Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why Superman?

Our schedule this week is crazy, and is keeping Karen and me from seeing Superman Returns for a few more days, at least. To prepare myself for this momentous occasion, I watched the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film a couple nights ago.

Now let me tell you, I have never really gotten the massive fascination some people have with Superman. My dear friend Matt Ellis is one of the biggest Superman fans around, and I have never had the heart to bring this painful subject up with him. I'm a big comics fan, albeit far more of a Marvel guy than DC, and I have my own preferences for comic characters. I love Iron Man's ingenuity and jet-setting lifestyle, Hawkeye's devil-may-care attitude, Moon Knight's dedication and mystery, Songbird's strength and vulnerability, Hellboy's lunchbox-toting approach. Superman has always been uninteresting to me because there seems to be nothing wrong with him. There are no vulnerabilities, no weaknesses, and no chance of any kind of failure. He has too many powers, and he's too indomitable. The stakes just don't seem to be very high in a Superman story, whereas Iron Man is a recovering alcoholic with sometimes appallingly poor judgment, Hawkeye and Moon Knight must compensate in skill for the fact that they have no powers whatsoever, Songbird is a convicted felon trying to go straight, and Hellboy is, you know, from Hell. Superman has always seemed too perfect to me, and too powerful for his conflicts to be particularly compelling. And, I must confess, I have always thought Superman and Batman fans to be kind of shallow. I mean, aren't these the easiest heroes to be fans of?

Well, Matt, I owe you an apology. I watched Donner's film in my home theater for the first time in 15 years Tuesday night and almost wept with the beauty of it. I mean, I got all choked up and bit back a sob at the glory of Superman--while the opening credits rolled.

I have been converted to the church of Superman.

Yes, it's unbelievable. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; it's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman. Frank Miller, in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, describes the Man of Steel thus: "There's just the sun, and the sky, and him, like he's the only reason it's all here." When Superman speaks, the heroes listen; when he walks into the room, they all stand up straighter. He is an impossible ideal, something to aspire to despite no one being able to fill his shoes.

Loving Superman is, and I can't think of a better way to phrase this, very much like an act of faith. And boy, do we need faith.

In Donner's film, so lovingly nostalgic while simultaneously tenderly honest (the dialogue and cinematography absolutely scream "1978!"), Superman insists to Lois, "I never lie." And you know what? He doesn't. Ever. Lie. And when Christopher Reeve says that in the film, I feel a rush of warmth and comfort. Of course Superman never lies. Because it's in his nature to be honest, Jonathan and Martha Kent taught him to be honest, and the hologram of Kal-El reinforced its importance. In that moment, the fact that Superman is a combination boy scout and choir boy doesn't come across as shallow and obvious, it's completely natural. Not only is it natural, it's obviously the way the ideal person should be--including me. I missed the next couple minutes of the film because I found myself reflecting on when I lie, why I do it, and how I can remove it from my life.

Of course, pathological honesty does come back to bite Superman in his drawers-on-the-outside butt. Miss Teschmacher (the delectable Valerie Perrine) only removes the kryptonite necklace after securing his promise that he will stop the nuclear missile headed for New Jersey (and her mother) first. She knows that he never lies, and Lois Lane dies for the delay.

The fact that Superman breaks his father's "prime directive" to save Lois is no small thing. All of a sudden, Superman's boy scout badge is tarnished a bit, and the viewer realizes just how very dangerous Superman could be, if he chose to be.

See, that's the thing. Superman has almost limitless power on Earth, and he could do anything. The fact that it is his nature, nurture, and mission to do good works is not something to be taken for granted, as I always have. A person with Superman's powers and even a slightly different ethic would be a complete disaster on Earth. At the risk of sacrilege, I will pose a question my brother Peter asked me once: If God is all-powerful, could he not have chosen to be evil? The Superman-as-God-or-Jesus parallel can get you in all kinds of trouble (much like the Neo-as-Jesus), and can only be taken so far, but I must say that I am grateful that my all-powerful God has a benevolent nature, and I see the value of that choice in Clark Kent.

The late, great Mark Gruenwald trod this ground expertly in 1986 with his masterful Marvel miniseries Squadron Supreme. Following thematically and temporally right after DC's watershed Watchmen, Squadron shows a team of Justice League analogues who decide to become proactive and use their powers to "save the world." They must, of course, conquer it first. Wildstorm's brilliant The Authority has addressed similar themes from a much more blatantly (and gleefully) anti-establishment standpoint, and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski is currently writing a Squadron update for Marvel as an ongoing series. In the current book (which follows 18 issues of Supreme Power and two miniseries as setup), the Superman analogue is Mark Milton, AKA Hyperion, an alien sent to Earth much like Kal-El. But Milton doesn't adjust as well, having been raised and manipulated by the U.S. Government from an early age. (Side note: is there a single comic being published today where governments of any kind do anything beneficial? Not all comic readers are disgruntled anarcho-liberals, guys, and even for those that are it's getting pretty old.) Milton lacks Clark Kent's moral compass, and his efforts to help the world are often tainted by his resentment and alienation there, not to mention the fact that he can get away with anything he chooses.

So here's what I've learned about Superman. We need him.

We need heroes, and we need them to be so much larger than life that they transcend the need for believability. He's Beowulf, he's King Arthur, he's Achilles (because Batman is Odysseus). It's okay if he's unbeatable and impossible, because he's a reflection of the part of us that is also unbeatable and impossible.

Heroes inspire us to do impossible things, and fictional heroes may inspire us even more than real ones. Superman transcends stereotype into archetype, and he is one of exactly two comic book characters who transcend the need to be updated for the times. The other is his closest moral analogue in the Marvel universe, Captain America, for whom I have always felt similar disinterest, but at whom I am now looking with different eyes.

Yes, Superman is over-the-top, with his powers and his morality. Yes, he's static and unchangeable. Yes, he wears his briefs on the outside. And I hope he never changes.

I take comfort in the fact that, if Superman Returns does not meet my moviegoing needs and expectations, I still have Donner's film, Reeve's acting, and Williams' score, all three flawless, to remind me of the wonder and hero-worship I need so badly.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

100-Word Review: "Cars"

Welcome back to our ongoing series of movie reviews for the short-attention-spanned. If you can't wrap it up in 100 words, who wants to read a thousand?

Starring: Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin
Directed by: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
Written by Dan Fogelman, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin and Jorgen Klubien, based on a story by John Lasseter, Joe Ranft and Jorgen Klubien
Released by: Walt Disney Pictures
Theatrical Release Date: 06/09/2006
Run Time: 117 min.
Rating: G

We've been seeing trailers for Cars for almost two years, and this is the payoff?

How much is Disney paying for such good reviews of such a mediocre film? I expect so much more from Pixar.

How many storytelling no-nos? I wanted the main character to get smashed into a junkyard cube from the start. All the character development was dependent on long scenes of exposition. Most of the supporting class were nothing but ethnic stereotypes. Every plot detail was telegraphed from a mile away. And it's twenty minutes too long for kids.

Where's Brad Bird when you need him?

Monday, June 19, 2006

"Shrew" Reviews

The first weekend of The Taming of the Shrew has passed to great acclaim! Behold the first review, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And the second, from Style Weekly.

For those who are curious about such things, the dressing room conversation generally centers around baseball, comic books, or touring with Theatre IV.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Spider-Man Unmasks!

It's war! Civil War!

Lines are being drawn in the Marvel Comics universe over the issue of superhero registration, with some heroes revealing themselves to the government or even the public while others fear the repercussions of losing their secret identities. Early surprises: Iron Man reveals himself publicly and works with Mister Fantastic to hunt down the rebels. And Captain America has gone rogue, defending the civil liberties of his fellow heroes despite his identity having been public for years.

But that's not the big shock. The shock is that in Civil War #2, released yesterday with nary a leak or a fanfare, Spider-Man took off his mask in front of a crowded press conference, flashbulbs a-popping, and said:

"My name is Peter Parker, and I've been Spider-Man since I was fifteen years old."

<--- Look at this. Just holy cow. Now I'm more than a little bit of a geek. I freely admit it, and wear it as a badge of honor. But you know what? This was national news yesterday, and it deserved to be. Not that the geeks aren't freaking out; they are. And as the internet is mainly a place to share porn and complain about Star Wars, the reactions are fairly predictable. Here is a random anonymous sampling from HCRealms:

"So utterly pissed about the last page of Civil War #2... "

"I try to consider myself open minded, but unless the next few Spider-Man stories seriously kick butt, this will be completely wasted. "

"Great issue - dumb Spider reveal = meh."

"I'm waiting for the Beyonder to show up, or some big surprise to happen in issue 12, that will cause everyone to forget all of what happened." [Ed. note: Civil War is a 7-issue mini, not 12.]

"I don't plan on reading anymore Spiderman comics that come out after this. It is a giant mistake by Marvel and it is utterly rediculous [SIC]... I might have to change my user name..."

"Generally unimpressed. It seems like kind of a dumb thing to do (editorially). And in 2 years they'll just be looking for ways to take it back. "

And a single, very measured word of wisdom: "And I've yet to decide whether I like this or not. I'm gonna see where they go with it."

Wow. I love my homeboys and homegirls at the Realms, and I appreciate their passion, but sometimes I swear the amount of whining on that one site alone could power a small city. How mature that last statement seems in perspective. Ah, there's that dreaded P-word: perspective. So let's use it, shall we?

I believe I once read that the Marvel Universe is history's longest-tenured continuous work of fiction, dating back to Captain America's and Nick Fury's adventures against the Nazis. I'm too lazy to look it up, but suffice it to say that Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Avengers, the line's core books, have been in continuous publication since the early 1960s. Many things have changed in that time; the late 1970s saw Chris Claremont's "All-New, All-Different X-Men" ushering in a mutant golden age. The original Fantastic Four have had to be replaced by a freakish sub team consisting of Spidey, Wolverine, Hulk, and Ghost Rider, of all people. The Avengers, "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," have founded and dissolved a West Coast branch, went global and cosmic, and recently disbanded entirely, re-forming without an international mandate. Jean Grey has died seven or eight times. A story that long is loaded with change by its very definition, and while there are the occasional time-travel/cosmic-being resets, most changes stick.

But a few things are untouchable, or if not untouchable, touching them makes the whole readership shake. Sue and Reed Richards are married. Captain America stands for truth, justice, and the American way. Mutants are feared and hunted. Cap, Iron Man, and Thor are Avengers. Wolverine's past is a mystery.

And the biggest one of all: Spider-Man's identity is the most closely-guarded secret in New York.

Now Sue and Reed have had their problems. Captain America has been stripped of his title, and is rogue even now. Mutants have been more and less popular and numerous. Even the core Avengers have come and gone, and Thor has been missing for two years. And Wolverine recently recovered all of his memories, though they're being parceled out to the readers in dribs and drabs.

Nothing, nothing, changes any of these characters like going public does for Peter Parker. No one else short of Batman has villains that are so determined to hurt their heroic nemesis; these are not just conquer-the-world or rob-the-bank baddies, these are hurt-you-and-watch-you-writhe baddies; these are kidnap-and-torture-your-family baddies. Spider-Man's best defense was never his agility, his webs, or his spider-sense; it was always his mask. He's an Avenger now, working for Tony Stark and living with his family in the opulence and security of Avengers Tower. If he's got a problem, his friends have his back, so the security of his loved ones isn't the same problem is once was. The time was ripe.

The complaint I heard in the dressing room for The Taming of the Shrew last night was that Peter Parker needs to have the problems that made him famous: fighting baddies, keeping his grades up, wooing Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane, and keeping his identity secret from his Aunt May. Since the 1960s, he's graduated from high school and college, lost Gwen, married MJ, and been found out by Aunt May. Every one of these developments has been met with geek outrage. And to every complaint, I have a set of answers:

  1. People change, even fictional characters. Spider-Man has aged something like 15 years in the past 45 years of writing. How many different acne stories do you want to read? I can't get emotionally involved in a character who deals with the same issues in 2006 that he did in 1966.
  2. If you like classic Spidey, there are many very inexpensive trade paperbacks available that you can purchase in order to read wonderful stories about Peter fighting baddies while hiding his identity.
  3. If you want the issues of classic Spidey with the immediacy of current release, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's brilliant Ultimate Spider-Man is exactly what you want, and would probably please you more than any current Marvel U Spidey-titles.
  4. Get over it.

This is a huge event in comics history. Imagine if Batman's identity became public; this is just exactly that big. It may be bigger, because if the world found out Batman was Bruce Wayne, they would say, "Oh, the billionaire guy. That makes sense, if you think about it." The response to Spider-Man? From Thunderbolts #103:

Atlas: "Hey, check this out-- Spider-Man unmasked himself on TV!"

Smuggler: "He's my age!"

Joystick: "Looks like a science dweeb. Now I'm embarrassed he cleaned my clock."

As for the argument that Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada just intends to use this to sell comics, and then "put the genie back in the bottle" in a few months and have everyone forget? I can understand the anticipated frustration. This is the company that gave us Ben Reilly, after all, not to mention the return of Norman Osborn and that awful Gwen Stacy retconning nonsense. Don't even get me started on Teen Tony Stark. But just because this stuff has happened in the past is not a guarantee that this event has no consequences.

Having mined all the possibilities of "secret Spidey" (many of them a couple dozen times), the storylines for "public Spidey" are myriad. We've already seen J. Jonah Jameson fall out of his chair when he heard the news. What happens at the Daily Bugle? What will this do to Peter's marriage to MJ? And how do his enemies respond? How does his relationship with the authorities change?

To re-quote: "I've yet to decide whether I like this or not. I'm gonna see where they go with it."

I've decided I like it. And I can't wait to see where it goes.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hamm on Bonds

Can we talk about something else in baseball, please?

Let's agree that Barry Bonds is a dink. He's rude, bristly, unlikeable, smug, and boorish. He is also an unparalleled talent, a sure Hall-of-Famer, and a freak of nature even without performance-enhancing substances. I will jump right on the "crucify Bonds" bandwagon just as soon as anyone can demonstrate that steroids actually contribute to higher home run totals.

Yeah, you heard me right. Provide some A+B=C evidence and I'll get on board. We seem to be missing the fact that such evidence is entirely lacking. It's like the "missing link;" we just keep on theorizing, under the assumption that someone, somewhere down the line, will provide the evidence we have already decided is out there to be found.

Steroids and such things as Human Growth Hormone increase muscle mass and quicken recovery from injuries. That's it. Someone please explain how steroids do any of the following:

  • Improve hand-eye coordination
  • Study a pitcher's tendencies
  • Read the rotation of a pitch
  • Practice in the batting cage
  • Improve stance
  • Improve swinging form
  • Choose a pitch to swing at
  • Improve plate discipline
  • Get batters on base ahead of you
  • Wind the ball tighter
  • Shorten the distance to the outfield walls
  • Expand the league, watering down pitching talent
  • Coach and manage
  • Provide years of support from family and friends
  • Take you back in time and make you start practicing at age six
Hopefully, the appalling Jason Grimsley situation will get us talking about more than just home run hitters. When I was teaching Public Speaking at VCU (that's Virginia Commonwealth University for my fans on the Indian subcontinent), I had several baseball players talk to me about steroids, and their universal account was that pitchers on 'roids outnumber the hitters by a significant margin.

Why? Because strength increases velocity and faster healing increases durability. These young players told me that the Hulk isn't going to hit any home runs, and that his musclebound form restricts his speed on the basepaths and defensive agility. But even the wildest pitcher who throws 97 miles per hour due to increased muscle is going to be drafted high and paid a lot; they'll always think they can straighten out your mechanics.

I'm not saying legalize steroids, even though several of my young pitcher students argued that point with passion and youthful short-sightedness. But I'm trying to figure out where we all started assuming that the only thing you need to hit the ball farther is more muscle?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Preview: "The Taming of the Shrew"

Next Thursday, June 15th (eek!) the Richmond Shakespeare Festival kicks off its 9th year at Agecroft Hall with The Taming of the Shrew. (Thursday and Friday are "preview" nights; the show officially opens on Saturday.) I just got home from rehearsal and I am kicking back with a strawberry smoothie and a righteous exhaustion.

Director Anthony Luciano works us hard; he has high expectations and a very challenging vision for the show. But what exhausts me is keeping up with my fellow actors. I spent the whole night with Foster Solomon (Petrucchio) and Scott Wichmann (Grumio), and both of those gentlemen are extremely tough acts to follow. I've been lamenting my role as straight man (Hortensio) for weeks, but tonight I really got to just enjoy the heck out of watching Foster and Scotty go.

If you're around Richmond, please come on out. Check out Richmond Shakespeare online for tickets. You don't want to miss the husband-and wife team of Foster Solomon and Susan Sanford as Petrucchio and Kate, and this is one of the best ensemble casts I've ever worked with.

The show runs from June 15 through July 9, Thursday through Sunday evenings at 8.

I'm too tired to write anything more creative. This is my third entry today!

Rhapsody in the Black: "Firefly" and "Serenity."

I was visiting friends and family in NoVa (that's Northern Virginia, for all my overseas fans) and hanging with Paul and Chris, my homies from the old school. We watched great movies (the indescribable Saving Private Ryan) and dumb movies (the repulsive yet hilarious Waiting), and Chris insisted that we watch Serenity.

I had missed Serenity when it was in theatres last summer, and mildly regretted it. I do recall the weekly email update from Velocity Comics musing "Serenity: best sci-fi film ever?" but didn't take it seriously. This was a comic book store owner, after all.

I should have listened to the comic book guy. Patrick: you officially have my apologies.

This isn't a review. It's a love letter. It's an appeal to everyone who reads these words to dive into the 'Verse; jump in with no fear of disappointment. Don't start with Serenity like I did; do it right. If you like science fiction or quality television or just all that is well and good and shiny in the world, do yourself a favor. Go get Firefly: The Complete Series on DVD. Take a weekend off, watch it all, then go back and watch the commentary tracks. Then watch the bonus features. The go get Serenity and watch that. Then watch it again.

Writer/Director Joss Whedon had me in love with every single member of his brilliant ensemble cast within seconds of their introduction. (Actually, he had me a little more in love with Jewel Staite's character, Kaylee, than anyone else. Okay, a lot more.) What's more, he had me in love with Serenity, their ship. I'm at a loss as to what to say about the movie or the show, because I don't to give anything away; I don't want to rob you of a single jot of discovery if you take my advice and start watching.

Here's some generic stuff: Firefly is true science fiction: that is, fiction which uses a scientific basis to tell a story dependent on the existence of its foundational technology. By this definition, very little of what we call "sci-fi" isn't. Star Wars, for example, is pure fantasy; spaceships and laser guns do not equal science. But X-Men uses a fantastic variation on neo-Darwinism to put racism in a context that naturalistic storytelling could not. The most effective science fiction uses a scientific or futuristic context in order to tell a story that needs that context in order to function. But effective storytelling isn't about the vehicle; it's about the story and the characters, and therefore is about people. This is where most so-called "sci-fi" falls flat.

And this is where Firefly soars. Whedon's stories take place in a new solar system, humans having abandoned the spent Earth to colonize and terraform dozens of planets and scores of moons around a new star. But this is all just noise. It's really about a new frontier where cows and horses are much more efficient means of food and transportation than replicators and hovercraft, where gunpowder and lead are cheaper and more efficient than laser guns, where spaceships are transportation, lifeboats, livelihoods, Camaros and merchant clippers. It's about pioneers, pirates, privateers, and petty thieves. It's about the actual people who do the living and dying, the working and playing, that you never see in Star Wars, Star Trek, or Babylon 5. It's about the people the crew of the Enterprise will never meet. It's about the fact that 500 years from now, people will still be people, with the same triumphs and tragedies that people have always had.

I didn't realize how unintentionally condescending Gene Roddenberry was until Firefly. Not to take anything away from Star Trek, which I truly enjoy, but Roddenberry's insistence that we will have evolved beyond the need for zippers in our clothes (an insistence of Roddenberry's in Trek costume design) betrays an implicit lack of regard for certain eternal facts of humanity. When you've redesigned everyone's clothes into a generic set of one-piece coveralls, it's hard to tell stories about how everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. After Firefly, I find Star Trek: The Next Generation a bit cold. All these people whose every needs are filled by replicators and holodecks just don't seem to have anything at stake any more. A high-minded quest for personal fulfillment (pursuit of archaeology, learning how to sneeze, hitting that note on the trombone) just can't compare with Serenity Captain Malcom Reynolds' need to keep gas in the tank and distance from his shattered dreams.

As it turns out, no less an expert than Orson Scott Card has referred to Serenity as "the best science fiction movie ever." (Read his review here.) I've seen the film three times now, and every episode of Firefly at least twice, and I'm inclined to agree with him. In fact, I'm very comfortable putting Firefly in the ranks of the best television shows I've ever seen, in the same list with M*A*S*H, Sports Night, From the Earth to the Moon, The Sopranos, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Fawlty Towers, Mad About You, and the first four seasons of The West Wing. In fact, I'd put it above almost all the shows on that list, going so far as to say that Episode 8, "Out of Gas," may be the single best hour of television I've ever seen. (It's either that or the West Wing's "The Long Goodbye.")

So this is a love letter, but it must come with a warning: prepare to have your heart broken. Only 15 episodes of Firefly were filmed. The show was mishandled, meddled with, and finally dismissed by Fox in the space of only a few months. The fact that Serenity was even made is something of a miracle. More Serenity films may be in the offing (please please please), and Whedon plans to continue the story in ongoing Dark Horse comics (a three-issue miniseries, Serenity: Those Left Behind, is available as a $10 trade paperback), but in my dreams Firefly is picked up by a new television network. As good as Serenity is, these characters and stories are clearly best-served as originally conceived: within the context of weekly installments, a series of episodic stories rather than a handful of epic adventures.

Beyond good. Shiny. Do yourself a favor. Get on board Serenity. Her crew is going to take you places you didn't even know you needed to go.

100-Word Review: "X-Men 3: The Last Stand"

Here we begin what will certainly be a grand tradition, of reviewing films in exactly 100 words. It's part Haiku, part adult-onset ADD. Enjoy!

X-Men 3: The Last Stand
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen
Directed by: Brett Ratner
Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn
Released by: Fox
Theatrical Release Date: 05/26/2006
Run Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

Much better than the train wreck I was expecting. Not in the league of X-Men and X2, but still a worthy film on its own. Think Terminator 3.

Too short. Too many mutants, not enough time. Can we get a little more Kitty and Colossus, please? What happened to Scott?

The action was much better than in the previous two films; Singer's action scenes were always a bit lackluster.

Thanks to Joss Whedon for the Cure.

Phoenix: unbelievably scary.

"The Juggernaut, b####!"

X-Men 4 by 2009? Please say yes. And say it's 2 hours and 15 minutes long.