Comic Books

Why I’m Skipping The Eternals

For the first time in a long time, I’m not planning on seeing the next Marvel movie in theaters. 

Really, I don’t think there’s a Marvel movie I’ve set out not to watch since the Incredible Hulk, which precedes the MCU but is still somehow counted in it. And nobody who had seen the original Hulk, with its horrible opposite of uncanny valley CGI, was hot to see if Ed Norton could pull it off. We were pining for the return of the quality special effects of Lou Ferrigno.

With The Eternals, however, I think I’ll take a pass.

Granted, I don’t actually see them all in the theaters, but the intent is always there. Sometimes real life gets in the way. Wife and I can’t coordinate schedules. To say nothing of a child who probably doesn’t need to see half the superheroes dissolve into dust. 

Or maybe she should see it, based on the Halloween costumes in our neighborhood. Are this many kids really watching shows like the Mandalorian? Sure, Baby Yoda’s cute and all, but I’m steeped in forty-plus years of Star Wars lore and even I found some serious snoozefest episodes. I can barely get my kid to watch anything non-animated. Not to mention the violence.

And was that kid dressed from Dune? I feel like I have to watch it three more times just to figure out what the hell’s going on. Are you telling me this eight-year-old figured out the entire caste system?

Squid Game? Come fucking on.

You know what costumes I didn’t see? Ikarus or Athena or, wait, is that Hyperion in the ads? Is Marvel actually trying to sneak their Superman rip-off into a movie and think we won’t notice?

Okay, I just checked IMDB and no Hyperion character is listed. Perhaps that’s Ikarus shooting lasers out of his eyes. Does he have that power? As a lifelong Marvel reader, I couldn’t tell you. I figured he just flew on wax wings that melted on hot days.

Now that I think of it, maybe they should put Hyperion in a movie. Marvel has the Squadron Supreme, which is a knock-off of the Justice League. Not only does it contain Hyperion, but Nighthawk (a rich guy whose hawk looks suspiciously like a bat), Dr. Spectrum (who has a prism that shoots out multi-colored energy beams like the Green Lantern), Princess Power (from Utopia Isle), and the Whizzer (who either runs really fast or has the power of urination). How great would it be for the MCU to finally bury the DCEU by making a better Justice League movie using only the cheap knock-offs.

So long as they don’t make that movie like Eternals looks to be. 

Not that they need to stick with the obvious choices all the time. Shang-Chi was hardly on anybody’s list of Marvel properties, but the movie was solid. Of course, everybody was skeptical when they went from the Big Four (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk) straight to the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy. That skepticism lasted about as long as it took to watch the first trailer. That’s when we realized how much fun they can have with more obscure characters. We don’t need to show origins or stick close to a well-known character archetype. Nobody knew who the hell Star Lord was, so might as well make him obsessed with late-1970s pop music and a Walkman.

Guardians of the Galaxy, in fact, laid the groundwork for the rest of the MCU. Sure, there had been quips and comic scenes in the first few movies, but Thor: Dark World is true to the comics character and boring as hell. Thor: Ragnarok is not, and it is not. Marvel movies before Guardians were more fun than funny. Or maybe I have that reversed. Regardless, post-Guardians, they’ve mastered the sweet spot between the two.

My skepticism returned when Eternals was announced. They’re effectively gods, except not those fun Asgardian gods with their personal foibles and tendency to self-sabotage. More like those gods who have no weaknesses. Or interest.

One of the big draws of superheroes of old, particularly those of the Marvel variety, is their weaknesses and humanity. Human Torch is a hothead, Iron Man is an obsessive alcoholic, Spider-Man always gets in his own way. It got even better, even darker, with the X-Men. Storm can’t be in enclosed places and Rogue can’t touch anybody without potentially killing them. Yikes. 

The DC heroes have their drawbacks, too, but they aren’t as integral to their characters as most of them were added after the fact due to changing societal norms. And better Marvel writing. Flash is always late to everything. Superman, like Captain America, is unwavering and overly optimistic. And Batman, of course, is an asshole. So is Green Lantern. 

It’s no crippling claustrophobia, but it helps move the story along.

Newer heroes don’t tend to have the pronounced weaknesses anymore. And a lot of the old ones don’t crop up as often anymore. Thor never gets stuck in human form for being unworthy anymore. Iron Man kicked the booze close to fifty years ago. Storm never manages to find herself in closed areas and even Rogue has managed to get married and have sex. The only character who seems destined to never lose his weakness is Cyclops, because if he could control his eyeblasts, he wouldn’t need the visor anymore and would cease to be Cyclops.

Oh, and Batman’s still an asshole.

Origin stories seem to be lacking these days, too. No more gamma explosions or radioactive spiders, no more exploding alien planets or parents killed in crime alley. While the X-Men have been great for diversifying the Marvel Universe, but for a thirty year span, whenever they wanted to make a new character, there was just a general shrug about how. Make them a mutant. Mutant, mutant, mutant.

Then Marvel sold the movie rights to mutants and stopped making new mutants. Then came the Inhuman push, which was even worse. At least with mutants, the powers usually manifested during puberty. So you might not get an in-depth “how they got their powers” story, but you’d still get the occasional “how awkward the first manifestation was.” Remember when you popped that awkward boner in the middle of fifth grade and didn’t know how to hide it? Now imagine that boner was starbursts of light that knocked out half the class.

The Inhumans didn’t even get that origin story. Instead, a mist covered the entire Earth causing some people to go into a cocoon and come out with powers. No awkward classmates, no stand-in for systemic racism. Just wake up one day with powers and everybody’s cool with it. 

The new Ms. Marvel is one of the characters introduced during this glut. A lot has been made recently about a promotional photo for her upcoming Disney+ show implying she has a different power from the comics. I’m more curious as to the origin story. If she spends the entire first episode in a cocoon, not sure I’ll be coming back for episode two.

Come to think of it, Inhumans was the last major MCU flop. They might claim it’s not a flop because it was a tv show, not a movie, but make no mistake, the intent was for that to become the flagship property of the future. They released the first episode or two in IMAX theaters, but the plug was pulled before they made it to episode six. 

The basic problem with the Inhumans tv show was that it was based off the Inhumans characters, which are pretty friggin’ boring. Their “leader” can’t speak and the queen’s power is prehensile hair. The only interesting character is a dog. Plus they live on the moon, so they virtually never interact with supervillains, or Earth and humanity in general. These are the main reasons, when they realized Inhumans were the only way to introduce new characters that were eligible for the MCU instead of Sony, they knew they had to make a slew of new Inhumans.

In the end, Disney bought out Sony, which was much more feasible than making Crystal a worthwhile character. 

Unfortunately, Eternals seems to be doubling down on most of the mistakes of Inhumans. Uninteresting characters, far removed from the rest of the Marvel characters. Uninspired powers. If I wanted a bunch of Greek mythology, I’ll watch Wonder Woman.

Seriously, is their only flaw that they’re arrogant a-holes who don’t get involved with humanity? How is that fun to watch. It’s made even worse by the fact that, according to the trailer, they sat on the sidelines through the whole Thanos snap and Endgame. But they’ve decided that now is the time to make their presence known? It’s like watching a History channel documentary about aliens who showed up the day after the Egyptians finished the pyramids.

That trailer was the clincher. Unlike Guardians, the Eternals trailer didn’t make me any more inclined to watch it. If anything, it verified all my skepticism. Is there a single joke in any of the three trailers? Do we get any glimpse of characterization other than “attractive”? It feels bloated and confusing and, worst of all, boring.

You can tell by the casting that they knew it was a snoozer even before filming. Angelina Jolie AND Selma Hayek? Clearly they’re there for the mass audiences. But Kit Harrington proves they were worried about losing geekdom, too. Unfortunately, if the buzz I’m hearing is any indication, I don’t think it’s going to work. The only one of my geek friends who’s planning on seeing it has an annual movie pass that he’s desperately trying to get worth from before the end of the year. My non-geek friends aren’t even aware a Marvel movie is coming out.

I’m just glad that the first flop won’t be Shang-Chi. That was a worthwhile reach into an obscure character. Had it failed, we’d be in line for ten different Wolverine & Spider-Man buddy movies. If there’s going to be a flop, let it star big Hollywood names. Let there be no doubt that characters and story matter more than the name on the marquee.

Wait a second, isn’t the name of the movie on the marquee, not the actors? Meh. Story matters more than the name on the IMDB.

Don’t worry, though. I’m sure I’ll watch it once it’s out on Disney Plus. And the good news is Spider-Man is only a month away.

Sexism in Comics

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about sexism in the comics industry. The comments tend to specifically attack two things: the lack of relatable female superheroes and the oversexualized manner in which the existing female superheroes are drawn.  As a lifelong comic geek, I can one hundred percent acknowledge and agree with both criticisms. That being said, it also feels like much of the criticism comes from people on the outside, and a number of their attacks and assumptions are more about making noise than change.

I’m not going to defend comic books. The overt sexualization of the female characters, which has always been around, has gotten worse. My friends and I used to joke that every female superhero had an additional power of gravity-defying bosoms. If a horny teenager that gets excited seeing a bra strap knows they are drawn over the top and unrealistic, there’s a problem.

Some of the defenders of the comic industry point to that socially-awkward, horny teenage boy as the poster child of the comic fan. They say that, since comic book companies need to make sales to those boys, they need to draw the women that way.  This is bullshit, because I was buying plenty of comics without any women in them. I never once remember buying a comic because of a nice rack on a superheroine. Nor did I ever put a comic back because the women were too plain.

This is borne out by comic sales. The most voluptuous women appear in Zenescope comics. These women aren’t just sexualized, they are straight-up fetish. Fairy tale characters wearing knee-high stockings and garters with panties visible under their Britney Spears-esque school-girl skirts. Little Red Riding Hood, Dorothy, and, hey look, Alice is giving you a glimpse of her very own Wonderland. Go ahead, look at their website.

So if sexy women drove comic sales, Zenescope should be a marketing force to deal with, right? Grimm’s Fairy Tales should regularly wresting the top spot from the various Animal-Related-Men. But nope. In January, their best-selling comic ranked #276, ranking right above Scooby Doo, Where Are You? And not far behind such modern-day powerhouses as Flash Gordon and Powerpuff Girls.

So if it’s not for the fans, why are the women drawn that way? I’m pointing the finger at the artists. Let’s be honest, many of them started as those very same awkward teenage boys. I was never able to draw worth a damn. Still can’t, which gives endless entertainment to my students when I try to draw a cow or a map of Europe on the white board. But most of the guys that I knew in high school who had the ability to draw tended to draw the same thing over and over: the hourglass shape from a woman’s armpit to her mid-thigh. Well, that and penises, but I’m guessing Marvel and DC frown upon overt phalluses in their comics. (I mean, come on, it’s not The Little Mermaid.) So when the guys that spent their teenage years drawing idealized female forms get hired to draw comics, we get controversies like the recent Spider-Woman cover.

So although the sexist drawings draw more ire from social activists, I don’t think they have much of an effect on comic’s fandom. Even if every woman (and man, I suppose)were drawn “normal,” I don’t see a lot of the people who are up in arms about this flocking to their local comic book store to drive up sales. The lack of bona fide female superheroes, though, might be more on topic.

Here again, the general argument is the overwhelming majority of male comic book readers. But we could be looking at a chicken-and-egg argument here. Do the lack of female readers equate to fewer female superheroes or do girls not flock to comics because they have no heroes to identify with?

Most of the female superheroes that exist today are derivative. Batgirl. Supergirl. Spider-woman. She-Hulk. Most of their stories are derivative, as well. And I can’t tell you how many times they need to team up with their male counterpart to truly accomplish anything.  She-Hulk might be the one that breaks the mold, seeing as she is a lawyer and she can keep her rage under control. Very rarely is there a Hulk/She-Hulk crossover.

Wonder Woman is one of the few well-known female superheroes that is not just a carbon copy of an already existing male superhero. And really, Wonder Woman only stands out as cool because she’s on the same team as Aquaman.

A lot of this, however, is endemic of another major problem in comics today – the lack of new creative characters.  Most of the characters I mentioned, both male and female, are over fifty years old now. There were a couple of golden ages of character creation – the DC characters in the late-1930s, the Marvel characters in the early-1960s. Most of the characters the average American has heard of (the possible exception being Wolverine, from 1974) came from one of those two eras.  And the comic book writers from that age were absolutely sexist. As was pretty much everyone in America. And the idea of gaining female readers would be laughable.

Since then, there have been concerted efforts to add more diversity in comics. Some have been successful, but most have not. Part of this is because they seemed to pander. But part of this is indicative of a larger lack of creativity, not just with female or minority heroes. None of the heroes created in the past forty years have gained much resonance with the public.  Exhibit A is Dazzler, a mutant created during the disco era who can turn sound into light. She wore roller skates and a silver disco-ball suit. Since then, she has lost the roller skates, but do we honestly wonder why no female readers today are identifying with her?

And lest you think Dazzler is weak because she’s female, bear in mind the male equivalent of Dazzler, the Hypno-Hustler, thankfully disappeared after disco died. The fact that Dazzler still around as a viable character speaks to both their attempt to diversify, as well as how sparse the landscape of “new” heroes is.

Comics have also gotten darker over the years, so sadly the one female character to stand out over at DC is Harley Quinn. But just because Kevin Smith named his daughter after her, one should not think she’s a hero. She’s borderline psychotic and is obsessed with the Joker. So instead of focusing on the halter tops she wears, we should maybe, I don’t know, be looking at her as the villain she is.

That being said, there are still a large number of very good female characters, especially in Marvel.  The problem is that they don’t have their own books. They are members of teams. I’ll put Kitty Pryde up as one of the most fully-realized characters out there. She has her strengths and weaknesses, she has grown from teenage rookie to effective leader. Storm was also the leader of the X-Men for quite a long time. Invisible Woman, despite being often portrayed as “mother first,” is clearly the glue and moral center of the Fantastic Four. Although the Phoenix force has been overdone and was ruined in X-Men: The Last Stand, in the original telling, Jean Grey proved to be one of the most grounded and tragic characters in the Marvel universe.

Recently, perhaps in response to a lot of that criticism, Marvel has been trying to put more female led comics out there. Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel (she had been Ms. Marvel for years) and has her own comic and allegedly a movie coming, although the merging of Spider-Man into the Movie Universe has pushed back the release of this movie, as well as Black Panther, the first African-American superhero.  So once again, we see a desire to promote diversity, but only until we can jam another Spider-Man movie in.

The new Ms. Marvel, taking Carol Danvers’ place, is not only female but a teenage Muslim living in New Jersey. And as an added bonus, she’s drawn in an in-no-way-sexualized manner. Thor, as I’m sure you have heard, is now female. And this new female Thor ended up taking it from both sides: some complained that it was pandering and others complained that she was too hot.  Um, those people do know what the male Thor looks like, right? Most of the women I know thought Thor: The Dark World would have been much better if they had just extended the Chris Hemsworth shirtless scene for 120 minutes.

This is where it gets placed on the people purchasing the comics. The female-led comics don’t sell well. Thor has done okay, but I wonder if that will drop after they reveal who the new female Thor is. She-Hulk was canceled, Captain Marvel has trouble breaking the top 100. Storm currently stars in her own series, but in February it came in at #152, right behind Batman 66, a comic based on the old Adam West TV Show. Pow! Zap! Whomp!

There is an all-female X-Men title and it is usually the worst selling X-Men title. Fearless Defenders was another all-female group. One of the best issues of any comic book last year had all of the Fearless Defenders’ boyfriends whining and getting in fights at a bar, waiting for the ladies who were busy kicking asses, to show up for date night. This comic lasted a whopping 12 issues.

So at this point, you can’t overly blame Marvel or DC for looking at the sales and relative popularity of their comics. They might really want to give Kitty Pryde or Lana Lang (who is currently being written as an awesome non-powered character in Action Comics) their own series, but when they look at the numbers, they just decide to add another Batman title.

What the people that complain about sexism in comics ought to be doing is not maligning the entire industry. They ought to be finding the comics that do have strong, reasonably-drawn females, and encouraging people to buy them.  But what fun would that be if they can make more noise by NOT purchasing the comics, then complaining loudly to whatever media are near when they get canceled?