Dark knights of the soul: comic books into movies.
Last year my younger sister, Emilie, had surgery for late-stage thyroid cancer. A couple of weeks later she had a radiation treatment, with a radioactive pill so strong that it came in a lead box. The doctor who administered it to her wore protective clothing in the isolation room at the hospital, with a medical representative from the government present because it is a federally-controlled substance. "A tiny pill in lockdown," she called it.
She stayed in a hotel for four days because she couldn't come into close contact with her two sons. This past April she had a booster radiation treatment, another pill but without the medical drama, as it was not as strong as the first one, and she was able to stay at home after.
That night, as her older son, Jake, 12, was doing homework, her husband playing XBox upstairs, and her younger son, Max, just turned 10, was doing homework at the kitchen table, Emilie decided to make a run to the store. She yelled out, "I'll be right back."
No one answered, she said, because they knew she never comes right back. Max looked up and rolled his eyes. But she did come back so quickly that Max was surprised. He looked up at her and said, "Hmm. That was fast." He paused for a moment and then, looking pensive, said to his mom as a way to explain the phenomenon: "Must be the radiation."
The boys are not into the "superhero" thing. Max prefers science fiction graphic novels. Jake likes "The Transformers" franchise because he started building Lego figures from an early age. However, Emilie and her family live in San Diego and have been attending Comic-Con, the annual convention celebrating the comic arts and all print, gaming and ancillary products imaginable, since 2008.
What impressed me was Max's reasoning to explain his mom's unusual behavior. Max, like the rest of us, uses his media experiences to make sense of the world.
Gene Yang is a published Catholic comic artist, storyteller and comic academic. In 2009 he spoke at the Catholic Library Association conference in Anaheim, Calif., and explained how mainstream U.S. comics, mostly from DC (Detective Comics, which now owns Fawcett Comics) and Marvel, have religious roots, especially when it comes to the Jewish roots of the superhero. As 12 poor Jews spread Christianity, six poor American Jews founded Marvel Comics. Some contend that adolescent Jews trying to survive the Depression, with a strong tradition of surviving persecution from the biblical era through the Holocaust, used scriptural archetypes on which to base heroes and, less frequently, heroines.
Yang contends that every Catholic church has comics with superheroes in the stained glass windows, which fit his definition of comics as "juxtaposed images in a deliberate sequence in order to convey an idea and evoke an aesthetic response." Comics tell stories.
Superheroes from print comics made their way into animated and live action film in the 1940s, often in serial form (e.g., "Adventures of Captain Marvel," "Hop Harrigan" and "Congo Bill"). "Captain America" was first serialized in 1944 then went through two television movies in 1979, then hit the big screen as a feature in 1990. One critic said the latter had a "shapeless blob of a plot."
Its latest incarnation, "Captain America: The First Avenger," just released, begins amid World War n and Hitler's quest to dominate the world. The would-be hero, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is too weak to serve in the regular Army, but volunteers for a secret military project, and is transformed into a supersoldier: Captain America.
There are two aspects about comic books made into films that I find problematic. One is the strong presence of the military, not only in the stories but also as advisors and consultants to the films. The overriding ideology of today's superhero films, including those like "The Transformers" franchise that are not based in comics, present the U.S. government and military as benevolent and brave, keepers of the world's freedom. The "Iron Man" films, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, while hugely entertaining, are all about devising weapons for the U.S. military that limit collateral damage, meaning the killing of innocent civilians. The films assume that the wars the United States is involved in are just ones.
In a 2008 article "Calling the shots on war movies," Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The Army has been helping filmmakers ever since it furnished aircraft and pilots for 1927's "Wings"--winner of the first best picture Academy Award. With military assistance, moviemakers get access to bases, ships, planes, tanks and Humvees. Millitary leaders also offer script advice. And unless a filmmaker agrees to address any problems, the Pentagon generally opts out."
While the "Iron Man" franchise is listed as an action-adventure-sci-fi film, the role of the U.S. military is key because it is the client for Stark's weaponry.
The second issue I have with the comic film genre is the simplistic, black-and-white moralistic structure that drives the narrative. If you ask Christians who go to movies, they will often say that these films are Christian: Good vs. evil, and good wins, therefore it's a good movie. However, good is often embodied in the U.S. military or its citizens while the enemy is demonized.
This summer's "Super 8," directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Stephen Spielberg, seems like a comic book story, and though derivative from who knows how many other films and stories, the way the children deal with the alien, the "other," shows that superhero movies are not always about the simplistic and dualistic good-vs.-evil, them-against-us structure. In "Super 8" there are other solutions to fear and differences between people than military action. Hmm. If you count the boys, one girl, the teacher, and the alien in the film, they form a team of eight super-heroes. Super 8 indeed.
Personally, I enjoy most American comic books that are made into film--even though there is no blood (a consequence of injury and violence) and they are an unquestioning cheering squad for everything American. I know they are creations of fantasy and the imagination, informed by myth, current events and history, with strong roots in reality.
The last two "Batman" movies, "Batman Begins" (2005) and "The Dark Knight" (2008), were grim but more honest about the human condition than the usual comic book film fare. The next film, "The Dark Knight Rises," due out in 2012, may lead us out of our national dark night of the soul in this era of local violence and global war, by leading us to question the entertainment that teaches us at the same time.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently said that the United States is "the most entertained and least informed" country in the world. High concept, 3-D comic-books-into-film can distract us from the trials of life by entertaining us, but they are always teaching us something about who we are as citizens and disciples.
[Daughters of St. Paul Sr. Rose Pacatte, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, reviews movies for NCR.]