Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Smallville Legacy

At the end of last night's "Supergirl" finale, I found myself thinking how much the end reminded me of "Smallville," particularly in the choice to play a thematically appropriate contemporary pop song to underscore the season's emotional denouement. It started me thinking about what the impact of "Smallville" on the current superhero-saturated primetime television drama landscape.

"Smallville" was very much a product of its time, designed more or less explicitly to capitalize on the success of "Roswell." The first X-Men movie premiered the year before, "Spider-Man" was still months away, and chasing the "Dawson's Creek" demographic as well as the fans of leather-clad Mutants made the choice for costume-free superheroics pretty attractive. From the beginning, "Smallville" wanted to strike a different tone than the previous decade's "Superboy" and "Lois and Clark"—the latter of which only ended four years earlier. The "no tights, no flights" edict held, even though the mere rumor of a similar edict on "Superman Lives" made Jon Peters a laughingstock among comic fans, even after it seemed like everyone but Clark Kent had a costume and a codename.

My feelings about "Smallville" are complicated, and I last left off the series somewhere in the middle of Season 7, so someone with a bit more comprehensive knowledge could put together a more thorough post here. But there's a pretty clear throughline from that 2001 two-episode premiere to what we have today, particularly on the CW. "Smallville" made Oliver Queen a major character, and there's no denying how that (along with an inability to use Batman for various reasons) leads to "Arrow" as a series. The success of "Arrow" and an increasing willingness to embrace the more outlandish aspects of superhero universes leads to "The Flash" as a spinoff, and the success of "The Flash" allows showrunners Berlanti and Kriesberg to develop "Supergirl" for CBS, as well as "Legends of Tomorrow." Meanwhile, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," for all its reliance on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the only current series (mostly) following through on the plainclothes superheroics model pioneered by shows like "Smallville" and "Heroes," and "Gotham" is following through on the original idea behind "Smallville"—a show exploring the adventures of a young Bruce Wayne.

It's easy to look at "Smallville" and see some of the traits that have since become some of the worst features of modern superhero adaptations: that attitude of being too cool for the trappings of superhero comics, of rejecting codenames and costumes and trying to reduce the scope of things to something less ridiculous. That sense of being ashamed of the source material for being silly. The kind of attitude that makes Mr. Mxyzptlk a creepy Eastern European mind controller is the same kind of attitude that gets us a Superman movie where the word "Superman" is only spoken once or twice toward the end.

But I think "Smallville" largely grew out of that phase, and its direct descendants have cast off that attitude almost entirely. We've got plenty of tights and flights on TV now. We've got full-throated support for names like Captain Cold and Reverse Flash. And I honestly don't think we would have gotten to this point without ten years of Smallville slowly acclimating television audiences to the Justice Society and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Red Kryptonite.

Ultimately, "Smallville" is responsible for merging the soap opera dynamics of superhero comics with the soap opera dynamics of teen dramas, in a way that helped to form the template for the modern superhero drama series. "Lois and Clark" had its share of clones and amnesia, but played much more like a sitcom than a soap, and the original "Flash" didn't last long enough to make an impact. "Smallville" found that synthesis, and in doing so built the foundation for a lot of what's come after.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Hot Garbage

Let the record show that I didn't irrationally hate Man of Steel, that I consistently had a lot of positive things to say about it, despite having serious problems with the last part of the film.

I cannot say the same for Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you're looking for positivity and charity, look elsewhere. Spoilers, snark, and bile ahead.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Man of Steel Liveblogging

It’s been three years since I watched this movie, but let’s be honest, it’s not like I’ve stopped thinking or talking about it for more than a few weeks at a time. For better or for worse, Man of Steel has had a major impact on how I think about Superman these last few years, even if it’s just because it crystallized the kinds of problems that make a Superman story go off the rails.

But I’m trying to be more positive here. I said in my original review that I mostly liked the movie, and while that didn’t hold as true on the second viewing in the theater, it still does a lot of things really well. So I’m going to focus on that. In addition, and possibly in conflict with that idea, a conversation I had some months ago has me wondering what people think of Superman in this universe. If you’re the average person on the street in Metropolis, how would you feel about Superman after all this?

With that out of the way, let’s fire it up.

Superman walking out of the Kryptonian ship.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The State of Comics Blogging

Dave Lartigue closed Dave Ex Machina yesterday.

That's a part of what made me fire up the old blog machine this morning, and definitely part of what made me look at the sidebar. Clicking those links is a depressing enterprise. Less than half of the main blogroll is still active, and several of those post about as sporadically as I have been.

It's not too hard to see why, really. I can't speak for everyone, but I started this blog when I was in college and had tons of free time for writing. Eventually I grew up, I got a job, I got married, and all that meant less time for sitting in front of the computer or reading comics. My "to read" pile is basically a longbox and a half at this point. I suspect the same is true for a lot of the folks who fired up comics blogs in the halcyon days of the mid-'00s. A lot of the rest got snagged up by larger sites like Comics Alliance and Comic Book Resources and Newsarama, where they're still doing comics blogging, but under a bigger umbrella.

A lot of content has moved to other platforms, too. I spend a lot more time on social media than I do on Blogger, where it can sometimes feel like you're shouting into the void. Places like Tumblr and Twitter are good for short-form content and jokes that once would have been blog posts here, and allow for more quantitative feedback in the form of likes and reblogs.

Personally, I know I've never been good at finishing things or following a project through to the end. I've still got some ideas for this blog, and I'm not ready to let go of the format just yet. I'm certainly not ready to put a pin in it and close things down with that sense of finality, not when there's the possibility that I'll change my mind in six months. But the comics blogging landscape is different than it was five years ago, and it's littered with abandoned residences.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

2015 In Review

Happy New Year, everybody! I've made it my resolution to write more, and while I don't know if that'll translate to more posts on this increasingly depressing blog, but it would be difficult to do less writing here. It's not for lack of trying; it's mostly for lack of time.

But enough excuses, I'm going to share some thoughts on the past year, in the traditional form: a best-of list. The major caveat here is that I haven't read as much of what came out this year as I'd like, so I may be overlooking some gems that I didn't get around to reading.

Best Ongoing Comic Series: Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi.
This has not been a great year for my reading of comics. My to-read pile has been mostly just getting larger, and even books that I once would have read as soon as I got back from the comic shop have started gathering dust. Marvel's made that a little easier to get past with their digital copy codes, allowing me to read most Marvel books without having the physical copy present, but I still have to pick and choose what to spend my time on. And I always pick "Unbeatable Squirrel Girl" when it's an option. North and Henderson are both great for their own individual reasons, and together they've made Marvel's most surprising must-read book. It's consistently fun and funny, using obscure Marvel characters and continuity in new and fun ways. It's an all-ages book that never feels like it's talking down to the audience or oversimplifying the shared universe. It's given us Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boi. If you're not reading it, what are you even doing?

Best Superhero TV Series: The Flash
This has been a banner year for superhero TV. Marvel's Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been incredible character studies that do things like "grim 'n' gritty" and "street-level superheroes" ten times better than most of the comics and media adaptations which have tried those things before. Agents of SHIELD continues to be fairly watchable, and I hear good things about Gotham even though I lost interest. But holy cow, The Flash. Aside from a few missteps, The Flash is the first superhero adaptation since Batman: Brave and the Bold which doesn't feel like it's ashamed of the sillier aspects of superhero comics. Sure, they made Firestorm an acronym (a common trope we see in comics adaptations, though I'm hard-pressed to see how it makes things less silly) and made Grodd a government experiment, but then they dropped full-on Earth-2 and Gorilla City in like it's no big deal. This show feels like a breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see where it's headed next.

Honorable Mention: Supergirl
Supergirl is just about everything I want from an adaptation of a Superman Family character, including the single best portrayal of Cat Grant in any medium in the last 20 years or so. I feel like it's still finding its legs a bit (that love triangle has got to go), but it's well on it's way to being not just a great, fun superhero show, but the best Superman-related media in well over a decade.

Best Superhero Movie: Ant-Man
This wasn't exactly a big year for superhero films, so of the two I saw, I thought Ant-Man was better. It was fun, funny, well-paced, and it introduced a bit of legacy into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, helping to better tie together the increasingly sprawling timeline. Hopefully the next film will give us Janet Van Dyne and give Evangeline Lilly more to do. That this movie wasn't just "The Wasp" is its biggest failing.

Best Superman Series: Superman: Lois & Clark
I honestly think this year's been a pretty good one for Superman, all things considered. He's had a rough time of it since before the New 52 reboot, but this year's stories have been pretty solid. The "Truth" arc is somewhat controversial, but like "New Krypton" a few years ago, I'm willing to give a shot to stories that try new things with the character (within reason, of course). The arc has been a nice, stealthy way to bring the spotlight back onto Superman's supporting cast, who have been rather ill-served by the last several years of comics storytelling. But it also raises rather uncomfortable questions of putting genies back in bottles, meaning either inevitable retcons or piecemeal nonsense like when Wally West and Peter Parker had their secret identities restored. It'd also be nice if they weren't still persisting with the Superman/Wonder Woman romance, which seems forced and cursory even in its flagship title.
But Lois & Clark, only a few issues in, is a nice breath of fresh air. While it's purporting to bring back the "old" Superman, the pre-New 52 married Superman, with wife and child in tow, it's doing precisely the kind of new take on things that I've been enjoying in "Truth." A Superman who's lost not just a world, but a universe, working in secret to ensure what went wrong in the old timeline goes right, now? It's a bit of Quantum Leap, mixed with a bit of what this Superman did way back in the Byrne reboot. It's also easily Jurgens' best writing in years. I've enjoyed quite a few of the New 52 Superman stories, but this comic felt like coming home.

Biggest Surprise: Star Wars
Not even just the new film. The beginning of the end of my Star Wars fandom in the late '90s, when I couldn't finish "Tales from the Empire" and had no interest in the Hand of Thrawn Duology. I was still pretty into Star Wars, mind you, reading older novels, running RPG campaigns, and seeing the movies in the theater. I really liked The Phantom Menace; I saw Attack of the Clones twice in the theater (once at the midnight opening). While Revenge of the Sith didn't exactly kill what remained by that point, it didn't leave me with much enthusiasm for that universe. It would be years before I actually engaged with Star Wars media again in any fashion.
But this year, I decided to revisit the movies, in preparation for The Force Awakens, a film I was actually optimistic about. For the first time, I felt like I could pin down exactly what were the problems with the prequels, and I actually appreciated what they got right. Moreover, I recognized that I liked the wrong two back in the day, and that
aside from some really dumb bits, Revenge of the Sith is easily the best of the three.
I also started in on Marvel's Star Wars comics this year, on the recommendation of my local comic shop guy, and while I was really skeptical at first, I've enjoyed it all so far. I've never been much of one for Star Wars comics; reading Dark Empire early on turned me off to the whole enterprise. But putting top talent on the books (not to mention sweeping away decades of dodgy Expanded Universe continuity) was the shot in the arm necessary to make this new Expanded Universe feel fresh and fun. As with Superman, I feel like I'm finally seeing new things being done, new stories being told, with these familiar characters, and that's really vital.
And then The Force Awakens hit, and I quite liked it. I'm hesitant to say that, since my track record on critically evaluating the Star Wars films is not great, but I enjoyed the movie and look forward to seeing it again, perhaps with a more critical eye. Honestly, though, just returning to practical effects made a world of difference.

Honorable Mention: Secret Wars
It's not quite over yet, but Secret Wars is easily the best crossover event comic I've read since...well, a good long time, anyway (I admit, I haven't gotten around to all those Convergence tie-ins, or the miniseries). This year, I went back and read Hickman's whole Marvel opus, from Fantastic Four and S.H.I.E.L.D. on up through Avengers, and it was truly amazing to see how early he was laying the seeds of this event. All the tie-ins I've read have been pretty good, but the main book is where the real meat has been, and I'm excited to see how it all ties up.

And I think that about wraps this post up, too. Only two more posts to beat last year's number.