"In the long run, comic-book heroes may have just one insuperable advantage over science...cooler costumes."
--KAPOW! SUPERHERO SCIENCE, a presentation of the Discovery Channel
I was getting my super-hero kicks from everywhere but comic books this past weekend, starting with a Friday night trip to the multiplex to see THE HULK, director Ang Lee's take on the classic character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I went to the first evening screening--there had been four or five "matinee" showings starting at noon--and was pleased to see that a) HULK was showing in two of the multiplex's biggest theaters and, b) about 80% of the seats were occupied.
HULK is rated PG-13. I was surprised to see that some parents had brought their young children to the film. From what I knew of the story, I would have thought some scenes, such as those dealing with Bruce Banner's childhood trauma, would be too intense and/or violent for the under-eight crowd. After the film, I was impressed at how well director Lee had implied, rather than shown, the most intense material. A kid could still be shaken up by what he saw on the screen, but he wouldn't have the "worst" of it shoved into his face in excruciating detail.
Some quick comments on HULK:
I think this is the first Marvel film I've seen in which I was keenly aware of the presence of a director and, astonishingly, that only added to my enjoyment. Lee put his stamp on HULK and did so without taking anything away from the comic book and its creators. He was respectful of what had come before.
The movie takes its time getting to the Hulk, but that time is well spent developing Banner and the difficult circumstances of his pre-Hulk life. Dread is in the air early on; it's almost a relief when things finally go horribly awry.
Eric Bana is terrific as Banner. He plays the guy so tightly wound, so repressed, clearly in conscious and unconscious turmoil, that you almost expect him to Hulk-out before he gets up close and personal with the gamma rays.
Jennifer Connelly (as Betty Ross) is a chameleon. When she's with Bruce, she's almost as tight as he is. When she's with Glenn Talbot, a former military guy turned corporate raider, she becomes a bit flirtatious. When she's with her hard-nosed father, General "Thunderbolt" Ross, she gets tougher herself. Her performance is subtle and not entirely successful, but she elevates her character well above the typical "girlfriend in peril" level.
Sam Elliott embodies the caricature/cliche that was too often General Ross in the comic books, but he also humanizes the former Cold Warrior. When he stiffly expresses his love and respect for his daughter, it's obvious that he, like Bruce and Betty, keeps his emotions under seal.
The two characters who don't keep anything bottled up are the least interesting. Talbot (Josh Lucas) was so obviously an immoral sleaze that the audience darn near cheered whenever he reaped the physical hay of the misery he sowed. He became more of a cartoon character than the Hulk, as did Nick Nolte who, as Banner's crazed father, left no scenery unchewed.
The audience did cheer when Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, playing security guards, got their moment on the screen. It wasn't subtle, it was clearly a wink to the faithful, and it scored big points for director Lee.
Throughout the film, especially once the Hulk starts getting screen time, Lee embraces the character's comic-book roots. There are sequences which could have been lifted from Kirby-drawn pages. There are sequences where information is conveyed swiftly through multiple panels. Yes, the Hulk himself is obviously a CGI-created image, but Lee blends the animated construct so well into the story that accepting the monster as real comes easy.
Outside of Lucas and Nolte, my biggest problems with the movie are with key action sequences. The "Hulk-dogs" were recipients of much pre-release moaning and groaning. They aren't as silly as we had feared, but their battle with the transformed Banner, occurring in a thickly wooded area at night, is a confusing muddle. I swear the Hulk kills the pooches more than once.
The Army and the Hulk fighting out in the desert was action in a Kirby vein and I was thrilled. However, such pains were taken to minimize, if not altogether deny, any casualties that it stretched my willing suspension of disbelief.
The climatic battle was the biggest disappointment. I'm told it makes far more sense in Peter David's novelization, but, since I didn't realize I had to do the homework BEFORE seeing the movie, the sequence left me unsatisfied and...angry.
Lee redeemed himself somewhat with a wonderful epilogue, but that final battle had me leaving the theater with a lower opinion of the film than it deserved. With a day or two to think about it, I like the film a lot. It's worth seeing a second time and there's no doubt I'll be buying the DVD.
I enjoyed SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN 2 more, but THE HULK is a good and occasionally great movie. For reasons lost to the ages, this column uses a scale of zero to five floating, smiling heads to rate that which it reviews. Director Lee's take on this classic comics character earns him four-and-a-half Tonys.
Saturday morning found me watching a very special episode of STATIC SHOCK on Kids WB. "Blast From the Past" found the teenage Static teaming with Soul Power, a retired super-hero from the 1960s and 1970s. As should be obvious, and, judging from the just under a hundred e-mails I received after the episode aired, WAS obvious, the role of Soul Power role was originally intended to be played by Black Lightning, the DC Comics character I created for the company in the mid-1960s. More on that later.
STATIC SHOCK is one of my two favorite current cartoons, the other being THE SIMPSONS. Static, Virgil Hawkins, is a likeable, believable hero. He can be cocksure and even a bit disrespectful. He makes mistakes. But he has a solid moral compass, an inspiring sense of civic responsibility, and undeniable courage, all values clearly instilled in him by his father and other adult role models. Indeed, the importance of such role models is at the heart of both this episode and my own Black Lightning stories.
(Forgive me for sounding like a proud parent. I can claim no credit for "Blast From the Past." I'm just so delighted to see the sensibilities I try to bring to my work portrayed so well in this episode and the series in general.)
When DC refused to license Black Lightning to STATIC SHOCK for the episode, the original story had to be scrapped. From what I've been told, in that story, Lightning was younger than Soul Power and still actively fighting crime and injustice, and the story itself was played straighter. But while I regret what could have been, I have nothing but love for what did air.
Writers Adam Beechan and John Semper, Jr. combined nostalgic laughs with lots of heart as an old foe of the electrically-charged Soul Power returns to menace Dakota again. Static resists joining forces with the retired super-hero, now a resident of a retirement home, but join forces they do. The menaces they face come off as a little old-fashioned, exactly what one might expect from a 1960s super-villain. The humor of these situations works without being disrespectful of the past, and what comes through brightest of all is the ability of Soul Power to inspire others. By episode's end, my grin was almost too big for my face.
STATIC SHOCK: "Blast From the Past" gets the full five Tonys. It joins "Jimmy" and "Static in Africa" as my favorite episodes of the series...and that's a major accomplishment.
On a related news note, "Jimmy," the second-season episode on gun violence among teens and gun control, has been nominated for the prestigious Humanitas Prize:
"In American culture at the present time, only the human family itself surpasses media's capacity to communicate values, form consciences, supply role models, and motivate human behavior. Humanitas exists to encourage those who create contemporary media to use their immense power in a humanistic way, to enrich as well as entertain their viewers."
"Jimmy" was written by STATIC SHOCK producer Alan Burnett and Static co-creator Dwayne McDuffie. Past winners of the Humanitas Prize include Larry Gelbert, Earl Pommeranz, Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, David Simon, and Burnett, who won the award in 1987 for his work on THE SMURFS. For more on the Humanitas Prize and a list of past winners, go to:
The award reception is July 10. Check back with us in about a month and I'll let you know if "Jimmy" won.
On Sunday, I watched the previously-aired-and-taped Discovery Channel special, KAPOW! SUPERHERO SCIENCE. This hour-long program considered the super-powers possessed by Spider-Man, the Hulk, and various members of the X-Men, and then showed how close or how far science was to or from duplicating them.
The bad news is that exposure to radiation is more likely to kill you than give you incredible powers...that the human body is not capable of attaining Hulk-like proportions...and that there is no scientific evidence for psionic-based powers. The good news is that other "super-powers" do appear to be attainable, albeit not at the present time.
The spider's web really is as strong and as flexible as that used by Spider-Man. Scientists are studying it and have achieved limited success in duplicating it, though not with the strength and utility of the real thing. For this program's big finish, we saw a man-made "web-line," one inch in diameter, lift and hold several vehicles, one of them a mini-van, above the ground.
The Hulk? The program ruled out the human body being capable of attaining the physical dimensions of the Hulk as we see him in the comics and movies of today. I think we might have better luck with the Hulk as he was first drawn by Jack Kirby, though I doubt human beings would be capable of even that Hulk's incredible feats of strength.
Moving to the X-Men, Jean Grey and Charles Xavier get written off pretty quickly. Telepathy and telekinesis are still the stuff of fantasy and fiction. Other Marvel mutants fare better.
Smaller and more portable lasers are being developed all the time. We might even have lasers capable of knocking out missiles on a battlefield by decade's end. However, we're still a long way from a laser that could match the eye-beams of Cyclops for compact size and utility.
The powers of Magneto and Storm can be duplicated only on the smallest scale. We can already use magnetic energy to move objects along specially-constructed tracks. We are learning how to attract and harness the power of lightning.
Wolverine is the hero we're closest to being able to recreate. Doctors and scientists have been replacing human bones with metal counterparts for years now. The devices and their techniques for installing them improve continuously. A metal replacement can even be made to "grow" in imitation of the human bone.
Wolverine's extraordinary longevity and vigor is also within the realm of human potential. We know that aging often stops at a certain point, which is why so many humans are reaching the age of 100 or more. One scientist interviewed on the program opined that, as health and medical care improve, we will be able to live longer and retain more of our adult vitality as we do so.
KAPOW! SUPERHERO SCIENCE was educational and entertaining, and very respectful of the comics icons it examined. It loses a point for that stupid sound effect in its title, and another half-point for dragging slightly in parts. Overall, though, it was well worth watching. I give it three-and-a-half Tonys.
Maybe next week I'll get around to reading some actual super-hero comic books. Or, at least, some actual comics.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1548 [July 18, 2003], which shipped June 30. The cover story focused on Neil Gaiman and his several upcoming releases while the secondary lead warned of fraudulent eBay e-mails.
I should be winging my way home from Las Vegas today, having spent two weeks in San Diego (for Comic-Con International) and Los Angeles. In order to keep these CBG columns coming to you on their regular schedule, I needed to get three of them to webmaster Justin before I left for the convention. Unfortunately, that also meant cutting out the new material which usually accompanies their online presentation. I'll be back up to speed next time.
Until then, thanks for spending part of your busy weekend with me. I'll be back next Saturday with more stuff.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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