Thursday, June 20, 2013

That's Not my Superman or Spider-Man or even The Hulk

Many people write their blogs from either an investigative or current point of view, often worrying about production details and credit. I have always sought to write this blog from a reader's point of view, trying to keep the perspective of a fan who read this wonderful material in chronological order when it originally came out, not knowing what the future would bring. I also did not know that this era was, or would be called, “The Silver Age of Comics.”

There is no one Superman, Spider-Man or Avengers. They have been redone, restored, recreated, rebooted, retired, resurrected, refrigerated (Captain America), reincarnated, reconstituted, rethought, regurgitated, relinquished, restored, and made over so many times. Spider-Man began as Amazing, but he has been Spectacular, Ultimate, Avenging, Sensational, and I think, my favorite, “The Inebriated Spider-Man.”

I hesitated in including this in my Man of Steel review because it may a sound a bit hypocritical and maybe it is. I don’t know.

When I go see a movie, or read a comic, I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. That doesn’t mean I always need to see totally new characters, but I do want to see a fresh story with an unpredictable outcome. The bad thing in the hero movies, super or otherwise, is that we know that the hero is going to survive, so I want the surrounding story to have some suspense to keep my interest.

The Man of Steel showed Superman in a new light. If you don’t know the end of the movie you can keep reading until I tell you to stop!

This certainly was not my Superman, but is that a good thing? My inspiration for that belief comes from Steve Ditko. And I’ll get back to that point in a minute.

It was always unlikely that we were ever going to see comic books or movies featuring brand-new characters, only the familiar ones that we have known for at least forty years, being brought back.
If you did not live through it, I cannot tell you what a joy it was to read the Marvel comic books in chronological order as they were being published in the early 1960s. Everything was new. The heroes, villains, the stories were all something I had not seen in DC, Charlton or Dell comics. In those Marvels, there were no footnotes that referenced stories that took place 20 years ago to fill in the details. For example, when the Riddler was brought back in a Batman comic in 1966, the editor referred to a Riddler story that appeared 20 years earlier. This was a comic that DC waited another 30 years to reprint. How, in 1966, was I ever likely to see the beginnings of Edward Nigma? 

However, everything at Marvel started off new and fresh and I really enjoyed that.

DC already seemed a little stale to me even as a kid, with dozens of years of continuity on each character. I felt that I was reading my parents' comics whereas, with Marvel, I felt like I was reading my own. Every succeeding generation is like that. Each one has its own music, clothes, slang and popular fictional characters.

I thought the new Star Trek movie was enjoyable, but I did not think it was in the least bit original. And many people gave me some static on that. They felt that it was a good movie and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t original, merely rewriting original scripts and recasting the main characters. I was disappointed because I wanted them to go where no past episode had gone before.

So what does Steve Ditko have to do with all this? Ditko redid three Marvel characters - the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Doctor Droom. In every case he was able to reach inside and see the essence of the character. So he understood what made the character interesting. He would then change their costume, their supporting characters or their environment and still keep the important qualities that were developed earlier. Not a lot of writers and artists had this ability. So his Iron Man propelled the character into the modern jet age. Originally, in the Jack Kirby costume, he wore his uniform like a British Knight. The character was most often defensive; his big heavy armor protected him. Now, he could be sleek and offensive, having the agility to attack and not just defend.

Ditko’s Doctor Strange is so different from Dr. Droom that it may be hard to see the connection. Maybe that is why, unlike the Hulk, Ditko gave us a whole new character and didn’t just redo Droom. Ditko placed the magician in incredible psychedelic worlds, so not only was this Caucasian magician with powers rooted in Asia (just like Droom) different, his world was totally changed. Oh yes, one of those psychedelic realms was Greenwich Village.

Spoiler Alert: You may want to stop reading here.

Superman at the 1939 World's Fair

What disappoints me about the new Superman movie (and here’s where I’m hypocritical) is that they did give us a new character, but they did not keep the essence of what I considered important about the old one.

It first startled me when Pa Kent, played by Kevin Costner, suggests that Clark should not have saved someone’s life because it gave away his powers. The movie shows Clark standing and watching his father die when he not only had the powers to save him, but the opportunity for the situation never to have ever occurred. I remember Jeff East, as young Clark Kent, so regretting the death by heart attack of his father in the 1978 movie. “All my powers…”

And I am certainly bothered at the end when Superman took the life of General Zod when the writers could have come up with a way for him to avoid it. So here I am saying I want to see something new and different, a character that I haven’t seen before, and I’m complaining that they did not keep the essence of the character that I grew up with.

We are not going to see a major new character from Marvel or DC. They cannot create new ones anymore. Creative people no longer see comics as their future. They want to have ownership and revenue, but they will not get it from the comic book industry so they look elsewhere. Marvel must rely on a stable of characters that is 50 years old and DC uses a reserve that is 75 years old. Yet the corporations freely give those creative rights to people who do their TV shows and Movies, just not the comics

I have no solutions, no suggestions and no alternatives - but that doesn't stop me from being a bit disappointed that this is not the Superman that I knew and want to know.

Nick Caputo is waiting for his Fantastic Four to return

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Review of "Man of Steel" From a 1960s Comic Book Fan's Point of View

I write these reviews not for the casual fan, but for the comic book enthusiasts who probably have seen all the previous movies and want to know not just how good this movie may be but how it stacks up to the previous editions of the characters, including the ones in the comics.
I write these first paragraphs a few days before Man of Steel opens to express my expectations for the movie. I have seen all of Superman’s live-action movies, from his first two serials in the 1940s, “Superman vs. The Mole Men” which served as the pilot of the TV show in 1951, to the five Christopher Reeve movies (if you include Superman II The Donner Edition) and the awful Superman Returns (where he is a stalkerr.

I have viewed so many of the live-action (and animated) Kryptonian sequences explaining how and why Superman came to Earth in both the movies and the TV shows, including Lois and Clark and Smallville. I loved so much of the 1978 movie: the casting, the story, the effects and the attitude. I guess I could have done without the Otis character and would have preferred a stronger Lois Lane, but I would give that movie 3.5 stars out of 4. I know now that for the theatrical release of Superman II, they fired the director, Richard Donner, who had shot more than half of it concurrently with Superman, and made the second movie sillier with less impact. I gave that 2.5 stars. Just a few years ago, Warner’s released “Superman II The Donner Edition,” a wonderful 3.5 star movie that continues in tone and substance where the first one left off.

Superman I and II display Kal-El’s Kryptonian origins, the Phantom Zone and General Zod. Are we going to get anything new in “Man of Steel? Will there be any originality in “Man of Steel?”

“This is no fantasy... no careless product of wild imagination” are Jor-El’s first words in the 1978 movie and you can see that this is where the Man of Steel wants to be. And, as a comic book fan, it surprised me and succeeds.

 I have to adjust to the fact that there will always be a new Superman. He will no longer fight for “truth, justice and the American way.” Thank God, I will always find my Superman in the DVD’s of the TV show, the Blue-Rays of the Reeve movies and in those old comic books.

On a comic book scale of one to four stars, I give this movie 1.5 stars. For people not interested in comics, it’s probably closer to a 1. This is a very different Superman, devoid of bright colors, humor and joy, which is replaced by action, violence and without insightful dialogue. The movie is dark - even the skies are cloudy throughout the movie.

This is certainly not the Krypton of 1978. Instead it is a darker work. Not just Superman’s father, Jor-El, knows that the planet will blow up, the entire population knows. In his earlier incarnations, Jor-El (here played by Russell Crowe) argued with the elders of Krypton. Now his main antagonist is General Zod, played superbly and creepily by Michael Shannon.

To be honest, I would not have minded if a Superman movie opened with a rocket landing on Earth, dispensing with all of the Krypton Krap.  Now the TV shows and movies keep giving us a longer and longer backstory. Once again Jor-El interacts with his son as if he (Jor-El)were still alive. Death in comic book movies is no longer fatal.

I did find that the 1980 Superman II movie did influence this production in several ways. In both movies, General Zod and his crew survive Krypton’s explosion by being placed into the Phantom Zone. Jor El has a long afterlife, being able to talk to his son long after he (Jor-El) dies. In Superman II, a woman named Ursa and a big guy called Non are Zod’s allies and they fight Superman in Metropolis. Here, Faoura-Ul (AntjeTraue) and a masked nameless guy have basically the same role. Kevin Costner as Pa Kent tells young Clark, as Glenn Ford did, “You were put here for a reason.”  However, here Clark Kent has a harder time finding that reason.

Here and in the TV show Smallville, Lois does NOT meet Clark for the first time at the Daily Planet as she had in virtually every other version.

The movie intends on building a new foundation for ongoing stories and does it best to get in the major plot points and introduce the characters. Here, for me, is one of the biggest failure of the 2.5 hour movie. Characters, including Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni), Lana Lang and Pete Ross are not given enough screen time or decent dialogue to develop their characters. Their characters are basically replaceable and not integral to the story.  I understand many people complained that in “Superman Returns” there was not enough action. Here the fight scenes go on forever and there is too much of that.

Henry Cavill plays his super straight, humorless character well. He looks like Superman and in some scenes, he looks like Christopher Reeve. The character is played too straight, too insecure for me. Amy Adams is just always good. She quickly becomes Superman’s protector and partner and it doesn’t take her 50 years to catch onto his identity. But there is no humor, no color anywhere, as if they were copying the tone of the previous Batman series. I wish more...or any... of Lois' quirky personality came through. The same can be said for the perfectly cast General Zod, Michael Shannon. Better dialogue would have helped. I enjoyed it when he explains his motivations for trying to kill all life on Earth.

The movie totally loses me in two scenes.  In a major flaw of the movie, Pa Kent tells Clark that he might have to let people die rather than reveal his identity. This is not the Pa Kent I knew, or wanted to know, and a major shift in the character.My Pa Kent would have always thought life, children's lives, were more important than a secret identity. My Superman cared about life more than anything.

And Superman let's his father die, not just to rescue a dog, but to keep his identity a secret. Again, this is just not my Superman, my man of steel.  Mine would have found a way to save his father under any circumstances. The movie totally loses me at this point.  I did not care for or about this Superman.

The John Williams score of the first movie (and adapted for the next few) was wonderful. It was at times dramatic, at times poetic, and gave us the perfect theme, the perfect opening march to the movie. Not so here. The music by Hans Zimmer was just loud and constant. I really wanted to shut it off at points. It’s true that he had no opening sequences, or for that matter slower sequences, like John Williams did, but he had opportunities that he missed.

I This movie was primarily shot with a bumpy hand held camera and not in 3D. The 3D was added later. showing. But once again the sound was overwhelmingly loud.

Small Spoilers

There was no Superboy in this Smallville, Kansas. We know it is Smallville because of the signs on the buses, water towers and Sears store. In flashbacks that featured Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) and Ma Kent (Diane Lane) we see the growth of the alien boy into the  man of steel. There a few changes here too. Ma Kent does not make his costume; it is given to him by Jor-El. And,

There is now a “Marvelazation” of the DC characters. While this started on Smallville, it gets deeper here. On Smallville, Pa Kent dies, Clark thinks, because of something he unintentionally does. And Clark, like Peter Parker after the death of his uncle, is tormented by it. Here, in a ridiculous and unneeded scene, Clark does something INTENTIONALLY that causes the death of Pa Kent. The whole set up of that sequence makes NO sense whatsoever.

There was a Marvel Comics, Spider-Man influence in In Batman Begins also. Young Bruce feels guilt about the death of his parents because they left the theater because of him and then were killed by a burglar.

As the super-beings destroy the city, the crowds appear and disappear on a regular basis. We know in New York that it took 13 years to rebuild the World Trade center. Here, the damage is far more extensive, but I bet it will be repaired by the next movie.  There were a few trucks that had "Lexcorp" signs on them, but there was no sign of Luther in the movie.

As the buildings collapse, thousands of people must have died. We saw what that looked like on September 11, 2001. Here there are no bodies, no injuries, and we are relieved when just one young girl is rescued. 

This is not my Superman. But he’ll have to do until the next one comes along.

June 19th Update: Major Spoiler Alert:

Screenwriter David S.  Goyer discusses the end of "Man of Steel"

One of the lessons that Chris and I learned from Batman was that if you're going to revitalize an iconic figure like that, you have to be prepared to slay some sacred cows and you have to be prepared to weather the slings and arrows of some people. You have to respect the canon, but constantly question the canon. If you don't reinvent these characters -- and they are constantly being reinvented in the comic books -- then they become stagnant and they cease being relevant. We were feeling -- and I think a lot of people were feeling -- that Superman was ceasing to be relevant.

Killing Zod was a big thing and that was something that Chris Nolan originally said there's no way you can do this. That was a change. Originally, Zod got sucked into the Phantom Zone along with the others. I just felt it was unsatisfying and so did Zack. We started questioning and talked to some of the people at DC Comics and said, "Do you think there's ever a way that Superman would kill someone." At first they said, "No way. No way." We said, "But what if he didn't have a choice?" Originally, Chris didn't even want to let us try to write it. Zack and I said, "We think we can figure out a way that you'll buy it." I came up with this idea of the heat vision and these people about to die. I wrote the scene and I gave it to Chris and he said, "OK, you convinced me. I buy it."

I think it makes some people feel uncomfortable; other people say, "Right on." That was the point. Hopefully what we've done with the end of the film is we've gotten people -- the mainstream audience, not the geek audience -- to question [the character]. Hopefully we've redefined Superman.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Gary Friedrich Can Take His Ghost Rider Case to Court

Reversing a lower court’s decision, Gary Friedrich will be allowed to take his case for the ownership of the copyright of Ghost Rider to a jury. Two years ago a federal judge ruled against his case going to trial, contending that the evidence was overwhelming against Friedrich’s claim that he, alone, created the Ghost Rider and had the right to reclaim ownership when it became due under the copyright laws.  That decision was overturned by a three judges on a higher Federal Court on Tuesday.

This is a is a limited victory. There is no guarantee that Friedrich will win at trial, it just means that the facts of the case must be decided by a jury, not by the judge who first ruled on the case.  

Briefly the copyright law allows a creator to regain, after 28 years, a copyrighted item he has sold. he Ghost Rider was introduced in Marvel Spotlight #2. Friedrich contends that was the original creator of Ghost Rider and that this was not a “work for hire" situation where Marvel would be considered the original copyright owner. Work for hire means that he was given an assignment from Marvel and, working with others, created this character for Marvel. Marvel claims that Ghost Rider and it’s characters were created through a collaborative process with Marvel’s personnel.

Now a jury will have to decide who create Ghost Rider, was it Friedrich alone, or with others working for Marvel.

Here is what Roy Thomas had to say in an interview with John Cooke a decade ago:

Roy Thomas: “I had made up a character as a villain in Daredevil — a very lackluster character — called Stunt-Master...a motorcyclist. Anyway, when Gary Friedrich started writing Daredevil, he said, “Instead of Stunt-Master, I’d like to make the villain a really weird motorcycle-riding character called Ghost Rider.” He didn’t describe him. I said, “Yeah, Gary, there’s only one thing wrong with it,” and he kind of looked at me weird, because we were old friends from Missouri, and I said, “That’s too good an idea to be just a villain in Daredevil. He should start out right away in his own book.” When Gary wasn’t there the day we were going to design it, Mike Ploog, who was going to be the artist, and I designed the character. I had this idea for the skull-head, something like Elvis’ 1968 Special jumpsuit, and so forth, and Ploog put the fire on the head, just because he thought it looked nice. Gary liked it, so they went off and did it in back office for three hours.”

A ruling for Friedrich means that Thomas and Ploog were legally not the co-creators of Ghost Rider, something many fans might be uncomfortable with.

Friedrich had claimed and was awarded received copyright registration for his work in Marvel Spotlight #5. He later sued Marvel and their licensees for copyright infringement and other claims.

The first judge ruled that Friedrich signed a form that said he gave "to Marvel forever all rights of any kind and nature in and to the Work." Now, Judge Denny Chin says that the 1978 contract "is ambiguous on its face,” because it is "ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased. " And it was not clear "whether it covered a work published six years earlier" and "whether it conveys renewal rights… "The contract contains no explicit reference to renewal rights and most of the language merely tracks the 1976 Act's definition of 'work made for hire,'" writes Judge Chin.

In other words, Judge Chin wrote that a 1978 work for hire contract would not necessarily  cover work that was done years earlier.  However, Friedrich could still lose this case over the issue of the statute of limitations having run out.

 "The Agreement could reasonably be construed as a form work-for-hire contract having nothing to do with renewal rights. "Spotlight 5 had been published six years earlier by a different corporate entity (Magazine Mgmt.) and had grown so popular that Marvel had already reprinted it once and had launched a separate Ghost Rider comic book series. Given that context, it is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it. It is more likely that the Agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties' intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider."
The appeals court wrote: "When construed in Marvel's favor, the record reveals that Friedrich had nothing more than an uncopyrightable idea for a motorcycle-riding character when he presented it to Marvel because he had not yet fixed the idea into a tangible medium."

The appeals court states that a jury could reasonably conclude that artists and others at Marvel at the time developed Ghost Rider through collaborative efforts, which would indeed make it a "work made for hire" and Marvel, the sole statutory author. But that will be decided at trial, assuming there's no settlement or some unexpected twist. 

Gary Friedrich had previously created Hell-Rider a short-lived, black-and-white comic for Skywald Publications. It lasted two issues, (Aug. & Oct. 1971). Brick Reese had a bike with many gadgets, including a flamethrower. He gained temporary super-strength courtesy of the experimental drug Q-47.

Below are the actual court papers.