26 Aug 2009

Dog Soup Is A Woman?

Fanboys everywhere felt the hair rise on their neckbeards recently, when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast in the Iron Man sequel as Black Widow. The usual divisiveness sundered the nerd community – half had their hearts set aflame with visions of La Johansson in the Widow's trademark tight rubber; the other half protested at what they felt to be studio-driven miscasting. Originally, English ingenue Emily Blunt had been lined up for the role but a profusion of projects forced her to drop it. The positive fan-buzz surrounding Blunt kind of then backlashed at Scarlett. After all, this is the Widow we're talking about.
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Perhaps it is important to recognise the significance of the Widow in the Iron Man stories and the Marvel Universe as a whole. She's a seriously old-school character (from 1964) and one of the MU's most important superheroines. Originally she was the archetypal sexy Soviet spy, on a mission to seduce and destroy that ultimate Cold Warrior, Iron Man. Foremost among the “Soviet Super Soldiers”, her past is indelibly linked to the old USSR. The fact that's now ancient history has forced a retcon, whereby she's been gifted an extended lifespan; keeping one of her booted heels firmly planted in the past. Photobucket
However, the joys of capitalism (and it's men) soon saw her counter-seduced over to America's side. She became an Avenger, and fought as a poacher-turned-gamekeeper against the Red Threat on the streets of New York. Other than Iron Man, she also carried on a famous affair with Daredevil; these two tortured souls enjoyed a great run during the 80's. All-in-all, we've got a complicated character with a lot of baggage and continuity, in need of an actress who could carry it all off.
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Well, all we've got so far are two stills and a few pouty moments in the trailer, but initial impressions are good. Photobucket
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By the sounds of it, and based on my own estimations, the Widow would take something of a classic Bond-girl role in Iron Man 2; initially working against Stark, only to team up with him against a deadlier opponent – the nasty Whiplash, played (quite well, by the look of it) by comeback kid Mickey Rourke. There's also the whole love interest angle. The first IM flick played on the classic romance storyline between Stark and his ever-faithful sidekick, Pepper Potts. The introduction of a second Titian-haired beauty into Stark's life really does complicate things. (This is the Law Of Marvel Redheads; it is a universe amply stocked with gorgeous flame-haired women and the men who fetishize them; Wolverine, I'm looking at you). After all, Scarlett is really bringing something to the game here; you have to have something really special to be Woody Allen's leading lady.
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But where is this leading (other than someplace bad?). Well, in an interview promoting IM2 at the global nerdgasm in San Diego, Scarlett said something that serious excited about nine nerds on the planet, of whom I am three. Here's the quote: Q: When you first met with Favreau and Feige, were there other Marvel characters that they were considering you for or did you know< they wanted you to play Black Widow?


A: I think that it was mostly [Black Widow]. I mean, there were different characters like Moonstone, the Scarlet Witch and the Blonde Phantom? There were a couple that I looked through and thought, “Okay these are the kind of characters that could maybe work somewhere.”

We'll leave out the Scarlet Witch for now, because she's worthy of a whole blog to herself (and is yet another stunning redhead). It's the other two characters Scarlett mentions here that made me feel funny inside in a good way. I'll explain why.

I blogged about the Blonde Phantom ages ago, expounding on her awesomeness as a pulp heroine. She was created by Timely Comics, Marvel's predecessor, back in the 40's. With a domino mask, and clad in a red evening dress, she was the terror of gangsters, vampires and Nazi spies across America's home front. I think you can imagine why Scarlett was thought of for this character, and why it seems to have appealed to her.

Photobucket Recently, the very funny comics blogger MGK did a post on how 'anti-feminist' the BP was. As much as I like that guy's humour, he got it way wrong here. She was a cool character from the start, quite ahead of her time. In the early 90's, a fellow called John Byrne – whom Comicvine aptly describes as “one of the most prolific and controversial writer/artists in the history of comics” - started writing the She-Hulk title. Things got really weird as Byrne revelled in breaking the fourth wall, and incorporating a lot of surrealism in the title. He also grew She-Hulk from a glorified piece of (green) cheesecake to an interesting character, with a title whose wit and writing set her far above the trash being produced that decade. In the course of these wacky adventures, the Blonde Phantom re-emerged from a long retirement.

Photobucket It turns out that a little old lady called Woozy, who had been kicking around She-Hulk's law office, was actually Louise Mason, the original BP. Since she had dropped out of comics, she had aged, become a widow, and had both a daughter and granddaughter briefly (and
unsuccessfully) take up the BP mantle. In one of Byrne's typical meta-moments, Louise realised she had to get back in a regular comic again in order to cease aging. She teamed up with She-Hulk, and in the course of their adventures, was reborn as “she had always seen herself” - in her glory days as the BP. When Byrne's run finished BP disappeared into B-lister limbo, but at least her re-emergence in the Marvel Universe had been set. A few years back, Marvel introduced a strange new character called the Sentry into regular continuity. He got a weird miniseries called “Age of the Sentry”, which was basically a tribute to the kind of Silver Age “four-colour” comics that originally inspired the character. In this alternate Marvel “history”, the Blonde Phantom was none
other than the leader of the Avengers! Photobucket Sheonly appeared in a single issue, and it was a timeline which technically never happened, but I for one was thrilled to see the BP was still remembered, albeit with a nod to her obsolescence. Photobucket

Photobucket Shereturned to limbo after that, but in the post-Civil War carnage, it was noted that she was active and still super-heroing. Recently, it seems her moment in the sun might finally have arrived. 2009 marks the 70th anniversary of Timely Comics, Marvel's aforementioned predecessor. In tribute to this Marvel have been released original comics, based on the classic Timely comics. Mostly they have been retro-style bores, with little appeal. But then they came out with the Blonde Phantom one! Photobucket Unlike the other tributes, it was clearly established that this story tookplace in 2009, and that my beloved BP was still an active superheroine. It also had a sense of humour, a knowing irony, and a good story. Considering this is more than many top-selling comics today, I think it shows the validity of the character is rock-solid. It's more than that she can go kung-fun crazy in that
dress!
Photobucket That page above is one of the best things I've seen in comics this year. I love how BP has a real costume moment, referring to her outfit as “she”, and adopting a whole new persona when she puts it on. The wearing of costumes, and the identities they bring, is often a poorly misused trope in superhero fiction. BP's take on it here is so cool. Her investigation into her friend's murder is pursued in typical gumshoe fashion, taking to account BP's sixty years of experience as a law clerk, private eye, and vigilante. It takes on an incongruous aspect when the case leads her to a team of criminal hackers. But BP just has to “let her out to play again”, and bring out her patented nut-crusher kick. This is where the story takes an interesting turn, and lifted this comic (IMO, anyway) from being a bit of fan service, to being a damn good read.

Photobucket In the end, BP has deduced that her friend's killer was actually his wife, who is also an old friend of hers. I think the pages themselves best describe the rest. Photobucket

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So yeah – a Blonde Phantom feature film, with Scarlett in the lead? I'd like to see that. Her other choice, Moonstone, is a whole 'nother story entirely. She's a leggy blonde, like BP; but where BP is a heroine, a champion of justice, Moonstone is a criminal psychopath of the highest order. She is a serial killer, an expert mind-gamer, and a feared opponent. It's rare in comics, or actually any popular entertainment, to find female sociopathy done properly; indeed, this
comprised one of the best jokes in the best-ever issue of Sandman: Photobucket

(I always wondered just what exactly Dog Soup had done that made her so notorious. I don't think she's ever appeared anywhere again, despite the Sandman world being a part of the DC Universe. At any rate, I always have liked Gaiman's little ironic chuckle here). Moonstone was born Karla Sofen, somewhere in Anywhere, USA. She was raised by a solo mother who was often absent, working three jobs to provide for her daughter. Karla herself was too naturally selfish and self-obsessed to notice this, and grew to resent her missing mother. But her intelligence and her mother's earnings got her to college, where she graduated as a psychiatrist. That's when things got quite nasty.  Karla reveled in the power she had over people's minds, and instead of treating her patients, she only encouraged their problems. She incited suicides to kill themselves, drove homicidal maniacs to murder, and so on. Naturally this ultimately got her imprisoned. But she broke out, and killed a minor villain who called himself Moonstone, after the alien artifact he drew his powers from. Karla took it and became the new Moonstone, establishing herself as a seriously nasty piece of work, and making herself very useful to Norman Osborne, the Green Goblin. Lately, thanks to some major overhaulsin the MU, Osborne is now calling the shots. He exiles all the superheroes, and sends in his personal squad of baddies to fill their positions. Taking the role of Ms Marvel, or “Requisite Blonde Hottie With Killer Bod”, is Karla. She rapidly adapts to playing the role of a heroine – in public at least. With her boss, she's still the same vicious gal she always is. Photobucket (The Ms Marvel costume has become a major issue for Karla, as she reflects
in another comic:

Photobucket I love the lampshading here; the way she's seen as a bimbo in stripper gear when she's actually a fiercely, ruthlessly intelligent woman). Karla had a crowning moment of awesome recently, which could easily prompt ideas of Scarlett bringing her to the big screen. Osborne forces Karla to take a psych test, but the shrink in question is actually an assassin, out to try and destroy Karla's
mind, attacking at what appears to be her one weak spot.

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and the shrink battle it out in her mind. Eventually he thinks he's found the key; Karla appears to have a trauma associated with the Hulk, so he takes on that form. But what he then discovers is that the Hulk-trauma is a bluff; a mental defence, blocking out something faaaaar worse. Karla finally reveals what happened to her mother.

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Yeah, she kills him. Horribly. Then she storms off down the corridor, past a grinning Osborne, leaving a trail of bloody footprints. C'mon, couldn't you just see La Johansson working
that something awesome on the big screen? I can.


 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 





As a movie, “Watchmen” faced a major challenge. Dumping a whole bunch of exposition and alternate history on an unexpecting audience can result in disaster, and this film had about forty years to rewrite within the space of three hours. So they compromised, and produced the justly celebrated credits sequence, which unloads a whole bunch of Watchmen lore on the audience in a snappy, MTV video. But the REALLY cool thing about that sequence was how it played with the material, to paint a picture of this alternate world using some original ideas. A great example is the kiss above, an incident which only exists, Watchmen-wise, in the movie. The original kiss is, of course, iconic and a significant part of a collective historical memory. Its abrupt revision is a beautiful illustration of how this world is different. I really like how, at the left of the screen, you can see a sailor walking up; if he was five seconds earlier, history would have gone as we know it instead. (It's like Schroedinger's cat, only he served in the navy). So who is this mystery woman who changes everything, anyway? Watchmen fans immediately recognised the Silhouette, one of the original 40's Minutemen. This page below – from issue 2 – is her only “on-screen” appearance in the entire comic.

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Just after the classic Minutemen photo is taken (a scene briefly referenced in the movie) we get a picture of the Silhouette. Firstly, she stands apart, on her own, smoking one of the weird pipes that exist in this world. Then, her only line in the entire comic involves her subtly insulting Sally over the latter's Polish heritage. Generally, the Silhouette doesn't strike you straight off as a nice lady. The only mentions we get to her in the comic are sinisterly oblique. Reflecting on the grim fates most “capes” have met, Rorschach mentions how the Silhouette “....retired in disgrace, murdered six weeks later by a minor adversary seeking revenge”. Later, in his tell-all book, Hollis Mason is a bit more specific. He first references her positively, describing how she specialised in busting child pornographers. But later, he alludes to what he calls her “sexual hangups”, and how she “provided proof for those who need it that, for some people, dressing up in a costume did have its more libidinous elements”. This is a laughable and na├»ve understatement, of course, but that kind of joke is part of what Watchmen is about. It's a little later that Mason drops the bombshell : that the Silhouette was< kicked out of the Minutemen when she was outed as a lesbian. He adds that she and her lover were later murdered by an old enemy, slightly expanding on what Rorschach mentioned. There's never any suggestion, incidentally, that this lover was a nurse, but that seems to work somehow – the uniform thing again, perhaps? Other than that, the Silhouette is an enigma in the comics. Her brief appearances in the film's opening sequence are a better treatment, funnily enough, than she got in the comics. But some justice arrived for her when the Watchmen Sourcebook was published. This was intended as a reference book for gamers of the DC Universe role-playing game. But because it was illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and contained material written by Alan Moore, it's considered Word Of God by Watchmen fans, and a fascinating insight into that weird little world. It makes for a better read, than a game, that's for sure. And here, we meet all the characters, including the Silhouette.

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As her stats tell us, Ursula Zandt was a very intelligent and charismatic woman, and despite her small stature, a skilled martial artist. She's advantaged by a wealthy background and fine tastes; and disadvantaged by her secret identity and her homosexuality (definitely a 'dark secret' at this period). We also get a moment of honesty from Sally in the corner there, confirming what we already know – that she didn't like her, and faintly referencing that Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis were gay.

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Here's a few excerpts from Ursula's biography; apparently published after the events in Watchmen, it does some revisionist justice to her story. Most significantly her lover gets a proper indentity. Photobucket

Here we learn Ursula once dispatched a hood with the suitably pulpish name of the Liquidator, and that the Minutemen had to sack a thieving maid. These two events become significant later... The vengeful maid outs Ursula, as a desperate and maddened Liquidator walks out into the streets, and to make matters worse the Minutemen kick her out... Photobucket

So yes, that explains the bloody 'L' on her wall, and gives us the complete picture of the Silhouette's tragic death. I'm glad she got her moment of glory in the film; even with the average moviegoer not being aware of her identity, she makes quite a impact.

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