House Logo
Explore categories +

Comics Column #5B The Fragrance of Nostalgia (20th Century Boys)

Comments Comments (0)

Comics Column #5B: The Fragrance of Nostalgia (20th Century Boys)

I want to talk about an interesting comic book movie today, but first I guess I should talk about Iron Man 2.

“Doing too little with too much.”

In the third installment of this column, I said this about Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man film:

“My favorite superhero film out of the current deluge is Iron Man, a film which is 100% origin, but reads very differently with foreknowledge of the character. It was fun from beginning to end, and always true to the spirit even when the details were off by this margin or that margin. It worked as a film, even for people who didn’t really know who Iron Man was, or what he was about. Screenwriter Todd Alcott noted that when he was briefly on the project, nobody could tell him a thing about the character, except that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.

Unfortunately, I have to operate from foreknowledge that I can’t erase—for me, Iron Man plays as a tragedy. Stark is addicted to not only alcohol, but himself. This is why, in Civil War, he is capable of sliding into fascist tendencies—he always thinks he’s the smartest man in the room. For someone already familiar with the character and his story beats, each moment seemed to lead into a second film where Stark would succumb to the drink, would find the plans for his suit on the black market, would cede superheroing to his friend Rhodey. It’s also why Downey Jr. was the only actor I could have ever seen in the role. You could tell which film critics, upon the movie’s release, were not familiar with the character of Iron Man—they were the ones surprised at Downey Jr.’s performance. Even the actor himself has said that this was the part that his life had built to.

Having already all but quoted verbatim the entire scene from season one of The Wire, where Sgt. Jay Landsman describes Jimmy McNulty, I should point out that the film’s ending echoes—very faintly, of course—that show’s fourth season finale, when audiences were pleased to see McNulty return to Major Crimes (unless they’d followed the show from the beginning, in which case it was clear that he was damning himself). Similarly, Stark’s full assumption of his title in the final scene press conference signals that his fate is sealed—he’s destined for the same fate as his comic equivalent, a victim of hubris. His one-man assault on Afghanistan, the most politically questionable scene in the film, makes more sense when you realize that the character’s arrogance in even traveling there will not be celebrated in the long run. The film is fully accessible on one level, and on another for fans—which is also to say, it will reward a revisit if the planned sequel manages to execute these ideas properly (and Favreau and Downey Jr. have both insisted that this is, in fact, the road that they want to take).”

See if you can pinpoint where, exactly, Iron Man 2 went off the rails for me.

It’s very easy for me to fall too far down the rabbit hole on this. Disliking a film solely because it didn’t do what I wanted it to do before seeing it is poor criteria. However, we weren’t ten minutes into the movie before a newspaper article on screen claimed that Iron Man had solved the Middle East conflicts, at which point it was clear that the filmmakers had already forgotten that what made Tony Stark so enjoyable to watch in the first film were his human flaws, and that the political ramifications of the first film’s treatment of Iron Man’s global vigilante act were ambiguous only by accident. This doesn’t speak poorly only for Iron Man 2 when you consider that there’s a Captain America film coming our way, not so long at all after that book made national news for a political controversy.

Let’s step back for a moment. What made Iron Man an enjoyable film was its light touch; it’s true, Favreau’s visual sense was perfunctory, but his decision to put his actors up front over action scenes which have rarely impressed (which superhero movies have had truly great action sequences? The only one I hear cited is the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, which I’ve admittedly never seen—Superman rescuing the plane in Superman Returns was well-conveyed, but obligatory and politically-on-the-nose and the School-under siege bit in X2 was too short to rate, even if it was the only instance in four films when Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine seemed legitimately dangerous…come to think, the only two that have worked for me on any level were the Nightcrawler opening bit of X2 and the very brief battle between superhuman-but-not-monster Tim Roth and the Hulk in the otherwise excrecable Incredible Hulk film) was a choice that did speak of directorial vision, and put the film apart from its contemporaries, particularly that year’s self-important mess (apologies to David Fear), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This sequel, in comparison, is a series of “and then this happens” domino drops and over-labored and over-scripted banter. This culminates, of course, in Samuel L. Jackson walking on screen halfway through the film to drop a silver trunk full of exposition in Stark’s lap and walk back out, embarrassing decades of screenwriters all over the world.

It’s an old story, particularly in the genre of superhero films—cramming too many characters, too many plots, too much shit onto the screen in an attempt to top the previous movie. I mean, this isn’t an original observation, but it may be particularly egregious in Iron Man 2 because the caliber of actors that they wasted, in some cases, is downright depressing. How do you get John Slattery cast as Howard Stark and not take advantage of his talent? Was there a better actor anywhere to play the previous generation’s Tony Stark? After three seasons of Mad Men he could play the smarter-than-he-looks playboy role in his sleep, and he’s left here to deliver hoary old clunkers like “You are my greatest creation.” Also: as a long-time fan of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night I thought the addition of Clark Gregg as an officious secret agent in the first film was an unexpected treat, and he managed to hold his own on screen; in this film, he’s given two scenes, both of which are about teasing other Marvel films. Terrible.

I don’t really need to write this review, to be honest, because Matt Seitz said everything that needs be said in his recent Salon piece, and much more succinctly than I’ve attempted in all of these columns (and thanks, Matt, for taking a moment out to point out how bullshit that cable car thing was in Spider-Man). But of particular note, of course, is his remark about Mickey Rourke’s mad Russian supervillain, who seems to have wandered in from a better movie. Iron Man 2 played ever-so-briefly with the idea that Rourke and Downey’s characters were grappling with redemptive legacies, and given their near-concurrent career resurrections, that should have been perfect to fuel this film, just as Downey’s career lows fueled much of the tension in the first film. But this movie didn’t know what it wanted to be about: legacies, sins of the father, ego…none of Stark’s insecurities in the first film transferred over to this one, when they would have paralleled Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Justin Hammer. Rockwell and Rourke had some great scenes together, and each of them got to play in ways that reminded of the first film’s joys—I could have watched Rockwell stutter around Rourke for another hour—but given the plot-bulldozing pace of the rest of the film, their scenes were tonally inconsistent and wound up dragging the film’s pace in strange ways.

I’m still not entirely sure what the point of the blood poisoning was. It was thematically confusing—knowing his father loved him coincided with the cure, so it was his self-doubt or something?—and it didn’t add much to the film. Screenwriter Justin Theroux was interviewed about the idea of doing Tony’s alcoholism in the movies, and he felt it would be too unappealing, would drag down the film’s atmosphere, and settled on the poorly-motivated drunken brawl sequence midway through. Why not have the alcohol interfere with the arc reactor, then? You would get a clearer sense of Tony’s poisoning himself because of his ego and apparent feelings of indestructability, which are established in the opening scenes? He doesn’t give it up because he doesn’t want to give up his image with all of the press and Senate attention, and so endangers himself. There, I helped fix a problem and it took me ten seconds. As for the entire “discovering a new element in his basement” bit, I’ve got nothing.

As Seitz pointed out eloquently, and as I’ve spent ages slinging like a sledgehammer, we lower our standards when we go see these movies when there’s no need for it. Once we left the theater, my wife and I, as well as two friends with whom we saw Iron Man 2 (one of them, despite having a much more tolerant policy towards popcorn superheroics than I do, was intermittently bored throughout), ordered food and put a movie on in the background while we talked. That film was the first Die Hard, and we kept stopping our conversation to watch Bruce Willis tear-ass around that tower. That movie is an unapologetic action spectacle full of explosions and one-liners, and yet…And yet. Not once are we talked down to, not once is a motivation ambiguous or absent, not once does an event or a scene lack a causal relationship with the scenes before it. There are brief moments of humanity, every cast member gets at least one solid thing to do, and it is still engaging decades later, after multiple re-views, which hardly a one of the current crop of superhero movies can manage. (Say what one will about the flaws of the original Richard Donner Superman—and Seitz makes a case against them which is hard to argue—at least it’s still fun years later.)

Wait, they had a Russian villain. Why wasn’t Black Widow Russian and why didn’t she have some tie to the plot or…?

Let’s just move on.

I once had, a couple of lifetimes ago, a girlfriend who absolutely loved Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69.” Always excited when it came on the radio, and often singing it to herself—though only the chorus. She thought that it was a great little love story, a “how we got together” sort of thing. I was the one who finally explained to her that the song is sad, or at least bittersweet; that it’s a wistful looking back after a life of compromises and failures. There was a period afterwards where the song was damaged to her by the “revelation,” but soon enough she viewed it the way that she always had, despite my protestations—she enjoyed the version of the song that existed in her head far more than anything that I was selling, so who was I to interfere?

Aside from showing how readily I’ll leap at the chance to ruin something for someone, the story also gets at something about the way we consume art or media. The argument over the importance of “authorial intent” has been waging since long before I was born, but it pales in the face of the idea this story represents: the narrative that we write ourselves about the art we experience or consume will override even the literal facts about that work.

[A cynic (like myself, unsurprisingly) could relate this to what feels like a growing resistance to empiricism in this country, one that feels culturally damaging. But this isn’t an article about that, it’s an article about my pithy response to comic book adaptation.]

A significant, perhaps the most significant, element to this conflict is nostalgia. “Summer of ’69” serves my example better than most would because its very content is about the two sides of what I sometimes feel might be our most dangerous emotion. Nostalgia has done a real number on the film industry of late, hasn’t it? Remakes aren’t the half of it. When Ridley Scott is supposedly working on a film adaptation of the “Monopoly” board game, the wrong hands are officially on the steering wheel.

We all have our nostalgic weak spots—I’m the one who wrote this piece for The House, after all, which strains the idea of “critical objectivity” far past its breaking point. But nobody outside the boardrooms really wants nostalgia in command, not if you straight poll them. Nobody except maybe superhero fans, who latch on to the iterations of their heroes which first capture their youthful imaginations and want that to be the status quo forevermore—DC Comics in particular is a great barometer for this phenomenon, as the “it writers” of each heroic age retcon their books back to whatever was popular twenty years earlier (I did the big superhero piece already, so just go Google up “Geoff Johns” and read the arguing if you’re interested in that sort of thing).

When a nostalgic property like a comic book or a video game or a toyline makes the transition to film, it often has the same problem that other remakes and adaptations have, and one of the things upon which nostalgia has the most influence is tone. Tone is a fickle, fluid, elusive thing, and in many cases—particularly in genre entertainment—it’s not tracked as the source of the nostalgia, even if it was one of the original work’s primary strengths. The film adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a mess for many reasons, but most especially so because director Zack Snyder made a film which was in tonal opposition to the book he was adapting. A great deal of what the film lauds, the book deplores, and vice versa. It’s appropriate, then, that one of the recurring metaphors that the film largely cuts out involves a perfume called “Nostalgia,” one that serves to represent not only that feeling, but also discomfort at change, related not only to the book’s political climate but also to the superhero genre itself.

But back to “Summer of ’69.” I recently watched the first film in a live-action trilogy adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s extraordinary manga epic 20th Century Boys. The book is the story of a young man named Kenji, a man who has traded in both his family liquor business and his natural gift for music; he is a good man, who spends his days raising the daughter of his vanished sister and knuckling under at the harangues of his convenience store’s district manager, but his compromises have left him trapped and without voice, a ghost in his own life. He is drawn, as young men usually are in a story of this type, into an elaborate conspiracy that threatens the world—a fast-growing cult who worships a figure known only as “Friend,” who has begun taking steps to seize power of the world’s governments, a cult whose plans and behavior are patently (dangerously!) absurd, because the tactics were taken from a childhood game of make-believe that Kenji and his grade school friends played in the Summers of 1969 (!) and 1970.

Despite being a total of twenty-eight volumes, each containing some 300 pages of manga, and taking place over decades, the story fits (rather loosely) into a three-act structure, and so a film trilogy is not unexpected. The scale, however, is a testament to Urasawa’s status as the artistic heir to Osamu Tezuka: with a budget of six billion yen and a cast of three hundred, it’s one of the largest undertakings in Japanese film history (really, you’d think it would have gotten more notice). The scale is necessary if one is to adapt a story of this size and scope, but the tone of the film’s first installment proves to be such a mishmash that a lot of Urasawa’s strengths get dumped in the rush to get all of the plot on-screen.

Going back to an unfair comparison I made in an earlier column: If Pluto is Urasawa’s “Alan Moore” work, peeling back the layers of an established property to find the darker questions and adult themes that lie beneath (tightly-structured, if occasionally over-purple), then 20th Century Boys is his “Grant Morrison” book—messy, rollicking, joyful in execution, and constantly digging at an industry and a fandom for which he is clearly still affectionate. Urasawa, however, often trumps Morrison at one of his greatest strengths—his ability to tap-dance right across the collapsing bridge of his narrative, emerging on the other side with a bow, as if it was planned all along. Both creators have a certain flair for relying upon the ending to hold up the rest, and some of the pleasure of 20th Century Boys, like Urasawa’s Monster before it, comes in watching the man laying track just barely ahead of the locomotive. That said, what makes 20th Century Boys a classic made to endure is what he manages to layer within the story. He shares some similarities, in this particular work, with Satoshi Kon, the Ray Davies of anime, in their portrayal of the double-edged sword of fandom and nostalgia. In Kon’s work, it’s intrinsically tied into Japan’s cultural repression (most obviously evident in Paranoia Agent yet visible in most of his work). But with Urasawa it’s knottier, because it is very much about his own internal conflict—the anxiety of influence palpable in his own fan-worship of Osamu Tezuka.

This may be something that doing Pluto helped purge from his system, as there’s far less trace of it in Billy Bat, his current work, but his use of the “star system” for his characters and the many Tezuka in-jokes referenced in his works made his admiration clear even before Pluto was in his sights. 20th Century Boys is fully steeped in ambivalence towards nostalgia: Kenji is consumed with feelings about a past which he frequently can’t even remember, and the villains are all obsessed with their childhoods and the affectations from that period. The best scene in the book’s first third—both funniest and most terrifying in equal measure—is one in which the cult argue over the construction of a physically impossible giant robot, growing more and more emphatic as they splinter into factions based on which anime programs were most influential on their own childhoods. A scene terrifying because the man charged with building the absurdity is a captive whose life, and that of his brainwashed daughter, are constantly at risk. One of the heroes is a manga artist, imprisoned because a totalitarian regime will not allow stories of heroism to inspire the populace (or conflict with cult doctrine), but when a teen girl wakes in a cabin full of manga and other otaku paraphernalia (obsessively cataloged and kept in mint condition, in true nerd fashion) the cabin’s resident is immediately threatening. After the story’s climax, though, the ending discards the importance of the mysteries established earlier on about the childhood identities of certain characters—once the danger is past, part of the lesson lies in letting the past go. Urasawa sees the value and the fun inherent in certain tropes: over the course of the series, a laundry list of manga tropes from the giant robot to psychic teenagers are brought in one at a time, but each one is subverted in the end, and tossed out. And don’t get me started on the origin of the cult’s sinister-looking sigil!

The first film of the trilogy, however, for all of its budget and scope, flushes those themes and ideas and rearranges the scenes somewhat in order to present a more traditional hero’s journey. It’s so…Hollywood.

Things get off to a good start; the film shares the iconic opening scene with the manga, in which young Kenji institutes an act of rebellion by blaring T-Rex’s “20th Century Boy”—the obvious inspiration for the manga’s title—through the corridors of his grade school to an apathetic and indifferent student body. And then there’s a structural change that suggests intriguing possibilities, in which a scary mystery prisoner speaks to the imprisoned manga artist, telling him the story that comprises the film as a message of hope. In the book, this prisoner is introduced at the beginning of the second act, clearly one of the heroes to survive the first act’s conclusion, but initially a mystery. By introducing the figure at the beginning, one would believe that they are going to play off the ambiguity of the book’s first act—who will be lauded for saving the world?—but the film drops this premise immediately, playing the rest of act one “straight.” This becomes problematic with how the film has restructured, since the film leans much more heavily on an earlier tease that the villain may in fact be Kenji’s missing best friend, only to drop the idea unceremoniously despite how it would have played into the prison sequence. From there, things grow more and more problematic.

The problem is one of tone. The film succeeds in visual faithfulness in a way that I would not have imagined possible. Every setting looks staged from the panel and, even more eerie, the characters look dead-on identical, as if they’d been ripped forcibly out of the comic. With the adults it’s frightening enough, but the collection of child actors (and more on them in a minute) look so close to Urasawa’s original drawing that the similarity actually began to pull me out of the film. But much as Zack Snyder’s visual fidelity to Watchmen missed the point, here the film quickly slides from accuracy to camp. I think, honestly, part of what they were trying to do was match the character’s expressions in the manga, which is the sort of mistake Hollywood films were making a couple of decades ago—and here we can go back to something Theroux said in that interview, talking about the alcoholism, which wasn’t actually wrong:

“We realized that in a comic book you can have one key-frame where it’s a guy, drunk, but in a movie, that’s gotta be a big scene and it’s gotta be addressed…”

The visual iconography of comics is designed to communicate a great deal in a single panel, particularly in fast-moving manga. Exaggeration is a tool of the trade, and it works drawn in a way that it doesn’t on film. Nuance has to be added to bridge that gap. The only actors that seem to be getting it right are, oddly, the children, whose performances work very well most of the time, better than the adults, and are always fun to watch—of course, the kids had an easier time of it, because they have more latitude to be exaggerated because the characters are by nature excitable. But at any rate, it’s clear the director wasn’t interested in nuance, anyway, in light of the over-exaggerated “spooky music” given to every revelation in the film’s first half. The wistful scene where the heroes dig up a time capsule that they believe contains clues to the mystery only to find old porno, rotten snack food and childish drawings becomes overblown and thus disastrous.

When the first translated volumes of 20th Century Boys first hit America, comparisons came from all over to Stephen King, and indeed, there is a great deal of Stand By Me and It in the story’s first act—the material that makes up this first film. Thing is, Stephen King is really hard to adapt to film. When King is “on,” his works often rely upon internal motivation to keep things moving along, which is always the first thing to go when the book gets to the screen. Great adaptations of his work tend to either find a way to convey that or work around it (Kubrick, for one, found the themes in The Shining that he was interested in and jettisoned a lot of the rest). No such decisions were made here—indeed, sometimes it seemed like decisions weren’t made at all, like when the characters flash back to things that happened less than five minutes earlier in the film or remain motionless for too long during dramatic beats.

That said, some changes make sense. The character of Yukiji is made stronger as well as a more substantial love interest, given her limited screentime (except, oddly, during the climax). Also, while the sudden shift in time from the first act to the second in the series was a great source of suspense and mystery, it would likely have made a climax to the first film unworkable. And there are some things that film can do that the comics medium just can’t, particularly with regards to sound. And sound is important in a film where music plays such an integral role. While the decision to make the cult’s love band a group of competent musicians weakened that scene, the ability to actually play the audio from T-Rex’s song worked beautifully in the opening and, more importantly, they used “Bob Lennon.” The Urasawa-penned (and originally-sung, as in the video above) song becomes vitally important in the film’s third act, and in considering the series before I watched this film, and with Scott Pilgrim on my mind, I was musing on whether relying upon a character-written song would play. As far as the third-act climax goes, I’m still not sure, but its use towards the end of the film here was well-done, and thankfully underplayed.

In the end though, the film is a failure. Rearranging the scenes in order to give Kenji an arc shortchanges a lot of what made the original series work, and also creates strange logic gaps—in one scene, Kenji appears in a giant rabbit costume, which had to do with surveillance that he was doing in the book, but here has no logical purpose. And in the rush to make a three-picture Japanese epic film trilogy (airports blow up! Blood erupts from people’s bodies! Lasers and robots!), the message is lost entirely. Much like Kon, Urasawa has frequently been interested in the dangers of going down the rabbit hole of obsession with pop culture and the artifacts of nostalgia, and the film confirms some of his fears by being soulless and bankrupt.

It’s hard not to think about comic books when the word “nostalgia” come up—not just my own nostalgia, but in general—because it’s so very plagued with it. Not only superhero books, though certainly Chris Ware has a sour take on it (although, again, come to think, he keeps putting a superhero in his own work, even if it’s a deliberately pathetic one). It comes down, in many ways, to a very old argument, about giving the audience what it wants, versus what it needs. In the case of this film trilogy, it looks like it opted for “wants,” and is far poorer for it.

Next: Sifting through a pile of crap on my desk—don’t miss it!

Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog Patchwork Earth.