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Spider-Man: Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Cult-spotting, a branch of the old science of trend-spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first made fashionable the cultivation of trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, no­body else bothered to record it. Today, the press having finally caught up with Mencken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation and cult-spotting have risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began in earnest in 1964 when Time mag­azine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.

Realizing that if Time was onto a trend the trend must be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday-Afternoon-Reruns-of-the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” was watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analy­ses of homosexual publications. At this point the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay a step ahead of the incognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of which a normal aesthetic judgment would disap­prove, the press took to describ­ing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Shep­pard last October in the Tribune. By “everybody” she meant the girls in Andy Warhol’s “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.

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Master Stroke

But the Tribune made its master stroke of pop-cult crea­tion a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Bat­man and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phan­tom in its window, and the Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked rever­ently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate in pop art,” one of them exclaimed, and with these words delivered fashion’s coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.

Real pop or not, the Old Comic Books Cult has got to be a fake. Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Bat­man only if you continually re­mind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for the new issues of Batman and Superman, they are thin even by comic book standards. Superman’s only concession to modernity has been his formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best, and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even attempted to come up to date. He still travels by Batmobile and Batplane; where is his Batcopter? and why has no one thought to equip him with hali-toxic Batbreath? No, reading Batman, like listening to Lone Ranger re-runs, is merely a Proustian memory trick, a de­vice for creating a state of mind conducive to summoning up the childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has nothing to do with the old heroes, and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.

Three Rules

I realize that in making the above statement I risk casting my lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild. Nonetheless it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure. It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and also to rules two (“Your cult must replace a pre­vious, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have pub­licly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics pro­fessor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.

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Stories Signed

The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As befits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-­conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated to “The New Breed of Comic Reader,” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking Illustrations by Jack Kirby, Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone”), and the heroes who range in style from tradi­tional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book,” says the wise-cracking monster The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a col­lapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.

Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a de­gree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes with discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.

Real Rules 

Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting block in New York City. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have the citizens quite bewildered.

A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidently rip the dark scales from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed. And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been taken over by the under­sea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs in­jure innocent citizens. “Wait ’til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.

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Local Landmarks 

There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel  Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the Baxter Building (“New York’s most famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spiderman swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist  Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret  headquarters for the Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thundergod Thor. Thor in his human identity is the lame doctor Don Blake (whose cane turns into a magic hammer when he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.

The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And, “on the outskirts of Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre superhero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of oc­cult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.

Intellectual Elite

In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world  mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats of the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, at­tractive, and socially prominent people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has interesting body-stretching powers) and his blonde debutante fiancee Sue Storm (invisibility powers). Sue’s outside interests are clothes, novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races cars and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we can take him for the Marvel prototype 0f a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old col­lege roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole the Fantastic Four are quite aggres­sively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.

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Neurotic Superhero 

The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spiderman, the only overtly neurotic superhero I have ever come across. Spiderman has a terrible identity problem, a marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration­-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.

Spiderman began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took on the spider’s climbing, jump­ing, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (for which he received a check which, having no Spiderman identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spiderman decided to devote his talents to public service.

Cocky Manner

Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led him to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have any­thing to do with him. He is always having trouble maintain­ing his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his web­shooting apparatus.

Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Aunt May (toward whom guilt has made him more sub­missive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers, for Spiderman is nothing if not a functioning neurotic.

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Needed Care

Spiderman’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spiderman became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero that he was hallucinating. So Spiderman escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.

Spiderman, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spiderman is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spiderman costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.

How can a character as hope­lessly healthy as Superman com­pete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neu­rotic’s neurotic, Spiderman, the super-anti-hero of our time.

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Steve Ditko: Beyond Spider-Man

1962 was a good year for pop culture. The Beatles released “Love Me Do”; Andy Warhol discovered Campbell’s soup; John Glenn went into orbit; Bob Dylan played Carnegie Hall; and Steve Ditko, a 34-year-old journeyman comics artist, co-created Spider-Man. Ditko died in his West 51st Street apartment on June 29, at age 90, prompting a surge of wistful recollections from commentators and fans recalling their youthful identification with the teenage superhero who, co-creator Stan Lee once said, “gets sinus attacks, he gets acne and allergy attacks while he’s fighting.” The gangly Spider-Man launched one of the most successful movie franchises in history, but Ditko had already pushed well beyond the “cinematic” — an adjective often applied to his page layouts — to formal, narrative, and aesthetic frontiers unique to the comics medium. This would become most apparent in the mid 1960s, when Ditko and a stable of topflight freelancers were taking turns dazzling readers on the pages of Jim Warren’s concisely titled black-and-white horror magazines Creepy and Eerie.

Ditko began his career after serving in the Army in postwar Europe, moving to New York to study comic-book illustration at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later, the School of Visual Arts) under Jerry Robinson, an artist who worked on Batman comics and created the Joker character.

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In 1954, Ditko began illustrating (and sometimes writing) horror and suspense stories for Charlton Comics, a publisher that paid low rates but allowed artists wide creative latitude. The limbs of Ditko’s figures were often stretched to extremes, hands thrusting toward readers, fingers writhing; close-ups of eyes would fill panels, adding tension between characters seen at varying distances. Such visual strategies were enhanced by abstract webs — sometimes colorful, often pure white — which might represent fog or smoke or just mysterious ectoplasm, all the better to conjure run-ins with criminals, encounters with ghosts, and journeys into ultra-dimensional time and space warps. Ditko, like all great comic artists, understood that unlike in a movie, where even the most powerful images must follow one after the other, he was presenting readers (who are also viewers) with a full page, which would not only tell a story but also work as a collage of light and shadow, shape and perspective, volume and line.

Comics were cheaply produced — Charlton’s magazines in particular were notable for pages by turns flooded with ink or barely legible from worn-out printing blankets. So comics artists employed heavy outlines, because detailed draftsmanship was often muddied by slapdash color registration. Ditko’s bold compositions withstood these degradations better than most. In addition to Spider-Man, Ditko created the Doctor Strange character for Marvel, and his swirling compositions were a perfect fit for the master of mystic arts’ astral journeys into psychedelic realms. (In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes LSD advocate Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.”)

The sheer artistry of Ditko’s dynamic mix of abstract composition and elastic figuration received showcase treatment in Warren’s black-and-white horror publications. A typical Warren mag from the mid to late 1960s was a highlight reel of some of the best draftsmen this country ever produced — in each issue’s half-dozen or so stories, readers might get Reed Crandall’s woodcut-like drawings adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” Angelo Torres’s mix of film stills and noir lighting in a twist on The Phantom of the Opera, moody graveyard scenes in misty grays by Gene Colan, or the hyper-real figures and passionate layouts of a Neal Adams vampire tale.

Between 1966 and ’68, Ditko drew sixteen stories for Warren, all but one of them scripted by the incredibly versatile Archie Goodwin. Two examples, done in polar-opposite styles, show Ditko at the top of his game. In “Collector’s Edition!,” from Creepy #10 (1966), Ditko used concise crosshatching to achieve expressive tonalities emphasizing the tension that arises when a slovenly dealer of occult books taunts a fanatical collector with the possibility of obtaining a rare masterpiece detailing the darkest of the diabolical arts. The close-ups of eyes Ditko deployed for compositional variety a decade earlier are here arrayed in a narrative sequence that punctuates the antagonism between buyer and seller, which shortly escalates to murder. Goodwin — as sharp a yarn-spinner as ever came down America’s pop-cult pike — was no doubt having fun with the collecting manias that were driving the burgeoning comic-fandom phenomenon. The blasphemous tome featured in the story, Dark Visions, written by “the Marquis Lemode,” contains both stygian realms of evil and predictions of the future, giving the collector a preview of his own onrushing demise. Ditko’s precise line work propels Goodwin’s entwined narrative to its sardonically surprising conclusion.

But it’s in Creepy #13’s “Second Chance!” (1967) that Ditko displays ink-wash chops that, in their verve and subtlety, were unlike anything he achieved in mainstream comics, the delicate gradations of gray overlaid with white filigrees impossible to reproduce in color comics. Ditko’s crepuscular ambience enhances Goodwin’s plot, which begins and ends amid graveyard dirt and in between takes a trippy plunge into a hell filled with undulating demons, flailing victims, and diaphanous mists. The broad range of shadows and patinas of light give Ditko’s figures a supple grace he rarely equaled in his superhero comics.

Notoriously reclusive, Ditko spent his last decades more and more consumed by a rigid — not to say black-and-white — view of the world, inspired in no small part by the stark divisions between good and evil as espoused by writer-philosopher Ayn Rand. Although he did create more characters in those passing years (most notably Mr. A., a humorless vigilante who wore metal gloves, all the better for pummeling moral trespassers), Ditko never surpassed the sheer graphic elation of his Warren work. All the gray areas were gone.

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King Kirby Brings Comics’ Unsung Hero to the Stage

Survey the pop-culture universe, and it’s clear that a significant chunk of it originated in the mind of comic-book artist Jack Kirby. Not only did he co-create most of the foundation of the Marvel Universe (and a significant chunk of DC Comics’ as well), but his concepts and designs have influenced countless artists and filmmakers. And yet, despite being one of comics’ most important pioneers, in his lifetime Kirby failed to achieve the fame and financial rewards enjoyed by his frequent collaborator, Stan Lee. Now, comic book writer Fred Van Lente and award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman are debuting King Kirby, a play about his life, at the Brick Theater’s Comic Book Theater Festival.

First off, could you describe Jack Kirby’s importance to comics, and to the culture at large?

FVL: We like to call Kirby “the most famous artist you never heard of,” particularly for non-comics readers. He co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men. He was pivotal in the creation of romance comics. He did some of the best science-fiction comics in the ’70s; he was one of the first to do independent comics in the ’80s. The reason the San Diego Comic-Con is in San Diego is that it was close enough to his house so he could come. I could go on, but why bother?

CS: I knew him more from The New Gods [a sci-fi title Kirby created for DC Comics, which influenced Star Wars, among many other things]. I could see the larger imprint that he had. So when Fred had an idea for a play of his life, I was really excited.

FVL: I had written a play around 2002, before I became a comics pro. When the Comic Book Theater Festival started up, Crystal suggested I dust it off, and she did an incredible job rewriting it and reshaping the material.

What is it about Jack Kirby’s life that makes good drama?

CS: Comics didn’t really exist before these guys. People were creating this world as they go. That’s always very exciting for an audience, because they’re not being dropped into something they can’t understand. These are guys who need work, and this is their skill. People can relate to that.

I think it’s really cool that there are these big moments — going to war, serving under Patton and using his drawing skills to make maps — but there are these great little moments, too. We’re very lucky that there are so many interviews with him, and he was so very vocal throughout his life. He’s given us these little glimpses that he regrets certain moments. He’s a really compelling character, because he admitted some failings, and fought for the things he believed in.

FVL: It’s a grand tragedy in almost a Shakespearean way. I don’t think anyone is interested in another “dreamy artist battles the cruel, harsh world of the marketplace” story. These are fallible people. And many of the reasons why no one knows who Kirby is outside of comics — the blame can be rested very much on Kirby’s shoulders. I’m heartened that all the people who’ve read the play are pleased at how evenhanded it is. It’s as much a man versus himself story as it is a man versus Stan Lee story.

How are you showcasing Kirby’s art in the production?

FVL: Our lead, Steven Rattazzi [the voice of Dr. Orpheus on The Venture Bros.], studied animation when he was younger, and he’s going to draw onstage. So we’ll have Steven’s live drawings in addition to the actual Kirby artwork. Obviously we don’t expect an actor to be able to mimic Kirby’s drawing style.

CS: Drawing is an important action of the play, and the way it’s coming to life will be very exciting. John Hurley [who also directed Action Philosophers, a play Skillman adapted from one of Van Lente’s comics] is a very visual director, but he also keeps things grounded and moving. We’re moving very quickly through the play and his life, but they’re such dynamic moments that sometimes they imitate the genre he’s working on at the time.

FVL: Part of the conceit of the play is that since Kirby’s art is so frenetic and action-packed, the show is very frenetic and packed with detail — hopefully in a way that the audience finds super fun and simple to follow.

You’re also doing a Kickstarter for the production. Has that changed its ambition or scope?

FVL: Not really. The Kickstarter has allowed us to get the best people and get the best actors, and have the freedom to do the best possible production we could. The other great thing is that the Kickstarter campaign also serves as a marketing campaign. It’s a way to get the word out.

CS: It really allows these projects to live and breathe, and get to the audience. What’s exciting is proving the need for something. It’s very moving, because people have been sharing it everywhere and saying, “Help this. Help this come to life.” That’s a really gorgeous thing.

What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing King Kirby?

FVL: I hope people get a better understanding of where their popular culture comes from, and what happens to the people who produce it. Too often the assumption is just this stuff is cranked out at some corporate machine. But human beings make this stuff, and they have living, breathing stories, and this is one of the more important ones.

CS: What I love about Jack’s life is that his drawings speak for him. They are his words. I think that’s very inspiring. That has value in itself, even though maybe everything didn’t turn out exactly the way he was hoping. The effect that he’s had, and the little vibrations that keep growing among other artists that he’s inspired, make the life lived have value.


King Kirby opens June 20 at the Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue) in Brooklyn. Tickets here.

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DEEP FREEZE

This is the kind of event you can find only in New York: a charity hockey game sponsored by a famous comic book creator pitting New York City policemen against former NHL pros. The Stan Lee Foundation, a public charity promoting literacy, education, and the arts, is sponsoring Rivals for Relief, with proceeds going to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy. At stake is the Stan Lee Cup, which may soon inspire more bragging rights than the Stanley Cup. Added bonus: Catch an appearance by former NFL pro quarterback, current ESPN commentator, and hockey enthusiast Boomer Esiason. Slap-shot it out for a great cause!

Sun., March 24, 7 p.m., 2013

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TRUE BELIEVERS

He bombarded the Hulk with gamma rays, sent a radioactive spider to nip at Spider-Man, and triggered the mutant X-gene in Professor Xavier and Magneto . . . all the while setting a comic-book universe in motion. Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas’s new book, The Stan Lee Universe, honors the achievements of Stan “The Man” Lee while presenting the recollections of his colleagues, several of whom will appear at this panel at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Fingeroth, historian Peter Sanderson, and comics legends Denny O’Neil (Batman) and Al Jaffee (MAD fold-ins) will recount tales of the Marvel Bullpen. And special guests? Excelsior!

Thu., Feb. 2, 7 p.m., 2012

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Iron Man, Mighty Avenger

Chalk it up to personal preference, but I’ve always been fonder of those comic-book heroes who emerge by intent rather than happenstance. I mean the ones, like Batman‘s Bruce Wayne, whose transformation from average Joe into masked crusader is an act of will instead of the unintended result of a genetic mutation, a spider bite, or a meteor ride to earth from the outer reaches of the galaxy; the ones who, underneath the metallic breastplates and layers of spandex, remain ordinary bone and sinew.

Tony Stark, the unlikely hero of the Iron Man comics co-created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby, is one such creation. A boy-genius inventor and heir to a weapons-manufacturing empire, Stark initially conceives of his crime-fighting alter-ego in an act of life-saving self-preservation, donning a makeshift suit of rocket-powered armor in order to escape from the bad guys who’ve abducted him during a Stark Industries field test. Nothing if not a product of his foreign-policy moment, Stark first appeared in the March 1963 issue of Marvel’s Tales of Suspense, just in time to fight the encroaching Red menace in Southeast Asia. In the 2008 film version of Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, Stark finds himself at odds with Afghan insurgents called the Ten Rings who, in a wonderful Taliban-era irony, come armed with a black-market supply of Stark’s own war machines.

Where Lee and his collaborators based Stark in part on Howard Hughes, the 21st-century version embodied here by Robert Downey Jr. is more like a defense-industry Mark Cuban or Richard Branson—a coiffed and tanned, media-savvy technocrat whose too-cool-for-the-planet attitude says that as long as the market is up and we’re kicking Charlie’s (or Hadji’s) ass, it doesn’t much matter how we’re doing it. But Stark soon gets his comeuppance in a desert-chic cave where, his shrapnel-riddled heart kept a-ticking by a jerry-rigged electromagnet and a Ten Rings doyen demanding a custom-built smart bomb from Stark’s newly deployed “Freedom line,” he realizes that maybe WMDs aren’t so great after all.

Though he remains best known for writing and co-starring in 1996’s hipster totem Swingers, Favreau honed his directing chops with a couple of richly imaginative, resolutely lo-fi kids movies, Elf and Zathura. If the larger-scale, bigger-budget Iron Man never quite ascends to those heights of tinsel-and-string splendiferousness, it maintains Favreau’s fondness for the handmade over the prefab, for erector sets over CRPGs. It’s an exemplary comic-book fantasia. There’s plenty of CGI to go around, but Favreau uses it, for the most part, to enhance rather than supplant the movie’s physical dimension.

When Stark returns to his sprawling Malibu mansion/laboratory—a sort of sun-and-surf Batcave—to perfect the prototype, Favreau gives the sequence the slapstick ping of early Blake Edwards or Frank Tashlin. And Downey is—as he is in most of the film—a marvel to watch here, his body a shimmying human jello mold as he tries to get the hang of his newly jet-propelled hands and feet, his face a kaleidoscope of exhilaration and terror. He’s like a kid without training wheels for the first time, but also like a man newly resolved to make something meaningful out of his life. More than once in Iron Man, you get the feeling the actor may have seen, in Tony Stark, a serio-comic surrogate for his own very public rehabilitation.

The movie—and I mean this as the highest possible compliment to Favreau and the four credited screenwriters—uses the better part of an hour to really get going. Rather than cutting directly to the chase, it takes its time to involve us in the characters, who are relatively three-dimensional as comic-book movies go, and are played by the kind of actors who know how to make a lot out of not very much. As Stark’s dutiful, waiting-to-be-unbuttoned girl Friday, Gwyneth Paltrow is particularly appealing, while the ever-reliable Jeff Bridges manages to invest a glimmer of conflicted humanity in a role that all but comes with “Villain” stamped on its forehead. Even when the plot of Iron Man kowtows to convention, the movie’s personality—hip to the times without ever resorting to self-congratulatory snark—keeps it zipping along. Rarer than a grown man in a rocket suit, it’s a summer blockbuster that comes to entertain first and shill second.

Just about a year ago at this time, another summer tent-pole that climaxed with giant robots body-slamming each other on the streets of Los Angeles was making its way into cinemas amid much clamor from critics that, no matter what they wrote, people would go see it anyway. The movie was called Transformers—perhaps you’ve heard of it. Iron Man, too, is something that people will see regardless of the reviews, but here is the point: Where Michael Bay has mastered a kind of sensory-assaulting pop art, Favreau is a born storyteller who engages the audience’s imagination rather than crushing it in a tsunami of digital noise. He gives us giant robots we can actually care about as opposed to those we can scarcely tell apart—and that, I would propose, is the difference between making images and making movies.

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Remembering the Halcyon Days of Youth

When I was a kid, Marvel and DC Comics were bastions of dreams. Not only were the superheroes amazing and like friends, so were the people who made the comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were larger than life, and when they’d write something in the letter columns of the comics, I’d hang on every word. Later, I read that Lee and Kirby didn’t like each other much, and that Kirby didn’t get all the money he deserved from Lee and Marvel. Marvel changed the world of superheroes, but it didn’t transform one eternal maxim: money changes everything.

Still, the beauty of comic books is the same beauty found within all books. They may not be considered literary, but they do stoke the fires of your imagination. They let you dream the good dreams of power and ethics (and occasionally, the bad dream of vengeance) even as they offer over-the-top drama and adventure. If you love the world of comic books or simply want to remember the halcyon days of youth when comics made you believe you could be a superhero in real life, MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE is the game for you.

And if you’re still a teen, I envy you. While you still love to read graphic novels featuring Marvel superheroes, Activision lets you play as Marvel’s greatest characters in 3D in a story-rich, mission-filled game that reminds me of the roller coaster ride featured in the best episodes of TV’s 24. Here, Dr. Doom and his super-villain minions have united to wreak havoc upon everyone from Thor to Spider-Man—and the universe beyond. You and about 20 Marvel superheroes have got to stop this axis of evil. While it’s not easy, you’ll have a hoot of a time trying to thwart them in this game that will engage you for about 30-40 hours.

While the Marvel Ultimate Alliance lets you play from a third person perspective in which you look down at the action, it still feels like you’re moving within the pages of a comic book. The writing is full of that signature Marvel macho humor and the usual world-ending gloom and doom. There are explosions everywhere you go, fiery, fireworks-like balls of who-knows-what wreaking havoc as you try to proceed. You’ll never die from getting hit by them or by the evil criminals like Loki and Mephisto who assault you. And sometimes, you’ll get to fly and attack from mid-air. But you will get knocked out, and your team of four superheroes will have to proceed without that character until, say, Thor, has recovered from his injuries. For those who like pop culture history, the makers have even woven Marvel trivia into the game. Answer them correctly and you’ll garner powers and experience for your character.

Plus, with each mission you complete, one of the heroes in your team of four will get some fantastic new superpower. You shouldn’t use these magical attacks with much regularity, however, or your superhero will get winded. After a few levels of play, you’ll get to customize your hero. And as you get deeper into the game, you’ll encounter everyone from blazing, skeletal Ghost Rider to introspective, cosmic warrior, the Silver Surfer. You’ll travel from universe to universe, too, from the majesty of Thor’s heavenly Asgard to the creepiness of Mephisto’s lair. I like Murder World the best, a creepy amusement park where evil lies around every corner. The game isn’t perfect, though. Until you master it, you’ll sometimes get lost. And you’ll occasionally be plagued with camera angle issues.

Activision has been fairly quiet this year when it comes to major releases. But with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, a game that will be released for the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii as well as for the current systems, they prove they’ve been a sleeping giant that’s now awakened. Heck, this game even beats the classic X-Men Legends, released a couple of years ago. And that’s saying something.

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    Four Shame! New Marvel Movie All Doom and Gloom

    Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four as an editorial imperative: Invent a superhero group to cash in on the popularity of DC Comics’
    Justice League of America. In transporting Lee and Kirby’s epochal creation to the screen, director Tim Story and writers Michael France and Mark Frost have much the same task—in the wake of the massively popular
    X-Men franchise, streamline 40 years of comic-book history into an easily marketable 105-minute film. But while Lee and Kirby reworked an old formula into something wholly new, Story’s superficial alterations only bring the picture in line with tired tent pole storytelling, forcing our heroes to fight off evil clichés when they should be fighting Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon).

    Lee and Kirby’s ultimate contribution to their art form was their unique blend of dynamic action and fallible human characters. Story’s
    Fantastic Four misses the mark on both counts. As in the Marvel comics, Reed (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue (Jessica Alba), Johnny (Chris Evans), and Ben (Michael Chiklis) are transformed by exposure to cosmic radiation. But the action sequences reek of drudgery rather than adventure, and with the exception of Chiklis’s remarkably soulful performance beneath 60 pounds of orange Thing makeup, all of the characters are flatter than their two-dimensional counterparts.

    Before the inevitable and surprisingly anticlimactic battle with Doom, we are treated to two extreme-sports demonstrations, several training montages, an ill-advised love triangle, and a scene where massive billboards for Burger King, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and SoBe dwarf our heroes. Fantastic four, indeed.