Nov 28, 2016

Unpopular Opinions: Return of the Jedi is the Best Star Wars Movie

Unpopular Opinions: Return of the Jedi is the Best Star Wars Movie
Ben Smith

Welcome to Unpopular Opinions, where I make an outlandish claim and do my best to support that claim using the measured rational approach that has made me an internet sensation.  (Editor’s note: Back Issue Ben is not an internet sensation.)  In this inaugural edition, I go straight to the best franchise in the history of fiction, Star Wars.  Popular opinion, in my experience, is that The Empire Strikes Back stands as the greatest film in the movie series.  There are certainly more than a few fans that believe the original film is the pinnacle of the series (and, having watched it again recently, it does have a surprising amount of quotes that have permeated into pop culture).  Yet, I’ve very rarely seen any declare that Return of the Jedi is the best.  It was even used as a meta-commentary joke in X-Men: Apocalypse:  “The third movie is always the worst.”

So, my plan is to prove why they’re wrong, why you’re wrong, why your face is wrong, and also maybe discover a little bit of something about myself along the way.  Let’s get started.

Jabba’s Palace

Luke Skywalker and his crew systematically infiltrating Jabba the Hutt’s palace to rescue the captive Han Solo, culminating in an exciting battle above a ravenous sand monster, is probably the best sequence of the entire franchise.  (Han being frozen in carbonite is up there as well.)  The overall atmosphere of Jabba’s Palace was a perfect example of the crazy alien set pieces that Star Wars became famous for.  We also have Leia in her Boushh bounty hunter disguise, and Lando in his palace guard disguise, both of which made for cool looking toys.  Luke vs the Rancor might look woefully outdated as far as special effects go, but it’s still a gripping scene, and serves to highlight how formidable Luke has become as a Jedi.  Not to mention, Han Solo is in top quipping form throughout the entire thing.

Luke:  I used to live here you know.
Han:  You’re going to die here you know.  Convenient.
Hoth was great.  A tiny rebel ship engulfed by a huge Star Destroyer as it flies overhead of the camera, iconic.  All the movies had stunning beginnings, but Return of the Jedi had the best.  Plus, there’s more Boba Fett in this one.  You can never go wrong with more Boba Fett.

(As an aside, among many other things, I think the Special Editions adding a scene with Jabba to the original movie ruins the surprise of seeing Jabba for the first time in Return of the Jedi.  He’s referred to many times over the course of the first two movies, but nobody could have predicted a giant slug monster was the gangster being referred to with such fear.  Of course, all of this is moot if you watch the entire film series in order, starting with the prequels, but the point remains, sometimes maintaining a little bit of mystery can add a lot.  Just ask Wolverine fans.)  

The Ewoks

When I was a little kid, my parents took me to the store right after seeing Return of the Jedi in the theater, and got me a stuffed Wicket plush toy.  I carried that thing around with me everywhere.  Kids loved the Ewoks.  Those kids got older, and jaded, and it became cool to groan over the “kiddie” Ewoks ruining the last Star Wars film.  I’ll admit, I was one of them at one time.  Those are many of the same people that will praise Empire for being dark, and having the unhappy ending, as being more realistic.  Look, darkness is part of life, but so is light.  If your life is nothing but darkness and failure and disappointment, then you have my sincere sympathies.  Dark and violent isn’t automatically more realistic, or have more merit or artistic worth than something that is fun and light and good.  (Inside Out is one of the most smartly written and deeply layered movies I can think of, and it’s an all-ages Pixar movie.)  I love The Empire Strikes Back, but if that’s where the story ended, well that would be a pretty terrible end.  Don’t be so cynical, embrace the plushy fun of Wicket.

Nothing is darker than straight murdering teddy bears.

Speeder Bike Chase

Star Wars has no shortage of fantastic vehicles, and the speeder bike is no exception.  Luke and Leia racing at breakneck speeds through the forests of Endor, fighting the “Biker Scout” Stormtroopers (another underrated costume design) is one of the most viscerally thrilling action pieces of the saga.

The Force is Strong in My Family

Longtime readers of Back Issue Ben will know that emotional connection is what really gets to me as a consumer of entertainment.  Luke and Leia having this emotional conversation in which Luke reveals that Darth Vader is his father, and that she is his sister, is a prime example of that.  (Even though it really doesn’t make much sense that they are brother and sister.  As legend goes, despite what George Lucas will claim, Leia was never planned to be the “there is another” reveal, but Lucas deciding that he was too exhausted to continue the film series as planned, led to them shortening the planned story, and also conveniently ending whatever love triangle might have still existed between Luke, Leia, and Han.  Originally, as rumor goes, there was going to be a convoluted reveal of another character strong in the force that would figure more prominently in the planned third trilogy that happened after Jedi.  It may have been Luke’s long-lost sister, I can’t remember the exact details.)

It’s a Trap

One of the most iconic and oft-mocked lines from the trilogy, as delivered by squid-faced Admiral Ackbar.  (I went to a Star Wars convention once, and the gentleman that played the role of Ackbar would sign his photos with “it’s a trap!” included.  A personal note about that convention: the actress that does the voice for Ahsoka Tano was there, and I didn’t get her autograph because I wasn’t a fan of the character yet.  I wish I could go back in time and fix that.  Well, actually, if I could time travel I’d use that power to go back and buy old Transformers and Star Wars toys off the shelf and put them in a storage locker for 30 years.  Fantasy life goals.)  

Darth Vader vs Luke Skywalker

The rematch between Luke and Vader has all the elements you’d want in a climactic battle.  The Emperor watching on as father fights son, spaceships pitched in an intense battle outside the creepily unfinished death star (a fantastic visual).  This is epic storytelling at its best.  Vader senses Luke’s fear for his sister and threatens to pursue her instead, resulting in Luke’s angry attack as the music swells.  Well, let me just say, that it gets me right in the feels.  (Another positive about this movie, Luke has become a badass in the time since the previous film.  He spent a lot of his time whining in the first two movies, but by this one he was calm and confident, decked out in black and kicking ass.  The green saber is just cooler too.)  An epic beginning and an epic end, what more could you possibly want in a movie?  (We’ll ignore Lucas’ constant tinkering ruining Darth Vader’s big redemptive moment by dubbing in an unnecessary “nooooo,” echoing the oft-mocked moment from Revenge of the Sith where Anakin learns that Padme died.  So awful.  So so very awful.  Disney, please release the unaltered versions of the original trilogy for purchase.)

Leia’s Bikini

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include what is arguably the most iconic costume of the entire franchise.  Yes, it’s perverted and dirty and sexist to acknowledge it as such, but I don’t care.  Address your complaints to the inventor of testosterone.

There, I can say without reservation I definitely proved to you why Return of the Jedi is the best of the Star Wars films, without a doubt.  Sure, A New Hope may have made the most money, created the entire universe, and had the most iconic lines.  The Empire Strikes Back may have my favorite Luke costume, the first light saber battle between Luke and Vader framed beautifully by glowing orange lights in a chamber hissing and buzzing with machinery designed to freeze someone into a giant brick.  Sure, it may also have had snow monsters, and a visually stunning snow battle between snowspeeders and giant AT-ATs … oh man.  I forgot about the AT-ATs.  Damn, Empire Strikes Back was the best one.

Oh well.

Nov 25, 2016

It's an Alternate Version

It’s an Alternate Version: How We Keep Forgetting Alternate Means Something
Travis Hedge Coke

DC did not “turn Alan Scott gay.” An alternate reality Alan Scott is gay. An alternate version.

You know what alternate realities are. You know what alternate versions are. You are an adult (or a smart kid). You know the score. There are alternate versions of Batman where he looks like Michael Keaton in a rubber suit the neck of which cannot turn. There are versions where he’s a cartoon. Where he’s Christian Bale and the bat-theme is increasingly muted on his costume and equipment. You know this stuff. Quit pretending you don’t.

I’m of the opinion that Wonder Woman was never confirmed in any real sense as not bisexual or potentially so. That the subtext, such as it is, of the oldest Wonder Woman comics isn’t even subtext, it’s not even particularly quiet, it just didn’t use certain words or explicit gestures. That said, the one we have right now? She’s an alternate reality from that. This isn’t the same Wonder Woman from her first appearances. We know that. In story, even, we have explanations for this. Cosmic machinations to alter reality.

If you can wrap your head around three or four different continuities of Batman movies, if you can accept that an alternate reality makes this character evil or this one have a different hairstyle or they can be a cartoon animal, then when it comes to race or sexuality, you’re drawing a line. You.

Ty Templeton explains why gayness matters better than I could.

If a story has a reality-changer, a magic person or a special tool that alters reality, and suddenly a character is different than their established take… I don’t care if the story did not tell you explicitly that the change came from that reality-changer. Connect those dots yourself. If you can’t, I don’t believe that you actually can not. You don’t want to.

If reality gets changed in story, and there are elements changed and the only thing that bugs you is that a tertiary character who hasn’t supported any solo comics of note in possibly seventy years being gay on an alternate universe, that’s about you. That’s revelatory about you.

If you can handle a Batman who is blonde, like Val Kilmer played him, or balding, a Batman who is tall or medium height, but it’s race that holds you up, it’s because you feel race is a bigger deal.

Spider-Man was a humanoid pig for an entire ongoing series. Spider-Man has been impregnated by a World War Two villain and gave birth to himself. He’s grown four extra arms. I’m sorry, but in my world, four extra arms is slightly more absurd or gimmicky than a completely different kid with similar powers dressing up like his hero to continue a legacy as a new Spider-Man. That kid’s not white?

If you survived all of these, but draw the line at one being black or a girl, you're saying that
evil, clone, from the future are lesser changes and more acceptable for Spider-Man
than being black or female.

Well, fuck me. Some kids aren’t white. Who fucking knew?

If you know enough to complain, then you know enough to realize that corporate-owned characters, characters adapted to tv or movies or toys often are cast differently or have changes wrought. You know enough to understand that this or that story may exist in a different reality than another and that this will mean there are differences. If you didn’t know, right away, then by now someone has explained it to you. You’ve seen it mentioned in a comments section, or you read the comic in question, watched the movie, or just had the basic gist run by you. And, even if you hadn’t, you could probably put it together if you wanted to.

Normal Spock and Evil Spock are Normal and Evil Spidey. Tuvok is a black guy
from the same species. Miles Morales as Spider-Man is a black guy of the same species.

You don’t want to. You want to foist a bowdlerize version of appropriate and right onto all of us, as if it is reality. You’re offended by certain kinds of existence, ethnicities, genders, sexualities being less deniable, less erased or pigeonholed. Captain America is literally a costume, name, and set of tools and special drugs developed by the US Government for application to a wide range of soldiers. That’s every version. This or that version may give you more details, differing details, but at its core, Captain America as an identity, was designed to be able to dress up anyone appropriate, arm them, and send them out to fight. It’s not a sacred, inviolate name for only one man. It’s the alias of a kind of soldier. If you can handle more than one actor playing the role, and so far that has not destroyed the fabric of our society, but you get hung up if in a comic, a black man temporarily uses the name because it was given to him through appropriate channels, do us all a favor and admit to yourself and to the world that this is the line you are drawing. This is a thing you cannot countenance. Because, clearly, reality is just fine with the change.

And, if you can’t do that, then at least do us the favor of ceasing to spread misinformation fueled only by your insecurities, or potentially, your actual dumbness.

Nov 20, 2016

The Importance of Pronunciation and Watchfulness in The Multiversity

Sound and Vision in Reading Comics:
The Importance of Pronunciation and Watchfulness in The Multiversity
Travis Hedge Coke

There is a line in the movie, Masked and Anonymous, co-written and starring our recent Nobel Laureate in Literature: “You have to look through your windshield, not at it,” that I think applies to comics in a way that is both painfully blatant and potentially revelatory. We can spend so much of our time looking at our comics, that we don’t really look at our comics. We can forget that these are, as are all stories or representations, breathing, functioning worlds. Little systems that operate within themselves. Words, in a comic, have both textual representation on the page, and pronunciation within the world of the comic.

1 The Kamera

The yellow fear demon, Parallax was created in Green Lantern: Rebirth, to explain why Hal Jordan went evil and became the reality-recreating and friend-murdering while wearing too many power rings to be reasonable, Parallax. Here, on a 30s/40s style adventure Earth entering a 50s-style horror period, it is called “the makara,” in the original single issue printing, a Hindu mythological water monster appropriately often used to bookend sculptural figures, just as here, fear is a major element of the first and last of the single issue stories. It is even redesigned, slightly, to resemble not so much a classic makara, as a Ambulocetus skeleton, a prehistoric aquatic mammal considered a possible inspiration for the mythic monster.

In the reprints/collections, Parallax is not “the makara,” but instead is referred to as “the kamera,” which I tried for months to make something to do with cameras, until I realized there is a kamara, in Jack Kirby’s The Demon series, which is, appropriately, a fear demon.

While Parallax is not one of the Gentry, Parallax does represent a primal anxiety just as they do and is a cosmic or ultra-cosmic monster who tries to use comics to escape and infect/attack other worlds. Other than the Gentry, it is the only creature seen to do so. I think that’s because it really is whatever the Gentry are, inasmuch as each world is faced with the Gentry and in the story which is about us and our reading a comic, the monster we are primarily fighting against is not the bluff of over-intellectualism or hungry mobs, but fear.

2 The Chandela

Another linguistic oddity, was “the chandela,” in the Mastermen chapter, referring to the people who prayed for a golem. Comics Alliance’s Dave Uzumeri, who did the best annotations we’ve had so far, said of this, “[T]he only chandela I can find refers to an Indian clan, which doesn’t fit much with the Jewish golem tradition or anything a Nazi radio broadcast would be trumpeting.”

Chandela is a homophone for Tschandala or the anglicized Chandala, which is derived from that Indian clan Uzumeri mentions, but in this context, comes from Nazi perversion of Nietzsche’s adaptation of another philosopher’s misapprehension of the original, and is used to represent an untouchable or undesirable class or breed of human beings, a perpetual underclass, by which he extrapolates Christianity and Judaism to be both anti-Aryan in character, based in part on the assumption that Judeo-Christian ethos is more misogynistic, antagonistic, and prone to perpetuating a stasis of class warfare.

The Nazi extension/perversion of this, is to make it specifically antisemitic, and by extension, non-Aryan as they understood “Aryan.” Inferior peoples.

3 The Shambler

That green monster with the big teeth and spidery limbs haunting the Bleed, beyond reality, that attacks one of the Gentry? It’s the Shambler, also from The Demon. In that 70s comic, it appears “where even the fiercest of occult creatures tread with caution… great caverns glisten fiery red and the very air boils.” Well, the Bleed is cavernous, inasmuch as it’s the veins and arteries of ultra-reality, and it is red. And, other than having more mouths and more limbs, this monster does look just the same and behaves almost identical.

The titular demon, Etrigan, is given a substantial supporting role and made Superman of a world in The Multiversity, but beyond even that, the comic, The Demon, begins to show under closer examination many connections to The Multiversity as a whole, just as it did Morrison’s earlier Seven Soldiers of Victory.

We begin, too, to see that there are homophonic and visual cues throughout this comic, and we should probably not be limiting ourselves to explicit textual statements or things easily sourced with five minutes on a search engine, which isn’t an indictment of other DC comics, it’s just rare.

4 The Doves

While the dove being a recurring motif in the Pax Americana issue escaped almost no one, I haven’t seen anyone mention that it’s mirrored in the Thunderworld chapter that comes right after, or that a primary difference in their use is that we see, in Pax, a dove in midair, set free, smack into the fourth wall. It appears to hit the inside plane of the surface of the page, leaving a bloody streak. Which, all in all, sums up the issue and its world pretty cleanly.

In Thunderworld, however, the doves soar free and readily, and instead of doves in a cage, it’s the old Wizard, who is, as well, set free.

The contrast requires a reader to be paying attention to parallels between issues, but the impact against the fourth wall is something else. It’s unnatural, or at least it is unexpected enough, that it seems to violate the nature of the seemingly “down to Earth” and “gritty” tone of the story and world. We’re not prepared for something that weird, perhaps because we are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of that world.

5 Comics or Worlds?

Several of the individual comics of The Multiversity represent windows into particular worlds, and seemingly, at least, with Pax, the comic is the world, with its fourth wall something to be peering out of or smacked dead against. And, Ultra Comics? The comic that represents our world is not a scene or story taking place in our world, set in our world, but the comic itself is addressing someone from our world; us. The comic is creating a story, or generating a story in our world, which is us, reading the comic, or us engaging with the comic. That is the story of our world, not so much the fiction on the pages, as us, engaging with that fiction and with the supervillain threat that is not solely threatening the hero of those pages, but the heroes the comic tells us exist in our world, which are all of us. We are facing the supervillain monsters. We are facing the Gentry. Indeed, we face some of them, or similar horrors, all the time.

So, while some comics are worlds, not all comics are worlds, and not all worlds are comics. True, too, outside of fiction, but sometimes hard, in our enthusiasm as in our ennui, to keep in mind.

The story in the comic’s pages does not even take place except in fiction, even within the fictional multiverse of The Multiversity. It is not a representation of a world or events, it is a representation of a fiction that exists in a fictional world, while the other issues are, ostensibly, representations of genuine events and worlds. The difference between these is inarguable, but what is arguable is the value of this difference.

We all get blinders on. In Ultra, the monster wearing a human guise as The Authority Figure, the father figure, the scientist explaining while wearing a good suit, has on red-shaded glasses. Ultra Comics (the superhero) has his eye go red after it’s damaged. And, just look, in that issue, what text is red and therefor illegible or hard to discern through red lenses? What we see on the cover is, Ultra Comics telling us “Only you can save the world! If you value your lives, you must not read this comic!” But, with red lenses or a red tint, “not” disappears. The explanation, in the comic, that this is a comic designed to bring us together, empower us to capture and dissect a “hostile independent thought-form,” such as the villain of the piece, is invisible through a red lens. The bad guy of the comic, who is simply pessimistic over-intellectualization and pleasure-shaming self-loathing given form, cannot see the text telling everyone else that this is a trap for him.

A trap that he, over-intellectualizing and being excessively pessimistic and serious, can no longer even tell is entirely fictional and, genuinely, just a comic.

Everyone has blinders on at some point. It is important not to get so used to our blinders that we forget they are there, that we forget that they can come off. To look, not at our windshield, but through it, or to know when it’s better to stick our head outside the car and look at things unobstructed and without any tint.

Nov 14, 2016

Now More Than Ever

Now more than ever, We need Wonder Woman. We need her comics to succeed. We need her movie to succeed. We need everything about her to succeed. DC Comics and Warner Brothers, please make sure you do your best to make that succeed.

Now more than ever, we need the Black Panther. We need his comics to succeed. We need his movie to succeed. We need everything about him to succeed. Marvel, please make this happen.

Now more than ever, we need Jane Foster as Thor, and we need her standing beside classic Thor, to show that women can be heroes too.

Now more than ever, we need Hulkling and Wiccan, to show that LGBTQ folk can be heroes too.

Now more than ever, we need America Chavez and Batwoman, minorities within minorities, to show that they can be heroes too.

Now more than ever, we need Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, to show that Muslim women can be heroes too.

Now more than ever, we need Miles Morales and Steel, to show that anyone of any race (or mixed, in the case of Miles) can become their biggest hero.

Now more than ever, we need Spider-Woman, to show that mothers can be heroes too. (And also, because it's my favorite ongoing series right now.)

Now more than ever, we need Superman to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

Now more than ever, we need Spider-Man to have a diverse supporting cast to represent the world, because it is the right thing.

Now more than ever, we need the X-Men to stand up for acceptance and tolerance.

Now more than ever, we need superheroes who aren't heterosexual white males standing with superheroes who are heterosexual white males to show it can be done and that it's the right thing to do.

Now more than ever, we need comics and comics-related media to be heroes.

Now more than ever in a very, very long time.