Comedy

“Some of it is very much me. Some of it isn’t.”

One of the most persistent and unkillable myths in the history of comics is the “saving” of Batman by Frank Miller. You’ve probably heard it. The Batman comics were just a giggling campy mess after the sixties TV show and it was only with Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 that Batman became dark and gritty again. Cool story, but complete guano (and one I’m pretty sure I helped spread at a much earlier point in my career as a semi-professional nerd rodent). Truth is, the comics had been pushing back hard against the BIF BAM KAPOW image from as early as 1970 in an attempt to bring Batman back to his roots as a grim, brooding nocturnal hero.

What The Dark Knight Returns did do was bring that darker Batman that was already present in the comics to a much wider audience. DKR was published in 1986, the year that also saw the release of Watchmen, and the release of these two comics in the still relatively new graphic novel format made about as big an impact as it is possible for comics to make.

Batman was the first attempt to reframe Batman in the popular consciousness from the Adam West incarnation into something closer to his comic depictions. Did it succeed?

“Yeah. Yeah, just a bit.”

To put it another way, this is by far the single most influential depiction of Batman in any medium in the eighty year history of the character. This movie was where Batman went from “Flagship comic book character and star of a pretty popular TV show” to “Modern Secular God”. In terms of box office, merchandising revenue and pop culture impact it was on the Star Wars tier.  “Fine Mouse”, you say. “But what’s it done for us lately? Does it stand up?”

To which I say, “Yes. It does stand up. And then it flaps its wings, like a pretty, pretty butterfly.”

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“It doesn’t have to be good to be a classic.”

Let me tell you about the only comic book to ever make me cry in public.

From the first page of Amazing Spider-Man #121 something is off. There’s no title. Simply a sombre note from editorial telling the reader that they won’t actually learn what the name of the story is until the end. But it’s still very much a seventies Spider-Man story; bright primary colour palette, soap opera melodrama to burn and an exclamation point/period ratio of around 90 to 1. Norman Osbourne, who used to be the Green Goblin but has forgotten the whole thing because of amnesia, is undergoing a psychological breakdown because his son Harry went on a bad acid trip (did I mention that this came out in the seventies?). Suddenly, he relapses and remembers not only that he’s the Green Goblin, but that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Racing to Peter’s apartment to enact his revenge, he instead finds Peter’s girlfriend Gwen Stacey who he abducts. Peter desperately pursues the Goblin to a bridge (George Washington per the text, Brooklyn according to the art) and Spider-Man and Osbourne have a desperate, thrilling mid-air battle that comes to a horrific halt when Gwen Stacey is thrown of the bridge by the Goblin.

Frantically, Peter shoots his webs to catch her before she hits the ground…and he does! He’s saved her! He’s won! Good triumphs over…

No. This time it’s different. And, on the final page, we at last learn the name of the story we’ve been reading which is, of course The Night Gwen Stacey Died. This is the panel that always makes me well up. :

At this point in the comics, Peter Parker was no longer a teenager. He had graduated college, he was an adult. But he was still very much a children’s character. And I find something indescribably tragic about this child’s superhero cradling the body of the woman he loves, unable to comprehend that his world has changed and that the old rules don’t hold true anymore. Good does not always triumph over evil. The innocent are not always spared. The guilty are not always punished. The people you cannot live without will be taken nonetheless. It’s a story about the loss of innocence we all go through and it’s one of very few single issue comics that I would hold up as an absolute work of art. It’s a piece that’s moved me deeply and that I feel a real personal connection to. And I think one of the reasons why it is such a gut punch is because the brutal tragedy at the heart of story is contained in all this colourful, innocent Silver Age goofiness, like a hand grenade with a pink smiley face on it. It wouldn’t work a tenth as well if done in a moody, gritty “realistic” style.

The Night Gwen Stacey Died became an instant classic and to this day is usually considered the demarcation point between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age, a period marked by a more mature and literary style of comics that produced some of the greatest masterpieces in the genre. Unfortunately it also taught a generation of hacks that they could kill the hero’s girlfriend for some cheap drama and pathos. Nowadays, the phenomenon of female supporting characters being killed to provide motivation for the male lead is usually called “Women in Refrigerators”, a term coined by writer Gail Simone after a particularly notorious Green Lantern storyline, but before that it was called “Gwen Stacey Syndrome” because it was really this story that opened those floodgates. To be clear, this does not make The Night Gwen Stacey Died a bad story (or at least, I certainly don’t think it does). The problem is the raft of imitators who failed to realise that what made Gwen’s death so shocking and effective was that it was so rare. Hard as it might be to believe, prior to 1973 women almost never died in mainstream comics, and if they did (Batman’s mother for example) it was almost always off panel. So what does this have to do with The Killing Joke?

Well, The Killing Joke is a 1988 Batman story by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland, and since its release its been frequently lauded as one of the best Batman stories, the definitive Joker story and one of the greatest comics of all time. (thanks to Clifford who pointed out that I actually put it on my list of greatest comics which I had completely forgotten). However, it has also increasingly been viewed as being somewhat…problematic…

Frau_Blucher

Why? Well, because in the course of this story the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, paralysing her, (possibly) sexually assaults her and then shows her father pictures of it in an attempt to break him psychologically. Like Gwen Stacey, Barbara Gordon is brutally assaulted in order to advance the story of a male character, in this case her father and Batman. So there’s quite a bit of backlash against this book, with even Alan Moore himself effectively disowning it. Although honestly, take that with a grain of salt. Despite being the most influential writer in the history of the medium not named Lee, Siegel or Finger, Alan Moore basically now regards the entire comic book industry the way Captain McAllister views the sea.

My feelings? Well…I basically feel about The Killing Joke the way I feel about 99 Problems.

Is it misogynistic? Yes.

Noticeably so for its time and compared to the rest of its genre? Not really.

To the point where it obscures its artistic merits? No.

Of course, reading it now you have the benefit of knowing how the story ends. That Barbara Gordon was able to overcome this tragedy, and became Oracle, a wheel-chair bound superhero who became an inspiration to many disabled comic book fans and one of the most valued heroes not simply in the Bat family but in the DC universe as a whole.

Barbara Gordon | Batman Wiki | Fandom

And then Bruce just had her fixed so she could become Batgirl again, which was inspiring to comic book fans with billionaire friends who magically solve all their problems for them.

Ultimately, despite the problematic…

Frau_Blucher

…elements of the story I still think it deserves to be considered one of the all time great Batman yarns. And I was really pumped for this animated adaptation. Look at this line up! Bruce Timm, creator of the legendary Batman the Animated Series was producing, well-regarded Batman scribe Brian Azzaerello was writing the script and the voice cast was shit shot: Conroy! Tara Strong! MARK HAMILL COMING OUT OF RETIREMENT TO DO ALAN MOORE’S JOKER YE GODS!

But then early word had it that the animated adaptation would be greatly expanding Barbara’s role in the story and I was leery. I mean, on the one hand, it’s certainly a laudable impulse to want to address criticisms of the original by giving Barbara Gordon more agency and putting her experience front and centre. On the other hand, that is a radical change to the story. Put bluntly, The Killing Joke is not a Barbara Gordon story. Hell, it’s not even really a Batman story. It’s a story about the conflict between Moral Nihilism as represented by the Joker versus Ethical Objectivism personified by Jim Gordon. So my feeling was that if the creators doubted their source material to the point that they would make such a radical change, they probably shouldn’t be adapting it in the first place.

My worry was that we would get a more progressive, more enlightened, less problematic version of The Killing Joke but probably not a better one.

Oh, oh, oh…

I wish that was what we got.

JESUS.

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The Quiet Man (1952)

Alright. Let’s get one thing straight. Damn straight.

Review Darby O’Gill and the Little People? Perfectly logical, I’m an Irish reviewer still best known for Disney reviews, who else would you be getting?

Review The Quiet Man? Waaaaay the hell out of my wheelhouse but okay, I’m Irish and you want to get my take on what is still, over half a century later, probably the most famous depiction of Ireland ever released by Hollywood, for good and ill. That’s fine. That’s fine.

But if any of you sons of bitches try and get me to review Far and Away there will be bloodshed.

Got it? Okay then.

Like any movie reviewer I have my blindspots. There are genres and actors and even whole eras of movie history that I’m just not very well up on. And one of those genres is Westerns. Just never liked them. Don’t know why. Maybe it’s because when I was growing up Irish television used to show them constantly. Every time you flipped a channel, a horse fell over. Now, obviously, I’m not saying Westerns are bad or even that I don’t like any of ’em. I really liked the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit for example. And I’ve always had plenty of time for Western comedies like Way Out West, Support Your Local Sheriff and of course Blazing Saddles (probably says something that my favourite Westerns tend to be ripping the almighty piss out of the genre). But, by and large, the 20th century’s single most popular film genre and I maintained a respectful distance, meaning I never really figured out how I feel about its most famous star, John Wayne. As an actor, I mean.  And having watched The Quiet Man, I’m still not sure. Of course, Marion Michael Robinson’s skills (or lack thereof) as an actor have been fiercely debated for decades which is a weird thing to say about one of Hollywood’s biggest ever box-office draws with a Best Actor Oscar.

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“I love you 3000.”

One of the hardest things about telling any story is sticking the landing.

A bad ending is not only bad in and of itself, it’s like a cancer that reaches back in time and kills everything that went before it. I can’t enjoy Sherlock anymore. All the clever writing and great performances and wonderful little tricksy puzzles turn to ash when you remember that it’s all leading up to Sherlock defeating his previously unknown little sister with superpowers.

The violin of Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in Sherlock S04E03 | Spotern

I’d say “spoilers”, but shit doesn’t spoil.

If I had had to write the script for Endgame I’d probably have gone mad with the pressure. I remember marvelling (heh) at Joss Whedon’s script for Avengers back in 2012 and how it managed to juggle seven (SEVEN!) main characters and serve as a satisfying conclusion to five (FIVE!) films. My, how young we were. So imagine the weight of expectation resting on the shoulders of Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and the Russo Brothers, having to juggle a story with dozens upon dozens of named characters AND has to serve as a capstone to a 22 film cycle. I mean, Christ. I’ve only had to review these things and it feels like I’ve climbed Everest.

Did they pull it off? You probably have your own opinions on that but, well…this thing made 2.8 billion dollars at the box-office so somebody liked it.

So, because this thing is over three hours long, this review is going to be a two-parter. Also, I’m not going to do a big introduction explaining the history of these characters and the background to this movie because, well…

“What do you think I’ve been DOING for the last five years?!”

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“You’re the best of all of us, Miles. You’re on your way.”

Do a google image search for “Movie stars of the 1940s” and you’ll probably get something like this.

My eyes! The glare!

But if you do a similar image search for the current decade and you get this:

So my point is, racism is over.

No, obviously not. But, over the decades there has been a definite shift in American media as film and television has come to (somewhat) more closely resemble contemporary American society. Now picture something for me. Imagine Humphry Bogart and Carey Grant and Errol Flynn were all still alive, never ageing, and still acting in movies with hundreds or thousands of roles under their belts. Imagine how difficult it would be for new actors, particularly female actors or actors of colour, to break into the business and make a name for themselves. Imagine a world where the Golden Age greats almost never died, and even if they did someone always brought them back to life.

Well obviously, who else?

Picture that world, and then you’ll understand why it’s so damnably difficult to introduce more diversity into comics. Clark Kent is never going to get old, retire and pass on the mantle to a young Hispanic boy (not permanently at least). Superman is part of the Western collective consciousness now. He’s not going anywhere, any more than Robin Hood or King Arthur. And to be clear, I don’t want him to. A world without Superman, and I mean this with absolute dead seriousness, would be a far, far worse one. But the problem remains, there are only so many comic books one company can put out in a month and there are only so many seats at the table. And opportunities for promotion are vanishingly rare.

Consider Cyborg.

Dude on the far right.

A few years back, DC rebooted their universe and established a new origin for the Justice League which now included Cyborg as a founding member, thereby implicitly placing his as one of the seven most important superheroes in the DC universe. And there was of course a lot of harrumphing that DC were pandering to political correctness by including this new Johnny-come-lately diversity hire who hadn’t earned his place on the team. Think about that. A character who first appeared FORTY GODDAMNED YEARS AGO still was deemed to have not paid his dues. Which is not to say that publishers don’t sometimes try to shoehorn diversity into their books in a way that both alienates their long-time readers while also coming off as insultingly pandering and utterly tone-dead attempts to woo a new audience they don’t remotely understand.

Marvel Fails With 'New' New Warriors | Cosmic Book News

This was like the internet’s Christmas Truce Football Match. for one brief, shining moment, everyone was able to come together and agree that this was fucking terrible.

Cyborg is a non-white character with an original gimmick who managed to break into the top tier but in that respect he is very much the exception and not the rule. Far more common is for a new character to take on the powers and costume of an older hero, what’s sometimes called a Legacy Hero.

Introducing a new character to take on the mantle of an older, storied hero is a bit like defusing a bomb. There’s only one way it can go right, and a million ways it can go wrong. Probably the best case study of how not to do this would be the passing of the Green Lantern mantle from Hal Jordan to Kyle Rayner.

Now on paper, this was a transition that had a lot going for it. Green Lantern is a fantastic concept that was often let down by a pretty dull central character. Hal Jordan was a stodgy, by-the-book military man whose most memorable storyline involved him travelling around America with Green Arrow and being wrong about literally everything. Oh, and it had the most “seventies comics” panel in the history of seventies comics.

The Watchtower — Green Lantern #76 “What about the black skins?”

And yet, somehow, racism persisted.

The idea therefore was to replace Hal Jordan with Kyle Rayner, a young artist. Y’know, a guy who actually uses his imagination professionally and might be able to use a cosmic space ring to conjure something more visually interesting than a giant green fist for the billionth fucking time. Plus, you get the interesting contrast of a young man with no experience as a superhero suddenly having to deal with being one of the most powerful capes in the DC universe. Not a bad idea at all.

How did they fuck it up?

Firstly, they had Hal Jordan go insane and slaughter the entire Green Lantern Corps and become a super-villain called Parallax. Then, while Green Lantern fans were still coming to terms with a character they’d followed for thirty five years turning into Charles Fucking Manson Kyle Rayner was foisted on them without so much as a by your leave. And, to really drive the point home, every second character who met Kyle was sure to inform him that he was now the “one, true Green Lantern”.

The fans naturally enough, rolled their eyes but decided that it wasn’t worth getting all worked up over nah I’m just kidding it was like the fall of Saigon out there. The Green Lantern fandom splintered and became a toxic mess that really only healed when Hal was restored as Green Lantern in 2005.

So what’s to be learned from that? I think it boils down to respect. Rather than simply replacing Hal Jordan, or allowing him a heroic death saving the Earth, DC elected to destroy him, to trash the character so badly that readers would (they assumed) flock to Kyle Rayner as their one true lantern. They didn’t respect the character or their audience’s love for him and so they were completely unprepared for the backlash against the new guy who they (rightly) saw as the reason why Hal was done dirty.

On the flipside, for an example of a Legacy Character being introduced about as well as can be, look to the introduction of Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man.

The Ultimate universe was an imprint started by Marvel at the turn of the millennium to have rebooted versions of their heroes that weren’t constrained by 6 decades of continuity. It was also intended to allow creators to take riskier approaches with classic characters and answer questions like “What if Captain America was a dick?”, “What if the Hulk ate people?” and “What if Hawkeye was just the worst?”

By far the best thing to come out of the Ultimate Universe was Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man, a run which I will always recommend to anyone who wants to get started in comics. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel. It’s just the story of fifteen year old Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man and encountering his usual rogue’s gallery. But the art is gorgeous and the writing is sharp and sweet and funny and it’s probably my favourite run of Spider-Man and yeah, I include the original Lee-Ditko run in that. But what made Bendis and Bagley’s version of the story of Peter Parker so memorable was that they were actually able to give it an ending. The Green Goblin attacks Peter Parker’s home and tries to kill Aunt May, with Peter sacrificing his life to save his aunt.

How did the death of ultimate Spider-Man effect you? : Spiderman  Okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. Just don’t show the panel with him meeting Uncle Ben in heaven…

*UNCONTROLLABLE SOBBING*

I won’t say that there was no backlash to the introduction of Miles Morales because look what planet we’re living on, but his introduction went about as smoothly as these things can, and there’s a reason why Miles Morales was one of very few elements carried over to main Marvel continuity once the powers that be finally stuck a pillow over the Ultimate Universe’s face. Because Peter’s story was concluded on such a deeply affecting note, Miles felt less like an interloper and more like a fresh start. It also helped that Miles, like the fans, was someone who greatly admired Spider-Man and was grieving his death. That created a connection between the character and his new readers and made them more willing to accept him.

Let’s be honest, the omens for Into the Spider-Verse were not good. Firstly, it’s an animated film by Sony, who have probably the worst track record of any of the major American animation studios. Secondly, it’s a Spider-Man film by Sony, who have definitely got the worst track record of any American studio that has ever made Spider-Man movies.

3 Dev Adam.jpg

And I only said “American” because Turkey exists.

Of course, there is a simple rule in Hollywood. Think of the worst idea for a movie you can; a comedy reboot of an old police procedural? Two hour long toy commercial? Movie where weather is food? Give it to Phil Lord and Chris Miller and they will spin that shit into gold.

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Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #58: Frozen 2

Guys. I’m really scared. I think this might be it.

I mean, I know we’ve had our share of close calls and near misses, but I can’t shake the feeling that this really is the big one. This is finally how it all ends.

“Aw shit!”

“AAAAAAAH WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”

“OH PLEASE GOD NO!”

“What?! What are you talking about?! I just meant I’m worried about the current state of the Disney canon movies!”

“Ohhhhhhhh…”

“What did you think I meant?”

“Oh nothing, nothing. Everything’s just grand.”

I mean seriously, I am concerned. Have you heard about Raya and the Last Dragon? It’s the next canon movie, due for release in November of this year, which feels like a long time because we’re all doing jail time right now and time passes slower on the inside but it’s also really not that far away. And after that?

Nothing.

Zip.

Bupkiss.

There are no officially announced Disney canon movies after Raya. And, while I’ll be the first to admit I’m not as plugged into the Disney fandom as I used to be I can’t say that I’m sensing a lot of hype for Raya. Plus, c’mon Disney. You’re really going to make a CGI Dragon movie? That’s, like, Dreamworks’ one thing that they still do well and you’re going to try to take it from them? For shame.

“Stay on East Side!”

I mean, you don’t see Dreamworks trying to copy your movies. Ahem.

So it’s starting to feel like the Disney canon’s in trouble. Maybe that’s just me jumping the gun. Admittedly, not everyone feels the way I do about Wreck It Ralph 2And maybe I’m just letting my impressions be coloured by the Disney company’s drift away from “movie company” to “Lexcorp-esque colossus of super-villainy”. Because I am all kinds of outraged about that. I mean, not enough to cancel my Disney + subscription or alter my spending habits in any way. But outraged enough to loudly proclaim how outraged I am on the internet? Oh yes. I am willing to be the hero this world needs.

But anyway Frozen 2. Usually before diving into a review I’ll give some background as to how the movie came about but how about we cut the shit? I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and tell you how one morning Jennifer Lee shot bold upright in bed, struck with the inspiration for the next chapter of the Arrendelle saga that simply had to be told. We’re all grownups here (I hope, otherwise I really should lay of the cussin’). Frozen gifted the Disney company a fortune, and that fortune wanted a little brother or sister. A movie makes a certain amount of money, and a sequel is no longer optional. That’s why James Cameron is still threatening to smite the Earth with Avatar 2. And look, maybe it’s fine. Getting a bunch of talented people in a room and hoping the lightning strikes twice isn’t the craziest way to make a good movie.  Maybe there is room for the story to go. Maybe Olaf’s character does need further exploration. Maybe the worst is behind us.

“No. No, we’re all doomed.”

“Dude, relax. It’s just a movie.”

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It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

It is with the greatest embarrassment that I must admit that despite reviewing and writing about animation for almost eight years now I had never heard of Don Hertzfeldt. I know, I know. That’s like saying you’re really into rock music and never having heard of The Common Sense. It’s like putting yourself out there as an expert on Renaissance painting and knowing nothing about Vincentio.

For crying out loud, it’s like saying you’re obsessed with American history and not knowing about William Batholomew Brockholst.

I mean can you imagine? Not knowing about Brockholst? And all the stuff he did?

Hertzfeldt is one of those guys who makes you go “oh, this fucking guy”.

At 18, he single-handedly animated and scored Ah, L’Amour which won the Grand Prize Award for “World’s Funniest Cartoon” at the HBO Comedy Awards. This launched him into a career where he basically became the indie-animation Pixar, except he’s not an animation studio, he’s just one dude and if anything he’s gotten more critical acclaim and he never made Cars. He’s been nominated for an Oscar twice but never actually won so you know he’s not a sellout. And his films have frequently been named as the greatest animated films of the year, decade or all time. He also looks younger than me despite being six years older and he probably does yoga.

Oh, this fucking guy.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is actually three of Hertzfeldt’s short films strung together (seems kinda lazy to me, but what do I know?): Everything Will be Okay, I am so Proud of You and It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Despite being made over several years, the three films integrate seamlessly into a flawless whole because of course they fucking do.

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Heathers (1988)

“Okay everyone, are we ready to review Don Hertzfeld’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day?”

“Uh Mouse, we got a problem.”

“Oh, what’s up?”

“Well, it turns out “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” isn’t available on any of the main streaming sites.”

“Well, darn.”

“So you’re going to have to order the DVD instead.”

“Well, darn.”

“And the DVD’s not going to arrive until after the review is due to go up.”

“Well, darn.”

“Because the world’s in the grip of a global pandemic the likes of which has never been seen in living memory, the whole country is in lockdown and western civilization has been brought to its knees.”

“Well, darn.”

“So you’re going to have to review something else.”

“Okay, Heathers is next in the queue, let’s just do that.”

“Wait…what was the last one you said?”

Heeeeeeeeeey so things have been a little more immediately apocalyptic around here than usual, huh?

Hope you all are staying safe and indoors. For obvious reasons, this review is going to be on the short side.

“What reasons? You’ve been at home for the last week, if anything you should have MORE written than usual.”

“Yeah, but I was working from home and you’d be amazed how much work you have to do when you’re not being distracted by office politics.”

Anyway, this is going to be less of a plot point by plot point recap and more…a sort of…movie review if you can imagine such a thing.

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Mars Needs Moms (2011)

Whereas other film-makers are driven to explore certain themes or character archetypes or genres, what seems to get Robert Zemeckis out of bed every morning artistically is the tech: How can this or that new special effects technique be used to tell a story that’s never been told? And while I personally don’t think that’s necessarily the greatest starting point for telling a story, fair is fair, it’s lead Zemeckis to create some truly fantastic films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy and also movies that people insist on thinking are fantastic, like Forrest Gump and Cast Away.

Robert Zemeckis is a true film-making pioneer. And by “pioneer” I mean “person who goes to strange new places that it might have been better for all involved if he’d stayed at home”. Specifically, with his 2004 film The Polar Express he discovered the Uncanny Valley and liked it so much he decided to build a cabin and the spend the rest of his career there. Today’s movie is part of a sequence of Zemeckis directed and/or produced movies that used the gimmick of taking famous actors and slathering them in digital paint to create something that eschews the believability of live action while also avoiding the tedious charm and inventiveness of animation (I know, right? Isn’t that the dream?). Seriously though, I am genuinely agog at the amount of time and money Zemeckis has spent on something that could never be anything other than the worst of both worlds. Motion capture can be a wonderful tool, sure, and many films make excellent use of it. But Zemeckis seems to want this one tool to be the whole movie. It’s like he’s trying to build a house entirely out of spanners. It would be pointless, as there are far better materials to build a house out of and a spanner house would be ugly, cold and utterly unsuited for actual human beings so I think this metaphor is doing trojan work.

In case I’m being a little too subtle up in here, Mars Needs Moms is a bad, bad, bad film. It’s the kind of movie that legendary film critic Pauline Kael would have referred to as “a stinking pile of the devil’s ass biscuits”.

She was a treasure.

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“Since when is a shortcut cheating?”

“Are you there God? It’s me. Mouse.”

“WHAT TROUBLES YOU MY SON?”

“Well, I’m supposed to review Captain Marvel…”

“AH, AND YOU’RE WORRIED BECAUSE YOU’RE KINDA OF MEH ON IT BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO INDULGE THE MOST TOXIC ELEMENTS OF FANDOM BY GIVING IT A BAD REVIEW?”

“Actually, I was more wondering whether I really have to give an exhaustive way-too-long explanation as to why there are so many DAMN characters named Captain Marvel?”

“YES, YOU DO.”

“Why?”

“BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT I PUT YOU ON THIS EARTH TO DO.”

“Fair enough.”

That’s right people, we’re doing this. If you want to just skip ahead to my thoughts on the movie you’re free to join us after the jump. Just know that you’re dead to me. Now, I would bet good money that there have been more characters named “Captain Marvel” than any other superhero mantle. There have been a few Batmen, a bushel of Flashes and a whole mess o’ Green Lanterns, but by my count there have been no fewer than TWELVE Captain Marvels and that’s not even counting Captain Marvel Juniors, alternate future versions and weird rip-offs like Marvelman, Marvel Boy and the Marvellous Ms Maisel. So what gives? Well, it comes down to a combination of legal shenanigans, bad luck and weird coincidences far too complicated to go into here. Nonetheless, I will go into it them here.

Okay. So. Our story begins in 1940, a mere two years after National Comics (later DC) birthed the modern superhero genre with the creation of Superman. Fawcett Comics introduced their new character, Captain Marvel, whose gimmick was that he was actually a little boy named Billy Batson who turned into a suspiciously Superman-like superhero when he shouted his magic word “SHAZAM!”.

It was, and remains, one of the most perfect concepts for a superhero ever. If you subscribe to the belief that superheroes are, at their core, innocent power fantasies for small children, that is about as perfect a distillation of the concept as you can get. Kids could imagine one day growing up to be Superman. But you could be Captain Marvel now. And it was easy. Just say a magic word and you could be bigger, tougher, faster and smarter than anyone else. Which, when you’re a kid growing up in a world where everything is tough and confusing and bigger than you…that’s the dream, right? The comic also introduced the obligatory kid sidekick, Captain Marvel Junior and the almost as obligatory distaff counterpart; Mary Marvel:

She’s Billy Batson’s long-lost sister Mary Batson with the same powers who also took the Captain Marvel mantle for a time so we’re counting her. She’s also one of the very earliest female superheroes and beat Supergirl to the punch by almost a full decade. Anyway, back to Captain Marvel.

So not surprisingly, with such a killer concept, Captain Marvel quickly became the most popular superhero in America, even outselling his inspiration, Superman. National Comics, obviously, weren’t going to let that slide and brought in a new top-tier creative team with fresh ideas to re-vamp Superman and nah just kidding they just went crying to Johnny Law. National took Fawcett to court over copyright infringement and the judge decided that two Caucasian superheroes with black hair was just too big a coincidence and ruled in National’s favour. By this point, the superhero boom was on the wane so Fawcett simply ceased publishing Captain Marvel. That was not the end of the story. In fact, that was barely the beginning of the beginning. So now, let’s talk about Marvel Comics, and how they came to acquire…

“But what about me Mouse?”

“Oh Christ, I’d forgotten about you, MF Enterprises Captain Marvel.”

Yeah, okay, weird little digression here. By 1966 the rights to the character name “Captain Marvel” were up for grabs and a comics company called MF Enterprises published three issues featuring…this.

So…this is Captain Marvel. Allegedly. He’s an android who can split into his constituent parts by yelling “SPLIT!” which is a word. He reforms by yelling “XAM!”, which is not. His alter ego was Roger Winkle. He is, by near unanimous decree of the world’s foremost Marvelogists, the worst Captain Marvel. And it pains me to say this as he was created by Carl Burgos, creator of the greatest superhero of all time; the Original Human Torch.

Man loved his androids. That he did.

Alright moving on.

So National’s old rival Timely Comics had, by the sixties, changed their name to Marvel. Realising that the formerly most popular superhero in America coincidentally had the same name as their company, they figured it was a no-brainer to buy the name for themselves and create their own Captain Marvel.

The first Marvel Marvel was Mar-Vell, an alien spy of the Kree Empire who comes to Earth to prepare the way for an invasion and ends up falling in love with this planet of psychotic apes and becomes a superhero. Mar-Vell never really caught on as he was strictly squares-ville, daddio. He was like Reed Richards without the Thing as a foil, or Captain America without the instant, irrevocable cool that comes from having punched Hitler in the face. To make Mar-Vell more Hip to the Trends, Marvel roped in Rick Jones, perennial sidekick and the Young Peoples’ favourite. Now the status quo was that Mar-Vell was trapped in the Negative Zone but could swap places with Rick Jones in the real world whenever he was needed, a premise that superficially resembled the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel set-up while simultaneously losing everything that made that concept appealing. Captain Marvel asks “what if you could turn into an all-powerful superhero” and Captain Mar-Vell asks “what if you could go to a lightless never-ending void while a strange grown man did things with your body?”

One of them is timeless wish-fulfillment, the other is the kind of thing that takes many years of costly therapy to process.

So it’s not surprising that, like Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor, nothing became Mar-Vell in this life like the leaving of it. The best remembered Mar-Vell story is Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel, in which Captain Marvel applies for a mortgage just kidding he bites the big one. What made this story so unique at the time was that Mar-Vell doesn’t go down fighting some giant, world-ending threat. Instead, he succumbs to cancer and dies quietly in bed surrounded by his friends. The story was well received and is one of the reasons why Mar-Vell’s death is one of the few in comics to never have been permanently reversed (at the time of writing). And it’s at this point in our story that our Marvel-trickle becomes a full on Marvel-deluge.

So, this is the root of why there are so may DAMN Captain Marvels. Firstly, the name is versatile, gender-neutral and doesn’t nail you down. If your character is named “Batman”, for instance, you’re kind of limited in what kind of superhero he can be. Your options are basically; Weird Creature of the night, baseball-themed vigilante or British Officer’s Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman during the Great War. But for Captain Marvel, all you need is a character who is in some way marvellous and the superhero community’s famously lax attitude toward the chain of command. You can slap the name “Captain Marvel” on any random hero regardless of their power set and it makes about as much sense as any other. Secondly, it doesn’t really look good if the dude or dudette bearing the company’s name is a third string scrub (spoiler, a lot of these dudes and dudettes were third string scrubs), so when one Captain Marvel is a bust, editorial has plenty of incentive to reboot and try again. Case in point…

Monica Rambeau, an African American lady with energy powers, first debuted in 1982 before Mar-Vell’s sheets had even cooled. She didn’t have any connection to Mar-Vell and didn’t keep the name for too long, later being renamed Photon, Pulsar and Spectrum to the point where she’s one of those superheroes who’s better known by her civilian name. Monica is actually one of the most successful of the Marvel Marvels, rarely being off the shelves. As a diversity two-fer with a cool power set and pretty solid fanbase, she’s appeared in multiple team books such as the Ultimates, Nextwave and even lead the Avengers for a time.

Alright, how many is that? FIVE?!

Okay speed round. The Vells!

Okay, Genis-Vell. Mar-Vell’s son who took up the old man’s mantle before going crazy and then dying. Interesting titbit; Peter David and Bill Jemas had a bet to see who could get the most sales for their respective books. David at the time was writing the Genis-Vell version of Captain Marvel and Jemas was writing Marville which was…it was something. It was many things. Post modern deconstruction of superheroes. Satire of  the Aol-Time Warner Merger. Philosophical-religious treatise. Strong contender for worst comic of all time. Captain Marvel won that one, which I’m mentioning because God knows these characters need something in the win column.

I am very tired and I have not even begun the review. Phyla Vell!

Genis-Vell’s sister. Took up the mantle after his death before becoming the new Quasar (another cosmic superhero mantle that gets around). Played a pretty big role in the Annihilation sagaaka one of the greatest comic events of all time, so she’s okay by Mouse.

“Aw, thanks Mouse.”

“SHUT UP AND KEEP MOVING THERE’S NO TIME!!”

Who’s next? Oh didn’t think I’d remember you did you, Amalgam Captain Marvel!?

“Bless you, kind sir.”

So funny story, after killing the original Billy Batson Captain Marvel in court, DC comics actually bought the rights to Fawcett’s old characters. However, since Marvel had trademarked the name “Captain Marvel” this meant that DC could use Billy Batson’s Captain Marvel but couldn’t actually call any of the comics he was in “Captain Marvel”. And that’s why DC have desperately been trying to gaslight you into believing that the character is actually named “Shazam” for the last few decades. Incidentally, Eggman is actually named Robotnik and we have always been at war with Eurasia. Anyway, in the early nineties DC and Marvel did a crossover called DC versus Marvel where the two universes collided. This culminated in a glorious bit of silliness where the two companies created Amalgam Comics, an entire comics line of grotesque merged abominations like DarkClaw (Batman crossed with Wolverine) and Super Soldier (Superman smushed into Captain America). Billy Mar-Vell was the result of cross-breeding DC’s Captain Marvel with Marvel’s Captain Marvel and I’ve typed the word “Marvel” so often now the word has lost all meaning and has become a weird glyph.

“Mouse! We’ve got no room left for all these Captains Marvel!”

“STACK ‘EM SIDEWAYS LIKE FIREWOOD WE’RE NOT STOPPING!”

Next up is…oh not this asshole…

Kh’nhr. Oy. Okay, so during the Civil War event Reed Richards was building a Gitmo for superheroes in the Negative Zone and discovered that Captain Marvel (Mar-vell, obviously, why would that be confusing?) was still floating around in there because time in the Negative Zone is loopy doopy. Reed is all “hey, so you’re gonna die of cancer in the future but while you’re here, wanna help me trample on your friends’ civil liberties?” and Mar-Vell says “sure”. He then spends a few issues moping and doing absolutely feck all until it’s revealed that this Captain Marvel is actually a Skrull sleeper agent impersonating Captain Marvel named Kh’nhr. That’s right. The Skrulls sent this guy to Earth disguised as someone who was already dead. From this, we can deduce that they thought he sucked and deserved to die. They were correct.

Who’s next? Mahr-Vell from the Ultimate universe.

He’s like Mar-Vell. But in the Ultimate Universe. Got an extra “H” in his name. Like Mar-Vell, he turned on his Kree Masters to save the Earth. Unlike Mar-Vell, he came to regret it as everyone in the Ultimate Universe was a massive asshole.

Okay, coming up to the home stretch now.

Noh-Varr! Birthed from the Victorian opium den that is the mind of Grant Morrison, Noh-Varr is yet another Kree but this time from an alternate reality who washes up on Earth like a drunken sailor. A bad experience with SHIELD has him declare war on Earth and all humanity but he was eventually convinced to become a hero by Kh’nhr, which is is basically like being inspired to pursue a career in music after a chance encounter with Kid Rock. Usually going by Marvel Boy or Protector, he is on this list solely for that one time Norman Osborn recruited him to be on his Dark Avengers team as Captain Marvel. He peaced out as soon as he realised that they were actually the bad guys. Which, considering they were called the “Dark Avengers” he really should have twigged earlier. Thank God he’s pretty.

Which brings us to drumroll please…

Carol Danvers. Actually one of the older characters on this list, but the newest and current Captain Marvel. Back in the seventies, Marvel was in the habit of cranking out distaff versions of their male characters just so nobody else could do it first (which is how you got She-Hulk, Spider-Woman and Womanverine)*. One of these characters was Carol Danvers, aka Ms Marvel who gains Mar-Vell’s powers after being caught in an explosion with him and getting some of his DNA (that’s their story, anyway). She had her own series written by Chris Claremont which didn’t sell but was well regarded by those who read it. After it was cancelled, she bounced around the Marvel universe for a while until the creative team decided to celebrate their #200th issue with a story where Carol is abducted, brainwashed and raped by her own child. And it’s presented as a love story.

Man, I hope ToysRus got their money back.

Fortunately Chris Claremont was having none of it, and when he was handed the reigns to X-Men he had Carol deliver an epic “Fuck You” to the Avengers for basically abandoning her to her rapist and had her join the X-Men. Claremont ended up using a lot of the concepts that he had originally intended to use for Ms. Marvel, in case you were wondering why a series ostensibly about mutants fighting racism features so many aliens and giant flaming space birds. Anyway, her presence on the X-Men during Claremont’s run cemented Carol’s position as pretty much the most popular Captain Marvel-adjacent character at Marvel. So when the time came for Marvel to try for the UMPTEENTH GODDAMNED time to have a Captain Marvel that people actually gave a shit about she was pretty much the only choice. How’d that work out? Well…Marvel’s attempts at pushing her harder than Roman Frickin’ Reigns has definitely created some backlash, but there’s no denying that she’s the first Marvel Captain Marvel to have any real purchase in the popular consciousness. And of course, a big part of that is today’s movie.

Which I am finally starting to review after two and half thousand words what the hell was I thinking?

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