ARE SUPERHEROES THE NEW GODS?

03

The Telegraph asked me to write about Man of Steel. I didn’t really want to, because not only had I not seen the film (which had yet to be released in Belgium), it had already opened in the UK, and everyone had already written just about everything there was to write about it. But they insisted. After three days of false starts and hair-tearing and watching Supergirl again, I resorted to (I kid you not) desperately scouring Nietzsche in search of an angle.

It must be very heaven to be a superhero fan right now. Man of Steel is omnipresent, The Wolverine opens next month and Thor: The Dark World will be with us this autumn. The latest incarnations of Spider-Man, Captain America and X-Men are due on screens next year, and others in the works are legion. It’s nothing less than cinematic strip-mining, but baby-boomers weaned on comics will continue to wet themselves with joy as the latest Übermensch bursts into frame and performs physically impossible feats of heroism in return for their congregation’s unquestioning adoration. God is dead, but Superman lives!

To read on, please click on the picture of Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel (above) to be whisked, faster than a speeding bullet (or at a more stately pace, depending on the speed of your broadband connection) to the full article on the Telegraph website.

Lori Petty as Tank Girl. I forgot Naomi Watts was also in this - she plays Jet Girl; this was six years before Mulholland Drive.

Lori Petty as Tank Girl. I forgot Naomi Watts was also in this, as Jet Girl; this was six years before Mulholland Drive.

And as a reward for clicking on this page, here’s my 1995 review of Tank Girl, from the Sunday Telegraph:

Tank Girl would like to be up there with the big guns, but in truth it’s a sad little squib. The year is 2033. A shortage of water has somehow reduced the world to a couple of sand dunes in Arizona – the American equivalent of the disused quarry that used to crop up so regularly in Doctor Who. Tank Girl (Lori Petty) steals a tank and fights the mighty Water & Power corporations. Er, that’s it.

This pathetic excuse for a post-apocalyptic heroine started life as a gutsy late-1980s British comic strip by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. Her trademarks were unabashed baldness, a stonking post-punk fashion sense, and a polymorphously perverse relationship with a mutant kangaroo.

Hollywood, of course, has sanitized this Riot Grrrl to the point where she looks like a slightly outré extra on Beverly Hills 90210. Instead of a shaved pate, Petty has retractable Tressy doll hair. She is no longer a beer-guzzling harpy but a noble freedom fighter with strategically ripped underwear. Somewhere along the line, she has acquired the not-terribly-tough name of Rebecca. [ETA:  I didn’t have  internet at the time to check it out, but her name in the comic is also Rebecca, though I’m told this is rarely mentioned.]

She has also acquired a voice, and Petty’s annoying chipmunk whine is the worst liability of the lot. She sounds less an anarchic rebel than a spoilt American brat, and you can’t understand why obligatory English villain Malcolm McDowell stands by and lets her whine chipmunky insults at him instead of settling her hash once and for all.

Tank Girl‘s most successful elements are the snippets of cartoon that link the action with an anything-goes gusto sadly lacking in Rachel Talalay’s directing. Its most amusing conceit is a plastic bottle which plugs into the spines of those who have fallen out of favour and instantly converts all their body fluid into  mineral water.

There is a Cole Porter song-and-dance number staged Busby Berkeley-style in a post-apocalyptic whorehouse, but most of the soundtrack is made up of Björk and Ice-T, with a bit of Richard Hell and the Voidoids thrown in for nostalgia’s sake. Ice-T himself appears in mutant animal make-up, which makes him virtually indistinguishable from all the other actors in mutant animal make-up.

So much attention has been lavished on Tank Girl‘s production design and soundtrack album that the story seems to have fallen by the wayside. I’m sorry, but injecting a spurious small girl into the film, simply so she can be kidnapped, and then rescued, does not count as narrative. When will Hollywood remember that all the best post-apocalyptic live-action cartoons, such as Mad Max 2, are constructed around a rock-solid storyline?

And when will Hollywood learn that cult status can only be awarded after years of hard-earned word of mouth, and does not spring fully-formed out of the heads of copycat film-makers? The word of mouth on Tank Girl is tanks, but no tanks.

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6 thoughts on “ARE SUPERHEROES THE NEW GODS?

  1. I have a bit of fondness for Tank Girl probably due mostly to the film I make it in my head and yes, the soundtrack and the comics sequence. I loved the comic. Sigh. Maybe they’ll make an animated version. In my head.

  2. Haven’t seen it since 1995, so I guess it might have improved with age. But yes, I think everyone agreed the cartoon sequences were the best part. And that Lori Petty (whom I quite liked in Point Break) was REALLY annoying.

  3. Thanks for your words in The Guardian. Sometimes I feel as if I have slid into a parallel universe where movie superheroes are beyond critique. I loved them until I was around 11 years old. Yes, it would be great if a powerful being could protect us frail mortals from evil, but taking this seriously when you’re no longer a whippersnapper is rather unseemly. As a teacher, I find it understandable that my students want to chat about heroes. These kids are forming their identities, so fictional characters and their stories are part of that. When the adults around me what to discuss the new Wolverine as though it’s anything more than amusing bullshit, I find it perplexing.

    As for female heroes with super powers or super-tech, bring it on. I too was annoyed at what became of Tank Girl. Television’s Wonder Woman was okay for the 70s. Similarly the original Bionic Woman was an attempt to move with the times, but her boss, Oscar Goldman, seemed a little too interested in Jamie Somers’ personal life. Obviously ALIENS’ era Ripley sets fire to and nukes all before her, but since then? SUCKER PUNCH went badly awry. There is a lot of space to fill and characters to imagine in this arena. And I do agree that conventional Hollywood wisdom is risk-averse, sexist clap-trap. There are women out there writing great female superheroes. Somebody needs option that stuff.

    Personally, if there were some way to have Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford as superheroes, then I would be very happy, but that’s more a quirky tangent than an idea that will ever be realised.

  4. Yes! Stanwyck and Crawford WERE superheroines! Stanwyck in Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, 40 Guns could go head-to-head with any superman. And compare Rosalind Russell’s wisecracking reporter in His Girl Friday – holding her own with Cary Grant at his wiliest, no less – with Hollywood’s idea of a strong female character today. She’s not just a brilliant journalist, she puts her job before her marriage! That would be inconceivable now.

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