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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

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Non-Review Review: Shazam!

There’s a lot to like about Shazam!

Most obviously, there’s the sheer joy that the film takes in live-action superheroics. It is, of course, something of a cliché to suggest that a certain film or television show “makes superheroes fun again.” Even just among the recent crop of superhero cinema, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseIncredibles 2, Ant Man and the Wasp, Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming can all claim to have injected fun back into the genre. (Indeed, for their myriad flaws, the problem with Justice League and Aquaman was not that they weren’t trying to have fun. Quite the opposite in fact.) So it is disingenuous to state that Shazam! reintroduces the concept of fun into the genre.

Dab-bling in superheroics.

However, Shazam! still takes an incredible amount of joy in playing with the tropes and conventions of the genre. Part of this comes built into the premise. While the character of Captain Marvel could be seen as an example of the “flying brick” archetype most effectively embodied by Superman, the most appealing part of the concept has always been his secret identity. Unlike other superheroes who simply change costume to fight crime, the character physically transforms into a superhero through the use of the magic word. Captain Marvel’s secret identity is Billy Batson, usually portrayed as a child or a teenager. There’s something endearing about the wish fulfillment that anchors that concept. Shazam! invites its audience to look at superheroics through the eyes of a child.

The first two acts of Shazam! are (mostly) a joy, an engaging riff on a playful concept that understands a large part of the appeal of superheroes to their target audience. Unfortunately, the film fumbles the ball in its third act. While the relative innocence and simplicity of Shazam! are a large part of its appeal, the climax of the film gets a little bit too boggled down in cynical worldbuilding, indulging in a bloated and over-extended computer-generated fight sequence that feels lifted from a much less playful and exciting film. To borrow an old cliché, Shazam! almost convinces its audience that a man can fly, but it just can’t stick the landing.

Zap to it.

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90. Incredibles 2 – This Just In (#183)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and with special guests Graham Day and Marianne Cassidy, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 183rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Luke Cage – Can’t Front On Me (Review)

On of the most remarkable things about Luke Cage is just how much it enjoys being a superhero series, particularly compared to the other Marvel Netflix series.

The Punisher felt distinctly uncomfortable with its source material, and so instead tried to position itself as a low-rent 24 knock-off. Jessica Jones largely embraces the superhero genre as a vehicle for metaphors about trauma rather than as something to be enjoyed or appreciated of itself. Iron Fist made a strange choice to tone down both the most outlandish aspects of its character’s back story and the genre elements inherent in a kung-fu exploitation adventure. Daredevil is the only show to give its protagonist a costume, but it skews towards a much more sombre and serious school of superheroics.

All of these series contrast with Luke Cage, which eagerly embraces the trappings of the superhero genre, even as the second season remains deeply ambivalent about the very idea of a superhero. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has described himself “a hip-hop showrunner”, and that sensibility infused the series. Hip-hop is a genre that heavily draws on sampling and remixing, so it makes sense that Luke Cage should draw on that tradition with its own stylistic influences, embracing the opportunity to create a deeply affectionate (and surprisingly traditional) superhero story around its hero.

For a story that inevitably goes to some very grim places, Luke Cage takes a great deal of joy in being a superhero television series.

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Luke Cage – Wig Out (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of masculinity in a number of interesting ways.

This is an interesting choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, the idea of exploring masculinity within the framework of a Marvel Netflix show should (in theory) belong to Jessica Jones. With the character of Kilgrave, it was the streaming service’s first female-led superhero series that marked out the idea of masculinity as a concept worth exploring within the framework of a superhero narrative. However, the second season of Jessica Jones is very engaged with the idea of female relationships, whether friendly or familial.

In doing so, Jessica Jones may have passed the theme on to the second season of Luke Cage. This makes sense on a number of levels. Most superficially, Luke Cage was actually introduced as a recurring guest star on the first season of Jessica Jones, and so ideas about masculinity are clearly woven into the character’s core identity. Beyond that, there is some value in Luke Cage in exploring the idea from a different perspective. After all, Luke Cage is a series with a male heroic lead. Its approach to the theme of masculine identity would be radically different.

As such, the second season of Luke Cage is perfectly positioned to explore notions of masculine identity.

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Non-Review Review: Thor – Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a pure pop superheroic pleasure.

Thor has always been the most archetypal member of the Avengers, the character cast in the most conventional superheroic mould. Captain America was a soldier; Tony Stark and Bruce Banner designed weapons; Black Widow was an assassin; Hawkeye was a cosplayer with a bow and arrows. In contrast, Thor was a literal demigod. He looked the part of a conventional superhero, with his billowing red cape and his awesome power.

To Hela back.

Part of the joy of superhero stories is the way in which they form a strange oral history tradition; the stock comparison is to modern mythology, and there are certain shades of that. Superhero stories provide a lens through which classic and archetypal stories might be reimagined and reconstructed. Building on Chris Claremont’s characterisation of Wolverine, James Mangold pitched the superhero as the spiritual descendant of the samurai in The Wolverine and of the cowboy in Logan.

Thor: Ragnarok understands the potential of the comic book superhero as a framework for remixing and reimagining classic tales, as a weird cultural cocktail that effortlessly blends countless different flavours. In this respect, director Taika Waititi is being faithful to the source material. The appeal of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work on Thor was the synthesis of classic mythology and retro science-fiction to construct something that was utterly unique. Thor was both a Norse god and a cosmic champion, a superhero and a mythic figure.

Wave after wave.

Thor: Ragnarok is perhaps a little over-stuffed, particularly in its opening act. Ragnarok races to hit plot points and fill in details, with an ensemble that feels far too deep for a two-hour-and-ten-minute romp. The biggest problem with Ragnarok is that the movie is practically overflowing with delight and joy. This not a serious problem by any measure. The movie never drags, and its goofy charm is never anything but infectious. Ragnarok could be structured and paced better, but the chaotic nature of the movie is part of its appeal. Ragnarok constantly threatens to burst.

The result is a movie that lacks the finesse and efficiency that define the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one that is overflowing with an energy and an eagerness that are endearing.

The ties that bind.

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Jessica Jones – AKA The Sandwich Saved Me (Review)

It could be argued that Jessica Jones is at its strongest when it embraces its status as an anti-superhero story.

The weakest points in the first season come when Jessica Jones embraces its superhero elements too readily, like when AKA Crush Syndrome or AKA It’s Called Whiskey fixated upon the idea of Kilgrave’s “weakness” as if Jessica is going to pull a glowing purple rock out of her pocket that will solve everything or when AKA 99 Friends made a point to tie the show into the events of The Avengers. This is not a show that lends itself to those sorts of superhero conventions.

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Instead, Jessica Jones works best when it ignores many of the more common tropes of the genre. Kilgrave is particularly creepy for the fact that he doesn’t want to rule the world or destroy New York. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are more interesting for the fact that they cannot be reduced to a series of cause-and-effect chain of consequence. These are real and messy lives that just happen to exist in a world full of giant green rage monsters and Norse deities. The juxtaposition is part of the appeal.

In that respect, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me plays as something of a gleefully subversive origin story. It exists primarily as a negative space, a story that rejects enough of the preconceived notions of superhero tales that it fosters a compelling dissonance.

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