Extreme Graphic Content! Deadpool vs. The Revenant

Let’s be honest. We probably all enjoy some stories or media that are not completely tame. Whether your taste is for moderate action violence, excessive blood and gore, or maybe some passionate moments that go further than some would be comfortable with, not everything we take in is 100% family friendly. Nor should it be, for as we get older and become more discerning we can hopefully come to appreciate books or movies that may have more mature content and themes without being negatively affected. But how far is too far? As readers, viewers, or writers, where do we draw the line when it comes to sensitive content or topics?

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Theatrical poster for Deadpool (2o16). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

This is a very complex question, and obviously there isn’t one simple blanket answer that works for everyone. But it’s a question that I want to explore today. And, in keeping with my last couple of posts, I’ll use the recent superhero blockbuster film Deadpool–rated R for excessive violence, strong language, and some nudity–as an example. I’ve seen a lot of controversy going around the internet about this movie. But as both a Christian and a comic book fan, I have friends in both camps and everywhere in between, some claiming “THIS MOVIE IS FILTHY AND NOBODY SHOULD SEE IT!” while others retort, “THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME AND EVERYONE SHOULD SEE IT!” So should you see Deadpool or shouldn’t you? And why?

First, a disclaimer. Being a Christian, my moral beliefs will naturally affect my perceptions of this movie to some extent, and not everyone may share my views. Still, I believe that the question of mature content in a story is not just a religious or moral issue, but often a question of good storytelling quality as well. Through studying English at a Christian university, I’ve had the opportunity to formulate my views on this topic fairly well, but I believe some of these principles I’m going to mention can be relevant to any audience of movies or stories, regardless of beliefs.

Anyway, I’m part of a Facebook group for Christians to discuss movies and pop culture, and Deadpool‘s release nearly started a civil war between two opposing camps. But someone there recently had a good question. They asked, basically, “is it hypocritical for some of us to be hating on Deadpool while still enjoying movies like The Revenant? Both have very graphic, violent, and mature content. Is it okay to support one but not the other? Where should we draw the line?” And here was my response:

“I have a certain philosophy that I use for almost all art/media/culture these days. Taking a lot of English and writing classes at a Christian college helped me a lot with this. My belief is this: in regards to content in movies, etc., WHAT is portrayed is not as important as HOW it is portrayed. There can be quite a bit of dark or violent content, but the way it’s portrayed or the overall message can be either positive or negative.
For example: The Revenant contains very many graphic scenes, but I think it does a decent job of showing the consequences of those things. It shows how violence, rape, etc. only lead to more hatred and brokenness. It portrays those things but does not glorify them; it shows them as ugly, which they are. And [SPOILER ALERT] the protagonist makes a positive climactic decision in the end, so I think that helped it to have a *slightly* more positive and uplifting tone and theme overall.
On the other hand, the Deadpool movie (at least, based on what it looks like from the trailers) contains lots of violence and sex, but tries to pass them off as fun and funny. It glorifies evil behaviors for cheap entertainment. It takes serious topics that should be treated with reverence and makes them into a joke. This is a major part of why I generally do not enjoy or support Deadpool (whether in comics or movies).
If it helps, ask yourself this question for almost any media you encounter. Think about not just the content being portrayed, but how the overall theme and tone portray it. Even the Bible contains some very graphic descriptions of violence and sex, but it doesn’t portray those things in a positive way. Those are my thoughts at least.”

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Theatrical poster for The Revenant (2015). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

I have watched and enjoyed The Revenant, but admittedly have chosen not to watch Deadpool (at least not until maybe I can rent it on DVD). So I could be wrong about this movie. Maybe there is some deep purpose or relevant plot to it that I’ve missed out on so far. But, based on what I’ve seen and heard, it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems like, “hey, let’s throw in a nude scene in a strip club just so we can put in more sex and give it an R rating! And don’t forget to make tasteless jokes against people while violently murdering them!” It uses violence, sex, and death not for well-crafted story or for thought-provoking discussion, but simply for cheap entertainment and laughs. And that’s why, both as a Christian and as a discerning consumer of media and culture, I can’t really give my approval to this movie.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Deadpool film seems to be like this. Because, as I’ve alluded to in my last few posts, the Deadpool comics are largely the same. With perhaps some exceptions depending on the writer and the direction of the story, they fill their pages with mature, sometimes disturbing content on sensitive topics, and write it all off as a joke and a cool action-y comic for the kids.

I’ve noticed this tendency in Deadpool a number of times, but one particular instance was more disturbing than the rest. In one story arc, Deadpool decided that he had nothing to live for and wanted to die. But due to his healing powers, death does not come easily for him. So we got three whole issues about Deadpool trying to trick the Hulk into killing him. In other words, Deadpool exploited someone else (with what could be considered a mental condition) in his attempt to commit suicide, and the whole thing was made to look like a fun, funny, action-packed jaunt between two brightly colored superheroes, complete with witty dialogue and everything. Were these comics more violent than normal ones? Did they have too much bad language or sexual content? No, not really. But they took some very serious topics that affect a lot of real people–mental illness and suicide–and tried to turn them into slapstick mindless entertainment. I had to consider after that story whether or not I was really comfortable still reading Deadpool. And, while I do still read his comics occasionally, sometimes I’m still not sure.

For readers and viewers of stories, being able to discern the message behind the content–the “how” and “why” instead of just the “what”–is essential to understanding both the purpose and quality of the work. But consider this principle as creative writers, too. Including mature content or serious themes in your work is not wrong, but there’s definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. What messages will you take into your mind by what you read, watch, and listen to? And what messages will you send out to the world by what you write?

 

Punisher, Deadpool, and the Ups and Downs of Antiheroes

I’ve written about antiheroes before on this blog, about how their character motivations affect their actions and how their moral ambiguity can show us what we value as an audience and a culture. But lately I’ve been writing about a specific comic book antihero named Deadpool and why, despite all the recent hype, I don’t really think he’s that great of a character. In my last post I mentioned how I can’t really root for Deadpool much, because he’s not fighting for a good reason, but only for money and fun.

“But wait!” you say. “Deadpool is more of an antihero anyway! Isn’t that what he’s supposed to be like? Not every character has to be a completely moral hero. You can like him even though he’s morally ambiguous.”

Yes, and I do like a lot of morally ambiguous characters. As a comic book fan, I still enjoy and am often fascinated by the adventures of grim antiheroes such as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach. I also really enjoy(ed) shows like Breaking Bad and its successor, Better Call Saul, which feature protagonists who definitely walk the moral line and in many ways become worse as they go along. In the literary realm (which I majored in), I love the stories of authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who frequently treat the theme of moral ambiguity and often feature heavily flawed protagonists. And yet I’m still not a huge supporter of Deadpool. Why?

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Art by Steve Dillon from Deadpool #54 published by Marvel comics. Image taken from user lukesuperior on Flickr Creative Commons.

In my analysis, there are two different types of morally ambiguous characters. Or, characters who we would label as “antiheroes” are considered such for one of two different reasons. There may be some overlap or some in-between now and again, but I think these two categories encompass quite a few “antihero” characters.

The first type of character has high ideals and goals (morally, philosophically, etc.), but they become antiheroes because they use morally questionable methods. They have good goals, intentions, and motivations, but maybe not good actions. This is the standard “chaotic good” character. I would posit that Wolverine, Punisher, and Rorschach all fit into this category, and even Batman sometimes does depending on how he’s written. They believe in fighting evil, but they use violence, brutality, and even lethal force to achieve that end. Even Walter White seems to fit this description, at least toward the beginning of his transformation; he has noble goals (providing for his family) but they lead him to evil actions (dealing drugs). For more on this type of character, see my previous post about monomania, or an obsessive goal that would lead someone to do almost anything, no matter how drastic or immoral, to achieve it. Personally, I find this type of character quite fascinating and compelling, because I like to see their determination and just how far they’ll go to carry out their mission.

The second type of antihero has no such noble goals or high ideals; they are antiheroes because they only serve their own interests without actively trying to commit either good or evil. This type of character is often labeled as “chaotic neutral,” or maybe even “true neutral.” Characters of this sort would include Han Solo when the audience first meets him in Star Wars, as a lone(ish) smuggler without much altruism. In discussing the show Heroes with some friends, I’ve placed Noah Bennet in the first category and Nathan Petrelli in this second, self-serving group.

This is also the category where I’d place Deadpool. He’s commonly labeled as a mercenary, so we know that he’s not supposed to fight for much of anything besides his own gain. In many iterations (although I listed some exceptions in my last post), he just fights for money, for fun, for personal vendettas, or for his own depraved, insane reasons. Personally, I don’t find this type of character nearly as interesting, because they tend to lack a strong or clear motivation. Unlike those rigidly determined characters I mentioned above, they just kind of meander and get into random adventures and do whatever feels best to them at the time. They lack a compelling reason to fight or for the audience to root for them.

Some people tell me, “if you object to Deadpool’s mature content, then you must only like morally good characters.” That’s not really true, but I do tend to favor characters who have good intentions. Even when their actions are severely flawed like in the examples above, I’m drawn in by their determination and by the inherent conflict between their motives and actions.

On the other hand, when a character has a less compelling motivation, I have to ask myself why I should even be rooting for him. If Deadpool is just killing people for money, then why should I support him over his enemies? Why should I care if he wins or loses? And for me, the answer is that I really don’t.

It’s often been said of writing fiction that desire plus obstacle equals story. In other words, give a character a strong desire, place obstacles in the way of that desire, and you have conflict, which is the basis of story. You have something happening that audiences will find interesting. But what happens if you take away that strong desire and throw in a halfhearted character who doesn’t care enough to take almost anything seriously? Where does the conflict come from then? Where is the compulsion? I think a lot of it gets lost.

Now, I’ve been saying that this preference is my own personal opinion. Maybe it’s just me and some people can enjoy the second kind of character without much motivation. But I think there’s a solid case in stories for the first kind (chaotic good) being better than the second kind (neutral).

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Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

You know why? Because Han Solo didn’t stay morally neutral for very long before he gained some more development and started fighting for a cause bigger than himself. And because even Deadpool, traditionally an amoral mercenary in the comics, has been altered for his huge film debut. In the movie, he’s not taking a hit on someone just for money–he’s trying to take revenge on someone who ruined his life. Yes, Deadpool is fighting against a bad guy, doing at least some form of good, and giving him an actual compelling character motivation! While he’s still a very flawed character certainly, this mission of his seems to place him more in the first category than the second. Filmmakers know that, for a big action movie, there needs to be a clear antagonist and a clear reason to root for the protagonist over that other person. They know that the antihero with a good(ish) mission is a lot more interesting than the antihero who just aimlessly does his own thing.

So that’s why I find the Punisher and others a lot more interesting than I find Deadpool. That’s why I have a hard time really rooting for Deadpool very often in the comics. But if I’m saying that the film version of Deadpool is closer to the kind of character I like, then why is it that I’m still not too excited about the film? Wait for my next post to find out.

What do you think? Is there really a huge distinction between different kinds of antiheroes? Who are your favorite antiheroes, and why do you find them compelling? Post your thoughts below.

 

Why I’m NOT Excited about Deadpool

Deadpool! Theaters, audiences, and social media posts have been abuzz lately with the newest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen. But aside from the normal hype about the action and laughs, the Deadpool movie has also gotten lots of attention–both positive and negative–for being R-rated due to violence, nudity, and excessive language. While the superhero genre was once thought to be good family-friendly fun for kids, that is certainly not the case with this offbeat, over-the-top antihero, leading to high praise and enjoyment from some longtime fans and harsh criticism from others.

As a longtime comic book fan among other fans who usually flock faithfully to each new superhero film, mine is an unpopular opinion, or at least so it seems in my circle of friends. But, while admitting that I haven’t actually seen the Deadpool movie yet (and probably won’t at least until I can rent it on DVD), I must admit that I’m not excited about or in favor of this one. People say it’s a very faithful representation of the character in the comics–but guess what? I don’t really like Deadpool much in the comics either. And I’d like to tell you why. Do my moral convictions and objections to mature content have something to do with it? Probably. But I think it goes beyond that into the realm of good storytelling and character development as well. Allow me to explain.

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Art from X-Men: Battle of the Atom #1. Art by David Lopez. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

It’s a generally accepted rule of fiction that a protagonist has to be likeable in some way in order to garner the support of the audience. I even had one friend posit that “likeable” was not the criterion so much as “fascinating”; even if we don’t “like” the character per se, we as the audience have to find them compelling and interesting enough to care about for some reason or another. Feel free to form your own opinions, but I don’t see this quality much in Deadpool.

When I read a superhero comic book (which I do a lot), I’m looking for a reason to root for the hero, to think that he’s in some way the “good guy” (even if he’s a flawed character) and that he’s justified in fighting his enemies. But with Deadpool being a mercenary, commonly labeled as the “merc with the mouth,” I don’t get that sense of compelling support for a character. He’s only a mercenary, so he’s not fighting for some good or noble cause; a lot of times he’s just doing his own thing and fighting others for money or for fun. Therefore, I wonder, why should I root for him over his enemies? What makes him better or more likeable than the people he fights? Why should I care whether he wins or loses? I often can’t answer these questions with Deadpool.

Some people criticize me for this, saying that I must only like morally ideal characters such as Superman and Captain America. That criticism is simply not true, because I do often appreciate a certain kind of antihero; I find characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach all fascinating, despite or perhaps because of their moral ambiguity (more on this point later). But my thinking is that, if the character isn’t going to be morally good, then there’s got to be some other quality instead that makes them likeable or compelling to the audience. And, while some disagree, I still don’t really find that with Deadpool.

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Promotional image of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in the 2016 film. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons user canburak.

In internet arguments (some specifically in preparation for this blog post), I’ve asked my friends to explain to me what exactly they find appealing or likeable about Deadpool’s character. I haven’t gotten a very compelling answer (in my opinion). A lot of people say they like him primarily because he’s violent, crazy, crass, and crude. And that simply just doesn’t hold much appeal for me. While I admit that I sometimes enjoy Deadpool’s pop culture references and metahumor (even I don’t completely hate the character, although I do think he’s vastly overrated), I usually don’t enjoy crude jokes when they’re there just for cheap laughs and no story purpose. And I don’t really see much purpose or compelling character depth in an insane guy who just likes to shoot things for money or for fun. That kind of character could easily be a villain (such as the Joker or Carnage), but again I ask, why should I root for them as a hero? What deep or complex quality in this character’s psyche is supposed to make me root for him or support him in his random misadventures? For the most part, I haven’t found one.

“But wait!” you may say. “Deadpool actually is a complex character with a complex psychological disorder! And he actually is a hero sometimes!” To that, I would begrudgingly admit that you have a point, and after some recent social media discussions with friends, I’ve concluded that it largely depends on who’s writing Deadpool at the time. The thing about comics characters is that they change creative hands quite frequently, and so their portrayals aren’t always as consistent as some of us would like to think. For example, due to the recent Deadpool ongoing series beginning in 2012, I’ve developed a somewhat greater appreciation for him than I previously had. Among other reasons, the writers gave Deadpool both a wife and a long-lost daughter, two reasons for him to genuinely try to be more of a hero. And I was like, “Yes! Finally he has something interesting to fight for other than just money and tacos! Finally there’s a reason for me to care about his character a little bit!” I’ve also heard some people claim that Deadpool was a much more complex character following his initial creation in the ’90s, but that he got watered down when his popularity grew in the late 2000s. I can’t really speak to that personally, as I didn’t follow Deadpool much until around 2008, but it may be true that Deadpool’s history has had some deep character moments that I’m not familiar with.

However, when I say that I don’t care for Deadpool much, I’m talking about what has, for better or for worse, become the most common portrayal of Deadpool these days. And from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think that’s the one who has a lot of deep character moments. Rather, it’s just the one who is known for, “YEAH! VIOLENCE AND SEX AND CHIMICHANGAS AND INSANITY FOR ABSOLUTELY NO STORY PURPOSE BUT JUST FOR RANDOM FUN!” It seems that whatever potential Deadpool may have for compelling plots or complex character development too often gets lost under the banal banner of utter ridiculousness that appeals only to the entertainment of our basest appetites. And, while I could be wrong, having not seen the movie yet, the trailers and reviews lead me to believe that this is the same version of Deadpool that has been translated to film.

This is why, from a storytelling perspective, I’m really not a big fan of Deadpool, or at least not the Deadpool we most commonly see. In my next few posts later this week, I plan to continue this discussion. I’d like to elaborate on why I like some antiheroes but still don’t like Deadpool (told you that was coming), and then on why I can appreciate some other very mature movies without appreciating Deadpool.

Do you agree or disagree? Is there more to Deadpool’s character that I haven’t considered and still should? Let me know in the comments.

 

Marvel vs. Star Wars: Dawn of Justice

In my last couple of posts, I’ve been dealing with the idea of originality in storytelling. It’s a huge idea, and I certainly don’t expect to uncover all the answers here, even as I’m wrapping up this three-part series. But it’s an idea that audiences (of books, movies, etc.) often pick up on quite a bit, whether positively or negatively, and so a serious writer should know how to address it to.

I looked at two recent blockbuster movies, neither of which is admittedly terribly original: first Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then Marvel’s Ant-Man. I’ve argued that both films share significant parallels with the first film in their respective franchises (the original Star Wars and 2008’s Iron Man). And yet, while it’s a fine line and I may be nit-picking at the details just a bit, I still feel like one of the two films is simply following a formula in the way that much fiction does, while the other is more of an outright rehash of its predecessor. Is this a legitimate analysis? Let’s see if we can find out.

Of course, it’s true that very few films or stories these days are completely original. As a book I regard quite highly observes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And as many people before me have stated, most stories are just combinations of old elements in a new or different way. I have found this to be true as a reader, a moviegoer, a student of literature, and as a creative writer. Universal concepts such as the hero’s journey and the monomyth work themselves and their familiar tropes into nearly every story, or at least into action movies with major elements like heroic quests, good versus evil, etc.  I don’t deny that these elements show up pretty strongly in the Star Wars galaxy, the Marvel universe, and quite a few other places too.

Also, as I mentioned last time, Marvel admittedly has a proven formula that works, and most of their movies stick to it to some degree or another. They have a similar lighthearted tone, similar themes of saving the world from evil threats, and similar plot structures where the hero and his allies have to overcome impossible odds together (I say “his” because none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe solo films have featured a female main character…yet).

And while these elements are all significant parts of the movie, that may be where the similarities end. The settings of each are vastly different, ranging from modern-day America to deep space, from World War II to mythical realms. The same goes for the protagonists who inhabit each setting. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America all have vastly different personalities and backgrounds, and Ant-Man’s is different from all of theirs as well. Although they face similar obstacles and overcome similar crises, the characters are each distinct and unique. In this sense, I might posit that the formula Marvel has become known for is comparable to the hero’s journey itself. They both refer to a certain set of tropes and plot structures, but those elements can be applied to nearly any type of hero in any type of setting. In that sense, one could argue that Ant-Man and the other Marvel movies copy elements from a certain common formula, but not necessarily from each other.

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Cover for Marvel Premiere #48, featuring Ant-Man. Image from Flickr Creative Commons.

Also, one should remember that the Marvel movies are based on comic-book source material. There are a lot of vastly different characters in the comic book universe (all with a much more complicated history than any you’ll see onscreen), and so there’s quite a bit of material to draw from. That’s why, while Ant-Man featured Scott Lang as the main character, it also included Hank Pym, who in the comics was the original Ant-Man, and other characters who are recognizable to a comics fan like me, such as the Wasp and Cassie Lang (yes, even the little girl in the movie eventually becomes a superhero of her own). So does the comics background make the movies more original? No, not really, but it does mean that the movies draw elements from an outside source rather than directly ripping off each other. They have a wide range of source material to draw from because the comics have been going on for so long, and they can include characters and elements that aren’t necessarily central to the same plot formula that keeps recurring in merely the movies.

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Movie poster from Star Wars, 1977. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But, all of that being said about the Marvel movies, I still maintain that The Force Awakens was, to a large extent, a rehash of the original Star Wars, A New Hope. To reiterate, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the movie on some level, but just that it felt somewhat lacking in depth and ambition. It didn’t copy merely a formula such as the hero’s journey, but it copied one particular movie very directly. There was a desert planet that looked like Tattooine, but totally wasn’t Tattooine! And a planet-destroying weapon that’s kind of like the Death Star, but oh, it’s completely different from the Death Star! And Rey, while an interesting and compelling character so far, is to a large extent a female version of Luke Skywalker. I don’t want to give away too many details or spoilers, but see my last few posts for further details on how closely the two films and their plots mirror each other. In many ways it seems to me that they should have just called it A New A New Hope.

So yes, I am concluding that Ant-Man was a good (or at least better) kind of predictable, while The Force Awakens was more of a rehash than it should have been. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here, as neither movie was completely original, and both fell into the category of “fun, but not amazingly awesome” for me. Of course, an ideal story, a truly memorable and groundbreaking one, might be more original than either one. But keep this difference in mind as you write. Audiences will usually accept it more or less if you follow a time-tested pattern such as the hero’s journey, but not necessarily if you borrow too heavily from one work in particular, like The Force Awakens did to A New Hope. (Then again, The Force Awakens is still proving to be amazingly successful at the box office, so despite the criticisms from a sizeable group of viewers, it’s clear a lot of people are still quite willing to accept it).

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote about originality to ponder in your own writing. And though it’s a lofty ideal to reach, maybe this will help. C.S. Lewis says: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Predictably Fun: The Success of Superheroes

In my last post earlier this week, I started trying to tackle some pretty big questions of originality in fiction writing. I looked at the recent success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, though enjoyable, lacked originality and seemed to recycle many elements from the original Star Wars. Today I’d like to explore the same ideas but in a slightly different genre of story, one that is also immensely popular despite some potentially legitimate claims of unoriginality. And it’s one of my favorite genres too. I’m talking about superhero movies, specifically the ones made by Marvel.

Before we begin, I’ll admit my personal bias. I love superheroes and superhero films. Even the mediocre ones are still enjoyable to me on some level, and it has to be pretty bad for me to actively dislike it (but trust me, there are some bad ones out there). While I love Star Wars as well, I do have to admit that Star Wars is probably my second-favorite fandom–after superheroes. So with the exponential popularity of Marvel movies over the last several years, I’ve had quite a lot to enjoy.

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Theatrical poster for Iron Man (2008). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But I can certainly understand why, from a perspective of an outsider who doesn’t love all of those characters as much as I do, the movies may seem to follow a similar or predictable formula. If you’re unfamiliar, you can find a pretty decent summary of that formula here. This type of movie may have seemed fresh and innovative when Iron Man introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008, but eight years later, it’s been done and redone a number of times.

 

Consider the Ant-Man, Marvel’s most recent big blockbuster from August. (Interestingly, I almost typed “bug blockbuster” there, but I guess that would have also been accurate.) The film was, in my opinion, a lot of fun and a well-made story for what it was. But it was also very predictable, at least to someone like me who has watched quite a few action and superhero films over time. The good guy overcame his challenges and figured out how to be a hero in the end, even when it seemed like there was no hope left. The bad guy was fairly one-dimensional and was pretty obviously the bad guy from the beginning without much subtlety. The whole film was laced with Marvel’s trademark blend of flashy action sequences and witty humor and dialogue. I won’t say that it lacked character development, but the characters and the relationships it did build were familiar too from a number of other works of fiction–the ex-con looking for redemption, the older mentor figure and his estranged daughter, the maniacal businessman-turned-supervillain, the goofy friends who provide comic relief. Etc. (Not to mention the fact that Ant-Man is a science expert who gets his powers from a scientific suit. Now where have we seen that before?)

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Theatrical poster for Ant-Man (2015). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ant-Man is exactly like all the other Marvel movies. Each hero and their backgrounds and personalities are different enough to make them distinct, ranging from a billionaire scientist hotshot-turned-hero, to a legendary god come down to earth, to the idealistic super-soldier back from the past. The film version of Ant-Man is a little different from them all in that he’s a former criminal, a down-on-his-luck ordinary guy trying to support his family, who ends up becoming a superhero. The individual characters and settings are different in each movie, and of course team films like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy shake up the dynamic somewhat too. But still, I must admit that by and large the Marvel movies are getting similar and predictable in terms of plot structure and overall tone.

 

So then, what’s the missing element? What is it that makes Ant-Man and similar films so enjoyable still, even though they’re so formulaic? And why do I appreciate one type of movie despite its unoriginality, but still look with a critical eye on recycled plots like that of The Force Awakens? Is it just because I happen to like superheroes a little bit more than space operas? Or is it because TFA was hyped up so much more that unoriginality on its part felt like a letdown in comparison? Maybe. But maybe there’s something more objective in the content of each story, too.

I’m honestly not sure exactly what that would be yet, but maybe I can figure it out in my next post later this week. And if I can, then I’m sure there will be some important applications for us as writers as well when it comes to originality and borrowing from other works.

 

 

 

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

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Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Lessons from the death of Deadpool: Consistency and Politics

My friend let me borrow the last four or five comics for Deadpool. For those unaware, a few months ago, Deadpool was sent to the great beyond.

I started at Deadpool #40, “The Magic of Gracking.” The style looked like it was done in crayons to be family friendly. The fictional oil company Exxon Roxxon paid Deadpool a lot of money to support their fracking gracking attempts, and they said everything was okay. Over the rest of the issue, they bang over your head that gracking is bad and evil, Roxxon is evil, and Sarah Silverman even shows up with super powers to tell Deadpool and the reader how evil they are.

Deadpool then goes on to help people in an undeveloped country survive against Roxxon’s attempts to kill them all. Deadpool sides with the poor people, free of charge, because he’s a nice guy.

There are two issues I have with this. First, when you do something specifically to make a political point, more often than not, it sucks. It lacks any substance aside from the propaganda, and this was 100% that. The final two comics were pretty great, as Roxxon was swept aside and became inconsequential, but before then I felt like I was in a room from 1984, being force fed information.

Let me expound. When we do art to tell the truth of the world, we are recreating the world, and through that people will glean truth. When we know the truth, form it into a baseball bat (compared to planting a seed and watching the tree grow), and proceed to club people over the head, there is no room for truth to be gleaned. There is no room for a person to grow and develop though the story, learning about themselves alongside the author. There is only room for propaganda. I’m sure they really got all the people against fracking on their side. All the green folk were out in troves, “Go Deadpool!” But I wonder how many of them read Deadpool in the first place.

Second, and actually far more important to me, they sullied Deadpool. I have to be honest, I might read a couple comics a year about him. I was informed he reached a zen-pool stage, when the comic book characters became opposites of themselves (which tells me Deadpool died in that moment). The reason Deadpool was unique, and why I liked him, is he was self-aware. He knew he was a comic book character meant to entertain, that it was all a joke, and that he was bound by shackles of ink. How do you make a true sociopath all of a sudden care about the puppets surrounding him?

I remember the zombie comic when there were kids he looked after. He barely flinched when they turned into zombies. They’re not real. He slaughtered the Marvel universe and classic literary characters to cut the strings, so he could die and no longer be stuck in that comic book. He didn’t feel bad for killing a dozen Spider-Men, because they were not real. Yet every time a Peter Parker dies, a puppy is kicked and small children learn truths reserved for adulthood, like Santa’s not real.

Suddenly in issue #40, a kid with cancer tells Deadpool the gracking is killing people, and Deadpool turns on Roxxon and their money. The Deadpool I knew and loved would say, “Kid, you don’t have cancer. You’re just here to seduce me from all this cash. Wanna swim in it later with me?” All of the people he ends up saving, in a story line which felt more inconsequential than usual for DP, weren’t real, and he knows it. And in his final moments, he should not be thinking about the protection of these poor sods who are inked in to draw appeal. He should be thinking, “FREEDOM!” He is the metaphysical Ultron, desiring no more strings, and he was given an out, finally, by his cruel overlords.

I know I wasn’t a die hard Deadpool fan. Maybe that’s why I don’t get it. But from the comics I read, from the character’s mentality and his ability to realize he’s a comic book character, I don’t get why he would ever care about the people in the comic, even if he reached a zen state. The only thing which would maybe change is his ability to enjoy it, instead of trying to gank himself.

For your own writing, watch out for the trap of becoming too political. There are always two sides. Sometimes a dozen. Even if you want to prove your point, use the art first and the truth will come through. Also, just keep your characters consistent. The readers shouldn’t look at what’s happening and think, “Body snatchers!” Yes there are moments that can redefine us, but how do you reach a turning point to shrug off knowing for a fact everyone around you is nothing but ink, fed dialogue by some greater being?

Write well, respect the art, stay consistent, guys!

Note: there is no picture, because it would have to be of Deadpool. To respect his wishes of not being utilized for the entertainment of others, I did not include such a picture. Deadpool had me type this at gunpoint.

The Treatment of Women in Fiction

shazamI am not a feminist. I am not even remotely close to being a feminist. I don’t consider myself a misogynist, and I’m down with Mary Wollstonecraft, the women’s suffrage movement, etc. I think that the fact that women are human beings and should be treated like human beings kind of goes without being said. However, I also don’t have a problem with Men’s clubs, boy’s schools, and books with no significant female characters. Men and women are certainly equal, and should be treated that way. However, while there are certainly exceptions, men and women think differently, often have different interests and concerns, and also often have different strengths and weaknesses. While I have no problem with women serving next to men as soldiers, police, or firemen (seriously… do you really want me to say ‘firepeople’? It sounds stupid), anyone who thinks that women should have lower physical standards in order to do the same job isn’t pushing for equality. Physical jobs have physical requirements, intellectual jobs have intellectual requirements, etc. Anyone who meets those requirements should be a viable candidate for the position, and anyone who doesn’t meet those requirements shouldn’t regardless of race, creed, or gender. So, now that I’ve firmly established my position, let’s talk about the way women are treated in fiction.

On Sunday I mentioned an article that I’d recently read on the over-sexualization of women in comic books. This is something I agree with completely! Where male heroes have enhanced muscles to emphasize strength, and strong costumes to emphasize power and authority; female characters have enhanced sexual features (often exaggerated eyes, lips, breasts, and buttocks) and skimpy, revealing costumes to emphasize their sex appeal. Where male heroes are often drawn is strong poses with body language that speaks to their authority, female heroes are often drawn in poses that one might find in Playboy or Hustler. While some have argued that the way men are drawn can be directly compared to the way women are drawn as an emphasis on sex appeal, I don’t think this is true. Honestly, I think its ridiculous. If it was true, I expect there would be a lot more female comic nerds.

However, I do think that the message sent by each can be compared. The message sent by male superheroes is that, to be taken seriously, men must be striking and physically intimidating. To be a man means to have big muscles, say pithy things, and not take crap from anyone. Rather few male heroes don’t fit this mold. The message sent by female superheroes is that, to be desirable, women must have perfect beauty and parade themselves as fleshy meatsticks for men to gawk at, and in some cases use at their whim. I don’t think that either of these messages are good. There are some heroes who break the mold (Superman [sometimes], Captain America, and Ms. Marvel all come to mind), but most reinforce unhealthy and disturbingly physical images of masculinity and femininity.

I'm not really sure why she's fighting crime in a bathing suit.
I’m not really sure why she’s fighting crime in a bathing suit.

However, we do something similar in fiction as well. While I don’t have a problem with books that don’t have any significant female characters, I do have a problem with books that don’t have any strong female characters. Similarly, I have no problem with a book that has no significant male characters, I do have a problem with books that don’t have any strong male characters. This is a key difference. Personally, I’m not likely to read a book that focuses entirely on its female cast, nor do I expect a lot of women to read books that focus entirely on a male cast. However, too often books emphasize male or female views not by focusing on one gender over the other, but by depicting one gender as significantly superior to the other. This is a problem.

When we write in such a way that we cast women as playthings or servants we do a disservice not only to women, but to ourselves as well. The failure to see the opposite gender as fully human deprives us of the unique qualities of that gender. As I said above, men and women generally think differently. That different perspective can be a great blessing, as long as we aren’t too afraid to seek it out. However, if our writing devalues the opposite gender and casts them simply as weak or merely as useful or fun, rather than as fully human, we not only put down every member of that gender who reads our work, but we distance ourselves from their ideas, emotions, and perspective on life.

So, we must be aware of the messages that we send through our writing. How do you portray your own gender? How do you portray the opposite gender? Why? It’s certainly something to give some thought to.

Sunday Picture Post

So, yesterday I was reading an article on the over-sexualization of women in comic books. Generally, I think that the article made some good points, and it’s something that I hope to address in my next big post. I think this is a discussion that can be had not just in the comic art medium, but in the fantasy art medium, in the video medium (Starz anyone?), and in our own medium of written fiction. However, as always, we’re taking today off. So, for now have a wonderful Sunday, and enjoy this picture:

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Why No Masks?

Captain Marvel, sometimes known as the magical version of superman.

Superheroes are generally relegated to the comic book industry.  While there are a few novels retelling major story-lines (i.e. The Death and Rebirth of Superman), they are relatively few and far between.  To some degree this is understandable, super-heroes were introduced with by the comic book medium (even if you argue that modern day superheroes are simply a recasting of ancient mythical characters you must admit that there is a significant difference between mythical hero stories and modern superheroes).  However, while there are a large number of magical heroes in comic books such as Dr. Strange, Brother Voodoo, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, The Shadow Pact, The Demon Etrigan, Dr. Fate, and Captain Marvel (just to name a few), there do not seem to be any ‘superheroes’ in the Urban Fantasy fiction genre – the most natural place to find them.

Now there are some specifics that are necessary for a character to be a superhero, although not as many as one might think.  While urban fantasy characters tend to have a few of these (i.e. super-human abilities is generally a given in an urban fantasy setting), there are several that they commonly lack.  For instance, every superhero has an origin story – some incredible and traumatic event that explains how they got their powers and what drives them (i.e. the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Peter Parker’s spider bite, the destruction of Krypton, or the murder of Frank Castles family).  Every superhero also wages an eternal battle (Batman’s war on crime, Ghost Rider’s war against hell, Dr. Strange’s battle to protect the earth, etc).  Lastly every superhero is a generally moral person; though many heroes have an alternate morality – for instance the Punisher operates on a strict code that reflects the rules of war, while his actions are illegal and wrong, they fall within his own strictly moral code – and some superheroes struggle with certain moral decisions and sometimes fall – see the descent into insanity of Plastic Man, or Antman’s fall from grace (however once they fell they were no longer considered ‘heroes’).  There are also some superheroes that have distinct mental problems, such as Captain Marvel’s identity issues or the Sentries bouts with psychosis.  So, superheroes are real people who struggle, but one of the defining aspects of a superhero is that in the end he will do the right thing, and is he doesn’t, then his status as a superhero is automatically brought into question.

The Shadow Pact

In general these are things that on does not find in Urban fantasy.  Of course there is also a strong (though not universal) tradition of vigilantism and rebellion in the comic book tradition that is also not found in Urban Fantasy.  My question here is why? Most of the Urban fantasy that I have found is a combination of mystery and paranormal romance, which has always seemed rather limited to me (though I admit to not being an expert).  However, urban fantasy demands the same kind of alternate modern reality that superhero comics naturally create.  I must admit that I am surprised that the concept of masked heroic vigilantes hasn’t jumped mediums by this point and become as much a staple of the Urban Fantasy genre as it is of the comic medium.  Perhaps someday it will, and I do have a couple of superhero stories in the back of my head that I plan to write at some point.  However, this hasn’t happened yet.  So, anyone have an idea why? Opinions?