Monday, September 11, 2017

Len Wein 1948-2017

One of my all-time favorite comics.
It's not fair that we lost both Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein in the same year. You've probably heard by now about his passing on social media, and everyone is reminding us that Lein Wein co-created Swamp Thing with Bernie and also Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and he re-started the languishing X-Men by making them Uncanny and creating a bunch of now-standard--and interestingly, international--characters like Colossus, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, and of course, the Canadian Mystery Man, Wolverine himself. This is a big deal, and should be mentioned, alongside his stint as editor-in-chief at Marvel comics, and his later career writing for TV animation like the Batman Animated Series. Len deserves every once of credit for all of that, and more.

But I want to talk about Len Wein and what he meant to me. See, I was late to the Uncanny X-Men--my first issue was well into the Claremont/Byrne run (issue #119, if you must know; the second appearance of Moses Magnum). I discovered Swamp Thing later, around age 9, watching them read aloud on television with actors speaking the parts, like a book and record sort of thing. But my first Len Wein comic I ever read was an issue of The Incredible Hulk. It wasn't #180 (*First Appearance of Wolverine-cameo, last panel) nor #181 (*First Full Appearance of Wolverine, worth a small fortune these day). Nope. It was Incredible Hulk #182 (*2nd Wolverine Appearance-cameo, first page). Which, as you may well imagine, ain't worth diddly-squat, by comparison.

Comics History, Bronze Age Style
But that doesn't matter. At the age of 8, I was reading them to be reading them. You couldn't get full runs of anything in Abilene, Texas, in the mid-1970s, and I had to be content with what I could find. So I read these comics very carefully, looking for clues and connections to other comics and stories.  This was, at first glance, a random issue of The Incredible Hulk. I don't even remember where I got it. Probably bought for me by my dad, or possibly included in a stack from a garage sale. Who knows. But this seemingly-innocuous comic hit me like a ton of bricks.

In a nutshell, here' the recap: The Canadian government captures the Hulk, no thanks to their field agent, Wolverine. Hulk gets loose, as per usual, and disappears into the forest. He comes across an old black man who set up camp. He introduces himself as Crackerjack Jackson and offers Hulk some food. He plays the harmonica and they talk for a while.

Elsewhere, two convicts, an angry black man, and a racist white man, have broken out of prison, but they are shackled together, chain gang style. They are not friends, and can't wait to get free of their chains and go their separate ways. They stumble across a mushroom-headed alien and shoot him. The alien is saved by the metal in the bullets and as a thank you for the help, turns their ordinary chain into an energy tether that gives them strength and power. They rebrand themselves as Hammer and Anvil and decide to get revenge on the prison.

This comic broke my heart.
Meanwhile, Crackerjack is teaching Hulk to fish and write his name. Crackerjack tells Hulk, "A man ain't nothin' if he ain't got his name." Hulk is pleased with his results. He agrees to accompany Crackerjack to see his son.

As it turns out, his son is in prison. The very prison that Hammer and Anvil are about to take apart. Moreover, Leroy, now "Hammer", is Crackerjack's son. Crackerjack sees what's going on and tries to intervene, but Leroy is too angry at his absent father to listen. When Crackerjack reaches out to his son, he grabs the energy chain and the shock kills the old man instantly. When Hulk sees this he goes nuts and attacks the pair. They get Hulk in a stranglehold, but Hulk overcomes and tears the bio-chain apart, which stuns them both.

Before the authorities can swoop in, Hulk takes Crackerjack's body in his arms and leaps away. There, in the woods, he digs a grave for his friend, and buries him. Using his finger, he digs into a rock, carving Crackerjack's name into the makeshift tombstone. And then he leaps away.

All of that story happens in a story merely 17 pages long. And at the age of 7, it filled me with such profound sadness, such regret and loss, that it made me cry. I've since revisited the story, and it's...well, dated, to be polite...but at the time, this was great, great stuff.. I'd argue that even though it's dated now, its heart is still in the right place. And that's why Len Wein should be remembered. This wasn't high art. But he took something that could have been just another Hulk comic and made it greater than the sum of its parts.

That was the first time I noticed the writer's name, Len Wein. Two years later, when I discovered Swamp Thing, I would see his name again and the light bulb went off in my head: you could write comics! You didn't have to be an artist. Because (and I say this with all due respect) there is zero chance of mistaking Herb Trimpe for Bernie Wrightson. But the connective thread there was Len Wein, the writer.

Comics, and especially Bronze and Silver Age comics, take it in the shorts for their "simplicity" and being "kid's stuff," and while there was a schizophrenic barrage of message inherent in the way comics and comic properties were marketed in the 1970s, the people writing them weren't writing comics for kids. They were writing things that interested them, based on what they were hearing from fans, who were all ages--thirty and forty year old men and women, even back then. So the themes of casual racism, absent fathers, self-awareness, patricide, revenge, and regret--this was all fair game back then. What the critics of comics never realized, never got, never understood, is that when comics were their very best, they never pandered to the lowest common denominator. All of the best books forced their readers to engage with them at a much higher level. And that's what Len Wein did when he wrote comics.

I've lost, traded, or misplaced many of my "childhood" comics, but I still have my battered and beat-to-hell issue of Incredible Hulk #182. It was a transformative book for me, one that most certainly contributed to my path to being a storyteller. I am deeply sorry I never got a chance to tell Len that in person.

Rest in Peace, Good Sir. And thanks. For all of it.

Edited to correct an appearance error and the weird loss of a paragraph in the posting.

Friday, September 8, 2017

What We Mean When We Say “Super Hero Fatigue”

Look at the colors in this poster for
Thor Ragnarok. How can you not
be excited to see this?
Nothing quite sets me off like the phrase “Super Hero Fatigue.” It’s a passive-aggressive way for movie reviewers and online content providers to turn their nose up at a genre that they either don’t like, don’t get, or some combination of the two. I’m not unsympathetic; we’ve all gotten fed up with a trend or a fad before the media, or your little sister, or the world was ready to let go of it, and we’ve all suffered through “the Spring Break song” of the year or the Twilight Saga or whatever it was with a mixture of benign hate and stoic indifference. I get it.

But if you don’t stop talking about super hero fatigue, I’m going to sock your nose. 

When you talk about “super hero fatigue” you may mean that you’re bored with the movies, but what I hear when you say that is, “I want these movies to go away.” Well, I don’t. If you don’t like them—if they aren’t for you—that’s fine, whatever, go peddle your ducks elsewhere. But to my mind, they’ve only really been good for, what, 9 years, now? Not even a full decade? Why do you hate fun? Who hurt you? And why would you waste good ink complaining about it when there’s hundreds of other movies, obscure and neglected, that you can champion as only a hipster can?

Now that you know what this blog post is going to be about, feel free to chalk it up as one of those “Old Man Yells at Cloud” posts. Or just skip right down to the end and tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. You will be wrong, of course, and do you know why?

I did the math. I’ve got the numbers. I have data, you smug bastards. So let me explain to you folks—many of whom are under the age of 35—why you need to stop kvetching about the Super Hero Movie Genre and let us Generation X folks have our moment.

My Thesis
The modern comic book movie didn’t officially begin until the year 1999 with the premiere of The Matrix. While it was not connected to a comic series or based on established characters, the visual effects in the film handily duplicated the fast-action and ballet-like fighting that was a staple of comic books. The “Bullet Time” effects in particular showcased key scenes before, during and after their execution, mimicking a “panel” in a comic.

Note: I did not include Blade (1998) in this calculation because, while Blade’s comic book origins are well-established, he is a vampire who hunts vampires. His speed and strength did not need any further explanation. The movie going audience understood that from the get-go and so no additional story was needed to justify his “super powers.” Nevertheless, Blade does count as a comic book movie, as we’ll later see.

Special effects, and in particular computer-generated effects, have been a staple of the movie industry since Jurassic Park in 1993. However, it took nearly a decade to create computer-generated imagery that was able to meet the rigorous demands of a super hero film. Even movies that were deemed mediocre as films boasted incredible special effects and images that were simply not possible prior to the 21st century.

Of course, that didn’t keep Hollywood from trying. The 20th century has some of the best-and worst-super hero movies and television shows to ever exist. And I should know. I watched all of it. Yeah, that’s right, all of it. Look, I was an early and avid fan of super heroes. I was reading comics at the age of 5. Collecting them by age 8. And—here’s the kicker—I was born in 1969, which puts me at ground zero for everything that was to come along and, little by little, improve with each try. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you were born anytime after 1960, then you probably feel as I do, if you’re as big a fan of comics and super heroes as me. If you were born in the seventies, you’re probably on board with me. But if you were born in the mid to late 1980s...you may just be the person I’m talking to when I say, “shut up your flapping food hole” about Super Hero fatigue.

I Made a Chart
You can download a PDF of my full chart here.  It took me a while to put together, since this is not my strong suit. But I wanted to back up my feelings, my impressions, and my memories with some actual hard data points. So there it is, in its full glory, if you’re so inclined. Also, I graded every single super hero movie and project from A to F. That's what we're all going to fight about. I just know it. So go ahead and download it now and look it over and get ready to tell me why I'm the biggest idiot the world has ever produced because I didn't like your favorite movie from 1997. For the rest of you, I’m going to skip ahead and talk briefly about what I uncovered.

Most of you know that modern super heroes debuted in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics. Batman followed in 1939, and Captain America and Wonder Woman came after that in 1940. Most of you know about the Golden Age of Super Hero Comics, and you may even know about the Silver Age and the creation of Marvel Comics in 1961 with The Fantastic Four, followed quickly by The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man.  

Marvel and DC continue to rule the roost when it comes to super heroes and their related properties. There have been (and continue to be) other publishers of comics, but it’s hard to topple characters who’ve been around for 60, 70, and 80 or more years. One thing I found interesting was that the 1940s and the 1960s, both times of great interest in comic book super heroes, each had their own attempts to capitalize on that success in movies or TV.

The 1940s were the era of the serials, or “Cliffhangers,” wherein a story was broken up into weekly chapters, each running around 15 minutes, and exhibited as part of a larger Saturday matinee program. These serials were sometimes re-edited into feature length films. The special effects for these cliffhangers was shoestring, at best, but the stunt work and action were often top-notch.

The 1950s gave rise to atomic age science fiction, and also opened up circuit distribution for independent film companies and “packagers.” Thus, quality varied widely, with some of the movies skirting the edge of outright exploitation.

Television was a fixture in the 1960s, and when Marvel came along, it saw an opportunity not on the silver screen but on the little screen. As early as 1966, a number of animated properties were developed—aimed at kids, of course—featuring the Marvel super heroes. The 1960s also continued the Science Fiction trend, but new fears were creeping into the zeitgeist. Planet of the Apes is the standout from this decade. Also, the studio system was breaking down.

The 1970s were essentially the end of the 1960s. Some speculative films were out, but there were more Godzilla movies than super hero fare on the big screen. It wasn’t until Star Wars changed the game in terms of what could be done onscreen that things started to change—but not until the 1980s. However, Marvel—perhaps emboldened by its success with animated properties, made the bewildering decision to take some of its beloved characters and turn them into lackluster live-action properties. Only Superman in 1978could save us from such mediocrity, and set the bar so high that it became the standard for decades on How to Make a Super Hero Movie.  

1980s were a heyday for fantasy films, embracing the new technologies created by ILM such as blue screen technology and optical compositing as soon as it was invented. Most of the time, the technology was badly applied, or worse, applied quite well to bolster terrible films. Marvel never really got its legs under it, doubling down on projects like Incredible Hulk TV movies and trying to launch David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury. DC didn’t do much better, with the Superman films rapidly declining in quality, each one dumber than the last. Again, a last minute save by Tim Burton invigorated Batman for a new generation.

Never forget. This is why we fight.
The 1990s tried their hardest to deliver, but the technology was just out of reach of the subject matter. To make matters worse, decades of bad super heroes, campy super heroes, and corny super heroes had muddied the waters. The nadir of this era was the much maligned and rightly so Batman and Robin, an intentional salute and celebration of the 1966 Batman TV show that everyone tried so hard to overcome. That the show has found a new audience now is not the point; there are finally enough interpretations of Batman in the zeitgeist that a super silly Batman isn't the only thing drawing water, nor is it the only view of super heroes out there. Back when it was the only note anyone could blow on a horn, it was tiresome in the extreme. The independent comics produced a  few exceptions, such as The Mask, which made the rubbery computer animation work for it, and The Rocketeer, which matched nice special effects with a sincere attempt at getting the character right, made the failures around it that much worse. Only the quantum leap forward with CGI at the end of the decade made what came next possible.

The 2000s can inarguably be considered the new Golden Age of comic book movies, now that technology finally caught up to the rigorous demands of the stories being told. However, the old modes of storytelling and the insistence on telling the same kind of super hero story—now a mash-up of the Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) plot would continue to plague many of the projects for most of the decade. When Iron Man started the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, it put into place one of the most ambitious world-building and franchise building exercises ever attempted on such a large scale, and it paid off handsomely.

2010 to 2017 is not a complete decade, but I would go so far as to argue that today’s comic book movies and television shows have supplanted the comic book themselves in terms of the place they occupy in popular culture—as a mirror of the times, and also as a reaction to current events. This is especially true in the politically-charged decade of the 2010s. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe only highlights the ongoing struggles of Warner Brothers to get its proprietary DC Universe characters on the big screen.

My Methodology
First, I counted only the Marvel, DC, and Independent movies and TV shows that were based on actual comics. There were a couple of exceptions, as you’ll see if you look at the PDF above. Mostly for multi-media properties such as The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and The Phantom. It was only a few extra numbers, as you’ll see. I also only counted TV shows once, even if they were on for multiple seasons.

I left off animation because it would have ballooned the super hero list. Also, because 95% of the animation was aimed at children. There’s a separate metric for that, in that all of that kiddie fare drove the discourse down and made super heroes infantile and their fans man-children for much of the 20th century. But that’s not what I was looking at. For what it’s worth, I did choose to count the live-action Saturday Morning Shows like Shazam! and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. I’m nothing if not capricious.

Then I went back and counted all of the movies and TV, aimed at American audiences, that were super heroes who were not actually comic book based. This is where stuff like The Greatest American Hero (1981-83) got counted. M.A.N.T.I.S. (1995). Heroes (2006-2010). Hancock (2008). You get the idea. For what it’s worth, I did choose to count the live-action Saturday Morning Shows like Shazam! and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.

In order to give these numbers some meaning, I used the combined Fantasy and Science Fiction genres to help “classify” them, since they have, up until very recently, been considered part of that genre (well, sometimes they get placed in action/adventure, but I maintain that the special effects needed to get super heroes to work on film is equal to an F/SF film, so this was a more accurate grouping).  I looked at the number of “real” or Top Shelf (Marvel, DC, etc) movies and TV shows by decade, and compared them to the number of Non-Marvel, DC, etc. movies and also F/SF movies by decade to generate a percentage within that larger group. Here are the results of that.

Super Hero Movie Stats
YEARS
By
Decade
Marvel, DC & Indy films
Other “Super Hero” films
Other F/SF films
% BY
DECADE
1940s





14
1
37
36%
1950s





6
2
164
4%
1960s





3
1
115
2.5%
1970s





7
5
123
5%
1980s





11
7
196
5%
1990s





24
16
194
11%
2000s





33
5
190
17%
2010s





48*
4*
159*
29%*
* an ongoing statistic. Tallies are not final.

Interpreting the Data
I deliberately pushed “Other Super Hero” films into a separate category because, almost without fail, they only added to the signal to noise ratio in getting good and true representations of these characters onscreen. In retrospect, I should have included another column for animated series, as it’s very important from the 1960s on, as keeping the characters (albeit simplified) in the public eye. But what I’m driving at here is this: Condorman did nothing to sell the public on the idea that super heroes were anything other than kiddy fare, played for laughs. And that was released by Walt Disney. Captain Nice, another live-action Saturday morning Yuk-fest, was even more stupid. This all relates back to the Batman TV series, of course. It was played for laughs and it was so incredibly successful, so fast, that they couldn’t monetize it fast enough. It was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon. And because it was so successful, that’s the well Hollywood went back to for a full decade when Super Heroes came up. That’s why Doc Savage looked the way it did.

That’s not to say that the major comic book companies didn’t shoot themselves in the foot, either. For decades prior to the premiere of X-Men in 2000, Marvel comics fans groaned every time a new TV series or movie was announced, because they just Couldn’t Get It Right. Ever. In some cases, it was like they weren’t even trying. The Incredible Hulk was popular, for what it was, but it really bore no resemblance to the comics. There were no super villains, nothing to really set The Hulk in the Marvel Universe. Ferrigno in green body paint was expensive enough. And he stormed through Styrofoam walls, broke balsa wood tables, and even pushed cars around with his Hulk-like strength, but it was a far, far cry from “Hulk Smash.” Later, in the 1980s, they revived the Hulk for TV movies co-starring Thor and Daredevil, and they were the sorriest, most inane versions of the characters I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen them all, even the pirated unreleased TV pilots and movies that have been shelved over the years because they sucked so bad.

And What about DC? They were defined by the success of Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), this is true, but no one ever brings up Swamp Thing (1981). Or Legends of the Superheroes (1979). Wonder Woman was initially as great as something with a nineteen-dollar special effects budget could be, but as quick as they could, they brought her into the modern era, where everyone wore pantsuits, and all of the aliens were from a future or a planet that used crystals and a lot of lycra. No, there’s enough blame to go around. By now, the Batman TV show was in syndication, and it was a daily dose of super heroes, and we all watched it, because we had no other options, but we all wondered why Adam West and Burt Ward were nothing—at all—like the Batman and Robin in the comics.

At first glance, it sure does seem like the number of super hero projects has increased. I think it’s interesting to note that in terms of percentages, 2010 and 1940 are the closest in comparative sizes, and I think this is due to a similar rise in interest. Comics are no longer hermetic and inaccessible. Super heroes are everywhere, and they function, more or less, like how they work in the comics. This is a huge leap forward, and one that may contribute to the decline (and maybe even the death) of American super hero comics as the characters move into this new storytelling medium en masse.

These are good numbers to look at, but there’s one more number, very important, that I want to talk about. Here’s where we venture, and quite correctly, into “You Young Kids” territory. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves, for now.

Number of Top-Tier Super Hero movies prior to 2000: 65
Number of SF and “other” super hero movies combined, prior to 2000: 861
Percentage of Top Tier Super hero films prior to 2000:  7.5%

Number of Top-Tier Super Hero movies after 2000: 81
Number of SF and “other” super hero movies combined, after 2000: 358
Percentage of Top Tier Super hero films after 2000:  23%

So, what we have here is not only the establishment of super hero movies as a genre, but also a clear line in the sand for people born from 1960 to 1985 and people born after 1985. It has a lot to do with when you started consuming super heroes. If you were born after a certain age, you just aren’t in a position to understand why it’s important to Generation X that we now have cool movies that don’t insult anyone’s intelligence and that millions of people are interested in and oh yeah, also star Captain Freaking America. You don’t understand, and I don’t know that you’ll ever have the empathy to do so.

A Tale of Two Marks
To prove my point, I’m going to create two identical Marks. Mark from Earth-1 and Mark from Earth-2. For clarity’s sake, I will eschew with the standard time deviation that is problematic with the multiverse and make Earth-1 Mark older than Earth-2 Mark. I know that there’s a small percentage of DC comics fans who’s heads just exploded, but I don’t care. This isn’t for them.

Mark from Earth-1 was born in 1969. He was born at a time when there wasn’t Cable TV, and there wasn’t VHS recorders (and certainly not any DVD players). Mark really likes super heroes, and thankfully, there’s plenty of them around. He just has to ride his bike all over to the four or five convenience stores, drug stores, and super markets that each have a limited selection of Marvel and DC comics. Earth-1 Mark has to smile politely when his grandparents bring him a handful of “funny books” to read; stacks of Archie and Ritchie Rich that do nothing to satisfy his itch to leap tall buildings in a single bound and save the world from the mad menace of The Joker.

Earth-1 Mark is eight years old when Star Wars premieres in 1977. Up until that time, he’s been watching cartoons (of course) and Wonder Woman on television. He’s also been watching Shazam! every Saturday morning. Most of the time, their super heroics are about this same; I can’t count the number of car bumpers they both lifted up to prevent criminals from just driving away from them.

But all is not gloom and doom for Earth-1 Mark. Even though he doesn’t have the streaming Internet, or even cable, he has regular TV and radio. On the AM stations, at night, he can listen to old time radio programs like The Shadow. He’s got Power Records, actual comics with actors speaking the lines. Those are pretty cool, and do not shy away from the subject matter. And on TV, he’s privy to just about every super hero program from 1940 to 1968. Shows like Batman ran in the afternoons, after school. He watches all of it, including the Saturday morning cartoons like Batman and The Super Friends, and Space Ghost. Even after Star Wars debuts, it take years between projects. There is no Internet to instantly spread the latest rumors and gossip; just controlled press releases that state Superman II is now filming and will be premiere in 1980. Three years away.

You were supposed to protect us from this, Stan! We
trusted you! How could you let this happen? Do you
have any idea how much shit we took for liking this stuff?
In the meantime, Earth-1 Mark can tide himself over with The Incredible Hulk, on TV, and watch Bill Bixby turn into Lou Ferrigno twice each episode. He can watch Spider-Man, on TV, climb up walls and shoot nylon cord out of a webshooter the size of a disco ball and watch it magically curl around a bad guy to tie him up. He can watch Captain America, on TV, drive a motorcycle while wearing a giant blue helmet and throw a clear plastic shield around like a Frisbee.  He can watch Ed McMahon yuk it up with third-rate comedians in ill-fitting super hero Spandex, on TV. And he can deftly avoid the bigger kids in school who love to make fun of him because comics are stupid and for babies and nothing in the larger media is proving the bullies wrong at this point.

Earth-2 Mark? He was born in 1985. He also loves comics. His mom takes him to the comic book shop every week to buy his latest books. He still has to avoid the other kids who might make fun of him, but there are other people his age who also go to the comic book store, and they band together, like Sand People, to hide their true numbers.

Earth-2 Mark is 6 years old when Jurassic Park comes out. It’s the first time he’s been thrilled and terrified at a movie, because the dinosaurs looked so very real! Later, in his early twenties, he’ll decry the animation as clumsy and stupid, but for now, he’s duly impressed. Mostly, though, he’s into Batman: The Animated Series and the X-Men cartoons.

Earth-2 Mark’s dad took him to see Batman Forever but he didn’t remember it, so he rented the VHS tape and rewatched it at his home. All of his super hero movies are on video tape, and he can watch them whenever he wants to, now. But the movie he really remembers seeing in the theater was Batman & Robin, and it blew his young mind (he watched it years later, as an adult, and was bummed to find out that it didn’t hold up, not in the least). He also saw Spawn that same year by sneaking into the theater, and it was super cool, because he got Spawn #1 and it’s now worth $20 and it’s only going to go up after the movie comes out, right?

When the first X-Men movie drops in 2000, Earth-2 Mark is in line. And he comes out of it energized. Finally! He thinks. We’ve been waiting for, like, ten years for this. It was stupid of them to wait so long. They could have and should have done this years ago. In fact, they should have done X-Men instead of Blade. Now, if only they’d put Colossus in the next X-Men movie...

Now it’s 2017. Earth-2 Mark is 29 years old. He’s been to college. He’s gotten a degree in general studies. He now works for an online content provider, and he writes pithy and succinct think-pieces about popular culture. But he’s bored, now, because they still aren’t making the movies he wants them to make, and he’s so fed up with all of these super hero movies, because, come on, this is so 1997, people, amiright? I mean, it was fun when I was younger, but after watching 12 Years a Slave, he simply cannot go back to movies that don’t elucidate or instruct in some meaningful way.

When Captain America (Finally) Throws His Mighty Shield
Okay, that’s enough of that. My point, in case you missed it, was this: for my generation, super heroes on film and TV were rare, hard to access, and nearly always not worth the terrible effort it took to find it in the first place. For so long, the special effects necessary to sell these stories was sorely lacking. When the special effects got better, efforts to translate the material suffered because of the prevailing attitude that comics were either A. Stupid; B. Infantile; or C. Both. The only thing people could do was to try and duplicate the success of the Batman TV show, with terrible results every time.

I really cannot stress to you just how bad all of it was. And I’m not saying, “compared to now,” either. I mean, bad back then. Case in point: Captain America.

I love Captain America. He’s one of my all-time favorite super heroes. Cool character, cool costume, cool powers, cool friends, cool everything. I was a seventies kid, and the bicentennial was huge. I had a copy of Captain America’s Bicentennial battles. I had the Captain America and the Falcon Power Records Book and Record set. I had the Captain America pocket books full-color reprint. Cap was my guy.

So when I found out there was a clilffhanger serial, featuring Captain America, and made during the 1940s, when it was cool to punch Nazis, I spent years tracking it down...and when I found it...ooh boy. It’s not good. Dick Purcell? Really? It’s just not. Cliffhangers are kind of cheesy and bad, but this poor sap in the cap suit didn’t even have a shield! I mean, Come On. How hard is that? There's nothing in the serial that is unique to Captain America. He could have been called "Bund-Puncher McGurk" and it would have made zero difference to the plot or the story. 

Thankfully, in the 1970s, there were these old limited animation shows (and I do mean limited) featuring the Marvel Super Heroes. One of which was Captain America, which came with a nifty theme song that I know you’ve heard people sing before. These cartoons were done in the mid-sixties, at a New York studio, with crude animation and clumsy voice acting, but the art for the cartoons was taken directly from the comics themselves. They look almost exactly like the Motion Comics of today.

This was not cool. Not even during the heyday of
Evel Knievel Fever. It sucked and we all knew it.
In the late 1970s, these two Captain America TV movies were shown, starring Reb Brown (don’t ask me) and featuring a Captain America who drove a motorcycle with a giant clear plastic shield that snapped onto the front of the bike like a windscreen. To promote cycle safety, Cap also had a giant blue motorcycle helmet with white wings painted on the side. Not even Christopher Lee as the bad guy makes these things worth watching. They are wrist-slitting awful.

By then, Stan was in Los Angeles, ostensibly heading up Marvel Entertainment, making movie and TV deals for all of us True Believers and telling us about it in his monthly column in the comics. That lasted until the early 1990s, but by then, we had the direct market and some comic book magazines that kept us up-to-date on the latest gossip—like the brand-new Captain America movie coming out!

Featuring an Italian Red Skull, a rubber suit that looked okay, until Cap turned his head and the molded rubber ears that were part of the mask he wore flattened against his head and looked ridiculous. This Cap is untrained, and flown into battle with one mission, holding a solid shield (thank you!), and he promptly gets kidnapped by the Italian Red Skull and strapped to a rocket that drops him into the Arctic Sea and freezes him. He’s thawed out in the modern world, only to find the Italian Red Skull is still alive, and they have one more fight and Cap wins.

Did I mention to you that this movie wasn’t originally released in America? It was so bad, it ended up going straight to video—right about the same time that Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four movie was being shelved for sucking so bad.

So, there’s Captain America’s media history. One of the easiest (you’d think) characters to pull off: no flight, no crazy powers like eye beams or weather control. Just running, jumping, punching, and throwing a shield—stuff that special effects could have and should have been able to pull off since the early 1980s.

That’s why Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is such a big deal. Not only did they get all of the little stuff right—the running, the jumping, the punching, and the shield—they spent a shit-ton of money making Steve Rogers look like a 98 pound weakling for the first third of the movie. When Cap throws his shield and it ricochets off of two bad guys and knocks them out, it looks exactly like how he does it in the comics. Chris Evans plays him like a conflicted Boy Scout, which is Cap all over from the 1960s to the 2010s. And the Red Skull was German, and a Nazi. Don’t ask me why it took so long. But understand this: I never thought they’d do it. After seeing them trying, and failing, so often, from the age of 7 to me in my early 40s, I just didn’t think they’d ever do it right. Not until Iron Man in 2008. Until then, I had zero hope.

By then, it was clear that the Geeks had Inherited the Earth. And apparently, what we want is good comic book movies and TV shows. Is that so wrong? We’d been denied them, all while the rest of you got romantic comedies, westerns, gangster movies, war movies, and love stories. And we had to take what we could get, because no one took comics seriously for decades. But there came a point when comics weren’t stigmatized. It started in the mid-to-late 1980s with the publication of a number of comics and graphic novels aimed at adults rather than kids. Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1990s, comics stopped being popular culture’s whipping boy. By then, it was okay to like comics, and the movies that came out, while of widely varied quality, at least looked and behaved like comic book super heroes. It wasn’t until members of Generation X started making these movies that they underwent a tonal change.

Post 2000 super hero movies are still a mixed bag, right up until 2008, when Marvel dropped Iron Man on an unsuspecting world. The birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was one of the most ambitious experiments of all time; make six super hero movies just so you can make a seventh one. Planning that far ahead was backwards thinking to the rest of Hollywood, but it worked like a charm. And judging from the box office numbers, it continues to work.  

Most of us old-timers chuckle at how the fortunes have reversed. There was a time that we preferred the DC movies and hated everything Marvel threw at us. Those days, thankfully, are long gone. But it’s worth noting that our interest hasn’t waned, just because we’re older. There’s still a lot to answer for. Decades of mistreatment, in fact. Even if we scrape off the first seven years of the 21st century (throwing out Spider-Man and X-Men along with Elektra and Catwoman)...even if we just start keeping score in 2008, that’s just ten years of jaw-dropping sights and sounds, stuff we never thought we’d ever see—such as an actual Captain America movie that wasn’t completely stupid—ten years, compared to, what? Thirty to forty years of insulting our intelligence, denigrating something we love almost unconditionally, mishandling the characters and concepts that have sustained generations of fans, beloved characters that are larger than life and mean something personal and sacred to so many folks...four decades of Hollywood screwing it up and making it worse.

This is our time. We earned these movies, with our money, with our loyalty, with our hearts. We kept these flames alive, and we kept the comic book industry afloat, and we championed these things to our friends, our family, our boyfriends and girlfriends—to anyone who would listen. It cost us social currency, relationships, arguments and fights—scars we carry to this day in one way or another. This is our hard-earned and just reward, in this new Era of Geek Culture.

They may not all be good, and some of them aren’t. But this is a relative and highly subjective criteria we’re talking about, here. Take the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movie you can think of—whichever the worst one in your mind is. Now, go compare that to anything that came out in the 1970s and 1980s. Go on, do it. I’ll wait. Pick the worst DC movie of the last ten years and go compare that to anything in the 1990s. See if it suddenly, magically, doesn’t start to look amazing and wonderful, by comparison.

See, it’s all relative. And it should be. We’re talking about a sub-genre of fantasy and science fiction movies, here. As popular now as the spy genre was in the 1960s or the western was in the 1940s and 1950s. It will very likely slow down on its own, due to economic pressures and interests, since Hollywood has a time-honored tradition of self-sabotage and over-saturation. But for right now, Super Heroes are only about one fifth of the overall number of fantasy and science fiction movies being released in the last ten years.

So, how about you let us have this moment and stop trying to take it away?