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Thursday 27 February 2003

Confessions of a Superhero Addict

by Claude Lalumière

Birds of Prey
- 13 episodes: 9 October 2002 - 19 February 2003 (WB)
- developed for television by Laeta Kalogridis
- based on the DC Comics series
- starring Ashley Scott, Dina Meyer, and Rachel Skarsten

When I reviewed Bird of Prey's pilot episode, I had high hopes for the series. Sure, the pilot had flaws that even my initial enthusiasm didn't let me overlook, but, based on the evolution of Smallville, another DC Comics TV show by the same production company, I was fully confident that Birds of Prey would soon hit its stride. In fact, the Birds of Prey pilot was far superior to Smallville's, which rapidly improved and, now in its second season, just keeps getting better. Sadly, Birds of Prey went from fascinating to ludicrous in almost no time.

The show's biggest problem was the poor quality of the scripts. My issues with the writings include: an overall lack of rigour in working out the show's premises and concepts, an over-reliance on a set structural formula episode after episode, rampant internal inconsistencies (both between and within episodes), and soap-opera-level dialogue lacking even the slightest hint of irony. Visually, Birds of Prey announced itself as the descendant of Tim Burton's two Batman films, but the writing ended up sounding like a bad pastiche of the 1960s series starring Adam West by someone who didn't understand its hilarious deadpan sardonic flavour.

To list all of the show's lacunas would take up more space than it's worth, but I'd like point out a few of the more salient examples.

Helena, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, is repeatedly referred to as "half metahuman". What does that mean? Well, nothing. Like all other metahumans on the show, she's a human being with superpowers. It's not a question of lineage. Metahumans on Birds of Prey get their powers through a variety of means, from strange accidents to scientific experimentation to genetic mutation. And everyone save Helena is simply "metahuman". Helena's powers include feral fighting skills and superstrength (and she hones these abilities with constant training), yet almost any villain can fight her to a standstill, with no explanation as to why. It's constantly said that she's an almost unequalled fighter, but this assertion is contradicted by the action, always for the convenience of the plot.

Early on, it's established that the metahumans and costumed crimefighters are considered urban legends. Detective Reese, a supporting character, believes in these legends and is ridiculed by his peers for his credulity. But then, it's shown that Arkham Asylum, a prison for the criminally insane, houses many metahumans that the police know about. This discrepancy is never explored or explained.

When, in the next-to-last episode, Helena visits Clayface at Arkham Asylum, he knows everything about her, including all her secrets. The audience can guess why he knows, but Helena, who cannot, is in no way puzzled or alarmed.

Almost every episodes ends on the ledge of the clocktower with our heroines reflecting on the valuable life lesson they've just learned in this week's adventure. These sequences are invariably maudlin, trite, and over-obvious.

And so on...

On the plus side, the design of New Gotham City, inspired by Burton's Batman films, made Birds of Prey visually interesting to revisit. And Ashley Scott, even when hampered by atrocious dialogue, created in Helena an entrancing and complex character that was strong and fragile, charming and gruff. Dina Meyer and Rachel Skarsten, as Barbara and Dinah respectively, gave satisfactory performances that may have lacked nuance but were never jarring. Sadly, the acting by everyone else, from the regular supporting cast to the guest-stars, was just awful: played much too broadly and with too much overstatement.

Birds of Prey had a lot of potential, but it failed to tap into it.

- directed by Mark Steven Johnson
- screenplay by Mark Steven Johnson and Brian Helgeland
- based on the Marvel Comics series by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Frank Miller
- starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau, and Joe Pantoliano
- 104 minutes

I complain a lot about bad writing. Now, thanks to Mark Steven Johnson, director and co-writer of Daredevil, I get to complain yet again. This is such a sloppy, offensive, and incoherent piece of drivel that it makes David Koepp's badly structured and inconsistent scriptwriting job on Spider-Man look almost brilliant.

Daredevil is a costumed vigilante first introduced in the comics in 1964. At first, the series was a transparent attempt by Marvel to replicate the recent success of its The Amazing Spider-Man (Spider-Man even appeared on the cover of Daredevil #1), complete with tragic origin, soap-opera private life, and roof-swinging acrobatics.

As a child, Matt Murdock is blinded in an accident involving radioactive waste. As a result, all his other senses are heightened to a superhuman degree. Encouraged by his father's support, Matt studies hard to become a lawyer. When his father, a professional wrestler, is killed because he refuses to throw a fight, Matt is inspired to use his enhanced senses to avenge his father as the costumed adventurer Daredevil.

For years, Daredevil was a minor character in the Marvel pantheon. Until the 1980s, that is, when a newcomer called Frank Miller was let loose on the perennially low-selling series. In the process, Daredevil was transformed into one of Marvel's most significant titles and Frank Miller established himself as one of comics' most innovative creators; his initial run on Daredevil forever changed the style of American comics, eschewing redundant narrative captions and emphasizing visual storytelling. (He wasn't the first to try this, but his particularly effective approach was the one that broke the mold.)

Johnson's Daredevil begins with a (slightly altered) retelling of the character's 1964 origin but quickly segues into an adaptation of Frank Miller's classic run as writer/illustrator on Daredevil #168-191 (the film also incorporates elements from #159-164 by Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller); that's about 30 issues to condense into 104 minutes, including too many subplots and characters.

As with Spider-Man and Birds of Prey, Daredevil looks great, as all superhero screen adaptations must in the post-Tim Burton era. Particularly striking and well conceived are the shots portraying Daredevil's radar sense, far surpassing anything done in thirty years of Daredevil comics.

The film's one — and only — other strength is Ben Affleck's surprisingly arresting performance. All the other actors play their characters as one-note caricatures, undermining the script's already strained efforts at achieving drama.

Part of the problem faced by films adapting long-running superhero comics is that there's a lot of history to condense into one movie. Both Spider-Man and Daredevil, for example, couple the origin story with the character's most dramatic moment, forgetting that these stories relied on years of build-up to achieve their effects. Instead, we're left with hollow posturing, hysterical emoting, and clumsy attempts at hitting too many story points in too short a time.

Johnson's Daredevil attempts to integrate the following plotlines: Daredevil's origin; reporter Ben Urich uncovering Daredevil's secrets; the tragic love between Matt Murdock and Elektra; the war between Daredevil and New York's crime boss, the Kingpin; Murdock reconciling his religious beliefs and his convictions as a lawyer with his secret life as a vigilante; the assassin Bullseye's obsession with defeating Daredevil — to name the most prominent plotlines.

It's not impossible that all of this could have translated into a dense and exciting movie, but the script failed to even come close to that achievement. For no reason necessary to the story, Johnson decided to condense most of these events and story arcs into a two-day period, making the plot and the character developments even more painfully unlikely.

The script's problems go far beyond simply the inadequate development of plotlines, however. A glaring example is the court sequence near the beginning of the film, where Murdock is representing a rape victim against her assailant. In other words, this is a criminal case, but instead of having the DA prosecute, the case is tried in civil court with two lawyers representing their respective clients' interests. No-one caught this gaffe in this multimillion-dollar blockbuster? Or was it just assumed that audiences were too stupid to notice?

The ludicrous and insulting plot shortcuts are too numerous to list, so I'll concentrate on the three most pivotal ones (spoilers ahead).

In the comics, Matt and Elektra are college lovers tragically reunited after years of separation. In the film, the adult Murdock meets Elektra for the first time in a café and promptly proceeds to stalk her — and continues to stalk her after she tells him to stop following her. This is romantic? After they have a physical fight (because Murdock won't leave her alone), Elektra starts to fall in love with him (!) and, within two days, theirs become the most profound of loves even though they barely know each other and have spent almost no time together. Not only is there nothing in the film to make us believe that these characters care for each other, there's also no screen chemistry between Affleck and the wooden Jennifer Garner to make us buy this ill-conceived romance. And then there's the issue of stalking as seduction...

As in the comics, Ben Urich kills his story exposing Daredevil. But in the comics Urich and Murdock are friends, and Daredevil is a respected protector of New York's Hell's Kitchen. In the film, Murdock dislikes Urich and Daredevil is a suspected murderer. We never see Urich being witness to Daredevil's heroism — in fact, it's debatable whether he is ever heroic at all. He comes across much more as a dangerous vigilante killing and beating criminals to satisfy his own agenda than as a self-sacrificing hero. I can't think of a single scene of Daredevil in action that didn't involve Murdock personally in some way. In the film, Urich's actions make no sense — and Joe Pantoliano's portrayal of the character is silly at best.

Near the film's climax Daredevil discovers that the thug who killed his father is now the powerful businessman Wilson Fisk, secretly the Kingpin. This is a clumsy rip-off of Tim Burton's unfortunate choice to make the Joker the thug who had murdered Bruce Wayne's parents (thus spawning Batman), only it's even more blatantly absurd and coincidental.

I could go on... but what's the point?

X-Men 1.5 (DVD)
- X-Men directed by Bryan Singer
- story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer; screenplay be David Hayter
- based on the Marvel Comics series created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
- starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, and Anna Paquin
- two-disk set: 104 minutes + special features

When I first heard that there was going to be an X-Men film, I had no intention of seeing it. I haven't liked the comics since the early 1980s. Marvel films had, at that point, always been terrible. And no comics franchise has ever been so steeped in convoluted and tedious continuity.

Then I saw a preview. And I got excited. Besides showing off what looked to be an elegantly designed film, the preview emphasized science fiction over action. A promising detail.

So I went to see X-Men. I've now seen it several times, and I like it more with every viewing. Sure, it's flawed (hey, Blade Runner is riddled with flaws, and yet it's one of the greatest films ever), but, while X-Men falls a bit short of being a great film, it's a very good one, and so far the most satisfying, intriguing, and intelligent screen adaptation of comics superheroes.

While, for the most part, the special features on the special edition DVD of X-Men are dull and disappointing, one comment made several times by director Bryan Singer cuts to the heart of why X-Men succeeds where most such projects fail: it was Singer's intention to make first and foremost a science-fiction film.

Singer is clearly no stranger to the storytelling strategies of science fiction. Instead of overloading his film with exposition and countless origins, he trusts the audience to understand the story as it unfolds and he relies on the intellectual excitement of mystery and cognitive dissonance.

In Singer's X-Men two narratives cross paths. The macrocosmic story is that of the ideological conflict between two elderly men and their followers: Charles Xavier, a mutant telepath who believes in — and works towards — peaceful coexistence between humanity and the growing mutant population, and his old friend Eric Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto), a Holocaust survivor and a mutant whose fears that concentration camps and extermination will be humanity's "final solution" to the mutant "problem" drive him to embrace terrorism. The microcosmic story involves two mutants on the run — the young Marie (a.k.a. Rogue) and the mysterious Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) — who are against their will caught in the middle of a war between these two factions.

Singer's X-Men is not the origin of the team. The X-Men — Xavier's secret task force — have existed for years, and we discover them through the perspectives of Logan and Marie. The script is subtle where it needs to be and blunt when necessary. It deals with serious issues seriously, while remaining a thrilling and exciting SF film. It drops intriguing hints about the complex history behind the film's many characters and their relationships, opening up the world for the audience's imagination. X-Men is utterly devoid of the camp that plagues most superhero screen projects, and the acting (with the one false note provided by Halle Berry's bland performance as Storm) is spectacular, the actors making us believe in the vast hinted-at backstory. Anna Paquin as Rogue is deliciously fragile. Hugh Jackman is perfectly charismatic and brusque as Wolverine. And both Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart lend a substantial gravity to the proceedings.

X-Men succeeds because it understands science fiction, because it explores themes and ideas (without ever falling into didactism), because, instead of trying to incorporate every element and character fans want to see, it above all tells a story, in this case of two outcasts who come to take care of each other in the midst of a conflict they never wanted that nevertheless deals with the essence of their identity. X-Men does, however, feel more like the pilot for a series than a traditional film. And that's exactly what it is: the start of a (hopefully long-running) film series.

I can't wait for X-Men 2.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a columnist for Locus Online, Black Gate, and The Montreal Gazette.  His short fiction has most recently appeared in The Book of More Flesh, Interzone, and Fiction Inferno.  2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (The Bakka Collection/Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (4 Walls 8 Windows). See for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W

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