Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Would You Rather Be Safe or Free? (Civil War)

Civil War is my favorite comic arc in the history of ever and it had better be yours too.

Good? Good.

If you aren’t hip to the kids’ stuff these days, Civil War doesn’t actually refer to the War Between the States, or any other kind of historical event wherein a nation split amongst factions. Instead, it deals with a different kind of civil war: one among superheroes.

We dealt with this same idea last week in Kingdom Come, where the superhero populace of the DC Universe had become so corrupt with power that it threatened to end the world. Well, this time we’re coming at it from Marvel’s side, and the story is unsurprisingly different.

It’s always been a thing with DC and Marvel. DC writes stories where the characters are virtually gods – a rewritten mythology for the modern age. Their characters have relatively few weaknesses, and the villains are larger-than-life unkillable terrors. Marvel, on the other hand, likes its heroes a little weaker and a little more mortal. Its villains too. The stories Marvel tells can still be epic, but usually on a smaller scale (galactic rather than cosmic), and the character arcs tend to hold more water.

The actual Civil War comic is comprised of a series of crossover comics from 2006-2007, written by Mark Millar, art by Steve McNiven. The series crossed through nearly every major Marvel franchise, and kind of seriously ruled. Its tagline was “Whose side are you on?” and it followed the whole superhero community when it faced the ultimate question: should superheroes have to give up their secret identities?

That may not immediately sound like the be-all end-all thought for superhero-kind, but it really is. It gets at the heart of what it means to run around wearing tights, whether the mask is actually important, and who is responsible for these guys anyway. But the real reason this series rules? Because the answers are not easy, and they are not comfortable.

And because people you love are on both sides of the line.

The story follows the implementation of a governmental bill requiring the registration of all superhumans. The bill, brought about because of an extremist response to meta-human destruction and death, requires that all heroes publicly register their identities. Tony Stark, Iron Man, is for it. Steve Rogers, Captain America, is against it.

That right there is the crux of the whole story. If you’ve only really been exposed to those characters through the Marvel Movie Universe (Avengers, basically), then I need to explain to you a thing. Cap and Iron Man are bros. Best friends. Incredibly close. Best men at each others’ weddings close. So when we find out that these two guys are split ideologically, and that these are the lines they’re split on, it’s devastating.

Moreover, it’s surprising. Tony Stark is fronting for the government and supporting more Congressional oversight? That seems weird. And Steve Rogers fighting against his government and openly defying it? I feel dirty inside.

But that’s all part and parcel of what makes this a great story. The human element.

A huge part of that is Peter Parker. Now, as you all know, Peter Parker is Spiderman, but he really doesn’t want anyone to find that out. In the comics, and in the movies, this is because Peter actually has a life, and people who love him. He’s married to MaryJane. He’s still close with Aunt May. His decision to protect his identity is not a casual one, especially since he tends to deal more with street thugs that would have no compunction about roughing up his wife.

Peter gives up his identity under pressure from Tony and the government. Then he realizes that he’s made a huge mistake, upon seeing the giant prison that Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic make to hold all the superhumans who won’t agree to registration. He decamps to the other side. The arc actually ends with him huddling back into hiding, and trying to make a life for himself again. Oh, and with him hating Tony Stark’s guts.

Why do I mention all of this? Well, because I think Peter’s story, and the flip-flopping he does, sum up really well how we all feel about this issue. And by issue, I don’t mean whether or not superheroes should get to keep their secret identities.

I mean the conflict between security and freedom.

We think about it a lot, even if we don’t really think about how we’re thinking about it. In America, the gun control debate rages on because we’re really not sure where we stand on this. We created secret prisons on the other side of the world to keep us safe from terrorists who now want to kill us even more. We passed laws that say we can spy on our own. We live in a screwed up world and the only thing we can’t figure out is what will be better: more security, or more freedom?

This is where Peter comes in. At the beginning, he thinks the choice, while not easy, is clear: more security. When he gives up his name to the government, he’s implying that he will trust them to use that information wisely, and to protect him should he need it. But when he finds that he government may not be entirely trustworthy, he takes it back. He changes his mind. He chooses freedom.

I have to admit that I really don’t know which one I’d choose, if I had to.

It’s easy and fun to think that we would immediately pick freedom, and certainly that’s the more colorful option. Unfortunately, I know how craven and cowardly I can be when I’m not being my best self, and I also know the pleasant comfort of security. And who are we to say that security is a bad thing, anyways? Why is it so easy to dislike, from a distance, that is?

If I had to take a stab at it, I would say it’s because at our core, we want to be free. Free from what, we usually don’t know, but we want to be free of something. That’s what fuels most mid-life crises, burnouts, and hippies travelling the globe. We want to be free.

When I described the plot up there, it was easy to tell that Captain America was the good guy, right? Even though you knew that there was a gross amount of legitimate devastation that Iron Man was trying to prevent. Even though they both really had reasonable points. And even though Cap was the one to make the first violent gesture?

It’s not all that weird when you think about it, that Iron Man chose security and Captain America chose freedom. Tony was a man who built himself a giant suit of armor to save his own life. He knows security very well. But Steve was the guy who volunteered for a war he was unfit to serve in, and took a leap into potentially deadly science, because he believed it was the right thing to do. So, not surprising at all really, in the end.

But Cap is still definitely the good guy to us, isn’t he?

Here’s the other thing: security is easier, but freedom is better. Better, I would argue, because it requires of us the one thing that security refuses is. Freedom requires that we trust each other, and that is both noble and nearly impossible.

And, as a matter of note, that’s not how the story ends. I hate to break it to you, but Cap doesn’t win this one. In fact, and here I’m going to go into SPOILERS for a seven year old series, he actually is taken into custody, then killed on his way to the courthouse. (Don’t worry, he got better.)

In the end, history vindicates security, and stomps on trust. Tony Stark becomes head of SHIELD. Heroes flee for Canada, and the bill gets passed. Sure, it’s not as draconian as it could have been, but still. Still.

What’s the point I’m trying to make with all of this? Well, aside from my usual point, that I would very much like it if Marvel/Disney were to make Avengers 3 or something based on the Civil War arc, I also want to make a larger point about trust and freedom.

We’re at a point as a society where we don’t trust anyone. Not each other, not our government, not our collective humanity. We have an incredibly low view of ourselves and each other. But we still want to be free. And I’m here to tell you that we can’t be free until we act like we are. It sounds weird but it’s true. In order to be free, you have to act like you are before you feel it. Because the act of trusting each other and going about our daily lives again is what will make us free.

And also I would like to make a smaller point, that I love this arc.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I Want My Kids To Turn Out Like Finn (Adventure Time)

I’ll start with this. Adventure Time is not a kids’ show. Or rather, it’s not just a kids’ show. Like how Spongebob Squarepants and Pixar movies appeal to both the kiddie and grownup sets, Adventure Time is fun for kids but actually pretty interesting for adults too. So good job there.

The show is an animated short, each episode only lasting about eleven minutes without commercials, and it’s pretty seriously strange. But I mean that in the good way. The show follows Finn, the last human child, and his adoptive dog brother Jake, as they have adventures in the magical land of Ooo.

Getting the strange yet?

There’s a distinct implication that the land of Ooo is actually our world after some kind of horrific apocalypse, but the series doesn’t linger on that, because, you know, kids. Instead, the show is about Finn and Jake and the adventures they go on. What makes it interesting is the nature of those adventures.

You see, it would be very easy to make a show like this where the main characters are constantly rescuing beautiful damsels and getting neat moral lessons, or fighting monsters, or going on epic quests. To be sure, they do do those things, but they also do other stuff. Like go on a great journey to find musicians so that a group of mushrooms can dance. Or try to convince a mountain to stop crying, only the mountain is crying because the village of marauders at its base likes rough-housing and the mountain is scared someone will get hurt. Stuff like that.

What makes the show really interesting is that Finn doesn’t discriminate between the two types of quests. He doesn’t view helping carry tarts across the kingdom differently than he views saving Princess Bubblegum. Every task is equal in his eyes, and that’s pretty awesome.

But more than that, Finn is actually a really fantastic role model. Not because he’s orderly and nice and responsible, because he’s none of those things. He never cleans his room, he can be kind of a jerk, and he is wildly irresponsible sometimes.

Finn’s a role model for one simple reason: he cares.

Finn is the last human. Everyone he sees around him is wildly different than he is, and his response to this isn’t to become jaded or secluded or to isolate himself from the world. He isn’t on a great quest to discover his origin, or find his birth parents (he was adopted by talking dogs that found him in the woods). What Finn wants, more than anything else, is to help people. To help everyone, in fact. Everyone that needs help.

What better role model do you want for your kids?

And sure, he gets it wrong sometimes. He gets it wrong a lot of the time, actually. But even that is great to see. Because we watch Finn not just try to do the right thing and then either have it succeed or give up when it’s harder than it seems. He tries one thing, and when that doesn’t work, he tries something else. He keeps trying. He tries hard. Because he genuinely cares about the outcome.

Finn is a hero, and his mission is to help people. Not because he has to, but because he wants to, and because he thinks its fun. How is this guy not a great role model?

To be sure, there are other reasons to watch the show as well. Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, Lady Rainicorn, and Lumpy Space Princess are all interesting, well-rounded female characters, who add to the story and develop as the plot progresses. They’re all deeply unique, and the fun is seeing how each of them plays into the story. Plus, not a one of them is a stereotype of anything. They’re all completely unique.

That can be said for most of the world of the show. Finn spends a lot of time rescuing princesses, but those princesses are wildly diverse, from Hot Dog Princess to Doctor Princess (not actually a princess, that’s just her name), to Lumpy Space Princess, to Zombie Princess. Again, all unique and interesting. This is a world where dogs can shapeshift and change size, where candy talks and wears pants and where Lemongrabs do whatever it is that Lemongrabs do.

Still, the best part of the show remains Finn. Finn and his optimistic, enthusiastic desire to help people. Not because he has to, but because he genuinely believes that he is better off if the people around him are happy.

I just want to hug that kid. And I want my kids to turn out just like him, messy rooms and all.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Good Community Pursues Its Lost Sheep (Fast and Furious 6)

If you haven’t seen the previous five movies in the Fast and Furious series, allow me to break them down for you. People drive cars quickly.

That’s pretty much it.

As such, I originally intended to hate these movies with the fire of a thousand pretentious suns, but I couldn’t quite manage it. Why? Well for all that they’re exceptionally simple, they’re also good. Weird, I know, but true. The Fast and Furious movies are genuinely enjoyable entertainment. Not only that, but the characters are fully realized, well rounded people, with flaws and motivations, and storylines that carry on from film to film. You get attached, and you truly care about their fates.

All of this is to say that I have seen the sixth movie in the franchise, and not only did I enjoy it, I actually thought it was a pretty good movie. And a lot of that, most of it, to be honest, is because of the way it deals with its characters. Specifically, I love this movie, because it is all about a community pursuing its lost sheep.

But let me explain.

Way back in Fast and Furious 1, or just The Fast and the Furious as it was called then, we got to know a guy named Dom (Vin Diesel). Dom was a mechanic, thief, illegal car racer, and all around upstanding guy. I don’t even really mean that sarcastically. While we knew that Dom was breaking the law, we also knew why he was doing it. And we knew that while he might view the law as a matter of opinion, he held his family in high honor.

I won’t go into the details of what happens in all the films of the series, but the basic gist is this: Dom’s crew is a family. They love and care for each other, and when one of them is lost, they grieve together.

This loss occurs in the third film, with the death of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Fast forward to this movie (the sixth), and we find out that not only is she not dead, she’s now working for the bad guys, and has no idea who she is. So Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) and the whole crew gather up to go save her, and maybe the world in the process.

It’s a giant popcorn ball of a movie once you get into the specifics – the plot is unnecessarily complex and the acting occasionally wooden, the setpieces are ridiculous in the best possible way, and there are so many muscles and muscle cars on the screen I thought I was going to overdose on testosterone. But. I really really loved it.

Now, part of that is because as a franchise and as an individual film it doesn’t flinch at the idea of having strong female characters. And not just one. Like a whole host of them, who talk to each other, fight with each other, and drive cars just as well as the boys. Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, and Gina Carano are just a few of the awesome ladies in this one, and I enjoyed the crap out of that.

But this movie is really about that lost sheep, so let’s get back to that.

The story kicks off when The Rock’s character, whose name is irrelevant, finds a semi-retired Dom and tells him that Letty is still alive. Dom is immediately sure that he wants to go after her, no matter what she’s into, so he agrees to help The Rock catch this super amazing thief she’s with, on the condition that Letty goes free.

The Rock agrees, but insists that Dom gather up his old team. In exchange, the whole team gets immunity and return to the States (they’ve committed rather a lot of crimes in the previous films and are mostly hiding in countries without extradition treaties). Dom’s big concern is that Brian and Mia (Jordana Brewster) have just had a baby, and he doesn’t want Brian to get back into the life. But he won’t make the choice for him.

And, of course, Brian accepts. At first you think it’s just bad writing – to give the character a reason to come home and then make them all selfless and insist that they go on the mission anyways. But actually it’s quite good, despite my earlier assumptions that Brian would die on the way in a tragic yet heartwarming scene.

You see, for this whole plot to work, a plot that is in a lot of places very silly and convoluted, you have to believe one thing. You have to believe, completely, that Dom and Brian and the whole crew would do absolutely anything to get Letty back. Not because they can’t let go, but because she’s family. She’s a part of their community, and they never abandon one of their own.

This motivation has to be crazy strong because it’s the backbone of the entire story. When they get to London and start going about stopping the bad guy, they discover that Letty has no idea who they are. She has no idea who she is. All she knows is that she loves cars, and she feels like there’s something missing.

I’m going to spoil it a little bit here, but it’s not awful, don’t worry.

Letty never remembers who she is. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time, really good. It would have been too easy if suddenly she knew them. If she could just flip a switch and know who they were. She doesn’t. But she does come around anyways, for a very simple reason.

This community, this family, pursues her with a single-minded passion that breaks through any barriers she might have even considered erecting. They love her even when she shoots them. Even when her boss tries to kill them. Even when they realize that she has no idea who they are.

She goes with them in the end not because she knows them, but because she wants to. And that, I think, is arguably the most powerful message the movie could have sent.

It’s easy to look at our families and our friends with the thought that we’ve known them for so long that we might as well just go on being friends. That it’s not a choice anymore, but that our friendship is a fact.

Well, it isn’t.

As it turns out, friendship, family, and community are choices, ones that must be made daily and continually, both by the individual and by the community at large. The crew chooses to pursue Letty even though they know she may never accept them again. Letty chooses to make her home with them, even though she doesn’t know them. Love is a choice, and it’s the most important one we can make.

I love this movie because even though it’s silly and full of car chases, explosions, and really cheesy dialogue, it’s true. We all want to be pursued like Letty is. We want our communities to love us that much, and value us not for what we can offer, but for who we are. I love this movie because it makes me happy. And because the ending was so perfect – not fully happy, not fully sad, but honest – that it made me cry.

In a movie theater. Full of people there to see a Fast and Furious movie. So you better bet it was good.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Linksgiving (Fannibals, Peggy Olson, and More)

Art by
Okay, I’ll be honest, I’ve been camping all week, so I don’t actually know if these are the most relevant links in the world. Maybe something really interesting happened this week that I don’t know about. Wouldn’t be the first time.

But these are the links we’ve got. And they’re pretty rad.

(Also, I do love camping and the outdoors and all that, but man is it nice to sit in a chair again.)

As always, feel free to shamelessly self-promote in the comments below, or shoot us an email at if you have something you want included next week.

1. The Atlantic takes on television again, this time asking, “Why Is the Golden Age of TV So Dark?” Which is a fair question.

2. Polish photographer Ilona Szwarc has a fantastic exhibition up that shows images of 100 American girls with their American Girl Dolls. I had one of those growing up, and all the books, and this exhibit, well, it’s just plain cool.

3. A Portal fan turned their entire bedroom into an homage to the game, with Aperture Science logos, instructions, and fake portals all over the place. This girl is my hero.

4. Buzzfeed has a great piece on the surprising rise of the Hannibal fandom, and the entertaining weirdness of a bunch of people obsessed with a show about cannibalism. They call themselves Fannibals.

5. Patrick Stewart is a fabulous human being and also a feminist, as he discussed in this awesome video on Women and Hollywood. He talks about domestic abuse, the role of women in society, and why he is a feminist.

6. Ever filled with rage by the horrifically impractical armor you see on female characters? Buzzfeed has you covered, literally. Check out their gallery of skimpy armor that’s been “fixed” to be more practical.

7. And finally, here’s a video of “The Evolution of Peggy Olson”, who went from shy secretary to no-nonsense ad woman on Mad Men.

That’s it for this week on KMWW. Tune in tomorrow for Crossover Appeal, and we’ll be back on Monday with a look at RED 2.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Black Widow from Avengers

All it really takes for me to sum up my mixed feelings about Black Widow is a glance at my wall. On it I have pictures – lots of pictures, and posters, and art, but mostly pictures – cut from magazines. These pictures are almost invariable screenshots from my favorite movies and TV shows, or full body images of my favorite actors and characters, and occasionally in depth articles pasted to my wall.

Right above my bed are two pictures pretty close together, both of Black Widow. In one of them she’s pictured with Nick Fury (it’s the Entertainment Weekly special cover) and in the other she’s standing lost and confused outside the Tesseract device (it’s a screenshot from near the end of Avengers). Both of them are on my wall. But one of them is my favorite.

I have them both up there not just because they happen to be visually appealing and include a character I find freaking fantastic, but because they showcase both sides of her so incredibly well. On the one hand you have Black Widow, a deadly assassin. Beautiful, perfect hair, posed, lit, and with a really spectacular butt. Presumably she’s good at murder, but all we know from this picture is that the girl can work a lens.

And in the other you have Natasha Romanov, the girl who was unmade, staring at a seemingly impossible situation.

Do I really have to say which one I like better?

Natasha Romanov, or Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson in the recent Marvel Movie Universe (Iron Man 2, Avengers, and the upcoming Captain America: Winter Soldier), is a hard character to figure out. That’s a huge part of why I actually like her.

Invented in the late seventies as a villain, the Black Widow was always that, a black widow. Like the spider supposedly does, she would lure in men, then kill them. She had a couple of flings with superheroes, including Hawkeye, notably, and officially turned for the mostly good in the late nineties. (Correct me if I’m wrong, oh wise nerds).

Natasha’s backstory, though intense, always made it hard to root for her. While we knew that she’d been raised to be an assassin from a very young age, brainwashed by the KGB’s “Red Room”, we also knew that she kind of liked killing people. She just wasn’t a nice person. And I have to say, her moral ambiguity was refreshing.

And even though she is a member of the Avengers in the comics, she was by no means the most obvious choice for a first female Avenger in the movie universe. Wasp actually has a much better claim, as does Captain Marvel. But they chose Black Widow, a choice which actually makes me very happy.

She’s not a nice person. She’s not an unambiguous person. She’s not even really a good person. She doesn’t care about the big picture. She can kick butt, but she’s not really going to be running around dropping bombs, nor does she have any actual superpowers. She’s a girl with a gun, an amped up taser, and some impressive kung fu skills, up against gods and monsters. And she wins.

But more than that, I’m so glad they chose Natasha because she’s a hard character. She’s hard to make an audience like, and she’s hard to portray honestly. And they managed both.

Black Widow isn’t always the smartest person in the room, nor is she always the most badass. And she knows it. She’s actually quite comfortable with this. What she is, is the most self-aware person in the room. She knows exactly what she is capable of, and she knows precisely how much she needs to be pushed to prove it. But she isn’t perfect.

She has weaknesses. Her fondness for Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is arguably a weakness, as is her limited physical strength, but I’m talking deeper down. She doesn’t trust people. She doesn’t really care about them either. Black Widow is just a little bit broken. Not in the cheezy annoying way that female characters sometimes are, but in the deep, powerful way that signifies true feeling. Black Widow is screwed up, and that makes me happy.

Why? Because it’s such a better story.

Even if Marvel were only doing one story with Natasha in it, we’d still be better off with a flawed character, so think of how much better this is. She’s not been in one film, she’s been in two so far, with another one coming out next summer (yay!). And she’ll presumably be in more films after that. This means that we get to see her grow. Change. Develop. We get to see our distrustful, unhappy Natasha possibly learn how to love again. Or maybe not. But either way, we get to see a person.

It’s not that Wasp and Captain Marvel aren’t cool characters, or that they don’t have good backstories. It’s more fundamental than that. Black Widow is human. She’s gloriously, falteringly human. And in a story about gods and monsters, we need someone human. We need someone screwed up to latch onto. To see ourselves in. And then we need to see her change.

Now, do I wish that there had been more female characters in Avengers? Of course I do. There are two. Two. And they never talk to each other. It really bothers me that we needed five male superheroes to balance out one chick with a gun.

But at the same time, I am so incredibly happy that Natasha was the one they picked. Because heroes don’t have to be invariably heroic to be interesting. We don’t have to be slave to the rules of “good role models” and “strong female characters who can bench press a car”. To do so is reductive and unhelpful. Not all female characters are or should be role models. And not all strong female characters can do a one-armed pull up.

Being a strong female character is about more than just really awesome hair and being physically capable. It’s not about being emotionally stunted or about always telling a man that you don’t need him. That’s really not it at all.

At the heart, we’re talking about giving characters agency, and then letting them do what they want with it. Natasha is a perfect example of this, because we really don’t know what she’ll do. She’s loyal to Clint, but is she loyal to SHIELD? She could be injured and sidelined from the fight, or she could jump on the back of a Chitauri flyer and pilot it to the top of the Stark building. You really don’t know, and that’s half the fun.

Most of all, though, I’m happy they chose her because Natasha actually is emotional. We have this preconceived idea that strong means you don’t have feelings, or you don’t speak them. We think this about men, but it often comes out when we talk about strong women as well. And it’s wrong.

Strong people cry. Strong women cry. They talk about their feelings. They have pasts. And they feel those pasts just as deeply as weak people do. The difference is what they do with it.

Natasha might not be sobbing on Clint’s shoulder, but we know the depth of her feelings. We know what it costs her to word them, and we know just how much she really cares about the people around her. We know, and it only makes her stronger.

Now, I have to say, I do have another picture of her on my wall.

This one is a group shot, another still image, of Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all marching up into the helicopter, getting ready to go beat up Loki. She looks great in the shot. Not the manufactured greatness of the EW cover, but a wind-in-the-hair level of awesome that only comes from a cool character doing a cool thing. And I think I love this picture the best.

Do I love it because she looks really pretty? No. Or because it’s a badass shot of the three of them? Well, only partly. The biggest reason I love this picture is for the look on her face.

They’re walking into an unknown situation. There’s a god wreaking havoc on New York City. The sky has opened up and aliens are pouring out. She doesn’t have superpowers. She doesn’t have any big weapons. She’s just been chased across a falling helicarrier by the Hulk. She has bruised ribs and a fractured ankle. She has a gun, and a taser.

And she looks ready.

And freaking awesome.