Friday, August 1, 2014

Diversity in Comics

In the last few days, Marvel announced two major shifts in their universe. Thor is now a woman; Steve Rogers—Captain America—has be de-powered and replaced by Sam Wilson, an African American. These two acts are the latest in a recent trend in the comics industry to add more diversity to their many lines. The results have been mixed and we’ll explore these attempts here.

So Thor is now a woman and Captain America is black. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about either decision. On a story level, shakeups like these—replacing an established hero with someone else—is nothing new in comics. In-world, Cap’s case is more than understandable. Sam Wilson is Cap’s best friend and has years of superheroing experience as The Falcon. Marvel is going for something meaningful with this: Captain America—an iconic representative of the United States in comics and in the real world is now black. Therein, yes, it sounds special and momentous. It isn’t, however. Not really, anyway. Marvel wants to portray an ethnically diverse universe, and that’s fine. All that takes is time. Falcon is a long-lived well established character whose popularity has grown larger thanks to his appearance in Captain America 2. While he doesn’t have name recognition the way Cap does, the best way (read: the honest way) would be to raise the profile of the character by featuring him in the Avengers title or giving him his own mini or on-going series. No, it’s not flashy and quick but at least it has creative integrity.

Meanwhile, the monolithic Thor has also been de-powered and to be replaced by a new character, a female. (Thor is a name, not a title so I’m confused why she’s also called Thor now but that’s beside the point.) In a number of ways, this makes sense. Second to Wonder Woman, there are no characters besides Thor with a stranger or more confusing continuity. Sometimes it is just best to wipe the slate clean. Seeing a female Thor called Thor is an interesting concept. She isn’t Lady Thor: Mistress of Thunder, but simply Thor: God of Thunder. There is something special in that.

Again, this could be momentous. Two of the biggest names in the Avengers are being replaced to add more diversity. As stories, they very well could be compelling.

The only problem is the condescension and laziness inherent in this move.

Comics are an Ouroboros, cycling over and over again with no change and no ending. Invariably, the dead always rise to reclaim their former titles like toys being placed back in the box, and will be replaced again once sales lag a bit. There is nothing special about these changes to Thor or Captain America because it’s extremely temporary. Sam Wilson is actually the seventh person to wield the shield; Thor writer Jason Aaron has already said that he’s replaced the common Thor for “a little while.” This is a shortcut to success and an insult to fans’ intelligence. Sam Wilson will be Falcon again within two years; this new Thor will be de-powered or relegated to another section of the Marvel universe within the same time frame.

Both Marvel and DC want to be lauded for the progressive ideas and diverse casts, but neither are willing to take the slow road to get there. Rather than introducing a character—female or minority or whatever—and build them into something iconic, they’ll stamp something new onto an existing entity and commend themselves for such racial sensitivity.

Marvel has succeeded and failed in this before. Some of their major successes are in their X-Men line. The X-Men were meant to be a statement on race in America (though more recently that has understandably shifted to being a statement on homosexuality in America). The X-Men introduced Kitty Pryde in the early 1980s; she’s Jewish, though that was only one facet of the character. In more recent years, the X-Man Northstar married his longtime love, Kyle Jinadu; they were a gay and interracial couple. These were carefully orchestrated and original characters that were allowed to grow organically overtime. Their powers were their gimmicks, not their religion or sexual preference. Of course there was that awkward moment last year when mutant activist Havoc went on TV and decried a Senator for using the “M-word.” Thematically, I appreciate that, though the moment was a tad over-played.

Also in the X-Men lineup are Magneto and Charles Xavier. Magneto was a concentration camp survivor and Xavier was a paraplegic; two groups not often explored or represented in comics. Magneto now has his own title; Xavier has died and returned on numerous occasions and is currently dead. 

Now, things are about to get a little complicated. In Marvel there’s the primary universe (dubbed 616) and the “Ultimate” universe that was launched in 2000. The Ultimate line was in a different parallel reality and featured a then-modern rendition of all of Marvel’s characters. A few years ago, the Ultimate universe’s Spider-man was killed. Through coincidence and technobabble, a new Spider-man rose. Miles Morales who was black and Puerto Rican. It felt a little forced—not only did he have to be a minority but he had to be bi-racial from two minority groups—but he was fairly well written and actualized and over time became a compelling character in his own right. Then, the backstory came in. Despite his parents being educated and wealthy, apparently both his father and his uncle were former career criminals which somehow led to Miles getting his powers, and led to their deaths. 
Kamala Khan, the newest Ms. Marvel (not to be confused with the Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, X-Men’s Ms. Marvel or DC Comics’ Captain Marvel). She’s a Pakistani-American and a practicing Muslim, and was created by G. Willow Wilson (not to be confused with G. Gordon Liddy or G. Gordon Godfrey) who herself is a practicing Muslim. Kamala deals with life as a teen and a Muslim but keeps from getting preachy. The title itself is loads of fun and is cleverly written.

The only problem is the fact that she’s called Ms. Marvel. Rather than build the character up in her own right, Marvel took a quick fix and had her inherit another’s name—one of their few major female players—because Kamala’s hero is Carol Danvers. While this was a contrivance, Kamala doesn’t actually replace Carol Danvers who is still around and has her own adventures. It’s just confusing now that there are two of them. At the same time, giving Kamala the title forces her into a situation within the fandom where she can constantly be (and is) compared to Danvers, and undermines the ability of Kamala to stand on her own or be entirely accepted.   

At DC, Greg Rucka re-introduced Batwoman almost a decade ago, who had been missing from comics for roughly thirty years. Kate Kane was an out and proud Jewish lesbian. She lost her commission at West Point because of her sexual preferences, though that wasn’t part of her thinking in becoming a superhero. It was merely a character point (and a way to explain her combat expertise). Now, Kate Kane is a different Batwoman than the original Batwoman named Kathy Kane (oh, comics!) but, again, we’re given confusing origins and murky identities for the sake of headlines:

Ms. Marvel is a Muslim! Batwoman is gay!

DC’s own victories and losses are also as complicated. In 1972, DC added John Stewart to the Green Lantern corps; the first African American green lantern, one of the first African American superheroes to not have “black” or some derivation of that in his name, and the first to not be reduced to common stereotypes. He was an architect and former Marine, and in the early days his viewpoint as an African American was explored through a 70s lens. It still comes up from time to time, when it’s meaningful or relevant. Stewart grew in popularity over the years, appearing in the Justice League Animated Series, a handful of video games and currently leads his own title.

Along the way there were some missteps with African American characters.

I don't know, stupid, maybe because your armor is black for stealth purposes?

Oh, Geoff.

In the mid-90s, Cassandra Cain was introduced to the Batman-family. She was of mixed Asian descent, and was very popular. She became Batgirl for a while—which, like Thor and Captain America—didn’t stick. Fans were not pleased. In the New 52, the DC Comics reboot of their entire line, Cassandra was lost in the mix and hasn’t been heard from since before 2011. More recently, a new character called Batwing was introduced. Both were black—the first African, the second (and current) is African-American.

A few wins in their favor started in the late 90s with a series called The Authority which featured an eponymous team with members Midnighter and Apollo who were gay lovers. They were not stereotyped or exaggerated. They were emotionally stable people (rare for superheroes) and eventually adopted a daughter. Other gay characters were also introduced—Obsidian, Scandal Savage and Knockout. Gail Simone recently introduced DC’s first minority transgendered bi-sexual character in Yeoh (they sure do like piling on); Scott Snyder introduced the gay Cullen Row (though he’s had little to do); gay writer Marc Andreyko lauded Manhunter series featured several gay and lesbian characters; a new Teen Titan member named Bunker is an openly gay and widely accepted character (despite inconsistent writing from Scott Lobdell).  

Here, again, is where things get a little complex. As mentioned before, DC rebooted their line and dubbed it the New 52, a gimmick to create a jumping on point for new readers and boost sales. Some changes were controversial, some were pretty cool.

Starfire was turned from a warrior queen to a barely clothed nymph/warrior queen, Catwoman was relegated to little more than Batman’s paramour. Barbara Gordon who was crippled by the Joker suddenly walks again. So does Niles Caulder from Doom Patrol, so there are currently no major disabled characters in the Big Two anymore.

Elsewhere, Alan Scott was turned gay—a reference to his son Obsidian who no longer exists apparently. Cyborg, an African American superhero, was now made a founding member of the Justice League.

Attempts have been made to create original characters. Recently, Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz were added to the Green Lantern corps. This doesn’t really fall under the umbrella of what’s going on with Thor or Cap considering the corps are a large team of space-cops and already have five or six human characters of different backgrounds. The problem becomes how these characters were introduced.

Baz started out pretty well. The first issue he appeared began with a silent breakdown. As a boy, he watches the 9/11 terror attacks on television. He’s then the target of phobic school bullies, and as an adult, treated suspiciously because he’s a Muslim. Great! Interesting! Contemporary! Let’s see where this goes. Turns out, he’s not a terrorist but he is a career criminal and a noted car thief. Of course. Naturally. His sister works for the State Department, and we’re meant to take that as a gift, as if to say “See, we don’t believe all Muslims are terrorists!” However, Baz’s sister isn’t an important character. Baz is. And yes, he’s not a terrorist, but he is a criminal.

Jessica Cruz was introduced just a few months ago. When the ring finds her, she is shown to be a smart, capable and kick-ass lady. So, good on us. 

Helena Bertinelli (the former Huntress) had been absent since the New 52 began in September of 2011. She debuted again a few months ago as an African American character. So was Wally West. And here’s where things get more controversial.

DC didn’t go out looking for headlines in changing Helena’s race. It was treated quietly and with dignity, and felt strangely correct—like a matter of course. It’s like Beverly Katz in Hannibal being portrayed by Hettienne Park, a Korean. No noise was made by anybody, largely because it was done respectfully. You normally don’t see a Korean with the last name of Katz, and you don’t normally see a black person with the name of Bertinelli. Bi-racial children are simply of normal course and isn’t something to make a big deal out of.

But then there’s Wally West. 
Of course, sucks is in slang.

From 1986-2008, Wally West was the Flash. A freckle-faced ginger reminiscent of Jimmy Olsen or Archie Andrews if either had a backbone. The character was created in 1959 as Kid Flash, sidekick to Barry Allen’s Flash. After Barry’s death in 1986, Wally fulfilled the promise that legacy characters almost never do. He became the mentor. He replaced the old guy. For an entire generation reading the comics or watching the animated series—myself included—Wally West was our Flash. In the late 90s he married long-time girlfriend Linda Park (a Korean-American) and they had two kids—Barry and Iris. He was one of the few characters in comics to actually age and grow up (the only others that come to mind are Dick Grayson, Peter Parker and Donna Troy).

When DC launched the New 52, Wally was written out of continuity and Barry returned to the mantle. Once a dial tone bore, Barry suddenly had Wally’s humor and some of his tics; he was also given a number of Wally’s powers. Wally, himself, among fans, bloggers and comic-con attendees would haunt DC Comics higher-ups like Geoff Johns, Dan DiDio and Bob Harras with chants of “Where’s Wally?”

Well, Wally came back a few months ago as an African American street kid, tagging buildings in graffiti, dropping consonants and talking in slang as if to imbue him with some sort of urban sincerity, but is actually as contemporary as The Warriors and as tiringly demeaning as Uncle Ruckus. You see, like Miles Morales, Wally West must have some connection to criminal gang culture due to their race. They simply couldn’t be treated as any regular characters. In an attempt to make them more gritty or realistic or whatever keyword Marvel or DC like to throw around to make more sales. The point, maybe is to portray these characters as something youths—minority or not—could identify with. Rather than set an example, in both cases, the point was to jump up and down and scream “Look, look we have black characters and they’re really black!” but that isn’t representative. It’s condescending, hacky and shows both the creative bankruptcy and how out of touch these companies are. Progress isn’t depicting more black criminals, but by having more characters who are treated and act like regular people.

I think had DC handled Wally differently, the backlash from fans and special interest groups would not have been so severe. If Helena’s change had been met with a semi-annoyed shrug but a nod of understanding, Wally’s was met with a deep, rancid bile. While we do live nowadays in a knee-jerk society, prone to outrage just to feel important, I kinda understand this one. Critics have dubbed the change offensive and unnecessary (apparently black people don’t need a black Flash to like the character!). Mostly, they ask the question: If you wanted to create a Flash that was black why not just make a new character?

Because it’s supposed to look like retroactive progressivism. Instead, it’s obsequious pandering to an audience you might lose by trying too hard to make them stay.    


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moments You Find in Frank Miller Stories, Volume 1

1--A sleazy anti-hero talking to a femme-fatale.
FF: "You could really use a shower."
Sleazy anti-hero turns to her, his face half-covered in darkness.
SA-H: "Yeah. A shower of bullets."

2--Superhero: "The rain falls on my shoulders like missiles of guilt on the building of my conscience."

3--Ex-Con: "There's BLOOD on me. Not all of it's MINE. Some of it's HIS. Enough to make me smile."

4--"Seeing the fire and inhaling the smoke of what used to be the Senator's empire now just a crumbling waste like the dreams of our parents watching what we've become is as close to heaven as I know I'll ever get."


6--"I go down HARD. There's blood in my throat and bits of molar. The CITY is starting to lose focus like it was being reflected in the black water that it's built on. I could die here, Christ knows I deserve it, but then I think about Suzy at home that she's the only good thing I've ever done and she shouldn't haveta live the way she does and that makes me just crazy enough to get up. I spit more blood than spit. 'That it, sissy?'"

7--Young Police Captain: "You can't do things like this. Justice isn't cracking a sap against some skel's head! Due process! Search and seizure! Warrants! Are these foreign concepts?"
Grizzled Detective: "Guess it ain't the good ol' days anymore."
Young Police Captain: "This isn't your world anymore, old man."
Grizzled Detective, pointing: "You Ivy League politicians with your greased hair and your bold ties. You have no idea how the world is. Just leave it to real men to solve all the problems."

8--World Weary Person: "Noir City. Steel and grit and crime. You're my habit, my mistress, my mother, my sister, my one true love. I breathe for you, I'll die for you."

9--Hard Boiled Individual: "For a second I hear the angels singing but it's just the sound of his bones breaking."

10--Barely legal prostitute and her cop boyfriend 35 years older than her.
Cop, (soliloquy): "She's young enough to be my daughter but I still keep coming here. The place reeks of booze. I don't know which one of us it is. She's like everything else in my life. Wrong. Her red lips break a smile. The kinda smile that makes a guy like me wonder what he did to deserve somethin' so perfect. I try not to think about how many times she's flashed that smile today or that she's probably just faking it to make an old man like me feel like I was worth it. I taste her and decide not to think that by midnight we'll both be dead. Aww hell, it might be love."

11--Dominatrix dealing with a client. He's a middle-management type with glasses, a short-sleeved dress shirt and tie. Probably a mustache also. 
Dominatrix, (soliloquy): Melvin here is a cuck that likes to TALK. He likes to tell me about his fat wife stepping out with the BLACK neighbor or his boss. I don't like Melvin like this. I like Melvin when he's TIED UP with his little pud hanging out. I like Melvin when I'm BEATING him the way life has. Oh, Melvin, you loser."

If you liked this you can also read my article Moments You Find in James Ellroy Stories Post 1990.
Note: The link just takes you back here. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Film Review: Man of Steel

And after six years, he rose again.
I was surprised by the immediacy of the backlash this movie received. The last time we had a Superman movie, it seemed it if movie goers were mostly positive in their reviews, only to sudden change their minds later on when it became cool to bash Superman Returns. This film, however, has received an extremely polarized reaction. Of course, I understand many of these complaints, and some of these changes weren't handled perfectly, but Man of Steel is an excellent comic book film despite its sometimes heady flaws.

This review is going to be structured differently than the usual ones, so bear with me, because I'm trying something new. However, as always, there are spoilers.

We'll start with the controversies.

1. Superman the thief: After saving the oil rig, Clark washes up on shore and steals clothes that are drying outside. People find this break of morality to be too much for them. Obviously he wasn't stealing from rich people. It was a ramshackle house, the people were working class. Fans complain that Superman isn't a badass or he's too squeaky clean. Suddenly he steals some clothes and now he's Hitler.

2. Jor-El dies well before Lara: Many people have the image in their minds of the original death of the El family on Krypton, watching their son's rocket fly into the distance, bracing each other as the world around them shits itself to death. The Man of Steel version is less sentimental and a bit of a plot contrivance, something that was done largely to create more conflict between Clark and Zod. A positive from it is that it's an early indication that what we'll be watching is going to be different from what we should expect in a Superman movie.

3. Lois knows that Superman is Clark Kent: This was a brilliant move. When Superman finally revealed his identity to Lois in the comics, the community at large basically said, "Well it only took her forty years." The fact is that Lois is supposed to be this great reporter, and she couldn't tell Clark Kent was Superman. It was always an inconsistency that undermined what we're told about Lois. Here, she figures it out quickly and by the movie's last scene decides to keep the secret with him. There is no waiting. It's something I wish the New 52 had done because it made Lois look incredibly competent and opens up new conflict for them to face in the sequel.

4. Pa Kent wants kids to die: This caught everyone since the trailer first premiered. Clark saves a bus full of children. Pa gets mad at him. Clark says, "What was I supposed to do? Let them die?" Pa replies, "Maybe." Admittedly, yes, this is far and away from the man we knew Pa Kent to be, but I loved the scene. Pa Kent wasn't acting like the usual Pa Kent, he was acting like any father who wants to protect their kid. It may not have been Pa Kent, but it was certainly more human.
5. Superman kills Zod: Due to Superman's steady moral compass, killing is something that he's said he'd never do. It's a cornerstone of his character, one of the things that even non-fans know about, so when he snaps Zod's neck like Lennie with a rabbit, many fans were disturbed, claiming it to be a total betrayal of the character and a spit in the face to his fanbase and to the character's history. The problem is that Superman has killed before. He killed the plot device Doomsday before keeling over and dying himself. More importantly, in 1988, in Superman 22 written by John Byrne (considered to be one of the definitive Superman writers), Superman uses green Kryptonite to kill Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora for committing a genocide. It's a moment where Superman doubted himself, and his regret over executing these mass murderers was something that carried over into every Superman story for the next year.

I had no problem with Superman killing Zod because of this. His desperate scream after it was over was telling: not only was he mourning the death of the last connection he had to his people, but he was forced to betray the principles Pa brought him up with. It's a significant moment because that's where he chooses to be a human being rather than a Kryptonian, but in choosing he also ends up sacrificing some of that humanity, and acting like the only Kryptonian he actually knows: Zod. It's a subtle bit of sad irony at work.

6. Jor-El can fight: Jor-El kicked Zod's ass a little despite the fact he's a scientist and we learn that on Krypton people are bred for specific social classes and sects. I don't mind Jor-El still being able to fight because for a couple of reasons. First, there's no one to say you can't learn to fight just because you're a scientist. Secondly, and please bear with me as I indulge myself, if you go back to Superman creator Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in naming Kal-El, the addition of "El" is a nod to Judaism where it is used as a name for God. Quite fitting for Superman. If you follow that Jewish trend to Israel you'll see that military service there is mandatory once you turn eighteen. So, maybe that's the explanation, a kind of thematic link, that Krypton has a same policy. Or maybe I'm over-thinking it. 

Moving on, Michael Shannon's General Exposition Zod stinks. This isn't just a knee jerk reaction because I grew up with Terance Stamp's perfect version of the character (and, honestly, the Reeve movies aren't that good anyway) but Man of Steel's Zod is a single dimensional hammy villain that only gives expository speeches or yells. Often, both at the same time. There isn't a sense of class or brilliance that the character usually has. He comes off as a cliche rather than a viable threat, whereas Faora, his second, either should have been the true villain in the movie or the model for what Zod should have been. She is calm and controlled, safe in the fact that her race is the superior one, and everything else is just an obstacle. She is a true-believer but doesn't need everyone to know. Those are the scary ones. Zod is a raving lunatic like Charles Manson. It's dull.

Man of Steel lacks structure. It often jumps around very suddenly to the point of being jarring--think Zod and Superman meeting in that psychic projection which suddenly has an explosion then--ahh, holy shit, ahh, violence, BAM BAM, sweet character scene, set-up scene, chara--oh no, it was a trick, 9/11 9/11, ahh, buildings--wait Perry White has an earring, what the hell is that?--YELLING YELLING (we heard you, dickhead), exposition exposition EXPOSITION, BOOM, SNAP, end. It's hard to say whose fault it is, whether it's in Goyer's script or it's director Zack Snyder who is known more for spectacle than for story. It's ironic that from the most positive to the most negative reviews all agree on one thing: the story of Clark Kent, the man, is much more interesting than the Superman. That isn't to say that the movie needed more goddamn origin work, but that we really were exploring the difficulties that Clark goes through very well. Superman is difficult to write because he's hard to identify with. By focusing on his inability to control his powers, adding angst because he doesn't fit in, the sense of isolation that adopted kids--and all people, really--end up feeling was the highlight of the film and a perfect lens to view his character. You could have easily cut down some of the action scenes or re-edited them to insert some more depth because the job being done to the character was excellent. But then, some things had to be explained in gruesome detail or something needed to be blown up. As much as character development should drive a story, you still need a story to glue it all together.

When you have a movie that's primarily an action experience, it would probably make the film look better if everything wasn't filtered in gray, making everything look bloodless, save for the extreme amount of lens flares--all of which were used to hide the fact that the film's budget couldn't match its ambition. Maybe then it's time reevaluate your position and instead focus on making the story the real draw: story should never supplement the action, action is supposed to supplement the story. You shouldn't put an exclamation point at the end of every word in a sentence. That said, the action itself is beautifully choreographed (outside of the occasional shakey-cam) if not always brilliantly rendered.

Now is as good a time as any to analyze Zack Snyder's role in Man of Steel. He's not particularly talented. He's never made a particularly good movie--his 4 hour cut of Watchmen is...okay, but as much as his affection for the comic was apparent on the screen, it never really felt like he understood the source material--while his other films 300, Sucker Punch and Dawn of the Dead emphasized style and movement over a serviceable plot with dynamic characters. Snyder is the type of love-or-hate director, so just by having him involved in this movie some people will automatically go in looking to hate it. He does indeed rein in his more obnoxious ticks--slow motion, fast motion, gore for no reason--likely under orders from Warner Bros. or Christopher Nolan; the action in Man of Steel (when the budget was on his side) is capable and exciting. If the film had a better budget he could have done an even better job as far as the look of the film goes.

Snyder has said that he wants to be the one to make Justice League. He's a DC guy the way Joss Whedon is a Marvel guy, which is certainly a good thing; he was slated to direct a Marvel movie when he vacated the position to take control of Superman. He said this in an interview recently:

“It’s Superman. If you get it right he’s kinda transcendent. The Superman shield is the second most recognisable symbol on planet Earth other than the Christian cross.”

“If you get it right, that’s the question you’ll be asking everyone else. That should be the question you’re asking Iron Man and Thor. How is it that you feel you can be making a superhero movie in a world where Superman and Batman exist?”

“They truly are purer archetypes…They’re literally Biblical. If you get the DC characters right, they can be important, they can be about us. It’s not just a romp [as with Marvel]. That’s the fun, for me, of working on this movie. We got that it was important. We weren’t apologising for Superman, which I feel has happened in the past. It’s Superman, for God’s sake. He’s a thing to be celebrated.”

Snyder won some points with me on this. He knows what he's talking about and he did set out to make a more contemplative movie (as DC's movies and comics tend to be), and while that goal was in certain places accomplished, other ideas never reached a full satisfying conclusion, most notably the reaction to Superman's killing of Zod. While the scream was evocative there didn't seem to be a long lasting impact on the character. We see him in the next scene quipping with a General.

By and large the film succeeds however, particularly in capturing the early Superman/Lois dynamic. They're cute together, almost playful but we're never really given an indication as to why they're attracted to each other because they don't really have all that many scenes together; Lois for her part doesn't have all that much to do in the story anyway.

Also, why use the Genesis Device World Engine to make Earth into Krypton. Here you have the powers of a god. Why make things unnecassarily hard on yourselves?


1-As I said, killing Zod was controversial but the right course of action. After the death we could see the world reacting not only to Superman but to his public execution. We see fear and paranoia, etc. It would also help explain the spy satellite. As a proper epilogue, we should see Clark sitting at Pa Kent's grave trying to work out this mix of emotions he's felt, wondering if he should use his powers, if he deserves this gift because of the murder. He should be seen doubting like in the image below. It's only when Lois or Ma come up to him and put things in perspective does he understand that he is meant to show humanity the way and he wants to, but he realizes he needs to be as worthy of humanity as they are of him.

2-Better writing for Zod. Rather than have Jor-El spoil Zod's role as a bad guy, have Zod's group befriend Kal-El, show him what Krypton used to be. Make Zod a kind of father figure to Kal before the eventual falling out and fight. Betrayal is bad enough but when it's someone who has cared for you, someone who represents the last vestige of your identity, it makes for a better audience reaction, a more emotional conflict, and a better story. It's as Lord Byron said, "There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away."

3-Instead of having General Zilch, make him General Sam Lane, Lois' father. He's always hated Superman, and by using him here it would make more sense that Lois has all this military access and can create more conflict when he sees her attraction to Superman and when Zod wants her beamed up to the mothership with him.

When Supes took a life, as penance he exposed himself to a minor to yellow Kryptonite, which made him lose his powers for good.

4-More references to DC characters: I really don't know if this was a fault with the movie or with the studio, but it's a problem anyway. While it was nice to reference Wayne Industries, LexCorp, Supergirl (the one empty pod on the arctic ship), and Booster Gold (Blaze Comics Shop), there was a perfect opportunity to have Hal Jordan as one of the fighter pilots. This would answer whether or not (hopefully not) Ryan Reynolds is returning to the role, and adds a beloved character as an easter egg. When Superman was learning to fly, we could have seen Paradise Island, with Wonder Woman looking up to the sky and seeing him, only to be called to by someone off-screen.

5-Have the computer program on Zod's ship be called "Brainiac."

6-Clark should have, in his travels, been an independent reporter like he was in Mark Waid's Birthright, it would have made more sense the he was able to get a job with the Daily Planet that way.

7- While many have complained about the death of Pa Kent, I understood it. He didn't want Clark to use his abilities and reveal himself to so many strangers, I would have made an alteration. Rather than have Pa go back out there and die trying to save his idiot dog who got killed anyway, it should have been a live person. I have a theory that the reason it was meant to be a child, but the studio didn't want to do that because, you know, kids will be watching this movie and parents upon hearing that a kid was killed in a Superman movie, wouldn't take their kids to see it. So, just make it a person. Doesn't have to be a kid.

8-We learn in such definitive Superman stories as Birthright and All Star Superman that part of why Superman has a respect for all life is that he does see the particles of creation, to the point where he sees how everything is connected, and that each living thing has an aura, all different indescribable colors. It's a nice character moment where we see how important all life is to him.

"Welcome to Urrf."
9-Stronger focus on the supporting cast. One of the issues that the film suffers from is its dead on arrival supporting cast. Unfortunately, despite boasting a small but intimate group of friends in the comics, Man of Steel decides to make Clark a loner. Now, this does make he film work on an important level, focusing on the outcast concept, but everyone outside of Clark is essentially a glorified extra. Childhood friends like Lana Lang and Pete Ross are given the slightest reference (poor Pete was a senator then Vice President in the comics and a product placement IHOP greeter in the movie); Perry White is equivalent to Jim Gordon in the way that he's too good a reporter not to know that Clark is Superman but keeps it quiet for the sake of all; Amy Adams is a excellent and intrepid Lois Lane but is not given the room to be more than a love interest; Goyer and Snyder go through the trouble of pulling a gender-bender in Jimmy/Jenny Olsen only for the character to be unimportant.

While having all these people around Clark would negate the excellent sense of isolation Clark feels, there's no reason that the Daily Planet staff couldn't have been developed more on their own working together covering Superman's first appearances (rather than just launch Superman into the forefront in a multi-city leveling fiasco) and together figuring out how to handle the fact that aliens ow walk among us. They're in the position to provide the single largest piece of news in human history but the weight of that isn't there.  

I know it looks like I'm shitting on this movie despite saying I enjoyed it, but I really did. While it does need to thank Star Trek, Star Wars, Mass Effect, War of the Worlds and Independence Day for quite some of its ideas or designs, this movie was unlike any Superman movie before it just for the fact that it was able (willing?) to embrace a sci-fi style that's already built into the character.

Khalid Zod Mohammed
A new angle that the film well achieves is the grit that DC Comics is known for. This isn't a particularly happy movie, a rare occurrence with Superman. The socially relevant post-9/11 feel that was injected into aspects of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises returns here in the form of Jor-El mentioning the fall of Krypton was its desire to expand too far outward and its using up of natural resources; the military is using satellites and drones to spy and kill; white collar people running for their lives as skyscrapers crumble and an extreme amount of dust and debris escape the wreckage. The point of the bleakness is for Superman to have a greater challenge, and a harder journey to bring humanity into the light with him.

Superman's powers are given a bit of a needed overhaul. He's unaccustomed to his powers in this movie which causes him issues, his flight is once again based on the lighter gravity on earth, his abilities are due not only to the sun but the particular nutrients and particles found on earth. Plus he's not nearly as strong or invulnerable (the high caliber bullets from a helicopter hurt him) as he used to be. Freeze breath is apparently gone (thank you) and his heat vision is not only more vicious but actually hurts Superman and other Kryptonians to use. It's the little things like that that add a sense of reality to an unreal scenario.

One of the best decisions made in the movie, besides showing us Superman's new physical and emotional vulnerabilities, was the decision to show us Clark's cleverness and intelligence. Too often we've heard from non-fans that Superman is just a powerful idiot, an idea made popular in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight Strikes Again and unfortunately used also by some writers in the 90s and early part of the decade. All Star Superman, Grant Morrison's Action Comics, John Byrne's Superman, and Mark Waid's Birthright have all done much in undoing the damage Miller did to the character in making him a rube, and in Man of Steel Superman's biggest victories are achieved by using his intelligence (coming up with the Phantom drive bomb and damaging Zod's helmet when he saw he couldn't best him in a straight fight) and by being able to engender and earn the trust of the American military, which, wonderfully, has not been entirely earned by film's end while "I'm from Kansas, I'm as American as it gets" is a great line because it hearkens back to the premise of Truth, Justice, and the American Way aspect of the character that has been effectively removed from Superman in recent years in order to make Superman into a citizen of the world superhero (ugh).

My favorite addition to Superman in Man of Steel (that isn't a plot point) is the symbolism--placed with a hammer rather than a scalpel--relates back to the earlier mention of "El" meaning God, which, Clark is a Christ-like figure, and that his story is meant to be, in some place more than others, analogous to Christ's. This is not exactly most people's favorite interpretation of who Superman is meant to be, though this sort of thing has cropped up in a few comics, as well as a number of non-fiction books and papers, and even referenced in Superman Returns.

Man of Steel takes a more direct approach in showcasing this Superman-Christ connection. We first see it after Superman fails to fly the first time. He finds his footing again and before he tries again we see Superman pause and concentrate. His head gets turned upward and he closes his eyes meditatively (and rather Biblically) before exploding off the ground--the first man to fly, Superman's first miracle.

After, Zod demands humanity to turn Kal-El over to him. Suffering a bit of a crisis, he turns to the church--the Kents are Methodists--and asks the local priest for some advice. During their conversation, we not only see morning light form a halo around Kal-El's head, but as the camera switches angles we see that he is surrounded by bright church glass depicting different stories of Christ's journey and his miracles. Later, as he heads to the military base to turn himself in, the soldiers and MPs all crowd and look up to see Superman levitating in the air almost exactly as in the famous painting of Jesus Christ. While in space, he strikes an exhausted pose clearly channeling the crucifixion (Superman Returns had a similar shot), and depending on you look at, this is either the most subtle or the most obvious analogue, when it is revealed that Clark is 33 years old, the same age that Christ lived to be.

The references to the son of God (it certain doesn't help when he's referred to as the "son of El") was one that never bothered me because, as Zack Snyder said in that interview, the DC characters, Superman in particular, are biblical, mythic. Older countries have devised their own myths, Grecian, Roman, Norse, etc., and America is too new a country to have something as culturally signifcant--outside of the superhero; when you stand back from it, there is an undeniable connection between the mythologies of old and the comic book superheroes that have existed since the 1920s. All of these myths are about larger than life characters that follow either a specific archetypal role that can range from being very basic to very complex. The stories are passed down through generations with alterations to some of those original stories, new ones being added, and tweaked little by little over time to something wholly different but still undeniably identifiable.

Thor, Hercules, Achilles, Samson, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Othello; Jörmungandr, Hera, Agamemnon, The Philistines, Humbaba, Ishtar, Iago.

Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin; Lex Luthor, Apollo, Joker, Deathstroke.

Icons. Myth.

Before I wrap this up, I'd like to make some suggestions for the sequel. (It really is a big mistake to fast track it.)

1-Cast Bryan Cranston as Lex Luthor.
2-Have Lex exist as supporting character; save him as the main villain for the third movie. We should see that he is pulling the strings.
3-Use the movie to premiere who it is that is playing Wonder Woman and Batman. Make them part of the plot, but not a large part.
4-A minor subplot that teases JLA.
5-Make Lois more important.
6-Character first.
7-Primary antagonist: Eastern Express.

Man of Steel: 4 out of 5 


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Stephanie Brown, Harper Row, and Character Toxicity in the New 52

A discussion of Stephanie Brown, the first canonical female Robin and a former Batgirl, is something I've wanted to do for a while. She is a fairly unique character with a controversial history, and rare for a Bat-family character, someone who isn't constantly depressed.

The biggest thing about Stephanie is, unfortunately, not a story arc, but her behind the scenes situation. The product of C-list villain Cluemaster, Stephanie became the hero Spoiler who would do whatever she could to ruin her father's plans out of a sense of vengeance (he was ruining her and her mother's lives after all). Her greatest arch-enemy however, was not Cluemaster, but DC Comics editorial itself--specifically Dan DiDio. Maybe.

Originally, writers Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Bill Willingham wanted to kill Steph off at the end of the Batman: War Games story; DiDio correctly asserted that the moment wasn't big enough, Steph wasn't--at that point--big enough to kill off. He decided that the best thing to do was to make her the first female Robin, and after a short time kill her off. That's what happened, and people hated him for it. What's more was that her treatment post-death set fans off more than the death itself. It's fine if a character dies, so long as it means something. When Jason Todd died, his costume was displayed prominently in the Batcave as a memorial and a reminder, Steph received no such memorial. DiDio himself was at the center of this, saying that she wasn't really a Robin, that Batman made her so to mess with Tim Drake (this was during the Dick Knight era from about 2000-2007 where Bruce was worse than any of his villains), so she was simply shrugged off.

This being comics, it was only a few years before she was returned, brought back to life by Chuck Dixon, the writer that created her, and rather ham-fistedly explained why she wasn't given a memorial in the cave. Not long after she returned, Chuck Dixon had a huge falling out with Dan DiDio and DC Comics, then Stephanie became Batgirl. Her run lasted for 24 wonderful issues written brilliantly by Bryan Q. Miller. At the time, a number of writers were excited to use her, including Gail Simone, Grant Morrison, Nick Spencer, and Fabian Nicieza.

Miller's Batgirl was a critical hit for a number of reasons. Largest among them was the fact that Stephanie was a likable character; she was well-adjusted, but largely unsure of herself. She was prone to anxiety, social awkwardness, had difficulties with her mother, and was always fighting to keep up. Steph made contemporary pop-culture references, she had mood swings, she worried about boys and what people thought about her. She was, instantly, the most identifiable teenager in comics, largely due to her personality and dialogue which were reminiscent of the early years of Buffy Summers.

Steph was solicited to return as Nightwing in the Smallville Season 11 comic, written by Bryan Q. Miller. At the last minute the plug was pulled. Dan DiDio said it was because he wanted a more recognizeable character introduced, but Miller said it was his own idea.

Steph's arc in Batgirl was just as much about reconciling who she was with who she wanted to be as much as it was about a pretty blonde girl punching the teeth out of meth heads, cult members, the Scarecrow, or stalkers. Despite her particularly dark origins--she had a child at fifteen that she had to give up for adoption (this story was highly controversial, high profile, and won awards; it has never been collected in paperback), she was beaten to (apparently) near death by the Black Mask, her father was an abusive supervillain and her mother a drug addict, Stephanie remained positive, willful and sugary sweet. She struggled to keep a stiff upper lip, but she managed to get by learning from mistakes, though just as likely to fall for the same trappings--boys she shouldn't be with, leaping without looking, improvising even more than Dick Grayson (she and Dick always made more sense to me as a couple than her and Tim, but that's my two cents), and she was a character that was actually fun to read, something that you can't really say about most Bat-family books. To be more clear, I love the Batman books, particularly from that era, but these are noirish and dark books. Steph showed us a different kind of character in a different part of Gotham, and it made both her and the city itself seem a bit more reasonable. There were other parts of the city that weren't a hell hole, and people who weren't criminals, maniacs, or billionaires with duality issues.

When the New 52 was announced, every title was "cancelled," leaving with sometimes abrupt and unsatisfying endings but for a line or two about saying goodbye. Donna Troy and Stephanie Brown were slated to be "benched" (going unused in the initial wave of the New 52), so their goodbyes were written to be something that was probably going to be a while. So, why Stephanie? Dan DiDio said that since they were rebooting, they wanted all their originals back where they started, which meant Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and Barry "Dial Tone" Allen as The Flash, but all the other Robins got to stay in their Old 52 roles. DiDio went on to say that Steph hasn't been back due to the fact that she doesn't draw numbers--her return didn't boost sales in Robin, her Batgirl run--despite critical acclaim--never reached the sales number they had in mind, to say nothing of DC's often outrageous sales expectations or the policy of rather having a book that's a hit than a book that's good.

Writers like Gail Simone and Bryan Q. Miller, as well as DC golden boys Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison all pitched ideas to bring her into the fold of the New 52 as either Spoiler or something totally different, only to get turned down with the rumored reason being that Stephanie as well as Cassandra Cain and Donna Troy were all "toxic."

Characters can be deemed this for a number of reasons:

1--They have not drawn X amount of sales.
2--Their histories are cluttered and confusing.
3--The foundation of the character was untenable and had lead to many vastly different versions of the character because no one has a real handle on who they are or why they should exist in continuity.

Given Dan DiDio's comments about Steph's inability to make money, we'll count that as the reason why she hasn't re- debuted, and we won't mention that she doesn't need to have a solo title, she could be on a team book. No, we won't mention that at all. 

So let's do some math. While in her role as Batgirl, Steph sold around 20-28,000 books a month. While that doesn't exactly make the book a smash hit, it is in the same range as these former and current New 52 titles: Vibe, Katana, Hawkman, Batman Beyond: Unlimited, Suicide Squad, Superboy, Supergirl, Stormwatch, Batwing, Catwoman, Talon, Birds of Prey, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Batman Incorporated, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, Earth 2, and World's Finest. Now, some of these titles are cancelled, some of these characters fall into the pay no mind category, and some of them are comic book royalty. Stephanie Brown has outsold  or sold similar numbers to these titles. Sometimes beating them by a few hundred, sometimes by several thousand (I'll link my sources at the bottom).

I don't remember this issue.
I'm also going point out a Marvel title that was moving about 26,000 units a month, Daredevil: End of Days. This book has been compared to Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns in terms of story setting and even quality. It's not exactly a hit, but Marvel pushed the mini-series because of its quality. And there's something that DC can't always guarantee. I understand that you do have to think in terms of your bottom line, but there are plenty of opportunities where you can have a little of both.

There is one title specifically that I would like to single out. Batgirl sold an average about 24,000 issues a month, Phantom Stranger averages about 18,000 units a month. That title is written by Dan DiDio. In the words of Hans Gruber, "One has to appreciate life's little ironies."

It's been long considered that the reason that Dick Grayson was going to be killed off during Infinite Crisis was because Dan DiDio didn't like him; the same has been said for Stephanie Brown. He vacillates his answers to fans about her disappearance: "She doesn't have many fans," or "Who's that?" while Bob Harras (another cancer on the comic book ovum) refuses to answer questions about her. Writers have said that if a higher up doesn't like a character, don't expect to see them while the two biggest names in Batman these days (and, frankly, of the last fifteen years) Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, both of whom, as I mentioned earlier, have tried on numerous occasions to get back onto the page, and have specifically been told that she is character that cannot be used. It's likely that if Dan DiDio was less smug in his answers and more direct--even going as far as to admit that he doesn't like the character--it would go far in calming fans down because at least that would be an answer, a confirmation. DiDio's answers to when we might see Steph again have also vacillated between "Soon" and "Not any time soon."

So what does this have to do with Harper Row? Because when you peel back the punk rock layers, she's Stephanie Brown. I want to make myself clear: I'm not calling Harper Row a rip-off because I don't think this happened on purpose, what I'm saying is that certain basic attributes make both characters very similar, and have kept Harper from entirely coming in to her own. We established earlier aspects of Stephanie Brown's biography:

Stephanie Brown--The daughter of the criminal Cluemaster whom she hates, witty self-aware teenager, mother isn't in the picture (Steph's mom eventually did become a major character but at the genesis of the story she was background), loyal to family (mother), prone to crime fighting mistakes, being a little too eager to please, seems very true-to-life.

Now, Harper Row--Daughter of a low level criminal whom she hates, mother isn't in the picture (dead), prone to crime fighting mistakes, loyal to family (brother), being a little too eager to please, seems very true-to-life (with her hair style and piercings).

Harper shaves "FAG" into her hair as a show of solidarity to her brother, who had the same shaved into his head by bullies.

There are some differences, of course. Harper is certainly more cynical, and has a deeper connection to Bruce Wayne and Batman than Steph ever did. While both are somewhat dough-eyed when it comes to superheroes, Harper is certainly more forceful and carries herself more confidently. I also must admit that it's a bit unfair of me to compare a character who has been around for twenty-one years with a character that's been around for two years with only sporadic appearances. However, the germ of the concept, the basis of the characters are greatly similar, and Scott Snyder has taken great care in molding Harper into someone worth caring about. Also, in order to make these characters socially relevant, both Dixon with Stephanie and Snyder with Harper placed them with relevant problems. For Steph, it was the drug addict mother and being a teenage mother, for Harper it's being a kid who has to school and work to pay for rent and food as well as trying to protect her brother Cullen from bullies at school who hate him for being gay. The devices are well considered and greatly lauded in their time for being true and relevant and handled properly without being saccharine, trite, over-wrought or taking an easy way out.

Their differences are a matter of hair shading.
My point in delving so far into the mitochondrial parallels is the fact that in order for an important character to be introduced in comics, there is a vetting process. In DC, Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, and Dan DiDio would all have had a folder on this character. Now, as much as the Internet loves to slam DiDio for his fixation on the Silver Age, or for being out of touch or stupid, it is a knee-jerk reaction and ends up being a feint to dodge the issue. He's not dumb. He joined the company as a writer and an editor in 2002 and is now the co-publisher. Call it politics or luck or whatever, he has had a number of big successes in his win-column for a while now, so I find it unlikely that he did not know then--and the Internet surely has let him know by now--that there are major similarities between Steph (a character that he may or may not care for) and Harper (who he seems to). So why Harper and not Steph?

Taking DiDio's perspective it would be that Steph has worn a lot of different hats in her twenty year existence. She's been a good draw, not a great one, she's been at the center of two major and controversial retcons and stories, but--according to him, not me--she never worked. So you have Harper, she has pretty modern problems, and is a bit rougher around the edges in both look and attitude, which makes sense in Batman's smudgy bleak world, and doesn't have too complicated a backstory that you'd have to worry about (too bad the New 52 wasn't a reboot where they could streamline these things for us).

Before the end of the year, we'll be taking a more detailed look at Steph's run as Batgirl, but for now, I'll remind you of earlier when I mentioned that writers at the end of the Old 52 had to write an ending on the fly, and it's hard not to think that Bryan Q. Miller, one of Steph's biggest fans, knew that she was being benched, and made sure that the last words in her final issue of Batgirl which marked final appearance was a message to fans, to the higher ups, and indicative of who Stephanie Brown always was.

Statistical data:

Note: If you're interested in "Waffles for Stephanie," the fanbased mission to get Stephanie Brown back into the mainstream comics continuity, please visit here: 

Friday, February 15, 2013

TV Review: Homeland, Season 2

Normally, it's best to review a television series once the program is over because you can reflect on the entirety of the story. This is more for serialized shows like The Shield or Breaking Bad, and so relevant for anthology series or closed-ended episodic series (American Horror Story and Law & Order respectively), but the second season of Homeland is worth breaking the rule largely because of the ending of many of its major and minor arcs, and also because of its downright bizarre developments.

For the uninitiated, the series is created by Alex Gansa based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War created by Gideon Raff. Gansa is the co-showrunner alongside Howard Gordon, and Chip (wassat?) Johannessen (co-executive producer, eventually executive producer) is part of the writing staff; all three of these guys were behind 24 for the majority of its run. What set Homeland apart was that it didn't rely on action the way 24 eventually did; it didn't share 24's whimsical techno-thriller mentality. Homeland wasn't necessarily realistic, but it was more character based, intimate, grounded and prone to showing Morena Baccarin naked. The series never shied away from showing Islamic fundamentalism and a certain amount of ethnic profiling that agencies often use (Saul: "Is he Muslim? No? Then he's not a suspect"). In that way, the series was refreshingly honest, its depiction of law enforcement and al-Qaeda methodology felt plausible, clever, if somewhat convenient, and at times scary (post-9/11 paranoia hasn't gone anywhere, it's just taken on new and more intricate forms). The brilliant season two trailer emphasized this with its creepy children's choir rendition of "Every Breathe You Take," to the surveillance footage, characters in hiding with long concerned glances (see: all pictures in this review) fearful of movement on the periphery of their vision (or just symptomatic of good old fashioned paranoia), the enemy you can never full see but instinctively know is there and probably always will. Watch below.


Arguably, writing the second season to a series is harder than the first. If your show didn't do so great the first time out, you have to reconfigure the show somewhat, use a scalpel or in some cases a butcher's knife to excise what didn't work from what did, and in that second season you need to essentially reintroduce the show. However, in the case of Homeland, which had a wildly successful first season, the notion becomes--how do we top what we did last year? The scope generally gets larger, more risks are taken, and the old adage of "Bigger is better" comes into play. 24 was in many ways a victim of its own success, with the writers trying to outdo themselves every year and consistently writing themselves into a corner every few episodes, and this season of Homeland drew from the worst elements of 24--when we can't come up with anything, throw in a shootout; when we don't have the budget for a shootout, a twist is more interesting than plotting; if the plot doesn't make sense, just edit the scenes to make them shorter and fragment them over the episode--keep the plot moving and keep the actual details from processing in the mind of the viewer. Let's detail the main flaws of the season cited the most by critics and fans: Dana's story, the infiltration story, and the pacemaker. (Note: Homeland was the show that overtook Mad Men and Breaking Bad's six year uninterrupted reign over the Emmys and the Golden Globes.)

Since 24 was a definite ancestor to this season, we'll start with Dana, our younger, less attractive but more shrill Kim Bauer understudy. When the protagonist on TV is a parent, the child is, these days, expected to have a storyline as well. Audiences have come to expect this because we're supposed to be shown that the kids are real people as much as their parents and they deserve development as well, which is a nice enough of an idea on paper. However, most audiences have also come to realize that these stories are never that interesting and often drag down the main plot. How many times this season did we get a tense Brody/Carrie scene only for that excitement to disappear and a half drained bottle of Dewar's chucked at the screen because the focus shifted to Dana feeling guilty because she was in the passenger seat while the Vice President's punchable son Finn ditched their Secret Service detail (!) and committed a hit and run? Let that sink in for a moment. In fact, I'll repeat it: Dana feels guilty because she was in the passenger seat while the Vice President's punchable son Finn ditched their Secret Service detail (!) and committed a hit and run. (*Winner--Critic's Choice Award for Best Drama Series). Not only was the story ludicrous, but the reaction of Finn's parents was, well, enviable. His mother shrugged it off and said that she would handle it, his father--the Vice President--said: "What are we going to do with this kid?" with the shame, horror and disappointment usually reserved for Beaver Cleaver.

While structurally different, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine taught us how to deal with kids on television. The lead protagonist, Ben Sisko, was a single father. His son Jake was there to primarily set Sisko apart from the previous Captains we'd seen, and was generally an ancillary character used to help flush out the character of his father. That's not to say that Jake wasn't given room to become a developed character--he was given his own plots and episodes sporadically as time went on--but the writers felt that just because he was the son of the lead didn't mean he needed to be in every single episode and constantly have his story put on the screen. Dana's role in Homeland is to be a teenager, which she does well. She's loud, impulsive and awful, but she really is only there to give Brody a family member that he can connect to. I understand the desire to explore kid, barely a teen, already forced into the public eye because of her returning hero father, in a family that was having trouble financially, now going to school with the kids of people who run the country. Sometimes it's good to have a story that's a bit of a palate cleanser, but this story was drinking Clorox after eating steak.
Moving on, we have my personal favorite flaw from this season: the theme of infiltration. This includes the all-knowing, all-seeing heretofore unknown mole (a favorite plot device of 24), the random plot device enemy SWAT team (see previous parenthesis), and Abu Nazir's vacation to the United States.The mole is the biggest plot device in thrillers, and was really brought to mainstream awareness in the majority of 24's run. The fact is that in the history of the FBI and CIA, there haven't been that many moles. Homeland in its way learned from 24's mistake in not making the mole-story an onscreen subplot, put used the device itself to pad out scripts and come up with logical reasons why certain events took place; it's a short cut that has its own name, and it's a way of flaunting lazy writing. The fact that Gansa has said that he has no idea who the mole is, and says we probably haven't met the character yet (especially considering the way the finale ended) shows this to a be knowing and willful decision to allow for any kind of extreme development to prolong the story by giving us a flippant "It must have been the mole" reminder from time to time rather than take a step back and really consider the flaws in the story that would need to use such an old plot device as often as they had this season.

 Look, I'm not saying that plot devices are inherently a bad thing--every story no matter the genre is going to use them at some point: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back; an unlikeable character has a sudden change of luck and learns a lesson about empathy; everyone roots for the underdog; the character is an asshole but he has one redeeming quality that makes him an anti-hero; tragic past means the person is a good guy or a bad guy; introduce a gun in Act One, it goes off in Act Three. Every writer uses a plot device, good writers know how and when to use them. To return to a single one repeatedly and essentially rely on it as a get out of jail free card, then it's shallow, lazy, and talks down to the audience. The showrunner or someone on staff needs to take a step back and the story needs to either be retooled or entirely discarded for a fresh start.

The second issue is what we'll call the infiltration story. We touched upon this earlier in mentioning the mole but it goes on further than that. This season we saw Abu Nazir's American implanted soldiers don full SWAT gear--armor, helmets, machine guns, and despite nobody questioning how the hell they managed to get all these wonderful toys (they've come a long way from two guys with box cutters apparently), nobody ever thought try and trace back how it was that they managed to get said wonderful toys. If the armor and the helmets were purchased legally through army surplus, you can check the cameras and records of shops in a two hundred mile radius and look for "probable suspects." Since America does have strict gun laws despite what the media would have you believe, the machine guns were probably purchased illegally. So how about you ask the FBI for a list of suspected or convicted arms dealers, contact informants (Carrie has one that could magic you out of existence--more on that later) and get the ball moving that way. It's unlikely that they could get the real names and addresses of Nazir's soldiers, but you can maybe get an alias, a description, a blurry screen-cap from a surveillance video. We could do that or we could get another scene of Dana being frumpy. Let's go with frumpy.

It's Abu Nazir himself that rounds out the the ridiculousness of the infiltration story. Now, for almost two full seasons the writers built Nazir up to be someone very much akin to Osama bin Laden--this almost mythic ghost who is behind all of these terror attacks, but is so mysterious and enigmatic, you can't be certain of anything he does or anywhere he is. He's quiet and commanding in his presence, and as Carrie put it, "needs to do something big" when planning an attack. In one of the biggest reveals this season, Brody is captured by Nazir's men and taken to an abandoned shit hole where from out of an Escalade (or maybe an F-150; either way the man knows how to travel) comes Abu Nazir. The man who is the fictional analogue to bin Laden, who in the world of Homeland is as infamous as bin Laden, who was behind the first terror attack on American soil since 9/11 last season is in Virgina and nobody noticed. Because he's in disguise. He shaved and took off his glasses.

Of the major flaws this season, I'm most inclined to give this one a pass because in its own way, the writers have sold us already on the fact that Nazir lives for these big, public, shocking moments, and he even says that he plans on dying, but not like bin Laden did. He wanted something that would make his fellow whackos really whack out. Blaze of glory like Butch Cassidy and Sundance (just with terrorism), but it is the logistics of it that keep the moment from being taken seriously and once the reveal is processed it's jarring to see Nazir on American soil because it all just seems so unlikely. Yes, in some way, he would want to go out guns blazing, but this just seemed too improbable. If bin Laden had arrived in America, just without his beard and turbin, anyone would say--"Hey, that's Osama without the beard and turbin." They're just too recognizable, too ingrained in our psyches to get past. Crossing the border illegally from Mexico or Canada seems possible, boating over here in a shipping container seems impossibly dangerous and stupid (The Wire season 2), and it's the unanswered question of how that rankles, though admittedly, an answer to that question could have been as equally ridiculous as seeming him in America in the first place.

In the scope of the story, Nazir's appearance is just another element that takes us out of the reality of the series; we're reminded that we're just watching a TV show. Things like that happen in every television series, don't get me wrong, but when this season has already stretched plausible to a thin white line that the writers may just inhale, seeing the shaven Nazir detach from the shadows isn't the oh shit moment of the season but just another reason to change the channel. Alex Gansa freely admitted what a risk it was to have Nazir in America (from a writing standpoint) and when he managed to kidnap (!) Carrie it seemed as though the risk was done simply for the epic confrontation--Carrie vs. Nazir live and in technicolor. This is the man that Carrie has obsessed about for eight years, and was considered to be the expert on the man--having filled in his life almost completely in a color coordinated mural of that wasn't so much an acknowledgement of the difficult nature in fighting a war on terror than it was a memorial to the years she's lost trying to put the paperwork in the correct order. If taken from that perspective, that of a more Dickensian narrative, then it's fitting that Carrie and Nazir's relationship ends less like gangbusters and more like Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Despite being at Nazir's mercy, Carrie finally meets Nazir face to face; Nazir is acutely aware of her and her obsession with it. The scenes should write themselves. Apparently they didn't. At no point did either one of them try to work a mind game on the other--these, the two more manipulative characters in the series--and what little bits of dialogue they do share amounts to the usual tripe you'd expect: "You'll never get away with this," "You're crazy," etc.

We come at last to the moment where the audience's patience and suspension of disbelief was struck down like a peasant by some douche named Finn--the moment where Abu Nazir remotely manipulated Vice President Walden's pacemaker and forced him into a heart attack. In a lot of ways this could be considered the climax of Brody's time on the show; the end of his journey as a member of al-Qaeda because finally he was able to confront Bill Walden, the man he felt was responsible for Isa's death--a moment that was the critical turning point in Brody's life: he became a traitor because of Isa's death, and now he has the ability to confront Walden before killing him. Brody, naturally, doesn't really see fit to mention Isa and speaks only in vagaries about how much of a dick Walden is before mentioning the drone program in passing. (*Golden Globes Winner: Best Drama.)

The idea of using the pacemaker as a weapon comes from real life science. A laptop could be used to hack into a person's pacemaker and send a deadly 830-volt shock that would easily kill them. Of course, the range is limited to 30 to 50 feet, and considering Bill Walden is the VP, one would assume he would have the top-of-the-line pacemaker in his chest. Even if he didn't, he would be on the top of the list to have it replaced or have some sort of safe guard to protect him. That and Nazir was able to do this from miles and miles away. (The article on these device flaws can be found here.)

Watching simply as a fan or even out of context, the scene itself is farcical. It's not the acting, as Damian Lewis and Jamey Sheridan do an admirable job considering what they're dealing with but there is almost no way to view the scene as something other than funny. That being said, had the aforementioned article come out earlier in the year and received a large amount of coverage from the media would we have reacted the same way to seeing it in Homeland? It might have made a difference for some, and as scary and suddenly real life as the article makes the flaw seem, to see it carried out is surreal and schlocky--a development that belonged more in the flamboyant middle years of James Bond than the grounded drama that questions our own moral certainty in the war on terror.

One of the less touched upon flaws of the season was the treatment of David Estes. A trend that has caught on recently is that of the mean character. You'll see this in genres like horror, thrillers, whatever--it's where there is a character who is thinking logically, making a rational and cold decision and rather than be listened to is treated by both the writer and the other characters as a villain. Here David Estes decides that no matter what happens, after Brody helps the CIA, he'll have Brody killed (despite the promise of immunity and witness protection for him and his family). As the audience, we are prompted to view this negatively, especially as Carrie and Saul--the series' moral compass--fight this because it is the wrong thing to do. Estes' point is that what Brody has done in the past would not be cancelled out by the things he's doing now. Brody is a wildcard and it's hard to see where he stands--is he helping the CIA because he feels guilt over the wrong he's done or because they have him by the balls? It's simply not worth the risk of keeping him alive. What's funny is that Saul even admits this to Carrie when hearing that she plans on being with Brody. "He'll always be a terrorist." Despite all logic, including the fact that the CIA mole could still find out where Brody was hiding and have al-Qaeda make contact with him again to either re-convert or force him into working with them again, we are repeatedly forced into believing that Estes was in the wrong. Quinn, Estes' hired gun who has the people skills of sandpaper, managed to be turned around in his decision to kill Brody after spying on him and Carrie and finding them to be a cute couple. (*Emmy Award winner: Best Writing.) Digest that for a second.

The writers double down on this by making David Estes look worse. When Saul refuses to let this go, Estes threatens him, then arrests him, then threatens him with bodily harm and jail time. This is done to put Estes over as some kind of bad guy by bullying everyone's favorite character while also distracting us from the fact that Saul was defending the life of a terrorist and Estes didn't like loose ends.

Other head shaking moments include the odd timeline of the show and Carrie's James Bond impression. Rather than 24's idea of never saying the year so the series can always be in the perpetual now (which no matter what would have made Jack an old man by season 8), we're given clear indication in the series that 9/11 happened ten years ago (said in the opening credits by Carrie), and that season 2 takes place in the 2012-2013 area. Via the opening credits we still see that the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush Classic, Bill Clinton, New Bush, and Barack Obama have all taken place. So where does Homeland's presidency come in?

Second is Carrie's super secret "out" strategy. Apparently, being a CIA case officer currently stationed in America is so dangerous that she needed a strategy in place in case she would ever need to go on the lam. Carrie felt that there was a decent enough of a chance that at some point she would need to flee the country; she thought at some point she would push things too far and the CIA or some other law enforcement entity would have to take her in, and she would have no choice but to disappear, so she has a super secret storage locker where she keeps guns, fake IDs, and thousands of dollars in cash (on a CIA analysts' salary). You could play the crazy card as you would with most of Carrie's life decisions but this plan was overseen over the course of several years, while she was on her meds. I know that the meds aren't a 100% cure, but it is still--one would assume--enough to enact rationality. Instead, her rational thought is "Yes, eventually I will go too far." This was a magnificent eleventh hour plot convenience to get rid of Brody and set up season 3.

Now all this sounds pretty harsh, and it sounds as if this season was possibly the worst of any television show in the last twenty years. That's not the case. The first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, every season of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise, seasons six and eight of 24, the second season of Friday Night Lights, season eight of All in the Family are all certainly worse. What the second season of Homeland managed to do correctly does not cannot overtake what it got wrong, but there are several moments where the series reminds us that there was a reason why it won its awards, why after only a single season David Nevins referred to it as Showtime's flagship series.

She isn't Wonder Woman; god is dead.

One of the high points of the season--and of the series so far--actually involves Jessica (Morena Baccarin) wearing clothes. To have a scene involving her wearing clothes often leaves the audience hesitant that any good can come out of this, but both the writers and Baccarin hit a home run, where we see Jessica throughout the season acting as a rational character. Despite her eccentric circumstances she's just a woman trying to keep her family together and trying to keep her kids safe. While her sudden decision to sleep with Mike again seemed...well, sudden--it was still easy to find sympathy for her not only in our knowledge of Brody's reignited affair with a mental patient, but also because Jessica, at that moment, finally realized that no matter how much she loves/loved Brody or how much she wanted her family living under one roof, her marriage was toxic.

Jessica's best moment was a series best moment in "State of Independence" where she gives a speech about the difficulties facing returning veterans and their families. It is sad and sobering, and rings of a truth that most of us couldn't imagine; most of all, the speech--without being preachy--lets us know that we need to reevaluate how we treat our veterans. Jessica is shaken yet relieved, finally being able to release feelings that she's worried about, that she's afraid of, and even somewhat ashamed of. Baccarin is an unsung actress who uses subtlety and nuance more than anything, and finally the writers gave her something to work with, and she fills the scene with so much visceral emotion that the speech feels more like a confession than a scene in a spy-thriller.

Other great moments involve the interrogation of Roya which saw a great dissection of her and Carrie, as well as a great twist on these CIA interrogation scenes. Saul doing just about anything. Despite whatever unlikelihoods went on this season, Mandy Patinkin always kept us grounded and added emotional resonance whether we were celebrating the death of a monster, dwelling on the sheet covered dead in a horrific and evocative act of terror, or feeling his slight sense of relief at seeing Carrie alive all tethered this season to the emotional core that made Homeland as popular as it is.

However, the season's best moment came in the form of the Carrie/Brody interrogation in "Q&A." The Carrie and Brody relationship is a controversial one among the fans, and their interaction that goes one throughout this episode was probably the best hour of television in 2012. Not only do we see the codependent, destructive, and ultimately impossible to maintain affection for each other finally out in the open free of any lies or shifting agendas, but we also see Carrie and Brody in their stripped down to their essentials. Carrie is the master manipulator, making Brody as dependent on her as he once was on Nazir; Brody meanwhile is seen as who is he--the manipulated, dependent, someone to be led. We'll probably never see what he was like before his capture by Nazir so we don't know if he was always so malleable or if his experiences in captivity have truly broken him as a person. We see them together as two people remarkable especially in their flaws desiring to make a connection with someone with matching scars and corresponding scars and finding each other through lies and truth.
Fixes for Season 3

1- No more Mike and Lauter: Boy Detectives.

2- Take a break from the Brody family (including from Nick Brody himself).

3- Less "high octane" stories; settle for something smaller--shock does not a story make.

4- Reveal the mole and break the dependency on the trope. It will lead to more honest writing (theoretically).

5- Map the season out deliberately and in detail, with regards for what may happen in the fourth season. What we learned this year was that scripts were being finalized at the very last minute, even while filming. Sometimes the running clock can be an excellent motivator as it leads to outside the box thinking, and sometimes the Vice Presiden't son runs over a peasant.

6- The adherence to reality and character development made Homeland accessible and exciting in its first year. Go back to that.  

7- In the words of Jim Norton (comedian, philanthropist, urine enthusiast) who recently said: "Homeland is the best sci-fi show on television. Ugh."


Being somewhat generous, Homeland season two is a 3 out of 5. 

P.S. I know that I haven't posted much on here recently. Part of the reason is a lack of material. Right now, however, I do have ideas for posts, so hopefully 2013 will be more productive. I will do my best to get quality work out on a more frequent basis.