What happened? Popular entertainment, after all, need not shy away from complexity or genuine moral conflict; the recent revival of Batman as the Dark Knight proved that well. Rather, the problem is one common to most superhero movies: Too often, filmmakers treat comic books as a brand rather than as source material, emptying them of all the intricacies and ironic reversals that made the beloved characters beloved in the first place. Put simply, contemporary superhero movies suck because they’ve forgotten their Jewish roots.
What I’m advocating here isn’t a cartoonish resort to stereotypes—Wolverine working as a mohel, after all, is an incongruity most of us aren’t ready for—but rather a return to the dynamic, complex, identity-focused storytelling that the American Jewish fathers of the comic-book industry produced so well.
One of this summer’s superhero movies almost gets it right. X-Men: First Class, which tells the story of the formation of the first X-Men under the tutelage of Professor X and Magneto, opens with a harrowing scene in Auschwitz, where Magneto, né Erik Lehnsherr, is separated from his parents, who wear the obligatory yellow star. His power—the ability to manipulate metal and magnetic fields—manifests in that traumatic moment. Later in the film, when asked to think back to a time when he was truly happy, Lehnsherr flashes back to lighting Hanukkah candles with his mother.
These markers of Jewishness are briefly presented and may seem clichéd, but they make First Class not only a very Jewish film but also an interesting if ultimately flawed one, a work of popular fiction concerned with the ethics of revenge. As Lehnsherr spends much of the movie hunting down the Nazi doctor who killed his mother, he turns into a cold, scarred man and eventually develops some ideological commitments that are not too far off from those of his German tormentors.[...]
Perhaps because their creators were forced to reckon with their sense of identity (Stan Lee and many of his peers anglicized their names), comics have been better than their filmic descendants at pushing their protagonists to extremes. In 1941, the now-famous cover of Captain America No. 1 showed the Cap fighting Nazis. A nebbishy, desperately patriotic Brooklyn boy (read: Jew) who, with the help of a Jewish scientist, was turned into a physical specimen, Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both Jewish. But even though he began as a Nazi-busting macho, he was never out of touch with the ambivalence with which so many Jews approach power. By 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Captain America has had a crisis of conscience, calling himself “an anachronism” in “the age of the rebel and the dissenter.” In Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium, Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs describe this Captain America as “torn by self-doubts: the Hamlet of comics.” Like Hamlet, Cap feels unequal to the circumstances he faces: “Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more!” There could be no sentiment more Jewish—to feel painfully out of step with the society whose ideals one has so ardently tried to uphold—and no better prescription for drama. There’s also very little chance that any of this ambiguity would ever be permitted to make a cameo in Captain America’s current Hollywood iteration.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Comic book movies
Jacob Silverman looks at the recent trend of comic book movies over in Tablet. It's an interesting read for one. Here's a quick excerpt: