets the reader know that this isn’t just a continuation of the other series. Yes, the Titans are the same heroes, and no, we’re not going to kick things off with a year of origin stories, but we are heading in a new direction and exploring some new themes.”

Of course, he can’t say much about those new things because adventure comics depend on a series of surprises. And because they’re probably no different from the “new direction” at the end of any storyline and any writer’s tenure. One idea Pfeifer repeats a lot in this interview is that these Titans as teenagers are prone to overenthusiasm and mistakes. Will that resonate with teen readers and boost sales?

Former DC editor Janelle Asselin doesn’t think DC is even trying for that new audience. She unloaded on the cover for the new #1 issue, starting with how the image focuses one’s eyes on Wonder Girl’s breasts:
The problem is not that she's a teen girl with large breasts, because those certainly exist. The main problem is that this is not the natural chest of a large-breasted woman. Those are implants. On a teenaged superheroine. Natural breasts don't have that round shape (sorry, boys). . . .

A secondary problem is that no girl with breasts that large is going to wear a strapless top for anything, much less a career that involves a lot of physical activity. . . . we're one bounce away from a nipslip. On a teenager. In case you forgot that entirely relevant point.
Asselin also finds the cover to be lacking in visual coherence and perspective, full of distracting visual details from the paper airplane in the sky to the artist’s neon signature, and lacking the exciting action of previous Titans covers.

But the real lost opportunity in this relaunch, Asselin argues, is that DC’s aiming for an old audience instead of a new one.
You know who loves Teen Titans? People who enjoyed the early 2000s Teen Titans animated show, many of whom are female and many of whom are teenagers or young 20-somethings today. Market research could and does back this up. . . . Say a quarter of those fans actually tried a Teen Titans comic aimed at their demographic—you’re going to have a significantly higher number than the 26,000 copies Teen Titans is estimated to have sold in March. . . .

Virtually all of DC’s New 52 books appear to be aimed at the exact same demographic: Males 18-39. And this cover is made for that demographic. It shows that, once again, DC is relaunching a book with no thought to targeting wider demographics or a new audience. This is not a cover you run if you’re trying to appeal to teenagers, and it’s especially not going to appeal to teen girls.
That said, in one way DC is clearly pulling back from its ’90s-comics-inspired “New 52” revision and trying to appeal to the Titans’ TV audience: Gar Logan as Beast Boy is once again green and elfin, rather than red and badass.

11 April 2014

Getting the Message on OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week’s study in OIP Derangement Syndrome is Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, one of three members of Congress running for the Republican nomination for that state’s Senate seat.

As Talking Points Memo reported, Kingston’s campaign released an ad featuring a Barack Obama impersonator supposedly leaving a voicemail for Kingston saying he doesn’t want the man in the Senate.

And here I thought we learned from Clint Eastwood in 2012 that having angry conversations with a wholly imaginary “President Obama” simply makes one look like a crazy person.

But the really crazy part is that in this Senate race Kingston is being attacked from the right.

10 April 2014

Where Is Ukraine? My Kraine Was Here Just a Minute Ago.

Captcha and similar programs are designed to make commenters prove that they’re real people by interpreting type that’s hard for robots to read.

For a long time I’ve wished there was a similar service for discussions of events around the world, or US foreign policy toward particular countries. A person would need to locate the area under discussion on a map of the world with no labels. If you couldn’t identify Nigeria, or Kuwait, or Venezuela, you could still post your opinion, but that result would also appear so other people could judge how well founded your opinion was.

This week the Washington Post reported on a survey of Americans’ attitudes toward the difficult situation in Ukraine, correlated with their ability to locate Ukraine on a map. The findings:
…the further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily. Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level.

Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.
There is a logical connection between believing that Ukraine is, say, on the border of Germany and believing that its stability is of great importance to the western alliance. But the first of those beliefs has no factual basis. And that lets us judge how well founded the second opinion is.

In fact, the map above shows a lot of people misplacing Ukraine on Eurasia moved it far to the east, indicating that more than a decade of looking at maps of Afghanistan and its neighbors has not actually sunk in.