"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Gather ‘round, kiddos, because we begin with another tale of Gen-X adolescence!
From 1977 through 1986, I grew from a snot-nosed third-grade punk into a snot-nosed (I had allergies) high-school senior, accompanied along the way by at least one big-budget sci-fi/fantasy movie milestone.* Specifically, right in the middle of the run were three sequels by which every self-respecting fan swears: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Superman II (released in the United States in 1981) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Each built on its predecessor using darker elements and/or more “mature” themes, because each had the sequel’s luxury of an established setting.
For Young Tom, though, the cumulative effect of these three movies was mind-expanding, if not mind-blowing. I’m not talking about Empire’s Big Reveal (echoed coincidentally in Khan) or the unsettling sight of a powerless Clark Kent. Instead, each catapulted the fevered suppositions of a junior-high imagination to higher levels of awareness. I went into the theater each time wondering will this be as good? and came out giddy at how much better each one was.
So what’s this have to do with comics? Read on …
Serialized superhero comics operate on a few different time scales, each asking something a little different from the reader. If you read the individual issues as they come out, you’ll have to remember what happened in previous installments, which — assuming you don’t habitually sit down with a particular set every now and then — might mean reaching back a week, two weeks, or most likely a month. Waiting for a collection blows that out to several months between macro-level installments, in exchange for the convenience of having a complete story in a more durable form.
There’s also the (much) wider long-term scale which comes with years of reading comics. When I was a kid, my heavy comics-reading period spanned about four years, from late 1976 through late 1980. After that it dropped to pretty much nothing, until the fall of 1984 when I decided to start up again. Accordingly, I’ve read a lot of issues “as they happened” — that is, right when they first came out — but I’ve had to catch up on a lot, too, and those are different kinds of experiences and different sorts of memories.
With that in mind, I have a few observations about the New 52 as it heads down the backstretch of its second year. First, it’s not that hard for an every-Wednesday habit to turn into a years-long “wide view.” (After all, that’s pretty much what it’s designed to do.) Second, I suspect the “as it happens” experience creates some powerful mnemonic associations. You’re not just reading the new Batman, you’re subconsciously taking in everything that’s happening while you’re reading it. For example, I have specific memories associated with each issue of Watchmen and most issues of Crisis on Infinite Earths. That process of accumulation — of “learning” gradually over time, and assimilating each set of new facts into one’s long-term memory in steady doses, as opposed to big chunks — helped me internalize those stories in a different way than if I’d read them “after the fact.”
And yet, to a great extent, most of us who are current superhero-comics readers have come to these characters “after the fact.” The vast majority of us were not around when Superman and Batman first burst on the scene, and only slightly more folks remember the arrival of the Marvel Universe. Therefore, most of what we know comes from secondhand studies, where our first experiences aren’t the first experiences. We don’t have the same “shock of the new” that readers in the late ‘30s or early ‘60s did.
That’s why I come back to genre blockbusters of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and particularly to Star Wars. There are moments in that movie, particularly in its opening scenes, which take me back to 1977. The droids looking up at the dwindling Star Destroyer, C-3PO trudging past the giant skeleton, and R2-D2 being stalked by Jawas, were all so foreign, and yet so intriguing, that even CGI facelifts and the passage of time can’t diminish their effects.
However, for more and more fans, Star Wars is “Episode IV,” the work which spawned a vast pop-culture web. Its power over them is likely very different (if comparably potent). It’s an origin story, and many of us are in a post-origin world. Conventional wisdom holds that fans prefer The Empire Strikes Back because it subverts Star Wars’ optimism, revealing Luke’s dark potential and not letting all the good guys escape.** It’s deeper than Star Wars, setting a philosophical standard that Jedi and the prequels never fully realize.
Of course, the other two sequels were free to draw not just on their predecessors, but on the previous works which Star Trek: TMP and Superman ‘78 adapted for the screen. As such, those initial movies don’t exactly have “shock of the new,” unless you count the spectacle of a big-screen Enterprise or the innovations that helped Christopher Reeve fly around Manhattan. Still, their sequels wrung fresh moments out of storied histories. The Wrath of Khan is a convincing deconstruction of James T. Kirk’s career, centered around his midlife crisis; and Superman II is the action-oriented payoff for themes (and one dangling subplot) from the first film. With each sequel, we know the setup, we just want to see more.
And that’s where the New 52 comes in. We may be in a post-origin world, but in some cases we may still be in the preliminaries, even “five or six years” into the New-52 timeline. Stormwatch and Swamp Thing both have new creative teams as of this week, odds are there’s a new Robin on the horizon, the Justice League(s) will probably look different after “Trinity War,” and the Green Lantern line seems destined for the mother of all wrap-ups.
However, many New-52 versions of familiar characters have gotten along fine without origin recaps and/or rolling makeovers. Speaking of the Green Lanterns, it’s taken for granted that Hal, John and Sinestro each got their rings under familiar circumstances. Other characters, like Wonder Woman and Frankenstein, haven’t yet had “origin stories” per se, just hints or glimpses at their pre-superhero pasts. Ironically, Wonder Woman’s history has changed and Frankenstein is (for all practical purposes) a newcomer to the superhero line, but both series jumped into ongoing adventures without stopping to explain much.
Still, it’s strange to think of the New-52 as “established” at the start of its twentieth month. If there’s any appeal left in its newness, I’m not sure DC wants its readers to think of it as a settled thing. Whatever the relaunch’s merits, certainly it’s given readers opportunities to learn new things about these various characters. In fact, while Justice League issues 1-6 featured the New 52’s most prominent origin story, it ended up feeling almost perfunctory. When Geoff Johns admitted that “Throne of Atlantis” was the kind of League story he’d wanted to do all along, it made me wonder why he didn’t just do it right off.
To be sure, the appeal of retelling (or revising) any origin comes from the chance to see familiar elements as if for the first time. However, there’s a tension between reliving those moments and wanting to explore new possibilities. There are only so many times you can watch the original Star Wars without thinking of all the ways the others play off it. For that matter, Superman II’s virtue was distilled into its tagline: “if you’ve only seen the first part, you haven’t seen the best part.” I mean, I love Superman ‘78 (“Peter Pan flew with children, Lois … in a fairy tale”), but that first big chunk of it is all Krypton/Smallville/Metropolis buildup, and most of the super-action is against inanimate objects. The movie reaches its dramatic apex with a choice between Kryptonian ethics and Terran faith — and that’s eminently appropriate, don’t get me wrong — but for an eleven-year-old, saving Lois can’t compete with inviting General Zod to step outside. Now this summer’s Man of Steel will combine a healthy dose of Krypton and Smallville with full-on Kryptonian combat.
Sometimes, though, you just want to chuck everything and start fresh. (This is a digression, but not by much.) In the late 1990s DC’s “Tangent Comics” experiment was perhaps the ultimate expression of narrative-by-association. It spoke initially to the idea that a name, like Atom or Doom Patrol, didn’t have to mean what you thought it meant. Paying homage to the Silver Age revitalizations of the Flash, Green Lantern, et al., the Tangent Atom (a Superman-style heavy hitter) was as different from Ray Palmer’s tiny titan as Ray had been from Al Pratt’s pint-sized powerhouse. Now we’ll have “Tangent Star Wars,” in the form of The Star Wars, Dark Horse’s adaptation of George Lucas’ original (and somewhat impenetrable) vision of the Galaxy Far Far Away. There, young Annikin Starkiller teamed up with the much older General Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo was a lizard-man. We know Star Wars so well that the mere mention of “Deak” or “Utapau” is meaningful even in a wildly different context.
Of course, talking about not having to chuck everything, this summer also brings the second movie in the relaunched Star Trek series. Naturally, the first movie was all about the familiar crew assuming their familiar roles aboard the Enterprise. It reminds us that eventually, the origin story ends and the “continuing mission” begins. And while we’re not talking about “third” movies, last year Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises concluded their respective relaunches. Now, Skyfall wasn’t the last Bond movie in the sense that DKR was the “last” Batman, but it did complete the origin of Daniel Craig’s 007 by putting in place a number of classic-Bond elements which had previously been missing from the Craig movies (and by revisiting his actual origins too).
Again, books like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern have been able to tell pretty straightforward adventure stories without worrying so much about bringing readers up to speed. Batman falls in this category too, although its main storylines have involved menaces whose backstories intertwined with Batman’s. (In upcoming months, I suppose we’ll see how much the Owls and/or the Joker have to do with “Zero Year.”)
Despite all of this, though, the New 52 still feels unsettled. Part of it is creative-team turnover, but part of it is the need to keep calling it “new.” That two-year mark will be here before you know it, and “Trinity War” is out there somewhere, plus whatever festivities are slated for September. Each Wednesday’s issues become last month’s issues, and then the latest collection, and then last year’s stories. “As it happens” turns into yesterday’s news, and even if you still like the work generally you want it to do more. We readers know the basics by now.
Gradually, the superhero line is getting to the point where it can settle down. Whether it will is anyone’s guess. I’m not holding my breath, because I get the feeling that DC wants to avoid any kind of complacency, even if it means being relatively consistent. This is not necessarily another dig at DC’s infamous creative-team turnover, because those three ‘80s sequels featured significant creative-team changes, especially in the director’s chairs. However, that turnover does play into the notion that the New-52 must be “new” for as long as possible; and that’s just not going to happen.
It may not be this year, or even 2014, but before DC wants to admit it, its superhero line will start to take a look back at itself, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, and mixing the best of the old with some new elements to move its series forward. That’s being “mature” in the most productive sense, and DC needs to start planning for it.
* [1977: Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; 1978: Superman, plus Battlestar Galactica on TV; 1979: Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture; 1980: The Empire Strikes Back; 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II; 1982: E.T., Star Trek II, Tron, and Blade Runner; 1983: Return of the Jedi and Superman III; 1984: Star Trek III, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator; 1985: Back to the Future; and 1986: Aliens and Star Trek IV. All this and five Roger Moore Bonds too!]
** [Empire also spotlights Han to good effect, wisely exploiting Harrison Ford’s ample charms while Luke is stuck in a swamp lifting boxes and learning painful truths.]