Thursday, April 28, 2011

Should Superman be a free agent?

In Action 900, Superman informs the national security adviser that he plans to renounce his American citizenship. He decided to take this action after catching flack from the administration for supporting pro-democracy protests in Iran. In a bit of cross-over from the real world, the Obama administration was roundly criticized for not supporting the Iranian protesters. Even though his action was on his own initiative, Superman's support was taken as a sign of US policy.

This is a tricky question. It openly rejects the idea of "Truth, justice and the American Way" following the last movie, "Truth, justice, and all that." The American way is no longer good enough for this citizen of the world. But where to go from there?

This question has real-world parallels. As I write this, former President Carter is engaged in negotiations in Korea. Granted he cannot move mountains but his stature as former president his presence implies official authority. Similarly, Jesse Jackson has engaged in private negotiations with foreign governments.

Since Superman is going to inform the UN, presumably he plans on submitting himself to UN control. Will this be the General Assembly or the Security Council? The General Assembly includes Iran, Libya, Syria, and Liberia. Does Superman really plan on limiting himself to actions that this assembly sanctions? The Security Council is little better. Both Russia and China are permanent members who practice human rights abuse. Russia tends to support Iran and would certainly have vetoed and actions against its government by Superman.

In fact, nearly every nation in the UN would be leery of letting Superman support the overthrow of a recognized government. the reason that NATO is acting in Libya is that the UN refused to become involved (Russia again). This underscores the problem that the governments of the world do not necessarily represent the peoples of the world. Most of the 3rd world is ruled by corrupt governments. Superman could find himself supporting dictators rather than upholding liberty.

What if Superman gave up all citizenship and asked the UN to just trust him to do the right thing? In the movie Superman 4 The Quest for Peace, Superman decided on his own that the world needed nuclear disarmament. Personally, I found that scary. Superman is not infallible. What if he decided on his own that nuclear power was bad and took it upon himself to destroy all nuclear reactors? That would cut off power to millions. It is the arbitrariness that is scary. We would have to hope that a free-agent Superman would do the right thing but the "right thing" is often a complex subject. Where would he draw the line? Personally I find the idea of someone with unlimited power and no accountability to be scary. Personally, I prefer omnipotent beings to be responsible to elected leaders even ones I didn't vote for.

The easiest thing is to avoid policy issues altogether. That is what Superman traditionally did. If you limit yourself to defending the Earth, preventing natural disasters, and upholding the law (mainly in Metropolis) then no one will complain. But he went beyond that which is what brought us to this point. This is probably an issue that comic books should avoid.

In some ways this is just DC catching up with issues Marvel confronted decades ago. Their heroes have been accountable to their governments or treated as outlaws. Truly free agents like the Silver Surfer were treated as menaces.

One final question - what happens to Clark Kent? It seems hypocritical for Superman to renounce his citizenship but then get it back by putting on a pair of glasses and combing is hair differently.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is returning to TV in a new series being filmed for NBC. Superheroes have had a mixed reception on TV. Clark Kent has had a long run in his "no tights, no flights" Smallville. Heroes lasted four seasons. On the other hand, The Cape and No Ordinary Family have seen declining ratings and neither is likely to be renewed. The Bionic Woman started strong but may have set a record for audience loss.

Wonder Woman has already had some controversy. When the character was unveiled, everyone hated her new costume. Instead of blue shorts spangled with white stars, she had long blue pants and matching boots. Some people thought that the network was trying to downplay the patriotic angle. Others simply hated the vinyl look. NBC seems to have listened. Pictures taken during shooting show that her pants are a different material with a row of yellow stars down the sides and red boots. They also changed the cut so the crotch is not so tight.

Wonder Woman is one of DC's big three characters - the only three to remain in continuous publication from the Golden Age to the Silver Age. That said, she is the least of them. By the 1960s Superman and Batman each appeared in multiple comics. Wonder Woman only had the one and it was struggling by the late 1960s.

For a time DC reworked the character completely. The Amazons left our dimension. Dianna Prince stayed behind, losing her powers. She bought a "mod" boutique ("mod" was slag for the youth-oriented fashions in the 60s) and took on a second job as an undercover agent under the tutelage of a character named I Ching. That phase didn't last very long. The Amazons returned and Wonder Woman regained her powers.

There was an attempt at updating Wonder Woman for TV in the mid-1970s. This version was blond and wore a different outfit. Her bracelets were full of gimmicks. She didn't seem to have any special powers. At one point the villain asked how she got there so fast. She replied, "I have an invisible airplane." That line was the main thing proving that the producers of the movie even knew who Wonder Woman was. The pilot was boring and the fans hated this version. It made the list of 100 dumbest events in television.

They tried again with the famous Linda Carter version. This one kept the Wonder Woman mythos intact. It was set during World War II. Parts of it bordered on camp, especially the pilot, but it was played straight and the characters' earnestness played well against the war. Ratings were fairly good but the expense of doing a costume show kept ABC from renewing it. CBS picked the show up and moved it into the present (1977) where it ran for two more years.

Wonder Woman also became a feminist icon during the 1970s. A collection of Golden Age stories was published with an introduction by feminist leader Gloria Steinem stressing Wonder Woman's independence from men. This aspect was also central to the comic when it was rebooted in the 1980s by George Perez.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Superman and General Zod

It was announced over the weekend that the new Superman movie, Superman: Man of Steel, will have General Zod as the villain. I'm not sure what to make of this.

The biggest flaw of Superman Returns was the lack of originality. The plot and many of the scenes were remakes of the original Superman movie. The new movie is supposed to be a reboot. The fact that they are recycling villains from Superman II is a bad sign.

On the other hand, Superman II was the best of the Chris Reeve movies. It pushed the envelope beyond anything in the comic books (at the time) with Superman giving up his powers in order to sleep with Lois only to find out that he had to sacrifice his personal happiness for the greater good. It also had the first real fight between super-powered characters.

But, Zod was never a great villain and his presence in the movie was more plot point than anything. He could have easily been replaced with any powerful character. His second-in-command, Ursa, was actually more menacing (and a lot sexier).

The biggest problem with Zod as a character is that he is also from Krypton. While this puts him on an equal footing with Superman, it also dilutes Superman's status. For decades, Superman was at the top of the food chain and the only way that a villain could match him was to come from Krypton or another red sun world. Since then DC has introduced villains such as Darkseid and Mongul who are more powerful than Superman without being from Krypton.

Zod has never been a first-tier villain. I'm sure that the only reason he was included is because he was in Superman II. That is a strike against the new movie since most superhero movies try to use the strongest villains possible.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Radiation and the Super Hero

Wired found a 1953 article on radiation and mutation and speculates that this is where all of the superheroes with radioactive origins came from. The article was written and illustrated by people long-associated with Superman comic books - Otto Binder, and Kurt Schaffenberger. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly.

DC was not the company that used radiation to explain everything. That was Marvel under Stan Lee and they didn't start appearing until the 1960s. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Daredevil as well as several villains received their powers from direct exposure to radiation (or close exposure in Spider-Man's case). In addition to these characters, Professor X explained in X-Men #1 that the amount of radioactive fallout in the air was causing an increase in mutants.

On the other hand, the Parasite is the only DC character I can remember who got his powers from radiation (he opened a container of nuclear waste) and he wasn't created until the mid-1960s by Jim Shooter who was only two years old when the Binder article appeared.

Stan Lee has admitted that he used radiation as a short-cut. He knew that it can cause genetic mutation but didn't know much beyond that.

I think that the 1952 article was only one aspect of the general culture of the 1950s. After all, radiation was also used to explain giant monsters such as the ants in Them! and Godzilla, both appearing years before the Fantastic Four. Also the article shows mutants who look like the common depiction of aliens with enlarged heads and long limbs. These mutations do not look a bit like superheroes. So this is just a cultural footnote rather than the basis for a stable of superheroes.