Why the Superhero Resurgence in Film and Culture has Everything to do with our Unstable World

In the last 10 years, beginning with Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man, the U.S. cinema scene has thrived on reboots, redesigns, launches and adaptations of comic book superhero stories. Batman Begins reimagined the Batman franchise, and via Christopher Nolan's genius, the Dark Knight Saga has completely altered the way that comic book movies are held in popular culture. These are no longer films for children, or for a fringe set of basement-dwelling, sun-allergic nerds, these are films for families, for dates, for everyone in equal portion. Marvel's Iron Man came out in 2008. There were two Maguire Spider-Man sequels. Then Thor, Captain America, and this Summer's phenomenal The Avengers. There were three Incredible Hulks, a pair of Fantastic Four flops, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Elektra, and an abysmal Catwoman. Oh, and Punisher, Ghost Rider, and all those X-Men films, et al. All in all, this decade of superhero films has been 50/50, as any group of similar films will be considering the issue of true directorial talent. In 10 years, there have been nearly 30 superhero movies released, a substantial spike.

Of course, part of the interest is the age of the viewing audience. More people who attend movies, and are willing to pay theatre prices are in their late-20s, 30s and 40s, and grew up with comic books as a standard personal entertainment staple. There's also technology available now to make comic book special effects possible, without relying on animation alone, or on the hokey cut-and-paste overlays of the '70s and '80s. But these factors aside, superhero cinema is actually just a stand-in for the traditional action flick. Like Rambo and Die Hard and Lethal Weapon before them (all products of the mystery and fear of the Cold War), these superhero films exist as a sort of adventurous safety blanket for an America that remains unsure about itself, its future and role in the world.

Since 2001, this country has become less and less sure of itself. The world is different. The globe is different. But, superheroes represent a constant, simple, wonderful struggle: Good vs. Evil. While we cannot get clear answers about who the good guys and bad guys are in our real world, we can escape to a place where those answers are clear cut, appropriately costumed, and scored and lit for effect. Even a complex character like Batman provides us with no real question as to who is good and who is bad. We might question motivations for those actions, but the side to root for is clear. Spider-Man makes that even easier, with a cartoonier, softer hand. And then when we arrive to an epic like The Avengers, well we just love the exhilaration of knowing that no matter how bad shit gets in the fictional world, a band of good guys with the answers will clean it up and everything will be fine.

Captain America with its self-aware patriotism drove that very point home, though I don't know how deeply it resonated with all audiences. When our backs are up against the wall, either literally, or just philosophically, we need a hero, and we love to imagine that there's a magical Answer-Man out there who will look, smirk, and charge head-long into our problems. We know, at our core, that there is no easy answer. That scares the shit out of us. The idea that problems are so complex that no one person could solve them, even with superpowers, is a devastating one, but it's the truth. Superheroes are our national answer to the complexities of international relations. We should be able to look forward to years of reboots and rewrites and relaunches. There will be another Flash, and 100 more Wolverine movies, ending with Hugh Jackman shuffling in robe and slippers, Admantium claws at the ready, down the mutant nursing home hallway, and I look forward to it. In a scary world, the best gift we can make ourselves is the gift of joy.

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Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits

If you were as sad as I was to hear that Wolf Parade was no more AND if you were devastated with the Meh and Blah natures of Spoon's Transference, then I have a delicious vial of snake oil that will cure what ails you and turn your privates into your own personal ideal. (Hey we don't make judgements as to what privates are the best privates around here.) Divine Fits! This new super-group, at least in indie circles, features Britt Daniel, icon voice of Spoon, Dan Boeckner formerly of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, and Sam Brown drummer of the New Bomb Turks. The result is an album A Thing Called Divine Fits that perfectly walks the line between Spoon and Wolf Parade. Both Daniel and Boeckner hit the mic. And both the syncopated, ratcheting quality of Spoon and the dissonant, rumbling, scratching guitars of Wolf Parade live in harmony.

"My Love Is Real" is incredible and "What Gets You Alone" washes with feedback while marching at high speed. "Would That Not Be Nice" hearkens back to Girls Can Tell. The chaotic, synthy "The Salton Sea" may not be instantly pleasurable, but infuses each writer's weirder leanings. Not the best track on the album, but as a centerpiece, it breaks the album up well. "Baby Get Worse" channels Apologies to the Queen Mary. It's really fucking good. Like, dampen your previously mentioned perfect privates good. And both gents sing on it. The acoustic "Civilian Stripes" is another beautiful anthem, potent and thoughtful in its lyrics, but even more poignant in its simplicity and clarity.

A Thing Called Divine Fits brings two unique, instantly identifiable, and brilliant singer/band leaders together. The result is a complete, quality and instantly lovable album. The side-effects include some phenomenal harmonies between two notably strange singing voices, and a healthy dose of straight rock that works well with strange, experimental, elaborate arrangements and odd instrumentations. All this fancy talk really just goes back to what was noted previously. This album is so good it will dampen your private parts, priming them for the ultimate pleasure. And it's music to your ears too. (The album streams below. Listen to it. Wait. Listen. To. It. Thank you.)

- Nate Ragolia

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On Stage: The Book of Mormon

That's right, yesterday, due to the civil and delightful sharing of my buddy Chris, I saw The Book of Mormon, live on stage in Denver's little Broadway, the DCPA. I entered this show with high expectations, largely fueled by the generally exceptionally high opinion of the show shared by reviewers and fellow viewers. I was only partially, like less than partially cloudy, more like scarcely, disappointed. The performance, which hits all the usual South Park marks of swearing, satire, well-meaning-but-misguided-people-doing-something-absurd-and-offensive, and careful jokes about AIDS, is enjoyable throughout, and/but, it also fills a traditional musical role easily and somewhat un-daringly. It is limited by its medium, and by the stage and time-constraints, but The Book of Mormon doesn't challenge "the musical" the way one might expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In a season in which I've seen The Addams Family musical and Bring It On! the musical, The Book of Mormon doesn't feel radically different. It differentiates itself primarily on the dialogue and lyrics, but that's where the challenge seems most to end.

The songs are good, but not great, and the traditional musical style compositions/standards tone breaks only for two excellent scenes: The "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" which rocks out to show not only some hilarious contrasts in what Hell could be and the Hell Mormons conceive of, but also to demonstrate that an electric guitar solo is probably the most religiously threatening musical act man can create; and "Joseph Smith American Moses" wherein a play-within-the-play occurs (likening The Book of Mormon immediately to Hamlet) and the cast plays themselves playing themselves catering to a visiting Mormon leader. Otherwise, the songs are very traditionally "musical," which is by no means a bad thing, but considering Parker and Stone's history of bringing similar music to South Park, there was part of me that expected them to push it a little more, to be more clearly self-aware of singing, or the obvious narrative structure.

There's also some epic allusions to the nerdiest of pop culture references, especially well done because they make allusions to different (vague as not to spoil) behaviors themselves. The dreamy, voice-over fueled opening sequences that set the stage with a little historical information on Mormonism was great. They satirical challenge of missionary work, spreading religion to foreign lands, and racism were potent and well-created. But the play felt unbalanced, and perhaps this is just a complication with the medium that I'm now noticing, in that the first half was both more challenging to the standard form and slower in pace, while the second half was expeditious and less daring (aside, of course, from the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream".) It's not laugh-all-the-time-until-you-cry-and-ejaculate funny, but it is exceptionally well done. As an introduction to Broadway and theater, it is palatable for all people familiar with, but not addicted to, South Park. Perhaps that means Parker and Stone's next play will push the limits further, as they've demonstrated with the show. If they do, the lines for that play will be longer and even more rabid.
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