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Heroes, Part 1
by Simon Smithson

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The Mallrats Question: Is the Thing's dork made out of orange rock too?

The Mallrats Question: Is the Thing's dork made out of orange rock too?
What is it that defines a hero? Some may say that to be a hero, one must overcome adversity. Hey, that's probably true. Others may say that to be a hero, one must help others and stand up for what's good and right and true. That's a little bit Disney, but hey, it's probably true too. Another way to look at it is that a hero is one who steps up when the forces of evil come calling, look them right in the eye and say ‘No dice, Chief. No dice today.'

All well and good, so far.

But frankly, if it's the choice between your ordinary, run-of-the-mill ‘I fought to keep the family farm' type hero, or, say, Batman, then really, give me a superhero every time. A good superhero has all the elements of a regular hero, but with the added bonus that they can, for instance, turn green and throw a tank a hundred feet in the air when angry.

And no superhero worth his salt doesn't have an equally powerful supervillain to contend against, a guy who, quite often, you end up cheering on just as much as you cheer for the star of the show. So over the next few columns I'll be looking at heroes and villains, or rather, superheroes and supervillains. This column and the next will be concerned with the guys in the blue and black tights, the ones who save the day. The two following those will delve into the depths of the rogues galleries, and take a look at what makes the bad guys tick. We're in the middle of a comic book adaptation renaissance, and I couldn't be happier about it.

Despite how bad some of the films have been.

The big kahuna, obviously, is Spiderman. SPIDERMAN's 1, 2, and 3 webbed their way to the tops of the box office record lists, combining geek chic in the way of Tobey Maguire with special effects that cut the legs out from everyone else. Starting with the story of Peter Parker, uber-nerd's quest to win his girl and save the day, they progressed through to show what happens when power is denied, and, in SPIDERMAN 3, when it's used for evil.

The films had a strong moral current running through them, exemplified by Uncle Ben's comment to Peter that ‘with great power comes great responsibility.' While this is sometimes a heavy burden for Peter to bear, he always shoulders it and, by doing so, comes through in the end. It is only when he shirks his responsibilities that things really start to go bad- his uncle gets iced, his girl gets kidnapped (OK, well, his girl ALWAYS gets kidnapped. As another columnist put it, there's such a thing as Mary Jane Syndrome- ‘Help me! Help me! I'm unable to do anything to save myself in the slightest!') or, perhaps the worst fate of all, he finds himself dancing down the street with an emo haircut.

What the films bring home, each and every one of them, is that sometimes you have to put aside the things that you want in order to do the things you know you have to do. Sometimes you have to stand up and say I don't want to do this thing, but I know that it has to be done. I'm probably not going to enjoy myself while I'm doing it, but that doesn't matter.

Then you've got Marvel's first family of
It's difficult to guess how the idea for Ghost Rider originally came up.

It's difficult to guess how the idea for Ghost Rider originally came up.
superpowers, the Fantastic Four. FANTASTIC FOUR: THE RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER will be out later this year, and even if nothing else good happen in the whole movie, we'll get to see a silver man on a surfboard flying through walls, which in itself will be worth the price of the ticket.


FANTASTIC FOUR had its share of awful, awful scenes. And don't get me wrong, I'm not throwing in with the nerd patrol and pointing out that being made out of rock might make it hard for the Thing to eat, or anything like that. As far as I'm concerned, you suspend a certain amount of disbelief when you walk into a superhero movie. But even I have to raise an eyebrow when a character simply shrugs and accept the fact that they suddenly burst into flames while going skiing.

Like a lot of the films that come from Marvel stable, FANTASTIC FOUR laid the morals on with a trowel. The relationships between the characters say it all- be true to yourself, and be kind to each other. Difference is a good thing. If you work together, you can solve any problem- even the problem of a metal Australian who shoots electricity trying to mess everybody's shit up.

But that's because FANTASTIC FOUR was a certain type of superhero movie- it's the classic good versus evil tale, where the good guys are noble and true, if a little misguided at times, and the villains snarl and twirl their moustaches, and will always be beaten in the end.

The adaptation that started the whole comic book to screen revival featured a hero of a very different kind. BLADE featured a dark hero, a hero who killed and tortured in order to save the world, a hero who didn't blink at the thought of inflicting grievous pain on his enemies, knowing that his cause was just. The dark hero is a more modern creation, one that stems from a different part of the psyche. Often the dark hero doesn't necessarily fight because he feels he has a responsibility, like Spiderman. And she doesn't necessarily fight because she is essentially good, like the Fantastic Four. Much of the time, the dark hero fights for revenge and to punish the wicked.

BLADE and its two sequels (the Guillermo Del Toro-helmed BLADE 2 being the pick of the litter) didn't come with a message other than that Wesley Snipes is a badass and not to be messed with. And it revelled in its difference- sure, Snipes has superpowers, but he also had lots of guns, and he kills guys with them. And there was a lot more swearing in the BLADE trilogy than you hear in your average superhero flicks. I'm prepared to lay out good money that says the c-bomb won't be dropped in IRON MAN when it hits cinemas, unlike in BLADE: TRINITY. The BLADE series eschewed moralising and ethical dilemmas for no-holds-barred action and people getting eaten in nightclubs. And Snipes strolled through each movie, dour and grim, breaking bones and staking the bad guys through the heart every five seconds.

GHOST RIDER took a new take on the dark hero by having a hero who had no choice in what he was doing. Sure, saving the world was the right thing to do, but Nick Cage's Johnny
Wolverine- metal skeleton. Healing factor. Bizarre hair.

Wolverine- metal skeleton. Healing factor. Bizarre hair.
Blaze was acting on the orders of another, with no ability to say yes or no about it. And, like Blade, the Ghost Rider enjoyed his work, whether it was beating the bad guys down with a bicycle chain or frying their brains and leaving them catatonic while their souls took the express train down to Hell. The film could have easily slipped into an overwrought religious tale about saving souls and the true nature of good- the bad guys were the Devil and his son, after all. But GHOST RIDER kept its focus on the action and on not taking itself too seriously- the latter being a good approach. After all, when your hero is a skeleton with a flaming skull who rides a motorbike and shoot fire at people, it's pretty easy to cross the line into the territory of just. Plain. Stupid.

Instead GHOST RIDER took a leaf from a couple of different books- sure, the hero was kind of a bad guy who worked for the Devil, albeit unwillingly. But at the same time the lines were clearly drawn- the bad guys were clearly bad, given their habits of killing people just for the sake of it, and the good guys were clearly good, fighting to preserve their humanity in the face of overwhelming odds.

The X-Men trilogy combined all of these elements, something that you can do when you've got a team of superheroes at your disposal. Patrick Stewart's Professor X was wise and moral, Wolverine was the rebel with a heart of gold, Nightcrawler put his trust in God, and Rogue just wanted to be normal. Each character brought something to the table, illustrating a facet of the deeper themes at play. Even Magneto was crusading for the freedom of his kind, even if his solution was to kill everyone that stood in his way.

Like FANTASTIC FOUR, X-MEN and the sequels were all about the need to accept difference, to understand what we see as strange rather than simply hate and fear it. And at the same time, mutants fought each other with fire and ice and super strength. It's just a shame that X-MEN 3 was such an exercise in bad scripting- as the post-credit sequence unfolded at the end of X-MEN 3, the entire audience that I was sitting in groaned in disappointment. Fortunately, the special effects were pretty cool. Nothing brings home the underlying message of a film like flaming cars dropping from the sky onto a bunch of soldiers, and Vinnie Jones running through walls.

The big thing about superheroes is that they're people who face issues, just as everyone does, every day of the week. Sure, maybe the issues that you or I might face don't include a genetically enhanced Willem Defoe on a flying glider, but we face issues nonetheless. And while superheroes (and their methods of dealing with their troubles) are larger than life, at heart, the ideas are the same- that it's best not to be a total asshole, and that the higher ideals in life should be fought for.

Also, battles on rooftops between people with superpowers will always be awesome, and that's perhaps the most important message of all. Next column, Batman and Superman.

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Heroes, Villains, And Wise-Cracking Sidekicks
Every other Monday

An in-depth look at the different kinds of characters that make the movies, how they've changed over time, and how they reflect the best and worst of us.

Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Soldier On

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

All Columns

Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.

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