Wicked Weekends: Man of Steel

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

My favorite version of Superman’s origin story comes from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. It’s four sentences, eight words, with accompanying visuals: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. That’s it. And we’re off.

I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t see the point in origin stories, at least not where the legends of our time are concerned. We don’t start every new series of Sherlock Holmes movies by recounting how Holmes and Watson came to live and work together at 221B Baker Street. We don’t completely reboot James Bond with each new actor who steps into that venerable role. As much as I love Batman Begins, we know the story by cultural osmosis. It, too, can be distilled into a few words: Happy family. Unspeakable loss. Years wandering. New purpose. Or Spider-Man: Spider bite. Wasted power. Fallen mentor. Great responsibility.

So we know Superman’s story. The last survivor of an alien race, he was sent to Earth as an infant, where he was adopted by kindly farmers, protected and raised with their values. Imbued with great powers through his exposure to our yellow sun, he now fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Man of Steel is an origin story. There’s no getting around that. It’s a reboot for the Superman film franchise, taking up the torch from the classic movies starring Christopher Reeve and the cinematic saga that came to a close with the rather tepid spiritual sequel Superman Returns. I’m not sure we needed that reboot. I’m not sure we needed to be told this story again. As a rule, I would rather see the origins of these characters taken as read, so we can just get on with new tales. But it was an enjoyable, faithful, and thought-provoking ride nonetheless.

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

As sentient beings, painfully aware of our mortality and our ultimate insignificance in the face of eternity, we have been haunted throughout our existence with the same questions: are we alone? Is there something out there greater than ourselves? Do we need to be saved – from ourselves, from forces we cannot control, from forces we cannot yet comprehend or perceive – and, if so, will we be saved? And, above all, are we worthy of salvation? Superman represents a potential answer. Above all else, Superman represents hope that, yes, there is something more out there, a great and benevolent force that sees the good in humanity and will act to protect it. The parallels to religious doctrine, and particular to Christianity, are obvious. It is not surprising that Man of Steel grapples with those questions and draws those parallels, showing human beings at their best and their worst, and depicting Clark Kent’s struggle to find his role relative to our planet and our people in the face of all our complexity and contradiction. The movie’s failures are similarly complex and contradictory: it either goes too far in pursuit of these themes, or not far enough. The Christ imagery is heavy-handed and scarcely worthy of the name ‘metaphor’: Clark is 33 years old when he’s thrust before humanity and compelled to sacrifice himself for all mankind. He has a conversation about whether or not he should sacrifice himself, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, in a church, with a priest, while sitting in front of a giant stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ. At one point he drops through the sky while extending his arms in a Christlike pose. Yes. We get it. (In fact, it appears that Warner Bros. is aggressively marketing the film to Christian churches. I’m not sure what to think about that.)

At the same time, the movie fails to really hammer its points about humanity home. At one point, we see Clark confront a trucker harassing a waitress, backing down when it’s clear that the confrontation will only end in violence – Clark isn’t prepared to use force in this situation, even if the guy is an asshole. Later the trucker walks out of the restaurant to find his rig completely totaled, impaled on multiple telephone poles in an act of destruction and petty revenge that hardly seems in keeping with Superman’s sense of morality and self-control. Maybe the point is that Clark hasn’t quite become Superman yet – and it’s true, he hasn’t – but while the visual was good for a quick laugh, it didn’t feel quite right, somehow. Later, during a vicious attack on Metropolis, we see a Daily Planet intern trapped under some debris, and Perry White, as well as another Planet employee, stay with her even in the face of certain destruction. It’s a sweet moment, but lacks the punch of, say, multiple citizens working together to free her, racing against time, saving the day even without powers.

As for the Kryptonian side of the equation, the situation is similarly muddled. Jor-El’s plans for his son, the last survivor of Krypton, are unclear. In the movie’s story, Clark’s cells have been imbued with the information contained within the Codex, a Kryptonian artifact holding the genetic code for all of Krypton’s future citizens – Krypton now relies on artificial reproduction, you see, and each citizen is born to fulfill a specific role. Clark, as Kal-El, is the first natural-born child of Krypton in centuries, and though Jor-El and Lara clearly care for him, he seems to be an experiment as much as a child to Jor-El, a test of the value of free will. The movie’s antagonist, General Zod, wants to use the Codex in conjunction with recovered Kryptonian technology to turn Earth into a new Krypton, exterminating the human race and breeding new generations of Kryptonians. Jor-El, brought to Earth in Clark’s capsule in the form of an AI, finally confesses his own plan when pressed, claiming that he hoped Clark would eventually use the information contained within the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race as equals to mankind, and Clark himself, familiar with both Earth and Krypton, would act as a bridge between the two peoples. An ambitious and worthy goal, to be sure, but considering that the Codex is designed to produce Kryptonians only for specific roles, it’s not entirely clear to me how ‘New Krypton’ would be any better than the old one. It’s also not clear to me how the Kryptonians lack free will to begin with. Certainly Jor-El was able to break whatever genetic programming he had to deal with and act in open defiance of the laws and traditions of his people.

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Still, despite the muddled plot, heavy-handed imagery and occasional lack of conviction, the movie is a lot of fun to watch, and it does shine in several respects. The cast as a whole is solid. Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman, and Amy Adams is fantastic as a 21st-century Lois Lane. She may not be the fast-talking, nickname-tossing, old-school reporter we all know and love, but she’s a bright, clever, determined woman, a skilled investigator, and a dedicated journalist who only stops chasing the man who will become Superman when the potential consequences of her actions become clear. Despite her decision to abandon the story, she’s pulled into Superman’s life again and becomes integral to the fight against Zod. Though she does indeed form a romantic connection with Superman by the end of the story, it feels fairly natural after everything they’ve been through. The movie adds a new wrinkle to the classic story of Clark/Lois/Superman by introducing Clark Kent as we know him (reporter for the Daily Planet and mild-mannered secret identity for the all-powerful Superman) only at the end of the film, after Lois has already tracked down the mysterious ‘guardian angel’ who keeps appearing out of nowhere and saving lives all over the world and stood alongside Superman in both Smallville and Metropolis. In the Man of Steel universe, the Clark/Superman/Lois love triangle simply does not exist. Lois knows his identity from the start. And frankly, as much fun as that triangle can be, it’s been overused and I’m quite glad to see it dismissed completely in this iteration of the Superman mythology. Basically, I love this version of Lois almost as much as I love Dana Delany‘s version from the old animated series, and the movie is practically worth seeing for her alone.

Similarly, Laurence Fishburne is a Perry White for our time. He may not chomp cigars and shout “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at the drop of a hat, but he’s a perfect foil for Lois, a caring and dedicated boss who isn’t fooled by her shenanigans but quietly supports her in her crusade for the truth nonetheless. Richard Schiff has a small but memorable role as long-time Superman ally Dr. Emil Hamilton. (Amusingly, Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Emil Hamilton in the ninth and tenth seasons of Smallville, also has a small role in the film.) Christopher Meloni doesn’t get a lot of screen time, either, but he makes what little he does get count, particularly as the film reaches its climax. And Michael Shannon chews the scenery a bit as Zod, but, well, it’s General Zod, so I can forgive that.

Jor-El on Krypton

Jor-El on Krypton

Last, but far from least, the movie does not skimp on the eye candy. The Krypton of Man of Steel puts one in mind of Time Lords and New Gods and the Asgard of the Thor movie, with ships and robots and suits of armor that reshape themselves at a thought, impossible architecture, gorgeous vistas, and ridiculous hats to spare. The ideas of John Byrne’s seminal post-Crisis reboot (also titled, in fact, The Man of Steel), are combined with modern cinematic sensibilities into something genuinely beautiful. The powers of the Kryptonians on Earth – their strength, speed, enhanced perception, heat vision and flight – are depicted in ways that, if not precisely revolutionary, are nevertheless decently realistic and fun to watch. The set designers and effects artist have even thrown in a few ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameos to reward sharp-eyed fans – notably Lexcorp and WayneTech logos on key props and set pieces.

All things considered, Man of Steel is not a perfect film, nor is it my favorite version of the Superman myth. But it’s a solid film, well-made and a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s saved by stunning visual effects and a charming and talented cast. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Superman Rating: 4 out of 5 capes. Super.

General Film Rating: 7 out of 10. Well worth seeing in theaters, but not the best movie you’ll see all year.

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Media Mondays: Wonder Woman

You may have noticed by now that I kind of have a thing for Amazons. My favorite comic book superheroine, after all, is Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman herself is a very close second. I go by Themiscyra just about anywhere and everywhere I can, and it’s not solely a Wonder Woman reference. And so it goes. The Amazon label is admittedly a problematic one, frequently co-opted by the less pleasant elements of radical feminism (you know, the folks who basically hate me for calling myself a woman, who gleefully throw pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘him’ at women like me when they’re not calling us ‘it,’ who don’t think we have any place in women’s spaces, that sort of thing), but it’s one I wear with pride nonetheless. I’m a firm believer in the power of archetypes – in our ability to draw strength from symbols deeply embedded into our culture. And the Amazons are pretty damn potent. To me, they represent a strength that embraces womanhood, rather than rejecting or denigrating it, as our popular culture too often does. They represent every last woman who chose to stand up and face the world on her own terms rather than giving in to the pressures of the dominant society. So hell yes, I’m an Amazon. Or, at least, I aspire to be one.

That said, of course, I have to concede the point that the Amazons as portrayed in Greek mythology aren’t necessarily perfect, praiseworthy figures. Some of the legends have them slicing off their breasts to better aim their arrows, taking those men they did not kill as slaves, engaging in sexual congress with men only to reproduce and then abandoning or killing any male children. To the Greeks, these were most likely figures of utter terror…and yet, at the same time, they were also clearly figures of intense fascination, because they keep showing up. The Amazons we know today – mostly through media like, well, Wonder Woman – bear only a partial resemblance to the Amazons of antiquity. That’s something I’ve struggled to accept – to the point of having a visceral negative reaction to the Amazons’ recent appearance on Supernatural. (I won’t spoil the episode, but the Amazons of Paradise Island don’t have a whole lot in common with the Amazons of the Supernatural universe, either.)

Wonder Woman’s history is a bit troubled as well: created by William Moulton Marston, whose work contributed to the modern polygraph test, she was not only intended to serve as the world’s first female superhero, but also as a proponent of his philosophy. The idea was to combine “ideal” female attributes – tenderness, submission, and beauty, most notably – with the power of Superman. Wonder Woman would use this power to encourage submission to loving authority. The early stories are thus rather confused, filled with outmoded ideas and instances of bondage that may or may not have been intended as sexual but certainly come off that way. While Marston’s goals may have been noble, he was definitely still rather misguided, and the execution of his ideas was seriously lacking.

And yet, for all the flaws of her creator, for all the missteps along the way, Wonder Woman became a feminist icon. Maybe it was because she was the most prominent female superhero out there – but I’ve always thought there was more to it than that. Wonder Woman is not without her issues, but nevertheless, she’s an undeniably strong woman who embraces her womanhood. She makes no apologies for who she is. At her best, she’s a warrior and a peacemaker at once, a philosopher and ambassador who falls back on violence only as a last resort – but fights capably and ferociously when she must. Yeah, she does all this in a strapless star-spangled swimsuit (and while I ended up avoiding J. Michael Straczynski‘s run on the comic book, I have to admit that I did kind of like seeing Wonder Woman in pants and a jacket in those promo pictures)…but look past that. Look at who Diana is. There’s a lot to love.

Trouble in Paradise

As I’ve said before, I gave up on comics altogether around the time when DC announced the New 52 – a reboot of their entire universe – and made a number of unwelcome changes to characters a loved a hell of a lot. At that point, I really didn’t trust them to do right by Wonder Woman. They’d already messed up Cassie Sandsmark and it soon came out that they’d seriously messed up Starfire. But my friends have been telling me that the current Wonder Woman run is actually excellent, so I took some time in the last week to see what Diana’s been up to.

Well, she’s…different. So are the Amazons. So’s Paradise Island. There are elements I like. I actually like the tension between Diana and her fellow Amazons. It makes for interesting drama. And while this Diana is angrier than the Wonder Woman I’m used to, she’s still strong and fiercely protective of those she cares about. She has the same powerful sense of loyalty and family and the same willingness to build her own family that I remember. She’s a little quicker to jump into a fight, but she’s still clever enough to avoid one.

That said, there are also things that annoy me. The fact that (as revealed in the second issue) Wonder Woman is now the daughter of Zeus, for one. Wait a second – that’s Cassie Sandsmark’s story. You guys took Cassie’s story and shoved it into Diana’s? I’m not actually angry, because it does open up some interesting story possibilities, but I am a little vexed. And, well…Diana’s living in London now. Which is great. Sure. London. I like London. Except…why the hell is she still wearing a costume based on the American flag? Seriously, that’s the whole point of the costume: she dressed in the colors and patterns of the American flag to try and make a good impression on the United States (then one of the most powerful nations on the planet) when she revealed herself to ‘Man’s World’. I’m kind of hoping this will be explained later on – maybe she chose to abandon the U.S. for some reason. And the idea of a Wonder Woman who belongs to the whole world, not just the U.S.A. (which always did seem a little odd), appeals to me. But for the time being, it bugs me.

And then we come to the Amazons. Boy, oh, boy…the Amazons. This is where my opening paragraphs start to become relevant again.

Yeah, by the way, this is not a comic book for children. In case you were wondering.

Let me explain something about how the Amazons in Wonder Woman used to work: essentially, they were all immortal, and they were all childless. After playing their part in Greek mythology, and suffering temporary enslavement at the hands of Hercules, they retreated from Man’s World to the secluded island of Themyscira, or Paradise Island. Diana herself was actually the only child born on the island, and ‘created’ would be the more accurate term – her mother, Queen Hippolyta, crafted a baby girl out of clay and begged the gods to give her life. The rest of the Amazons went on without children or families of their own. They got to live forever, but only in isolation, without any real opportunity for reproduction.

That’s not the case anymore.

As revealed in the latest issue, the new Amazons hew much closer to the old myths. Oh, they still live in seclusion on Paradise Island – a necessary story detail, as otherwise they would have undoubtedly been overrun, destroyed and/or assimilated into other cultures over the intervening centuries. But they aren’t precisely confined there. They don’t hold themselves completely apart. Instead, at certain intervals, they go out to sea, board ships en masse, have their way with the men there, kill them all, then go home to bear any children that may result from the unions.

Oh wait. It gets better.

Yeah. So this happened.

The Amazons also hew to the myths in that they kill any male children they bear…or at least they used to. Turns out they made a little arrangement with Hephaestus, god of the forge, some time ago. They deliver all their male children to him, he takes them as slaves, and in exchange, the Amazons get weapons from his forge. Because…the Amazons are incapable of forging their own weapons? Okay, okay, that’s probably unfair: Hephaestus makes magical weapons, weapons of genuine power, and I’m sure the Amazons can’t really match his craftsmanship there. Even so…

It turns out that Hephaestus actually treats the kids pretty well. You know. For slaves. He certainly treats them well enough that, when Diana offers them their freedom, they refuse and politely ask her to untie their master. ‘Cause, you know, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a thing. They point out that slavery is preferable to death – but they’re still slaves. They were still rejected by their mothers, banished from their homes and sold into servitude because of the circumstances of their birth. Because they failed at a test they had no power to pass.

As I said before, the Amazons of myth did, according to some legends, practice slavery. They did, according to some tales, kill or abandon their male children. This is not entirely inaccurate. But it still leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

All things considered, I think I prefer the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman‘s prior runs. The Amazons who used their time in seclusion to study and grow, creating astounding new technologies and becoming better people. The Amazons who, faced with a world that was now entirely capable of finding them, chose to put the best of them forward, to try and bring what they had learned to the rest of the world, to try and improve the lot of their sisters on the outside. While the Wonder Woman of the current series intrigues me, I still miss the Wonder Woman of Greg Rucka‘s run, or Gail Simone‘s: the Diana who found strength in family and friends, who was an ambassador and an idealist first and a warrior second. That’s my Princess Diana. That’s my Themyscira. This new world…I’m not so sure about it yet. I’ll keep reading, for now, but I feel distinctly unsettled.

As a Greek mythology buff, I appreciate the accuracy. But as an Amazon…and as an Amazon who would have been killed or sold into slavery under the new order…I kind of miss my sisters. Even if they were never really there to begin with.

NOTE: Yep. This is SUPER late. I’ve been caught up in PAX East prep, and it’s not likely to get better. I’m going to try and work ahead so the next few posts will go up on schedule, and I may try to do some blogging and tweeting from the con, but I’m probably going to be pretty quiet as a rule. Wish me luck in the Omegathon – and hopefully I’ll see some of you at the con!

Fangirl Fridays: Rose Red

I know, I know. Technically this is a Fangirl Saturday post. Blame Katie! I was totally going to post last night, but then she invited me over to watch America’s Next Top Model (which is as hilariously awful as ever, but Ashley and Sophie are too cute) and I ended up sticking around for an encore of the Walking Dead season finale and by the time I got home, I was exhausted. Clearly all her fault.

Anyway. I mentioned in my first Fangirl Fridays post that the changes to Wonder Girl, a.k.a. Cassie Sandsmark, caused me to hit my wall and stop reading DC Comics. What I didn’t say at the time was this: I was pretty much heartbroken. I’d seen too much shit coming out of my favorite comics lately, and I was totally burnt out. Even though there were still some series that were going strong, series I still enjoyed, I turned my back on comic books altogether for a while. But slowly, ever so slowly, I’ve been dipping my toe back into the comic book world. Catching up on series I missed. And Fables was at the top of my list.

If I went into all the reasons why I love Fables, we’d probably be here all day. But, unsurprisingly, I’m an especially big fan of all the amazing female characters in the series, each of them strong and capable in their own ways, each of them unique individuals with their own voices. From Snow White to Cinderella to Beauty to Frau Totenkinder…I love them all. But the one I love most is Rose Red – because of all the women in the series, and (with two notable exceptions) of all the characters of either sex in the series, Rose has grown and changed the most.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST FEW ARCS OF FABLES FOLLOW.

Rose Red, as described by Snow White

While perhaps not one of the main characters, Rose is a central figure from the very first issue of Fables – when her apartment is found trashed and covered in blood, and Fabletown’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, is called in to her investigate her apparent murder. Thus, when we first ‘meet’ Rose, she doesn’t get to speak for herself – rather, she’s described by others, most especially her big sister, Snow White, Fabletown’s deputy mayor. In Snow White’s eyes, Rose is the black sheep of the family, and has been since before the fables fled to “our” world and established their settlement in New York City. She’s an unrepentant wild child, a party girl, a troublemaker. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jack (of beanstalk climbing, giant killing fame) describes her in much the same way. She’s his lover, his partner in crime, and even the people who view her most sympathetically wouldn’t exactly describe her as an angel. It eventually comes out that Rose faked her own death, with Jack’s help, and naturally they’re both punished for it. In Rose’s case, that means moving upstate for a period of hard labor on the Farm…and that’s where her life begins to change.

The Farm, you see, is where they keep the fables who can’t pass for human at all. Beast (as in Beauty’s husband) is threatened with life on the Farm a few times when his curse becomes too much to bear and he can’t stop transforming into a monster over and over again. And the Farm’s current residents include all the animal fables that are unable to assume human form, as well as a whole society of miniature people, a dragon, some giants…you get the picture. It’s completely closed off from the outside world, protected by its remote location and a whole mess of spells to distract the “Mundys,” no one is allowed to leave except under very select circumstances, and the whole place is pretty much managed by the human fables without any real input from their non-human counterparts. If this sounds rather unfair, remember that, because it becomes important.

Rose's ignorance in action.

When Rose first heads up to the farm, escorted by her sister, she clearly views the whole experience as the punishment it is, and she’s not terribly kind to the non-human fables she meets. Indeed, she’s clearly ignorant and frequently obnoxious. Then it turns out that the Farm is on the point of open rebellion, led by none other than Goldilocks, who still lives with the Three Bears and has become a violent political radical. When Rose ultimately chooses to join the revolution, it’s a bit of a shock – but, unsurprisingly, she throws herself into the fight with her usual careless, rebellious glee, and soon she and her sister are at war yet again. But there’s another twist yet to come: it turns out at the very end that Rose joined the rebellion to keep Snow White safe, and that she ultimately played a key role in bringing those responsible to justice. By the end of the arc, Rose wholeheartedly accepts her place on the Farm…and, moreover, she rises to become its administrator, working with all the resident fables to make their lives better.

Don’t be fooled, though: Rose isn’t exactly perfect from this point on. And, honestly, that’s kind of what I love about her. She screws up. She makes some serious mistakes. While she proves herself to be a competent administrator, her relationship with her sister remains strained and her personal life is kind of a mess. In later issues, she’s put through the emotional wringer, and she ultimately retreats into herself completely, slowly but steadily self-destructing, pining for everything she’s lost.

Rose and Snow in a nutshell - but there's a lot more to it than that.

But in the end, with a little outside help, she turns things around. A trip down memory lane reminds her how her feud with Snow White got started – and shows her exactly what they once were to one another, and could be again. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the story of Rose Red and Snow White is fascinating, heartbreaking, and powerful, and Rose’s decision to embrace their sisterhood once more feels like a real moment of triumph. So, too, does her decision to rejoin the world, to fight off her grief and sorrow and self-pity and take a stand in one of Fabletown’s darkest hours. She doesn’t save the day – not all on her lonesome – but she retakes the reins of leadership just when she’s needed most, and that decision impacts everything to come.

In fact, in the most recent issues, Rose’s life has changed again: again, without spoiling anything, she’s accepted new responsibilities and seized a vast new destiny. For good or ill, she’s becoming something more than a minor character in Snow White’s tale, a footnote in the fables’ tumultuous history. She’s becoming more than herself – or perhaps she’s becoming the person she was meant to be all along. I’m sure Rose has many trials ahead of her. But she’s already come so far, been to Hell and back and returned in triumph. Her story’s far from over. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rose Red, taking control and returning in triumph.

Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time

As you may have noticed, I got a little sidetracked yesterday, and then I was distracted most of the day today, so this week’s Media Mondays post is extremely late. It’s also a bit of a cheat: Once Upon A Time‘s first season is already over halfway done, and most of the reviews are already in. But I’ve been spending most of this time trying to decide whether or not I like it, and why I feel that way, and those thoughts have only recently gelled.

So, short version: yes, I like Once Upon A Time. But not without reservations.

Let’s briefly recap the premise of the show: long ago and far away, the Evil Queen of Snow White fame unleashed a vicious curse upon the fairy tale world, creating new lives for all of the characters we know and love, good and bad alike, and casting them into our world, and more specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine. The curse would not only change their lives and destinies, but warp their personal stories to prevent anyone but the Queen herself from finding their happy endings. Faced with this terrible curse, the people of the fairy tale world found one small glimmer of hope: the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who would one day break the spell and set their world to rights. Using a magic wardrobe which could send one, and only one, person on to our world, whole and unscathed, Prince Charming and Snow White sent their infant daughter ahead, hoping against hope that she would find and save them. Years later, that daughter, now grown and going by the name Emma Swan, is confronted with her own son, who she gave up for adoption years ago. This young boy, Henry, has learned all about the fairy tale world and the curse that destroyed it, and he persuades Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, Maine. After some memorable encounters with various people in town – including the Evil Queen, who is now Storybrooke’s Mayor and Henry’s adopted mother – Emma decides to stay and try to bond with her son, despite the Mayor’s opposition and her own distinct skepticism regarding Henry’s beliefs. The story in each episode flashes between our world and the fairy tale realm, gradually revealing more about the show’s characters and their world before and after the curse.

Emma Swan, Hero of Storybrooke

Let’s start with what I like about the show. First and foremost: I love Emma Swan.

This woman is a complete and utter badass. She’s the only one on the show who seems at all willing to stand up directly to the Mayor/Evil Queen. This is not to say that she is without fear, or without emotion: her friendship with Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Snow White) is genuine, and her love and concern for her biological son, Henry, is obvious. Though she was initially reluctant to become involved in Henry’s life, their relationship has grown organically over time, and the thought of losing Henry now is clearly among her worst fears. But she does not let her fear rule her, or sway her from doing what’s right. Whenever Henry has been placed in danger, Emma has conquered her fear, marched right in and saved the day.

And she has never, not once, needed some man to come running to her rescue. Emma Swan is not a damsel in distress. She’s a knight in stylish leather armor. A Big Damn Hero. Not that she’d ever call herself that – from her perspective, she defends the helpless, upholds the law and chases down criminals simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though circumstances have sometimes prompted her to compromise her principles, she always questions herself, always accepts the consequences of her actions, always shows genuine remorse in the face of her mistakes. She isn’t perfect. She’s certainly made more than her share of mistakes. But she accepts those mistakes, learns from them, and moves on. If you ask me, that’s true strength – true character. For all her faults, Emma Swan is an amazing role model, and possibly one of the strongest, most genuine characters on television today.

I. Want. That. Hat.

I also have to give serious props to Regina, the Evil Queen of the fairy tale world and the Mayor of Storybrooke. She’s wonderfully manipulative and deliciously malevolent. Her costumes (particularly in the fairy tale world) are ridiculously awesome, and her plots are intelligent, ruthless, and horribly effective. As Henry’s mother and the town’s Mayor, she makes an excellent foil to Emma; in the fairy tale world, she is omnipresent, weaving in and out of one tale after the next, spreading her dark influence.

Despite her villainy, she is not without a certain human element. Her deep love for her aged father is obvious in the pilot, and while it’s not entirely clear what she has planned for her adopted son Henry (named, notably, after her late father), she does seem to feel some genuine affection for him, and sometimes seems genuinely frustrated and baffled by his open hostility toward her. Her animosity toward Emma Swan seems to have as much to do with Emma’s role as a rival for Henry’s love as any actual threat Emma poses.

Leaving the main characters aside, I love the way the show toys with and reinvents the Disney canon. Their close association with ABC allows them to play freely with Disney’s interpretations of classic fairy tales; thus, their retelling of Beauty and the Beast features Belle and Gaston, Jiminy Cricket is a recurring character, and Maleficent is one of the Evil Queen’s buddies. And yet none of these characters are quite like their counterparts in the animated canon. Even in areas ruled by ostensibly ‘good’ kings and queens, the fairy tale world is not an idyllic paradise. People are routinely pressed into wartime service, or forced into loveless marriages, or faced with all kinds of destitution and suffering. Prejudice, violence and oppression are not the sole province of the villains. Power corrupts in the fairy tale world, just as it corrupts in real life, and while the reign of Snow White and Prince Charming seems peaceful and relatively equitable, they are an island in a sea of chaos. As our understanding of the fairy tale world grows, we are forced to question, again and again, if it’s actually any better than the reality of Storybrooke.

Then, too, there’s this: for good or ill, the women of the fairy tale world seize their own destinies. Cinderella doesn’t simply accept the help of a fairy godmother who miraculously appears out of nowhere – when her tale goes wrong, she makes a deal with the devil to win her happy ending, and has to face the consequences of those actions down the road. Snow White doesn’t simply flee into the wilderness and stumble upon a band of merry dwarves; she spends years surviving in the wild as a thief before she even meets the dwarves, let alone Prince Charming. Belle chooses to go with the ‘Beast’ of her piece to save her father’s realm from annihilation, and rejects the possessive, controlling overtures of her betrothed, Gaston. Red Riding Hood has appeared in a few tales now, offering a few glimpses of her role as a kind of courier or scout and a friend of Snow White’s; her real-world counterpart, Ruby, is similarly omnipresent, tying a number of the characters together. We’ve been promised a Ruby/Red story in an upcoming episode, and I can’t wait to see exactly what her tale might be.

So what’s not to like about the show? Well, the storylines are still somewhat contrived, and some of the writing can be awkward. The show has steadily improved, to be sure, and I’m more than willing to give it a chance to find its footing – lots of series have awkward first seasons. With such luminaries as Jane Espenson on the writing staff, I have high hopes for Once Upon A Time‘s continued evolution. Even so, some stories are still distinctly lackluster. This past Sunday’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast was particularly disappointing; though I enjoyed some aspects of the tale, I was left wondering exactly what Belle saw in her love interest and exactly what kind of message the show was trying to send. The Beast flirted with Belle, to be sure, and was not always horribly unkind to her, but he also threw her into his dungeon upon a whim, and generally treated her too poorly to be worthy of her affection.

And as much as I love the way the female characters of the fairy tale world are portrayed, I find their counterparts in Storybrooke similarly aggravating. Snow White is a badass. Her real-world counterpart, Mary Margaret, is horribly passive, rarely showing Snow White’s backbone in any respect, and hewing closer to the animated Disney princess than her own true self – for heaven’s sake, the pilot even had her releasing a bluebird out a window! I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with kind, gentle female characters, but I’d like to see Mary Margaret stand up for herself more and show a little more inner fire. Ashley, the counterpart to Cinderella, was very much a damsel in distress when we met her, and her legitimate problems with her boyfriend are all forgotten when he surprises her with a proposal. Belle’s real-world counterpart isn’t even really present in her showcase episode. And Ruby’s omnipresence in the town – at the diner, at the bed & breakfast, as Ashley and Mary Margaret’s friend – is virtually her only defining characteristic, aside from her distinctly racy attire and her contentious relationship with her grandmother (whom we haven’t even seen outside the pilot). While I accept that the Evil Queen’s curse distorted their histories and their destinies, I’m not sure I love the way it’s seemingly changed their personalities and left Emma and Regina as the strongest, most active, most interesting female characters on the show.

Still, all in all, I’m still watching, and I expect I’ll finish out the season. While I had slightly higher hopes for Grimm (which has completely failed to hold my interest, to be honest), and I still wish ABC had gone ahead with the proposed adaptation of Fables, Once Upon A Time has turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, and I’m eager to see where it goes. The show has a great premise, fantastic characters, and a hell of a lot of potential, and I truly hope it lives up to its promise.

Fangirl Fridays: Cassie Sandsmark, Wonder Girl

By the time this actually goes up, it’ll probably be Saturday, but I don’t care. For my inaugural post on this blog, I’m going to start the first of many traditions: Fangirl Fridays.

What are Fangirl Fridays? Simply put, they’re my chance to gush about someone or something I love. It might be a fictional character (and oh yes, Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Karolina Dean and Claudia Donovan are all on the docket). It might be a TV show or a movie. It might be an author or a book or a series of books. It might be a shining example of feminist or queer or minority representation. It might just be a guilty pleasure. Whatever it may be, it’ll be something that makes me go squee.

And Cassie Sandsmark is the perfect place to start, because I love, love, LOVE Wonder Girl.

Let me start by explaining a few things about myself: I have always been a nerd. I know, huge shock. But as a kid, I wasn’t the cool kind of nerd – I didn’t really get into video games until I was an adult, and I wasn’t a computer prodigy. I dressed up for special occasions, and I had some pretty cool costumes here and there, but I never really got into cosplay. I didn’t make neat little indie films or shot-for-shot remakes with my friends. My sister got most of the artistic talent; I tried my hand at drawing and sculpting, but never reached her level of mastery. Worst of all, I was, and still am, an introvert. So I was the worst of all nerds. I was a bookworm.

More than that, I was a history nerd. I wrote essays on various historical figures and periods for fun. (I was homeschooled. I didn’t even have to write the essays. They were never even graded.) I would check out a dozen books on Ancient Greece or Victorian England or Edo Japan for light reading. (Two things. One, yes, a dozen books. I was a voracious reader. Two, also yes, I liked steampunk before steampunk was cool.) I dreamed of being an archaeologist, and I don’t mean I wanted to be Indiana Jones, though part of me sort of did. As much as I loved the promise of the future, as much as I enjoyed the promise of the present, the past enthralled me.

As I grew up, all that sort of went by the wayside. I don’t mean I lost interest in history. Of course I didn’t. But I found new interests: folklore and mythology, psychology, game design, creative writing, and eventually, yes, video games. And all of these interests have, gradually, fed into one another. Lately I’ve been delving into history and mythology again as I research the background of my first novel, Fall. But history no longer dominated my life or my reading lists. I didn’t want to be an archaeologist anymore. I found new dreams and started doing new things.

Flash forward to the end of the Young Justice comic book and the beginning of the new Teen Titans. I’d started getting into comic books as a teenager, and had naturally drifted toward DC. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were already familiar characters. I started seeing references to a new Wonder Girl and I decided to check out Teen Titans as a result.

I don’t know when exactly I fell in love with Cassie Sandsmark. I know I was instantly amused and excited, in a dorky fangirlish way, that she shared the name I’d chosen for myself. I also know I didn’t fully understand her backstory at first, and while I thought her character was fantastic – strong, intelligent, beautiful, brave – I wasn’t hooked until I’d started delving into her past. But somewhere in there, I just clicked. I understood her. I empathized with her. I saw in her so much of the person I was and so very much of the person I wanted to be.

See, Cassie’s a nerd made good. And not just any nerd. A history nerd. A mythology nerd. The daughter of an archaeologist. Wonder Woman’s greatest fan. And when the world needed a new hero, she didn’t just jump at the call. She made the call happen. She grabbed the sandals of Hermes and the gauntlet of Atlas and used them to fight the forces of evil. She went up to Zeus himself and all but demanded powers of her own. And, at first, she lived and fought in Wonder Woman’s shadow. She wore Wonder Woman’s emblem and even donned a truly hideous black wig to be more like her hero. But as she grew, and changed, and gained confidence in herself as a hero and as a strong, capable young woman, she stepped out of the shadows and became something more. She lost the wig. She adopted new costumes, paying homage to her hero while establishing her own identity. She even, eventually (though not entirely by choice), gave up her secret identity and let the whole world see exactly who she was. She made mistakes, and she learned from them, but she made no apologies for herself.

When it came out that Cassie was actually Zeus’s daughter, somehow, I wasn’t surprised. When she began to come into her own powers as a demigoddess, shedding the abilities she had been granted by her father and by Ares and becoming, above all else, herself, I was thrilled. Her romance with Superboy still feels like one of the most authentic teen romances I’ve seen in a mainstream superhero comic – and while there were moments, particularly during the period when her powers were fluctuating wildly, when she had to watch her boyfriend fly off and save the day without her, they still felt like equal partners. They loved each other. They respected each other. Cassie could handle her own fights – she could even fight Conner, when she had to – and she didn’t need her boyfriend to rescue her.

Alas, all good things come to an end. In the latter days of Teen Titans, particularly as DC began steering toward the series of reboots that have (hopefully) come to an end, for now, with the New 52, her characterization changed. A lot of writers seemed to be treating her as the Titans’ annoying ‘head cheerleader,’ a disagreeable and tyrannical leader rather than the smart, strong, mature young woman I knew and loved. I slowly began to lose interest. When the New 52 hit, and it came out that DC was reinventing Cassie as a superpowered thief and rebel, I hit my wall. That was when I said goodbye to DC comics altogether. That was when I decided I didn’t need their stories anymore. I had loved Cassie’s stories before, and I would love them forever, but I had no interest in reading the new ones.

I haven’t abandoned Cassie Sandsmark. I still use her as an avatar on so many sites and forums. My personal contact cards (which I had out to new friends at cons and parties) still feature her prominently, fierce and determined and ready for battle. I still look to her and see what I want to be: a nerd made good. The awkward little geek who grew into someone strong, someone beautiful, someone confident and brave, someone unafraid of her intelligence and her power. Someone who makes no apologies for who or what she is. She is, in so many ways, the woman I wish I was, and the woman I try to be. I call myself Themiscyra, and that’s an homage to all the Amazons, both mythological and fictional, but above all else, it’s my homage to her. The superhero who shares my name. The girl who shares my past. The woman who inspires my geeky little heart to greatness.

I don’t care what DC’s done to her. Cassandra Sandsmark, daughter of Zeus, demigoddess, Wonder Girl – she’s freaking awesome. Part of me will always love her. And somewhere, in some parallel fictitious world where the colors are a whole lot brighter and everyone laughs at the laws of physics, I know she’s still out there, blazing her own trail, fighting the forces of evil, and going on some truly epic adventures.

And maybe, someday, the Cassie Sandsmark I know and love will return to the printed page. Or to the Young Justice TV show. I’ll be keeping an eye out. But don’t expect me to sit idly by. This Wonder Girl has her own adventures to see to.