Hello, my little envoys of envelopes! The mailbag is jam-packed with great letters this week… it's heavy. Like, really heavy. In related news, there may or may not be large piles of letters scattered randomly on my most recent mail route. Just leave 'em, I'll get them later. Uh, probably.


Believe It or Not

DM:

I've been having a debate on a forum about Doctor Strange and real magic being introduced into the MCU. Now, I'm the guy who doesn't care about comic books. I'm the guy who never heard of Iron Man before the movie's first trailer. I love these films (or don't) based on the quality of the movie itself. So I have absolutely zero comic book loyalty. As a film fan I worry about the tender glass floor of suspension of disbelief being cracked in the MCU if they reach for magic on top of everything else. Say what you will about super serums, hidden elements and aliens, summoning dragons through magic is a whole other ball of wax when it comes to cinematic realism (not realism in general, mind you, but creating a believable world on screen).

Marvel has gone out of their way to clarify Thor as an alien from a race that inspired our god fables, rather than god himself, and I feel they did this for cinematic realism. What sparked my forum debate was me idly wondering if Doctor Strange might similarly have his more fantastical aspects toned down, perhaps by having an Infinity Stone be the source of his power like the new Age of Ultron characters (especially since they have two more to introduce), or by having it be some other kind of "future-science-is-magic" idea. To the comic loyalists on my forum this was, of course, blasphemy. Movie studious have obviously shown no shyness about changing things to better support a film, however, and I feel like it's a real issue of concern for Marvel.

In short, do you think Strange will be mystical or somewhat more grounded? Do you think it matters? Do you agree when making a movie there are different parameters for audience acceptance and suspension of disbelief?

There are absolutely different parameters for audience acceptance and suspension of disbelief, in that suspension of disbelief is a factor — one of the most important factors — in audience acceptance. If audiences can't suspend their disbelief, or lose it, then their acceptance goes with it.

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Some people think that suspension of disbelief is an all-or-nothing proposition — that if you get the audience to accept one ridiculous thing, then they'll accept anything you happen to do. This couldn't be further from the truth. I'd argue that in most fantastic fiction — and I'll include everything from superhero entertainment to stuff like Transformers and Star Wars — maintaining an audience's suspension of disbelief is even more important than it is in more "realistic" fiction because it's already being strained.

Why? Think of it this way: When you ask an audience to watch, say, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, you're asking them to just roll with the idea that a radioactive spider would give a teenage boy superpowers and not leukemia. By establishing this fantastic element, you have also defined your fiction — now it's a world where people have superpowers through odd means.

This allows the movie to add a character who falls into a tank of electric eels and turning into an electricity man without the audience batting an eye. But what the movie hasn't explained is why a massive scientific lab would keep important fuse boxes above an open tank of electric fucking eels. The powers make sense given the rules the premise has established, but unless the premise has also established this is a world where normal people are inexplicably stupid, that doesn't explain the nonsense of the tank, which in turns harms the audience's suspension of disbelief.

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Michael Bay's Transformers movies are a perfect example of a movie failing to meet this basic expectation. Okay, audiences accept that the premise is about alien robots who turn into various vehicles. Got it. So… why does the thing kills Megatron in the first movie bring him back to life in the second? Why the fuck does Shia the Beef go to Transformer heaven? (Seen above, by the way.) Why does one of the robot have testicles? It's a goddamned robot.

And the wildest premise in the world can't excuse a character acting… well, out of character. Why does Optimus Prime tell humanity they can go fuck itself in Transformers 4? Why does Batman quit being Batman to have brunch in The Dark Knight Rises? Why does Iron Man turn into such an incredible asshole during Marvel's Civil War? The fact that all these stories have incredibly fantastic premises doesn't excuse what is essentially sloppy writing in other aspects.

But back to Doctor Strange: I think the biggest reason Marvel stressed how much Thor was an extradimensional alien with completely incomprehensible technology instead of magic is because of the question of divinity, not magic. All it would take is one bizarre church group who thinks that Marvel is trying to promote pagan religion and then suddenly it's on all the 24-hour news channels and it becomes a huge issue that potentially affects ticket sales. I mean, "aliens from another dimension who were worshipped as gods by first millennium Vikings and who have technology that no one understands and thus is basically magic" isn't exactly what I'd call "cinematic realism."

But I'm pretty sure Marvel will go ahead and let Doctor Strange be straight-up magic, although there might be a little lip service to the "technology/magic" idea. Now that the MCU has a talking alien raccoon, having straight-up magic and crazy demons like Dormammu seems like a pretty logical, reasonable next step.


Scared of the Dark

Sean F.:

I grew up loving Marvel. I did not for the most part love D.C. The reason is pretty simple, Marvel told grown up stories while D.C. was offering up Crazy Quilt. At the same time I was offered strictly camp versions of comic characters on the big screen. I think for those who have been around long enough to have read "Days of Future Past" when it was released, these Marvel movies along with the latest interpretations of Superman and Batman are deep wish fulfillment for a large number of folks. You had your campy era. How about letting the rest of us enjoy our era?

Except the Marvel movies aren't the dark, grim, grim-dark new DC cinematic universe. They have real stakes, but they also have humor and a bit of levity, and while the heroes may face some tough choices, those choices are usually about sacrifice than being forced to abandon their moral code by killing a dude . The heroes in the Marvel movies are heroes, and I'm not just referring to the Marvel cinematic universe — whatever their other flaws may be, Sony's Spider-Man movies and Fox's X-Men strike the same balance.

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More importantly, I think there's a world of difference between the campiness of, say, the '90s Batman movies and what I'm looking for. I want these movies to be fun. Batman: Brave and the Bold was fun, because it had crazy things like Batman punching a ghost ship, or fighting a villain who made everyone sing. Comics like Nextwave and Hawkeye and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man are fun — they remember one of the best things about comics is that anything can happen, and it frequently does. I wouldn't call any of those comics campy, although I may call them delightfully insane.

Here's a helpful guide:

• When the Hulk starts smashing the Chitauri in Avengers, that's fun.

• When Spidey puts on the fire helmet in Amazing Spider-Man 2, that's fun.

• When that kid in the Spider-Man costume faces down the Rhino in Amazing Spider-Man 2, that's campy.

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• When Pa Kent tried to argue the pros of letting a schoolbus full of children die, that was dark and the opposite of fun.

Everybody got it?


Agents Provocateur

Kevin M.:

The season-opener of "Agents of SHIELD" sure points out how Marvel's retconning of Hydra having infiltrated SHIELD since Day One was such a stupid, stupid idea. The "Heroes" general character ranting SHIELD should not be trusted is absolutely right. Would the CIA be completely dismantled if found completely infiltrated by the KGB? Damn straight.

Here comes the "Agent Carter" series, so what on Earth is any reason to watch this show about the dumbest clowns in "intelligence" work who constantly have the wool pulled over their dull uncomprehending eyes by Hydra?

I don't think anyone — especially the show — is arguing that Adrian Pasdar/Glenn Talbot/the "Heroes" general character doesn't have very good reason to mistrust the small remnant of SHIELD at this point. As you said, they were basically half evil from the get-go.

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But as the premiere showed, there is still a shit-ton of known HYDRA operatives around the world, and they need to be stopped. But instead of focusing on those definitely evil dudes, Talbot is obsessed with the small remnant of SHIELD that has been doing demonstrably good work. Coulson and the show aren't trying to tell Talbot he's dumb for not trusting them, they're trying to convince them they actually can be trusted.

As for reasons to watch Agent Carter, I can think of a few. Reason 1) I sincerely doubt HYDRA had much, if any foothold in SHIELD following World War II, so we'll get to see the SSR and the proto-SHIELD at their best. Reasons 2-1000) Peggy Carter is a complete badass and it's going to be awesome to watch her hand people their asses every week.


Toying With Them

Greyman33:

So, Postman, your modern-day alter-ego recently posted an article on toy lines that killed cartoon series. The Young Justice and Green Lantern entries immediately brought this question to mind: Why do all the DC superhero toys suck? It doesn't matter if it's TV or movie tie-in toy lines, they are pretty much all universally terrible. They look blocky, childishly disproportionate (even by comic book standards), often lack articulation, and are almost always... well, cartoonish in the worst possible way.

The only exception I can think of off the top of my head were the collector's edition figures released for Injustice: Gods Among Us, an Elseworlds video game.

Do they really look around at the usually great looking competition (Star Wars, Marvel, Ninja Turtles) and think they really have a chance to compete for sales with the crap they fill shelves with?

Not all DC action figures suck. Some of them — like the Injustice figures you mention — were made by DC Collectibles, which have good sculpts, decent articulation and are mainly sold in comic shops and online, never on toy store shelves. (They're a bit pricey, though.)

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Then there's the ones made by Mattel which generally do, in fact, suck. Actually, that's not fair; Mattel's Marvel Legends-esque DC superhero line, sculpted by the Four Horsemen (they do good work) was solid and had similar articulation to the Legends figures. But most of Mattel's DC figures are terrible, and there's lots of reasons.

1) The sculpting is rough. Compare any 3.75-inch Mattel figure with one of Hasbro's 3.75-inch Star Wars figures. The Star Wars sculpts look great; in comparison the Mattel figures look like they were made 20 years ago. I don't know why Hasbro is so much better at designing toys than their competition — I assume they must just hire all the best people? Or have the best Chinese factories? — but they very much do.

2) The articulation. Hasbro manages to pack several points in every figure, no matter how small; they can hold their guns naturally, pull off a variety of action poses, and generally look good doing it. Meanwhile, we're lucky when Mattel includes elbows and knees in their figures. Mattel does it to save money, but their figures are still stupid expensive, and you might as well buy the much nicer DC Collectibles toys.

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3) Because of DC's great talent for TV animation, they make many cartoons; Mattel has the DC license, and thus makes toys for these shows. The shows are often cartoon-y and Mattel designs their toys to match the shows. Meanwhile, Hasbro's Marvel figures look as realistic as most of their Star Wars figures do. Suffice it to say, not everyone likes the frequently cartoon-y look of many of Mattel's DC figures, but almost everyone likes the more realistic, identifiable from the live-action movies look of Hasbro's Marvel figures.

4) Mattel never figured out how to leave well enough alone. They frequently set their own DC lines against each other, trying to release 6-inch comics accurate figures with 3.75-inch figures, and then selling a Batman cartoon tie-in at likely another scale all at the same time. Why would a collector bother to buy any of them, when they don't know which line, if any, will survive? And while kids may gravitate to whatever the Batman line du jour was, Hasbro has always kept Marvel's offerings working together, at the same scale, so they can all be played with together (it worth noting when Hasbro made the move from 6-inch figures to 3.75-inch figures, they moved everything at the same time). This helps sell more toys, to collectors and kids alike, while Mattel only limits themselves.

But Mattel will not stop making DC toys, mainly because they can't. The DC license is huge, especially with the movies coming out, and they know they could make a ton of money if they could only get their shit together. Now, they may never get their shit together, but they can't stop trying because — with the exception of Max Steel, which, blegh — DC is pretty much their only mass market action figure series left. If they lose DC, they've lost a major segment of the market. And, it's worth pointing out, that Disney just took their Disney Princess line — a huge moneymaker — to Hasbro, to consolidate the whole Marvel/Star Wars/Disney machine. Seriously, I doubt Mattel can afford to lose another major potential source of revenue like that. On the plus side, other than Hasbro, which makes toys for their competitor, Mattel is the only toy company big enough to make and potentially sell DC toys in the massive amounts DC/Warner Bros. wants. So I don't think they'll be losing the license anytime soon.


Age of Villainy

HPHatecraft:

So I have numerous problems with Gotham, most of which have already been discussed on this site, but one thing that's really been bugging me is the ages of certain characters. I mean if we go the four villains we meet in the pilot then three of them appear to be older than Batman, but I've always felt that Batman is usually older than most his villains or at least around the same age as them. If you go off of Batman year one, which puts Bruce as being twenty five when he becomes Batman, then he'd be about forty five today but I can't find anything that gives an age to any of his villains apart from Ra's.

DC has never made it official, mainly because once you start setting dates down in comics things quickly get fucked up. Hell, even timeframes are bad ideas — remember when DC launched the New 52, and said all the superheroes had been operating for five years, and we were left trying to figure out how the hell Batman had four Robins including a 10-year-old kid in that timespan? Ha ha, that's still dumb.

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Anyways, it's best to leave both heroes and villains ageless, although of course Robins are always going to be younger than Batman. I assumed Batman and all his bad guys were around 30 — old enough to have had a shit-ton of fights and adventures, but not old enough to be considered "old," really. Although I've always had the feeling that the Penguin is a bit older, because he's really not threatening unless he has a bit of experience to back his trick umbrellas up.

But yeah, according to Gotham, Penguin, Riddler and presumably the Joker will all be markedy older than Batman when he grows up. It will be super-weird and awkward — or, rather it would be if Gotham had any intention of actually having Batman fight any of them, which it doesn't. The showrunners say the show will end when Batman puts on the cowl for the first time, which means we will be spared the sight of young, perfect-condition Batman fighting a bunch of middle-aged bad guys.

I'm sure someone's going to write in and give me shit for seemingly not minding the age of the Gotham villains when I recently freaked out about Jesse Eisenberg's super-young Lex Luthor in Batman V. Superman, but here's the thing: I think making Luthor young makes him less of a credible threat to Superman, which I think is going to be problematic for the movie. As for Gotham, aging up the villains would change the dynamic between them and Batman, but that doesn't really matter because Gotham is never going to have Batman fight them. It's weird, I know, but I stand by it.


No Butts About It

Tim B.:

The variant Spider-Woman cover has brought the issue of how women are depicted in superhero comics to a fever pitch. I must say, I find myself sympathizing with certain points of both sides. I absolutely do believe that women should be treated in every way as equal to men. On the other hand, through the course of my adult life, I've divorced myself from the very conservative Christian worldview I was brought up in, so when I see the "torches and pitchforks" attitude displayed any time there's a hint of objectification in comics, it brings back unpleasant memories of that same reactionary intolerance that liberal SJW's claim to hate about Christianity.

Objectification...that's a word I've been thinking about a lot recently, especially as it pertains to this controversy. As I understand the term, it essentially means "treating a person as if they're not a person." But the tricky thing is, fictional character really aren't people. I understand the premise that, when you're telling stories about fictional characters, using the women in those stories as only decoration or something for the man to react to or have sex with, that's objectifying to women in general. I get that, but how does that concept extend to covers? When you get right down to it, there are never any fully-realized characters in any comicbook covers; at best, there's only the tease of a bigger story inside. So if the definition of objectification is that a character isn't given life and depth and agency, etc., then wouldn't every single character on every single comic book cover be objectified? Wouldn't the non-variant cover of Spider-Woman #1 be just as objectifying as the sexualized variant?

I guess my question is two-fold then: if, for the sake of argument, we presume that the story inside of Spider-Woman #1 presents a strong, pro-female depiction of the lead character, is the cover still objectifying her, being as it is connected to a story that gives her more depth and personhood? And if it is still considered objectifying, is that only because it's showing her in a more sexual way than the non-variant cover? If so, is there any way for a cover to be sexy and not objectifying?

You've gotten into some deep philosophical issues here, by wondering if putting a character on a comic book cover innately strips him/her of agency given that it strips all agency and personality from the character by the cover's nature as packaging and advertising, and how complicit the consumer is in this relationship. This aspect of the question is frankly beyond my pay grade as a fake mailman, although one could argue that since the interior of product includes the same character as part of a fiction, in which he/she has agency and personality by virtue of being part of the story, the cover image could or should be seen as representing the more fully formed, less objectified character within.

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But the key phrase there is "representative of the character within," and unless Spider-Woman #1 is the comic book equivalent of a late night Cinematic After Dark movie — which I'm pretty sure it isn't — then the cover is merely sexy because sex sells, and when it's a character and comic that appeals to the industry's many female readers, that's kind of shitty.

But to answer your question: Yes, there's many, many ways that a cover can be sexy without being sexually objectified. All they have to do is be attractive without putting them in position usually exclusively seen in pornography. Hell, most of Milo Manara's other covers are exactly that — Gamora on Guardians of the Galaxy, Storm on X-Men… I find the Fearless Defenders' Valkyrie cover kind of unsettling, but not because of the pose. She just looks like she wants to skin me and use my flesh as a kicky winter scarf.


Do you have questions about anything scifi, fantasy, superhero, or nerd-related? Email the postman@io9.com! No question too difficult, no question too dumb! Obviously!