Elektra Assassinated by IGN

Gaming portal IGN takes a shot at Elektra in this article. Is everybody piling on just for the heck of it? I liked the movie.
January 28, 2005 - When Jennifer Garner canceled her promotion tour for the new Elektra movie, in which she plays the title role, claiming to be ill, there was much debate as to what the real explanation may be. Well, I've seen the Elektra movie, and I didn't feel all that well by the end either. It's this year's Catwoman movie.

I hadn't expected much from the Elektra movie. There were warning signs. It was being released in January, a notorious dumping ground for mediocre movies, presumably because it is assumed that the audience either is staying warm at home or is still working its way through the deluge of Christmas releases. This is also a Marvel movie that Sam Raimi had nothing to do with. When I bought my ticket to the multiplex I saw Elektra in, I even discovered it was playing in theater 13!

Then there's the line in the ads: "Get into Elektra-Fying Shape Sweepstakes. Visit a participating Lady Foot Locker for details." So I take it that none of the corporate executives who hammered out this little merchandising tie-in quite realized that the Elektra that Frank Miller created in the comics was an emotionally disturbed serial murderess. Were I an advertising executive, this is hardly the sort of person I would want endorsing my product. Why do I have the feeling that Frank didn't really have women's running shoes in mind when he created Elektra?

Of course, there was also the disappointing precedent set by Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox's previous Daredevil movie, which combined a revisionist version of Daredevil's origin (inexplicably leaving out young Matt Murdock's heroic rescue of the endangered blind man) with a condensed retelling of Frank Miller's "Elektra Saga" storyline from his classic run on the series. I've heard the Daredevil movie's writer/director Mark Steven Johnson speak at a panel at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival, at which he made his respect for Miller's original Daredevil stories clear. So I am persuaded that Johnson tried his best to be faithful to Miller's work, but his movie simply did not prove up to the challenge. That's a particular letdown because Miller's "Elektra Saga" is the most intensely dramatic, even operatic, material that has so far been adapted from comic books to the movie screen. It could potentially have been the basis of the greatest comics-based movie ever made.

The passage of time was essential to Miller's portrayal of Elektra. She met Matt Murdock and became his girlfriend when they were both students at my own alma mater, Columbia University. Both accomplished athletes, Elektra and Matt tried and failed to save the life of her father when he was held captive by terrorists. Emotionally shattered, Elektra left Matt and eventually became a student of his own martial arts master, Stick. But Stick finally rejected her because she proved unable to master her emotions. Hoping to prove herself to Stick, this new father figure, Elektra infiltrated the Hand, the malevolent Japanese band of assassins, intending to betray them from within. But instead Elektra was corrupted by them, and over time became the cold-blooded killer-for-hire whom Miller introduced to readers in Daredevil #168 (January 1981 – nearly a quarter century ago!). Her transformation from a relative innocent to a hardened murderess did not take place overnight.

In the Daredevil movie, with its compression of time, Matt and Elektra first meet as adults, and when she mistakenly thinks Daredevil is to blame for her father's death, she vengefully turns against him. Now, wanting revenge on a specific person is not the same thing as being willing to kill virtually anybody, innocent or not, for a price. But at the start of the Elektra movie the title character has become a conscienceless mercenary assassin. How did the movie Elektra make the psychological leap from one to the other?

But then Elektra's deadened conscience is awakened when she meets her latest assigned targets: a father and his young daughter Abby, whose mother was murdered. Elektra's mother was killed, too, so we are to believe that Elektra would from that point on risk her life over and over to protect this girl and her father. But isn't it more psychologically credible that Elektra, if she had indeed numbed her conscience to killing people, would not abruptly shift gears on meeting a child who lost her own mother? By this point Elektra must have slaughtered plenty of people who have kids. Remember, too, that in Miller's stories, when the Kingpin assigns Elektra to kill Daredevil, her former lover, she does her best to carry out the assignment, undeterred by her past feelings for him. (Yes, in Miller's stories, just before her death, Elektra is assigned to kill Matt's friend, Foggy Nelson, but lets him go when he recognizes her as "Matt's girl." But that is because Foggy thus reminded her of her lost innocence, not out of sympathy for him.) It's even harder to swallow the idea that Elektra's agent in the movie, a comedic character it is hard to imagine her tolerating, willingly sacrifices his own life to protect the endangered father and child. This agent is a guy who has no qualms about arranging deals for Elektra to murder people. why would he suddenly develop a conscience?

And yes, in Miller's Elektra: Assassin we learn that Elektra's mother was murdered. But an "Electra complex" is defined as a woman's psychological/sexual obsession with her father, a female counterpart to the Oedipus complex. Like her namesake in the works of Sophocles, Euripides, and Richard Strauss, Elektra is driven by her emotions over the murder of her father. In fact, the Electra of Greek tragedy hated her mother and was an accessory in murdering her.

So, Roger Ebert is right in his review when he asserts that the Elektra movie "goes for cheap sentiment by having her bond with a 12-year-old girl." Unwilling to delve into the depths of Elektra's psyche, the movie turns her into a wannabe mommy.

On the other hand, this 12-year-old isn't entirely a helpless victim. When the movie reveals its big surprise, which I have no qualms about giving away, that Abby is herself a martial arts prodigy capable of fending off assailants, the discerning moviegoer will be able to perceive Elektra jumping the shark. That's the point at which I could no longer find this story credible.

Stick is here, and, as in the comics, he is blind, and he hangs out in a pool hall. But whereas Miller explained that Stick has his own version of Daredevil's "radar sense," the movie offers no such help to its audience, who will be baffled as to how Stick knows where the billiard balls are positioned on the table. Like Halle Berry in Catwoman and the X-Men films, actor Terence Stamp has now become a living Marvel-DC Amalgam: he played Stick in this movie, General Zod in Superman II, and the voice of Jor-El on Smallville.

But the movie ignores what makes Stick distinctive and interesting. Miller cast Stick as the least likely of martial arts sensei: a crabby old man, shabbily dressed, who whacked Matt Murdock with his stick when Matt missed the point. The movie turns Stick into an elegant, refined wise old teacher, the very cliche that Miller was trying to avoid. Similarly, what is intriguing about Ann Nocenti's co-creation, Typhoid Mary, is that she is a female Jekyll and Hyde, but the movie ignores the duality of her personality. In Miller's comics Kirigi was an enigmatic giant, seemingly unkillable; the movie version is a standard issue martial arts bad guy. What gives the hand its dramatic power in the comics is its mysterious cult-like nature, but the filmmakers have the Hand run by an overly familiar boardroom full of corporate bad guys, missing the point so badly that Stick should whack them over their collective heads.

Consider the missed opportunities. This story takes place on and around Christmas. I expect that Miller himself would have created some ironic shafts of black humor around the idea of Yuletide assassinations, but the film does nothing with the Christmas motif. For some reason, the Elektra movie avoids any mention of Daredevil. But Elektra is in large part Miller's version of a film noir femme fatale, translated into the contexts of the superhero and martial arts genres. Elektra is designed to have a dark romantic appeal. Hence, most of Miller's stories with Elektra involve the sexual spell she casts over men, whether it is Daredevil or Garrett, the male lead of Elektra: Assassin. In this movie, Elektra does kiss Abby's father, whose name is Mark Miller. (I suppose this is a nod to Frank Miller, though it looks more like a homage to comics writer Mark Millar.) But that's as far as any romance or sexual involvement in this movie goes, and a whole dimension of the Elektra concept goes with it. In his review of Elektra, Ebert cites what he calls "the beautiful scene" in the Daredevil movie in which the blind superhero visualizes "her face by listening to raindrops falling on it." Rightly, Ebert recognizes the romantic aspect of Elektra and regrets that the new movie does virtually nothing with it.

It is a valuable critical exercise to stand back from the details of a plot, and to look at the overall outlines of a story, to look at the forest rather than the individual trees. In his review in The New York Sun (Jan. 14-16, 2005), critic Nathan Lee took just such a step back. He wrote that "Elektra struck me as essentially a movie about a highly skilled, highly successful single white woman who abruptly decides she's unsatisfied with her independent life. Naturally, the next phase of her womanhood will be to form a nuclear family unit with some other white people, whom she must then defend against the Oriental conspiracy, big black men, grubby counter-culture freaks, and diseased lesbians." I'm afraid that Lee is right that the Elektra movie does have these unfortunate implications.

Then there are other baffling matters. Why do the members of the Hand turn into puffs of powder when they die? Are they leftover vampires who never got "dusted" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Why do the filmmakers give Elektra obsessive compulsive disorder, which then plays no significant part in the plot? Well, the cover illustration on Danny Fingeroth's book Superman on the Couch (see "Comics in Context" #41: "Traditions in Transition") has a psychiatrist writing "obsessive compulsive" down on his note pad, so now Danny has an example of a superhero with OCD that he can cite in a second edition. And what makes Elektra think that, just because Kirigi promised her he would let the little girl go, that she's out of danger? If they're so evil, why should the Hand's corporate executives honor his pledge? How would they even know he made such a promise?

At least in this movie, unlike the Daredevil film, Jennifer Garner gets to wear Elektra's costume from the comics in two long sequences. But the outfit looks incomplete without Elektra's trademark headgear, and thanks to this movie, I finally realize why Miller designed it for her: it keeps her hair out of her eyes during fight scenes!

There's a game I play with the credits of every Marvel movie: trying to find credits for the creators of the title characters, without whom the movies would not exist. It's like the Marvel counterpart to Where's Waldo. Stan Lee is credited on all of them as "executive producer," of course, but I'm looking for an acknowledgement on screen that he and/or others actually created the main characters.

In the first X-Men movie, there's a list of people the filmmakers "thank" towards the end of the closing credits, including Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Presumably this is because Lee and Kirby created the X-Men concept and many of the film's characters, including Professor Xavier, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Magneto, but if you don't already know that, the movie is not about to tell you. The way the credit is phrased, it's as if the filmmakers used a ouija board to ask the late Mr. Kirby's advice. The team Lee and Kirby isn't in the credits for X2 at all, and neither movie acknowledges the creators of other major characters, including Len Wein and Chris Claremont. One could well argue that the movies reflect Claremont's version of the X-Men more than Lee and Kirby's, and that were it not for Claremont's first fifteen-year-long run writing the series, turning what was once a commercial failure into a money-making powerhouse, there would be no X-Men films.

The Spider-Man movies get it almost entirely right, proclaiming in the opening credits that the films are based on "the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko." Perhaps lawyers could explain why the word "created" is significantly left out.

There are no creator credits in the Daredevil movie, although writer/director Mark Steven Johnson named plenty of characters in the film after writers and artists who worked on the comic series.

The Hulk movie correctly credits the character's creation to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but pushes the credit back to the start of the closing credit sequence. However, this movie also has my favorite cameo by Stan Lee to date, with him chatting away to Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk on the 1970s television series. Stan has Hitchcock-style cameos in most of the Marvel movies, and is anyone else disappointed that he wasn't in X2?

Lee had nothing to do with creating Elektra, so I didn't expect to see him in her movie. Frank Miller had an on-screen cameo in the Daredevil movie, dropping dead after being shot in the head by Bullseye: somehow this seems all too symbolic of what the movie did to Miller's work. Miller is not in the Elektra movie, nor is he mentioned in the opening credits. So I sat through the closing credits, while exiting moviegoers squeezed past me, as I searched patiently through the hundreds of names. Yep, there's a credit for the caterers, but still nothing for Frank. Then, finally, just before the copyright notice, there is a line that Elektra is based on "the character by Frank Miller." I look around the theater and see only one other person left. It seems even the cleaning people had come and gone by this point. And you'll notice that once again the magic word "created" is missing.

Amidst the mind-numbing, interminable succession of crass commercials and dreadful movie trailers that preceded the showing of Elektra was the promised trailer for this summer's Fantastic Four movie. It is a rapidly edited montage of shots from the film, inducing me to wonder why they don't want to show us anything longer, like an actor performing a line of dialogue or two.

When I conducted a "round table" of interviews with past Fantastic Four writers and artists for TwoMorrows' Back Issue magazine, some interviewees assumed that the FF movie would use CGI for the Thing and Doctor Doom. Instead, the filmmakers resorted to the low tech (and lower budgeted?) technique of putting the actors playing the roles in costume. Seeing the brief glimpse the trailer affords of Doctor Doom in costume set me wondering. How come Darth Vader, whose costume so resembles that of Doctor Doom, looks so impressive, powerful, and sinister onscreen, while Doctor Doom himself looks disappointingly, pathetically small and ineffectual?

As for the Thing, perhaps CGI would have produced a Thing whose face and brick-like hide more closely resembled Jack Kirby's mid-1960s version. After all, Kirby's Thing is an amalgam of realism and cartooniness: that's probably why he has only four digits on each hand, like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse.

On the other hand, perhaps CGI animators would have been tempted to make the Thing look bigger than human, as the animators on the Hulk movie did, and as so many comics artists have been doing starting with the Image founders' heyday. Silver Age enthusiasts will recall when the size-changing Henry Pym, alias Goliath, was stuck at a height of ten feet, and how Don Heck drew him towering over the other Avengers. This both made Goliath unique and separated him from the rest of humanity. Nowadays so many comics artists draw even non-super-powered strongmen as at least seven feet tall. But Lee and Kirby intended the Thing, however broad shouldered and muscular, to have recognizably human proportions. On various occasions they would show the Thing attempting to walk the streets anonymously, wearing a voluminous trench coat and pulling his fedora down over his brow. How could this have worked if the Thing were seven or eight feet tall? So I appreciate the human-sized Thing of the FF movie.

But what I most enjoyed seeing on this visit to the multiplex were three posters for the forthcoming Sin City movie, based on the crime comics series created by Frank Miller and even co-directed by him. The posters, pictures of leading actors in the movie, posing in character against a background of pelting rain and blackness, not only evoked a contemporary version of film noir but looked like Miller's own art come to life. So there will be a real translation of Frank Miller's comics work to the screen this year. But Elektra isn't it.

The forerunner of all the various encyclopedia-style books and online sites devoted to superheroes was the late Mark Gruenwald's The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe in the 1980s. Originally, Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter came up with the idea for a "specs" book, which would list statistics for Marvel heroes, such as how much each could bench press; his model was baseball cards. Mark, though, was a visionary, and he radically transformed Shooter's concept. One of Stan Lee's innovations in the Marvel comics of the 1960s was to take the concept of the shared fictional universe much further than comics had done previously. Marvel heroes would continually cross over into each other's books; villains were not restricted to battling only one hero. Characters could easily migrate from one series to another; for example, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch debuted in X-Men but later joined the Avengers. Through The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Mark intended to create a vast reference work, cataloguing Marvel's thousands of characters, its fictional places, its extraterrestrial races and alternate dimensions. Within one voluminous series, all of Marvel history would be chronicled; the multitudinous links connecting its major characters with each other's histories would be made clear; so too would the workings of heroes' super-powers and the underlying principles of Marvel-Earth's futuristic technology. I was lucky enough to work on all four versions of the Handbook that Mark edited, as well as "update" issues. in fact, as Mark grew busier with editorial duties and as the Handbook's size greatly expanded, I ended up becoming the Handbook's principal writer. I also got to work on various versions of DC's Who's Who, its less ambitious counterpart to the Handbook.

Just before Mark passed away, he told me he had gotten approval for us to do another Handbook update series; this, however, never happened, and for years Marvel resisted doing a new Handbook. Now, years later, both DC and Marvel are churning out encyclopedias and handbooks of their characters, either in house or through the Dorling Kindersley company. Some of you may wonder why I don't get to work on these new projects; so do I.

When I consider these new projects, I look for some sign of the kind of vision and imagination that inspired the original Gruenwald Handbooks, some indication that their editors and writers have a sense of what Mark intended with his creation. In other words, I want to see superhero encyclopedias that look as if they weren't just being ground out to make a buck.

So I was pleased when Kurt Busiek used text pages in one issue of his most recent Astro City miniseries to do a miniature Handbook of the most prominent superheroes in the vast array he has created for his often brilliant series. Even better, because it was both more imaginative and extensive, was Busiek's more recent Visitor's Guide to Astro City, which conveys information about his fictional city and its superhuman protectors in the form of an illustrated travel guidebook.

I'm also pleased with The Superhero Book, recently published by Visible Ink, edited by Gina Misiroglu, and written by numerous contributors, including my editor on Back Issue magazine, Michael Eury, because this book shows ambition. Its mission is to catalogue every superhero of significance: those at Marvel and DC, those at alternative comics companies, and those in prose fiction, television and the movies. And the book succeeds to an astonishing degree. The main Astro City heroes are here, as are the superhumans from George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards novels. This book puts the Museum of Television and Radio's superhero retrospective (see "Comics in Context" #47-56) to shame by finding yet more superhero shows that the Museum missed: from The Greatest American Hero to Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse, Bob Kane's funny animal variation on Batman. Proto-superheroes such as Doc Savage and the Shadow get entries, as do characters such as Buffy, the Spirit, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman, who really are superheroes even if they might not seem to be at first glance. From what I've read so far in this book, it rarely commits errors. (Here's one, though: how come the "Blonde Phantom" entry missed the fact that John Byrne brought the character back, as an elderly woman in Sensational She-Hulk?) There are gaps in the book's coverage: I would have liked information on Marvel's New Universe, 2099 line, Shadowline (created by Clive Barker) and "M2" line (though Spider-Girl makes it in). But really, if the best I can do is dredge up memories of these failed Marvel ventures, then you know that The Superhero Book's scope is very wide indeed.

It isn't easy to cover all of this material either, without access to the DC library (which is virtually complete) and the Marvel bound volume room (which is exasperatingly shot full of holes like Swiss cheese); despite the great strides graphic novels have made into getting into libraries, you can't just wander into the local library to trace the history of, say, the Harvey Comics superheroes.

As long as continuity continues to evolve at Marvel and DC, any book like this one is bound to be dated as soon as it comes out. Hence, Ms. Misoroglu and her contributors could not foresee the havoc wreaked by DC's Identity Crisis and Marvel's Avengers Disassembled. Considering what has recently happened to her, it's rather sad to read in the Scarlet witch's entry that "Perhaps feeling that they have wrung every last plot twist from the unfortunate girl, Marvel's writers have been somewhat kinder to the Scarlet Witch in the new millennium."

The Superhero Book does not attempt to compile detailed, definitive biographies of characters as if they were real people, as the Gruenwald Handbooks did, nor do they delve into the sort of lit-crit analysis I practice in my columns. But The Superhero Book provides the basic facts about who each character is, who his or her principal writers and artists were, and about his or her appearances in different media. In other words, this is a praiseworthy basic reference work for not one comics company but for the entire superhero genre, attesting to its variety and vitality. It's one-stop shopping for anyone who wants an accurate, enthusiastic overview of the history of the American superhero.
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