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And That Goes Double For Plastic Man

August 23rd, 2010

The six-minute cinematic trailer for the upcoming DC Online MMORG has hit the Internet. It’s exciting…and just wrong.

First, take a look. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Pretty neat, huh? No argument here. I like watching people being punched through buildings just as much as the next guy, especially if the next guy is Chris Sims.

But it loses me when Wonder Woman is electrocuted and inexplicably begins oozing Kryptonite slime from her mouth. Not to mention when Luthor rams a spear through Superman’s torso, and twists.

Look, I get it. This is what the folks who buy current DC Comics like. It’s the same grim ‘n’ gritty crap that has dominated superheroic lore for the last 24 years.

If you pay only cursory attention to stories about grown men in spandex, you may not understand the significance of 1986. That’s when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns depicted an apocalyptic near-future in which Batman emerged from retirement to mete out brutal justice. That same year, Alan Moore’s Watchmen miniseries began spinning its own deconstructive tale of costumed crimefighters with all-too-human foibles.

The problem was that what were meant to be meta-commentaries on the four-color fantasies of childhood rapidly became the definitive version. Since then, Batman’s default mode has been one only slightly less sociopathic than the criminally insane clowns he repeatedly tosses into Arkham Asylum. It’s as if the four decades prior to Frank Miller hadn’t happened, that Batman had only ever been the pulp-inspired vigilante of 1939 who willfully tossed crooks to their deaths.

Let’s not forget that less than a year after Batman’s debut, the comic introduced Robin, the Boy Wonder. From that point forward, Batman softened. He told terrible puns. He fought aliens and robot dinosaurs. He became best pals with Superman. For two entire generations, Batman hewed much more closely to the Adam West live-action TV series* than he ever did to the joyless, broken figure sulking in his Batcave.

Here’s the thing that I think most people–including many of Batman’s official biographers these past 24 years–have missed. Batman isn’t a misanthropic nutjob who can only express his damaged psyche when he dons a pointy-eared suit. He’s a guy who wants people to think he’s a misanthropic nutjob. Bruce Wayne dresses up as a bat because he wants to frighten “superstitious, cowardly” criminals. In other words, it’s a bluff.

Of course, Batman isn’t the only hero to get the “grim ‘n’ gritty” treatment. The intrinsically optimistic Superman has all too often been portrayed as angst-ridden and out of touch with humanity.

Wonder Woman has become a bloodthirsty warrior woman. Who just flat-out murders people. Never mind that her original raison d’ĂȘtre was to preach love and non-violence to a war-torn world.**

Oh, and the poor Marvel Family. Captain Marvel began as the purest form of wish-fulfillment: a kid–and not just a kid, but a penniless orphan–who said a magic word to become the World’s Mightiest Mortal. We can’t have that in the modern DC Universe, so Captain Marvel is now either kind of a doofus, or–even worse–a dupe of the bad guys who exists mostly to fight Superman. And don’t get me started on his sister Mary. Sure, there’ll always be a fourteen-year-old inside me who sees Mary Marvel as a fantasy girlfriend. But she’s a teenager, and a young one to boot. If you sex her up, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.

I realize that for some of you, I’m preaching to the choir. And that for others…well, you like this sort of thing. The rest of you are probably wondering why I’ve spent more than 600 words bitching about comic books that I don’t even read anymore.

It’s just that I grew up loving these characters. To me, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Marvel Family represent optimism. Yes, even Batman. You don’t go out and fight crime every night if you don’t think doing so will make the world a better place to hang your cape.

I’d love to see the pendulum swing back to the more innocent fantasies of youth, but I doubt it’ll happen. The relatively few adults who still buy DC Comics want their cynical, gruesome exploits, and blood will be served.

*I believe that a big part of the reason older comics fans hated the ’60s Batman TV series wasn’t because of its campy qualities, but rather that the silliness was an accurate reflection of the stories they were so desperate to outgrow.

**Yes, even back in the ’40s the Amazons were well-armed and armored fighters. But they explicitly espoused and practiced non-lethal combat, and employed devices such as their pacifying Venus Girdles to capture and reform their enemies. Portraying them as an island of Red Sonjas is entirely missing the point.

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