Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Real-life adventures

This morning I needed to go to the grocery store before embarking on the daily commute, because today is the office holiday party and I had volunteered to bring brownies and opted for store-bakery rather than homemade, and there aren’t any easily accessible grocery stores near work. My town, on the other hand, has two Giants (in addition to many other supermarkets but Giant is my go-to) – one on the main drag which would be on the way to the Metro, and one off the beaten path in the opposite direction, the latter being the one I tend to go to more often because the back roads are a little easier to contend with than the traffic and lights of the main drag. As I was leaving the house I was inspired to go to the Giant way off the main drag and then, instead of doubling back to the highway and on to the Metro, I would go to the VRE station, which is in the same general neck of the woods.

As I was approaching the parking garage for the VRE I was on a sidestreet that runs parallel to the railroad tracks and I saw the crossing gates go down with their lights flashing. I made it to the garage and parked in the first spot I found and hustled to the platform where the train was waiting, but where I also had to validate my current ten-ride ticket. I managed to complete that electronic transaction just as the train’s “doors closing” recorded announcement sounded and I literally jumped on with maybe two seconds to spare. Major excitement for the six o’clock hour of the morning, and downright exhilarating for having saved me about 25 minutes of standing on the platform waiting for the next train (and second-guessing every element of the plan up to that point) – but as evidenced by the fact that once I caught my breath I spent the rest of the train ride totally engrossed in a graphic novel based on mathematics, philosophy, logic and the biography of Bertrand Russell, clearly I am a geek of the highest order and thus not to be trusted with terms like ‘exhilarating’.

Recently I’ve been thinking a bit more than usual (which is saying something) about the persistent disconnects between geeks and comics and more mainstream audiences and mainstream entertainments like tv and movies, especially where you would think there should be overlaps given how tv and movies have been mining comics for source material lately. The general thought goes a little something like this: there are certain genre conventions associated with most comics (“most” being for present purposes synonymous with “super-hero”) which the people who have traditionally worked in higher-profile fields can reliably wrap their heads around, because more or less it all grows out of a common heroic narrative tradition, etc., and thus we get truly excellent movies like Hellboy or Iron Man or whathaveyou, and Disney XD cartoons like the Avengers, and so on. It’s hit or miss, of course, because everything is, but at least both sides are represented. But there’s also a sub-culture that has grown up around comics, and apparently that sub-culture is so different from the prevailing majority that it’s much trickier to get a good bead on. At least I assume as much because geek-portrayals seem pretty consistently miss or miss.

Last week I watched The Big Bang Theory. Normally I avoid that show because I’ve tried watching it a couple times and it seems lame, consisting mostly of very predictable “jokes” that somehow seem even worse accompanied by laugh-track cues as they are. But this past Thursday I tuned in for two reasons. One, Community was a repeat. Two, the cable info preview informed me that the plot would involve the cast dressing up as the Justice League for a New Year’s Eve masquerade and I was at least moderately amused by the very idea of that. So I watched, and most of the set-ups and punchlines were still lame, but there were a couple of chuckles to be had and the costumes were cute (especially an elaborate Aquaman get-up including a seahorse steed, which completely ruled) and the next day I was able to follow some message board chatter about the episode and understand the references first-hand (though more often than not it’s easy enough to pick them up on context alone: nerds, comics, socially awkward, ha ha ha).

So one of the major linchpins of the plot of the episode was the effort to convince the nerds’ hot blonde neighbor to be the Wonder Woman of their Justice League group costume effort. She half-heartedly goes along but a sticking point arises with her refusal to wear a black wig. Sheldon, the most spectrum-like (and here I mean Aspergers/Autism spectrum, not War of the Lanterns spectrum, which may quite possibly be a distinction only I would need to draw in the first place) of the nerds tried to impress upon her that Amazons as a rule are never blonde and Wonder Woman has never been blonde and for the sake of accuracy she has no choice but to wear the wig. In the end she goes along with this. But of course someone on the message boards the next day felt compelled to point out that Sheldon was conveniently ignoring the fact that there has been a blonde Wonder Girl, so …? Honestly I have no idea what that commenter’s point might have been because Wonder Girl and Wonder Woman are two different characters, not to mention the fact that while legacy-driven heroic traditions like The Flash or Green Lantern or even Wonder Woman have passed the mantle from wearer to wearer throughout the years and sometimes details of physical appearance (even major ones like race and gender) might change, EVEN SO all the versions of Wonder Woman who have also been members of the Justice League have always been raven-haired, so Sheldon’s sticklerism was in the right place, arguably.

None of which changes the fact that there are tons of other details the show gets wrong, if not factually, then maybe in spirit. I have been to enough comic book conventions that I have entertained thoughts from time to time of convincing my buddies to do a group costume. And the specific notion I have toyed with most frequently is doing the 80’s line-up of the Avengers which includes some recognizable characters like Captain America and Thor but also such luminaries as the Black Knight and Starfox (who would be the character I personally would want to dress up as, mostly because I have the right kind of crazy thick and shapable hair to pull of his look, I think).

In the circles I move in, this hairstyle is known as the 'Wolverine Wingety-Thingety'
In the inverted world of geekdom, you see, “cool” takes on different values. Specificity is cool. Obscurity is cool. Not everyone would get who me and my friends were supposed to be, exactly, if we showed up looking like those two guys who have separate movies coming out soon and a refugee from Camelot and their Flock of Seagulls meets Spiders from Mars buddy, but those who did get it would do so with admiration. The flipside of that premise, of course, is that dressing up as the Justice League is lame even for comic book nerds, because it’s just so obvious. It’s something little kids would do, not something adult hardcore continuity-arguing geeks would do, yet The Big Bang theory wants to present its characters as the latter.

I also recently saw the movie Kick-Ass, which I hadn’t been that sorry to miss in theaters but felt I needed to have under my belt since some of my buddies saw it and liked it well enough to keep bringing it up in conversation. It is a deeply flawed movie, based on what I assume is a deeply flawed comic, but it has a certain rough charm if you deliberately ignore the most problematic parts. Still, the very end has stuck in my craw. Bear with me as I try to sum it up in the fastest and most painless way possible (which of course will involve spoilers).

The story centers on a comicbook-obsessed geek who gives his own life meaning by becoming a self-made superhero (named Kick-Ass, of course), with varying degrees of success over the course of the film played alternately for laughs or pathos. He ends up in conflict with a stereotypical crime boss who happens to have a geeky son of his own who also loves comics, and in order to win his father’s love the son assumes a superhero identity (Red Mist) to get close to the protagonist with the intent of betraying him, which works to an extent but ultimately the protagonist triumphs and kills the crime boss and then retires from crime-fighting, but apparently not before inspiring several others to take back the streets in the trappings of comicbook-style heroes.

The final shot of the movie had the potential to be a little bit provocative. The expected, cliché story arc would have the crime boss’s son ultimately realize that winning the love of an evil man is impossible, not worth doing, or both, and trying to atone for his own treachery and realizing he doesn’t want to follow in daddy’s footsteps. But as it goes the son defends his father to the end, and gets beat up by the protagonist before the final crime boss confrontation. Then as the closing narration explains the new way of the world, there’s a zoom in on the crime boss’s old penthouse office, only now the son is sitting at the desk, wearing a modified version of his Red Mist costume which looks more explicitly villainous. The legacy of evil continues and our retired hero still has an arch-enemy out there with real motivation to hate him and seek revenge (all of which obviously is set-up for a sequel but doesn’t change the fact that at least it’s a slightly non-braindead way to fade out).

Here’s the thing, though: for the big reveal of the supervillain reborn, Red Mist looks into the camera while slipping on a Hannibal Lecter-like mask and muses: “As a great man once said, wait til they get a load of me.” OK, wait, what? I mean, I get the quote is a reference to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, fine. It’s just that it’s a terrible, terrible reference. Red Mist is supposed to be all of 18 and the movie is set slightly in the future of an alternate world (evidenced by the fact that Kick-Ass and his buddies go see The Spirit 3 at the movies at one point, establishing a reality where an atrocious movie from 2009 got the full trilogy treatment) which means when Tim Burton’s Batman came out Red Mist hadn’t even been born. TB’s Batman is something of a touchstone for geeks of a certain age (ahem, like me) but honestly it’s only OK, and Nicholson’s Joker can be either revered or reviled depending on who you’re talking to. Younger kids today would no doubt consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman their touchstone, Heath Ledger their definitive Joker (if they took such things from movies rather than comics to begin with). Yeah, the Nicholson reference is apt for the situation at the end of the movie but it’s not something a self-respecting comics geek, especially a younger one, would think was cool to say. And the whole plot point, as I tried to explain above, is that the kid was able to become the Red Mist mainly because he is a diehard comics geek. All of which gets undercut by the tritely “clever” ending.

But I get it, I do. The Big Bang Theory and Kick-Ass aren’t geared primarily at me and my sub-culture. They’re ultimately vehicles for making as much money as possible by appealing to the broadest audience possible, and way more people know who the Justice League are or have seen the Tim Burton Batman movie than care about the value the geek sub-culture places on actually having a more than superficial understanding (or slavish memorization) of the subject matter at its core. It’s a momentary annoyance when it comes up, but if I can’t go on and on and on about those annoyances here I must be doing something wrong.

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