Dr. Who and Girl Power

TARDIS from Dr. Who. Image used under Creative Commons.As a rule, “gender-swapping” characters really annoys me. Marvel comics has been the worst about it of late, finding annoying ways to make characters like Thor and Wolverine female, and then wondering why they aren’t playing well with audiences. Surely audiences want strong female characters, right? As someone with two daughters (one of whom loves Wonder Woman), I can answer resoundingly yes, but re-purposing a male character into a female character does not a strong female character make. Rather, it shows a complete lack of creativity and belies the heavy hands of marketers relying more on their data than on common sense and dedication to the art or the medium.

I grew up with Dr. Who. My family watched it on PBS every Saturday night for as long as I can remember. The recent announcement that the Doctor will be regenerating as woman (while it was set up sloppily in the dialogue of this most recent, poorly-written season) makes sense to me, though. Is that symptomatic of a cognitive dissonance on my part? Not really. I actually think these examples are two entirely different things.

The Doctor was an ingenious character when written decades ago in what is now referred to as the “classic” series, in that a Time Lord‘s regenerations make him infinitely adaptable. Subtle quirks and personality shifts in each regeneration make for endless possibilities. The Doctor (or any other Time Lord) remains who he is at his core, but is a slightly different person each time, accompanied by a completely different physical appearance with each regeneration (although, to be fair, David Tenant and Matt Smith always looked remarkably similar to me, but I digress). The key to what this imaginative, fantastic twist to the world-building accomplishes is the perpetual opportunity for a writer to explore “what if,” to ask what it would look like for this character to have a different set of personality traits while still drawing on the experiences of being impossibly old, to show us what would be different if this character were an old man or a young Millennial. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities in the Doctor, and this has made Dr. Who one of the most original concepts in science fiction, as well as one of the most enduring.

So, if the Doctor can regenerate from young to old, why not regenerate as a woman? This sort of just makes sense, as a Time Lord (and pardon my descent into geekery here) is essentially a shape-shifter at the time of his or her regeneration. The writers have even more possibilities to explore now as they can enter into the question of what a feminine dynamic will bring to the character. We’ve seen something similar done creatively (if not explicitly) in good science fiction before, after all. The character of Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine springs to mind.

These sorts of spins are the result of creative pursuits of the story, not poor editorial direction, as is the case with Marvel’s recent gender swaps.

Even DC Comics’ more traditional take on strong female characters is wanting in comparison. Characters such as Supergirl or Hawkgirl were often afterthoughts, a forced editorial choice to make a female version of a male character in order to gain readers. Not that this doesn’t ever work (I personally have always loved the strength of the character of Batgirl), but, in comparison to an original, strong female character such as Wonder Woman, the efforts fall short.

My point is that, if the writer’s intention is to create a strong female hero or protagonist (something more of which our literary landscape desperately needs), then do just that: write a new character. The genius of the Doctor is that he now has the ability to be an example of how this is done well, while drawing on decades of other great writing to build upon.

My hope is that this will be approached as creatively as the BBC has time and again displayed it’s ability to accomplish, with the notable exception of the tragically poor writing of this most recent season. I say that this is my hope because if this decision is reduced in practice to merely a gender-equality move…more “girl power,” as it were…then it won’t work. It will last perhaps a season, and be remembered as an ill-fated blip in the history of the Doctor.

If, however, it is left alone…if the story is served and the creative legacy of Dr. Who honored…then these nuances will occur naturally, and we’ll be left with an even richer speculative universe, asking all of the questions about ourselves that such a universe brings.

Here’s to hoping.

 

Image attribution: Mike chernucha under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man. Image used under Creative Commons.In the Marvel comics universe, you really don’t get much more iconic a character than Spider-Man. He is simply the character that most people think of when they think of the Marvel universe, as though the two are synonymous in many ways. His web-slinging heroism through the streets of New York City made for a solid cornerstone of my comics reading as a child. However huge and unpredictable were the adventures of the X-Men or the Avengers, Spider-Man was grounded, a street-level hero who helped the everyday urbanite in his time of greatest need.

That’s what the Marvel cinematic universe has captured correctly about Spider-Man since the legalities were worked out for him to appear in what is now the canonical set of films (and a relief, as true fans just sort of pretend that his most recent two big screen adventures didn’t happen), from his first appearance in Civil War when he tells Tony Stark that he’s “looking out for the little guy.” I was thrilled to finally see Peter Parker alongside his fellow heroes, and entered this movie with a lot of excitement.

Let me say up front that I really appreciate that this was not yet another re-telling of his origin story. However, the challenge of not having Spider-Man’s (or any other character’s) origin story up front is maintaining that character without it, working with the assumption that the audience knows as much as the writers about what events made the character who he or she is. Now, with a character this popular, that’s a fairly safe bet. Still, without even a reference to Uncle Ben in this slightly-over-two-hours film, it’s difficult to have solid footing for Peter’s motivations as we suspend our disbelief. Has Uncle Ben’s death even happened in this universe? Although it is difficult to grasp Spider-Man without that crucial event, we’re just not certain. Peter’s heroic nature was set up well in Civil War:

“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”

Still, we’re lacking what is arguably the most important motivator of his character without even a reference to the events leading to his uncle’s death.

This version of Spider-Man, though, is obviously keeping in line with more modern writings of the character than the classic stories that many of us remember, which is fine, and is staying true to the Civil War story arc in which Tony equips Peter with a lot of cool gadgets, which completely works given where in the storyline he has entered. While the cool gadgets are a really fun addition to the story, though, the “insta-kill” in his costume feels like comic relief that is forced too much to be in character (keeping in mind that we saw Tony Stark order JARVIS to “terminate with extreme prejudice” in Iron Man 3, but that also felt questionable for his character).

This film, incidentally, is a great continuation of the development of Tony Stark, keeping with lessons learned from Iron Man 3 (“If you’re nothing without the suit…”), as well as from Civil War, as he carries the burden of what could befall Peter during his adventures heavily. This adds Marvel’s signature continuity to the arc.

Let’s not get distracted, though. This is Spider-Man’s story, and it feels like his story as a YA novel. I say this because the coming-of-age theme is inescapable, and, as Peter deals (in well-written form) with the struggles of every high school student to fit in and date the popular girl, we see the Avengers through a teenager’s eyes…an teenager intoxicated with possibility as Peter deals with his budding perception of a hero as being a member of this larger-than-life organization. We watch him discover and begin to live out the true nature of his heroism, placing others before himself, and dealing with turmoil and disappointment as his heroism must seemingly always prevent him from living the normal life that any teenager wishes they could have (homecoming dances, after all, bring back all sorts of memories for most of us). In that sense, this movie was successful in bringing our friendly-neighborhood hero into his own.

We don’t arrive there without some issues, however. First off, notably absent through the film is Peter’s spider-sense. The story would have been better served avoiding some of the technology and focusing on this, a central of part of Spider-Man’s abilities.

Secondly, something that Marvel has not always done well in it’s films is allowing the villains to live up to their evil natures. We see that in this movie, as well. While this is a really interesting take on the Vulture (and Keaton turns in an excellent performance, here), the Shocker is flippantly introduced and dismissed. Short-changing the villain ultimately hurts the story, and beginning with only a single villain from Spider-Man’s rogues gallery would have been more than sufficient.

Perhaps this is more an issue of personal taste, but this movie is quite funny, as comedic as was Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and as Thor: Ragnarok promises to be. I wonder if it too much so, if Marvel’s tone has become too light-hearted in compensation of the necessary weight of Civil War. Time will tell.

As we end with Peter’s decision to stay grounded, I think we’re seeing a great balance being emphasized in the Marvel canon…moving away from the “larger than life” heroes, and (especially with the Netflix offerings) seeing the heroes who are closer to what most of us would encounter. Peter Parker is content to be the friendly-neighborhood hero, having grown to see this as just as valuable as being part of a globally-recognized team of adventurers. He chooses to not be global and famous, but instead to keep watching over the city he knows best, to watch out for the little guy.

And that, perhaps, is his most heroic choice.

 

Image attribution: Pat Loika under Creative Commons.

The Nature of a Reluctant Hero

Nature of a Reluctant Hero. Image used under Creative Commons.A few years ago (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time putting thoughts together here on the nature of a hero. Those conclusions still spring to mind for me occasionally, and, given some recent events in my life coinciding with just finishing a Green Lantern novel that I picked up on vacation last summer, it came to the forefront again.

The novel isn’t the best I’ve read, but O’Neil does, by the end, give us a compelling (though somewhat non-canonical) telling of Kyle Rayner’s beginnings as Green Lantern. The story begins slowly, but the author is giving us a very important point by the end.

In the DC Universe (pre-New 52), Kyle Rayner was the second Green Lantern on earth. He is given the power ring by the last surviving Guardian after the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, goes crazy and retires when he is unable to save his home city from destruction. The Guardians have vanished, and Rayner, a struggling graphic artist with little drive or ambition for anything in particular finds himself, without explanation or instruction, in possession of what is arguably the greatest source of power on the planet. Rayner now wears the mantle of one of the most formidable heroes in the DC Universe.

You can see where this gets interesting.

And, while it moves slowly in places, O’Neil does well at extensively relating Rayner’s internal dialogue as he struggles to first understand his power, and then to decide if he actually wants anything to do with it. The short answer is that he does not. Whatever aspirations he might have held, none of them included placing others’ good before his own, rushing into danger in order to protect others. This just isn’t him, not a position in which he has ever envisioned himself. Yet, now he is confronted with something bigger than himself, something outside of himself.

Quite literally bigger in this story. When the rest of the Justice League vanishes, he is the only one left save reality from destruction. As the story progresses, Rayner makes numerous choices to move beyond himself, to act sacrificially to save others, others who aren’t always even human. He doesn’t begin a hero, but becomes heroic in how he handles the responsibility that is thrust on him.

The author’s moment of brilliance, I think, in this novel comes just before Rayner embarks into the final epic conflict, when he tells the Guardian who gave him the ring:

“I’m a hero because you gave me something heroic to do.”

When I’ve talked before about the nature of a hero, I’ve frequently arrived at the conclusion that there is a decision point in many of these stories. Given a set of circumstances, how a character handles a choice determines whether or not that character becomes a hero or becomes a villain. When Rayner is confronted with a huge responsibility, he doesn’t run away, but chooses to embrace it, despite the fact that he does so clumsily and against his own instincts.

This is one of the most accessible aspects of the nature of a hero because it is something that we all face at some point. While we will likely experience this in a small way, we will be confronted with a responsibility that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. Our reaction speaks to our choice to become either a hero or a villain in our own story. The reaction is never easy, the choice never without repercussions. It is always, however, necessary.

The inspiration to make the heroic choice is why these characters give us so much.

Image attribution: JD Hancock under Creative Commons.

Years of Experience

I forget exactly where I was or what I was doing, but I recall the experience quite well as, earlier this week, I saw someone in passing that, for a split second, I just knew was an acquaintance from long ago. Except that acquaintance lives several hundred miles from here and the odds of it being that person were quite unlikely. We’ve all had that experience, but, no matter how many times that it happens to us, it’s still like the surprise ending in a book that we didn’t see coming. We fall for it every time.

More and more frequently lately, I’ve been thinking to myself that people that I meet, new acquaintances and colleagues, remind my of someone that I knew some time ago but with whom I’ve lost touch. Sometimes it’s a similar haircut, or a mannerism or speech pattern. Whatever the cue, it occurs to me that, the longer that we live, the more likely we are to say something similar to “you remind me of someone that I knew…” We’ve experienced enough relationships that we begin to see more in common with those we know. We’ve experienced more of humanity.

Experience isn’t just an attractive quality for employers, you know. We gain experience in life each day. Remember the first time that you stayed in a hotel? You had a better idea of what to expect the next time, and after two or three stays, you had even picked up some packing tricks and preferences. Travel is, I think, one of the easiest examples to which we can point of this, but it’s certainly not confined to travel. Anything in life that we experience is foundational in some capacity for other things that we will experience and work through later. That’s important, because it makes things later in life easier to handle. Difficult circumstances have some sense of providence when we can remember a similar moment in our lives when things turned out to be okay.

I watched a news report this week about a Massachusetts scientist who has claimed to have developed the long-awaited cure for aging….actually an age-reversing treatment, if the contents of the report are to be believed. The promise here, as I heard it, are cures to diseases that have previously eluded us. Apparently, though, the animals’ physiology got younger during tests.

Science frequently dances around philosophy.

What concerns me about this treatment, or rather the premise supporting it, is that it misses the truth that age is a privilege. Age, as it gathers more experiences and makes us more likely to find resemblances between new faces with old faces, gives us wisdom. At least, it will if we’re open to it doing so. Just as we can think of that person to whom we go for advice because they’ve lived through something that we are beginning to experience, we, in turn, will be able to impart our wisdom to other willing listeners as we get older. A beautifully clever design, this human life-cycle.

Of course, my point here pre-supposes that there will, in fact, be willing listeners when we’re older, which may not be the case.  We may be too enraptured with the idea of eternal youth, instead. Or at least dramatically extended youth.

I’m not exactly old and wise, and I’m not trying to sound that way. I am, however, old enough that I am beginning to experience some physical ailments that I wish were easily cured. In fact, I even joined a health club recently. Want to see something out of place? Me, in a health club full of power lifters and people who run 300 miles to warm up for their real workouts. And then drink protein shakes.

And that’s great. We should take care of ourselves, and I have been remiss in not doing so. If, though, our health and youth are our ultimate concerns, the things that we hold onto above all others, and they end (because they will), what then? Youth and health are, by definition and design, better in the beginning than the end. There’s a brilliance in that, really. Because as they decrease, wisdom increases.

As we get older, we get wiser, just as those before us have done.

I think we need to recover our respect for that.

First Day at the Theatre

There’s very little that I remember with any degree of clarity from my early elementary school days. 4th and 5th grades, sure, but prior to that, not so much. That’s why the vivid recollection of one specific field trip is such a notable exception.

I remember looking forward to the trip with so much excitement as my parents signed the permission forms in the days preceding the event. I remember boarding the bus with my friends and driving the short distance to the nearby college in the adjacent town. The college had a quality theatre program, and I was going to see my first play.

Now, I can’t say that I remember the plot of the show. I remember being quite unsettled by the villain, and one line in particular as he prowled the front row, cracking through what I now know to be the fourth wall as he questioned:

“Do you know what’s in my secret formula? Well, of course you don’t!”

In short, I returned from that trip with a sense of magic. I had never seen anything like live theatre, and, obviously, it stayed with me as I’ve pursued that calling in various professional avenues from college forward, even though I’ve never made it my living exclusively. I’m so thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to experience that show. My experiences with the theatre have been amazing ever since.

This week, I was given an even more profound opportunity, a more amazing one. I had the opportunity take my daughter, with her pre-school class, to her first play.

The show was Peter Rabbit Tales, and she is already quite familiar with the original work of Peter Rabbit. She was thrilled, so excited as we counted down the days. I drove her to school, joined the caravan of vehicles that went to the arts center, and watched the traveling theatre group’s performance. Even more than the show, however, I watched my daughter’s face as she sat, literally on the edge of her seat, her eyes almost unblinking, never wavering from the stage.

I wonder if the enrapt expression on my face was similar that day so many years ago when I watched that play. I wonder if this experience will have the impact on our daughter that day had on me. I know that she has been impacted by experiencing this art in person, and I know that it was an enormously positive experience for her.

An experience in which I was able to take part.

This was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had as a parent, more impactful even that my first play. I am thrilled to have been able to join my daughter for her first play.