The Immutable Impermanence of Character Trivia: The Corollary Argument to The Perpetual Reboot Theory

Previously, I spoke about the Perpetual Reboot Theory I’m forwarding as a counterpoint to the seemingly-popular theory of the “Perpetual Second Act” for comic book characters. In fact, my soundly-argued and robust counter-theory sprang out of a similar debate, also (inevitably) with my pal Craig as we were preparing to record an episode of Words With Nerds.

We were debating whether Wonder Woman’s one weakness remains “being bound by a man.” Setting aside all the “feminist” sensibilities that offends, and the character’s original fetish inspiration, I contended that in these modern times such a thing no longer applied. Wonder Woman has changed through the years, and this aspect of her is undoubtedly lost to the mists of time and previous iterations.

In what appears to be a corollary of the “Perpetual Second Act” theory, Craig contended that what was once true for a comic book character is always true, until it is specifically contradicted.

This thought, while intriguing and creepily Orwellian in some sense, is something with which I cannot agree. After realizing I was making no headway with my point in person, I decided to give voice here in my own public forum. I pay for the URL, I may as well use it.

Everything Changes, Everything’s the Same

As they are quietly reinvented for each decade, comic book characters regularly slough off or retain as much of their personal story as the new creative team wishes. They are, in other words, in a state of perpetual reboot.

As they are reimagined, powers are gained and lost. Aspects of their origins are updated to play better for newer audiences. As audience sensibilities change, so too does much of the accompanying effluvia of a character.

While certain baselines have to remain for the new character to retain identifiability, the new creative team is free to ignore or include whatever they wish from each previous era. Batman’s parents are shot dead during a mugging, but the event from which they were returning can be modified so long as the key element remains. Someone in the future may well decide they’re coming back from a circus, though I’m sure that would anger someone and become its own historical curio as circuses are now out of fashion.

As a side note, what holds true for a comic book character isn’t necessarily going to carry over to their movie doppelgänger, and vice versa. That’s rather obvious, though the two media certainly do inform each other.

Returning to the sticking point that spurred all of this, Wonder Woman’s “only weakness,” as it was revealed decades ago, was being bound by a man. Again, this makes sense in terms of the character’s apparent origin as an S&M fetish character, but I don’t think anyone honestly would argue that it remains her weakness in the modern day.

A wonderful discussion among nerds on Stack Exchange illustrates my point. While Wonder Woman did have the weakness if her bracelets were bound by a man, reference to it has dissipated through time. As with every question about a character, it depends on the time period/iteration.

Let’s use another long-running character as an example. Superman has seen his fair share of weird powers born from the necessity to meet publishing deadlines through the years. A great rundown of the weirdest is here.

I’m sure no one really considers Superman’s powers even to have included generating miniature versions of himself out of his hands. Not just that he doesn’t have the power to do so anymore, but that it didn’t happen in current “continuity.” Yet, going with the idea that an idea is forever in place until specifically contradicted, he did. He must have, so long as you discount the idea that the Superman of the 1950s is not precisely the same Superman as exists in the 2010s.

Bat Shark Repellent

To demonstrate my point, I asked my esteemed Words With Nerds cohost a question regarding Batman.

The question was whether Bat Shark Repellent exists outside the continuity for the 1966 movie, and attendant television series of that era.

Setting aside the fact that there is a reference to it in Lego Batman, which is a sendup of the entire history of the franchise, I don’t think any fan would seriously maintain that such a thing is in Batman’s arsenal. Frank Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns, key reinventions of the character that informed many later versions, certainly don’t use it. I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore would cook and eat your family if you suggested it had a place in The Killing Joke.

Moving to film for the sake of normal people, Christopher Nolan’s Batman works don’t seem like the sort to keep it in stock; given we see the origin rebooted to fit the modern era, we certainly see neither its creation nor its application. Bat Shark Repellent doesn’t exist for Tim Burton’s envisioning of the character. It doesn’t even exist for Joel Schumacher’s, though one could argue it would seem to belong there.

The retort to this could easily be that movies are “different from comics.” But they are different only in terms of the medium used to reboot the character. It’s not really different than when a new team takes over Wonder Woman.

I’m sure some creator has also included nods to such a thing, and I’m not going to bother debating the fun they certainly have with meta nods to character history. Those meta nods are in fun, a wink at the audience through the fourth wall, though I’m sure some consider them validation when necessary.

To Be Perfectly Clear

The problem, then, has become fans themselves. That’s a theme that I’ve come back to repeatedly over time, usually throwing stones at my fellow Star Wars fans.

Possessed by an obsession with “continuity” and “connectedness,” fans have become rigid interpreters of back story and what is inviolate about it. They will accept change, but it must be on their specific and rigorous terms only. Again, you will find similar Star Wars and Star Trek fans demanding their place as the arbiter of something is specifically contradicted, they hold it as sacrosanct and inviolable.

To be sure, I’m speaking broadly of one set of fans. I have to believe that there are plenty of others who have recognized that this is all supposed to be fun, and if an iteration of the character from the 1960s reflected those times, it’s OK to ignore it now.

But more importantly, there is the question of who among the fans is the more authoritative voice for what may be disregarded. Sales obviously play a role, but perhaps a Ruling Fan Council should be brought into play. If a majority of that Council likes an element that hasn’t been mentioned in a while, the publishers are duty-bound to bring it back.

Perhaps certain demographics can be given more weight. Perhaps to have a vote you must prove you’re one of the best and most knowledgeable fans of all in a trivia contest. Then, at least, all that esteem you’re due for knowing minor trivia about a character’s history pays off.

Honestly, I’d love it if the worthless things I remember about Star Wars could get me a seat at that table. Because then Hoojibs are back and my #Hoojibs4Life campaign wasn’t for nothing.

The Concluding Untenability

It’s plainly untenable to contend that once a story or character element exists, it remains in effect until specifically contradicted. This gets muddied further when current creative teams acknowledge or use elements of previous iterations. A default position could become that those “consistencies” don’t exist until the creative team decides to bring it into their own continuity.

However, as stated above, that doesn’t equate to a blanket claim that every character element is destroyed with each reinvention. After all, despite the changing times, Captain America is still the poster child for Performance Enhancing Drugs.

In fact, it is further tempting to avoid the argument as a whole and think of it as Schrodinger’s Comic, where an element both does and does not exist until the current creative team decides to acknowledge or discard it. But that gets us back to the problematic idea that an item is inviolate until negative acknowledgement, which is again an untenable position.

Perhaps what you insist on retaining for a character reveals more about how you want to see them than the current state of the property about which you’re talking. I’m no psychiatrist, so I wouldn’t know.

I just know that I should, after all, be class president.

Shouldn’t Superman Be Weaker at Night?

I know that my posts have been very Star Wars-heavy of late, and I will continue that trend overall, but I had a thought while walking my daughters to the playground. I’ve been of a particularly creative mind lately (you may have noticed) and so even the

They refer to me as both Batman and Superman because they’re awesome little girls who love superheroes and watch Justice League with me. Also, they’re at the ages still where they see me as a super hero and not a human being, which is all sorts of awesome.

So anyway, the sun is shining and I make a joke that it feels good because I’m Superman and one of the girls says “No Daddy, you’re Batman,” which makes me chuckle.

Then I think to myself of a possible alternate universe where Superman is Superman by day, and then he becomes Batman at night.

“Why on earth would he do that?” my mind asks itself. The answer it produced was unique.

Reasoning

If Superman is powered by the Sun–and we have several examples in multiple works where his strength increases when he is able to get stronger sunlight on him–perhaps he would be weaker at night. After all, if his power increases in stronger sun, then it would stand to reason that he was weaker when not exposed to sunlight as intense as that.

Proceeding logically from there, nighttime would naturally leave him weaker than during the day. Winter months would be a drain on him, and so it would make more sense (I think) for him to abandon Metropolis and move to Florida or Texas, or even Southern California.

I’m not saying, of course, that he would be as weak as a human being if he were to be left in the town from 30 Days of Night. Just that he would be weaker, if even only slightly. So the best thing to do is attack Metropolis in the winter months when it’s tilted away from the sun and you have a little more of a realistic shot at taking down ol’ Supes.

Bringing It Back Around

So after reasoning all of that out, in my alternate universe it would be a classic double-secret-agent-identity move for him to be Batman. He would still want to be a hero, but wouldn’t be able to function with similar levels of strength and invulnerability, and so he would find other ways to maximize his abilities and help others.

But that’s just cloud-talking. It’s interesting for a one-shot graphic novel maybe, but otherwise just an idea from a lazy Sunday.

But the Question Remains

But still I wonder, is Superman weaker at night? Even if it’s imperceptible to us, maybe he can’t fly as fast, or his heat vision is just a little cooler.

I can’t be the first person to ponder this, right? They have to have written a series with this thought before.

The Phantom Zone: Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Free the Krypton Three!

Listening to the Superman: The Moviesoundtrack, the cue at the beginning where General Zod and his minions are sentenced triggered a question in my mind. It’s probably a window into my soul that it triggered this specific thought, but I think it’s a valid question.

Is the Phantom Zone, that spinning pane of glass that was a window to a nether realm terrible enough to make Zod beg for mercy from the beginning of this film to his accidental release in Superman II, “cruel and unusual punishment”?

Zod, Ursa, and Whatever The Hell His Name Is in The Phantom Zone
The worst part is that this is a two-way mirror and *they’re* only able to see Superman III and Superman IV replayed over and over. Free the Krypton Three!

It’s a question with which we as a society continually grapple, and which preoccupied us for as long as the prison at Guantanamo Bay was open. (I’m writing in the past tense, presuming at some point in the future it’s going to be closed, though it hasn’t yet. Ahem.)

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Granted, I’m no Superman Scholar. I’m sure some super nerd like me has also reasoned out a ton of things the way I’ve been known to do…from time to time.

But I remember really digging the scene with the condemnation of Zod, whether in its original, trimmed version for Superman II, or its full, Zod-soaked glory. It was a terrifying scene: these “seditious” people sentenced to (what appears to be) an eternity of isolation.

You have to think, for these three hardened criminals, what could be so terrible as to justify such a fearful reaction? They’re not being put to death. They’ve been given an appropriately creepy trial after a sting operation, and have been given a speedy due process without chance of appeal.

They’re not being tortured…or are they?

Standards of Torture

Standards of torture, over time, have changed. They always have and they always will.

I suppose you could consider torture to be something that is the first indication of embedded relativism in a culture. How well a populace lives changes its perceptions on what difficulty and injustice are. Basically, your definition of hardship informs your definition of pain.

What we might consider torture now in my home country is a far cry from its standards a century or so ago.

Who doesn’t love the old good cop-bad cop routine, after all? One interrogator wants to save you, but only can if you talk, and he’s all that stands in your way of a world of hurt. It used to be par for the course, I guess. But I imagine a lot of threatened pain spilled a lot of guilty words.

But now there are lines of thought that causing even psychological terror, with the mere implication of greater bodily harm (Bad Cop Talk), constitutes torture.

So if we go by that standard, the Phantom Zone is a horrible place of extreme mental anguish. What’s worse, is there’s no end to these means. Zod, Ursa and Non can scream all they want, at the time they’re sentenced there’s no chance of reprieve or parole.

No Chance for Appeal

Based on the films, there is precisely zero chance for return from the Phantom Zone. I don’t know if it’s a function of the Phantom Zone itself, or the fact that the planet’s leading scientist placed the criminals there with the full knowledge that the planet would be ending shortly.

Either way, if you culturally lack the nuts to put terrible criminals to death for any reason (too bad John Wayne Gacy didn’t rape and kill little boys on Krypton) I think you need to give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves. Will they? That’s the point of a parole board, right?

Does the Phantom Zone cycle around Krypton every so often, and they pull them out and give them a chance to appeal their case? One would think that aside from the screaming, they have plenty of time to think on their past actions.

It just seems like one of those circumstances where death might be a kindness. For all we know, after all, they’re trapped in a dimension that retards aging, thereby extending their turmoil.

It also doesn’t look like they got full food service in that place. I’ve got to presume there were no toilets either. Who was monitoring this place? Only Jor–El? I’d have to question any “Great Society” (as we are led to believe Krypton was) that invested all of its penal system into the supposed wisdom of a single individual. Where are the checks and balances?

Conclusion

In short, I know that this is a ridiculous topic in a sense. It’s just a movie.

But given the weight of evidence from the films, even if Zod and crew weren’t a bunch of ass hats going in to The Phantom Zone, I can totally understand why they were when they got out.

What do you think?

The Batman Blogs: Coda

I’m wrapping up this series with a slightly more personal look at things, because that’s how I am. I think I’d disappoint everyone, myself included, if I didn’t. It’s not going to be too long, I swear. I’ll also fold in the key character to whom I’ve not given enough attention, Alfred.

It’s just going to be why I love the character of Batman so darn much.

Batman is better than just about any comics character; old-school Wolverine is an exception, but not the kinder, softer Wolverine. The one who took a sword through the neck and still kicked the s*** out of Silver Samurai.

Read More About A Special Affiniy »

My Tribute to Irvin Kershner

As everyone knows by this point, Irvin Kershner died today after a prolonged illness. As everyone also knows, this gets notice because he directed The Empire Strikes Back. In a long career of filmmaking, there’s only one movie that will be used to define him.

It’s not altogether a bad thing to have that claim to fame. After all, he’s partially responsible for crafting an iconic piece of film that has withstood the test of time and come to be regarded as the de facto “favorite” for everyone who speaks about the Star Wars films.

In fact, earlier today when I mentioned his passing and that he had directed Empire, nearly everyone felt compelled to say, “that’s my favorite one.” Of course, everyone knows what a Star Wars fan I am, and so when I replied that it wasn’t my favorite there was a bit of a double-take.

This reaction diminishes Kershner’s accomplishment with the film.

We all know that Empire is the darkest of the original three films. We all know that Han wasn’t supposed to say “I know” originally and they changed it on set in a moment of improvisation. We all know that Empire is the film that provided my generation the permission to think they knew a whit about philosophy because they really liked Yoda.

Still it diminishes his work.

Kershner’s accomplishment was to help create a film worth watching after the original Star Wars. It’s easy to overlook what a big achievement that is.

Think for a moment of the films that have surprised you, changed the way you looked at the whole experience of moviemaking, and think then of any sequels that might have happened afterward.

Case in point, Superman. Your youthful self thought that Superman II was awesome because it had three (!) Super-villains in it; one line in particular, “Kneel before Zod!”, is a part of our generational lexicon.

But Superman II is trash. The footage (obviously) directed by Richard Donner is still worth watching, the other parts directed by Richard Lester is barely watchable. Nearly everything about the film fails to withstand the test of time.

Let’s move on down the road to the cult classic Highlander. This was a testament to what a little bit of ingenuity, an original concept and a dedicated cast and crew could produce with a bit of passion. It even had a tremendous soundtrack with original music by Queen which was some of the best work they ever did.

Then Highlander 2: The Quickening happened and made us all feel dirty. It also engendered a life-long dislike for the work of Michael Ironside, which he really doesn’t deserve as I’ve read he’s a really nice guy. Also, knowing how films really are made, he didn’t have any control over how craptacular the resulting the film would be.

To use a more modern example, and one far more mainstream: The Matrix. The sequel(s) to that unexpectedly enjoyable film are so stunningly bad that the longevity of the original’s popularity was reduced to ashes within years.

As a side note, the Matrix films also expose a truth that my friend Mike long bespoke: expectations are everything. Everyone went in to the first film expecting a serviceable action movie that would probably be little more than cheesy fun thanks to its insistence on having Keanu Reeves in it. When instead it wound up being an enjoyable post-modern hash of Messrs. Orwell, Gibson, Dick, Ellison, et al., we were amazed. But then the bar was set higher, and it was harder for the sequel(s) to satisfy. This speaks even more to the true accomplishment of Kershner with Empire.

He was skilled and confident enough to take the director’s chair for the sequel to a film that, at the time, was the undisputed champion of the world in terms of capturing imaginations, and help to produce something that was not only enjoyable but a worthwhile film on its own.

Is it the best Star Wars film of the six? That’s a matter of personal opinion and there’s no point to arguing it. Some people like apples more than oranges and you’ll find others that prefer pears. There are others who are happy with any of the choices depending on their mood, and they like each for different reasons.

The point is not whether he directed the “best” of anything, but rather that he took on the daunting task of building upon a cultural icon and leaving a positive mark when he did it. So positive, in fact, that I’m willing to overlook Robocop 2 in his oeuvre.

May you rest well, Mr. Kershner, and thanks for doing your part to make our collective childhood fun. You can be sure that you will be remembered for quite some time to come.