When I watch a movie from the Marvel Comics empire I have to remind myself NOT to view this material with an adult mind. It’s better to watch with minds like those of my grandchildren, aged ten and thirteen.
Last night we watched “Ant Man And The Wasp”. My grandkids loved it. I endured it. Marvel movies are bloated with filler, that is, every “BOP! POW! And WHAM!” takes up screen time and makes for a longer film. Each mighty punch sends characters toppling end over end until they land with such force that their booties excavate the pavement or shatter all the windows in an office building. Such destruction! Miraculously, no one is crushed by the falling buses or lethal shards of sky scraper glass. unless that injury is an important plot device. Otherwise, the hordes of innocent bystanders are blessed with hair’s-width escapes from catastrophe.
It seems to me that good writers are those who go the extra mile. Lazy writers are those who go right up to the mile before the EXTRA MILE, then dust their hands together and stop. That’s what’s frustrating about Marvel movies. The producers know that they can inject a liberal amount of fake fighting and harmless destruction into the script. How much? Fifteen minutes? Twenty? Maybe half an hour of combat-without-consequences?. IF (and we are) raising children with this stuff establishes a dangerous idea, that is, “THERE ARE NO REAL CONSEQUENCES”. There are just provisional outcomes that can always be changed by using a time machine or some deus ex machina, some easy way out. Kids absorb this data hungrily and without critical thinking. They love the bop!bam! stuff and don’t seem to be frustrated by the relative emptiness of the script.
“Ant Man And The Wasp” deals with some heayy concepts, like the world of Quantum Mechanics, the realm of the minute sub-quark particles. The visuals are pretty amazing in their depictions of these mysterious areas. “Someone” I thought (but did not speak aloud) has been smoking some DMT or ingesting psilocybin.”. I took a few moments to explain Quantum Mechanics to my grandkids. They’re super-bright little people who are inherently more evolved than I am. But they’re still kids. I have to tell myself to chill; watch the Marvel Universe with a clear mind and just have fun. The kids understood my explanation of quantum reality as “part of a continuum, from the mighty sizes of galaxies to the infinitesimal sizes of sub atomic particles. BUT..if you live in any of these places then it all looks normal-sized to you and your friends”. Right? Right.
A few minutes ago my grand-daughter came into my office and asked “Whatcha doing, Poppa Art?” I said that I was writing a review of the movie we saw last night. I explained my point of view and she seemed to grasp that a world in which no one REALLY dies is a bit fatuous. I explained that Marvel’s tactics remove the real terror from their productions. We all know that none of the heroes will die. That there’s always some last-minute rescue, or the sequel will resuscitate the seemingly annihilated people.
Haven’t our movies and TV shows always been like this? The soft-peddle American media archives are full of plots with happy endings. The hero always triumphs; the frustrated couple always get their passionate kiss. Yeah, it’s always been like this but in 2020 we are seeing the maturation of world-shaking technology that is changing the tenor or our lives from the ground up.. There’s more technology, more ways to soften the blows of so-called REALITY. As if to compensate, REALITY amps up the blows, grows more furious with each passing year.
For my grandkids, I fear that reality has never been less real.
The soundtrack of “Ant Man And The Wasp” brings a relentless rhythmic figure, a continuous percussive BAH BAH bu BUH BUMP BUMP that induces an excited state in the viewer. It is so pernicious that my sleep was disturbed last night until I got up at around three in the morning and quietly played some Joni Mitchell. THAT was the last thing I heard before returning to bed and snoring away the next four hours. It’s important to understand this level of aural hygiene. The last sounds you hear remain in your head until you hear something else. If you want to sleep, you need to ditch the agitating sounds in favor of something soothing. It works that way for me, anyway.
I explained the thrust of this essay to my granddaughter: that none of the heroes REALLY die and that makes the movies way less scary. I think she grasped my point but I don’t really know. The universes in which we live are so different. We’re family, we’re close but I can’t escape the sense that people live light years apart despite being in the same room.
I’m less worried about the future when I see how these kids cope. Quantum Mechanics? They don’t care; its just something people say that means invisibly tiny stuff, like stuff that makes bacteria look HUGE by comparison!
They get it. They know that bacteria are too small to see, so why not even smaller stuff that makes invisible germs look huge?
If we take care not to squash the imaginations of these grandchildren, they will be better prepared for the turbulent future that is roaring towards them with all of its dangers.
Powers in Motion
by Jeff Bowles
As a storytelling medium, comic books have been around longer than anyone living today. Some disagreement exists among historians as to just what the first published example is, but more or less, comics have been with us since the mid-19th century. Certainly, they didn’t explode into absolute pop culture dominance until the advent of superheroes and supervillains, their best-known and most beloved subjects of exploration, but the truth is millions upon millions of comics have sold in all the time since.
It goes without saying that if not for the creation of one very special character, comic books would not exist in the form in which they do today. In 1938, two young men from Cleveland, hard-up for more satisfying and lucrative creative endeavors, concocted a simple yet compelling narrative based on the biblical stories they’d grown up with. An infant savior from another place, sent from on high by his father to protect and guide humankind. Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster were thinking more Moses than Jesus, but the Judeo-Christian allegory that is Superman tapped into something deep within the psyches of readers everywhere.
When DC Comics published Action Comics #1, the first appearance of the Man of Steel, the company had no earthly concept what they were unleashing on the world. The first appearance of Batman followed a year later, and quick on his heels were characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. Sales were massive for this new kind of storytelling, so full of color and simple, easy-to-understand moral allegory. Until Superman showed up, comics were usually about hard-as-nails detectives and avengers of the night who could neither fly nor leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Supes, he was different.
It was and still is widely accepted that comics are for children, but adults like them, too. In fact, as the Allies went to war in Europe and the Pacific, young servicemen and women brought their recreational reading habits to the front lines. Japan in particular adopted comic books with unrestrained delight. In the year 2020, they remain the top producer of the entire global industry, having created a literary genre unto itself in Manga.
Back in the US, the end of World War II brought with it new social standards, including a certain suspicion of the medium. It became widely believed that comics contributed to childhood delinquency, vandalism, and violence. Senate hearings were held on the matter, not unlike those that plagued the video game industry after the Columbine massacre. In both cases, the federal government imposed rating systems, and at least as far as comics were concerned, the high flying antics of superheroes were dragged a bit closer to earth.
In the 1950s, comics gained a squeaky-clean image, which contributed to their overall decline in sales. It seemed that the original generation of kids who had embraced characters like Superman and Batman had grown up, and they were by no means interested in overtly sanitized farces. Network television had a hit on their hands with the George Reeves Superman show, carried over to some extent by earlier radio productions. But the comic book itself faced its first major hurdle: people just didn’t care anymore.
Times change, and so do the kinds of stories we like to tell each other. In 1961, Marvel Comics (formerly, Timely Comics) got into the superhero game in a big way with the introduction of Fantastic Four #1. This single issue began what enthusiasts call the silver age of comic books, and creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko didn’t stop there. Many other characters emerged from their Manhattan offices: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, The Uncanny X-Men, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, all created within the first ten years of the company’s resurgence. They even added an old figure from their distant past to the roster of the newly-minted Marvel Universe. Captain America is almost as old as Superman, but he’d been all but forgotten by fans until Stan Lee decided to pull him from the ice.
The medium exploded in popularity once more, and the 1970s saw advancements that began eschewing the now decades-old Comics Code Authority. DC, for instance, who initially struggled to keep up with Marvel’s perceived hipness, got into all the major social battles of the time, including equal rights, racism, drug addiction, and violence against women. The decade introduced some of the most compelling and sophisticated comic stories told to date, and Marvel and DC became twin powerhouses of an artform many had thought dead and buried.
In 1978, Warner Bros. produced what many consider to be the first serious superhero film, Superman: The Movie. Demand for the character and other DC properties climbed to dizzying heights. In the decade that followed, comics continued to mature, became darker and much more adult, featuring storylines and characters that took advantage of the public’s newfound love of antiheroes. Marvel made huge waves with the likes of The Punisher, Venom, and new takes on classic characters like Spider-Man, The X-men, and The Avengers. Over at DC, things got even more experimental, with major new series like Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke, not to mention the introduction of their Vertigo imprint, which exclusively publishes adult-only material
A new collector’s market formed around special releases and big-stakes stories that reset the board, such as The Death of Superman and the first issue of Marvel’s five-variant-cover X-Men #1. Like so many other markets built on false commodity, however, the bubble eventually ruptured, and comics have seen a slow but steady decline in sales ever since. DC has faired pretty well historically, partially because they were acquired by Warner Bros. in 1969. Marvel, on the other hand, slipped into bankruptcy, and only barely pulled themselves out by the skin of their teeth.
By the late 1990s, the future of comic books was in question. It had become clear that the business of printing colorful heroes and edgy villains was on shaky ground, but the new millennium heralded in a trend few in the industry saw coming.
DC had always had hit-and-miss successes with their film division. Though 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman were big for their time and place, superhero movies were still widely considered risky business. In 1998, Marvel Entertainment co-produced a film based on their daywalking, vampire-slaying Blade character. Though the film did average box office, Marvel viewed it as a sign of bigger and better things to come. Two years later, they released an X-Men movie which fared much better, and two years after that, it was Spider-Man’s turn.
Marvel earned one success after another at the box office, creating new film-based iterations of classic characters like The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. But it wasn’t until 2008 and the release of a little movie called Iron Man that everything changed. At the time, Marvel Entertainment and producer Kevin Feige hatched an idea to do for their movies what Stan Lee had done for their comics back in the early ’60s, namely, they decided to turn them into a working shared universe. Marvel released a few key introduction movies and then bet the farm on 2012’s The Avengers.
The absolute financial and critical dominance of that movie was eclipsed only by its potential for more stories and even bigger box office hauls. Disney bought Marvel in 2009, adding significant distribution and funding prowess to the small company that had almost folded not ten years prior. Though DC and the WB have tried to match the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the decade ending 2019 was completely dominated—in one form or another, it seems—by characters created by Stan Lee and his successors.
But what about comic books themselves? Do people still read them? Do they still sell? More or less, they do, though even fans get the sense the comic divisions of the big publishers only exist to fuel their filmmaking endeavors. Marvel, DC, and others still know how to tell great stories, and they do it every single week, every month, every year. More major contributors to the industry include Darkhorse, Image, IDW, and Valiant. Comics are not now and have never been solely about superheroes, and the indie space in particular proves that this kind of storytelling is open and ready for all.
Regardless of how you feel about the dominance of comic-bookisms in our culture, the slow decline of the publishing industry beneath it, and the ultimate moral ambiguity of “good guys” who beat the crap out of “bad guys”, the fact remains that comics have been a force of societal transformation for over eighty years, longer in fact, when you factor in the storytelling traditions at play, some of which are as ancient as humankind itself. The first comic book, published in the 19th century, whatever it may have been, set a ball rolling that continues to, well, crush the life out of everything in its path.
Only one question needs to be asked at this point: who do you like better, Marvel, DC, or the bold and bombastic characters of some other powerhouse company? Sound off in the comments section below, guys. And continue to stay tuned all May for more superhero/supervillain themed articles and posts right here on Writing to be Read. Excelsior!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Music – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
You can keep up with all of Jeff’s posts right here on Writing to be Read. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today.