Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

By David Reynolds

If you’re looking for an introductory history of the superhero, then you’ll be satisfied with the PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. Hosted by Liev Schreiber, who played Sabertooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the film provides an adequate overview of the history of superheroes, but it may not quite quench the thirst of more advanced comics buffs.

Much like my own dissertation on the subject, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, this PBS documentary focuses on superheroes as they appear across media, unlike other histories which focus only on comics in general or the superhero’s role in comics. Hearing legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Alan Moore share their stories about the industry provides invaluable input about the infancy and growth of the genre. However, while this documentary collects interviews with many legends of the industry, it falls short in scholarly expertise. Trina Robbins‘ input as a comics historian is quite valuable in this respect, but there ought to be further reference to academic expertise throughout the series.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is divided into three episodes, which roughly correspond to the Golden, Silver, and Modern Ages of Comics. Accordingly, the first episode covers the birth of the superhero in 1938 with the emergence of Superman in Action Comics #1. The origins of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and other superheroes are covered here, as well, acknowledging the inspiration taken from pulp characters, like the Spider or the Shadow. The film also discusses superheroes as American gods, emphasizing their role as modern hero myths, and it even touches on how superhero narratives were used as wartime propaganda. These are perspectives I have considered in my own dissertation. Such accounts in Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle tend to reflect the scholarship, although the treatment of these subjects in the film is brief.

In discussing the sizable slew of superheroes that emerged following the success of Superman and Batman, the film highlights Fawcett ComicsCaptain Marvel. Here is where I have a particular gripe with the documentary’s portrayal of events. The film makes no mention of the despicable copyright lawsuits that resulted in DC Comics (known as National Comics at the time) winning the rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. Basically, DC claimed that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman’s copyright, claiming the characters were too alike. They are about as alike as any other pair of superheroes, but the courts eventually favoured with DC and Fawcett had run out of money to pursue the fight. This is one of many dark stains on the genre, in my opinion, because it represents the tremendous level of greed inherent to the industry. Don’t forget how the big publishers all too often denied copyright and royalties to creators, most infamously the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Well, the comic book copyright wars are overlooked entirely in this documentary. Don’t take this as too damning a critique, however; most are quite satisfied to enjoy the view of the tip of an iceberg.

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The second and third episodes provide accounts of the Silver and Modern Ages. The Silver Age is largely portrayed as defined by Stan Lee’s revolution of telling stories about superheroes with relatable problems, noting the introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Superman, Batman, and other archetypal superheroes had hitherto seemed impervious to the everyday troubles of regular folk, so Stan Lee’s departure from that norm is truly remarkable even if it seems like a no-brainer to fans today. The Modern Age is defined by further narrative complexity, citing Frank Miller‘s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen as definitive texts that reflect relevant social tensions. These works challenged the very foundations of superhero narratives, forcing readers to question the motives of all these masked vigilantes. This sort of complexity continues after the destruction of the two towers on September 11, 2001, when superhero narratives again challenge our assumptions about the value of security and civil liberties, such as with Marvel’s Civil War crossover series. The documentary literally juxtaposes the implementation of George W. Bush‘s Patriot Act with the issues addressed in Civil War. That the film engages in this conversation is reassuring, because to dismiss it would be a crucial oversight. However, the film does not go so far as to point out the troubling normalization of mass surveillance in Christopher Nolan‘s film Dark Knight.

Ultimately, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is well worth watching for any fan of superheroes. If you’re new to reading comics, you might find some classic titles to check out for yourself. If you’re a long-time fan, then you’ll find a great deal to be nostalgic about across all three episodes. There are some unusual moments unique to this documentary, as well; nowhere else have I heard Adam West (of campy ’60s Batman fame) read lines from Miller’s dark and brooding Dark Knight Returns. So, if you haven’t seen this one yet, you might find it on Netflix.

And, if you’re interested in reading a more advanced take on how superhero narratives function in popular culture, then you should check out my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths. Please, read and enjoy!

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Review (Film) – The Book of Eli

Granted, I went into viewing The Book of Eli fully aware that it was a sci-fi action with a religious theme, but even then I didn’t expect the film to be such a blatant Christian propaganda film. It almost struck me as an attempt to gain Christian converts by showing off the badass Christian warrior of the future. But, I say “almost” for a reason; I actually liked this film quite a bit, despite the endless Christian imagery and motifs.

The Book of Eli is set in a post-apocalyptic future which resulted from a nuclear war of some vague nature. Eli, the Christian warrior-prophet, is on a pilgrimage west, across the wasteland that is America. Along his path, he encounters a number of lawless murderers, rapists, and bandits, all of which have clearly fallen from the Christian path. After watching just a few minutes of the film, I was reminded of Fallout 3 (360, PS3, PC) and, as the story continued, I was convinced that you could create a character that looks exactly like Eli (played by Denzel Washington) in Fallout 3 and play out a story that is very similar to the movie… which I might do still. In any case, while on his pilgrimage West, Eli stumbles into a community of the desperate and the depraved, inhabited by victims and degenerates alike, and governed by a ruthless mastermind named Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman). Carnegie is conducting a mad hunt for any copy of the Bible that may have survived the book burnings that followed the nuclear war, and it turns out that the last copy of the Bible is the very book in Eli’s possession, the guiding purpose behind his pilgrimage. This, of course, leads to an action-packed heroic epic in true Biblical fashion.

Christian imagery and motifs abound in The Book of Eli, but it’s not always that obvious. Consider the scorched earth setting of the film. One interesting characteristic of the world after the war is that the ozone layer has been severely damaged, allowing dangerous levels of ultraviolet rays to bombard the earth’s surface and all who walk upon it. Although the set design and landscapes believably represent this post-nuclear holocaust world, the sun shines brightly in many scenes to emphasize Eli’s piety, as if it were the holy light of God Himself.

Nevertheless, to really demonstrate that The Book of Eli really bashes its audience over their heads with Christianity, consider the climax of the film. It should be no surprise that Eli succeeds in delivering the Bible to the promised land in the West, and once he arrives, they begin mass printing the Bible again. This is supposed to be a triumphant moment in the narrative; Christianity is returning to a dark world and, although it may struggle, it promises to bring peace to this wild, unholy land. To really drive that point home, the film features an orgy of images of the Bible as it moves through the printing press, highlighting particularly poetic and persuasive passages. The montage is clearly intended to reinforce the power and triumph of Christianity in the minds of the audience.

And that’s what bothers me about this film. Although I like this movie and I found it thoroughly entertaining as a sci-fi action flick, I can’t help but be bothered how the film might be received by a more Christian audience, especially an audience like the right wing, uber-Christian fanatic demographic, Palin’s Paladins, for instance. Despite the fact that the film admits that many people blamed the Bible and institutionalized religion in general as the cause of the nuclear holocaust, that fact is downplayed since it is revealed to the audience by the villain, which inherently taints the statement as dubious simply because the villain said it. I suspect The Book of Eli could really reinforce a fanatical Christian mindset in people who already tend to perceive themselves that way. It could even be seen as a training video for today’s God-warriors who plan on surviving whatever apocalypse they perceive looming in our near future. Hence, I’m at least half-serious when I call The Book of Eli a Christian propaganda film.

Regardless, I’d like to say I enjoyed this film. The Christian overtones are overwhelming and annoying at times, but the action is pretty cool. Eli fights his enemies with a handgun, shotgun, and a really cool knife or sword. The knife is seriously badass, allowing Eli to fend off the attack from a chainsaw-wielding heathen even! The challenges Eli must face and the questions raised in the narrative are interesting to watch unfold and intriguing to ponder for oneself. In the end, however, The Book of Eli just makes me want to replay Fallout 3.