World War YOU

An acquaintance of mine recently wrote a book review for The Daily Beast about a zombie novel.  It got me thinking, as it got him thinking, about what could be the reason for the recent spate of zombie books, TV shows, and films.

Part of that answer is simple:  If the red car sells, make more red cars.  To mix a metaphor, trends are like waves; they gather momentum and then they break and roll back.  Right now the zombie wave is cresting.

While I’m not as well-read my friend who wrote the review, I’m going to take a bite at the other reason zombie pop culture is so strong right now:  Human population.

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Our popular culture reflects our inner fears and desires.  To what degree this is conscious for the creators I can’t say; books and movies are different mediums, each employing a full spectrum of personalities.  But during the zeitgeist of flying saucer movies in the 50s, while these may have been sparked by controversy, they were fueled by our fear of the foreign invader.  Little green men, with almond-shaped eyes who all look and act the same, stir up rightist ideas of the communist threat.   Then there were books and movies in the 70s and 80s which had machines hunting us down.  Then, giant robots that seek to enslave mankind.

Alien movies are ostensibly about our fear of the “other.”  Robot movies are about our fear of technology beyond our control.  Zombie movies are about our fear of ourselves, and where we are headed.

Walking-Dead-RickMy wife got into watching The Walking Dead after I coaxed her to pay attention during season two.  During that season, the ragtag group of survivors hole up at a barn in the country, trying to make do, figuring out how to live.  The wife and I like this kind of survivalist story.  Part of the draw is the suspension of the social contract.  The social contract, in a nutshell, is a tacit agreement among humans (centuries in the making) that tells us we are safe from one another.  Suspending that contract makes for great drama (like the “governor” character who runs the village but basically operates a paramilitary group and tries to get whatever he wants).

But what’s especially alluring about the zombie apocalypse trope is that, dramatically, you get to a world where leadership matters again.  Where having children matters again.  Where telling the truth matters again.  These concepts are fascinating to us because of the conditions of the world we live in today.

So that’s one aspect of the reasoning for the zombie bonanza – we are living in a time teeming with people, lacking in leadership, filled with lies and deceit.  Like the controversies which stoked the flying saucer movies, the perils of our dwindling fossil fuels, the fear culture of terrorism, the acts of violence set the stage for the zombie extravaganza.  But then there is the impetus that motivates us to tell these stories to ourselves.

This part is perhaps a little more personal as it entails the visceral way we may react to such circumstances as described above.

World-War-Z10To kill zombies is to kill with impunity.  In the zombie apocalypse, the social contract is already broken.  Fire, hack, smash away at those gruesome things, because survival matters now, because the human race matters now.

In reality, we are each of us up against an onslaught of an eerily similar type – we have to navigate a world of strangers, people who don’t mean too much to us, but who cut us off in traffic, or squish into the subway taking our spot before the doors close, or give us a dirty look in the grocery line, steal our parking space, take forever to fill out those damned lotto tickets; people who breathe too close to us, stink, are loud on their phones, and so on, and so on.

In this world we live in, people pick up guns and do horrific things to one another.  Armed to the teeth, people walk into malls and schools and campuses and open fire.  People in road rage get pushed that degree too far and run the other driver off the road.  Bombs go off in crowds.  Parents shake their babies.  People end their lives, and the lives of their families.

It’s terrifying out there, and the consequences of “snapping” are not only severe for the individual, but the invisible punitive damage done to the rest of humanity is just as devastating.  Somehow we deal with the tragedy we have witnessed either directly or indirectly and we press onward.  But that terrible act becomes a part of us, a part of our heritage.

So, we need to vent.  We need to sit in a darkened room with a group of the very strangers which may agitate us by day, and have a vicarious shared experience, a thrill together watching zombies get shredded by night.

Zombies are not aliens, with different skin and different eyes who pilot spacecraft.  They are not robots that, while perhaps humanoid in shape, are composed of metal and gears.  They are flesh and bone.  They are us, only “dead.”

Dead – but undead.  They are as close to us as possible without being us exactly.

And they come in hordes, and we slaughter them, because they are how we feel about ourselves.

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Ed Strip – The Time Has Come

Years ago I started drawing a little guy (mostly on cocktail napkins) who was some cross between Calvin and Felix the Cat.  Somewhere between extemporaneous and transcendent.  Profound and utterly moronic.  I called him “Ed.”

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Until now, Ed has been entombed in mothballed trunks and dusty file cabinets.

I’m in the process of moving, and during all the chaos, Ed broke free.

I can’t say what havoc he may cause on the interwebs; I never meant for this to happen.  I’m sorry.

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Man of Steel – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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Somewhere in the development of this film I imagine a conversation between an executive and a producer.  The executive is getting ready to sign the check to make Man of Steel over to the producer, but has three important questions first.

“Does it have big, giant things that go pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH!!?”

The producer happily affirms.  Indeed, Man of Steel has lots of big machines that go pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH.

Next, the executive asks:  “Are we going to have to do that whole, nerdy, secret-identity thing?”

The producer shakes his head – Not exactly.  The motif in Man of Steel is that if anyone knew about Superman, it would change everything.  People would turn on him and reject him.  So he keeps a low profile.

Finally, the executive wants to know: “Are we going to tell about Superman’s origins and how he grew up and all of that?”

Here, the producer just shrugs.

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Through much of Man of Steel, I wasn’t even sure really what was going on.  In the beginning, things were exploding and CCRRRSSSHHing and Krypton was being engulfed in flame.  (We later find out that the planet was blowing up because its people used up all of the resources and its core “became unstable.”)

Meanwhile, some big, giant thing was forming in Space just beyond Krypton called “The Phantom Zone.”  This you may recognize if you’re a real Superman fan; to me it looked like huge sausages burning and twisting.  It is where General Zod gets sent with his team of military baddies after he shoots one of the elders on the council because he disagreed with them about something.

As soon as the planet blows all the way up (it takes about five minutes for a planet to go from threatening-to-blow to complete celestial splatter, for all you science buffs) the explosion knocks Zod free of the giant sausage cage, and he turns this prison into a spaceship.

We’ll come back to that later.

Where were we?  Right – To ensure the survival of his race, Jor-El sends his only son to Earth before the planet is completely gone.  Baby Cal-El blasts through Space for a few seconds and then we jump to him on Earth as a young man working on a fishing boat.  He has a beard, so we know he’s older.   Suddenly, he helps save an oil rig which is blowing up (pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH), and when he is recovering from bending steel and burning alive and floating in the aphotic water around the blast we flash back to his childhood.

This is how the rest of the film goes – a bumpy narrative of present events with flashbacks to the past showing Clark growing up.  But in this tent pole movie iteration, the back story lacks any joy.  Young Clark is busy trying to hide who he is, when all he wants to do is beat the shit out of kids who are being horrible little snots to him.  When older Clark finds the alien ship / fortress of solitude, his beard melts off and he has a massive chin cleft which further distracts, and I’m lost once again not really knowing what’s going on.

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The present-day portion suffers for its wooden characters. And the living-painting, visual style of filmmaking director Zak Snyder used deftly in movies like 300 and Watchmen further distance the story.  I found myself longing for the blue-collar sensibility of Richard Donner, and Superman: The Movie, circa 1978.  In that film, the characters had a space to live and breathe in.  New York was a place.  You could feel the vibe; all that paper blowing around in the street and overturned buses and people in peril; Clark Kent taking off his glasses and appearing a moment later as the hero and saving the innocents.

In Man of Steel, he doesn’t much save the innocents, even for all the huge muscles actor Henry Cavill cultivated for the role.  My friend was squirming in his seat as he watched alongside me.  “This is not Superman,” he said.  “Superman would not be off doing this thing way over here, he would be helping the people.”

But Superman, like the filmmakers, was off going pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH with the giant sausage machine that Zod flew to Earth while hundreds of thousands of people suffered and died.

Then he fights Zod, and they do billions more in damage to the city, crashing through every skyscraper they come near.  Michael Shannon as the imperious general is completely wasted.  (No, not drunk – though that would have at least been something.)  The talented actor from Bug and Zamboni Man and Take Shelter seemed riveting in the souped-up preview.  In the actual movie, he is petulant and whiny.

loisDid I forget to mention Lois Lane is in this thing?  That’s pretty much because she doesn’t do anything.  She finds out about Superman, tries to write a story about him, he convinces her not to, she agrees, and then…uhm, Zod takes her for some reason and Superman has to save her.  She’s the one person he does save, though she’s only in trouble because of him in the first place.  Like the rest of our imperiled humanity.

Man of Steel does a dizzying dance around its own rationality that Superman’s identity needs to be kept secret; everyone does, eventually, find out about him.  Zod demands that Earth give over Superman, and then Superman and Zod lay waste half of an entire city as they battle.  But in the end, after Superman triumphs, he decides he needs to enter civilization and “blend in.”  So he puts on glasses and goes to work for the Daily Planet.  But despite having the central role in a cataclysmic battle between good and evil that saved the entire Earth, no one recognizes him.  After he saves humanity, no one knows who he is.

(I’m not going to draw any parallels between Man of Steel and the story of Jesus and just end this review here.  You’re welcome.)

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