An Important Message For You, The Reader…

…About the new uncanny!

Here’s part of an email conversation I was having with my friend Jack, slightly edited:

“Ang Lee’s Hulk made such a painfully-explicit connection between Bruce Banner’s repression and his transformation that I never got upset with him growing to twenty feet tall or whatever it was. Maybe this was helped by having listened to the commentary, in which Lee reveals he had another forty minutes of expositional dialogue on hand that related the Hulk to cancer — symbolically, accepting the dread of a growing cancer you can’t stop takes away the problems of where the mass comes from, I think — because it becomes horror, not SF. Horror you don’t need so much explanation for, do you? I’m sure you need a little less — struck suddenly once again by that unknown person’s definition of the word “uncanny”: something that moves like it’s alive, but you know it isn’t alive.

But, even in Lee’s Hulk there’s another, more reasonable out for this weird situation: which is that where the energy/mass comes from is history. Metaphorically and actually: young Bruce Banner was changed before he was even born, and then changed again as a little boy — he might’ve been storing energy in his mutated cells for thirty-odd years, along with the rage. Well, it all falls to the ground no matter what you do, of course — but without the idea that the Hulk’s mass comes from the weight of the past, the Ed Norton version suffers by comparison, because it’s got nothing to go on but science — hilarious to think that if Banner was converting energy directly to matter he would’ve frozen everything for miles around when he changed to the Hulk, but RIDICULOUS to think what would happen according to this scheme when he changes back to Banner — 700 pounds of mass converted completely to energy, WOW — goodbye continental United States!

A flawed movie. I mean, I liked it okay. But we have to have some reason to believe Banner is an angry person deep down, or nothing flies — to even see the transformation on the table is I think an unimaginative reach — I didn’t want to see it, and it didn’t look at all like the stuff in the comic books, that tried so hard to be believed. To see Banner’s horror at feeling his emotion-governing intelligence slip away…that was in there as far back as Kirby, and it’s Atom Age stuff, and I believe it probably would have covered a multitude of sins. Consider: if the crumpling of the table under the Hulk’s mass had been accompanied by Banner’s desperate moan and attempt to hold onto rational thought, the layers of humanity peeled away by his transformation…he feels like he’s dying and he wants to live…but he can’t hang on, because the table crumples. He CAN’T hang on, because the physical facts are both otherwise, and inexorably so. The outrage of physics is more tolerable in that case, because it’s plainly supposed to be a metaphor: its justification is in what it’s supposed to show. I think of Iron Man’s boot-jets in the movie, so obviously driven by nothing but the magic power-plant that replaces Tony Stark’s heart — and I don’t recall anyone asking where the propellant for the jets came from, because it’s as plain as day that it can’t come from anywhere, the thing is simply impossible on its face — heck, he flies from Malibu to the Middle East and back in just a couple of hours, it’s absurd. We see the jets; they’re jets. And jets work like jets.

And yet it’s okay, because they give you something to look at besides the absurdity — you’re permitted to equate Tony’s superhuman suit, with his superhuman Will. With his heart growing three sizes that day.

In the recent Hulk movie, though, you’re not given anything like this. The only truly touching or amazing thing you’re given is the travelogue “Lonely Man” bit — those helicopter shots of the Brazilian fahvelas, I was surprised to find, really made me feel something. Well, two things: awe…and guilt. Can you believe I had to wait ’til they made a second Hulk movie, to have that picture brought before my eyes for more than three seconds? Like, it wasn’t on 60 Minutes or something? Guilt, for sure. And then Ross bombards a New England college — tell you what, it made me think the scenes of Brazilian poverty were being trivialized. “Oh, and now we’ll blow up this American college brochure to make it all even.” There’s a dissonance in there I think they didn’t intend; I think one could do a political reading of this movie. I’ve never read George Steiner, they tell me he’s bad, but it nonetheless does make me think of the one line I know from him, about the Commandant reading Goethe on his way to the gas chambers: “is not the poet’s verse an insult to the naked cry?” That irritated me, that “Assault On Bryn Mawr” stuff. They spent a good amount of time at the beginning of the movie showing that Banner’s flight exposed him to how most of the world is living in our garbage…connected him to the reality of lives lived, and consequences…consequences that were heretofore easy for him to shun…I mean surely if this movie’s about anything it ought to be about consequences…I’m sorry, does this sound just too naively angry of me, too undergraduate?…they even show him walking UP the hill to America…and then once he gets there they utterly fail to put the pieces together into anything like a puzzle-picture. What’s the Hulk so mad about, anyway? I think it isn’t just the extra mass that needs accounting for, in this picture…”

And so there I was, wondering if I’d said all this before…because it occurs to me that it really is probably true:

Superhero movies work best as horror movies.

Oh my God, how obvious is this?

Horror is the solvent of realism.

Take The Dark Knight, and its one absolutely lurid moment: when we see Harvey’s face at last, and it is not realistic, because the world has changed along with him — it has turned, it has dissolved, from a world of crooks and vigilantes with a slight science-fictional edge, into a world of superheroes and supervillains…a world where at any moment you, or you, or you, or you could have an “origin”, and become something utterly bizarre, utterly terrifying…utterly unreal.

Uncanny.

And it really works! As I said before: you want a Watchmen movie? Well there it is. Creepy, ain’t it?

So, be it resolved: superhero movies that toy with science fiction instead of horror are going to have a much tougher row to hoe…

Uh…Superman probably excepted.

But hey then look what they did on that Smallville show!

Okay, the Fantastic Four would probably be better off concentrating on SF too. Hmm, I guess Flash is also all about the science…Green Lantern…Aquaman…

All right, so it might not be a universal principle!

Still, I know it gives me ideas for what could happen in the next Iron Man movie…

And I think it’s probably at least a little tough to deny that SF and horror make a zingy combination.

Horror as the solvent of realism. The sponsor of the uncanny. In movies, anyway.

Well? Thoughts?

Are superhero movies the new horror movies?

Should they be?

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13 responses to “An Important Message For You, The Reader…

  1. The Flash, FF, Green Lantern in particular: you know what occurs to me? I liked the original Star Trek best when it was a little sinister. I like pulp SF best when there’s a touch of the monstrous. Mystery in Space, if that’s not too on the nose. Don’t get me wrong, a good dose of SENSE OF WONDER is always welcome and not every alien has to be an invader, but scary bigness is a signature of spacey SF.

    SF and horror share a certain set of, I don’t know, triggers? Flash (ahem) points? Venn diagram overlaps? We may even be able to argue that all the Low Genres are essentially the same, just viewed from different perspectives (I offer no proof here, just musing).

    I’m not saying I wish FF would go full-on Lovecraft (although a couple of story-arcs in that vein would be great), but I’d like to see a chunk of Star Trek scary mixed in. Same with Aquaman, actually. I think Kurt Busiek’s run dabbled with the Deep Ones, but from the fantasy angle than out and out horror. Aquaman in R’lyeh, oh yes please. Actually, anyone know if this has ever happened? Seems obvious, really.

  2. >>a little tough to deny that SF and horror make a zingy combination.<<

    Certainly! :-) Look at the first Alien movie. In a way, science fiction and horror haven’t been so skillfully combined in a film SINCE that movie was made.

    Some people already claim that the current Green Lantern Corps comic contains more horror images than any other mass-market comic right now. So, YES, a Green Lantern movie could certainly follow the horror vein. And Green Lantern is science fiction-based, anyway.

  3. Venn diagrams, heh. We talked about this.

    Madelay, the only thing I ever liked about Star Trek: TNG was when they flirted with sci-fi horror. I thought the level of horror they brought to the Star Trek template was crazy and insanely fearful and therefore filled with potential…not Wagon Train to the stars, but Night Gallery to the stars! However, they lamed out on it. Space: 1999 did a fantastic job of wedding SF to horror in its firsat two seasons — like Doctor Who on meth! It’s a wonder any of them survived at all!

    But let’s discuss the Flash, FF, horror element etc. in a moment. Because first I want to ask Sea a question…!

    So, Sea…you’re a GL nut, right? My friend Harvey Jerkwater once opined that the best possible GL story for dramatization would be the story of Kyle Rayner…”and you picked me because why? Because I’m fearless?”

    Guardian: “Yeah, yes, um…fearless! Why, don’t you feel fearless?”

    Kyle: “Uh…no, not really.”

    Guardian: “Yeah, all right kid…look at this point it isn’t really as much of a meritocracy as it was in the past, y’know? Basically…you’re here. Random factor! Oh God, we’ve always had such luck with random factors before…anyway look out for Ha…” (swoons)

    So Kyle has to learn everything on his own…then he has to go out and fight the BEST Green Lantern that there ever was, who’s gone crazy. Good story, right? And I guess it probably would have to end with the post-Zero Hour Kyle-destroying-Oa bit, don’t you think?

    But that’s about all the horror I can think to throw in there: good GL gone bad, and young Harry Pott…I mean Kyle Rayner, is the only one who can stand against him.

    But I’ve been out of touch with GL stuff for a long time, and so has Harvey. So, Sea, what do you think would be the prime GL SF/horror plot, for some movie or other?

    Bend your will to it, lady! I want to know!

  4. Also, I kind of want to say…

    A lot of SF is like superheroes without the costumes, right? Like if Ripley had been wearing a gold jumpsuit, you would’ve though “give me a break”, yes? So glad you brought up “Alien”…the last time SF and horror really collided as such. What the alien is and does just can’t be…and yet we never question it, and you know why? Because we see that H.R. Giger pilot-figure. And then we’re just done, we’re in…the horror defeats our suspension of disbelief. We don’t suspend anymore, we just believe.

    Yes?

    No?

  5. Superhero stories are power fantasies at their roots, right? Why do we have power fantasies at all? Because of fear and frustration. We feel bound by our physical bodies, so we fantasize we’re Superman. We are scared of violence, so we fantasize we’re Batman. We get angry at computers, so we fantasize we’re Magnus, Robot Fighter.

    Four-color comics take the implicit, such as fears of death and violence, or frustration at impotence, and make them explicit. So it makes total sense that superhero stories work best when horror, or, more accurately, fear, is given stress. It emphasizes the value of the fantasy. Think about basic super-villainy. The point is that they’re scary. The heroes beat them, and we feel catharsis.

    FF works best in a quasi-horror form too. Their first villain is the Mole Man, an underground master of monsters. Their greatest villain is a dark wizard with a hideously scarred face who lives in a faraway castle. Another villain is an angry god who wants to eat the world. It’s not Stephen King style horror, but it’s scary.

    And yeah, I think the Kyle Rayner story is the best GL story one could dramatize. “Yeah, um, there used to be a galaxy-wide police force to keep the peace, then, um, their best and brightest went crazy. He killed them all and took all their power. All is chaos, and the crazy guy is rampaging, doing who-knows-what. You, you slackass commercial artist, are hereby dubbed The Last Green Lantern. Here’s your power ring. Fill in for your missing 3,599 dead brothers, and watch out for your predecessor. Do try not to die.” That’s DRAMA with a capital DRAMA.

  6. It is the most dramatic GL story, in my opinion.

    (Sea, he was going to record it as a radio play! Just his voice! And then he got into the family man world…and now he doesn’t think he has time to do such idle things as make a GL radio play.

    Your job is to convince him otherwise!)

    Okay, Harvey; let’s come to blows. Or not! Because Matthew E. once said to me that he figured if you were to try and find equations between DC and Marvel characters, that you could find them pretty easily…Green Arrow/Hawkeye, for example…but what’s Marvel’s equivalent of Superman? Really, what Superman means, stands for? What is it, in the Marvel Universe?

    The Fantastic Four, he concluded. They always win; they’re indomitable; everybody loves them; if Superman is “The Man Of Tomorrow”, then the FF are the People Of Tomorrow.

    So…could you do Superman as Horror, too?

    Lay it on me, man!

    Lovely point about the Mole Man. But of course, as Jim Roeg has said, the FF are the monsters that kill the monster genre: the turncoat monsters.

    Oh no, I am supporting your point…!

    …I concede.

    But now tell Sea about “Monsieur Mallah and The Brain: Ape City Consulting Detectives”!

    Sea, he always has such insane, wonderful, shoulda-been-obvious ideas.

  7. You’d be amazed how much your life changes when you reproduce. Boy howdy. The Girl is now almost two, and it’s like living with a glorious, beautiful, wonderful waist-high tornado.

    Marvel’s Superman? To cheat and give an accurate answer, I’ll say that he’s split among a few, based upon his traits. What makes Superman who he is? Five elements leap to mind, in no particular order: his powers, his origin, his total moral rectitude, his secret ID, his example. His powers (or, more accurately, his status as “most powerful”) is paralleled most closely by Thor. (I don’t count the Sentry.) But that’s not really important. Really, what makes Superman Superman are the other four: origin, morality, secret ID, example.

    Split those down the middle, and you have two of Marvel’s biggest icons: Captain America and Spider-Man. Cap is the ethical polestar of the Marvel heroes, and his greatest “power” is the same as Superman’s: inspiration. He elevates those around him and he shows us how great we could be, if only we tried. (I like Cap better as a character and a type, because it’s a lot more impressive to be so upright and inspirational when you aren’t a demi-god. Plus, Cap embodies one of our most cherished fantasies: “Right Makes Might.” Ah, if only. Cap’s power flows from his rectitude. Superman strikes me as the reverse. Just my reading.)

    Spider-Man covers the origin and the secret ID. Because Superman’s status as an alien isn’t important per se; it’s his status as “not one of the regular people.” Attach to that his “secret identity,” which allows him to “pass” as a normal person. Now consider Spider-Man. He’s a “domestic alien” by origin — a nerd. His pre-heroic life was largely defined by his status as an outsider.

    The secret ID issue is a bit weird for Spider-Man, though. Superman becomes Clark Kent so he could fit in, and it works. Peter Parker became Spider-Man to fit in, and it failed. He’s an outcast in both identities, albeit in different ways. Regardless, the secret ID is hugely important to both characters. Some characters don’t really need them. Captain America and Batman, for example. For Spider-Man and Superman, the split between identities is vital. Superman needs the flip side of Clark Kent to make sense as a character: man and his inner god. Spider-Man needs the flip side of Peter Parker to hammer home the wry message central to his everyman character: the Charlie Brown struggle for dignity and self-worth. Eliminate the civilian identities from those characters, and you lose a huge part of what makes them resonate.

    Now…Superman as horror? Lemme think. Hm. My initial impulse is to focus on, pardon the pretension, “existential horror.” He’s the man who basically can’t die. But everyone around him can. He’s incredibly gifted and powerful, but he can’t share it with everyone, even though he wants to. Think about the horror in his famous lament over Pa Kent: “All my power…and I couldn’t save him.” From the perspective of a powerful, noble man, that’s horrifying. How about those stories where it’s the end of the world, and Superman is left all alone, because he can’t die? Imagine Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That could very well be Superman’s future. And that is beyond horror.

    Problem is, that doesn’t work so hot in a monthly comic.

    Perhaps just play up the horrors of his foes? Not by making them mass-murdering crazy people, but have them strike at the areas where regular people feel vulnerable and yet the powers of a Superman won’t necessarily save the day. That was the genius of the “Luthor as untouchable tycoon” retcon. Luthor was mind-blowingly powerful, and evil, and willing to screw with you, and his power wasn’t of a sort that Superman could just punch him out and drag him to jail. That could be scary. Usually wasn’t, but it could have been.

    Must puzzle further.

  8. Holy moly, you two — you’ve written more in a matter of hours than most of my authors can spit out in a WEEK! :-)

    Anyway — YES, I’ve always thought of Ripley as a super-hero — just without a fancy name and costume. I think many film heroes qualify as super-heroes without the official designation.

    And, yes, I also agree that Kyle’s origin story (without most of the overly-weighty Zero Hour details) would translate very well into film. It’s a great confrontation, and audiences really don’t need to know a lot about either Kyle or Hal to appreciate the personal conflicts involved. Personally, I’ve always wanted to write a Green Lantern/Green Arrow movie that emphasizes a cosy, down-to-Earth approach UNTIL circumstances force all of the heroes to enter HAL’s turf — the vastness and sheer grandeur of outer space. Done well, I really think a story like that would make a major impact on audiences, and set the movie apart from standard super-hero fare. Not sure just how much horror would be involved in a film like that, though. It probably depends on the villain(s) involved.

    Green Lantern currently has some SUPERB horror-style villains. The revamped Hector Hammond has a GREAT deal of potential in the horror vein. The Shark does as well, but sharks have become all but cliche in the horror genre. The Sinestro Corps, also, certainly has a lot of horror potential.

    Superman as horror? A film involving Bizarro — and Bizarro as a monster — certainly has horror potential. Especially considering Bizarro is based on Frankenstein’s monster.

    Harvey — Not to pull an Annie Oakley on you or anything — but if *I* can have time to write a novel, edit six books for six other authors, drag Mighty Mite (my baby daughter) all over the Indianapolis area, keep my house clean, AND maintain my utterly frivolous blog, then YOU can certainly come up with a few hours to produce that Green Lantern radio program! ;-)

  9. Superman as horror: May I direct you all to Superman: Where Is Thy Sting, a (not very good) story centering around Superman’s fear of everyone dying? J.M. DeMatteis (not at his best) & Liam MacCormick-Sharpe (at his worst)produced it, and the whole thing didn’t work. I haven’t read it since it was released (about 8 years ago, maybe), and I don’t recommend it, but it was the sort of thing being discussed above.

    Anyway, super-hero comics and horror stories share a common trait: the human form is distorted. Zombies are human bodies constantly rotting, vampires become fanged ghouls, werewolves are man devolved, Frankenstein’s monster is like a zombie that knows it’s a zombie. Even those giant animals, Godzilla & King Kong, are bipedal. Cronenberg, Carpenter, Barker: their monsters are humans distorted into sickening patterns. And please note: all these creatures have super powers!

    X-Men is full of this sort of thing; look at Nightcrawler or Chamber. Grant Morrison gave us a slew of freakier-than-usual mutants. We may want to be Superman or Batman, but who wants to be Beak? Batman is dressed up like a demon. Superman is an alien. Wonder Woman was made out of clay, made by the same gods who came up with gorgons and minotaurs. Spiders are inherently creepy, and Ditko drove home just how disconcerting a Spider-Man can be. The FF are just as warped as Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. As for Aquaman, imagine how creepy it would be to live under the see? The lack of light, the nasty-looking creatures… I get a little freaked out by some of the things at the Aquarium.

    It would be wonderful to have super powers, until you had to shake someone’s hand without breaking it or you realize that you’re hanging out in outer space or you almost fly into a passenger plane. It’s remarkably easy to see the flip side to the power fantasy.

  10. The fahvela shot lifted my heart. Such colour, such density, such perspective, such vitality. I know about the poverty and desperation in such places, but still it looked convivial. It looked like tomorrow – which it sort of is. And then at close range, it was the kind of place where, okay, there are hard bastards, but the boss appreciates your work, and there are cute girls who might join you for a beer after.

    They could have shot the whole movie there, for my money. I would have been appalled to see Ross shoot the place up while hunting the Hulk; but then I would have taken mean satisfaction watching Ross when he gets to see what his precious weapon does to a U.S. city.

    So … horror is the key, you reckon?

    Well I can’t deny it’s potent. In the first Spider-Man movie there’s a definite horror vibe in waking up to find your muscles are broad and your eyesight is perfect – what next? Your hands grow bristles, and haven’t you seen The Fly? Indeed, with the secret identity complications, it developed in much the style of an old B-grade horror flick.

    But no. The horror is one way to go, but I think it leads into a narrow set of conventions. If you’re jaded now, enough to be worrying about conservation of mass in the transformation scene, you’ll be just as jaded six scary movies on.

    There must be some new plays to be made with the science vibe, or the religious, or the military. But I’d rather like to get back to where it all began …

    At the Circus. Because that’s where they really have the daredevil highwire acts, the exotic wild beasts, tights and capes and trick top hats, cuties in glittering leotards and fishnets, you know, it’s all there, and everyone is predisposed to be bamboozled in good fun. There’s a vein of embarrassment running through most of our superhero movies over the comic-book conventions they have to work so hard to justify. Think of Wolverine and the X-suits, or what an ass Bruce Wayne has to pretend to be. But at the circus it all just works. Play dissolves realism.

    I’m not sure just how to run this as a movie, but I am getting a trifle tired of having to get wound up to a suitable pitch of edge-of-the-seat urgency every time. We all know that’s just more convention. Why couldn’t we have Power Pack in the vein of Spy Kids, with decor out of Barbarella or Flash (Flash! He’ll …) Gordon, and have it be great art, like comparable with The Wizard of Oz?

  11. I am not really a western comics books fan (appreciate manga personally) but in the TDK I was extremely disappointed in the Harvey Dent face. It… wasn’t horrible at all. To me it looked ridiculous and fake and it was a disappointment in an otherwise really good film. It completely killed my suspension of disbelief.

  12. Pundit, for a second you had me thinking “what have Westerns got to do with it?”

    Ha. Anyway…I kind of think (I hope, anyway) that that was the intention, for Harvey’s face to fall into the “uncanny valley” — I know the first thing I thought was “shit! that was not what I was expecting!” — my way of saying, I understand how that didn’t work for you. Interesting to consider the rumour I heard that they’d originally been planning to go with realistic-looking burns, eh? But then decided that might push them up into a more adult rating, I guess. Harvey’s face as is just couldn’t happen that way, it’s impossible — well, for one thing he’d die of an infection pretty damn quick, unless that thing was bandaged like nobody’s business, right? Of course the same would likely be true of a real burnt face — one can imagine a scenario in which the Joker screws up his skin-grafting, and he just happens to look hideous after its over, but…

    I think it’s a case of, the same thing that made it not work for you upon reflection makes it work better for me, because it is just out there, as you say it shatters the realism. And I think that works pretty well, thematically. But yeah, when I saw it I was definitely of two minds about it — partly thrilled to have such a shocking payoff to what I knew was coming anyway, and partly disappointed in the Final Fantasy-ishness of it all.

    A good example of tastes differing for real, and not in the usual sense of “you just didn’t get it” “no you just didn’t get it”…I do believe we both “got it”, both saw exactly the same thing and reacted to it the same way, but simply appreciated the effect differently.

    For the Internet, that’s gotta be some kind of first, eh?

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