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Today is Errol Flynn‘s birthday. If you don’t know who Errol Flynn was, you can just leave right now, because the rest of this post won’t mean a thing to you. Or, better yet, you can email me for a list of movies that will change your life. Your choice.

Regardless, those of you who remain should follow me: We all know how popular comic book movies are today, and we all know that back in the Golden Age of the 1930s, there were no comic books movies because…there were no comic books (until 1938). Whether this contributes to the 1930s being the Golden Age is left to debate. But what if there had been comic books (and comic books movies) in the 1930s? What if Superman and Batman and Spider-Man had existed during the Depression–and what if all of those superstars had played them?

I have some ideas. Some will be, “Well, of course!” and some will be controversial. But the idea of any of these legendary actors playing any of these roles…that’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Errol Flynn: Flynn is first up, not only because it’s his birthday, but as someone dear to me has said, “He put the ‘swash’ in swashbuckle.” On the DC side, I know it’s cliched, but I really can’t see Flynn playing anyone better than Green Arrow. On the Marvel side, however, he was born to play Fandral of Thor’s buddies, the Warriors Three.*

Randolph Scott: Superman. Duh.

Maureen O’Sullivan: Wonder Woman. I know the look is wrong, but I don’t care. Or the Black Widow (where she would fit the look much better).

Tyrone Power: Batman. Again, duh. He played Zorro. Bruce Wayne would never be the same. Or Iron Man. Tyrone Power as Tony Stark? Box office platinum.

Basil Rathbone: In the DCU, he could be stuck in the role of Alfred Pennyworth (whom he would make a headliner). But he might never move over from Marvel, where he would play…Doctor Strange.

Johnny Weissmuller: Aquaman/Namor the Sub-mariner. Typecasting, yes, but he was the best swimmer in Hollywood.

I am wracking my brain trying to come up with roles for William Powell and Myrna Loy, but I can’t. And I really want to. Help me.

 

*Unfortunately, Mr. Flynn was never available to play either of these roles, because he was solidly under contract portraying Han Solo.

 

 

 

 

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We went to a presentation the other day featuring cast members and show runners from the CW‘s four superhero shows: Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow. We had a fine time; all of the panelists were entertaining and the whole thing was moderated by Kevin Smith, who had the audience in stitches. Kevin’s introduction described how as a kid, he had read comic books to be transported, and how they always made him feel like a better person because they were all about the good guys and their triumphs.

This made me think: Literature is virtually always about the good guys winning. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, for example George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman (no relation to The Flash), but you’d really be hard-pressed to find a book or comic where in the end you weren’t supposed to root for the good guys. Oftimes, the good guys are bad guys, but those are anti-heroes, bad guys you root for because their adversaries are even worse. Are with you with me so far? Of course you are, this isn’t controversial.

So why is it, then, that comic books are blamed for the decline of Western Civilization?* These are highly moralistic stories. The good guys virtually always win. They put their lives on the line, without pay, issue after issue for decades, sometimes (in the case of Marvel heroes) in the face of public ridicule, scorn, and even persecution. Who doesn’t want to live in a society where everyone is ready and willing to take on evil and stand up to oppression? How can a medium which produced Superman be bad?

I know a lot of the knocks against comic books are the same as are leveled against science fiction: it’s juvenile, it’s poorly written, it’s unbelievable. And I ask each of those the same thing: Have you read this stuff lately? Have you ever read this stuff?

Granted, comic books have a tendency to make you believe that violence (no matter how reluctantly practiced) solves every problem. But I would argue that being a “force” is less important than being a “force for good,” or at least it was when I was reading.

When I was a kid, reading comic books was not viewed by my parents as an optimal use of my time. I would argue though, that comic books (and later pulp novels) did as much to form my moral outlook as religious education, or upbringing. I’m not saying I’m going to stand in front of a runaway truck or face down bank robbers–but I am saying that if I had a little influx of cosmic energy, you might hear…

“Who is that masked man, anyway? He’s straight out of a comic book!”

 

*Yes, there were the EC comics of the 1950s. But really, it was the 1950s!

#SFWApro

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Recently, Entertainment Weekly ran an piece on “The 50 Most Powerful Superheroes.” Not limited to actual power(s), this article used criteria such as “mythology,” “modern relevance,” and “bankability,” in addition to sheer strength. Each item was worth 10 points, with the exception of “cultural impact,” which was worth 20. A perfect score was 100.

In the main, I had no argument with their choices; after all, there were 50 heroes to choose from, and all of these studies are as subjective as they are non-scientific. But right up front, I have to take issue with their choices. You see, before I started the list, I thought: “Well, obviously Superman is number one.” Wrong. Superman was number four. Number one was Wonder Woman.

Now I have never been a Wonder Woman fan, but I understand her standing in the pantheon. I also understand that at this particular moment in history, she is leading the DC charge. (Forget Superman and the guy with the mask; they’re blown until DC figures out how to make a Marvel movie.) But

Wonder Woman is not Superman. She is not as powerful (10 points), doesn’t have the nemesis (10 points), the mythology or the cultural impact. She does have the edge in cultural relevance, but bankability? She has had one TV series which lasted longer than it should have. She has a movie coming out, and it may be a huge hit, but it hasn’t come out yet. Superman has had four TV series (counting Superboy), and seven movies. Like it or not, Superman is the reason there’s a DC movie universe today (or a Marvel movie universe, for that matter).

They picked Wonder Woman because she’s the trendy choice. She has a long way to go before she reaches the international and historical plateau that Superman occupies. DC is choosing to lower the bar that she must hurdle (not her fault), but she still has to hurdle it.

I’ll give her credit, though. She’s off to a running start.

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Recently I talked about how the Superman movie “Man of Steel” had totally blown the the character by having Superman kill his fellow Kryptonian, Zod. (Sorry if that was a spoiler.) The main thrust is that the only thing keeping Superman from taking over the Earth (and maybe a good chunk of the universe) is his Midwestern-raised, strict moral code. Really, the only thing stopping a guy that powerful is himself. And now that he’s crossed that bridge, there isn’t any coming back to the other side.

But there is never so great an affront to a famous fictional character so great that someone cannot make it bigger. They screwed up Atticus Finch, but at least that was written by the author (if never meant to be released). They messed up Superman, but you can argue the morality of what he did, and how it was an extreme measure that he will not be forced to repeat, and that, while a betrayal of the character, it would only affect him going forward; it does not touch his past. He is still the man he was.

Alas, as I said, there is always a way to make things worse. And this latest travesty comes from a surprising source. Marvel has managed to achieve a goal that would have been unthinkable ten years ago: It has made Captain America arguably more popular than Superman. And then it made a misstep that would have been unthinkable ten days ago: It announced that everything you think you know, everything you have ever read, everything you have ever believed about Captain America (morally speaking the Superman of the Marvel universe), is wrong. Not only is Captain America not the fine, upstanding, patriotic symbol of freedom we were always told he was, he’s actually a villain.

Seriously?

It is common for long-running fictional franchises to throw in a major curveball every few years to try to keep things fresh. Usually, you “kill” the hero, or give him (or her) a new love interest, move him to a new city, etc. And it has become all-too-popular in recent years to re-boot characters or even entire universes to shake up storylines and give new fans an entry point. DC has done it so many times they’re now re-booting their re-boots.

But to take a once-second tier character, pump up  his popularity  by orders of magnitude through a series of blockbuster movies, and then tell the world that he was never the guy they thought he was, but was actually working for the other side all the time? Are you nuts? Captain America has beaten the Red Skull so many times you wonder why the Skull even bothers to show up for work. And I’m supposed to believe that they’re on the same side?

That’s like saying Superman has secretly been on Lex Luthor’s payroll since 1939. Or that Bruce Wayne has been playing Batman and the Joker for fifty years. It is more than a complete misunderstanding of the character, it is a punch in the gut to every kid who ever shelled out 10 cents or 25 cents or $1.25 to read one of his adventures–not to mention the millions who shelled out $12 or more to see his movies. This isn’t a joke; it’s a sick joke.

Now, I am more familiar than most with the idea that nothing in comics is permanent. If they can come up with a way to explain how Krypton never exploded, they will. So this, too, will pass. It may not even be real. But it could have serious long-term effects. First, if this is not some kind of undercover deal Cap is on, all of his established fans are going to leave. This isn’t what they signed on for. Second, the new fans–well, why would anyone start buying Captain America now? He’s a bad guy. And how long can they maintain that storyline? How long will people watch him not fight the Red Skull, or lie to the Avengers?

People change. Characters change. But “change” is not the same as, “Ha ha. Fooled you. Uncle Ben faked his death for the insurance money. And Aunt May was in on it.”

You can fool all of the people some of the time. That’s why mysteries are so popular. But in the end you have to play fair, not change the rules to suit your conclusion. Rewriting a 70-year-old character’s entire life to wipe out the reason why people have bought into it for so long? It’s not fair. It’s not right. All it’s going to do is make your fans say, “You know, now that I think about it, ‘Man of Steel’ wasn’t so bad…”

#SFWApro

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There’ve been a lot of comparisons between Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. (I haven’t seen either, which puts me in a great position to talk about them. No, really, it does, because I’m not biased by having seen only one.)* The main question is why the latter resonates with audiences when the former does not. Yes, I know B v S made a ton of money, but we’re going to be talking about audience engagement here.

The comparisons seem to focus on the two studios’ franchises, which may be unfair because the DC “cinematic universe” is only two movies old. (One of the glaring differences is that Marvel’s movie universe is cohesive going back years, while DC’s is fragmented going back more than a couple of films. And don’t let’s digress into TV.) As far as you can legitimately compare and contrast, however, the difference is plainly one of tone. And that’s down to the writing. (And the director, but the writing is what we see on screen, so we’ll go with that.)

Marvel has proven adept at predicting what tone the audience will want in relation to each character. From Iron Man’s origin, leavened with humor, to Captain America showing us the importance of being earnest, to the Guardians’ and Ant-Man’s serious business wrapped up in slapstick, each has managed to find its own sure footing, leading to critical (as well as financial) success. WB/DC, on the other hand, has so far resorted to making every film a Batman film, which works great…for Batman.

Superman…not so much.

Which raises the question: For whom are you writing–the author or the audience? Characters must be true to themselves, but audiences won’t read (or watch) characters they don’t like. This is doubly so when you’re dealing with already established characters. How far can you change them? Do you have the right to change them? After all, the conglomerate that employs you owns those characters, but neither of you created them. So if you turn Superman into a darker, more flawed person–how far can you go? And do you continue to follow your own vision when the audience has made it clear (verbally if not financially) that it doesn’t like where you’re going?

When it comes to that, how much are you entitled to change the character when the audience does like where you’re going? Arthur Conan Doyle did not write the same Sherlock Holmes as we’ve seen in the last two movies (and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tony Stark), but people don’t seem to mind the new version.

In the end, the marketplace will decide, as it always does, and its decision will be seen as final. Currently, the marketplace is supporting both studios’ visions. It will probably continue to do so. But public opinion is fickle, and one glaring misstep may mean disaster. Then again, considering other iconic franchises have been butchered lately with little affect on their bottom lines, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe audiences will keep going in the hopes that this time it will be better–or maybe they really like this stuff no matter who’s making it, and they’re complaining because, like Batman and Superman, and Captain America and Iron Man, they just like to argue, and a really top-notch supervillain is hard to find.

*Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

#SFWApro

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A little late to the party, but since my theme is based in the 1960s, I don’t suppose a few weeks really matters. You see, back when I was (first) collecting comic books like a madman, everything Superman did was, well, “super.” All his powers were super, his cousin, dog, and probably his dry-cleaner were “super,” and even his mistakes were “super-mistakes.” (Kind of like “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.“) As time went on, this trend faded. But it seems that the era of “super-mistakes” has not passed away.

As anyone who is interested is aware, at the end of “Man of Steel,” Superman kills General Zod. (I had heard something of this ilk was up, and never saw the movie. But it’s common knowledge now.) This editorial decision was not popular in some quarters (to say the least). And it appears that the ghost of this choice has never been exorcised; it still haunts the sequel, “Batman v. Superman.” Zack Snyder, the director, is having none of it.

“People are always like ‘You changed Superman.’ If you’re a comic book fan, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you know the true canon, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you’re a fan of the old movies, yeah, I changed him a bit. That’s the difference. I’m a bit of a comic book fan and I always default to the true canon…”

Well, yes and no. When he was first introduced, Superman was like the Punisher. It is rather shocking to our latter-day eyes just how ruthless he was. But that was 75 years ago. He’s changed. In many ways, becoming both much more powerful and much more controlled.

Now, we’ve gotten used to cinematic heroes who kill–even superheroes. I’m a fan of “Arrow,” but man, that guy has laid out his share of baddies. And Deadpool’s coming out; he’s not exactly a pacifist. (Not to mention Wolverine…) But there’s a large and critical difference between those guys–and almost everybody, really–and Superman, which is…he’s Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet, flies, can’t be hurt by much of anything.

Face it, the only thing between Superman and taking over the world is that he doesn’t want to. The only thing between Superman and getting rid of anyone who annoys him is that he doesn’t kill. Because he chooses not to. And now, Zack Snyder, you’ve taken that away.

So, yeah, that’s a super-mistake. Now that Superman has killed, he can kill again. What’s to stop him from being the super-bully? Superman was always the one you could look up to, the one who always did the right thing. Now he’s just another vigilante. And yes, that’s what “Batman v. Superman” is all about. But you know by the end of the movie they’re going to be friends, or at least colleagues. So you’re left with a tortured killer who roams the city seeking justice in memory of his lost parents–and Batman.

Sorry, Zack, but you were handed the goose that laid the golden eggs…and you broke them to make omelets.

ETA: Better late than never.

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There seems to be a small storm gathering in SF in the past several days, shocking, yes, I know. The question arises about classics of the genre–not does anyone read them, but are they the best entry into science fiction? In other words, have Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke become more like books that are assigned in high school–read by many but enjoyed by few, because they are considered “mandatory” somehow like reading Romeo and Juliet or The Old Man and the Sea?

Some think if you don’t read the classics, you can’t understand the field. Some are saying that the old stuff is, well, old, and doesn’t reflect what today’s readers know, so you can’t expect them to get into it. And some advocate a third alternative, which is just to let people read what they want to read. SFF is too wide these days to cover all of what is currently being written, let alone delve far into the past.

It’s been pointed out that we are only now coming into this problem in SFF because the genre is relatively young. While SF stories have been around for almost 200 years (and fantasy has been in vogue since we sat around campfires and waited for daylight so we could see the sabertooths (saberteeth?)), it wasn’t until the last century that it truly came into its own. The first Worldcon was only held in 1939.

We simply haven’t had to deal with the phenomenon of dueling “classics” until now. (We will avoid the hideous discussion of how you define a “classic.” Let’s just treat it as we would pornography and move on.*) But even with the greatest of writers, their stories eventually pass away. Even Shakespeare will fall into obscurity someday. We simply have to get used to the fact that it is happening with science fiction.

It isn’t even a new thing. There are a lot of authors out there who were hugely popular in the 1930s and 1940s whom almost no one knows today. I was at a writing retreat with more than a dozen accomplished writers a few years ago, and the question came up: “Who was Lester Dent?” I was the only one who knew the answer, but in the 1930s, Dent (author of the Doc Savage pulps) was enormously popular. He was a “classic” in the sense that Doc Savage was the direct inspiration for many of today’s superheroes (starting with a guy named Superman), but who reads him now? Almost no one. What are you going to do?

Every generation sees its stars, and a few of those become “classics” that people will be reading fifty or a hundred years later. Most won’t. But for a lot of readers, even those few won’t be their entry into the field. There’s too much else going on. It’s only after years of accumulated experience that you learn that even those whose stories may now be considered “quaint,” or even inappropriate for contemporary views, are worth reading.

And that’s okay. Because if you can’t stand the test of time, well, then, you aren’t a classic. That doesn’t mean no one will ever read you. Very little disappears anymore. Your work will simply wait until someone comes along who appreciates you. And then maybe they’ll make a movie out of your forgotten book, and you’ll be popular once more. Maybe you’ll become a classic the second time around.

*As in, you know it when you see it.

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