Thursday, 21 May 2015

Superhero Movies and Me

I contributed a few articles to online magazine Journey Planet, for their superhero issue - #21 - in April 2015. Prepare for childhood nostalgia and extreme geekery.

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I was always a Marvel kid, growing up. DC comics in the 70s, with their Superman robot doubles and Bizarro Loisses and multi-coloured Kryptonites, were just a bit too old-fashioned for me. Marvel was modern and somehow more real, as far as any superhero comics could be, with their argumentative rock men, wisecracking wall-crawlers and angry adamantium-clawed mutants. They were just cooler. I remember practising folding my middle and ring fingers into my palms and making thwippy web-shooter sounds, then flipping my hands round the other way up and pretending to cast the Roving Rings of Raggador at the other kids in the school playground.

So you can imagine how excited I was when they made the first Spider-Man film in 1977. Spidey wasn’t my favourite hero - that was probably Hulk (oddly, I never felt right calling him The Hulk; I felt, like his teen sidekicks Rick Jones and Jim Wilson, that the jade giant was my friend, so just ‘Hulk’) - but I’d read enough of his adventures, reprinted in Britain in the weekly black and white comic Super Spider-Man and the Titans, to be thrilled at seeing the wall-crawler in a film.

For years, like many British comic publishers, Marvel UK had been in the habit of launching new weekly comics for the initial boom of extra sales, then later merging less successful titles into their more popular sister publications. Thus The Titans, a landscape format anthology of old Avengers, Fantastic Four and Sub-Mariner tales, was merged with the mellifluously-named Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes (I never quite understood why he was ‘Super’ Spider-Man) to form Super Spider-Man and the Titans. So now you know.

The Spidey stories I’d read were weird and wild 70s tales from the likes of Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, featuring ghostly gangsters, murderous spider-mobiles and my favourite tale - a locked room mystery where the killer turned out to be (spoiler alert) W.H.O, a wall-sized homicidal computer. So eight-year old me was fairly vibrating with keen when my mum took us to our local cinema - the hoary old Embassy in Waltham Cross  whose resplendent blue and purple neon frontage could be seen as far away as the Little Chef on the A10 - to see Webhead for his big screen debut.

My review? It was… OK I guess.

To be fair to the movie itself, it had been hard to get into the mood when Spider-Man was part of a mismatched double-bill, as was common in those olden days. So we first had to sit through 90 minutes of You Light Up My Life, a teary romance about a struggling singer played by Frenchie from Grease. Ironically, all these years later, I can still sing the first few bars of the title song, which is more than I can say for the bland 70s wah-wah of the Spidey movie, which sounded like the background music to every single Starsky & Hutch episode. Some bright spark at the cinema must have decided that Didi Conn singing her little heart out was the perfect aperitif to Spider-Man, them both being American films and all.

Spider-Man was… alright. It starred a grown-up Von Trapp kid from The Sound of Music, who did a decent Peter Parker. And he looked OK in the red and blue costume, apart from the peculiar mirrored eyes. But, eh, I dunno. He didn’t say much as Spidey, and certainly didn’t make jokes as he swung around mocking the baddies, like in the comics. And the baddies themselves were just ordinary crooks in bad 70s suits. Oh, and three guys in black martial arts gear who chased him around with sticks. There were no proper supervillains with metal arms and goblin gliders and funky costumes. There was a bit of wall-crawling, which was pretty good for time (i.e. better than Adam West bent double in the Batman TV show), but the webbing looked rubbish, ranging from ‘flimsy gauze’ to ‘obvious thick nylon cord from my dad’s camping gear’.

But hey, it was Spider-Man, in an actual film. I couldn’t really complain. Surely this was just the start of all my favourite comics appearing on the big screen. Except, not so much. Of course there was blockbusting Superman the Movie the following year, and on TV we had The Incredible Hulk, now remembered more for its haunting end theme ‘The Lonely Man’, than for its less than super action (reputedly, the show’s low budget decreed that Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk could only make two appearances per show, presumably due to the now-forgotten ‘green body paint’ shortage of 1978).

But that was kind of it, barring the increasingly poor Superman sequels (I never recovered from the ill-conceived casting of Richard Pryor clowning around in Superman III, though strangely the sequence of that woman getting roboticized by the maniac computer at the end still haunts me). There was the disappointing Howard the Duck (1986) of which I can only remember the embarrassing song at the end, the rubbish Captain America (1990) featuring an Italian Red Skull, and of course Batman (1989), a film series that like Superman before it seemed to peak with its sequel and then go markedly downhill from there. Apart from three so-so Hulk TV movies featuring the ageing Ferrigno and Bill Bixby, that was pretty much it for Marvel at the movies.

Meanwhile, the world of actual comics was going through a renaissance with titles like Watchmen, the Dark Knight Returns, Secret Wars, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Elektra Lives Again, The Phoenix Saga in X-Men, Walt Simonson’s Thor, and the classic Masters of Evil storyline in the Avengers. Did we get any of that magic replicated on the big-screen? Did we - to misquote Pete Postlethwaite - bollocks. The closest thing to a Marvel movie at the time was a stop-motion Micronauts film I made with my dad’s super-8 cine camera using my Baron Karza action figure.

Fast forward to right now. As I type this, we are but five days away from the premiere of Avengers: Age of Ultron. And as with all Marvel movies since Spider-Man back in 1977, I just can’t wait. So no change there, but the difference this time is that I can reasonably sure that a) it won’t be mildly (or desperately) disappointing and that b) the rest of the cinema-going world might just agree with me. For this is the age of the Great Marvel Movie, or more specifically to lift a term from a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, the era where Marvel Can’t Fail.

Who’da thunk there’d be a time when Guardians of the Galaxy - an obscure spacegoing team comic from 1969, would be one of the most successful movies of 2014, both commercially, and amazingly, critically? Who’da thunk that Groot (a creature of wood that feeds on wood, to quote his villainous debut in Tales To Astonish, 1960) and Rocket freakin’ Raccoon would have become household names? I am Groot t-shirts? Kids dressing up as Rocket for Hallowe’en? What strange parallel world have I stumbled into, where ordinary folks know and care about characters that were once the secret specialist subject of only the uberest of geeks? Last Christmas I was even able to buy a crocheted Baby Groot pot plant. Strange Days.

You can draw a line tracing the slow but steady rise of the Great Marvel Movie, from Blade - coyly shy of its comic origins, through X-Men and X2 (we won’t speak of The Last Stand) with its Shakespearean heavyweights playing Xavier and Magneto, to Iron Man with its game changing post-credits sequence (‘I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative’) that paved the way for the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And how cool is that idea of the MCU? There’s never really been anything like it before. Linked movies, all inhabiting the same world. Not as a series of increasingly poor sequels, but a genuine shared (with the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy) universe with shared heroes and villains, and storylines that criss-cross from one movie to another, and even into Agents of SHIELD on TV. Imagine if United Artists back in the 60s had made a series of individual westerns starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson respectively, before bringing them all together in one movie called The Magnificent Seven Assemble. How cool would that have been?

What if you could travel back in time, say 20 years or more, and tell a comic fan - maybe your younger geek self - that there would come a time when there would be a movie of the Avengers and it wouldn’t suck? And they wouldn’t be fighting crooks in bad suits or ninjas with sticks, but proper supervillains and aliens and Loki and everything. And the Hulk wouldn't be throwing stuntmen into sugar glass one at a time but Punching Spaceships In The Face. And that there were plans afoot to do the Inhumans and Captain Marvel and even Iron Fist, for the love of Stan. Your younger self would think you mad.

It's funny. I sometimes feel a bit weird about comic movies being so successful, like now that everyone’s in on it, it’s not our secret guilty pleasure any more. If I can have a conversation at work with a 30-year old woman about the Kree tinkering with human DNA, then comics have most definitely gone mainstream. Which is cool, even though I do sometimes feel like Piggy in Lord of the Flies, shouting at everyone that I was here first, I was here when he found the conch (or in this case, Namor’s fabled Horn of Proteus).

Of course, like any neurotic True Believer, I worry about sequelitis and shark-jumping, with clunkers like the Fantastic Four films (Doom playing Marco Polo - ugh), Spider-Man 3 (emo-Pete’s dancing - wince), Wolverine: Origins (what they did to Deadpool - yecchh) and the duller episodes of Agents of SHIELD still fresh in comic-fans’ minds. But this is a great time to be a Marvel comics fan, when the term ‘superhero movie’ has become a genre in its own right, and shows like Daredevil and AKA Jessica Jones coming our way on TV.

I can only hope that the shark is still a way off, that there are more great movies to come (Alan Moore's Captain Britain, anyone?), and I wonder where the genre is going next. My eight-year old self and I can’t wait to see.