Thursday, May 12, 2016

Too Much TV: JESSICA JONES (2015 -?) and SUPERGIRL (2015 -?)

There is a civil war among comic book fans deeper than the partisanship of Marvel and DC readers or the "who's stronger?" debates within each company's fandom. It sometimes seems like nothing less than a battle for the soul of superhero comics. On one side are arrayed longtime readers dissatisfied with just about every trend in comics over the last generation or two, and on the other are those who rather like what's happened. One side is aesthetically conservative but often self-consciously progressive in their politics, while the other simply knows what it likes. Go to some comic-book news or fan sites and you'll see what I mean. It's kind of a one-sided war, with a vocal minority convinced that it represents a hidden majority of potential readers who'd like comics to be what they were five or ten or thirty years ago. These are the lifers: people who've continued their comics reading into adulthood out of love for characters and the sensations of superpowered action. They've read comics for a very long time, and happened to come of age as fans during a period when both Marvel and DC were committed to intensive continuity that included the evolution of longterm relationships between established characters. This was the era when Superman actually married Lois Lane, and when Spider-Man actually married Mary Jane Watson, among other events. All of this was going on at the same time that Frank Miller and Alan Moore, among others, had transformed the wider public's idea of what comics were and could be. The authors of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are among the founders of what the lifers sneeringly call "grimdark," a sensibility of constant apocalypse favoring worst-case scenarios and extreme responses, where perseverance in spite of pessimism and the picking of psychic scabs prevails. For some time, grimdark coexisted with an older mindset that saw the flourishing of multigenerational superhero families and virtual families as cause for optimism for humanity outside comic book pages. But in the early 21st century something went awry in the comic book business. At Marvel, a story changed history so that Spidey and MJ had never married. At DC, the entire comic-book multiverse was effectively rebooted in 2011 so that Lois and Clark had never married. Continuities and fictional legacies were abruptly purged in other ways that left longtime readers feeling violated and betrayed, especially when new storylines and continuities at both major companies seemed grimmer and darker than ever.

Arguably this was the ultimate consequence of the unintentional self-ghettoization of the comic-book audience at specialty stores where freedom from the old censorious Comics Code was supposed to liberate comics into a wider expressiveness on all levels, but only reinforced the preferences of certain subcultures of adolescent and post-adolescent males. Many lifers presumably went to the same stores, but for whatever reasons they developed expectations from comics that went increasingly against the cultural and corporate grain. Their own preferences may seem old-fashioned or naive to many more recent readers, or to the people currently writing comics, but as noted earlier lifers often see themselves as progressives in most other respects. They may be the sort of people who are dismissed by the new mainstream of comics fans as SJWs ("social justice warriors"). Their desire for optimistic, idealistic comics founded on longterm "ships" includes an openness to greater representation in comics for women as well as homosexuals and other minorities. They are the people who protest against "fridging" female characters -- killing them, often in gruesome fashion, simply to give male heroes something to react to and emote about, named after a scene in a story in which a female victim was stuffed in a refrigerator -- and against the "bury your gays" trope in all media. You could call them "politically correct" to the extent that they want comics to be a sort of "safe space" in which diversity is welcomed unconditionally and all kinds of people are shown to be equally capable of heroism. It's harder to say what the other side wants since they aren't, in my experience, as articulate or dogmatic about their preferences. Many of them, most likely, simply want comics to be cool or badass or extreme, depending on what those terms mean to them. I don't get the feeling that they're as judgmental about the comics the lifers like as vice versa, apart from some contempt for an ideal of heroism some describe in terms of Superman rescuing kittens from trees in the 1978 movie. By comparison, the lifers -- as a matter of disclosure, I consider myself a lifer who has gotten over himself -- seem convinced that there is something wrong with the comics the other side likes, morally as well as aesthetically, and maybe something wrong with the people who like them as well.

Wasn't I supposed to be reviewing some TV shows? Well, wait no longer, because by coincidence two shows with strong female leads, which in theory should be equally popular with the lifers for that reason and may be, nonetheless come as close to representing the opposite extremes of superhero comics as any two shows or movies out today.

Greg Berlanti's Supergirl, in particular, often seems consciously in opposition to grimdark. It's a show that takes to heart the concept from the movie Man of Steel that the "S" on the Superman shield is a symbol of hope, even though Supergirl says it represents the motto, "Stronger Together." As lifers and other enemies of grimdark want comics and superheroes to inspire hope, so Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) literally saves the world in her first-season finale by an appeal to hope. I mean literally: she actually reads a speech urging people under mind control to think hopeful thoughts, and it works. As an expansion of the Berlanti multiverse into Big Three network territory, Supergirl aims for a broader audience than his CW shows while retaining their preoccupation, deeply annoying to fans seeking more badass extremism, with romantic shipping. It comes closer to the camp quality of older superhero shows than Arrow or Flash, though it has its own grimdark moments. It's a free adaptation of the already much-mutated Supergirl comic book mythos, throwing in such new elements as an adoptive human sister for Kara Danvers, nee Zor-El, who also happens to be a badass agent of the DEO, the government agency dedicated to surveillance and control of aliens and metahumans on Earth. Its main organizing concept is that Kara, sent as a babysitter for Kal-El in a separate escape pod, reached Earth late, after Kal had grown up to be Superman (who maintains a quasi-presence on the show as a body without a face or the sender of text messages), and around the same time as a vast Kryptonian-built prison ship whose crash releases a host of alien criminals, along with their hardened Kryptonian keepers, on an unsuspecting world.The warden of the prison ship, now dedicated to conquering Earth, is Kara's aunt Astra. While the DEO keeps its hunt for hostile aliens secret, even from Superman, Kara herself, once she reveals her powers to the world, becomes the target of xenophobic suspicion, stirred up mostly by genius industrialist and Luthor-wannabe Maxwell Lord. In another irony, the head of the DEO, Hank Henshaw, is actually a benign shape-shifting Martian Manhunter who gradually reveals his secret to the Danvers sisters, whose father (former Superman Dean Cain) befriended J'onn J'onzz before a death (at the hands of the real, evil Henshaw) that may not be as fatal as people first thought. Many lessons are taught about tolerance and many messages sent, particularly by media mogul Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart), for whom Kara works in civilian life, about the importance of a superheroine as a female role model and inspirational figure. As a Berlanti show, Supergirl inevitably tangles Kara in a romantic polygon. Her main romantic interest is former Daily Planet photographer James Olsen, who has been reimagined as both black and, more controversially, a stud rather than the archetypal dweeb. Olsen, however, is torn between Kara and old flame Lucy Lane, Lois's sister, who careens between careers as a JAG and a legal counsel for Cat Grant. Meanwhile, another Catco worker, Win Schott, son of the notorious Toyman, pines for Kara and struggles with jealousy of Olsen, just as Olsen, in one hilarious episode, sulks jealously while Supergirl (he knows her secret) pals around with The Flash, who has blundered into the CBS universe (one of many universes, as established on his own show) by running too fast. Inevitably in a "girl power" show like this one the guys end up behaving like the female romantic interests that so many fans of the other Berlanti shows despise. In short, the Berlanti DNA is unmistakable, but despite many violent tragedies the positive is accentuated as often as possible, the idea affirmed more than his other shows dare that heroes exist to inspire and thus empower the rest of us to be and do our best. Supergirl thus has a layer of preachy artifice, largely missing from Berlanti's other shows, that's resented by comics fans who don't like messages (feminism, tolerance, hope) "shoved down their throats" but admired, presumably, by oldschool fans who feel that this, however campy or cheesy it may sound, is what superhero stories should do.

Conveniently, the concept of mind control gives us a point of direct comparison between Supergirl and Marvel's Jessica Jones. On Supergirl the evil Kryptonians have activated a device that puts almost everyone is National City under mind control in an attempt to achieve utopian unity at the expense of individuality, which Supergirl reawakens through her appeal to hope. Over on Netflix, Jessica Jones's antagonist throughout her first season is Killgrave (David Tennant), the twisted result of experimentation who controls minds merely by making eye contact and speaking. In comics his power was explained by his unique purple skin, but the show wisely neglects that detail. Anyway, Killgrave knows no other way to interact with people than by dominating their minds so that they fulfill his every whim. He's not above making people kill themselves to get his way, or to stop Jessica (Krysten Ritter), a woman with unmeasured superhuman strength and other powers, from taking him in and making him confess to making one of her friends kill her parents. Jessica is constantly thwarted by having to save people Killgrave throws into jeopardy, not to mention all the shit that happens randomly in her catastrophe of a life. But as a heroine she prevails in the end, by snapping Killgrave's neck. Until then, Jessica Jones had been an infuriating show in the best possible way, Killgrave's every lucky or unfair escape increasing your eagerness to see him dealt with once and for all, as opposed to shows that infuriate you by having the heroes act stupidly in order to keep a season-long storyline going. Another example of the benefits of shorter seasons at thirteen episodes, Jones represents another twist in the struggle between Marvel/Disney and DC/Time Warner for all-media dominance. While Marvel Studios dominates cinema currently and faces no imminent threat after the critical drubbing given  to Batman v. Superman, DC has the advantage in direct-to-video animation and on television thanks to Berlanti. Instead of sending reinforcements on the conventional TV front, Marvel staked new territory on Netflix beginning with Daredevil and instantly won acclaim for programming that was darker, grittier and less annoying in some ways than the Berlanti DC shows, but also darker and grittier in many ways than the Marvel Cinematic Universe whose advantage over DC's movies was thought to be its lighter, more personable tone. I found Daredevil to be more hype than fact, praised inordinately for its derivative first-season plot mainly for having more visceral violence and less shipping than Berlanti's shows. But Jessica Jones really does live up to the Marvel/Netflix mandate of more mature and truly darker, grittier content. It's basically a superhero noir, right down to Jones working as a private eye in Hell's Kitchen, but also noir for the 21st century without the fetishistic aesthetics you might associate with this particular n-word. Jessica is guilt-haunted after having killed a woman with one punch under Killgrave's control (she's grown immune to him by the time of the show), drinks like a fish and has casual sex with bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who is at once another superhuman (his skin is impervious) and the husband of the woman Jessica killed. If the Avengers cavort at the figurative and literal heights, Jessica's milieu is the lower depths, where hope is a joke and heroism is a matter of muddling through. Platitudes don't offer easy answers here; it may be as much of a contrivance that Jessica has to kill Killgrave as it was in Man of Steel that Superman had to kill General Zod, but there's an honesty to the contrivance on Jessica Jones that doesn't feel like a betrayal of the superhero genre -- I should note that it isn't a bad thing to imagine people capable of solving the worst problems without killing -- because the integrity of the story on its own terms transcends superhero convention. At the same time, Jones doesn't neglect the work of world-building as part of a sequence of shows destined to climax in a Defenders team-up. It remains essentially a comic-book show, but it shows that that label can encompass comfortably much more than those who hate grimdark would allow. Jessica Jones is superior not only to Supergirl but also to Daredevil, and its title character may be the most fully and convincingly developed small-screen superhero to date. Yet I can understand why some people might like Supergirl better for the messages it sends and its pure fantasy of almost limitless power to do good. You could argue that Supergirl and Jessica Jones are two sides of the same coin; perhaps it's Two-Face's old two-headed coin with Jessica the scarred side. I'd like to think that any comics fan could appreciate each show's virtues while preferring one to the other for aesthetic rather than ideological reasons, and that a genre that includes both extremes is actually pretty healthy in its flexibility. Some people feel that there are too many superhero movies and shows already, while others feel that there are too many of certain kinds, but I dare say that the genre is still only beginning to show its range, and I still look forward to better things to come.

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