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.

A Review of “Captain America: Civil War”

7324239866_785eb0d421_mSometimes, you go into a long-awaited movie wondering if you’ve already seen the best it has to offer in the trailers. Certainly, this thought occurred to me as I stood eagerly in line for Captain America: Civil War on opening night. In true geek fashion, I had been anticipating this movie since before Age of Ultron, and had devoured every hint, rumor, teaser and trailer in the preceding months. I had discussed theories and possibilities with friends and colleagues, and still felt as though I was unprepared for what I was about to witness. There were so many possibilities here, my head was swimming, giddy with what could be about to take place.

As it turns out, the trailers were as carefully composed as the film itself, because they led you to believe that you knew what would happen, giving you just enough to inform, yet still leave you gasping with shock in the theatre.

Civil War is the third MCU installment for Captain America, and the thirteenth Marvel film in its modern universe. I have, as I suspect have most fans, entered a bit of a comfort zone with these movies. That is, I’m not nearly the kid in the candy store as when I waited in line, pre-purchased ticket in hand, for the first Avengers movie. That’s not to say that I love these movies any less…if anything, the opposite is true. The reason is because I love the characters. Having read their adventures for most of my life, of course, helps, but I think that every viewer who has engaged in this genre since the first Iron Man movie all those years ago has become emotionally invested in these characters. We’ve watched them grow and develop, lived through their struggles and (sometimes Pyrrhic) victories with them, and, while we’ve come to awe at their heroism as they confront the evils over which we could never possibly hope to triumph, we’ve also come to appreciate their humanity.

That’s what I walked away introspective about at the end of Civil War, and, while it’s what I expected, it’s not what I expected.

The tone of the Civil War story arc in the comics, upon which this movie is based, was highly political in nature. Certainly, the character of Captain America is uniquely positioned to explore questions of politics and national identity, and we’ve seen that used to great effect in previous films. I expected that, not the emotional weight of the way in which we see each character struggle. The struggles are not just external, although there’s plenty of that, and the fights are not the fun, fanboy match-ups from the early minutes of the first Avengers. This is what you feel when you watch loved ones fight, when you can see from the outside that both are right in their way, that all motivations are honorable, and that no one is going to win while everyone will lose.

The internal struggles are just as real, with deeper implications. Steve Rogers has been attempting to find his identity since the truth that he assumed he fought for collapsed in the Winter Soldier. He is refusing to follow logic because his first allegiance is to his best friend, the one friend who can begin to understand what he has survived. He wants to do what’s right, and isn’t certain what that is any longer. Tony Stark continues to battle against his past, to try to make up for the horrible mistakes that he seems to continue to make even while attempting to atone for other mistakes. Bucky Barnes struggles to undo the evil into which he was made against his will. Wanda Maximoff struggles with her identity, wondering if she is still who she was in a more innocent time. The Vision struggles to find what it is to be human. Natasha Romanoff struggles to balance pragmatic survival with loyalty to the closest family she has known. And these struggles are only some of what are carefully developed and tracked throughout these two hours as these characters whom we’ve come to love, this family to which we feel we’ve become observers, split as their own best intentions consume them.

Civil War is never meant to have a happy ending. The implications of this movie have rightly been predicted to forever alter the Marvel Cinematic Universe moving forward, and that’s a fair assessment. Just as in the conclusion of the same story in the comics, there is no going back. Just as in the arguments that we wish we had never had, those words can never be unsaid, their wounds never reversed, only, hopefully, healed.

So, the political inferences are there in Civil War, if you want to see them. Certainly, though, they are not the focus. The characters are, and that is a wonderful decision on Marvel’s part.

There is humor interspersed at just the right times during the fights, keeping the script from becoming too weighty while simultaneously adding to the tragedy of these events. The movie introduces new characters, of course, and unless you have no idea what was coming, you were as excited to see Spider-Man done well as the rest of us.

Spider-Man was my big disappointment in the movie, though, I have to confess, mostly because a young Aunt May is something that I’ve never seen in any incarnation of this iconic hero. It makes sense to focus on a teenage Peter Parker, though, because this gives much more room to develop the character as we move forward, and I have no doubt that the writers will continue to take as great care with this as they have to date. Visually, of course, Spider-Man’s great, and, even with his flaws, we’re already exponentially better off that the last tragic attempt to put the Web-Slinger on the screen.

The Black Panther could not be introduced in a better way. T’Challa grounds the film. He serves as the center of gravity as both sides spin further out of control, an outsider who brings clarity to the conflict in a very unexpected way. His monologue at the end as the climactic battle wages nearby is simple but unbelievably profound, and brings out what we as the viewers know, a quiet but powerful expression as we are screaming for the fighting to stop.

If you’ve paid careful attention to the previous films (and I mean careful…there are details in the Winter Soldier specifically that are critical to know), you’ve seen this conflict coming. Still, while we want to see our heroes in action again, we don’t want this, and that makes Civil War dramatically different from every other film to date. These are events that we didn’t want to see happen, a conflict in which our heroes do not win, and, in fact, a conflict in which no one else wins, either, especially not those who depend on them.

When heroes are proven as weak as we are in important ways, it damages our view of them. Their power and dedication seem unimportant when built on the same emotions and experiences that the rest of us have. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps their humanity makes them even more heroic, knowing that they overcome it far more than they succumb to it.

Perhaps we have cause to fear them, however, when they fail in their responsibilities.

Perhaps we all fall down if we don’t learn to talk to each other instead of fight.

Civil War leaves us wondering where we go from here. Make certain that you watch this film.

Image attribution: Andrew Buckingham under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Ant-Man”

Image of Ant-Man Film Poster. Used under Creative Commons.Each time a super-hero team arrives on the big screen, the “starting lineup,” as it were, tends to differ a bit from the comic literature. The reasons for this are various, but it generally works if you have the right casting. Even serious purists would be hesitant to denounce a film based upon the starting lineup differences, I would think, partly because we’ve just come to accept it at this point.

To that end, the Avengers cinematic canon is no different. While there are certain characters that really had to be included in the beginning (it’s pretty difficult to have the Avengers without Captain America), there are others who are mixed in early even though they appeared later in the comics (like the Black Widow…not that I’m complaining), while others are omitted (at least we finally got Mockingbird in Agents of SHIELD).

So, I’ve been wondering when the Ant-Man would make his cinematic appearance. I didn’t really ever think it was a question of whether or not he would, as Ant-Man is a founding member of the Avengers in comic history…I was just waiting, and was pleasantly surprised to see that this is how Marvel Studios decided to wrap Phase 2 (originally this was the launch of Phase 3, but is now considered the end of Phase 2 as Marvel once again has the rights to Spider-Man…and will hopefully redeem the Friendly Neighborhood hero from a history of films that we’d rather forget. But, that’s for another post entirely).

I’ll preface this up front by saying that I’m not a huge fan of Paul Rudd as an actor. That’s not to say that he doesn’t deliver in this role, because he does, at least for the most part. There’s just something that he brings to his performances that tends to detract from the character for me.

That said…

There have been multiple Ant-Men in Marvel history, several heroes having donned the costume, and several more have derived their abilities from the Pym Particle. So, while you might see Ant-Man on the surface and think something to the effect of, “how quaint,” know that his history is deep and extremely influential in the Marvel universe. We’re introduced to Scott Lang’s Ant-Man here, and Marvel has written the screenplay to follow the comic story arc very closely, something that I was very happy to see (significant liberties with the Wasp notwithstanding). They have also done an excellent job of connecting the plot to the larger canon of films by re-telling Dr. Pym’s adventures as Ant-Man during the war, which is very thorough, and something that the writers of all the Marvel films have done such an excellent job of handling since we first saw Iron Man so many years ago. Where the screenplay does depart from the historical arc is with Hope, the daughter of Dr. Pym, and the story of the Wasp. Still, they’ve introduced the character (also a founding member of the Avengers in the literature) strongly, as she deserved, and I can’t wait to see what they do with her in the future.

I really appreciate how Ant-Man is not portrayed as a small, or secondary, character. He’s a powerful hero, and he’s a motivated hero. Scott Lang’s story is closer to us than any hero that we’ve encountered so far from Marvel in many ways, because his is a story of redemption from some tragically poor choices. His redemption isn’t motivated even for his own best interest, but for that of his daughter. This makes Lang more of an everyman character for the audience, displaying a part of the nature of a hero that has proven elusive in many of the other characters in the Avengers universe. There is a lot that has been, and can be, done with this character, and Marvel has now made it clear that they intend to fulfill that potential.

Where Ant-Man falls short is in what Rudd brings to the role…overly and awkwardly comedic instances that feel injected arbitrarily in the story, either by poor improv or bad directorial choices, and that broke my suspension of disbelief on at least three occasions. This is not creative comedy (like Guardians of the Galaxy), but an offbeat, disingenuous sort of addition that was unmerited. Disappointing, but not enough to detract from the movie as a whole.

The climactic battle of the film smacked more that a little of the first Iron Man, something I doubt was intentional as much as it was in need of more inventive possibilities. I think that this un-necessary attempt to replay the first Iron Man…a correlation which leaped out to me twice while in the theatre… is the other disappointment for me. I almost feel as though Peyton Reed was uncertain in his directing, and borrowed more heavily than needed from the established history.

Ant-Man is decidedly different from the Avengers films so far, which is good, because it will introduce a new dynamic into the team in the future (the interaction between Ant-Man and the Falcon is excellent). While weaker than the other movies, this is still a solid offering and one worth seeing and having in your collection. Stay for the hidden endings…there are two of them…and see if you concur that Ant-Man is a good 3.5 star movie.

Image attribution: Global Panorama under Creative Commons.

Heroic Actions to End Bullying

I’ve been intending to write about this for over a week now (he says as he blows the dust off of his neglected blog), but have you seen these variant covers that Marvel comics did for STOMP Out Bullying? If you haven’t, take a moment to look.

Marvel Entertainment was approached by the national anti-bullying organization to assist in promoting National Bullying Awareness Month, and these variant covers were the result. Particularly a nice approach by Marvel, as variant covers tend to be the sorts of things that collectors pounce on, and thus I imagine these were received well.

As you see, the covers feature prominent super heroes from the Marvel universe intervening in the sorts of situations that children face in our school systems every day, as well as situations that follow them outside of the school system (such as cyberbullying). Having spent a great deal of time working with kids who didn’t fit in with the mainstream, I’ve seen how cruel children can be to each other. It only takes one to create a herd mentality that follows the leader in targeting the one without support. More than what I’ve seen in professional pursuits, however, I know what I experienced in school. I was a geek, a misfit, the one who tried to do well in his classes. I didn’t hang out with the popular crowd, because I wasn’t accepted by them. I know the terror that comes with being isolated in a stairwell between classes by someone intent on doing me harm based simply on the fact that I was different. I know the nightmares that follow, the intentional alteration of the routes that you take through the school building. I remember that all too well. There’s been much research into what causes this phenomenon, all of which is valuable, but I will tell you this…what the child being bullied needs is to feel empowered, to know they are not alone.

The nature of a hero is that he or she with more power fights the battle that we cannot. They defend us from the evil to which we would inevitably succumb were we to not find help. Look at the covers from Marvel carefully. The heroes aren’t reacting with force against the bullies. I particularly find this striking in the cover featuring the Hulk, one of the characters that we would immediately expect to retaliate against an act of aggression. Instead, they offering compassion to the child being bullied, offering companionship. In doing so, they are empowering that child, showing the child that they are not alone, and are, in fact, very much like very good people.

The child who is bullied needs that heroism, that support. And we, each of us, can be the hero who helps them in some capacity. We can reach out to offer them that companionship, to let them know that they are not alone and that they are in good company. This is not an activity isolated to professionals…in fact, what has consistently been proven is that family and family friends have more of a positive impact on children than professionals who may be involved in the child’s life. Part of the nature of a hero is that the desire to be a hero, to help the helpless, is wrapped up so deeply in the human experience. Initiatives like this help us to see the small ways in which each of us can act on the desire to be a hero to those in our lives less powerful than ourselves.

A Review of “After the Golden Age”

After the Golden AgeAfter the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most writing in superhero mythology paints the heroes as larger than life, more powerful than we could hope to be…gods among us, if you will…swooping in when all hope seems lost to fight the evil that we could never fight ourselves. The heroes are distant, aloof most often, typically because their position and power has left them that way, too far separated by definition from those that they pledge to defend…or, in the case of the villains, attempt to enslave. Due to their power, they can never be like us, and understand the obligation that comes with that power.

The better writing in superhero mythology explores the heroes’ struggle with that power, with a destiny that has often been thrust upon them by forces outside of themselves. They take up the mantel of defender because they have no other option. With great power, Uncle Ben reminds us, comes great responsibility.

The best writing in superhero mythology steps back from this, though, and remembers what the heroes truly are: people like the rest of us, but choosing to use what they have been given for good. Aliens, perhaps, or mutants, but still touched by a common thread of humanity that leads to a driving impulse to preserve life. Our heroes find common ground with us, even when they are so much larger than us.

There are a few explorations of the people behind the masks that are original enough to cause us to re-examine what lies behind their heroic natures, a handful that are memorable enough to, while not re-defining of a genre, certainly motivation to re-examine a genre. Somewhat out of the blue, Carrie Vaughn, a self-proclaimed lover of comic books and superheroes, has done exactly that, and done so with an interesting starting point: what if these huge, larger-than-life, indestructible heroes were but a blip in the history of heroism? What if their self-sacrificial desire to place the good of others, of their cities, before themselves were not tied to their superhuman abilities, but rather merely better facilitated by them? Wouldn’t that make them even greater heroes?

And wouldn’t that widen the definition of who we consider to be a hero, and what we consider heroism to be?

Vaughn’s protagonist, Celia West, is the daughter of the greatest superheroes that Commerce City has known. Her parents formed a team known as the Olympiad, fittingly titled protectors who watch the city from on high and strike hard against evil. Yet, she is born with no abilities, and lives in the shadow of superhuman parents whose superhuman nature has exacted a toll on their family life. Celia fights for good in her own way, however, in her role as an accountant of all things, with the same determination and passion to right wrongs that her parents hold, without all of the grandiose battles and conflicts. Yet, she is constantly compared to them, constantly made to appear to fall short…and constantly haunted by the one mistake for which she will seemingly find no forgiveness, despite her attempts to make her repentance felt.

Vaughn pays homage to the superhero tales of our youth in an offhandedly humorous but deeply respectful way that demonstrates her love for the tradition, gently touching stereotypes with the love of genre conventions without ever making anything seem unbelievable or silly. Her characters stay with you, her succinct prose and thought-provoking dialogue leave the reader with the moments that define a great book: the moments when you have to put the book down and walk away to digest what it is you’ve just read. Vaughn isn’t just de-constructing classic superhero story arcs here, she’s using the mythology to examine much larger questions: destiny vs. free will, the nature of a hero in each of us, the driving impulses behind self-sacrificing behaviors. She’s questioning what it means to be a hero from every angle, and disabusing us of many of the notions that we have held with conviction up to this point. The heroes that are most visible, we realize, perhaps aren’t the greatest heroes after all, but are merely following in the footsteps of heroes that are greater, and more normal, than we might otherwise imagine, heroes whose convictions were stronger than their powers.

This is the first novel I’ve read from Vaughn, and I’m impressed. The pacing is fluid, the story accessible and only minimally predictable. On the rare occasion in which I found myself suspecting that something didn’t fit, she made it fit within a few pages. Vaughn has done something fascinating with superhero culture here, something redemptive in it’s own right. If you grew up in love with these heroes as I did, this is a novel that will broaden the way you think. If you didn’t, you might just find yourself falling in love with the genre for the first time, because it is accessible to everyone in Vaughn’s prose.

In fact, of all the legacy that this book is likely to leave, that may well be its greatest.

An easy read at just under 400 pages, I recommend this novel for anyone.

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