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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
Dave Chua
Brandon Wee
Wong Lung Hsiang
Felix Cheong
Foong Ngai Hoe
Adrian Sim
Chris Khoo
O Thiam Chin
Lau Chee Nien
Ambient Noise
Sarhan Rashid
Ying Wuen
Ellery Ngiam
Toh Hai Leong
Toh Hai Leong, Auteur
Wong Kar Wai
The Seduction of Wong Kar Wai
Tsai Ming Liang
Lav Diaz
Mikio Naruse
Leslie Cheung
Jonathan Foo Interview
Chinese Ghosts
Assassins in Asian FIlms
Sex in Asian Cinema
Erotic Cinema of the Shaw Studios
Homosexuality in Chinese Films
My Left Eye Sees Creativity
Hollywood Remakes
Comic Book Superheroes
One League of Social Consciousness
Emerging Trends in East Asian Cinema
Postwar Korean Cinema
Decline of Hong Kong Cinema before 1997
Rise of Afghan Films
Singapore's Mini Cinema
Creating A Singapore Cinema
Why Cinema is Important to Singapore
Singapore Film Industry
Rites of Passage
Replying to Critics
Daniel Yun Interview
Singapore International Film Festival
Bangkok International Film Festival
Tokyo International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival
Writer's Block
All Tomorrow's Parties
And Also the Eclipse
Another Heaven
At Five in the Afternoon
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Bangkok Haunted
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Batang West Side
Battle Royale
Bear Hug
Beautiful Boxer
Beijing Rocks
Bend It Like Beckham
Best of Times
Betelnut Beauty
Big Durian
Big Shot's Funeral
Bird Man Tale
Blissfully Yours
Blue Kite
Bounce Ko Gals
Brighter Summer Day, A
Cafe Lumiere
Cat Returns
Chinese Odyssey 2002
City of Glass
City Sharks
Color of the Truth
Color Blossoms
Confucian Confusion
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Dark Water
Destination 9th Heaven
Divine Intervention
Double Vision
Dumlings: 3 Extremes
Enter the Phoenix
Era of Vampire, The
Eye, The
Eye 2, The
Eye 10, The
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Floating Weeds
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Formula 17
Full Alert
Ghost in the Shell
God or Dog
Golden Chicken
Golden Chicken 2
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Guru, The
Hana-Bi (Fireworks)
Harold and Kumar
Hidden Blade, The
House of Flying Daggers
House of Fury
House of Sand and Fog
Howl's Moving Castle
I Not Stupid
In the Mood for Love
Infernal Affairs
Infernal Affairs III
Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2
Iron Ladies 2
Isle, The
Jan Dara
Jealousy is My Middle Name
Joint Security Area
Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)
July Rhapsody
Korban Fitnah
Kung Fu Hustle
Lan Yu
Last Life in the Universe
Last Samurai, The
Legend of Zu, The
Liang Po Po
Love Letter
Lucky Number
Marry a Rich Man
Me Thao
Medallion, The
Monrak Transistor
Moveable Feast, A
Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.
Musa the Warrior
My Left Eye Sees Ghosts
My Neighbors The Yamadas
My Sassy Girl
Naked Weapon
Name of a River, The
New Police Story
Nobody Knows
Nobody Knows How to be a Film Critic
One Leg Kicking
Perfect Blue
Phone, The
Ping Pong
Pirated Copy
Princess D
River, The
Road Home
Romance of Book and Sword
Runaway Pistol
S Diary
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Scent of Green Papaya
Seoul Raiders
Seventeen Years
Shall We Dance?
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Singapore Gaga
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Song of the Stork
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Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring
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Tale of Two Sisters, A
Tears of the Black Tiger
Teenage Textbook Movie
This Charming Girl
Three: Extremes
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Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors
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Volcano High
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Way Home, The
Welcome Back Mr McDonald
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When I Fall In Love With Both
Wishing Stairs
Wolves Cry Under the Moon
Woman is the Future of Man
Women's Private Parts
World Without Thieves, A
Zombie Dog
A Time to Live A Time to Die
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   Comic Book Superheroes  



Comic Book Superheroes

by Felix Cheong

To paraphrase an old Tina Turner number: we don’t need another superhero. Or do we?

Going by box office takings for Daredevil, currently at US$91.5 million in North America 4 weeks after its release, we certainly do.

We still need the life-affirming fantasy of a superhero despite the events of 9-11 superceding fantasy. More than ever, we need the strength and single-mindedness of a superhero to save us from ourselves.

This is perhaps why there’s a queue of them in the wings, waiting to woo us with their heroics: The Bulletproof Monk (opening in the US next month), the X-Men sequel X-2 (May 2) and The Hulk (June 20).

This bumper crop is by no means a new phenomenon. If you flip through the archives, you’d find an outbreak of superhero flicks every decade or so. For example, in the late 1970s and early 80s, there were the four Superman films; in the late 1980s and early 90s, there were the four Batman films.

The success of flicks is not only due to their whiz-bang special effects but also, in part, to their value as vicarious entertainment.

For the fists of the superhero are our weapons too; they whack the living daylights out of villains we are reluctant to face, impotent to combat. The superhero, in fact, is an idealised image of all we aspire to be but are not.

By springing him alive out of imagination, we become that much larger than life, that much nearer to virtue. This was indeed how two scrawny teenagers came up with the idea for Superman, the world’s first comic book superhero, in 1933.

According to Bradford Wright in his book Comic Book Nation (2001), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conceived the Man of Steel really as a schoolboy’s fantasy to compensate for the constant bullying by older, bigger boys. With his Herculean strength and angel-like flight, Superman was the kids’ alter ego, their better selves, daring to take on evil men they could not.

This refraction of reality, through the prism persona of the superhero, was later the guiding light for other comic book creators, especially during the Golden Age of Comics in the 1930s and 1940s.

Superheroes like Captain America and Captain Marvel took to the trenches, slugging it out with Hitler’s forces on pulp and paper well before the Allied armies sealed victory in 1945.

In this respect, while the subject matter of superhero comic books is fantastical, their thematic concern is not. The same goes for superhero films. For instance, at the tail end of the 1970s, a decade that had witnessed Watergate, there was Superman (1978), the first comic book superhero to be adapted for the big screen.

While serious filmmakers like Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now!) questioned what it meant to be a patriot in the light of the country’s involvement in Vietnam, Superman reiterated old-fashioned values of "truth, justice and the American way". The movie was a kind of escape hatch, a way to avoid eye contact with doubt and collapse.

Grossing in excess of US$134 million, its popularity led inevitably to a cartwheel of sequels. But other than Superman II (1980), which earned a respectable US$108 million, the rest were commercial and critical flops.

This was mainly because as Reaganomics worn Americans down in the 1980s, rah-rah patriotism became passé. Audiences, fed on the mantra "greed is good", needed a new superhero, one who would reflect their cynicism and dark desires. And they found it in Batman (1989), a Gothic work that opened up the underbelly of a world gone corrupt and keenly mad.

Racking up a staggering US$251 million at the box office, the film was notable for its postmodern depiction of the superhero as a brooding, psychologically complex character. In this, director Tim Burton was influenced by the revisionist approach of Frank Miller in his graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986).

Unlike Superman, whose operative word was light, the Caped Crusader was a vigilante who sought cover in night, prowling the streets to dispense his brand of cruel justice. He was a superhero who had more in common with his nemesis The Joker than with the citizens of Gotham City he had sworn to protect. He was, in other words, no different from antiheroes like Dirty Harry who would shoot from the hip first and ask questions later.

The idea of a superhero who exacts justice by his own hands and seeks revenge in his own terms, draws its moral code really from the Old Testament Bible, particularly in the famous line "vengeance is mine, says the Lord".

X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002), in some ways, tried to temper the extremity of this position. Post-911, the message at the heart of X-Men was tolerance, while that of Spider-man was that with power comes responsibility.

Daredevil seems to have upset the feel-good vibes, revisiting the superhero-as-vigilante theme. But the timing could not be more apt. Against the backdrop of the US playing global policeman, threatening to unleash a Gulf War sequel, the story of a blind superhero that insists justice is not blind, must cut that much closer to home.

This is the appeal of superhero films, what ultimately gives them their raison d’etre. More than mere escapist fare, they’re really a celluloid metaphor for the state of the world, within and without. And this is why whenever things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, Hollywood presses another superhero into service, imprints his deeds on popular imagination.