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Super Heroes

Big Hero 6 (2015)

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Direct by Don Hall and Chris Williams

So after a couple of articles all about Big Hero 6, the comic, and my thoughts on the possible ways Disney could adapt it I finally got a chance to watch the finished product.

And it’s pretty fantastic.

But what did I think about it as an adaptation?

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Well, despite that being the topic of all my previous posts on Big Hero 6 when I got to see the finished film it quickly became apparent that this is one of the loosest adaptations of any property ever. I kind of suspected as much once we started to get some character and plot details, and also from the total lack of any acknowledgement that this is a Marvel property but the main things the film and comic share are some names, some powers (loosely), a few design elements (even looser) and a sort of Japanese feel.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. None of the original characters are particular winners (well, maybe Sunfire but he’s originally an X-Men supporting character/anti-hero) and nobody’s powers had an amazing unique concept (although I do like Fred and his Kaiju monster aura). There isn’t a great definitive Big Hero 6 story that everyone loves so, yeah, as long as you keep the high concept of super-heroes but vaguely Japanese, change whatever you want.

So how is the film itself as its own beast?

(Spoilers, sort of, most of this is set-up)

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Well, the film tells the story of Hiro (Ryan Potter who is Japanese/American, which is fantastic), young orphaned genius and his older brother Tadashii (Daniel Henney and FYI Tadashii is not a name. Is it so hard to ask a Japanese person if the word you’re using for a character name is a real first name of total gibberish? Well, not gibberish since it does mean right or correct but it isn’t a first name) who is similarly a genius. Hiro spends his days hustling illegal street bot fights for cash, Tadashii spends his days at University in a specialised programme for geniuses where they get to work on whatever interests them. Tadashii is dismayed at his brother’s lack of ambition and brings him to his school to see his latest project, Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable medical robot that will live in people’s homes and help them with psychiatric and physical medical assistance. There Hiro also meets Tadashii’s friends who are all idiosyncratic geniuses with their own interests and personality quirks. And Fred (T. J. Miller), who is the school’s mascot.

Hiro is inspired and desperately wants to join the school but to do so he needs to demonstrate something impressive. So he starts working on some micro-bots, think a cross between nano-bots and lego. They’re finger sized magnetic robots that can be mentally controlled to re-shape and build larger structures. He shows them off at an expo and everyone is suitably impressed leading to Hiro getting his school placement. He doesn’t get to enjoy it though because a fire starts at the expo, destroying his work and killing Tadashii.

Hiro, understandably, falls into a depression after this as his brother and best friend is dead and the only thing that snaps him out of his funk is the accidental discovery of a mysterious masked figure using his micro-bots to commit crimes. Well, that and Baymax who is programmed to try and treat his depression. With the help of a modified Baymax and Tadashii’s friends Hiro sets out to catch the thief.

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The main strengths of Big hero 6 are the writing and the characters. This is a Disney film that, despite all the fantastic elements, feels very real and honest emotionally. Hiro’s personal arc is both engaging and really feels like something a teenaged boy would go through, and it’s paced marvellously too. And at the heart of that arc is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax.

I said in the build up that there’s a lot of potential in “ a boy and his….” Narratives. From Old Yeller to Iron Giant to How to Train your Dragon there is something about the relationship between teenaged boys and non-human friends that is really effecting and Hiro and Baymax are another highlight in this tradition. Baymax in particular is wonderful. Equal parts hilarious, caring, warm and adorable with a smidgen of badass. He’s the big brother everyone wishes they could have. He’s also just a great comic creation and Scott Adsit’s measured delivery of every line delivers some really great deadpan humour (if you’ve seen this film, you did a fist bump and went fa la la la la la la la, do not deny it).

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The animation is, of course, spectacular. The flying and chase scenes have a sense of thrill and danger to them that puts most live action films to shame and the big action sequences with the team showing off their powers and fighting the villain are everything I want in super hero movies. Bright, colourful characters using their powers in creative ways and teaming up to look cool and kick ass. Much like Incredibles before it Big Hero 6 is so confident and creative in showing off super powers that it just highlights how limited and boring the action scenes in the Marvel movies, Man of Steel or the X-Men franchise have been. There’ so much invention in the fights and they’re choreographed so clearly and fluidly that my main complaint with the action is that there isn’t nearly enough of it.

The animation really soars in the details though. San Fransokyo is a masterful creation, it feels really lived in and is full of details that make it both aesthetically interesting and are really fun for a nerdy otaku like me to spot. Fred’s room in particular is one for the super nerds. He has a statue of sleepwalker in there! He has a statue of Black Talon. Black Talon, the guy who dresses like a chicken and fought the avengers once in the 70’s. Black Talon made it into a film before Wonder Woman!

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San Fransokyo was one of the elements I was most worried about mostly because in the trailer it came off as more Chinese than Japanese. However, the creators have explained that the concept is that in this reality Chinatown has expanded to encompass the whole of San Francisco, so this is an American city with very obvious Chinese and Japanese elements. That makes a lot more sense and really comes across in the design. Stuff like Hiro’s robot anime posters, the cat named mochi or Honey Lemon pronouncing “photo-photo” with a really good Japanese accent make it feel Asian in a subtle and all-encompassing way that’s more effective and markedly less offensive than the original comics. Plus it just feels cool. It’s all the really iconic and awesome parts of modern Japanese culture nicked and combined in one sleek package.

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My main complaint is that the other 4 team members get very little screen time or development. This is a story of 4 characters, Hiro, Tadashii (who dies), Baymax and the antagonist (whose identity is a secret). And that’s fine, there isn’t anything wrong with telling a focused narrative with a few side characters. Indeed, the narrative is stronger for its tight focus and excellent pacing.  But the film is called Big Hero 6 not Hiro and Baymax and we have 4 other guys who get very little to do. And that wouldn’t be so bad except that I really like these other characters and want to see more of them. Wasabi no Ginger becomes Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), nerdy black guy (I bring it up because I’m super happy he isn’t a horrible Asian stereotype like the comics character) with OCD and laser knives. Go Go (Jamie Chung) keeps her rebellious snarky personality but trades in bouncing like an egg for skating on frictionless magnetic bike wheels. Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is the complete opposite of the sexually dominating flirty comics character and is a shy, slightly clumsy but very sweet and caring typical girly girl with a purse that’s also a chemical factory. Then there’s Fred, who is pure unbridled fanboy excitement in a rubber monster suit that lets him jump high and breathe fire.

Fred could so easily have been annoying but I love him. He reminds me of me.

I like these characters, a lot. They’re fun, they have clear well defined personalities and they have wonderful chemistry together. And they have cool and varied powers. My favourite moments in the film (aside from just, everything Baymax does) are their training montage and the fights where they get to show off their skills. I just wish we had more time with them in costume fighting guys. I understand that in the original concept there was more of this but it got cut to tighten the focus. Hopefully we can get a sequel or a TV series to flesh these guys out more.

So in summary Big Hero 6 is a classic family film narrative enlivened by an imaginative setting. great characters and some clever jokes. It’s not ground breaking in any way but it’s hard to find fault in it really.

It isn’t better than The Lego Movie though.

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I’m not a huge fan of Gatchaman having only seen a few episodes of the original series (although I have somehow managed to watch all 3 dubs accidentally) but the show had a transformative influence on me. Gatchaman is the first anime I ever saw and even as a dumb kid I recognised at once that the animation, storytelling and character development were leagues beyond anything I was watching from western animation at the time.

I was therefore very enthusiastic about Gatchaman Crowds. An update of the Gatchaman concept of teenagers in bird themed costumes fighting aliens, done with modern day animation and storytelling conventions and a cool social media gimmick? Sign me up, that sounds great.

Gatchaman Crowds starts off by delivering pretty much exactly what I wanted from it. The first episode introduces the team, the concept and the villain. Hajime Ichinose is a high school girl obsessed with stationery, art and craft. When we first meet her she is having a serious geek out moment over a new notepad she has bought.

Gatchaman-Crowds Hajime

Hajime is relentlessly genki (a Japanese word meaning cheerful and energetic) almost to the point of obnoxiousness but she’s sweet, kind and enthusiastic. All positive traits that draw a mysterious figure named JJ (played by Katsuji Mori the original Gatchaman leader Ken the Eagle) who meets her in a dreamlike state and pulls a notebook from her body.

Hajime accidentally sees one of her classmates Sugane Tachibana transform into a Gatchaman, a super hero with a bird like costume, as he fights an alien that has disguised itself as a human. Sugane has an ability to wipe the minds of people that see his Gatchaman form but now that Hajime has a notebook it doesn’t work on her. Sugane realises that this means Hajime is also a Gatchaman so he takes her to their base to meet the other team members and reveal their mission.

Gatchaman-Crowds JJ

JJ is a kind of godlike being who creates Gatchaman on planets all over the universe. The Gatchaman are civil servants who protect the people on their planets from extra-terrestrial threats but must do so in secret. On Earth this team has been fighting MESS, an alien intelligence that abducts humans.

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Okay so, set up is basic but very functional. Secret team, wise mentor, super powers; all in service of fighting bad guys. It isn’t the most original idea in the world but hey, it provides a neat framework to hang a fight scene on every week and lots of opportunities to tell good stories. And it works as an update of the old series concept.

That set up lasts until the beginning of episode 2!

That is how uninterested the creators are in telling a by the numbers shonen anime story. All of your expectations, boom, thrown out the window my friends.

What happens at the start of episode 2 (well the end of episode 1 but it finishes at the start of episode 2) is that Hajime transforms into a Gatchaman against Sugane’s orders. Sugane is fighting a huge MESS and getting his ass kicked by it but Hajime hasn’t transformed to help him in the fight but instead to talk to the MESS. Something that everyone else thinks is impossible. However the moment she touches it with her scissor weapon she establishes a way to communicate with it, and when the MESS realises it has been harming humans it stops. See the MESS was only abducting us as a way to try and communicate in the first place, and now it can. Mission accomplished.

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Well, that’s totally overthrown all the set-up, now what do we do? New alien threat? Well kind of. What Gatchaman Crowds is actually concerned with from episode 2 onwards is answering the questions:

What is the point of Super Heroes?

How can we make the world a better place?

What are the different ways in which different groups of people can make the world a better place?

On the question of Super Heroes Gatchaman Crowds represents one of the most radical reinventions of the Super Hero concept I have ever seen. I have now written an entirely separate post to discuss this but basically to be a Super Hero story your story needs to conform to the following criteria.

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  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.
  4. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

Gatchaman Crowds conforms perfectly to all 4 criteria…in episode 1 and then begins dismantling them all to point out why the Super Hero idea is flawed but how it can be re-purposed.

So starting with point 4. The shortened version of this, in Super Hero stories you usually end with the hero punching the bad guy. And so does episode one of Gatchaman Crowds where Sugane uses his sword to defeat some MESS. Genre conventions  thus conformed to, Gatchaman establishes itself as a Super Hero story. But that is the last time that punching will ever be a solution in this series because in episode 2 Hajime tries talking to the MESS and it is immediately shown to be a superior strategy. The G-team has been fighting MESS for 5 years without winning. Hajime talks to them for one day and the problem is solved.

The message is quite simple, communication is better than punching when it comes to solving problems.

Now Gatchaman Crowds is not the first Super Hero work to make this message or to question the usefulness of the Super Hero to solve real world problems. Watchmen, Miracle Man, Squadron Supreme, The Authority, “what’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way?” I could keep going.  The two main conclusions most of these stories fall into is either a) the power a Super Hero has can literally remake the world into a better place and so the hero proceeds to do that (Watchmen, Miracle Man, The Authority) or b) the power of a single man is limited and ultimately being a Super Hero can’t make the world better only maintain a status quo or deal with small threats (any Superman story in which he fails to save someone, almost all Daredevil stories, The Sentry).

You would think with its message of punching is worse than communication that Gatchaman Crowds falls into the b group but really it takes a third path. It’s arguing quite firmly that Super Heroes can change the world but not because they’re super-heroes, just because anyone can.*

This leads us to the second big plot point of Gatchaman Crowds the existence of GALAX and CROWDS.

Gatchaman Crowds GALAX

GALAX is a social media app that, in true visual media tradition, doesn’t work by using words, lists and pictures but instead inefficiently populates a virtual world with virtual avatars that interact within it (see also Oz in Summer Wars). Its main purpose is twofold. Firstly it works to make the world a better place by connecting people based on their skillset and their location. For example, when one character is hit by a car their friend uses GALAX to describe the situation and GALAX alerts a nearby nurse that she should go and help.

GALAX then represents an argument that the world is better when people are doing what they do best for no reason other than doing what they do best benefits all. That is explicitly a Communist idea and like Communism it runs up against a major practical problem. Who decides what your job should be that best benefits society?

Gatchaman Crowds LOAD

Gatchaman side steps the issue somewhat by having the entity in charge of all the decision making be an objective super-intelligent A.I. named X. But that A.I. still had to be invented by someone who created it to reflect their values, and that person is Rui Ninomiya aka LOAD aka the super genius boy who invented X, GALAX, CROWDS and tried to use his intelligence to make the world a better place. And the fact that GALAX isn’t objective but works to reflect the dictatorship of LOAD is not something the series will shy away from.

The other issue Communism and by extension GALAX runs into is how to motivate people to work. Sure some people will help for the sake of helping but not the majority, and not if the job is dangerous or difficult. Capitalism fixes this issue by use of currency as a motivator and GALAX does something similar through the use of gamification. See when that Nurse helped that kid, she got a higher score in her game of GALAX.

Gamification, the idea of turning real world activities into the equivalent of a video game with scores and rewards is sometimes posited as a real alternative economy for the future. The argument goes that when automisation eventually replaces the need for people to work the only way to get them to do the minimal jobs required by full automisation will be to turn work into a game with status and rewards for those who do well at it. Gamification is not some Sci-Fi future though, apps that give you points and badges for working out, organising your life or assisting in charity exist right now and in Gatchaman Crowds they’re the engine that runs GALAX and we see it spring into action when GALAX organises a group of school kids to stop a shipment of tainted milk (???) and they do it for the mix of helping and for the adventure of playing the game.

Gatchaman-Crowds the hundreds

GALAX gives the power to improve the world to the people, not to Super Heroes and it goes one step further. LOAD has picked 100 special high scoring GALAX users and given them the power of CROWDS. A variation on the Gatchaman’s own powers CROWDS is a kind of faceless avatar for each GALAX user that inhabits the real world. Huge, strong and indestructible these weird monsters assist in clearing road accidents and rescuing people from a damaged cable car.

The Gatchaman then aren’t the only people with extraordinary power in this universe, anyone can be a Super Hero if they play enough GALAX i.e. if they help enough people.

Point 3 of my definition then, Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people, is gone.

So what about point 1? Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name? Again this is initially true of The Gatchaman and is then discarded. They start out as secret heroes with secret identities but one of the first things Hajime does when CROWDS starts to become a threat rather than an asset is to take The Gatchaman public. She starts a PR campaign harnessing the power of the media (both traditional and newer forms like social and GALAX) to turn the public against the threat of CROWDS and unite people to help. When they were 5 people working in secret The Gatchaman had no chance to stop CROWDS, the only way to stop them is to enlist the aid of others and in doing that their fame and public profile are more useful than Sugane’s sword or Joe’s guns. Again, communication is more useful to fight a threat than punching.

It’s also not a coincidence that Hajime starts her PR campaign at an elementary school. Kids are the easiest hearts and minds to convince but also the most important. The beliefs we hold as children rarely stay with us into adulthood but those that do stand the test of time become our most strongly held principles. Inspiring children is an important part of making the world better and it is as inspirational figures that Super Heroes work, better than as warriors. Especially because kids respond to good vs evil Super Hero stories better than to complicated tales with multiple shades of morality. In both our real world and in the metafiction of Gatchaman Crowds the power of the Super Hero is in inspiring children to do good.

Point 1 is also shredded in Gatchaman Crowds by the fact that EVERYONE has a secret identity. Of course The Gatchaman do but Rui is a boy whereas his alter ego LOAD is a girl. Every user of GALAX has an online avatar, a second identity they can customise and which they show to the world. Even on a more mundane level Joe wears a suit and tie at work and has his hair tied up neatly in a ponytail as he plays the role of civil servant but then when he gets home he slips on cool clothes, lets his hair down, puts a cigarette in his mouth and goes out to the bar. Everyone has multiple identities and roles.

This might be a peculiarly Japanese thing since they have always strongly drawn the distinction between honne and tatemae, home and public, the face you show to the world and the face you only show to yourself. The principle is not alien to the West where we do understand the concept of politeness and not doing things in public you would in private but we’ve also told people to be themselves, express their emotions and be honest whereas in Japan the cultural norms have always been about putting on a false face for the benefit of others. The end result though is the concept of an alternate identity is not exclusive to the Super Hero, it’s an everyday thing for the Japanese. And as social media becomes increasingly the mainstream culture the difference between our real self and a cultivated public identity is becoming an issue we in the West also need to struggle with. What used to be an issue for celebrities and public figures now affects us all.

That just leaves point number 2, Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people, and whilst this is never subverted in Gatchaman Crowds in that The Gatchaman always have their costumes there are plenty of characters with outlandish appearances outside of costume from LOAD’s bunny ears, to the GALAX avatars to PaiPai (literally a talking toy Panda, and the leader of the Gatchaman).

So having completely upended the concept of a Super-Hero the series goes on to ask the question “How can we make the world a better place and what is stopping us?”

Let’s start with the characters who are failing to make the world a better place, the original Gatchaman, the 4 heroes who have been failing to save the world for 5 years until Hajime shows up and fixes everything.

Gatchaman-Crowds-Joe Hibiki

Joe is the only direct carry over from the original Gatchaman. In that series Joe was the cocky bad boy rebel but one of the more competent and deadly team members. He was the Wolverine to use a TV Tropes comparison. Here he seems set up to be similar, he’s older than most team members, he goes to bars, he smokes and he often shows up late for meetings. He also has one of the more destructive sets of super powers, flight, guns and fire manipulation abilities.

Joe represents wasted potential. With all his powers Joe should be able to defeat the villain easily but he thinks he can’t, and because he thinks he can’t then he doesn’t try to.  He has a lack of confidence and bemoans his lack of ability when the irony is, dude is a Super Hero! Joe stands in for every person who has ever said “I would make the world a better place if I had x power.” Where x = money, time, intelligence, etc. The irony with Joe is that he has the power and still makes the same argument and this should be read as a direct statement to every person who has ever made Joe’s argument. You do have the power to make the world a better place and wishing for more power will not help.

The defining moment for him as a character is in episode 2 where he is practicing darts. We see him hit the bull with three darts in a row and his friend suggests he should compete but Joe dismisses it out of hand, saying he isn’t as a good as people that compete. This kind of attitude, this feeling like you lack the ability to make the world better is a reason people don’t make the world better.

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Sugane is the most straight forwardly heroic of the Gatchaman. He’s competent in the use of his powers able to easily take down the MESS in episode 1 and he’ll be the main character to transform and take on problems throughout the series. He’s also a good student, he’s always on time to meetings, he does what he’s told and he’s just generally a nice guy if a little bit stiff and little bit of a stickler for the rules. The problem with Sugane is he lacks creativity, ambition and crucially the ability to make decisions for himself. Sugane is always looking to others to tell him what to do, normally PaiPai as the official leader of the team but he also looks up to Joe, JJ and eventually Hajime. Sugane is a soldier basically, he is fully committed to making the world a better place but he wants orders, he wants somebody higher up to have made the decisions and to tell him what to do. He’s probably best summed up by his weapon, a sword. It’s a tool that does one thing and that thing is destroy. Unlike Hajime’s scissors which can destroy or create Sugane only knows how to do one thing and his lack of imagination is why he can’t make the world better.

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PaiPai is a talking miniature Panda because….merchandise? He’s also the leader of the team and often an active coward. He’s like Sugane but even worse. Like Sugane he craves orders but whereas Sugane at least goes out of the base and does stuff PaiPai spends most of his time at home drinking and bemoaning the fact that he’s a coward and a terrible leader. As leader he should be giving orders but as another soldier he needs orders from someone else. And so he looks to JJ, the god of this Universe. PaiPai then represents religious people, who want God to make the world better either directly or at least by giving them instructions on what to do. And like Gods in our world JJ doesn’t talk to PaiPai so he has no new instructions, as such he has to make do with the old instructions even if they fail to take into account the changing situation. PaiPai is everyone who looks to religious authority to make the world better and why that won’t work.

Gatchaman Crowds Pai Pai

He also has a nice parallel with the Prime Minister of Japan, another character who is too scared to make leadership decisions. Both are people in charge and how many times have you said to yourself, If only I were in charge I’d fix everything. However, now they’re in charge they both feel powerless to make decisions and instead look to the people/god for answers about what they should do. It’s another example of how power ultimately doesn’t make it any easier to make a difference.

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Utsutsu and OD are very similar characters hence why they’re paired together often. Utsutsu is a very shy, almost to the point of mental illness, girl with long green hair who hangs out in her underpants because…perverts? OD is a flamboyantly gay man in appearance but is actually some kind of alien. OD is kind of awesome, although his voice is hella grating to begin with (I have no problem with people being camp but that doesn’t mean I have to like camp performers) he tones it down a bit when the voice actor settles into the character and OD is consistently one of the more measured, optimistic and pleasant people in this show. In contrast Utsutsu starts the show practically catatonic able to only say utsutsuhimasu (which can be read as I’m gloomy or I’m sleepy depending on the kanji used). She does grow as a character though gaining confidence in her desire to help others.

Gatchaman Crowds Utsutsu

Utsutsu has numerous super powers. She possesses the ability to make multiple versions of herself and I’m honestly not sure what the symbolism behind that is. Easier to decode though is her other power, with one hand she can drain life, and with the other she can give it allowing her to kill or heal with a touch. To heal though requires her to use up energy. So to heal someone requires her either to kill something else or even risk killing herself. Utsutsu represents apathy, a feeling that nothing you can do will make anything better because it could end up worse for others or yourself, so why even try. This apathy extends to every aspect of her character initially but as she matures in confidence she decides to risk doing harm or even risk her life to help. Apathy is probably the thing preventing most people from making the world a better place I’d wager, a feeling that giving of one’s self to help is a waste of time at best and potentially harmful to you and Utsutsu’s arc comes in realising that the apathy disengages her from the world and risk is necessary to experience joy.

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OD also has powers with a drawback, namely that he is easily the team’s most powerful member and easily capable of defeating the villain Berg Katse. And this is true, in the final episode OD transforms for the first time in the series and kicks Berg Katse’s ass. The issue is that OD is too powerful, when he transforms he risks destroying half the city. OD is a kind of personification of a nuclear option; something we know would be effective but cannot do because there are too many real and important consequences if we did. OD not using his powers is the equivalent of you not quitting that job you hate or leaving a person you don’t love. It is simple to do and undeniably effective but there are good reasons you aren’t doing it.

OD’s arc resolves itself in two ways. Firstly, he uses his powers and everything is fine. The city doesn’t blow up. It’s all good. Sometimes the nuclear option doesn’t have as bad a consequence as you might fear. Like Utsutsu OD allows his fear of consequences to prevent him from doing something and like Utsutsu he learns you get nothing good without risk.

The second way is that it turns out OD transforming and fighting Katse was completely unnecessary to saving the day. He didn’t need to do it. Sometimes the easy but risky way is unnecessary and the safer but more difficult way is better.

Gatchaman Crowds Hajime

This brings us to Hajime. Hajime is pretty much perfect. She’s cute, she’s optimistic, she relentlessly energetic, she’s constantly saying or doing something every moment she’s on screen, people like her and she likes everyone, willing to see the best even in Berg Katse. There is a whole episode of the series where every other character basically tells her how amazing she is.

What an annoying Mary Sue right?

Well, she could be and god knows enough people who have watched Gatchaman Crowds interpreted her that way. Hajime is a real Marmite of a character. If you can’t at least tolerate her by the time episode 2 wraps up then you will not enjoy the rest of this show. But the thing for me that makes Hajime not a Mary Sue is that she ultimately isn’t the one to save the world. That role falls to the ordinary people of the world. What Hajime does do though is bring out the best in others. It is Hajime who convinces Rui to give the power of CROWDS to the common people and then convinces the common people to help. It’s Hajime who convinces the other Gatchaman that they do have the power to save the world. Hajime has only one power as an individual, the power to inspire, but in that power she gets others to collectively save the world.

The defining characteristic of Hajime is that she’s an artist. When we first meet she is massively geeking out over stationery and every moment we see her at home she is making something. Her Gatchaman forms with its scissors and brushes makes this clear, our heroine symbolises art. Gatchaman Crowds is pretty clear in its thesis that communication is what will save the day and what is art but just another kind of communication?

It’s also all very Meta. Super Heroes aren’t real of course so hoping for the power to be one (like Joe) or hoping one will show up to save the world for you (like Sugane and PaiPai) is pointless. It isn’t going to happen. But Super Hero stories are real and the power they have to inspire, particularly children, is as real and as effective at making the world better in the real world as it is in Gatchaman Crowds.

Gatchaman-Crowds civil servants

The Gatchaman are all a small part of a larger group of characters in the story we can loosely class as civil servants. This is made clear by the fact that Joe actually is a civil servant. The Gatchaman are anointed their power by another authority and have to abide by the rules. In this sense they’re like cops, soldiers, firemen and even politicians. They derive power from a system to serve that system. And being part of that system means they are limited in what they can do. The Mayor, the soldier lady and the cop lady all have power, ostensibly more power than Rui, a civilian, do but they can use that power only to maintain the safe running of the status quo. Being granted power by a system means you can’t change that system.

But all these civil servant characters are part of Hajime’s art club, a group that meets up to do literally whatever they want (in an artistic context) with the idea that their free expression will make the world better if only in a small way (decorating areas damaged by an earthquake). The message couldn’t be clearer, all of these servants are more effective at improving the world as people than as their roles, and their roles can only maintain the world.

Gatchaman-Crowds Rui

This brings us to Rui/LOAD. Ultra genius boy wonder transvestite whom is going to level up the world. Unlike the Gatchaman (Hajime excepted) Rui doesn’t have anything stopping him from trying to make the world a better place. He’s already doing it, and doing it quite successfully. With GALAX Rui has created an entirely voluntary system that makes the world better, teaming up the best of people so their individual strengths can be harnessed for the good of all.

It’s a good plan and its working but it isn’t working fast enough. For Rui the main problem is that people still need an outside authority to tell them what to do. They still worship heroes and leaders rather than recognising that the strength lies within them to change the world. And GALAX in its present form is limited in what it can accomplish. Sure he can get a nurse to help with first aid but what can he do to stop a cable car disaster?

So he accepts a shortcut, CROWDS, giant strong avatars given to him by Berg Katse.

Gatchaman Crowds ruirui

With CROWDS Rui can achieve much more, he has real physical power to save more people. He could even go further, he could tear down the government building and declare anarchy, murder criminals, do any of a million things with the power at his disposal. And he fears all that power being under the control of one person. So, ironically, he sets up a series of rules and guidelines to use it. The users of CROWDS, The Hundreds, are handpicked by LOAD to exacting specifications and they can only use their powers when he expressly okays it. This means Rui is now a leader, a dictator in fact with unlimited power that he doles out as he sees fit. He has the best of intentions but he has nonetheless turned into a leader, the very thing he wants to create a world without.

The Hundreds quickly tire of Rui’s self-prevaricating bullshit and when given the first opportunity to rebel, do so, using their powers to destroy the Diet building (where the government of Japan sits) and generally going on an anarchic rampage to try and trigger a revolution in Japan.

Rui/LOAD is another leader character but whereas Rui has the courage and the intelligence to lead he doesn’t want the power and authority that comes with it because he implicitly realises that power corrupts. Rui is an ideas person, he is at his best when coming up with plans and strategies to make the world better but he can’t be the one to accept the responsibility for putting those plans into action. His arc follows that of many revolutionaries. At an ideas stage Rui is full of good plans to improve the world and he quickly attracts followers (a crowd if you will) who agree with him. These followers give him the power to put his ideas into practice and he now has a choice. He can let his ideas go, to be used by others and risk seeing them perverted into something he doesn’t agree with or he can take the mantle of leadership and risk becoming corrupted himself, another authority or status quo he railed against to begin with. Neither solution is ideal and which decision the show ultimately favours brings us to Berg Katse.

Gatchaman-Crowds Berg Katse

Berg Katse is the villain and like all good Super Villains Berg Katse is symbolic of a larger real world problem that the heroes can solve symbolically by punching. Except you can’t defeat Berg Katse by punching him because Berg Katse isn’t an external force, Berg Katse is us. Berg Katse is androgynous and faceless. Berg Katse can literally wear the face of any person in the show and when Berg Katse uses their transformation ability they become invisible, a complete non-entity. Berg Katse represents the dark impulse in every human being, the impulse to strike out suddenly, to stab someone or push them over. An impulse we may have but which we normally ignore. Barge Katse can bring this impulse out and they do it most effectively with The Hundreds. Anonymous figures protected from the consequences of their actions by invulnerable avatars it isn’t a stretch to read The Hundreds as the faceless hordes of internet trolls mindlessly tearing down the art that others create. They may even think they do so in the name of a good cause but they’re misguided at best and malicious at worst as they destroy the world around them. Berg Katse manipulated The Hundreds into doing that because Berg Katse is nothing more and nothing else than the impulse in human beings to destroy, to not make the world a better place but a worse one.

You can’t defeat Berg Katse. OD fights him and takes his physical form down but even then he is regenerating. You can fight the symptoms of Berg Katse, undo the damage they have wrought but at the end he is still there, inside Hajime’s heart, trapped and repressed but still existing and still capable of manipulating someone again.

Berg Katse, the dark human impulse, is the reason all of Rui’s good ideas were perverted but even though his CROWDS became a problem they were defeated. And what were they defeated by……..?

Us, people, you and me, the common man, mankind.

Gatchaman Crowds is ultimately pretty clear in its philosophy. When asking how different groups of people can make the world a better place it firmly establishes that no individual can make the world better. No matter how much power they have, no matter how many followers they have, no matter how smart they are, no matter how much they want to, no individual can change the world.

The best an individual can do is inspire others to be better (Hajime) through their actions, through their art or through communication. Or maybe they can come up with something very clever that helps others to make the world better (Rui), a strategy, a plan, a new tool. Individuals can contribute to improving the world but the ultimate responsibility and the ultimate power to affect change lies with us.

So Gatchaman CROWDS ends with Rui’s Hundreds taken away from him by Berg Katse, manipulated into causing wanton destruction throughout Japan. And Rui saves the day by giving the power of CROWDS to everyone, creating a system where no one has power that someone else doesn’t have also and inspired by the actions of the Gatchaman and the words of the Prime Minister ordinary people band together to stop the threat.

But it doesn’t end there. Having stopped the threat people now use the power of CROWDS to repair the damage, make lunches for people, make new art, etc. Rui feared giving out the power would have bad consequences, and it did, but giving people that power also had good consequences he never imagined.

Gatchaman Crowds is quite simply a master piece. I have rarely seen a work in the Super Hero genre that so thoroughly interrogated the purpose of the Super Hero both within the fictional context and within the meta-context of why we as readers turn to Super Hero narratives. It was an almost life changing experience for me, causing me to rethink my own assumptions and actually question what I do with my life and how I am contributing to improving the world, or more often how I make excuses not to.

It is far from perfect, as a narrative and as a piece of animation it has technical and structural issues that often makes it a difficult watch. However, as a symbolic work of art this might just be the most important work in the Super Hero genre since Watchmen.

*Also most examples of super-hero stories that question the need for super-heroes to fight foes try to have their cake and eat it too by ending the story with a big fight sequence where the heroes win. This is because you can’t fight genre conventions. Your audience wants to see punching and if you deny them punching they will not like your story. Gatchaman Crowds nearly manages to deny the audience any Super Hero action for its entire run time but it capitulates towards the end. Even so all the scenes of the Gatchaman using their powers are heavily symbolically implied to be a failure on the character’s part that is not helping them achieve their goals.

Superman Gary Frank Mummyboon

As part of a lengthy piece I’m writing about Gatchaman Crowds it became necessary to define what constitutes the Super Hero genre, and then that short paragraph spun out into an entirely new post.

Because defining what is and isn’t a Super Hero story is actually very difficult.

You wouldn’t think it would be. It is easy to look at the classic Superman as the archetypal Super Hero and go; powers, costume, secret identity, fights Super Villains that there is a Super Hero.

But it isn’t quite that easy. Powers? Batman doesn’t have them and he’s probably the 2nd most famous Super Hero of all time. Costumes? None of the Runaways have them, Smallville didn’t have them, Hellboy doesn’t wear one but these are all Super Heroes. Secret Identity? Everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man. Fights Super Villains? Surely that’s set in stone? But then there aren’t many Super villains in Watchmen, in V for Vendetta, in Miracleman and I would argue all of those are Super Hero stories.

The basic problem with defining the Super Hero genre is that genres are a mix of what can broadly be termed iconographic elements and structural elements (or alternatively connotative and denotative).

Star Wars Poster Mummyboon

Iconographic elements refer to the things in the setting that define the genre or sometimes the style with which the setting is portrayed. If you have aliens, ray guns, robots, spaceships, cyborgs, etc then you have a science fiction story. Similarly elves, dwarves, magic, monsters and wizards are all iconographic elements of the fantasy genre.

Iconographic elements are the easiest for the audience to latch onto but they’re sometimes the least useful in determining what genre a particular story is. Star Wars, for example, has space ships and ray guns but it also has magic, is it SF or Fantasy (many would argue it is a hybrid genre like science fantasy or space opera). Alien has aliens and spaceships but that’s a horror film, right? Spaceballs has space ships and aliens but that’s a comedy.

Conan the Barbarian Mummyboon

Iconographic elements are usually only signifiers of the structural elements that determine who the characters are, what the narrative beats will be and what the aim of the story is. For example, you can tell a science fiction without any of the normal SF iconography because SF is always concerned with answering the question “what if?” SF starts from a stand point of asking a question, usually about humanity and our relationship with technology, and then extrapolating out the outcomes of that question. The Man from Earth for example is undoubtedly an SF story, it asks what if there was an immortal man, but is set entirely in one room of a house and features no technology beyond modern day. The answer of “why is he immortal?” might be magic but that doesn’t make this a fantasy. That’s because fantasies, structurally, are concerned with a quest arc. Find this thing or go to this place to achieve this goal (usually defeating the baddie), and the meat of the story is the journey to get the thing or get to the place. LoTR, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Krull, the list of fantasy stories that conform to this template is endless.

Then you get the genres where the purpose of the story is the main thing defining the structure. Horror and Comedy are the clearest example, if the story aims to make you scared, it’s a Horror, if it aims to make you laugh, it’s a Comedy. Horror does have iconographic elements (ghosts, monsters, vampires, slashers) but if you can scare your audience you’ve made a horror whether or not those iconographic elements are in your story.

The thing that makes Super Hero stories hard to define as a genre is the lack of a firm structural element that is shared across them. Because most Super Hero stories appear in comics, and because comics are a serialised medium, creators are constantly having to think up new things for their characters to do.

And that’s hard. So they steal stuff.

They take inspiration from other genres and have their characters shift into that genre for a storyline. In the X-Men alone I can think of Horror stories (the one where Kitty fights a N’Gari alone at Christmas), Fantasy Epics (the Kulan Gath crossover, Inferno, the recent storyline rescuing Nightcrawler from Heaven), Space Opera (The Dark Phoenix Saga), Mythological tales (the time they all went to Asgard), Science Fiction (Days of Future Past), Comedy (loads but “Girl’s Night Out” jumps to mind) and many, many more. The X-Men switch genres with every story and so do The Avengers, The JLA and any other long running Super Hero team.

And this Post-Modern mixing and matching applies to the iconographic elements as well. The Avengers have had on their team Thor (from mythology), The Vision (an SF robot), Dr Strange (a Fantasy magician), Luke Cage (a Blaxploitation character of all things), Blade (a vampire hunter with his roots in Horror) and yet The Avengers is unquestionably a Super Hero team.

This Post-Modern mixing and matching of elements is actually one of the things I absolutely adore about Super Hero comics but it does make it bloody hard to say what is and isn’t a Super Hero.

So let’s go back to Superman and look at those key things we drew out of him and see what is and isn’t necessary to be a Super Hero.

The Key Things from Superman:

Super Powers

Costume

Secret Identity

Saves People

Fights Super-Villains

 

Super Powers

Goku Mummyboon

The presence of super powers would at first glance seem to be the biggest thing making your main character a Super Hero but it’s actually the weakest criteria of them all. There are Super powered characters in plenty of stories that would never be classed as Super Hero, indeed the leads in nearly every Fantasy story written have some kind of extra human ability. Harry Potter, for example, if he was in the Marvel Universe would put on a costume and go fight bad guys but nobody would dream of calling him a Super Hero.

And it’s just as true on the flip-side. Batman is easily the 2nd most iconic Super Hero there is and he has no powers. And he’s not alone, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Shang Chi, all the bat family; there is a long tradition on non-powered Super Heroes.

What all of these characters can do though is something that ordinary people can’t. Batman may not have powers but he is fantastically wealthy almost to the point of being able to do whatever he likes, he has gadgets and weapons ordinary people can’t access, he is amazingly good at martial arts, he’s an acrobat and he’s the world’s greatest detective. There are plenty of reasons you can’t be Batman and it isn’t because your parents are alive.

This is probably the number 1 iconographic element of the Super Hero, off the top of my head I can only think of a single example of a Super Hero with no abilities beyond normal man and that’s Kick Ass, which is sort of a cheat. However I can name plenty of Super powered individuals in other genres so on its own, this isn’t enough.

The Costume

Batman Neal Adams Mummyboon

Of course, you think! I know what Superman and Batman have in common, they both wear capes and underpants on the outside! Surely it is all in the costume. Batman may have no powers but he and all his friends dress up in silly costumes to fight baddies, that’s what makes a Super Hero.

Certainly if you’ve designed a character with a cape, tights and underpants on the outside then without question there is a Super Hero in your story. However, what is and isn’t considered a costume swiftly gets into dodgy territory. The Hulk doesn’t wear a costume, he wears normal street clothes but he is immediately recognisable as the Hulk because he’s huge and bright green. Hellboy doesn’t have a costume but with red skin, a tail, devil horns and an enormous right hand he sure does stand out.

A better way to phrase this would be that Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people. That kind of phrase includes Superman, Batman, The Hulk and Hellboy. It even includes many non-costumed Heroes. The Runaways are probably the poster kids for Heroes without costumes but Nico’s Staff, Chase’s Fistigons and Arsenic’s purple hair and dinosaur give them a distinctive design that would stand out on the street.

Runways Mummyboon

The only examples of Heroes without a distinctive visual that I can think of come from media outside comics like Clark in Smallville and there is a very good reason for this that again is due to the medium. Comics require you to evoke a recognisable character over multiple panels and multiple issues and often drawn by different artists. With the limitations of printing technology back when most Super Heroes were designed you have to do this using only 4 colours and a few quite thick lines. The end result is that Superman’s face can look quite different from artist to artist and panel to panel and it becomes impossible to recognise him just based on the face. So how do you ensure your audience recognises him? You give him something iconic like his s shaped jehri curl and his costume.

In live action though the audience can recognise the actor’s face so there is no need to have these distinguishing visual characteristics. When you start thinking about other comics, comic strip and animation characters though you soon realise that the stipulation “a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.” Is far too broad. For starters it seems to absorb most shonen anime characters. Think about Goku in Dragonball, with his monkey tail and red gi he stands out from the background crowd but nobody would call him a Super Hero. How about Edward in Full Metal Alchemist, very distinctive with his red coat and cyborg limbs but not remotely a Super Hero. Hell you could argue that this rule applies to Charlie Brown, Homer Simpson and Tintin and none of those are Super Heroes.

Secret Identity

Spider-Man Mark Bagley Mummyboon

Ah but the key thing about the costume is that it signifies the Super Hero’s secret identity. Clark Kent puts the costume on and now he’s Superman, not Clark Kent. The world may make fun of Peter Parker but when dons his tights the world will love Spider-Man.

The Secret Identity is a great story telling device creating tension between the private life of the character and their adventures as a Super Hero. It generates a huge number of plot devices that comics have reused for decades; “I have to do an important thing but this villain is attacking the city at the same time,” “oh no, the villain has discovered my secret identity and now can threaten my loved ones,” “oh no, a villain is attacking and I’m in my secret identity, how will I escape to change into costume?”  It’s such a good device for generating plots that it’s been used for tons of stories that have nothing to do with Super Heroes. Hannah Montana for example. In fact it pre-dates the Super Hero going all the way back to at least The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now some argue that this makes The Scarlet Pimpernel the earliest Super Hero (he arguably is actually) but I would say that using this device does not make your story part of the Super Hero genre.

And vice versa, not all Super Heroes have secret identities. In fact at this point I’d wager the majority of Super Heroes do not have a secret identity. Amongst the major marvel Heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow, She-Hulk, all the X-Men,  Captain Marvel, The Guardians of the Galaxy and arguably Thor all have identities known to the public at large. It’s basically Spider-Man and some teenagers with secret identities these days.

But notice I didn’t refer to them as Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov. I used their codenames because they all have them. Whether or not their civilian identity is a secret or not most Super Heroes draw a distinction between a personal life and a heroic alter ego. The world may know Steve Rogers is Captain America but he’s not actually being Cap until he puts the mask on.

And notably this excludes a lot of those shonen manga Heroes. Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy are always Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy whether they’re fighting bad guys or eating food. They don’t have some normal identity they retreat to. Interestingly this doesn’t include most Magical Girl characters or Tokusetsu characters (Power Rangers, Kanen Rider, Ultraman) all of which feel inherently more Super Heroey to me. This idea of an alternate identity then seems crucial to the definition of a Super Hero.

I propose the rule then is “Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity signified by a code name.”

Saves People

Superman Saving Someone Mummyboon

Super Heroes are Heroes, that means they save people.

Really? Have you read a Batman story in recent years? I can’t remember the last time I saw him on-panel save an innocent life. Punch thugs? Yup. Do some detective work? Yup. Catch someone falling off a bridge. I can remember something like it happening in Batman #1 3 years ago but since then, nada.

But there is a larger context to consider here. Batman might not be catching falling civilians or rescuing kids from fires but by his actions fighting villains he is saving people in another way. In the current Year Zero Arc, The Riddler has engineered a situation where electricity isn’t working in Gotham City, outside help is barred from entering and people are dying. By outsmarting the Riddler and defeating him physically Batman puts to an end that situation and stops more people dying. By punching the bad guy he saves people’s lives.

My slightly more nuanced way of putting it would be:

“By their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others.”

Now again, this is massively broad and encompasses nearly every Fantasy, SF, Action and Western protagonist you can name. In fact it’s more a definition of a hero than s Super Hero. But this to me is one of a two part structural component of the Super Hero genre alongside.

Fights Super Villains

The Joker Mummyboon

To me nothing more defines a Super Hero than that they are thrown into conflict with Super Villains. What’s a Super villain you ask?  Well we can apply the same logic for the iconographic elements, if your antagonist has abilities beyond normal people, a distinctive appearance that marks them out as separate to normal people and some kind of alternate identity then you have a Super Villain.

And the conflict between hero and villain is always resolved in some kind of physical sense. This doesn’t have to mean fighting (although, yeah, 99% of the time a Super Hero story resolves in punching) but it can mean the hero making some Superhuman act of endurance, a Superhuman sacrifice, a physical exertion beyond mortal means or outwitting the villain by hacking a thingy, pressing a thingy or inventing a thingy. But the conflict should be resolved as a result of the hero’s own ability to do things normal humans cannot not just by talking nicely, getting the police involved or some kind of deus ex machina.

Doctor Doom Mummyboon

The great thing about Super Villains for me is that they stand in symbolically for the theme of the story. If you’re writing an X-Men story about how racism is bad you can create a Super Villain that symbolises racism and then have the X-Men punch them to symbolise racism being defeated. Is it subtle? Oh Christ on a bike no. Is it satisfying and cathartic? Oh yes!

For me though the fighting Super Villain thing goes hand in hand with the previous point. If your protagonist is punching Super Villains to get rich, score women or to complete their paid job then you’re not a Super Hero narrative.

Structurally then I’d state that the Super Hero narrative is thus:

“Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super Villain antagonist”

That seems pretty comprehensive right, and narrow enough to only apply to Super Heroes?

Yeah…not so much. Whilst it applies to most Super Hero films I’ve seen recently it also applies to most action films I’ve seen recently, as well as a heck of a lot of Fantasy, SF and even some Westerns.

The problem with trying to define a Super Hero story structurally is that the stories go right back to the roots of western literature. Super Heroes are often described as modern myths and I believe this to be true and structurally the idea of turning the subtext into a text that is resolved via conflict goes all the way back to Gilgamesh. As such it has influenced all stories told ever since and so you find that Super Heroes are really lacking in a set of structural elements to call their own.

After much thought then I’ve defined my Super Hero genre test as follows.

Iconographic

  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.

Structural

  1. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

The test works for me like this. If your character possesses quality 1 and at least one other Iconographic element then they’re a Super Hero. Possessing quality 2 and 3 except in rare occasions does not make them a Super Hero. In addition your character must have been involved in at least one narrative that conforms to the structure of 4. If not then yes they are a Super Hero but they are not involved in stories in the Super Hero genre.

So with those rules established let’s do some tests on some core Super Heroes and some marginals.

Superman – 1234

Superman Mummyboon

Batman – 1234

Spider-Man – 1234

Spider-Man John Romita Mummyboon

Wonder Woman – 1234

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson Mummyboon

Goku – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Goku Chibi Mummyboon

Monkey D. Luffy – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Monky D Luffy Mummyboon

Sailor Moon – 1234 (definitely a Super Hero)

Sailor Moon Mummyboon

The Power Rangers – 1234 (also definitely Super Heroes)

Red Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Mummyboon

Indiana Jones – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Indiana Jones Mummyboon

James Bond – 34 (so we can stop that argument)

Daniel Craig James Bond Mummyboon

The Scarlet Pimpernel – 1234 (so yup, earliest example of the genre I can find)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Mummyboon

The Shadow – 1234 (although a pulp hero he also works perfectly well as a Super Hero, it’s simply an issue of tone as to which aspects of his character you wish to emphasise)

The Shadow Mummyboon

Harry Potter – 234 (and I’m only giving him 2 for the lightning bolt)

Harry Potter Mummyboon

Kane from Kung Fu – 34 (a hero, not a Super Hero)

Kane from Kung Fu Mummyboon

The Bride from Kill Bill 123 (lack of 4 means you could put the bride in a Super-hero story but she hasn’t been in one yet)

The Bride Kill Bill Mummyboon

V from V for Vendetta 1234

V for Vendetta Mummyboon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon 1

Guardians of the Galaxy 2014

Directed by James Gunn

Since the general consensus amongst critics seems to be that Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely amazing (as I write this it has a 92% on rotten tomatoes) I thought I’d take the unusual approach of listing all the flaws I thought it had.

It has weak villains

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Ronan 2

This is becoming a major problem for Marvel Studios films. Although I have yet to come across a Marvel Studios film I don’t like, the lack of interesting villains is starting to become a noticeable theme. You’ve got Loki (who is amazing), various greasy arms/corporate guys in the Iron Man films and lots of big bad evil with a capital E ranting guys who want to destroy things (Malekith, Red Skull). Ronan the Accuser falls into the latter group and spends the majority of his screen time delivering overwrought dialogue that feels very super villainy but which doesn’t advance his motivation, pose an interesting ethical dilemma or even convey much personality. You can replace everything actor Lee Pace says with “I am evil” and get much the same effect.

It’s even worse in the case of Ronan since the comic’s version is a very good villain. Ronan is driven by very strong ideals of justice and obedience to the law, I’s just that the law he follows is inherently corrupt so he ends up on the side opposed to our heroes more often than not. He’s basically Javier in space with a hammer. Yet like all good villains he is the hero of his own story and like every Marvel villain ever who was written well enough he’s fallen on the side of angels a few times too.

Movie Ronan though, big evil dude with a hammer. The most character he gets is when Thanos says he’s pouty and my fiancé and I both laughed out loud because yeah, dude is really pouty.

Thanos seems awesome at this stage btw but is barely in the film. Yondu was okay but more of a side character than an antagonist and Nebula was just kind of there. The film gave her enough back story for a potentially interesting relationship with Thanos and Gamora but not enough screen time to explore it. I suspect we’ll see more of Nebula when we finally get to the Infinity Gauntlet.

Its action is underwhelming

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Nova Shield 7

In an action film you expect the action set pieces to be inventive, exciting and memorable. In Guardians they are largely not. They’re functional. Action happens in all the places you expect it to in the story and no action scene feels bad but equally none of them stand out for me as much as the Nightcrawler scene in X-Men 2, the battle for New York in Avengers (and the amazing shot that joins all the characters) or the Winter Soldier’s attack on the bridge. Guardians absolutely works as a comedy and the moments that stand out in the film are the gags and character beats but as an action film the action should be special too.*

Gamora is kind of dull

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Gamora 4

Gamora’s character arc happens off-screen. She goes from being a universally renowned assassin working for some of the most dangerous villains in the galaxy to a good guy trying to save it between her first appearance and her second. That’s a big swing for a character and the actual character progression she has on screen during the film, going from having a stick up her ass to having it slightly less far up her ass, is not quite as compelling.

Worse still, because of the way the character dynamics are set up in this film Gamora ends up being the member of the team that is most noble, most concerned with helping others and saving the day. She fulfils a very necessary narrative function because without her the other fuck ups that form the Guardians would not be properly motivated to engage in the plot. It’s just a shame that they gave that function to Gamora who, in the comics, is one of the colder, less emotional, less noble and more badass characters. It leaves Gamora kind of bland since everything about her comic’s version is gone and the movie doesn’t invent very much to replace it with.

Having said that, this might only be a problem for people familiar with comic Gamora. I know plenty of people who loved her character and thought she made a refreshing change from female characters in other super hero films so maybe she only comes across as white bread compared to her more robust comic counterpart.**

It was thematically weak

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Rocket and Groot 3

This sort of comes back to the villain thing. The way super hero stories deal with theme most of the time is quite ingenious, you literalise it. You turn the thing you’re talking about into a person or object that your hero can interact with. Want to say that racism is bad? Make a super-villain called racist-man, give him racist themed super powers and have the X-Men punch him. Unsubtle and not very nuanced but awesome, and that’s one of the reasons I love super-hero stories.

When you have villains who are just evil for the sake of evil though you can’t do that. That doesn’t mean you can’t have thematic weight but you’ve sort of missed the point of super hero stories as far as I’m concerned. If you’re using Ronan your story normally is about the role of authority, that was not a factor in GOTG.

What theme’s Guardians does have are shallow and clichéd. The idea of making a surrogate family out of your friends is fine but it has been done to death and better in other sci-fi fare (most notably Firefly and Farscape which GOTG is heavily influenced by). The character’s do have arcs but the arcs don’t form a cohesive theme, Quill’s arc about learning to take responsibility has nothing to do with Gamora’s arc about being less stiff or Drax;s arc about coming to terms wit the loss of his family.

The plot was bobbins

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Knowhere 9

This is a flaw in basically every super-hero film except Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The plot can be a big part of the appeal of a story. Who wants what, why and how? What will happen next and where? Will our heroes live or die and what will the consequences of their actions be? You watch something like The Bourne films and the appeal is all in the plot. Same with a lot of TV, cliff-hangers, plot twists and developments in the story are exciting for the audience.

In most comic book movies though, the plot is merely a framework to get from one action set piece to another. Nobody gives two shits what Loki is doing in Avengers of why, they come for the character interaction and the fight scenes, they come for the awesome. Ditto GOTG, the story is very basic and largely devoid of much tension or enigma. However it provides a framework for great comedic and action set pieces.

That scene with Gamora and Star-Lord in space is bullshit

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon 6

It is and you know it.

So wait, you ask. You didn’t like the plot, the themes or some of the characters. Does that mean you didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy?

Guys.

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon 5

I absolutely adored it. It is awesome!

I can’t recall which critic said it but their review of Avengers was basically that it defied conventional critical analysis because the plot, themes and other things critics normally talk about were irrelevant to the success of the film. Avengers was about being awesome, and it delivered the awesome. Ditto GOTG except GOTG is more focused on being funny.

Another thing Avengers and GOTG have in common? Great writing, great acting and great direction. Those three things will cover a multitude of sins. Your movie can be an empty hollow nothing with a mess of a plot that’s got holes you can fly a space ship through but if you deliver interesting characters with charisma that I like hanging out with, have them throwing out dialogue which had me crying with laughter and it put them in a setting which is inventive and imaginative then you win. Worked for GOTG, worked for Star Wars, worked for Indiana Jones, worked for Clerks, worked for James Bond for 40 years and it’ll work again.

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Drax 8

Just as final note, Rocket and Groot are he stand out character undoubtedly but they’re also my favourite characters from the comics. What impressed me more was Drax, a fairly dull guy in the comics but hilarious on screen. Drax has been both a smart character and a dumb one in the comics over the years but the idea to make him of normal intelligence but completely literal is both hilarious and adds many layers to his character. Bautista’s performance was a revelation too, he has great comic timing and I’m hoping for big things from him in the future.

*The only action set-pieces people bring up are Yondu’s arrow and Groot smashing a row of villains both of which are really visual gags.

**on the topic of Gamora I just want to mention briefly that this film barely squeaks by the Bechdel Test since most of her interactions with Nebula revolve around the topic of Thanos or Ronan. They do have some dialogue about each other directly though so it passes. Next time I’d like to see Phyla-Vell, Moondragon or Mantis on the team to beef out the female character count a bit. Or even Star-Hawk in the both a man and woman incarnation of the character.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014 Director: Bryan Singer

The first 10 minutes of Days of Future Past were pure fan service, delivering cool moment after cool moment and making this X-Men fan boy squee uncontrollably.

I’ve largely enjoyed Fox’s X-Men movie franchise (with the exception of The Last Stand which is pure garbage) but I very early on had to separate them from the X-Men I know and love from the comics. The X-Men films were largely their own thing, much more like a conventional action movie than a translation of the storytelling style of the comics to screen.  This is fine of course. When you adapt something from one medium to another, changes will occur and that’s a good thing. You also have to remember that X-Men was basically the first film that kicked off the modern age of super-hero films. They were taking a big risk adapting the X-Men and were understandably cautious about many of the things they were trying. Hence the all black costumes, the action scenes which borrow far more from the Matrix than from X-Men comics and the original plot rather than any attempt to adapt an existing comics storyline.

Times have moved on though. Captain America can wear his comic book costume in all its four color glory in The Avengers and no one bats an eye. Super-heroes are common and accepted by audiences now and so you can push the boat on what aspects of the comics you use in your film rather than trying to be conservative.

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As such that first few minutes gave me teams of mutants, working together and using their powers in interesting ways! Costumes with colour and that aren’t just black uniforms. Blink! Goddamn Blink in all her pink face tattooed glory. The Blackbird! Sentinels! Iceman using Ice slides! ICE MOTHERFUCKING SLIDES! I was in nerdvana let me tell you.

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The scenes with the future X-Men bookend the film but the confidence that you can take the audience further and do more daring things than a conventional action film permeates the rest of the movie. One of my favourite things about super-heroes is the creative ways their powers can be employed and X-Men: DOFP is full of scenes that show this off in startlingly original and visual ways. Blink’s portal powers are stunning and some of the stuff Magneto does is very clever but the real star of the show is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver who gets one of the most unique set pieces in action movie history and absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

There’s more fan-service too including cameos from basically every X-Man to appear in the franchise thus far (the only omissions are Nightcrawler because Alan Cummings wasn’t prepared to undergo the make-up again for a cameo and Angel because everyone wants to forget Last Stand.) and plenty of Easter Eggs.

But the fan-service stuff is mostly confined to the beginning and end of the film. For most of its running time the story it’s telling is at once not at all like the X-Men and actually something right at the core of the franchise.

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X-Men: DOFP is of course an adaptation of the seminal “Days of Future Past” story-arc by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In that tale, Kitty Pryde is sent back in time from an apocalyptic future to stop Mystique from killing Senator Kelly. Kelly was an advocate for a piece of legislation called the Mutant Registration Act and his death increases anti-mutant sentiment which leads to more support for the Sentinel Programme (a programme that builds giant mutant hunting robots) and eventually to the apocalyptic future.

X-Men: DOFP starts from the same premise with a few tweaks. Rather than killing Senator Kelly Mystique is trying to kill Bolivar Trask, the creator of the sentinel programme because Kelly is dead in the movie continuity. Also rather than Kitty Pryde being sent back it’s Wolverine. Whilst I am annoyed that both the character of Kitty Pryde and Ellen Paige’s performance get thrown under a bus in favour of more Wolverine I completely understand the film maker’s decision to use him. He is by far the biggest and most popular character in the franchise whereas most viewers might not even remember who Kitty Pryde is from her brief screen time in X3. Also if we use the mind transfer plot device from the comics then the only candidates for time travel are Wolverine, Magneto and Prof X and obviously the film wants to be about the 1970’s versions of Prof X and Magneto so that only leaves Wolverine. To make up for it Kitty randomly gets new “I can send people back in time powers” that she nicks off Rachel Grey. Because adding Rachel Grey to the movie continuity would have been way more of a headache than was worth it for anyone.

DF-11515   Peter Dinklage is Dr.Bolivar Trask in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Wolverine doesn’t actually get to do a huge amount in the film though. He gets some nice making fun of the 70’s gags but he’s largely just there to move the plot along after that and have some short character stuff with Ryker. He doesn’t even get into a decent fight scene which seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity (although we do have 5 films of Wolverine fight scenes already). In fact most of the characters in this film exist either to move the plot along or to have a brief cameo and do something cool with their powers. Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask, for example, is supposed to be our villain but he plays basically no part in the climax and has only one direct confrontation with the heroes. He gets juuuuust enough screen time so that he comes across not as a one dimensional villain and Dinklage is one of those charismatic actors that makes their character feel real and lived in even without much screen time.

 

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In fact, the acting in this film is uniformly excellent. The X-Men films have generally been graced with excellent casting as one of their strengths. One of the reason’s the first three worked as well as they did is that old pros like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen can elevate a poorly written script with very well considered performances.  DOFP is no different and the film is generally at its best when it just lets two performers in a scene act at each other. There isn’t anything in here to hit the heights of ‘Magneto Nazi Hunter’ but stuff like McAvoy and Stewart’s cross time Xavier meet-up is joyous and McAvoy and Fassbender retain their fascinating screen chemistry.

And it’s a good thing they do because for most of the film this is a triple header between James McAvoy’s young Professor X, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.

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The film set’s these three up as a trinity opposed along different extremes with at various times one character in the centre, generally Mystique. So for example Mystique is the active character for most of the first act opposed to Magneto imprisoned in a cell and Xavier imprisoned in drugs and emotional crisis. Then we get Xavier preaching non-violence in stopping Mystique opposed to Magneto wanting to kill her and Mystique as the target. Or we get Magneto as a proud mutant who wears a costume proclaiming it versus Mystique who is a proud mutant but can hide who she is versus Professor X who is literally taking a drug so that he stops being a mutant.*

The main trinity of course is between Xavier’s dream on one hand, Magneto’s on the other and Mystique in the middle, someone who was part of the X-Men and part of Magneto’s Brotherhood but is now striking out on her own. Xavier tries to win Mystique back to his side, of a dream that mutants and humans will co-exist and that the best way to do this is to set a good example, showing humans they can be heroes and saviours. Magneto argues that humans will never trust mutants and the only way to survive is to instil a terror of mutants in the humans, to set themselves up as rulers so the humans are powerless to attack them. Mystique sits in the middle, wanting a better world for mutants but unsure of the method to achieve it. She is pragmatic and cynical in what she is prepared to do but she has not yet killed to get what she wants, not yet crossed the line into terrorism and it’s the battle for Mystique’s soul that the film really concerns itself it with.

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This battle of course is one of the driving forces in the X-Men comics but despite Magneto being in 4 X-Men films to date this is the first one to really concern itself with that central issue. And unlike many X-Men stories where you are inherently on Prof X’s side the film plays fair with it. Magneto’s viewpoint is bolstered by the fact that the future where Human’s hunt Mutant’s to extinction happens, it’s shown to us at the start of the film and despite everything Xavier and Magneto do it still seems to be inevitable. And yet the day is ultimately saved when Mystique chooses Xavier’s path, showing compassion for her enemies and not giving in to violence to achieve her arms. It’s only when they truly give Xavier’s dream a shot that the future becomes a better place.

The 70’s setting gives this theme a rich resonance too with the dreamers of the 60’s the civil rights activists, sexual revolutionaries and of course the X-Men literally destroyed by the Vietnam war leaving a more cynical, less compassionate and more pessimistic America in its wake. First Class did something similar using the backdrop of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the Cuban missile crisis to give the illusion of depth to its story but First Class basically rhymed with history to seem smart. DOFP in contrast has actual themes which parallel history but could also equally apply to today. The whole Sentinel aspect, for example, could be read as a cry to use compassion in winning the war on terror rather than drone strikes.

It’s this thematic depth that ultimately makes DOFP stand above any of the other X-Men films, and indeed most Super-Hero films. I’d still probably rate X2 as the most entertaining X-Men film and the best composed as an action piece but for what its worth I think DOFP might be the best X-Men film now.

It’s not without weaknesses though. A Super-Hero film necessitates action and DOFP seems to know this but to be singularly uninterested in it. Sure enough an action scene comes along approximately every 10 minutes according to some script writing guide somewhere but most of them are perfunctory and devoid of tension or excitement. Mystique beating up the ambassador for example is neither exciting, nor tense, nor an interesting use of her powers, nor building of character. It is a scene that exists purely because we haven’t seen anybody hit something for a while and it’s exactly the kind of Hollywood laziness that DOFP generally avoids. DOFP has three and a half really good, inventive and well shot action sequences but it really needed one more. Still that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent film.

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*As an aside this plot point is something of a stroke of genius. Clearly at some stage two production/story problems emerged. Firstly they were going to have one of their main characters in a wheel chair, which causes a nightmare for the production and lots of headaches that I’m sure they’d rather not have to deal with. Secondly Xavier’s power set is so powerful that he could legitimately end the story in about 5 minutes if he was working at full capacity. The plot device that the “cure” for Xavier’s paralysis dampens his psychic abilities not only deals with both issues at a stroke but it adds the idea of Xavier as a kind of metaphor for the downfall of hippies as the 70’s rolled in. His ideals of peace and love have decayed into drug abuse and mental problems. His self-identity as a mutant/hippie/campaigner has been crushed much like the dreams of hippies everywhere were by Vietnam. It’s an inspired McGuffin.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

X-Men DOFP is the first example I can think of where a film employs a ret-con. For those who don’t know a ret-con is short for retroactive continuity and it basically means that what you saw before in a story didn’t happen the way you thought you saw it. A good example from comics is Swamp Thing. Originally conceived as Alec Holland, a scientist who was reborn as swamp monster after an experiment gone awry Alan Moore ret-conned the origin so that Alec Holland died and the Swamp Monster created by the experiment merely thought it was Alec Holland.

Other films, especially sequels, have played fast and loose with continuity before and chosen to ignore other films in the series. Superman Returns, for example, is a sequel to Superman and Superman 2 but ignores Superman 3 and 4. DOFP however is the only film I can think of that provides a reason in the context of the story for how one of the previous films you watched, namely Last Stand, never happened. Basically it uses time travel as an excuse to undo the huge amount of damage that disaster did to the franchise. This made me happy, really happy. We might never get a film set in the timeline of the first 3 films again but if the future shown for he X-Men in DOFP is all we get I’ll still be satisfied.

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The 70’s setting is realised quite well until we get to the Sentinels who in no way shape or form look a thing like 1970’s technology. They look like I-Pods with guns.

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The X-Men films have not been shy of plundering the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for some obscure characters before (First Class had Azazel  in it for fuck’s sake from the one X-Men story we all collectively decided did not happen the moment it ended) but I still cannot believe that Ink is in this film. He gets no dialogue and nobody names him or explains his deal but that is unmistakeably Ink. For those who don’t know Ink his power is that whenever he gets a tattoo he gets a new super-power that relates to the image of the tattoo. Now X-Men fans are prepared to accept as part of the suspension of disbelief that mutant powers can give you such diverse super powers as the ability to teleport through space, the ability to absorb other people’s super powers by touch, the ability to  make copies of your own body out of seemingly nothing and a million and other powers that shit all over physics and give biology a swirly. However Ink was where we all collectively cried, bullshit. No, nobody has that as a mutant power. That is dumb. They made it slightly less dumb when they later ret-conned it so that Ink didn’t have super-powers, his tattoo artist did, and his power was to give other people super-powers and the tattoos just served to define what power they got. That at least explained how Ink’s body somehow new that the biohazard symbol would make people sick but it was still stupid. Ink was quickly put into a coma and nary a single fuck was given about him since. I honestly can’t find you a more despised X-Man, and yet, here he is.

 

 

It’s all coming together.

Last year I wrote a piece explaining why I thought Disney had chosen Big Hero 6 as their first Marvel property to turn into an animated film and highlighting some of the issues in adapting the comic in a racially and culturally sensitive way.

I’m pleased to see from this trailer that a lot of what I talked about has come to pass. However, Disney have opened up a whole new can of worms with some of their decisions.

Let’s start with the good. I love the tone this trailer gets across. The low key slapstick, the mixture of humour with a genuinely threatening villain and the easy going heart to it. I wish more Super-Hero stories in any medium had this tone and it certainly gives me Incredibles vibes.*

They’ve also chosen to focus on ” a boy and his robot” as their main story telling angle which I think is a good choice. Big Hero 6 is not a thematically dense concept, it basically amounts to “Hey Japan is different, lolz” so grabbing onto something in the property that shows more promise for exploration is a good idea. A boy and his (insert noun here) stories work well for animation and children’s cinema and some of the greatest animated films of the past 20 years (The Iron Giant, How to Train your Dragon) have used it as a basis.

The animation is good, as to be expected of Disney, although you can now add me to the chorus of people who are getting a little sick of how samey Disney’s character designs are getting.

Also is that Lord Deathstrike?

Lord Deathstrike Big Hero 6

I mean, I know that the odds that a character named Lord Deathstrike will appear in a Disney movie are about as likely as me voicing him but he sure does look like him doesn’t he?

big hero 6 lord_deathstrikeWhere this goes wrong is San Fransokyo. Oh my, San Fransokyo.

When it was announced that this film would be set in an amalgam city of Tokyo and San Francisco I thought it could go one of two ways. Either it could be clever and cute, a good way to point out cultural differences and make some gentle jokes about them, or it could be horribly, horribly offensive combining every stereotypical Japanese thing the creators could think of.

What I did not expect is that they would get the wrong country. Because San Fransokyo looks great, it it’s meant to be San Beijing.

Seriously, those “Japanese” touches like the lanterns and the roofs that flare up at the corners. Those are Chinese. You will find them in Japan, in fact they’re not uncommon but that’s because China has had an incredible cultural impact on Japan. But in the style and colours used in this trailer they feel way more Chinese to me than Japanese. And even then they’re a touch that goes back to the pre-Meiji era and are only seen nowadays in temples and other historical buildings. There are so many icons of modern Japan you could include and other than some Katakana and Kanji Disney simply hasn’t!

What San Fransokyo really looks like is the China Town in San Francisco expanded out to encompass the whole city. And while I know a lot of Japanese people live in the San Francisco China Town, guys the clue is in the name as to which country it more closely resembles.

Here’s hoping the trailer just gives off a wrong impression and the film gets it better.

The stripping out of Japanese culture though continues onto the characters. Big Hero 6 is a team composed of 1 robot and 5 Japanese people or Japanese-Americans. Big Hero 6 in the movie? 2, maximum. That’s a big cut Disney. The premier Japanese super-hero team now has Japanese members as the minority. I know why you’ve done it, the setting demands a mix of Asian and Caucasian people to reflect the mixed up Asian and Western architecture and you don’t think an all Asian cast will fly for American audiences. In fact you’ve actually increased the team’s diversity in one way by adding a black man to the mix, which I applaud, but, I still feel like it has missed the point a little bit.

In fact let’s dig into the characters a bit more. Starting with our hero, Hiro, and his pet robot Baymax.

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Here’s what I wrote about Hiro and Baymax in my original piece.

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Hiro and Baymax are clearly affectionate homages to a number of Japanese characters. Hiro is a super-genius kid who builds a robot protector for himself. That’s an idea that mixes bits of Getter Robo, Tetsujin 28 and even the Kenny’s from Godzilla.

And here is some info from screencrush.com

Ryan Potter portrays Hiro, a robotics prodigy who has “the mind of a genius—and the heart of a 14-year-old. His state-of-the-art battle-bots dominate the underground bot fights held in the dark corners of San Fransokyo. Fortunately, big brother Tadashi redirects Hiro’s brilliance, inspiring him to put his brain to the test in a quest to gain admission to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. When a tragic event changes everything, Hiro turns to a robot named Baymax, and they form an unbreakable bond—and two-sixths of a band of high-tech heroes on a very important mission.

It sounds to me like Hiro is largely unchanged from his comic incarnation of “boy genius.” I suspect that Hiro is the character that Disney saw the most potential in, making him the hero and basing the film on him. To that end he is basically the same character. Baymax however has been tweaked considerably.

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) cares. That’s what he was designed to do. The plus-sized inflatable robot’s job title is technically Healthcare Companion: With a simple scan, Baymax can detect vital stats, and, given a patient’s level of pain, can treat nearly any ailment. Conceived and built by Tadashi Hamada, Baymax just might revolutionize the healthcare industry. But to the inventor’s kid brother Hiro, the nurturing, guileless bot turns out to be more than what he was built for—he’s a hero, and quite possibly Hiro’s closest friend. And after some deft reprogramming that includes a rocket fist, super strength and rocket thrusters that allow him to fly, Baymax becomes one of the Big Hero 6.

Baymax in the comics was designed and built entirely by Hiro. However, when Hiro’s Father died he used some of his Father’s brain engrams to program Baymax. That makes Baymax a combination of Hiro’s friend, his bodyguard his father and his nanny. Disney however have switched the tragic death from Father to Brother and also made Baymax a construction of Hiro’s Brother. This simplifies the relationship considerably emphasising that Baymax and Hiro are in effect brothers. It’s a bit more conventional than the comic’s version but riffs on many of the same emotions and probably works better in the limited running time of a film.

Next up is our only other remaining Asian, Go, Go Tomago, played by Jamie Chung.

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She’s tough, athletic and loyal to the bone, but not much of a conversationalist. Popping bubble gum and delivering well-placed sarcasm are totally her speed. The daredevil adrenaline junkie is at her best on wheels, and when Go Go joins forces with Big Hero 6, she rolls like never before, using maglev discs as wheels, shields and throwing weapons.

Big Hero 6 Go Go Tamago

Wild rebellious Go Go was the Wolverine of the group, the bad ass outsider who don’t take no bull. She’s been de-aged and her criminal past is gone but her personality and team function are largely the same. Also her name is still misspelt. She should be Go, Go, Tamago i.e. the Japanese word for egg. Although considering they changed her powers the egg joke doesn’t work any more anyway. I dig the new costume too, it’s both more sentai than her original sentai inspired outfit and more modern.

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Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller, has been de-aged, gone from Asian to White and gone from having a Godzilla shaped ki aura to just turning into a Monster.

Big Hero 6 Fred

Other than that he’s mostly the same, a stoner in a hat with badass monster related powers. He’s the comic relief of the group and it looks like he’ll continue to be playing that role. Also, I like his new Monster design. It does feel quite Asian without specifically referencing a particular monster design I can think of. I will miss his Devil Dinosaur t-shirt though.

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So that is what Honey Lemon, who will be voiced by Genesis Rodriguez which is a Super-Villain name if I ever heard one, looks like in the film. Here is what she looked like in the comics.

Big Hero 6 Honey Lemon

…..

…….

That’s, um, that’s quite the change.

Honey Lemon was a play on Cutie Honey, a popular anime character who is mainly famous for being full on naked during her magical girl transformations. Honey Lemon the comic character is consequently, sexy, confident and playful with some stuff from other anime characters (most notably Doraemon) thrown in.

From the character design alone it’s clear that Honey Lemon in the film is not going to be the same character. Other than a power-set and a name they have nothing in common. Problem being that now Honey Lemons’s power-set and name don’t make sense. She’s called Honey Lemon as a play on Cutie Honey, a character she now no longer resembles. And her power-set is grabbing things from her purse, not exactly the most subtle of satirical jabs.

That said I am not surprised they changed her. Whilst Honey Lemon was hugely inappropriate for a kid’s film the bigger problem is that she’s a parody character, not a character intended to work on her own merits and she needed something done to her to appear in this film.

Finally we get to Wasabi, formerly Wasabi no Ginger.

Here is what Wasabi no Ginger looked like in the comics.

Big Hero 6 Wasabi No Ginger

And here is what I wrote about him.

Finally there’s Wasabi-no-Ginger which is a name that is simply unacceptable. Honey Lemon is stretching it but Wasabi-no-Ginger isn’t a clever pun so much as it is the equivalent of a Japanese comic introducing a morbidly obese character in a cowboy hat called Burger McRanchdressing. Try and count the stereotypes in this short character description guys. He’s a sushi chef (1) but also a samurai (2) who fights by using katana (3) and sushi knives (4) that he makes from his body whilst wearing wooden sandals (5) and a Hawaiian shirt (6?). Whilst the other characters are a spin on existing Japanese characters Wasabi-no-Ginger is the result of throwing everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan (sushi, samurais…Hawaiian shirts?) into a blender and calling the result a character. You know in the Super Friends how the Native American guy who grew got called Apache Chief rather than something that described his powers like Giant Man, or Gigantor. That is the level of patronising we’re dealing with here in Wasabi-no-Ginger.

I hate, Wasabi no Ginger.

Now, here is what he looks like in the film.

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Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans Jr.) is committed to precision. He’s super smart and just a touch neurotic, but the big and burly neatnik can’t help but join the cause when Hiro needs him most. As part of “Big Hero 6,” Wasabi amplifies his martial arts skills with jaw-dropping plasma blade weaponry. Sharp doesn’t even begin to describe this guy.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

He’s not a sushi chef. He’s not a Japanese stereotype, he can’t be because he’s not Japanese. He doesn’t wear geta, he doesn’t fight using katana and he has a personality beyond “everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan.” Even his name makes more sense since both wasabi and plasma are hot. Plus, he adds further diversity to the team and avoids being a black stereotype too! It’s such a low bar to hurdle but thank you, thank you so much Disney for doing it.

So based on all this info I’m still looking forward to Big Hero 6 and cautiously optimistic that this will be another Incredibles. I’m nervous about San Fransokyo but Disney’s last 2 films have really clicked for me and I’m hoping they continue on with their mini renaissance.

 

*The Incredibles is in my top 5 favourite Super-Hero films and until Marvel got their shit together was basically number 1. It still remains the best Fantastic Four film ever made too.

 

The New Teen Titans Vol1 Issue 1 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

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Plot Synopsis

The issue starts with a mysterious alien princess known as Koriand’r breaking out of an alien space craft operated by what she calls slavers. Using bolts of energy from her hands she defeats her captors and escapes in a small space craft to parts unknown.

Cut to, Dick Grayson aka Robin, having bad dreams. He has visions of a team of New Titans battling a protoplasmic blob and losing. He wakes up from his nightmare to find one of the women from his visions, Raven, is standing in his room. She tells him that the visions were planted in his head by her to prepare him because a great evil is coming and a new team of Titans must form.

Raven gives Robin the phone to call Wally West, Kid Flash, who has quit the super heroing business. Before Robin can ask any more questions she disappears with instructions to find Wonder Girl.

Raven guides Robin to an abandoned building where Wonder Girl is helpfully expositing her origin for no apparent reason. It seems Changeling, another super-hero with green skin and the power to turn into any animal so long as its green, has also been guided there. Kid Flash also shows up, apparently he changed his mind when Raven told him to come.

The 4 follow Raven again as she guides them to newcomer Victor Stone aka Cyborg, who is presently showing off his cybernetic body to his sports coach who tells him that now he is a cyborg he can’t compete with normal people. Vic doesn’t take this particularly well.

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He also explains that he was turned into a cyborg by his father in order to save his life.

The other heroes show up and Cyborg decides to join them since they’re all “freaks” like himself.

Raven then gets a psychic impression that the final Titan has arrived and needs rescuing so the team move off to do so and find the aliens from the prologue attacking a normal apartment building. Inside is Koriand’r, babbling in an alien language and seemingly exhausted by her flight to Earth.

The Titans fail to stop the aliens who escape through some kind of star gate with Koriand’r in tow. They also wreck the apartment of Grant Wilson and his girlfriend Carol in the process. Thanks to Raven’s teleportation powers though the Titans are able to follow and eventually free Koriand’r from her captivity, destroy the spaceship and escape back to Earth.

 

 

Of course, this isn’t the first issue of the Teen Titans at all.

Going way back to Brave and the Bold #54 in 1964 there was a team consisting of Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and eventually Speedy and Wonder Girl. Wonder Girl was famously a continuity error. Wonder Girl was the teenaged version of Wonder Woman and not a separate character to her like Supergirl was to Superman. She was included as a separate character in Titans comics though and went on without an origin of her own for nearly 5 years until 1969’s Teen Titans #22 which established her as a non-Amazon orphan, rescued by Wonder Woman from an apartment building fire. Unable to find any parents or family, Wonder Woman brought the child to Paradise Island, where she had eventually been given Amazon powers by Paula Von Gunther’s Purple Ray.

That story was written by Marv Wolfman, writer of this issue, and it represents some of his earliest comics work.

Wolfman broke into comics at D.C. and worked there extensively during the 60’s, principally on the original Teen Titans and Blackhawks. But in 1972 he moved to Marvel and became such a Marvel guy that he eventually rose to the position of editor-in-chief, generally considered to be the highest ranking role on the creative side of the business. Wolfman oversaw some of the most important comics of the decade at Marvel including many of those influential X-Men tales. He kept his hand in writing too being the author of Tomb of Dracula one of Marvel’s biggest commercial and critical successes in the 70’s.

When he went back to D.C. in the 80’s then to write New Teen Titans he was in a unique position. He was familiar with these characters, with the rich continuity of the DCU and its history. He had even been part of shaping it as the creator of Wonder Girl’s origin. However he was a Marvel writer through and through at this point, trained in the house style at the time. This tension really informs New Teen Titans in its early years.

In terms of story this issue makes me nostalgic for the number 1s of days past. This is a very functional issue, more concerned with establishing characters than telling a great story in its own right but still giving us a beginning, middle and end with tension, some super heroic fisticuffs and some mysteries along the way.

The main thing this issue needs to do is establish the characters, establish the set-up for the team and plant the seeds for a few future plots. It does it very effectively hitting all the necessary story beats with aplomb whilst still throwing in some excitement for the story itself.

Every character gets a moment to shine here and show off their powers. Raven drives the plot popping in and out and teleporting the team to safety. Robin gets to lead the team and give orders. Changeling gets to turn into a mouse and fix some circuitry and Cyborg also gets to play with computers. Starfire gets to blast things, Wonder Girl gets to be strong and Kid Flash races halfway across the country in an instant. Personalities and origins are sketched in but present and we quickly get a sense of who these people are.

In particular Wolfman chooses to start with the characters that have already appeared in comics previously, Robin, Kid Flash, Changeling and Wonder Girl. He doesn’t bother to establish an origin for these characters, trusting that readers will know it already, except for Wonder Girl who is the least well known of these. What he does do though is establish that these four have a prior relationship immediately drawing on the history of the team.

What Wolfman does take the time to do, and this is quite Claremontian, is show off every character’s angst in the first issue. The problem they’re currently wresting with in life. Wonder Girl is angsting about her origin and not knowing who her parents are.  Kid Flash angsts about whether he wants to be a hero and there is also the mystery of his connection to Raven and why he changed his mind when she told him to. Robin angsts about being in Batman’s shadow and we get something you don’t see anymore these days, Smoking Jacket and Cravat Batman.

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Man he used to wear a smoking jacket non-stop back in the day. I haven’t seen that thing in years.

Raven and Starfire’s deal is less clear although Starfire clearly has escaped slavery and Raven is trying to prevent some kind of coming doom. Cyborg gets the most screen time of the three newbies but unfortunately his portrayal in this issue is as the cliche angry black man. Cyborg has a good reason to be angry, his father has turned him into a freak and whilst he may have gained super-powers and would have died if his father had not intervened he has seemingly lost everything he cares for in life.

The only angst free character is Changeling who provides absolutely cringe worthy comic relief and hits on Wonder Girl.

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If you want me to hate you Changeling then you’re onto a really good start.

One thing that connects all these characters is that their angst stems from their relationship with their parental figures. Wonder Girl is an orphan and seeking to find her identity because she didn’t have normal parental figures. Cyborg is angry with his father for his treatment of him and seeming abandonment. Robin feels stifled by his father figure and wants to forge his own identity separate from Batman. Kid Flash has a great and healthy relationship with his parents and worries about jeopardising it by becoming a hero.

Teen Titans then is a book with a central theme to it, the stories are all about being a teenager and the relationship between teenagers and their parents. in this way TT is also very similar to the X-Men. Unlike books like The Avengers of JLA, TT and X-Men have a central idea at the heart of the book that drives what kind of stories get told. For the X-Men its the metaphor of Mutants as outsiders from normal society, hated and feared. It’s a very flexible metaphor being able to stand in for race, sexuality, disability or even the disenfranchisement felt by teenagers and that’s partly the reason X-Men resonates to well with a readership of teenaged nerds.

The Teen Titans theme is less flexible, it is explicitly about the issues facing teenagers but whilst more limited than the mutant allegory it does provide plenty of fertile ground to inspire different stories all reflecting back on the themes of being a teenager and how they relate to the world and their parents. Also TT isn’t restricted to the Titans being seen as outsiders. Being a teenager can be wholly positive and good, as we see in Kid Flash’s relationship with his family.

As well as establishing characters and themes we also get some plot threads established that will pay off down the line. Chief amongst these is the threat Raven formed the team to stop. At this stage we know nothing about it other than that it requires these particular people to defeat it. We’ve also got Grant Wilson asking some mysterious shadowy figure to destroy the titans, Kid Flash’s weird change of face and the mystery of Koriand’r.

The New Teen Titans Issue 1 is never going to be held up as a masterpiece of the comic medium but it accomplishes all the goals it sets out to do and leaves the reader interested in these characters and wanting to read more. As such, it fulfils the brief for a first issue.

Artist George Perez is of course one of the most respected and influential artists in the medium and was so even back in 1980. Perez is usually praised for his detail. He draws backgrounds and figures with far more detail than most artists and he thinks about the realism of objects more so than most so that his anatomy, machinery and architecture feel far more realistic than many of his contemporaries. A great example of Perez’s strengths as an artist is how he’ll draw characters with very different body types but all with quite realistic anatomy. Kid Flash is svelte but with powerful calves and thighs that represent that he’s a runner.

He’s also famous for his layouts which use non-conventional grids that pack in tonnes of panels and details in a single image. He isn’t without weaknesses as an artist. Perez’s panel to panel story telling is good but never particularly inventive. He’s a great artist to look at, to stop reading and admire the artwork but not the best storyteller. He is also a dreadful costume designer and regularly creates characters which look okay when he draws them but that other artists can’t replicate due to the detail in their appearance. And he has a fondness for assymetric designs I’ve never understood.

Perez was already a superstar when he started New Teen Titans but he isn’t half the talent he’ll become by the end of his tenure and one thing I am looking forward to with this project is seeing him grow as an artist.

This is good stuff, even in this issue though. I particularly like this page.

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The top 4 panels use a grid but Perez has them getting gradually larger with one panel being part of the next one. It gives the impression of the reader zooming through the skylight and into the apartment. It’s not earth shattering and it’s subtle enough that you normally wouldn’t notice the effect but it just demonstrates that Perez takes so much time and care in his art.

Then you get a double page splash like this one that really shows off what Perez can do.

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