Saturday, October 27, 2012

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man—Not So Amazing

File:The Amazing Spider-Man theatrical poster.jpeg
Spider-Man ™  and © Marvel.  Poster art © Sony

I’m usually several months or even years behind in my film viewing, so I only recently got around to watching The Amazing Spider-Man, released last summer.

Was it worth the wait?

In a word: no.

Oh sure, Andrew Garfield serves the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man well. He’s a worthy successor to Tobey Maguire as a science nerd and impetuous but well-meaning dork—an ordinary guy.

And the film updates Spidey’s costume and features rapid-fire action sequences, humor, and pathos—all necessary ingredients for a Spider-Man movie. It’s adorned with veteran actors (Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Denis Leary) in supporting roles, and it’s got a mean and nasty villain (The Lizard this time, instead of The Green Goblin) who earns both our sympathy and hatred.

But in spite of boasting everything a modern super-hero film should have, The Amazing Spider-Man plods along like an emotional flat tire.

All the classic elements of Spider-Man’s origin are still there. Peter bitten by a radioactive spider—check. Peter being picked on at school by Flash Thompson—check. “With great power comes great responsibility”—check (though clumsily reworded). Murder of Uncle Ben—check.

Years ago, I took a series of courses in Arthurian legends. Among other things, we discussed the key elements of the legend—what must a re-telling via film or novel absolutely include to be a genuine King Arthur story, not a phony wannabe?  (Some of the items we came up: Arthur himself, Guinevere, Lancelot, the sword in the stone, and Merlin.) 

The filmmakers of The Amazing Spider-Man must have composed a similar laundry list. They kept what they had to but changed or altered whatever they could in order to distance the new film from the Maguire franchise. The most obvious change is the substitution of Mary Jane Watson with Gwen Stacy. This change adheres somewhat closer to the original comics (Gwen was Peter’s girlfriend before Mary Jane), and, though there are obvious differences between Gwen and MJ (one's a blonde, the other's a redhead; one's a brilliant science student, the other an accomplished actress), it still felt as if one cookie-cutter high school sweetheart was substituted for another.

Police Captain George Stacy, Gwen's father, also figures prominently in the film, and fans of the comics should feel ashamed if they don't know exactly where this is going. Never mind. Denis Leary is fun to watch.

But most changes seem arbitrary, such as the manner in which Uncle Ben dies. Yes, there is still a shooting and a robber, and Peter still feels horribly responsible. But the filmmakers strained to make this pivotal event as “different” from past accounts as possible. The result is like eating stale cake with fresh frosting.

And therein lies the fatal flaw of The Amazing Spider-Man: It takes few risks except for superficial and ultimately meaningless ones.

The most successful super-hero films of the last decade or so (Spider-Man, X-Men, The Dark Knight) dug deep into the well of each character and drew out a gusher of new potential. They didn’t “update” their heroes so much as they highlighted their universal and timeless qualities. 

The Amazing Spider-Man tries too hard to be now. When a major character dies (which happens twice in this film), we’re supposed to feel something, but I did not. When Peter struggles to keep his promise to one character, we’re supposed to sense his inner nobility, but neither the struggle nor the nobility are present. Instead, it is the villain who comes off as more noble, more heroic in the end.

So this film is like the socially inept kid who wants to hang out with the “cool” kids but thinks the wrong things are cool. He’s all flash and no substance.

For your Spidey film fix, rent the first two Maguire films instead.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What do Writing Teachers Write?

This is a truncated post because I've been busy preparing something for JCCC Faculty Day of Writing, a special site set up "to celebrate writing in all its forms" as part of the National Day on Writing. Other professors from Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS, will be submitting their writing throughout the day.

My contribution is the first chapter of THE POWER CLUB™,  newly edited from the posting back in July.  Even if you've read it before, check it out the new version: It's only getting better!

So what do writing teachers write?  Check out JCCC Faculty Day of Writing to find out. 

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Writers: Why a Bad Review Can be Good for You

At 21, I wrote my first article for publication. It appeared in an issue of Comics Buyer’s Guide, a newspaper for comic book collectors and professionals. I was so proud of my achievement—my opinion piece, with the self-assured title, “How to Improve the Alternate Comics’ Success,” would convey my 21-year-old wisdom to up-and-coming publishers vying to compete with the Big Two, Marvel and DC.

There, for all the world to see, was my grand debut into the world of writing for and about comics.

But after the reviews came in, I wanted to hide under a slab of cement.

CBG, like many publications, printed “reviews” in the form of letters of comment (LOCs) written by readers of the publication. Only a few LOCers commented on my article, but those who did included two well-known comics writers. Both wrote the types of “alternate” comics whose success I wanted to improve.

They didn’t like my article.

They wrote at length to point out the fallacies in my logic and assumptions.

A subsequent LOCer (an up-and-coming artist) was even less charitable. He called my article “ignorant and pointless.”

But the worst of it was when CBG editors Don and Maggie Thompson explained in a reply to one of the LOCs why they chose to publish my article. It wasn’t because they found merit in my ideas but because the article represented an attitude they found all too common among comics fans: an unwillingness to try new titles that didn’t fit into our preconceived notions of what comics should be.


And yet the experience of being published and then criticized in print was one of the most helpful steps in my journey to becoming a writer.  

If your writing lands a negative review, consider yourself lucky. Here’s why:

Writing that Bleeds

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” What he meant, I think, is that writers open up their creative veins and expose every aspect of their inner selves to readers. This can mean exposing weaknesses that you, the writer, don't realize you have.

Writing involves coming face to face with your own limitations, as both a writer and as a human being.

Odd as it may sound, this Dorian Gray-like reflection can be a blessing for writers. It forces you to confront the two primary reasons why you got a bad review: either the audience didn’t “get” what you were trying to say or you have room to grow.

Are We on the Same Page?

The first reason why you got a bad review is probably because your audience didn’t understand your work or some aspect of it. This disconnection could be their fault, your fault, or both.

Some people, like certain comics fans described above, view your work through their own cloudy lens and judge it accordingly. Let’s face it: there’s nothing you can do about them.

But there is a lot you can do to make sure your work conveys what you want.

I am constantly learning there is a difference between how I intend for something to be read and how it is actually read. In my short story-in-progress, I had my protagonist—an 11-year-old girl—laugh after an embarrassing exchange with her school’s principal. But members of my writers group didn’t buy the laughter. They thought it was inconsistent with the character and inappropriate for her situation. 

I agreed; in my revision, she doesn’t laugh.

Why did I have her laugh in the first place? I was thinking she would be so glad to be told something (and, yes, I’m being vague) she didn’t want to happen would, in fact, not happen that she would laugh out of relief. But I had failed to convey that motive, and, upon discussing it with the other group members, I agreed that she wouldn’t respond that way at all.

Likewise, a bad review can point out inconsistencies and false assumptions in your writing. Of course, it’s always best if these things are pointed out to you before your work is published, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. You can only keep the lesson on file for next time.

Growing Pains

The second reason you got a bad review is probably because you need to grow as a writer. We all do—even writers who have published for decades are still learning the craft.

Growth, unfortunately, rarely comes from praise. While compliments are invaluable ego boosts for writers as well as indications of what we do well, compliments seldom call attention to our weaknesses.

Living in my own comic book bubble, I was blissfully unaware of how the comics industry actually worked and that creators of “alternate” comics held very different views than I did (since my views were shaped largely by Marvel and DC). Learning to appreciate such comics on their own merits instead of comparing them to something else was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had.       

Your bad review may be an opportunity for you to learn from someone who is not invested in your work or who sees the subject matter very differently than you do.

Don’t Let a Bad Review Discourage You

But can’t bad reviews discourage you from writing altogether?

Of course they can. If you let them.

My first publishing experience taught me several positive lessons. First, it was gratifying that well-known comics professionals had read my work and taken it seriously enough to compose thoughtful responses. 

Second, it helped me see that my work and the attitudes it unknowingly represented were part of a larger continuum—a discussion between professionals and fans who all wanted the same thing: a healthy, vibrant comics industry.  (Whether or not we ever achieved that goal is the subject for another column.)

And third, it helped me realize that my ideas, which I thought were brilliant when I wrote the article, were in fact self-serving and ill-informed.

Rather than discouraging me, these lessons whetted my appetite for more . . . more publications, more dialogue, more growth . . . more writing.

So, if you are fortunate enough to receive an honest bad review (as opposed to a trollish one), thank the writer for taking the time to compose a thoughtful response and consider what you can learn from the experience. It’s okay to (privately) vent your feelings, too.

Share your thoughts in the comments below:  Have you ever had a bad review?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Should Your Writing Be Controversial?
Image and characters and © DC Comics.

Over on the Legion World message board, few things stir up controversy as much as TMK.

The “TMK Legion” occupied the first 38 issues and three annuals of Legion of Super-Heroes volume 4 from 1989-92. The initials stand for the series' principal creators, writers Tom and Mary Bierbaum and writer/artist Keith Giffen.

Giffen, the principal of the principals, has been pilloried and praised by Legion fans ever since. His Legion pretty much defined the word “controversial.” Among the many changes Giffen wrought: the deaths of long-time favorite Legionnaires, the mutilation of another, the destruction of earth’s moon, and, finally, the destruction of earth.

Some developments worked better than others. Giffen straddled a fine line between storytelling with profound significance and shock value, a trait TMK shares with the legendary Watchmen, from which Giffen appears to have derived more than a little inspiration.

In fact, Giffen seemed to go out of his way to alienate long-time Legion fans, which invites certain question: How far can a writer go in challenging and provoking readers?  Should you seek controversy in your own stories?  And how do you manage the inevitable fallout?

We can probably learn a lot from one of the most controversial revelations during the TMK run, a backup story which set many fans on edge. Ironically, Giffen had little if anything to do with this story. Only the Bierbaums are credited as writers, with Brandon Peterson as penciller and Scott Hanna as inker.

Spoiler Warning: The following discusses details of the unnamed backup story from Legion of Super-Heroes (volume 4) Annual # 3, 1992. Proceed at your own risk.

Garth = Proty

One of the most hated developments of TMK was the revelation that retired Legionnaire Garth Ranzz (Lightning Lad) was really Proty I, an amorphous, shape-changing blob who once sacrificed his life for Garth.

Okay, the story’s a bit more complicated than that. It involves Proty’s life essence/soul/mind/whatever metaphysical term you prefer being transferred into the otherwise dead body of Lightning Lad back in Adventure Comics # 312 (September 1963). Proty lived as Garth for the next twenty years, serving the Legion with distinction and eventually marrying the love of Garth’s life, Saturn Girl, and fathering four children with her. 

The story hints that Saturn Girl may have known about the switch all along and turned a blind eye.

Many fans object to this revelation because it seemed so unnecessary. Garth was not a central player in the TMK Legion—why reveal that he isn’t, in fact, Garth now?  Others resent the implication that a beloved hero wasn’t who they thought he was. Some can’t accept the notion of Garth and Imra (Saturn Girl) choosing to live their lives based on a lie.

Those are all good objections, and raising such a discussion was surely the Bierbaums’ intent.  After all, the same story portrays the now adult Legionnaires as flawed in other ways. Two long-time members apparently have an affair.  A jealous son comes dangerously close to perpetuating the sibling hatred which dominated some of the Legionnaires’ lives. One Legionnaire abandons his wife to run off on a mission.

So, why did Giffen and the Bierbaums do all this? Were they trying to destroy the characters fans loved so much?


Why Proty/Garth may have been a good idea

Some fans praise the Bierbaums’ story because, in the end, the revelation made little difference except to explain away certain personality inconsistencies. The hero they read about for maybe 95 percent of Lightning Lad’s career was a considerate, somewhat idealistic hero, not the hot-headed, immature jerk of Garth’s early appearances (and a personality to which the character has returned in successive reboots). 

My own take on the story falls along these lines. From a science fictional point of view, the revelation is pure genius.  It casts our understanding of a long-time character in a new light (which, incidentally, is what fiction ought to do: illuminate some aspect of the human condition).  It offers a literal interpretation of the struggle we all face: coming to terms with our humanity.

Still, adverse reactions are understandable.  Many fans (including me) grew up identifying with certain characters or seeing them as fictional friends.  To learn they are not who we thought they were is disconcerting.  Such a revelation destroys our image of the character (and, I daresay, of ourselves). It thrusts us into new territory, and we don’t know how to respond.

In the end, however, the revelation of Proty/Garth could be taken as one of the most positive changes to come from TMK. No one died or was mutilated. No planets were destroyed. Garth may have been living a lie, but he and his family were relatively happy.  In a nice reversal, Garth (unlike the previously mentioned Legionnaire) refuses to go on a mission so he can stay home and take care of his family.

What does a hero look like?

The story also challenges our images of heroes. I think it’s telling that Lightning Lad—one of the most conventionally handsome Legionnaires, who had one of the most dashing costumes and dynamic powers—turns out to possess the spirit of a faceless blob with a far less dynamic power.  And yet it was Proty I, back in Adventure # 312, who sacrificed himself to save Saturn Girl.

Proty may not have been sexy, but he was every inch a hero.

And, in making that sacrifice, Proty winds up spending the rest of his life with the woman he loves—making this a rare TMK offering with a sense of optimism.

Controversy: should you or shouldn’t you?

So, should you court controversy in your own writing?

As with everything else in writing, it depends.

If you want to create a story which people will talk about and analyze for years or even decades to come, go ahead.

Just be sure to duck when the brickbats come.

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...