Stan Lee, RIP

I was saddened to read of the death of Stan Lee yesterday.  Lee, who died at the ripe old age of 95, was the driving force behind Marvel Comics and the creator of countless characters — good guys and bad guys both.

stan2blee2bolder2bimageDuring my teenage years I was a huge fan of superhero comics.  (They weren’t called “graphic novels” back in those days.)  There were DC Comics — home to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — and Marvel Comics.  DC was the established brand, with by-the-book heroes who were red, white and blue, fought the bad guys, and won; Marvel was the feisty challenger that featured characters who struggled and at least seemed aware of some of the challenges of real life.  Most comics readers of that day stayed true to one brand or another.  I was a Marvel guy, and ate up the characters created by Stan Lee — with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the X-Men being my favorites.  I read the new issues as they came out and hunted around Columbus trying to find old issues so I could read through the back stories and fill out my collection.  Eventually I had a decent collection, but as I got older and we started a family I found that I had less time for old friends like Reed Richards and Peter Parker, and the collection got sold.

The interesting thing about Lee is the astonishing amount of his output, and his genius at coming up with new superheroes and supervillains.  For a time during the ’60s, he was the principal writer for multiple titles for Marvel, including flagship vehicles like The Fantastic Four and The Avengers.  He came up with dozens and dozens of great hero characters like The Thing, great villains like Dr. Octopus, and — even more interesting — other characters like Galactus who were neither good nor bad in their intentions to humanity, but just living their lives in the cosmos, even if it meant that they needed to devour worlds to keep going.  Lee and his artists — Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who had dramatically different styles, were my favorites — had an assembly-line approach that required them to write and draw on a virtual around-the-clock basis to bring out new comics every month.  Somehow they did it, and it is astonishing that they were able to avoid schlock and produce high-quality issues month after month.  Lee’s work during the ’60s was one of those periods of great artistic outburst that become the stuff of legend.

Stan Lee later became known for self-promotion and cheesy cameos in the countless Marvel movies, and he ended up fighting with his fellow creator Jack Kirby about who was responsible for creating what back in those early, glory days of Marvel Comics.  His story confirms, once again, that creative people aren’t perfect — they’re people.  But his later actions can’t take away what he did during the ’60s, and what the characters he created meant for comic book readers like me.  RIP, Stan Lee.

 

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Hollywood Love-Hate On The Cuyahoga

I’m up in Cleveland for meetings today, as I look out my window I see what looks like the scene of a terrible traffic accident, with a car flipped on its roof and onlookers gathered around.

IMG_3782Fortunately, it’s not an accident scene, it’s just on-location shooting for Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, which is filming in Cleveland this week.  That film is the latest action thriller to be shot along the shores of Lake Erie, where some of the street scenes for The Avengers were filmed.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’m guessing that someone in Captain America is going to get into a car accident at some point during the movie.

As a visitor to the city, it’s interesting for me to watch the careful prep work for the scene.  You begin to dimly understand the jobs of the key grips, second unit directors, and other curious titles that scroll by in the credits at the end of films.  First the overturned car gets placed, then some kind of light barrier is put into position, then cameras are adjusted and moved, then electrical cables are strung out.  There are dozens of people involved in the exercise.

IMG_3786For Clevelanders, however, this filming is a love-hate thing.  They like the abstract notion of big-budget movies being shot in Cleveland.  It’s cool, and it makes their city seem cool, and they know that it brings jobs and publicity and money to their fair city, all of which are good things.

But Clevelanders are, at bottom, practical Midwesterners.  Once filming begins the novelty wears off and the reality of closing major freeways and thoroughfares sinks in.  This traffic accident scene is being shot in front of the Cleveland Public Library on blocked-off Superior Avenue — which would otherwise be bustling with cars and buses full of people going to work.  Today, they’ve had to make alternative arrangements.

A Quick Billion Dollars For The Avengers

It’s obvious that The Avengers has struck a chord with me, and with movie audiences generally.  Only three weeks after its release, it has racked up an impressive $1 billion in box-office receipts.

Imagine — $1 billion.  Even by today’s standards, that is a huge amount of money.  What is it about this  movie that has made it so appealing to so many people?  (Russell, who is here for an all-too-brief short visit, is going to see it tonight, and I’m betting he’ll enjoy himself, too.)

It’s important not to overthink these things.  The Avengers is a very good summer movie.  There will always be an audience for movies that feature good-looking women and men in skin-tight suits.  There are worse things than watching Scarlett Johannson fight bad guys in a sleek black outfit.  And there also will always be people who want to see bad guys beaten by heroes, and do so through some impressive explosions and serious ass-kicking.  When the Hulk gets to throw around a stuffed shirt evil god like a rag doll, you can’t help but cheer.

I also think, though, that the success of escapist fare — which is what The Avengers is — often turns on the mood of the general populace.  Things are tough right now.  In Europe, governments are toppling and currencies are failing.  In America, the recession lingers, and lingers.  Unresolved threats can be found on just about every continent.  In short, the world is especially fertile territory for an escapist film right now.  We’d all rather watch Iron Man save the world through one selfless act than focus on those long-term problems that never seem to get solved.

Avengers Assemble!

Last night Kish and I decided to go see The Avengers.  She hated it, I loved it.  And, based on the reaction of the packed theater that watched the movie with us, I’d say the majority shared my reaction.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Movies about superheroes probably aren’t going to be intellectually challenging.  You’re not going to see emotionally charged back stories, or deeply moving interpersonal interactions.  Instead, you’re expecting to see an evil, detestable bad guy who wants to take over the world, or at least a significant part of it, titanic clashes between super-powered beings, and lots of computer-generated special effects.  If you’re lucky, all of these standard elements will be well done, and perhaps a dash of legitimate humor and interesting twists will be added to the mix.  That’s what separates the likes of The Dark Knight from, say, The Green Lantern.

The Avengers meets that test.  The plot could be borrowed from just about any superhero potboiler.  A would-be god (Thor’s half-brother Loki) appears on Earth to tap the power of an energy cube and use it to open a portal so that his army of misshapen creatures can invade and subjugate the world.  A group of special beings — Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye — are recruited by Nick Fury, the head of a secret organization, to save the world.  At first they balk at the task and fight among themselves, then they learn to work as a team and kick some Norse god and alien butt.

Of course, the plot sounds silly, and it is.  But along the way there are some great fights between Iron Man and Thor, Thor and the Hulk, and the Black Widow and Hawkeye, some excellent stunts and special effects, and some absolute laugh-out-loud moments that had our theater rocking.  The Hulk in particular was awesome, and Loki was an interesting and enjoyable twist on the typical villain.

Buildings get pulverized, grateful innocents are rescued from peril, the impossible gets done, and the world gets saved.  What more do you want?

The Avengers Tear Up Cleveland (Cont.)

The Avengers movie opens this weekend.  As I reported last summer, it was filmed, in part, in Cleveland, so I’m hoping it does well.

This trailer makes the movie look like must-viewing.  Samuel L. Jackson in an eye patch?  Awesome.  Robert Downey, Jr. reprising Iron Man, and getting into the obligatory, caused-by-a-mutual misunderstanding fight with Thor so we can see how evenly matched their powers are?  Even more awesome.  Scarlett Johansson in a tight-fitting black jumpsuit, looking to take out some dangerous supernatural foe with just a pistol?  Double awesome!  And a giant airborne slug-like creature tearing buildings to shreds in pursuit of Iron Man?  Most awesome of all.

Nothing says summer is here like a mindless action movie, and The Avengers will fit that bill nicely.  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little summer.

The Avengers Tear Up Cleveland (Cont.)

The trailer for the movie The Avengers has been released, and it includes a bit of the footage shot in Cleveland that I reported on recently.  As for the movie, it looks to be a rollicking, quip-heavy, explosion-filled, cool-costumed, testosterone-laden slugfest, with a despicable, ultra-powerful bad guy that only the combined might of the Avengers can hope to defeat.  Hmmm . . . sounds good to me!

The Avengers Tear Up Cleveland

I was up in Cleveland yesterday, innocently walking along East Ninth Street, when suddenly I found myself in New York City.  And on a movie set.

A scene along East 9th Street

The Avengers, a movie that is set to open in 2012, currently is filming in Cleveland.  One of the blocks along East Ninth Street has been turned into a scene of awful carnage in New York City, with overturned taxi cabs, chunks of concrete, and flattened police cars.  No doubt it is where the Avengers fight a pitched battle against some super-villains who possess awesome destructive power and are despicable fiends, besides.  Apparently folks working in downtown Cleveland have heard explosions on other days of filming, and on one occasion hordes of extras were sent running down the street, screaming.  Whether it was from the wrath of the super-villain or the latest bad economic news is not clear.

When I was present, there were no sightings of any bad guys or of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, or for that matter the Vision or the Scarlet Witch — just a street strewn with rubble, cameramen, key grips, and prop guys wandering around, filming cranes and other moviemaking equipment, and some parked vehicles that would help create the feel of New York City — like NYPD police cars, buses, and fire trucks.

Cleveland has been the location for filming on lots of movies, including A Christmas Story, Air Force One, Spider-Man 3, and American Splendor.  Let’s hope The Avengers is a notable addition to that list, and that Hollywood continues to occasionally bring some excitement — and debris — to the City by the Lake.