W.B. at the Movies: The Marvels

It was June 1981, I was newly divorced for the first time, living in Ripon, Wisconsin, and I took a young woman to the movies in Oshkosh. It was one of those fancy new movie theaters that had not one, but two screens, and so we had a choice of two movies — Superman 2 or a new movie with Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I didn’t know anything about the second movie except that it starred Harrison Ford, who went to Ripon College 11 years before I did and had become a star as the result of the (then) two Star Wars movies. I lobbied for following the Ripon connection and the chance to see Han Solo in something different, whatever that might be, and we agreed to pick Ford over Christopher Reeve.

Long story short: We were so geeked out by the adventures of Indiana Jones that we didn’t want to leave the theater, so we went across the lobby and watched Superman 2, too.

That’s the kind of afterglow I have been feeling since watching Godzilla Minus One this week. I was so geeked out that I joined three Godzilla groups on Facebook in search of other people who loved loved loved this film, and I was not disappointed. I’m not the only one who thinks this is not just a great Godzilla movie, it’s a great movie, period.

In an echo of that June night 42 years ago, I was still so geeked out Friday afternoon that I decided to take a couple hours off and go see another movie, The Marvels, while it’s still in town. It’s the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, teaming Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Monica Rambeau, who resists taking a superhero name in part because in the comics she is one of several women who has taken the name Captain Marvel, and that might be awkward in the movies.

This movie has, at least in the context of the multibillion-dollar Marvel universe, bombed at the box office. In fact, I was the only person in the theater for the 1:10 p.m. Friday showing. The word on the street was that the film is a whole lot better than its weak box office might suggest, and the word on the street is absolutely correct.

It may not be the best of the 30 or so Marvel movies, but it’s far from the worst one, and I had a great time. I adore the character of Kamala Khan, the comic book geek who is endowed with superpowers and lives out her dream as Ms. Marvel, and I adore the actress Iman Vellani, a real-life comic book geek who is living her dream playing Kamala Khan on TV and the movies.

Brie Larson does another nice turn as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, Teyonnah Parris is a fine Monica Rambeau, and British actress Zawe Ashton plays the role of the designated villain, Dar-Benn, with an appropriate mix of menace and sympathy.

Goose the Flerken returns after a scene-stealing turn in Captain Marvel. The flerken may be the single greatest invention in the entire Marvel Universe. I shall not say more. Spoilers, you know.

I think audiences may just be getting weary of comic-book movies. DC Comics released The Flash earlier this year, another entertaining movie that did not attract much of an audience. Maybe people are starting to think, “been there, done that,” when they see superpowered humans in tight costumes.

Whatever’s going on, all I know is I’ve seen one spectacular movie and one really good flick in the last few days, and so I went home happy. 

Bottom line: Catch The Marvels if you can, and absolutely, positively go see Godzilla Minus One, an astonishingly good piece of cinema.

Lessons in inflation

Comic books taught me everything I needed to know about inflation.

It cost more than it used to to make a 10-cent comic book, so they had to charge 12 cents. They had been 10 cents for more than 25 years, although as costs rose, they held the 10-cent price by cutting pages. The standard length of a comic book went from 64 pages to 48 pages to 32 pages. Finally they decided 32 pages was the minimum, and so the price had to give.

Twelve cents held for about seven years, but then inflation kicked in and they went up to 15 cents. There was a little experimentation with offering 48 pages for 25 cents, but that was quickly abandoned and it settled back to 32 pages for 20 cents, and then 25 and 30 and 35 and 40 cents. By 1980 a 32-page comic book was 50 cents.

Eventually other factors than inflation affected the price — the starving writers and artists won the right to be paid as if they were writers and artists, and better paper and printing techniques became the standard — so it’s not fair to say the 10-cent comic book of 1960 morphed into today’s $3.99 product, but inflation was the main culprit in the 1960s and 1970s.

I want to show you something about percentages and inflation.

That first price increase, from 10 cents to 12 cents, inflated the price by 20%.

When it went to 15 cents, that was a 25% increase.

The rise to 20 cents was 33%. Yikes!

Going to 25 cents was a 25% increase.

Going to 30 cents? Only 20%.

And 35 cents represented a 16.7% raise.

The hike to 40 cents raised the price by 14.3%.

Do you see? After a while, the inflation rate went down. But make no mistake, the price never went back. You could buy 10 comic books for $1 in 1960. By 1980 you could buy only two.

Don’t ever be fooled when the politicians announce that the inflation rate is down as if that’s wonderful news. The damage is already done.

The 10-cent comic book is gone forever.

Along came a Spider-Man

I had Friday night dinner with Son of Red and his beautiful bride. At one point I admired the 2-year-old grandson’s Spider-Man suit. (Actually the 10-year-old grandson is the real Spider-Man fan in their family.)

I remembered that when I was 10 years old, almost nobody in the world knew who Spider-Man is. But I did. Three months after my 10th birthday, I found a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #4 among the new comics at the IGA in Milton, Vermont, during our family vacation, and overnight I changed from an occasional reader of comic books into a diehard fan.

Now that I’ve navigated a few more birthdays, you can find Spider-Man merch in just about any store that sells clothing or backpacks or you name it. Most folks have at least a passing knowledge of Peter Parker and M.J. and all his friends, and the dastardly villains he’s faced along the way.

It’s fun to have been on the ground floor of a global phenomenon. I kind of get to know what it was like for those first kids who bought Action Comics #1 back in 1938 and discovered this new hero called Superman, or the first kids who bought The All-Story magazine in 1912 and read the story of the son of a lost English lord named Greystoke and how he turned into Tarzan of the Apes.

When you discover something wonderful, you want to share it with the world. And so one of the coolest moments of my life was sitting in a movie theater in 2002 and watching the now-familiar story of a teenager, a radioactive spider, and the tragedy that befalls his Uncle Ben unfold on the big screen almost exactly as it appeared in the original comics. 

All of those thoughts and memories flooded in as I held the 2-year-old’s Spider-Man suit. Peter Parker and I have come a very long way together.

W.B. At the Movies: Wakanda Forever

I wasn’t that familiar with the background of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, so when I set aside some time this weekend to watch the Blu-Ray, I didn’t realize I was committing 2 hours and 40 minutes of my life to a story that would have made a nice two-hour movie.

Letitia Wright’s Shuri character was the most compelling of the supporting cast in the first Black Panther film, so it was nice to see she was chosen to carry the sequel after the death of Chadwick Boseman, and in the new film she does another fine job. 

The reinvention of Namor the Sub-Mariner for the Marvel Cinematic Universe was jarring to this old comics fan, but I’ve never been particularly enamored of that character anyway (see what I did there?) so my lack of interest may have had more to do with why that major plot point fell flat for me. 

It was especially jarring to see the supposedly noble ruler of an undersea kingdom gut-punching a 5-foot-5, 110-pound woman, no matter how superpowered she had become. 

Just as with the three-hour snooze fest that was The Batman, I found myself hitting the 2x speed button to get through the interminable slugfest in the final act of Wakanda Forever. Maybe I’m just getting tired of comic book movies, or maybe the arc that ended with Avengers: Engame was a pinnacle they may not be able to re-create. Or perhaps 160 minutes is too long for the average superhero epic and Marvel needs to hire more brutal editors.

Then we found ourselves drawn into watching four episodes of Prime Video’s Daisy Jones & The Six musical series. It was an interesting contrast to see how 160 minutes of Wakanda took forever but 200 minutes of Daisy left us wanting more.

W.B. at the Movies: The Batman

I really wanted to like The Batman with Robert Pattinson, and it probably would make a compelling two-hour movie. The problem is it’s three hours long. I actually ended up watching the last third or so fast-forwarding at 2x, at which speed the captions are still visible on our Blu-Ray player. 

Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright turn in nice performances as the three main protagonists, but the bad guys are pretty cardboard. 

This is blasphemy, but after all this time I think I just don’t find Batman that interesting anymore.

But if I’m honest, I have never found Batman all that interesting in the first place. “Gasp!” I know, right?

I was a Marvel Comics guy even before Marvel Comics remade itself as Marvel Comics. In the early years, late 1950s and early 1960s, we would mostly buy comics as a treat in our annual summer vacation to Vermont. I would read Superman, Batman and the Legion of Super Heroes dutifully, but what really caught my imagination was an off-brand comic called Strange Tales.

In the summer of 1963, we arrived in Vermont and I started looking for Strange Tales. Instead I found the fourth issue of something called The Amazing Spider-Man, produced by something called the Marvel Comics Group. It was only later that I realized Strange Tales was also a Marvel title.

When we got back to New Jersey, I was no longer content to buy comics only once a year. I found a store that had Spider-Man #5, and I was a biweekly to monthly visitor from those days forward.

This is a long way of saying I never was much of a DC Comics fan in the first place. It was Marvel that made me a comic book fan, and it was the DC fare that felt Marvel-ish that attracted my attention — heroes like Metamorpho and Metal Men and Deadman, and of course Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles.

So you should take it with a grain of salt when I say The Batman is overlong and dark and tedious, because while I appreciate the Batman and Dark Knight stories from an artistic point of view, they rarely have sparked emotion from me. I admire the best of Batman, but I don’t love it.

Superheroes to the rescue

It started with Greatman, who had a kind of purple costume and Spider-Man eyes on his mask. He could fly and he was super-strong, and he was the flagship hero of a line that also included the Fabulous Five, Brink the Atomic Man, Moss Boy (who later evolved into Moss Man), and some other superheroes whose names may be lost to the ages. This was before my age ended in “teen.”

In high school I came up with Captain Zap, who shot power beams or electricity or something out of his fingers. And, of course, as a grownup kid there came Make Phoenix.

We love the larger than life, the mythological hero who fixes things for us mere mortals. We love telling their stories, and we love that they have secret identities and walk among us. Any one of us might be the superhero who saves the day.

We also love the stories of normal people who get caught up in larger than life adventures, Indiana Jones finding the lost ark of the covenant or the Holy Grail, Eliot who finds an extra-terrestrial in the cornfield next to his yard, or Bruce Wayne who trains himself to be so extraordinarily powerful a human that he seems to be super-powered to the criminals he strikes fear into with his bat costume.

Lately I’ve been rediscovering these stories of my youth and remembering how much fun it was to read and write them. When they’re ready, it’ll be fun to share them. I hope you’ll agree.

What a fantastic ride that was

Almost every month on the fourth day, I find myself drawing a circle around the 4 as I start my journal entry. It’s an homage of sorts to the lasting impact that the adventures of Reed Richards, Susan Storm Richards, Johnny Storm and Benjamin J. Grimm have had on my psyche. 

The Fantastic Four were Marvel Comics’ “first family,” and at the time the stories lived up to the boast “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” that was audaciously plastered across the top of every cover. They lived, loved, fought off menaces and argued with each other as the family they were, and the adventures grew more entertaining as they became galactic in scope.

Maybe it’s fitting that the Marvel movie empire has never been able to make quite as satisfying a film about the F.F. as it has with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy, which in my era was not a top-of-the-line product by most measures.

Perhaps the Fantastic Four only really succeeds in its original medium and can’t be translated onto the big screen — although fans of The Incredibles may disagree, much as Star Trek fans recognize the best movie in that franchise may very well be Galaxy Quest.

Fantastic Four #1 marked its 60th anniversary late last year, and it will soon be 60 years since I first encountered the team in the summer of 1963. At the outset of our annual Vermont vacation, I had found Spider-Man #4, with its cryptic reference to someone named Mister Fantastic and the Fantastic Four. A few days later at a store in St. Albans, I found not just a Fantastic Four comic book but Fantastic Four Annual #1, with a 37-page epic and a reprint of the group’s origin story, and my father graciously invested the 25 cents required to bring it home to the cabin.

The 37 cents spent on those two comic books launched my life as a Marvel Maniac. All these years later, my ardor for the stories produced in those early years — when Marvel was still the upstart newcomer rather than the top dog — has not cooled.

And every month on the morning of the 4th, I remember those stories with a nostalgic smile. In many ways I am who I am because of them.