Editorial 41: Frank Castle, Ubermensch 2

So, the site in which this article was posted disappeared and all its contributor’s work with it. Thankfully, I have the original final drafts of what I wrote, including my favorite Punisher-related article. Enjoy.

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Any time I have the opportunity to talk about Punisher I go all out. Of the Marvel Pantheon, he is the most interesting character with great depth that many readers overlook. Garth Ennis was the first to delve into Frank Castle’s psychology in Punisher MAX, exploring his transformation during the Vietnam War and time as a vigilante. After reading so many comics, I have come to the conclusion that Frank is a Nietzschean Superman.

To the uninitiated, Fredrick Nietzsche was a philosopher that pioneered the concept of nihilism, the belief that morality means nothing because they are ideas adopted on the basis of human ignorance. He really spoke to me growing up and influenced how I see the world today. My knowledge of Nietzsche is cursory to say the least, so I recommend doing your own research.

One of his more famous concepts is the Superman or Ubermensch, introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Superman is an individual that can transcend the bounds of common belief and operate on his or her own terms. They are completely independent and function on logic alone, forming a set of values that supersede those of the majority, and shaping their destiny.

In fiction and history there are positive and negative examples of the Ubermensch. The Founding Fathers, Napoleon, and Hitler overcame society and did what they wanted. Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now discarded morality for instinct to fight the Vietcong. The Emperor from Warhammer 40k developed the logic based Imperial Truth to unite disparate human worlds across the galaxy. The Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout worshiped technology because it means salvation for the Wasteland.

The Superman concept fits right in with the pseudo-objectivism of superheroes. A hero using their powers to save people could be a form of showing how much better they are. Does Clark Kent really care about humanity or does he enjoy being revered? Why else would Batman enforce his own justice if not to assert his values? Does Captain America use his inherent symbolism as a way to show others how to act and behave? Though cynical, it is hard to deny the underlining motivations of vigilantes. What really drives someone to take up a symbol, a set of principles, and enforce it upon the people they do not like?

Castle’s transformation into a Nietzschean character happened in Vietnam. Overtime, he could not live without war because he loved fighting. In the story Born, America was pulling out and Frank actively prevented his unit from leaving their post. Later his war ended, but when he returned home, the incident that killed his wife and children forced him back into the mindset of a soldier.

He is driven by a bloodlust resulting from PTSD. Usually soldiers at home will want to go back to the front because that was the last place they felt normal. You spend a year in place where everyday could be your last and when you transition into a whole other environment, it can be difficult to accept the change. Hunting Vietcong was Castle’s normal and after his family was murdered, he saw the gangsters, murderers, and child molesters as Vietcong. Even after getting revenge he kept going because he believes he is fighting a war and does not want to stop.

Frank’s set of values as an Ubermensch is based on basic justice and pure instinct. His motivation is very simple: If you are evil, you die. He has no problem murdering someone for even associating with people connected to a major crime. He killed his partner Microchip because he worked for a heroin kingpin and executed a thug that helped him infiltrate a gang hideout.

He sees the world in a black and white moral spectrum. Castle thinks you are either totally bad or totally good with no in-between. When dealing with good, he acts with a compassion that penetrates his stoic demeanor. He was once a family man and when reminded of that life, he regresses into a father or husband. Frank is selective about what he cares about, but he actually cares and feels emotion. Mother Russia has the strongest example where he rescues a little girl from a missile silo and prevents her from seeing the worst of him. When fighting off waves of Russians, he made sure the girl was nowhere in sight of the violence and safe.

Castle holds so close to his values that there is no room for hesitation. He is a practical man, using his training as a soldier to function in all aspects of life besides work. If he owes someone a favor or they have something he needs, Frank is willing to play nice, which happened a lot in Punisher MAX. He is dismissive about working with others and moves on once he gets what he wants.

There is also no feeling behind his need to punish because to him it is normal. It takes a very specific event to really compromise Castle’s cold exterior. One time was a mobster filming himself defiling the corpses of his family. Another was a prostitute telling her story about being a victim of human trafficking. In those instances, Frank’s stoic bearing broke and he was a different man all together. After the deed was done he returned to a state of calm.

We idolize heroic figures because they transcend our notions of humanity. Inside us is the power to be something more and all it takes is the will to do so. Fredrick Nietzsche believed that the Ubermensch was the next step in human evolution as we drift further away from our primordial roots. Frank Castle is just one of many possibilities if we are to realize our potential. He may not be the most ideal, but even damaged of individuals have the capacity to become heroes.

The Books Are Better: The Walking Dead (1)

I was at military school when the first season of The Walking Dead (TWD) premiered. No one had access to cable, but on Thanksgiving break I used my sister’s Hulu account to watch the first episode. Later I bought the season on DVD. Before then I was a fan of the comics the show is based on. It was 2010 and in the comics, Rick and company were about to enter Alexandria, which did not happen until Season 5. I knew what to expect, but Season 1 was a fantastic adaptation of Volume 1. A year later came the trailer for Season 2 and I hoped for another exceptional bit of television… until I sat down and watched it.

I touched on the subject of show versus comics on a friend’s blog some time ago. I got into the broader differences, but here I want to get into the minutia of each season and the volume it follows. I would like to try and analyze the whole series, maybe two or three per new post. It will give me something comic-related outside of Punisher to write about and give you new stuff to read.

Here we go

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Themes

If you look at the front covers of TWD book collections there is the subtitle “A continuing story of survival horror.” That one sentence epitomizes what the comics are all about. It takes ideas from the original Dawn of the Dead from George A. Romero and takes them to their logical extreme. What if a zombie apocalypse actually happened and how would it affect real people, who have never known starvation or been in a survival situation? That is and has been TWD since its publishing 15 years ago.

Being real people means the characters have emotional baggage. They find love, lose it, move on, and go crazy. All the while the characters are in a constant fight against the elements, starvation, and hordes of undead. How they cope with this new reality informs who they become and how they act towards fellow survivors. To quote the comic’s tagline, “In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.”

Being character oriented and set in a hostile world, TWD does not shy away from putting survivors in danger. While zombies are slow and easy to kill, they are never taken lightly. The same can be said for other survivors. More often than not characters are killed or horribly maimed, no matter how long they have been around or how much you like them. Everyone is expendable in TWD. This is not the Mad Max apocalypse; it is The Road with zombies.

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TWD Season 1/Volume 1

This is the only case where the show is better than the comics. Unlike most new shows TV-TWD started out very well with film-quality production values. Thanks to director Frank Darabont and his crew, there is an atmosphere of widespread catastrophe that a lot of zombie movies fail to nail down. The world is quiet and empty where the dead have replaced the living. The sense of isolation even following live characters is so prevalent. Episode 1 alone has this feeling of hopelessness bearing down on you as Rick wanders the desolation in a daze.

On top of that, the first season is actually scary. Like a good monster movie there is an escalation to the threat. We do get a zombie in the cold open, but we do not understand the extent of their presence until later. After Rick wakes up, there is a great scene where he comes to a pair of chained doors and hands start reaching out from the opening, the sound of moaning growing louder behind them. This does take away from a great moment in the comics, but is very well utilized in the show.

The rest of the season’s frightening moments center on claustrophobia and how even open spaces contain veiled threats. Taking place in and around Atlanta, Rick and company contend with tight streets and alleys packed with zombies. Add on the scarcity of resources and vulnerability of most of the characters, even small encounters are dangerous. The zombies are a very real threat and you feel it from start to finish.

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The atmosphere and horror is where TV-TWD surpasses the comics. Unless you are Junji Ito, it can be difficult to scare readers with static images or convey a feeling a constant dread. What author Robert Kirkman does is show horrific and disgusting things and puts the characters in dangerous situations. Granted, the art is beautifully disgusting, but it is hard to feel real horror and tension in drawn pictures.

The writing of the comics is also very technical aside from dramatic moments. Take the dialog from the original Dawn of the Dead about the characters trying to secure the mall and that is 60% of the comics. After all, it is a survival horror. This is where the show decides to balance the drama and the technical equally with neither overshadowing the other. This is the first and last time TV-TWD gets it right.

Where the comics were superior is in the characters Shane and Lori. In the show Shane is the archetypical bad-boy that was a perfect fit for actor Jon Bernthal. Lori, played by Sarah Wayne Callies, is a headstrong matriarch looking out for not only her son Carl, but also everyone in camp. Both fall flat compared to the comics in ways indicative of the series core themes.

Comics-Shane is basically Rick with darker hair and a larger build. There is nothing much in the way of personality that differentiates the two until after the zombie apocalypse. As mentioned before these are real people forced into a survival situation where everyone is on constant alert. Under these conditions, people will show you who they really are, and Shane shows himself to be jealous and envious of Rick. He’s a husband and a father who has all the right answers when it comes to leadership, something Shane knows he does not have, and he wants it all.

In the show, Shane does not seem concerned about leading and differs to Rick more often than not. The jealously is still there, but the actual shift from normal Shane to envious psychopath is fast in the comics, like it would be for real people. He wants what Rick has and Shane had it until Rick miraculously showed up at camp. Shane’s change in personality was so immediate that when he tried to kill Rick in Issue 6, a very young Carl blew his neck out without hesitation. In the show, Shane does not get what is coming until Season 2 after the remains of his character was butchered.

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With Lori’s character in the comics, she is still a devoted mother and wife, but what is missing is the vulnerability. Call me sexist all you like, but when you’ve spent a chuck of your life growing up in a stable world and become a mother mere years before a zombie apocalypse, you are going to need help. Comics-Lori is focused on taking care of Carl and nothing else. She cares so much about him that because Carl is just 9 years old, she does not want him anywhere near guns, despite being the most useful tool at the moment. And when zombies eventually attack the camp, Carl has to save her.

Now, I am not saying it is a bad thing that TV-Lori is not dependent on men, but it makes more sense that she needs help while taking care of her son. And this may sound offensive to some people, but men usually do not expect anything of women because men tend to do the heavy lifting on their own. We do our part and women do theirs. That is just logic and TWD comics are very logical. In the show, it doesn’t feel right at all. TV-Lori strikes me as just another character that “don’t need no man” and does her own thing, including ignoring her son.

More on that when I cover Season 2.

The last issue with TV-TWD is the ending. On the season finale, Shane is still alive before Rick and company go to the CDC to find answers. They do not get their answers beyond things they already knew before the building self-destructs and the group moves on to find shelter. In the comics the CDC is never mentioned and once Carl kills Shane, the group moves on.

Honestly, I do not find anything wrong with the group going to the CDC. In fact, it makes a lot of sense if you are trying to figure out how to stop the zombies by scientific means. The group does not know if they are dealing with a virus or something biblical. They have no idea and the best place to find answers would be one that specializes in civilization-killing diseases. It is not a bad idea, but the way it happens in TV-TWD is rather corny given the tone of the show. Other than that, the first season is still great.

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And that was the best start to a new show probably ever. Performances were great, especially Andrew Lincoln, and the effects are to die for. All of the zombies are wonderfully gross with make-up on par with Tom Savini’s work on Day of the Dead. They look like actual dead people undergoing necrosis like the comics. As days go by on the page, zombies appear more and more rotten. The earliest issues have zombies with color still in their eyes before it goes cloudy with time. Season 1 of The Walking Dead was truly the best the show was ever going to get…

Binge Review 7: The Haunting of Hill House

I have said on more than one occasion that good horror is in short supply. These days it is all jump-scares and cheap thrills devoid of creativity. Back then making a great horror movie took craft and effort that resulted in some of the greatest classics of all time. Only recently we seem to be on the verge of a genre renaissance as more studios realize the potential of quality horror. The good stuff is few and far between, but when something like The Haunting of Hill House comes along, it is worth your attention.

Haunted house movies saw a massive resurgence after James Won’s The Conjuring. Not only was the film economic, but also well put together, and actually scary without too jump-scares. Since then everyone has been trying to emulate its success, only to come up short. However, given the recent revival of good horror, more and more writers and directors are learning lessons from the past.

Hill House has a very heavy emphasis on gothic imagery without gore or elements that are overtly horrific in general. The house is a fantastic set littered with old statues, intricate wall moldings, and random antiques to supplement the atmosphere. The ghosts seen throughout the series carry a macabre aesthetic. One is a very tall man with a bowler hat and cane, another a flapper in a silk dress, and others are classically rotten with green and black skin.

The icing on the cake is the drama of the characters. Hill House is centered upon the Crains, the original inhabitants of the titular house. Each episode jumps between what happened in the family’s past to how they are now after their experiences in the house. The epicenter of the drama is the night the Crains had to leave and how their father dealt with the fallout. Furthermore, being a haunted location, each Crain child had personal dealings with the supernatural, informing how they turned out as adults.

This is where the series works best. The writing and acting when the young and old characters are interacting with the house are the best parts. There is such realism in their collective plight and how it defines them as people. The dad in particular, played by Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton, has a compelling arc as a patriarch trying to protect his children from the past, even as they hate him.

The children characters are comparably compelling, but I would rather not give it away. In fact, that is all I am going to say about The Haunting of Hill House. It is one of those series that is so good I do not want to ruin it by explaining why it is good. I recommend it for everyone, even if you are not a fan of the genre. The series is more about the drama of the family with the gothic imagery and horror informing the characters. That is not to say it is not scary. Keep that in mind if you decide to stream it on Netflix.

Movie Review: First Man

This is going to sound stupid, but I think the Moon is the most under appreciated celestial body in the Solar System. I like Mars and all, but it is years away, and we have a perfectly decent planetoid less than a week from us. It is too bad NASA did not bother sending more missions and establishing a settlement after a handful of successful landings. What no one realizes, what we often take for granted, is how far we had to go to before getting off the ground. And First Man is about that prelude.

While working as a test pilot Neil, played by Ryan Gosling, signs up to work on NASA’s mission to the Moon. As the years go by, Neil and his crew get closer and closer to reaching their goal.

Gosling is one of those actors that has one mode, but plays it very well. Keanu Reaves, for example, is very reserved and keeps a lot of his energy bottled up for when it is appropriate. Not to harp on the man’s talent, but outside of John Wick and The Matrix, Reaves is not suited for many divergent roles. Gosling, with the exception of Nice Guys, is also reserved and methodical in 90% of his performances, even when he has to be outgoing. If you have ever heard the guy scream, it sounds like he never raises his voice outside of acting.

This made him the perfect choice for the lead. Neil Armstrong was notoriously private, refusing interviews and keeping out of the public spotlight before and after the Moon landing. A lot is not known about the guy, but given his intense reclusion you can glean what Neil was like as a person. Being a character study more than a historical piece, Gosling could not have sold the part better.

Taking note from his performance in Drive, Gosling was almost robotic. He comes off very driven in his goal to reach the Moon, but uses it to cover a ton of emotional baggage. He immerses himself in his work to avoid dwelling on the past. The very beginning of First Man starts with the loss of Neil’s daughter, an event that informs his entire character. He emotionally confines himself, becomes erratic when something triggers the memory, and never expresses his feelings. You can feel and see it on Gosling’s face with no breaks in character.

The other part of First Man is the program leading up to the landing. It does not go terribly in depth, but enough that you understand we started from square one. So much went into just figuring out how to dock in orbit. The struggle for progress further informs Gosling’s character as people are killed in accidents and equipment is destroyed. The more NASA fails, the more Neil is determined to reach the Moon, furthering the dedication to his work and emotional reclusion.

Another great aspect of the program side is the effects. I would say almost all of them are practical with CG enhancement. Given the cinematography, that was the only way to go. The camera is centered around Neil and what he is doing, creating an air of claustrophobia when it comes to perspective. Any out of place effect or fakery would have looked obvious. For the flight sequences, Gosling is shot from inside real cockpits with real exteriors captured from whatever vehicle he is flying. For added realism, the backgrounds are the result of rear screen projection with quality on par with Interstellar. The only bad effect was a shot of Apollo 11 lifting off at the end.

Being a month late I cannot imagine this review will sway you to see First Man. It is very good, but came and went like most historical films. What I think separates it from the norm is not only the subject, but also how it is presented. What Neil Armstrong was like is a mystery to many and here we get a personal view of the man from his humble beginnings to the moment that made him a legend. It is really one of the few historical movies that bucks the formula and I think you should give it a second glance before it is gone from theaters.

 

Binge Review 6: Apostle

One of the drawbacks of Netflix is the sheer amount of content that becomes available on a monthly basis. I know the site excises shows and movies on the regular, but the volume of present media is so enormous, a lot of the new stuff gets lost in the shuffle. Of course, there is advertising to consider, but for some reason, I had no idea that one of the dozen films I have anticipated this year came out two weeks ago.

Apostle is directed by Gareth Evans, the man behind the amazing Raid movies. To my knowledge this is his first English language film and a dramatic departure from his previous work. Instead of another visceral action thriller, we get a macabre horror movie. Taking place in the early 20th Century we follow Thomas, played by Dan Stevens, who travels to an island to rescue his sister from a cult. As he investigates her whereabouts, Thomas unravels the dark mystery behind the cult’s beliefs.

From the outset Apostle is obvious about its macabre nature. Livestock is sacrificed, people are butchered, and others bleed themselves into jars. The film has no illusions about what it is; it knows you have seen Wicker Man or read Shadow Over Innsmouth, two of its biggest influences. Even the three main leaders of the cult are open about the faults in their beliefs like they are critiquing the script. What makes the movie stand apart from its artistic peers is how it handles these ideas.

The real truth behind what is going on is kept in the dark until roughly three-quarters in. The build up is focused on establishing a sense of relative unease. You understand the cult’s island community is oppressed and on the verge of collapse. The people are doing weird things to themselves and each other and it is difficult to figure if what is going on is supernatural. Given how the leaders are charlatans in way over their heads, you cannot tell if they are scamming people or it is real.

The horror elements are both kept to a minimum and saved for later. At first Apostle is very bloody with people cutting themselves or getting cut. What it means I cannot give away, but it does a great job of setting up what is to come. Even when the gore grows more intense it is not overtly emphasized like torture porn. Actual physical violence, however, is blatant and does not shy away from brutality. With Evans’ action background, these scenes are shown with visceral flair, compounded by the fact all the characters use knives.

Of the performances Stevens is the best. From The Guest to Legion, the man is a practiced character actor that steals the show. In every scene he sells Thomas’s pain and anguish from past trauma written on his face and in his actions without over doing it. Michael Sheen and Mark Lewis Jones provide great support as two of the cult leaders. The former tries to keep everything together while the latter is a loose cannon tired of playing second banana. Jones was also the admiral in the opening of Last Jedi and the voice of Letho in the Witcher games. Thought I should mention that if he seems familiar to you.

Apostle was a pleasant surprise. Being such a departure from his previous work, Evans could have mishandled this and trashed his career with only two other features to his name. In a world saturated in content and a lack of quality horror films, Apostle is just what we need. If you have Netflix, give it a watch. It is also makes for a great Halloween movie and I am going to watch it a second time.

Binge Review 5: Britannia

For a little while now I have reviewed Netflix exclusives when something got my attention. Recently, Amazon has caught my eye with their selection of latest additions, and I wanted to cover what I found. Instead of starting a new review series, I chose to reboot Netflix Reviews into Binge Reviews. Be on the lookout for more in the near future.

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Game of Thrones was both a gift and a curse when it premiered. It took a simple fantasy setting and injected medieval realism into the mix while inspiring audience mania by killing favorite characters. Thrones also perpetuated the spread of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger tropes ad infinitum. Soon a host of new programs saturated the market with stories of scheming, secrecy, and twists you could guess with little effort. Vikings and Walking Dead are the worst offenders and even though I love it to death, The Expanse is sometimes just Thrones in space. Normally I avoid these kinds of shows, but when I heard about Britannia, I was interested to say the least.

Obviously I have a massive bias for Ancient Rome, but the way Brit approaches its subject with repetitive tropes is different. The intrigue is just one part of the complete narrative and it plays into the real meat of the story. We follow what I assume is a young Queen Boudicca, a Druid outcast, Roman invaders, and a Celt clan locked in conflict with another. That sounds like Thrones 101, but it is all tied up in a unique bow.

Brit deconstructs the ideas of fate and prophecy. The Druid characters are powerful religious figures. They oversee marriage, decide who succeeds royalty, and forbids reading and writing. The leader Veran, played by veteran character Mackenzie Crook, is seemingly prescient and manipulates others to go along with what he sees. Given the historical realism of Brit this raises an important question: do the Druids really know the future or are they asserting control over the masses through deception?

As the series goes on, you realize there is more to the Druids than you once thought. They force a clan leader into sacrificing himself, appoint an heir they control out of the line of succession, and keep a hoard of wealth in secret while living in squalor. We also see Veran use his position to make deals with the Romans to shift the balance of power. Basic intrigue/cloak-and-dagger stuff, but what makes it different from Thrones is the ambiguity.

On the one hand the Druids appear to be fantastical beings that know more than everyone because of magic. Veran is said to be the First Man and he looks like living zombie. His prophecies are on point and how he plays others against their interests is masterful. However, because the Druids have a monopoly on literacy, they use that power to trick the masses into thinking they speak the truth of the Gods. They also consume hallucinogens that inspire visions perceived as prophecy, remaining in a constant trancelike state. The enigmatic facade the Druids put on further compounds this point in regards to how the Celts believe what they say. They appear weird and dangerous, inspiring curiosity. And when they start ranting about the Gods and predicting the future, they seem credible to the ignorant. Brit uses these ideas to break down religion and the idea of believe to ask its questions on fate and prophecy.

What really got me into the show was how it approached the Romans. Brit takes place during the second invasion of Britain after Caesar failed a century prior. For the first time since HBO’s Rome, we see how the Romans fought pitched battles, and approached the nuances of ancient warfare.

In combat they were all about crowd control after learning a harsh lesson at Cannae. The first episode has a scene where legionaries march into a village in columns. They are charged by Celts, but no one scatters or moves out of formation like they did in real life. When a smaller force is attacked, they move into formation against the attackers. The last episode has a siege scene where the Romans use all of their artillery before moving in, exactly like they did to bring Europe into compliance.

However, combat was only one part of the Roman war machine. Rather than slaughter their enemies outright, they would make allies with a faction in a disputed region, and use them as leverage for a greater conflict. During their cold war with Parthia, Rome gained control of Armenia through political negotiation to establish a buffer zone. In Egypt, Caesar allied with Cleopatra and used her supporters to take the throne from Ptolemy, securing the region as a vassal. The same occurred in Gaul before the rise of Vercingetorix and later in Israel before the First Jewish-Roman War. In Brit, the Romans stoked the conflict between the warring clans to gain a better foothold and keep the natives compliant, playing the intrigue game.

Aside from all the themes and history, Brit is a pretty fun show. It is very gory and violent with people losing their heads, skin, and thoroughly dissected post-sacrifice. In the large battle at the end, multiple warriors are skewered by ballista, something I have not see depicted on film until now. Then you have the character dynamic between young Boudicca and the outcast. They both hate each other, but can’t help staying together, making for nice moments of levity. The best character and performance comes from David Morrissey’s Aulus, a Roman general. He is cunning and knows it, relishing in his ability to lead his men and make others bend to his will.

I would not go so far as to call Britannia a Game of Thrones killer, but it takes the same tropes and does them better. It also deconstructs and explores the meaning of fate and prophecy where other shows have not. For history buffs, get ready for something as good as Rome, but you may complain about the leather lorica segmentata and lack of centurions. If you have Amazon Prime, it is worth a look if you are missing Thrones.