Neither a bird nor a plane — it’s a great Superman novel

I read the novel It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven not long after it came out, probably 15 or so years ago now. It’s, in part, Superman as historical fiction, placing the character in his original 1930s setting. Though I liked it the first time around, I figured I’d appreciate it more now, having read several nonfiction books about the period since then.

And I did, and not just for the historical detail.

The parts in Smallville feel like a cross between a Superman story and a John Steinbeck novel, which gradually transitions into old-school sci-fi, with a lower-powered, more vulnerable Superman battling robots.

This Clark Kent is young and awkward, feeling like the alien he is as he tries to figure out his place in the world. The novel repeatedly makes the point that while Clark isn’t stupid by any means, he’s not especially intelligent either.

That seemed to diminish him at first, but it does enhance the awkwardness and uncertainty the author is going for. This Superman hasn’t developed his confidence yet, and giving him a normal mind allows the character to retain plenty of vulnerability.

One criticism I keep seeing about Superman is that he’s too powerful—if nothing can hurt him, then why should we care? This overlooks the fact that there are many ways to hurt a character, and not all of them are physical. Plus, the aspirational appeal of Superman is that you’ve got this guy who can do virtually whatever he wants with his life … and he still chooses to help people.

Lex Luthor, by contrast, is highly intelligent and supremely confident, and he uses his skills for his own personal gain. While Clark tries to find his place among humanity, Lex prefers to distinguish himself from all of humanity.

Compare this description of Clark: “Finding people who are like him, even in the smallest ways, is always a comfort. It’s stupid, he knows, but it’s always some comfort.”

And this line of dialogue from Lex: “ ‘I don’t discriminate, Carl. All human beings are the same to me.’ ”

There have been various takes on Superman over the past 80+ years. In some, he’s Superman first and foremost while Clark Kent is little more than a disguise. In others, he’s Clark Kent first and foremost while Superman is simply the way he chooses to use his gifts to serve the world. I prefer the latter approach, which is the approach It’s Superman! takes.

This novel would fit in well in DC’s Elseworlds line. It should not be seen as the definitive take on the character. But as a way of fleshing out the version that appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and giving that Superman a detailed backstory, it’s excellent.

Taking Superman to the next level — parenthood

I’m happy to see the new TV series Superman & Lois is taking a cue from my favorite recent run of Superman comics.

Launching under the DC Universe Rebirth banner, this series took Superman to the next level—not in terms of epic storylines, a bold new tone, or even overall quality. For Superman, the next logical level was parenthood.

The series followed Superman and Lois Lane as they raised a 10-year-old super-son, trying to impart on young Jon Kent the same values that Jonathan and Martha Kent had imparted on young Clark back in the day.

It fit what Superman is all about, and it put Lois and Clark in a new status quo that suited both of them. We saw that even after eight decades, you can still do something fresh with Superman without betraying the character’s core premise. Not every issue was a winner, but the run as a whole was a lot of fun.

Superman & Lois isn’t copying the comic—they’ve got two teenage sons in the TV show—but it is recapturing the family dynamic to differentiate this Superman from his previous TV and movie incarnations.

I also appreciate that, even though it’s on the CW, it’s not following the same formula as the previous CW superhero shows. I enjoyed the early seasons of Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl, but it is time for a fresh approach. Based on the first episode, Superman & Lois is on the right track, and its own track.

WandaVision: A perfectly strange marriage of superheroes and sitcoms

I’m enjoying WandaVision for a host of reasons, and I especially appreciate what it demonstrates about superhero storytelling.

Superheroes can work in any medium, and different mediums can open up new possibilities. It’s a versatile genre, and embracing that versatility is to its (and our) benefit.

WandaVision is not the first excellent superhero television series. Among others, Daredevil was at times amazing, and I’ve been loving Doom Patrol so far. But WandaVision might be the first that can only be a television series (or streaming series).

The sitcom gimmick isn’t just a gimmick, nor is it parody. It’s occasionally adjacent to parody while always being a distinct entity. The series is playing with different tropes than superhero comics or movies get to play with, and it’s employing those tropes to show what Wanda is going through.

And it doesn’t dispense with all comic book tropes in the process. The series remains part of a previously established shared universe, building on years of stories and pulling together various characters from various sources. The plot incorporates elements from older comic book stories, but it’s all structured in such an original way that it stands on its own as something new.

WandaVision is a strange, fascinating marriage of superhero tropes and sitcom tropes, uniting them in innovative ways to offer something fresh for comic book readers and television viewers alike.

Morning Writing vs. Evening Writing: A Duel

When is the perfect time to write?

Trick question. But while there’s no perfect time, different parts of the day do have different advantages. I’ve tried many, and I’ve gone back and forth on which one feels best for me overall.

Morning writing looks best on paper. Just get up and get to work, before the daily concerns of life can derail your creative process. Wake up with a shower, eat a decent breakfast, and sit down at the computer with a clear, fresh mind. Knock out several pages, then tend to the rest of the day secure in the knowledge that you’ve already accomplished some solid writing.

But it doesn’t always go that smoothly, at least not in my case. I have a day job, so in order to give myself sufficient writing time, I would have to wake up around 5:30 a.m. or so. I tried that for a while. Some mornings went well. Others got off to a sluggish start, and by the time I was starting to build some decent momentum, it was time to stop and shift to my other work day. Then, after work, I was often so tired that I’d crash by about 9-9:30.

On the plus side, I got some of the best sleep of my life. But I’m really not wired to be a morning person. It’s nice to know that I can get myself up super-early on occasion, if the need arises, but it wasn’t optimal use of my time or energy levels.

Evening writing is a riskier affair. The pessimistic view is that you’re putting writing at the mercy of how the day went. A rough day can wreck the night, and there’s increased temptation to drink too much caffeine too late in the day. I’m certainly guilty of letting myself get derailed for a variety of reasons, but it’s always ultimately my own fault. When I focus on the key advantage of night writing, the results are much better.

That key advantage: I’ve already done absolutely everything else I needed to do that day. All other commitments are cleared out, and the book becomes the only thing I need to focus on.

This usually gets me a longer stretch of writing time compared to trying to cram in some morning writing. I’ll finish my day job, take a dinner break, read for an hour or so, and then there’s still plenty of night left for writing.

I can sneak some additional work in other parts of the day. An unfocused morning can still yield some productive brainstorming, and afternoons (on my days off, at least) are sometimes good for editing. But those are simply nice bonuses. For me, in my subjective experience, nights are when the best work tends to happen.

Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever tried writing at 3 a.m. Maybe that’s the top-secret perfect writing time?

The Untouchable MC Hammer

I was thinking about MC Hammer the other day. Not voluntarily, of course. One does not call Hammer time; one simply answers the call.

In MC Hammer, we have a man grappling with the conundrum of his own existence. He fashions himself with a name that implies hard-hitting physical contact, then announces to the world that you cannot touch this. He poses the rhetorical question, “Why would I ever stop doing this?” And then he answers it, structuring an entire song around the insistence that he is “too legit to quit.”

The existential anguish is unmistakable. He cries out for his own legitimacy, employing repetitious lyrics to hammer (if you will) the intangible point.

Around the same time, in his animated series Hammerman, he even goes so far as to transform his likeness into a cartoon, stripping himself of an entire dimension of being to see what remains. It’s as if he implicitly understands he should not exist as he is, and yet exist he does.

Through everything, he overcomes the self-imposed adversity of his own baggy pants and he keeps dancing, becoming the ultimate paradox: a one-hit wonder with multiple hits.

MC Hammer at once makes no sense and perfect sense.

But does the rapper protest too much? How could he do otherwise?

I think there’s a little MC Hammer inside each and every one of us.

Muppets aren’t supposed to focus on ‘Now’

Muppets Now premiered on Disney+ July 31, and of course I had to check it out. Unfortunately, something about it felt off.

I appreciate the intent, and it certainly comes closer to the mark than the misconceived Muppet series on ABC a few years ago. But it’s just weird to watch the Muppets stringing together what’s essentially a collection of YouTube videos.

At first, it struck me as anachronistic. Perhaps the Muppets simply belong in the ’70s and ’80s.

But that’s not it. The Muppets are supposed to be theater folk, always just barely pulling together a show in a specific, solid place. A theater not only gives them a home, but it also makes them timeless.

A streaming-based show feels very current year. A theater-based show can be any and every year. The only thing dating a Muppet show should be the very special guest star. Kermit singing “Happy Feet” on the original Muppet Show entertained me in the ’80s, and I’ll never forget my oldest niece cracking up at the same sketch circa 2013.

Muppets are ageless, and in a way, they almost exist outside of time. Muppets Now has potential, but I’d rather they stick to the formula of the original series and aim for another timeless classic.

Speaking of The Muppet Show, why isn’t that on Disney+? And why didn’t the fourth and fifth seasons ever come out on DVD? The world needs classic Muppets.

Watching Disney’s earliest movies for the first time

I watched the earliest Disney movies recently. I was curious from the historical perspective, particularly after having read the excellent biography of Walt Disney by Neal Gabler. I’m about to spoil these movies, but you’ve had eight decades to watch them.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): Walt’s labor of love, and a movie with massive cross-generational appeal when it was released. The animation is indeed superb, but I couldn’t get into the story, perhaps because Snow White never really triumphs at all. The last thing she chooses to do is bite into the poison apple. She doesn’t save herself. She never defeats the evil queen.

There’s really no reason for the queen’s failure. What are the odds that lightning would strike at exactly that wrong spot at exactly that wrong time? Or that seven dwarfs would want to look at a dead girl for several months instead of burying her? Or that Prince Charming would want to kiss a girl who’s been dead for that long? Some evil queens have all the worst luck.

Pinocchio (1940): This movie was far less successful during its initial release, but I found it to be more interesting than its predecessor. It’s incredibly dark at times. That Pleasure Island scene is a horror movie within a children’s movie. All those boys turn into donkeys and never turn back. They clearly know what they’ve become and retain the knowledge of who they were, but it’s too late, and they’re sold to perform slave labor for the rest of their lives. The movie has multiple villains, and none are brought to justice. As Pinocchio gets his happy ending, they’re all still out there, looking for their next victims. All I could think of was the catchphrase of Melisandre from Game of Thrones: “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

And let’s not overlook Pinocchio’s death. He dies even more thoroughly than Snow White did. Though he can breathe at the bottom of the ocean, he’s evidently unable to breathe at the top, so he drowns to his death. We see him face-down in the water, dead. He’s eventually reborn better than ever, of course, but he has to literally die to become a real boy.

Earlier, we also see him getting high off a cigar. This movie pulls no punches. The kids of the ’40s were a hardy lot, and adults clearly didn’t bother hiding the fact that the night is dark and full of terrors.

Fantasia (1940): The perfect movie to have on in the background as you’re doing something else. Though an interesting experiment, it’s no wonder the format never caught on, and it’s no surprise that the best segment is the one with the strongest narrative. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is excellent. The rest varies.

Dumbo (1941): Dumbo is an even more passive protagonist than Snow White (if you can even call either of them protagonists). Other characters shun and humiliate him, and he just takes it. His mother sticks up for him, and she gets locked up for it. His mouse friend hypnotizes the ringleader into giving him a chance, but Dumbo is too hesitant to properly seize the opportunity given to him.

Poor Dumbo is trapped in a downward spiral until he accidentally drinks a lot of alcohol and wakes up in a tree, leading to the realization that he can fly. Then, like Spider-Man before Uncle Ben’s murder, Dumbo uses his super-power to pursue fame and fortune. The End.

It’s an odd movie. Pinocchio’s journey had a clear purpose—to teach kids life lessons through metaphor (and perhaps scare them straight). Cigars nearly make a jackass out of Pinocchio. Alcohol leads Dumbo to a breakthrough of self-discovery. The message is supposed to be about believing in yourself, but there had to be better ways to get there.

Also, Disney+ warns that the movie “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” “May”? Are they on the fence about the roustabouts and crows?

A Qualified Defense of Fuller House

Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.

I intended to watch only the first episode of Fuller House, treat it as a reunion special, and stop there. But the unexpected happened—whenever one episode finished, I found myself clicking on the next one.

Why? It’s not good. Critically speaking, this Full House sequel/spinoff is a bad show. It’s cheesy and predictable, loaded with unsubtle “wink wink, nudge nudge” references to its late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday, not loaded with any kind of original comedic style, and occasionally downright dumb. (There’s a wrestling episode whose climax is the height of ridiculous stupidity, or perhaps “nadir” is the more appropriate term.) The show’s 31 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes comes as no surprise…and yet, neither does its 81 percent audience approval rating on the same website.

fuller-house-01Despite Fuller House’s legion of faults, it’s actually kind of nice. It’s the television equivalent of catching up with old friends you haven’t seen since grade school. Sure, on the surface level, you’ve grown apart during the intervening decades, but you’re still peers with a shared history that leads to a sort of unconditional acceptance. A new show with new characters could never get away with all these flaws.

If the show chose to focus on the original adults, then this probably would have felt like nothing more than a cheap rehash, and it would have gotten old very quickly. From what we see, none of them have changed since the ‘90s. Danny’s still got a clean streak. Jesse’s still vain. And Joey’s still clinging to his man-childness.

But the focus wisely shifts to the girls who have grown up since the original series. Yes, it’s absolutely contrived that the premise is a gender-reversed version of the original show, with recent widow D.J. raising three boys with the help of sister Stephanie and best friend Kimmy, and yet it feels appropriate, even without youngest sister Michelle. (I certainly can’t blame the Olsen twins for not wanting to re-utter their old catchphrases that pre-date their memories. The show has a little too much fun picking on them about it, though.) Continue reading

Doctor Who Series 9 Ranked From Worst To Best

(Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.)

SPOILERS ahead.

My previous ranking of every modern Doctor Who episode had become out of date…until now. Series 9 wrapped up earlier this month, and this year’s Christmas special was the last new episode until probably next fall. Time for an update.

I’ve inserted the new episodes into the overall worst-to-best rankings, which debuted in four parts early this year:

I’m Sorry, I’m So Sorry

Are These Good Episodes?

These Episodes Are Cool

Fantastic!

But if you just want to focus on the newest season, I’m including the Series 9–only list below (same text I’m inserting into the full list). Note that this was a more serialized season than previous years. It featured a mix of conventional two-parters (The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion) and episodes that directly continued into each other while each maintaining its own flavor (The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent). The episodes in the latter category are separately ranked because their different flavors merit individual attention.

This was an excellent season on the whole, a big improvement over the past few years, with no real clunkers in the mix. But, as always, some are better than others.

Again, SPOILERS!

Continue reading

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Worst to Best

Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.

The Internet clearly doesn’t have enough lists, so here’s another.

Many have attempted to rank the movies comprising the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fewer have dared to add the four complete seasons of MCU television and Netflix series into the equation. I shall somehow rise to this challenge to ensure the Internet does not experience a shortage of lists. This was not easy, Internet. I swear, the top six were all neck-and-neck, and it came down to a photo-finish.

This ranking is from worst to best, not horrible to great. I’ve enjoyed all of these to varying extents, and the “varying” is what I’m measuring. None are bad. Conversely, none are works of towering artistic genius either. But it’s all damn fine entertainment worth revisiting.

SPOILERS ahead.

So, with that warning out of the way…

Here…we…go! Continue reading