Category Archives: Books and Films

Superheroes on Screen

Superheroes have transitioned from the pages of comics to the screen with varying degrees of success. Heroes from the DC universe have long been animated extremely well. The bar was set almost insurmountably high back in the 1940’s with the peerless Superman cartoon shorts by Max Fleischer. Television shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League (Unlimited) established an extremely high level of excellence that was carried into many well-crafted animated movies like Justice League: The New Frontier and Wonder Woman.

In live action, however, DC heroes have tended to disappoint or even embarrass. Although there are still folk who look fondly upon the old Batman and Superman movie franchises, that fondness is mostly just nostalgia. More recently, even Amy Adams could not breathe any life into Man of Steel and it fell upon stoic and dull Russell Crowe to offer something resembling an engaging performance. And do you even remember there was a movie called Superman Returns? I personally didn’t think Green Lantern deserved such hate, but hardly anyone agrees with me so I cannot claim it as an exception to this dismal track record. The current Arrow series is a tedious soap opera. Perhaps the best live action DC series was Smallville and that was mostly about Clark Kent.

Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, but even there I have real problems with how Batman was portrayed. Only in a few scenes does he appear as the frighteningly agile creature of the night that most fans expect. Rather he is generally depicted as a stiff, plodding, lumbering version of Iron Man (except considerably less able to avoid a slowly telegraphed punch).

There is shining beacon of hope however. The recent Flash television series is an excitingly refreshing work of love that pays due homage to the very respectable 1980’s series and to the essential nature of the character. It’s absolutely great and I only hope the upcoming Supergirl series will be half as endearing and faithful to its heroine.

We could go on and on about DC, but now let us turn to the Marvel universe. They are the mirror image of DC with fantastic live action and underwhelming animated efforts. With the exception of X-Men: The Animated Series which was pretty decent, their animated series and movies have been poorly animated junk food. However their live action movies, and yes I’m even including the Fantastic Four series which I alone seem to have loved, are generally well – fantastic.

True, Marvel admittedly has produced a few flicks we’d like to conveniently forget – I’m looking at you Daredevil, Elektra, and Hulk – but the truly great Marvel live action movies are too numerous to name, right up to Guardians of the Galaxy (which could have easily been quite ridiculous), Iron Man, Thor, Cap, and Avengers.

Last but definitely not least, the new Daredevil series on Netflix deserves very special recognition. This show is the best thing I’ve seen in …, well the best thing I’ve seen period. It literally draws you into the sweltering, seedy urban jungle of Hell’s Kitchen and makes you believe a blind man can be an actual superhero. The supporting performances are compelling, particularly by Deborah Ann Woll and Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin. And the brutal, exhausting, cringe-inducing fighting sequences are affectionately choreographed by brilliant students of the art.

I urge you to check out this link that analyzes one particularly memorable but representative fight scene from Daredevil. This single shot in Daredevil is the best fight scene in years (view here).

DaredevilDespite a sporadic history in both comic universes, I look forward to a lot more great Marvel movies and I remain hopeful that DC will eventually find their mojo. On television, DC’s Flash and Marvel’s Daredevil encourage me that the superhero genre will thrive in episodic live action by offering complex story lines that movies cannot match in richly crafted settings that exquisitely complement the tone and style of each uniquely individual hero, heroine, or team.

The Atheist Monster in Penny Dreadful

Vanessa speaks with John

Vanessa speaks with John

I’d like to share a powerful scene from a recent episode of Penny Dreadful, aired on Showtime on Mother’s Day.

Seeking a measure of solace from her struggles, Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) has come to volunteer in a cavernous underground serving as a makeshift cholera ward “in the shadow of so much wealth such suffering” of 19th century London.

There she encounters a horrendously scarred man named John Clare (played by Rory Kinnear). Not incidentally but as yet unknown to Vanessa, John is also the sensitive and articulate “monster” reanimated by the Doctor Frankenstein character in the show.

She notices John reading off in an alcove by himself. Intrigued, she approaches him. After an offer of soup and some preliminary introductions, Vanessa sits next to him.

“They make me nervous,” she confides, nodding toward a woman in a habit. “The nuns.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I was raised in the faith,” she admits. “It was arduous for me.”

“Have you religion?” she asks, changing the subject tangentially.

“Are you offering it?” John counters.

“Do you require it?” she answers with another question, smiling warmly.

“I never have,” he replies.

“Then I shan’t offer,” she reassures him. “And I would be a poor advocate. The Almighty and I have a challenging past. I’m not sure we’re speaking these days.”

A laugh comes awkwardly upon John as he returns a confidence. “I read the Bible when I was younger. But then I discovered Wordsworth. And then the old platitudes and parables seemed anemic, even unnecessary.”

“Mr. Wordsworth has a lot to answer for then,” she teases.

Summoning up deeply considered but rarely spoken words, John elaborates. “The glory of life surmounts the fear of death. Good Christians fear hellfire. So to avoid it, they are kind to their fellow man. Good pagans do not have this fear, so they can be who they are. Good or ill, as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we’re accountable to no one but each other.”

“That’s a profound responsibility,” Miss Ives replies.

“And why you do this, no doubt” he asks, “helping those in need?”

“I came here for selfish reasons,” she confesses. “Do you truly not believe in heaven?”

John’s shy self-consciousness is replaced by a joyful radiance. “I believe in this world. And those creatures that fill it. That’s always been enough for me. Look around you – sacred mysteries at every turn.”

“But no exaltation in life beyond this?” Vanessa challenges, seeking confirmation.

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour,” John responds, paraphrasing William Blake’s “To See A World…”

Vanessa looks a bit sad, “With respect to Blake, I see no wildflowers here, only pain and suffering.”

“Then you need to look closer,” John tells her with compelling certainty.

The conversation is interrupted when Vanessa is called away by a nun who casts a disapproving glance at John.

“Thank you for the soup,” he says.

“Thank you for the conversation,” she answers as she takes her leave. And then, pausing to look back, she adds, “You have beautiful eyes.”

I will not attempt to do a deep analysis of this scene. It is so rich with poetic humanist themes that it is best to let every reader take from it what they will. But I will point out how notable this treatment of humanist ideas is, not only in today’s mass media, but in the context of a show in which demons and by inference god are undeniable realities. It suggests that “even if” god were real, there would still be merit in a purely humanist worldview.

It is certainly not an accident that John, shunned as a monster by his society, was chosen to represent the atheist-humanist character in the show. Of more subtle symbolism is that he is undeniably the product of purely human manufacture. Certainly he was not endowed with a soul by his human creator. Yet he is uniquely passionate and thoughtful with an incredibly “soulful” sense of awe and empathy.

On the other side, Vanessa’s deep faith and powerful mysticism have only left her in desperate need of the comfort and inspiring humanist perspectives offered by this apparent monster.