Saturday, August 26, 2006

Acting Up

Stan Lee has famously said that comics is all one long second act. If you think about it, using his signature creation Spider Man as an example, his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 tells the origin story with all its power and responsibility.

Nerd gets bitten by radioactive spider, nerd fails to stop criminal, nerd's uncle is killed by said criminal, nerd get religion on the whole responsibility and power thing, nerd becomes superhero.

The next time we see Spider Man, he's in high school, dealing with his issues, taking care of Aunt May and trying to find time to fight crime on the side. That's Act II of the story, for those playing the home game, and we've been there for the last 30 years.

This is why comics need (to the chagrine of hardcore fans) the occasional reboot or reimagining. You can only juggle so long before you drop a ball, or decide that adding a new ball would be great.

Some comic movies look at Act I just the way Stan tended to: make it memorable and make it felt for the entire series, but get it the frack out of the way as soon as possible. X-men is a good example of this. Despite taking the entire movie to show the team coming together, it still manages to feel like one long trailer for X-2.

Some comic movies dispense with the first act entirely. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We never see her first mission or her meeting with her first Watcher until a Season 2 flashback. In Episode 1 she is already in Act 2.

Some of the best comic movies though, take delight in that other act, the one Stan says we should ditch as soon as possible. Unbreakable is possibly my favorite superhero movie and it is all Act I, painstakingly setting up the hero's powers, his motivation, his weakness and even his arch-nemesis.

The Incredibles is the same way. While the adult heroes had their powers and were experienced heroes, as Mr. Incredible was fond of saying, "they worked alone". Over the course of the movie we see the four heroes come together as a family but also as a true superhero team.

And of course Smallville is 5 years and counting of Act I. I actually am afraid they will end the show without a single shot of Clark in the costume, which would be a huge cop-out imo.

Now there's also a few comics that have shown us a third act, such as Claremont and Byrne's classic "dark future" X-men tale that shows the death of the X-men in a future controlled by the Sentinels.

No movie I'm aware of has done an Act III supers movie yet. I think the perpetual second act is one reason why movies have fallen in love with comics a little. Movie franchises work that way to begin with and comics are as good at juggling the second act as soaps (though not quite as good as Jason movies).

I'd love to see an Act III comic movie. I think M. Night could do one about "Security" from Unbreakable.

As a writer these kinds of constructions and genre conventions fascinate me. Hope this was equally interesting for everyone else.



Walt said...

Nice! Great way to look at the comic genre. One of the things I like most about comics is the end of Act I before Act II has actually started. There is the promise of a person becoming a hero and all that entails. There is the promise of beginning.

One thing that I find modern American comics does realy bad is that they can't let go. How many times do we need to see the Dark Knight go from boy to bat? Is the effect the same if Ben parker is the victim of a drive by or by a random running thug? Why is it we can't let Superman die?

My personal opinion is that even though we love to see our icons fall, it KILLS us to have our HEROES fail. It is almost as if people like, Lee, Kane, Siegel, and Miller have created this fantastic Mythologies that instead of us leaving them alone and letting people read the old versions, they feel this need to re-identify the new generations with the old icons.

Why invent something new when we can just shine up the old coins?

What I would like to see is what happens when Ben lives and Peter Parker finds out how much money he can make as a hit man. I would like to see Batman become an international James Bond Type during a dark future. I want to see the X-Men decide to say, screw the humans... This is our house now and have the humans fight the oppression of the mutants.

I guess that in the end though... Just like Iron-Man, Cap, and the Avengers, We need our heroes and we need to be able to identify with them or they are not truely ours.

Great Post Chuck... This is fast becoming one of my favorite bloggs.


Chuck said...

Well, there are new heroes created on occasion, many of which have become icons in their own right.

Im thinking of Roy Thomas creating Black Panther and Vision, Len Wein creating Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler, Claremont creating Kitty Pride.

But the thing about an icon is that culture needs to change before you need a new one.

Superman will likely be around as long as achilles. It will take a fundamental shift in our culture for him to lose his resonance.

Now onto heroes dying, there's a lot of reasons that doesn't happen and 99% of them are money. Batman can't and won't die until he stops being such a cash cow for Warner.

Heroes DO fade away though when they lose their relevance. Captain Marvel (Shazam if you prefer) was a character MORE popular than Superman or Captain America in the golden age.

Though many attempts have been made to revive the character, what made him more popular than superman, that he was a pre-teen newspaper boy who transformed into a powerful god-like hero, has been rendered fairly irrelevant, mostly for cultural reasons.

When Capt. Marvel was the most popular superhero in the world, the average comics reader was the age of Billy Batson, the 12 yr old newspaper boy who served as Capt Marvel's alter ego.

This was also Robin's heyday. These heroes served a form of wish fulfillment that doesn't work anymore, because the average comics reader is in college, not elementary school now.


Walt said...

Excellent points for a great discussion,

That and the coffee are the reason I keep comming back...Wink


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