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From Super to Nuts

by James Bowman

Posted: Jul 24, 2014 10:12 AM

Marvel Comics' new Thor

The other day Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post, had an interesting piece in the paper inspired by the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In it, she asked why, much as she admired the film, it fell into a now-familiar pattern of “darkening” in movie adaptations  stories and characters that began life in comic books or the equivalent. “Dawn’s funereal tone,” she wrote, “seems to be the norm these days, especially for reboots of legacy franchises that, in their efforts not to succumb to sentimental nostalgia or trivialized camp, succumb to amped-up carnage and inflated self-seriousness instead.” Ms Hornaday suggests several reasons why this might be so, among them the fact that “they flatter the sensibilities of studios and the executives who greenlight these projects, reassuring them that their core competency—raiding their and others’ archives for valuable ‘pre-sold’ source material—can be one of gravitas and meaning, rather than simple repurposing of pop signifiers.”

A less charitable—and less jargony—way to put this would be to say that the studio heads who fondly imagine they are in the business of producing something called “art” are naturally embarrassed about devoting their time and talents to such flimsy, childish rubbish as superheroes and talking animals and so seek out ways to dignify it in their own minds. “Dark” suggests to them that they are making something like the real movies that Hollywood used to make before the cartoon takeover in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the other reasons Ms Hornaday cites—that, for example, “darker” cartoon projects attract big name actors and directors as well as audiences of people who expect to take their cartoons seriously— seem to me to boil down to the same reason. Grown up people need something suggesting seriousness, however implausibly, to cover their embarrassment about spending time and money on amusements they know are really only suitable for children, if for them.

Nor is this urge limited to those adapting the comics to film. The attempt to give a factitious seriousness to something that is fundamentally unserious goes back to the earliest days of the comics themselves, as Michael Cavna’s celebration of Batman’s 75th birthday in yesterday’s Post  makes clear. Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, took his drawings to an artist friend named Bill Finger, says Mr Cavna, “who sharpened and darkened the look of ‘the Batman.’” More darkening became necessary after Adam West’s camp TV Batman of the 1960s. This, according to Glen Weldon, quoted by Mr Cavna, was undertaken by Dennis O’Neil whose “decision to introduce a note of obsession saved Batman, and indirectly the comics industry, by offering a masculine ideal with whom [capital-N] Nerds could identify, and cherish.”

The masculine ideal, it should be noted, was made safe for the Nerds by being relegated to the realm of fantasy — where, since anything could happen, it didn’t even need to be masculine anymore. That must be why Marvel comics — no doubt soon to be followed by the movie-makers — have now performed a sex-change operation on Thor, the former Norse god, formerly transformed into the super-macho superhero of the same name by Stan Lee. Hey, if you’re going to fantasize Thor and his kind into existence anyway, why stop with giving him super-powers? Why not just fantasize away any other limits reality imposes on you that you don’t like? Hasn’t Bradley Manning established that it is a human right for us all to be whichever sex (or “gender”) we choose? 

Though comic book connoisseurs such as Noah Berlatsky may try to peddle their own fantasy that girls are as avid for superheroes as boys are, I see no evidence that juveniles of the fairer sex are clamoring to be given a Thor-like “role model” of their own, complete with a hammer and destructive superpowers. Thor-ess seems to me much more likely to be the product of someone catering for the kind of person who thinks, as Angela Watercutter put it in Wired, that “the importance of a new female superhero can’t be understated.” I thought for a moment that maybe she really did mean understated rather than overstated, but it turns out not. “So, yes,” she concludes, “Thor becoming a female character—the comics hit in October and will be written by Jason Aaron with art from Russell Dauterman—is very cool, and is a very big deal. But you know what’s even cooler? The fact that everyone knows it.” I think that’s probably what the two guys, Jason and Russell, were thinking, too, when they came up with the idea. I mean as well as the fact that their flattery of the feminist fantasy would mark them out as hommes sérieux.

 

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

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