Sunday, 19 October 2014

Why I don't 'get' superheroes

I've had a few discussions with friends over the years on this topic, but thought I'd blog about it in the wake of quite a provocative piece recently published by The Guardian on Batman. The article criticises Burton's first Caped Crusader movie, arguing that Nolan's version is better because it is more authentic, more progressive and more realistic.

I just don't 'get' superheroes in quite a profound way. I find it hard to separate them from their origins in the hokey American pre-war pulp literature culture where heroes were circus-strong-man who wore leopard-spotted leotards (or, if they were really going to town, their undercrackers over a leotard). It was a chauvinistic era when the protagonists were always male, and women were (mostly) in distress or, at best, feisty but under-powered sidekicks (as in The Shadow). I value this culture for what it is, so I love Burton's Batman because it was magical, theatrical and embraced the nonsense of the genre. I also love Kick Ass, Guardians of the Galaxy and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic) for these same reasons.

The modern trend of making superheroes realistic just leaves me confused. They continue to wear bonkers outfits while wondering around a gritty, realistic world. I can't help thinking why everyone around them isn't saying, "Uh, you know you look a bit weird dressed like that, right?". And injecting a lot of angst and dumbed-down psychology just makes it worse.

There are a few exceptions to my dislike. V has no superpowers and adopts the Guy Fawkes persona as it suits his anarchistic and political aims. Everyone he encounters is completely freaked out by his clearly outrageous outfit. The Watchmen are just unstable, have-a-go-heroes. Doctor Manhattan, arguably the only one with any supernatural abilities, is treated in quite a realistic manner. He is harnessed as weapon of mass destruction by America while being viewed with suspicion and fear. My point with these two examples is that they demonstrate a coherency to the level of realism. The world they live in, the heroes and the supporting characters around them are all treated with the same logic.

I realise that the huge success of the superhero genre in recent years means I am in a minority. Clearly it's hugely popular and the popcorn-chomping public love it. I'm just not one of them and continue to be left cold by the bulk of these raspy, frowning, cinematic offerings.

Oh, and just be clear, giant, genetically engineered, robot-armour wearing fanatics in space are absolutely fine in my book.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Great Martian War

The Great Martian War is a forthcoming pseudo-documentary by The History Channel detailing the events of a fictional Martian invasion a la War of the Worlds. Questions of veracity and taste aside, the effects in the trailer actually look pretty darn good, with footage either aged to seem early 20th century, or with CGI Martians composited into historical footage (it's so good, it's hard to tell which approach is used). I actually really like their interpretation of the biology and technology of the extraterrestrials. Their walkers seem suitably gawky with a pleasing mix of mechanical and biological elements.

The Ladytron-esque chiptunes soundtrack on this trailer, by Goldchimes, is pretty ace too.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum

Discovering Tutankhamun is the latest exhibition at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum. I went a couple of weeks ago and can't recommend it enough. The show has three main sections, two of which are really quite left-field.

The first room is a blow-by-blow account of the discovery of the tomb. It focuses more on the sequence of events and the techniques and processes Carter used to excavate the site. The dig was one of the most carefully run operations of the time, eschewing the dynamite and crowbars that had (terrifyingly) typified archaeology up until the 20th century. Genius photographer Harry Burton took meticulous photographs on his plate camera recording the minute position of every object in situ. The detail that the team went into was quite incredible and the Oxford curators have done a great job of bringing this home. In addition, there is an enormous wall-mounted enlargement of an isometric drawing of the tomb complex, which is a dungeon-crawler's dream.

The second room was the real draw for me. It documents the impact the discoveries had on popular culture and the resulting wave of of Egyptian-ophilia which permeated Western creative industries in particular. There are beautiful clothes and accessories, board games, trashy romance novels, postcards and pieces of furniture from the 1920s, all unashamedly borrowing from the style and culture of the ancient Nile delta. Some space is devoted to the 1970s resurgence when the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition toured the world. For me one of the most amazing pieces was the poster from the British Museum's hosting of the tour. The design and typography is amazing and, alas, the Ashmolean's efforts pale into insignificance.

The final room is devoted to King Tut's life and the complex world in which he found himself. Modern research shows that the tragic image of the beautiful boy-king is probably rather far from the truth. This section includes enormous, super-detailed prints the Factum Foundation's scanning project which documented the interior of the tomb complex in crazy 3D detail. I wonder how long it will be before this data enables a high-rez Doom-style walkthroughs available to all via the internets? 

The very fact that this show can pull crowds from across the country and the artifacts still inspire us today is testament to the sheer genius and skill of the ancient artists. Their astonishing work still continues to thrill and inspire us thousands of years after their deaths. While it is the name "Tutankhamun" that we remember, it is really the haunting but beautiful death mask that we think of - surely one of the most exquisite pieces of craftsmanship the world has ever seen. What creative could ask for legacy better than this?