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July 10, 2005

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Thank Heaven For Hellboy!

"Big talk for a guy with no pants."
                                    Hellboy taunting vampire
                                in Wake the Devil

Omigod!  After twenty-seven years, I finally understand the climax to Superman: The Movie!

(Be warned: Thar be Spoilers ahead.)  When I saw the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie in 1978, I absolutely loved it.  Still do.  But I was always bothered by the climax.  To be frank, I assumed it simply didn't make a lick of sense but the filmmakers figured: What the hey -- he's Superman, right?  He can do anything.  Let him turn back Time itself to save Lois Lane.  What does it matter if he never had the power to turn back the clock in the comics? 

And how does he turn back Time?  Apparently by flying real fast around the planet Earth, but in the opposite direction to its usual rotation, thus causing it to rotate backwards, which, naturally, causes Time itself to go backwards as well.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  That'd work.  Just ask Stephen Hawkings.  Uh-huh.

Elementary Physics aside, even as a kid I knew Superman didn't have the power to turn back Time.  Not in the comics, he didn't.  So, like I said, for the last twenty-seven years, I've just kind of accepted that climax as a necessary evil.  The emotion was what mattered, and the emotion -- oh, momma, the emotion...

Then, a few days ago, I chanced to mention that climax to my brother (faithful co-editor and dog's body), D.K., and he points out -- like it's nothing at all -- that it makes perfect sense -- once we realize Superman didn't turn back the clock.  What he did was fly back through Time and what we saw -- everything moving in reverse, including the rotation of the earth -- was just how things looked from his perspective. 

Get it?

Having gone back in Time, Superman reentered the regular Time stream, only now, of course, there would have been 2 of him, temporarily at least.  Which answers another question I had.  When Jimmy Olsen shows up, after everything is over, he grumbles about Superman leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere.  But, surely, if Superman had really caused Time itself to turn back, then, having been given a second chance, he would have rescued Lois Lane before rescuing Jimmy Olsen.  Ah, but you see, now that there were temporarily 2 Supermen, Superman #1 (the original one) was busy doing everything he did the first time around, including rescuing Jimmy, while Superman #2 (who flew back through Time) could do what needed to be done to stop the earthquake before it reached Lois in her car, thus changing history.

Don't you see?  It all makes perfect sense!  (And they called me mad!  Mad!  N'yah-ha-ha!)  What's more, I visited a bunch of review sites, and not one of them recognized this possibility.  For example, a fellow named Ed Grant at Common Sense Reviews (ha!) claimed:

When Lois becomes a victim of the earthquake, Superman must literally turn back time by flying around the Earth with enough speed to temporarily reverse its orbit.

Like me, they all assumed the ending just didn't make a lick of sense.

Alas, there's only one fly in the ointment.  If Superman was really flying backwards through Time (something he used to do all the time in the comics), why did he have to fly forwards again in order to rejoin the Time stream?  Surely all he had to do was just stop flying.

(Grim pause.)

Moving right along...

I almost didn't write this editorial.  I'm about to reveal something I know I probably shouldn't, not if I want to retain the hard earned respect which I know you all feel for me.  Right?  Right?  (Is this thing on?)

As co-editor of Pulp and Dagger, I am forever cheerleading for pulpish stories, in whatever form they may take.  Once largely confined to the shagwood pages of the Pulp magazines, today Pulp resides, if it resides at all, in Hollywood movies.  Action movies.  Especially, superhero action movies.  It is for that reason that I am embarrassed to admit that I have truly enjoyed almost none of the recent crop of superhero flicks with which we have been blessed starting probably with Tim Burton's Batman (1989 -- Dear God, I feel old!).

I don't know what's wrong.  Is it me?  It seems as if Hollywood screenwriters, the moment they hear the word "superhero", go all Robby the Robot,  unable to handle the simultaneous commands to "write a good screenplay" and to "write a superhero screenplay".  They can give you one or t'other, but not both at once, brother.  Oh no, never both at once.

Take Tim Burton's original Batman.  (Please.)  What sort of fecking plot was that supposed to be?  I'm not saying there was no plot.  We live in the age of the Xbox, remember?  Where "plot" has come to mean "any grouping of fictional events which follows at least a rudimentary progression of cause and effect".  Or, as long as something happens and we basically know why, that's what passes for a plot nowadays.  Given that definition then, sure, Batman had a plot.  Hell, given that definition, Waterworld had a plot.

But Batman didn't have a Plot.  Not the way, say, the second Christopher Reeve Superman had a Plot.

At this point, if you're a big Tim Burton fan, you're probably rolling your eyes and sneering "Right, he's just a dorky Superman fan."  In response to which, allow me to say: "Yeah?  Well, so's yer mudder!"

Then allow me to elucidate.

What was the Plot of Superman II?  Three Kryptonian supervillains escape to Earth, where they set out to do the whole Crush, Kill, Destroy thing.  Unfortunately, Superman is off in his Arctic Fortress of Solitude, shall we say, "dallying" with Lois Lane.  He is told by his mom (and what a time for Mom to show up, eh?) that he must give up his powers and become mortal if he wants to keep on "dallying" with Lois Lane.  Which is what he promptly does -- gives up his powers, causing the Fortress of Solitude to self-destruct, thus ensuring that he can't change his mind and get his powers back later on (say, when Lois grows old and gets, y'know, nose-hairs).  When he returns to civilization, he quickly realizes what a bad idea that was -- giving up his powers, I mean -- and high-tails it back to the Arctic, where he wanders among the ruins of his Fortress and generally emotes real good.  Suddenly he discovers that Lois, bless her!, had chanced to put her purse on one crystal, preventing it from being destroyed and, using this, he rebuilds the Fortress and gets back his powers (but gives up Lois Lane!  *Choke!*).

I won't take it any further -- you get the idea.  In Superman II, there is a clear series of events connected by cause and effect, which form a single coherent narrative arc.  And that is what Tim Burton's Batman lacked -- a single coherent narrative arc.  Events there were, oodles of events.  And cause and effect.  But you could have randomly chosen ten minutes anywhere in that flick, snipped it out, and not have noticed the difference.  And, because there was no sustained narrative, there was no deep emotional involvement either.  For example, we are told that Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is smitten with Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), so much so that he decides to take her, unconscious, to his Batcave, there to reveal his secret.  But when the moment comes for her to wake up and discover she is in the Batcave?  Tim  doesn't even care enough to show us that scene!  (Oooo, that makes me very, very angry!)

Batman isn't alone in lacking a sustained Plot.  That is my main complaint when it comes to most of the recent superhero movies.  But there are other things as well.  Let's consider Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.  Okay, they came closer to giving us a real Plot this time, I'll give them that.  Daredevil falls in love with Elektra only to see her father killed by the evil Bullseye, the blame for which falls on his own manly shoulders.  Not bad.  And yet, I really did not enjoy that movie.  Here's me.......................................................... and here's my enjoyment of that movie.  You see?

My biggest complaint was that the whole concept of Matt Murdock being blind was handled unbelievably.  Remember, everyone is supposed to think Matt Murdock is blind.  They don't know he uses sonic senses to compensate.  And yet, we have scene after flipping scene where he demonstrates his ability to "see" in the presence of a witness, and the witness just frowns, then goes on as if nothing had happened.  Maybe once, I could buy it, as a joke.  Maybe twice.  But it happens again and again!

Then too, what are we supposed to make of the scene where Murdock first meets Elektra and they get into a sort of sexually charged fight/dance?  The surreally choreographed fight/dance I could deal with.  But again, Elektra is supposed to think he is blind.  Who in their right mind would start kick-boxing a blind man?  I don't care if he did say he wanted you to.  I don't care if he showed a remarkable ability to block your first kick.  I don't care if he is Master Freaking Po, would you really start wailing on him?  Think of the optics, girl!

I could go through every superhero film I've seen in the last couple of decades, but let's cut to the one that really matters.  Spider-Man II.  Critics went ga-ga over that one, even more so than they went ga-ga over the first Spider-Man movie.  Spider-Man II, they said, was what a superhero movie should be.  And, sure, I certainly thought it was pretty good.  I maybe even enjoyed it -- mildly.  Here's me......... and here's my enjoyment.  You see?  But I still didn't love it.  And you know why?  Because the whole wasn't greater than the sum of its parts... and the parts weren't no great shakes to begin with, either.

I don't think I'm the only one who detected more than a hint of Superman-envy in the two Spider-Man movies.  There were scenes which just couldn't help but remind us of Superman.  How about the scene where Spider-Man takes Mary Jane Watson up into a web strung over the city, there for a romantic tryst under the stars, before bringing her, dazed and blissed, to earth again.  Remember when Superman took Lois flying, like Peter Pan?  ("Peter Pan flew with children, Lois.") 

Then too, in Spider-Man II, Spidey loses his superpowers as a direct result of his love for Mary Jane -- just like in Superman II.  The problem is, what worked for Superman I and II just seems thrown together for Spider-Man I and II -- as if they aren't entirely sure why they are doing it, except that Superman did it, and folks really enjoyed Superman!  In Superman II, losing his powers created real tension because we knew Superman needed those powers to save earth from the three Kryptonian baddies.  In Spider-Man II, it hardly inconveniences Spider-Man a jot.  We have one scene where Doc Ock robs a bank and Spidey's powers cut out on him, provoking little more than a groan of disgust, before Spidey goes right on fighting the way he normally would.  For that matter, because Superman made the decision to voluntarily give up his powers for Lois, there was an emotional level to the thing that Spider-Man II couldn't dream of.  Spider-Man's loss of powers is completely involuntary, and about as emotionally involving as erectile dysfunction.

Frankly, I was beginning to worry.  From Batman to Blade to Daredevil to The Hulk to Spider-Man II, I just wasn't having that much fun.  For all that I enjoyed these flicks (or parts of them, at any rate -- you haven't lived until you've seen Nick Nolte chomping on an industrial coaxial cable), I hadn't seen one of the lot that I would have paid good money to see again.  I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

Thank heaven for Hellboy.

Just when I was ready to give up entirely, along came Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy based on the comic by Mike Mignola.  I really enjoyed Hellboy.  I mean, REALLY enjoyed it.  Finally, Hollywood produced a superhero movie that I wanted to see again.  I could go on all day listing the many scenes and lines of dialogue I thought worked, but I won't. 

Okay, I will, but only because you insisted.  Ushers, lock the doors.

Where to begin -- oh yeah.  (Deep breath.)  Hellboy fighting with the box of kittens under one arm.  Hellboy yanking the "thing" out of his arm and, to his partner's horrified "What did it do to you?", blandly replying "I'll go ask."  Hellboy chucking a stone at his partner's head in a fit of childish jealousy.  Hellboy falling short of his leap between two rooftops and yelling "Crap!"  Hellboy standing in the rain at the funeral.  Hellboy yelling "Boom!" when punching the monsters.  Hellboy snarling "You stupid monster!" as they plunged down a seemingly endless shaft, trading blows the whole way.  Hellboy laughing because he thought the monster missed him, then realizing the monster was aiming at the support pillar, with predictable results.  Hellboy going "Ouch."

Okay, you get the picture -- I liked its quirky humour.  But, although most of those examples were jokes, the shot of Hellboy in the rain was very serious, and very emotional.  And that's why I really enjoyed Hellboy.  It does a remarkable job of weaving effortlessly between humour and horror, between laughter and tears, between silly and sentimental.  One minute Hellboy is tossing off some cleverly understated quip ("See, the thing is, I'm a really bad shot.  But this gun fires really big bullets."), the next we have an intensely emotional scene between Hellboy and his fire-starting on-again/ off-again girlfriend, Liz Sherman. (A dynamic, by the way, added for the movie and not found in the comic.)

More to the point, Hellboy has what a good movie -- what a great movie -- ought to have: a single coherent narrative arc.  There is nothing episodic about it.  It has basically two plot lines: One involving Rasputin trying to bring about the End of the World; the other, a beauty and the beast style doomed romance between Hellboy and Liz.  Everything is directed toward furthering those two narrative threads.  So instead of Tim Burton's disjointed tossed salad, we have something far more satisfying.  A story we can sink our teeth into.  (Nice metaphor, eh?  Well, one tries one's best.)

Ron Perlman does a remarkable job as Hellboy and that foam muscle-suit is the best I've ever seen (and, yes, as a matter of fact I have seen others).  But here's the interesting thing.  I was already a passionate fan of Mignola's Hellboy comic book.  For years, I had felt about comics pretty much the way I felt about superhero movies -- they were okay, but only just.  Then the Hellboy comic reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the art form.  Even more amazing, it was a toss up which I liked more, the writing or the art.  So, it might seem obvious that I would enjoy the movie based on the comic.  Except that, as my brother pointed out to me, there are at least two substantial differences between the two.  Firstly, the comic takes place in very traditional horror settings, dark, crumbling Hungarian castles and the like, whereas the movie takes place largely in the abandoned tunnels of the New York Underground.  Secondly, the Hellboy in the movie isn't the same, personality wise, as Hellboy in the comic.  In the movie, he is a sort of sweetly gruff misanthrope.  In the comic, he is basically just a friendly guy -- who happens to look like a demon with cropped horns.  Yet, in spite of these differences, I was won over totally by both interpretations.

In the end, one thing won me over more than anything else.  That was the beauty and the beast doomed romance between Hellboy and Liz.  According to del Toro, he had a tough time convincing the studio to let him hire Ron Perlman to play the hero.  Which is kind of funny.  After all, Ron Perlman practically cut his fangs playing the Beast to Linda Hamilton's Beauty on the short-lived TV series Beauty and the Beast.  While I never felt that series quite lived up to its promise (actually I thought it was boring as watching paint peel), Perlman made the leonine Vincent live and breathe, in spite of being buried under tons of latex "appliances".  It wasn't a stretch to see him playing the beastly Hellboy -- no, not even the romantic parts.

Like I said, it was the mushy stuff that really won me over.  And it was the lack of mushy stuff -- or, at least, the lack of conviction vis-a-vis the mushy stuff -- that hurt all those other superhero movies.  Not one of the ruddy bunch of them sold me that the hero was really in love with the girl.  Or that the girl was in love with the hero. In The Hulk, we have a scene of Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) talking to her dad on her cell phone while watching the army carpet bomb the river beneath which Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), the supposed love of her life, is hiding in the guise of the green goliath.  Any minute now his body could come floating to the surface.  By the blank look in her eyes, she might as well have been watching the neighbour's lawn sprinkler going ratatatatatatata... click... ratatatatatatata... click...

I guess I'm just a real sucker for a good doomed romance, especially a beauty and the beast one.  I loved Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, The Phantom of the Opera.  And my favourite movie -- which you may recall from a previous editorial -- was the 1976 remake of King Kong.  You  begin to sense a pattern developing here, yes?  But I won't talk about KK '76.  I promised myself I wouldn't.  That would start me thinking about how unreasoningly vicious the critics are to that flick, and... and... and...

Ooooo, that makes me very, very angry!

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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