Tuesday, September 09, 2003

A Christian's Guide to Cussing

Following a recent speaking engagement I was approached by a young man sporting a floppy Gilligan-like hat. The hat pressed down against dark curly hair that matched his dark soul patch, and dark framed glasses. A little on the swarthy side, he was dressed in that way people who want to be alternative but aren’t really committed to the endeavor do.
“Thanks for that,” he said in reference to my sermon, “You really cut through all the bullshit.”
I had just spoken on Christianity being a dangerous faith, a reckless faith, to invoke an adventurous Albertan indie band of the 90’s. Gilligan and I were both standing a few feet from the monstrous stage I had just spoken upon. Triple screens tower above us in this massive sanctuary that seats 1000+ congregants on a Sunday morning. While it’s evening, not morning, this isn’t the sort of church I expect to hear the more popular form of the phrase “hooey manure” in, morning noon or night.
Being no stranger to colorful language, I don’t react. It’s a trait I developed working with young offenders. Edgy students will often swear to get a reaction from the leader, be they teacher, pastor or coach. Since I could swear circles around most of the recalcitrant youth I’ve worked with, their attempts at shocking me fail abysmally. (Immediately I hear the morality cops crying out, “See! He’s jaded so much that he’s not often shocked!”)
“Thanks,” is all I say. Truth of the matter is, I can’t tell whether the insertion of ‘bullshit’ so boldly into the first moments of our conversation was trying to get a reaction or honest speech pattern.
We exchange some small talk, which inevitably gets around to “What church do you attend back home?” I tell him I attend the Gathering in Edmonton.
His body language registers recognition. I’m getting ready to tell him there are lots of Gatherings, and he likely hasn’t heard of ours when he asks “Do you know….?” It turns out that I do. Apparently he has heard of our Gathering.
“I’ve got a problem with your church’s website,” he says.
I invite him to air his concerns, and he informs me that “some guy” has written “an article” about Evanescence where he uses coarse language throughout. I know exactly what article he’s talking about. I also know the guy he’s talking about. It’s me. I let him finish his rant before stepping from behind the curtain. He’s taken aback, but persists in his line of accusation.
“Do you want to explain to me why you think that’s all right?”
I’m trying hard to frame our conversation properly. After all, he’s the one who started it by thanking me for cutting through all the bullshit. Not hogwash, not horse hockey, not fiddlesticks, not the ever so annoying bull-crap. He said bullshit, in clear and well enunciated elocution. I want desperately to point that out, but I’m assuming he’s a moderate user of colloquialisms. It’s likely my use of the great f-bomb in the original text of the Evanescence article (The Gathering printed the uncensored version, I edited the version here at Gotthammer.) that has Gilligan up in arms.
“I’m not sure I need to explain it,” I reply. “I said pretty much what I felt and still feel about the issue in the original article.” In reviewing the article later on, I am reminded that the reason I used such strong language was for irony’s sake. The whole point had been to highlight what I saw as an overreaction on the part of the Christian community toward bad language. I used some choice words to underscore this idea.
In our conversation, though the old For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is never invoked, Gilligan uses a few more four lettered dainties. He’s an s-word Christian it seems, to quote an old article from The Door which categorized the levels of swearing various groups of Christians in North America deem acceptable. One of the members of the aforementioned Reckless Faith used to call me his “F-word Christian” friend, with no small degree of affection. According to the article, F-word Christians “are the angry young men and women of Christendom. They could give a S*** about impressing anyone with how Liberal and open-minded they are. They are all upset over hypocrisy in the Church, rich Christians in fancy cars with attitudes about migrant workers, and global warming…plus nuclear energy, inner-city poverty, western economic imperialism, and the insistence some Darn Christians have on prayer in schools, flag burning, and the evolution thing…not to mention abortion, homosexuality, AIDS, measles, bloody-minded legalism, and a bunch of other stuff.” While not entirely accurate in my case, I fit the bill for the most part, especially the part about using the "F-word".
Confession time? Hardly. Anyone who knows me well knows I have an inclination to swear like a trucker, a sailor, a soldier, like Eminem. I often tell people they’ll know I feel safe around them if I start slipping up with my speech. I do my best to censor myself in most arenas of life. The article obviously wasn’t one of them. I was going out of my way to say what I said.
The whole issue has become more pronounced in my mind over the past two months, hand in hand with my decision to become a freelance writer and speaker as a career. Christian speakers who swear like truckers are generally not in high demand, despite the promulgation of the story of Tony Campolo saying “thousands of children will die of starvation today and most of you don’t give a damn. And more of you are upset that I just said ‘damn’ than you are that those thousands will die.” Some versions of the story present him as an s-word Christian instead of a d-word one, but I wouldn’t put it past the man. He obviously had intent when he used whichever word it was.
Camp after camp I inform the students who attend the campfires and chapels of my online presence, telling them it’s not “got as in ‘got milk?’” but rather the German for “God’s hammer”: Gotthammer. Both a reference to my camp speaker alter ego, “Thor” and a verse from Jeremiah 23:29 where God’s word is described as a “hammer that shatters rocks” the site began as a way for me to showcase my media work, back in the days when I still hoped to get a job in the field. My recent shift back into ministry and freelance creativity shifted the site’s focus as well. The never-completed “Resume” page became the “Bookings” page featuring my fee schedule, upcoming itinerary, and mp3’s of my speaking.
One of the changes I intentionally did not make was to take down my old journals, or edit them for content despite an inner voice that said “you’re gonna get in trouble for this.” I haven’t so much gotten into trouble as been slightly misunderstood. People who hear me speak sometimes get the idea that I’m sinless, or at the least, an edgy version of sinless. Newsflash everyone; I could give Paul a run for his money on being “chief among sinners.” The details are none of your business, but trust me on that one. It’s not something I’m proud of; it’s a reality I live with.
In addition to having a jaded past, I have a tainted present; I imbibe, though I do not do so in excess. I like to smoke cigars and pipes, and do so from time to time. I enjoy movies of many kinds; among my favorites are some hyper-violent films; I own both Desperado and 3,000 miles to Graceland. And I still color my language with the seven words you can’t say on television, despite several attempts to remove it from my speech wholesale.
When I was a teenager one of my teachers gave me this challenge; using coarse language was the way of the lazy man. A smart man will find more appropriate words to use in his speech. Being in agreement with the premise, I built up my vocabulary. I know what it means to be obsequious, ostentatious and how to use my olfactory sense. I am given to being loquacious but not lascivious. Nevertheless, sometimes a spade is just a spade and bullshit isn’t horse hockey no matter how much we’d like it to be.
Very recently I picked up a book at the Edmonton Public Library’s book sale at the Edmonton Fringe Festival called “The Christians ‘Cuss’ Book”. It starts out with these promising opening lines:
“This is a very personal book. I’m not writing it for you; I’m writing it for me...Because I cuss!” I thought that for twenty-five cents I couldn’t go wrong, but when I got to the part where the author stated that “because some people do use ‘shucks’ in reference to the s-word, perhaps it should not be used at all,” I knew that even at that bargain basement price, I could go wrong.
I know all about Colossians 3:8, for those who are getting ready to email me the reference. “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (NIV) I once wrote a song based on this verse. It was all about not swearing. At the time, I equated my Christianity with not swearing. Despite this belief I still said hurtful things about others. I still made undisciplined remarks. Had I a fuller knowledge of scripture at the time I’d have worked more on curbing slander and gossip, which are mentioned with greater regularity in the Bible than what Western Evangelicalism refers to as “vulgar language.” I’ve heard some of the rudest gay jokes from men who would never deign to say any of the seven deadly vulgarisms. Some of the most abusive hate literature on the Internet and in print is penned by Christians whose speech is profanity-free.
As I understand the Greek used in Colossians 3:8, it is more about abusive speech than it is about swearing. I can say from experience that abusive speech needs no coarse language to be abusive. I’m still getting over hurtful statements made years ago that didn’t have a trace of slang. The majority of verses in the Bible regarding speech refer to thoughtless or idle talk. Words we don’t consider before we utter them.
Many of the translations of the Colossians verse refer to speech that is insulting or hurtful in intention. It was taboo to call female students ‘bitches’ at Bible School, but it was common practice to demean them in dormitory discussions about the place of women in the home and ministry. No one would dream of calling their pastor an ‘asshole’ but I have watched a few careers go up in smoke from the fires of gossip and slander.
Go to another country, you’ll often find the words that are taboo here are fair game elsewhere. I can recall standing in the lineup for lunch in my first year of Bible School with one of the more Godly students there that year. With one of our professors directly behind him, Thomas informed my friend Chris that he was “just fucking with him.” In the area of South Africa Thomas hailed from, the word was innocuous. Years later, an Australian classmate at Seminary would declare a “bullshit-free-zone” without hesitation. It was a means of explaining what he wanted, not posturing or trying to shock.
Or consider this story; an Australian visiting Canada sees the store “Roots.” This word has a very different and more vulgar meaning in popular Aussie speech. He buys a number of “Roots” logo clothing and goes home to offend all his friends with his preppy outdoorsy wear. When I think of “pants” I think of clothing. The word means the same thing as ‘nonsense’ does in the modern slang of England.
Please don’t mistake me. I’m not advocating for some movement of Christian cussing. I’m not going to go on at length about how my coarse language makes me a better evangelist to people on the edge of society, because I have no evidence to support such a statement, and I’m pretty sure David Wilkerson didn’t need any of that approach with Nikki Cruz. I’m advocating that we go after the true problem, not the red herrings the church is so fond of. It’s easier to stop saying shit than it is to stop talking in a way that makes people feel like it. It’s easier to point the finger at someone for saying “goddamn” than it is to notice how the church uses God’s name in vain, calling itself Christian while God has no part of their proceedings.
To illustrate the point, I’ll recount an experience Jenica and I had while part of a small group some years ago. The group met to watch a film and then discuss the spiritual content, if any, of the picture. After our discussion one night, we decided to surf the Internet for Christian movie review sites. At the time, most of the sites devoted to reviewing films for Christians were merely content policing. Reviews amounted to a numeration of questionable content; how many violent acts, how many nude scenes, references to sex, and even the number of vulgarisms as well as the number of profanities. Profanity is language referring to God, and vulgarisms are the seven you can’t say on television.
Our group decided to experiment with this, to see how difficult it would be to watch a film and keep track of profanity and vulgar language. Our test film was Primal Fear with Richard Gere. Twenty minutes into the film, none of us had any idea what the movie was about, although we did have a healthy number of chicken scratches on our tally sheets. We dropped the experiment, rewound the movie and set about to watching it.
We’re often so concerned about the trees we’re missing the forest. My mother-in-law once attended a session with Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S. Lewis. Gresham does ministry in Australia these days, and wasn’t as sensitive to the peculiarities of Canadian evangelicals. He dropped a few choice words. With the exception of my mother-in-law, none of the other attendees I spoke with knew what Gresham had talked about. They were too wrapped up in the words he had used.
Words are powerful things.
I have been challenged by my recent experiences and the writing of this journal entry to watch my speech closer, to inspect whether or not I have a rein on my tongue, or if it controls me. To this end, I am not “trying to stop swearing.” I’m trying to stop talking trash about others, trying to be more positive in my speaking. I’ll work on being more of an encourager; I’ll do my best to be a truth-teller. And in doing so, if I step in shit I may call it horse hockey, but only if it involves an assemblage of equestrians contesting each other with timber implements upon glaciated water.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Whistlin' Dixie (Chicks)

Tuesday night is date night for my wife and me. In 1999 I heard a speaker suggest that one of the tools in a healthy relationship is regular time together, just you and your significant other. We picked up Laura Corn’s 101 Nights of Great Romance, and began a ritual that has, with rare occasions, never been neglected since.
We’ve long since done nearly all the 101 Nights of Great Romance, and during the past year, just having an evening where it was only the two of us was something special; it didn’t have to involve a trail of Hershey’s kisses creating a path to romance.
Last Tuesday however, spontaneity was the order of the day. Jenica got home at her regular time of 6:00 p.m. and announced with no small amount of regret that the Dixie Chicks were playing the Skyreach Center.
Tonight. In Edmonton. In ninety minutes.
I said something like, “that is too bad,” walked slowly out of the room, and once out of sight, flew downstairs and surfed the Net to Ticketmaster’s website. Rather than trust an Internet purchase with only 90 minutes to Showtime I phoned directly. A young man named Darren informed me that some seats had just opened up. I looked at the location on the map of Skyreach the website provided. In the first tier, in the middle, seventh row.
Jenica walked into the room, saw the map, added things up, and gave a look of ecstatic surprise, followed by a lip biting that communicated the question, “can we afford this?” I doubt very much that Jen did a lot of “I want thiiiis” to her mom growing up. She doesn’t think to ask for the frivolous things: she’s very practical.
Her pragmatism sets in as Darren tells me the tickets are $85.00 a piece in that section. I tell him I need to consult with my wife, and he warns that he’ll have to make those seats available to someone else. I tell him to go ahead, and hang up. Jenica expresses concern at the price; I ask her if she wants to go or not. She says yes, starts to protest on financial grounds, but I’m already redialing.
Lucky me, I get Darren again. Darren says the seats we were looking at are gone, but there are more one section over. Same rows, different seats. Still in the first tier. I tell Darren, “those will be fine.” Suddenly Jenica and I are looking at each other with goofy smiles on our faces. We’re going to the Dixie Chicks in less than 90 minutes.
Before continuing, I should make it clear that Jenica is the big Dixie Chicks fan in the relationship. My goofy smile should tell you two things. One, I’m happy my wife is happy. Two, I either at the very worst don’t mind the Dixie Chicks or at best actually enjoy their music. The latter is true, and I’m glad for it. I really enjoy their brand of “back to basics” country with a twist. It doesn’t even really feel like country music. It’s Dixie Chicks music. Bluegrass and honky-tonk with a rock and roll attitude.
So we drive to an LRT station, park and ride, and brave the gauntlet necessary to procure our preordered tickets. Two lineups and half an hour later, we enter the third lineup of “really expensive and equally nasty food”, necessary since we haven’t have time to stop and eat. Not knowing whether there is a warm-up act, I tell Jenica to go grab her seat, just in case the Chicks are taking the stage in three minutes.
I hear the music start, but it’s not loud enough to be the main band. The crowd isn’t going wild, and there’s only one female voice singing. I recognize it, but can’t place who it belongs to. The girls in front of me are gossiping loudly, and I find myself learning things about people I don’t know for a good ten minutes before I get to the counter. I make my order, and halfway through it a very impatient older lady sticks a twenty dollar bill in the face of one of the concession workers and demands a coffee in a voice that suggests that she’s been ‘rather put out by standing in this lineup.’ Like I haven’t. The young lady goes, gets the coffee and puts it beside the till. In a form of ironic justice, the woman ends up waiting until my cashier finishes with my order before getting her coffee.
I balance the food tray and two drinks and enter the auditorium. The house lights are down, stage lights are up, and an artist I still don’t recognize is singing in mellifluous tones, backed by a very solid band. I wait until my eyes adjust to the darkness and then begin the slow and tentative process of trying to find my seat. Lucky for me, Jenica has been keeping a vigil. She flags me down with a wave, I take my seat, and my jaw drops.
The location of the stage didn’t sink in until I was sitting down. Unlike most concerts, the Dixie Chicks chose a stage that sits on center ice, a “theater in the round”. These last minute $85 tickets have afforded us one of the best vantage points in the place. I turn to make sure we’re in the right section. We are. I look at my ticket again to see that we read it right. We did. I lean back and smile. Jenica has a toothy grin on her face. She makes an exclamation of how great this is, puts Jann Arden’s name to the voice, and we dig into our food.
Jann’s performance is immaculate. She’s a great performer, and a welcome bonus to the evening. During her show, I assess our neighbors. To my right, two couples who are keeping to themselves, and enjoying the show in a quiet, reserved fashion. Behind us, a young family with two blonde elementary age girls wearing colored cowboy hats. I resolve to remain seated for the evening to keep the view clear for the girls.
This is my dad’s concert etiquette, imparted to me while I was standing in the front row at a concert in the 80s. He came up to me before the band played and asked, “Do you need to be up here?”
I had been one of the first in line. What did this have to with need? I deserved my spot. “Yes,” I replied. My dad always has a point when he asks these leading questions, so I asked, “What’s your point?”
“Well, my point is…” My dad starts a lot of his sentences with this phrase, or his equally well used “in actual fact…”
“My point is that you’re a lot taller than other people here, and it might be hard for them to see.”
I was already over six feet in those days, and back then, before the Goliaths people breed now, it was tall. Since then, I can only remember two occasions where I was in the front row, and on both occasions made a conscious decision to move to the side of the stage, so as not to obscure people’s view. That’s the thing with parental advice; you never seem to take it when they’re right there and have just pontificated to you. You do it later, with that mature spirit of a two year old saying, “I do it myself.”
I digress. Back to the Dixie Chicks.
There are two empty seats to our left, which turns out to be a Godsend, because sitting in front of us is one of those people for whom the word ‘jerk’ was created. He’s not a full out ‘asshole’; to be worthy of that appellation, you have to be intentionally rude. This guy is just socially unaware on a cosmic scale.
He’s really loud in the break between Jann Arden and the Dixie Chicks, telling the guy to his left that he “whistles really loud.” You know the whistling; where you stick your fingers in your mouth and do some cherry-twist thing with your tongue. The kind that makes kids inadvertently wet themselves. He tells his neighbor to inform him if it gets to loud and if he doesn’t hear, to give him a good elbow in the ribs to let him know. His neighbor looks way too passive for this duty, and Mr. Whistler really has no intention of honoring this caveat, as will be demonstrated later. He’s one of those “I’m obnoxious but I’m friendly so you ought not to bludgeon me with a police baton” kinds of people. Sitting beside our poster child for ‘obnoxious red neck’ is his girlfriend, who is … not petite.
So Mr. Whistler makes 40 less one trips to the concession, or bathroom, or beer gardens in the break. He smiles as he does it, that smile that tells those sitting in his row that this isn’t all that big a deal, and it shouldn’t bother them. And he’s right; it shouldn’t bother them. We should all be patient with the man, because who knows, maybe he has incontinence issues or really nasty gas, or is ADHD or something. The problem is, if you had any of these problems, downing a keg of beer in a half hour would not be the solution.
Enough about Mr. Whistler. A brief respite is in order.
The lights go down; onstage is a huge drapery that looks like a Chinese lantern, illuminated from within. As it lifts, the band is revealed and they break into “Goodbye Earl” as Natalie, Emilie and Martie rose on a hydraulic stage lift into the center stage. Our seats really are good. Worth $85, no doubt. For about a second. The brief respite ends.
Then Mr. Whistler stands and starts screaming and shaking his beer-free fist like he’s at an eighties rock concert. Granted, the girls are all wearing denim and black leather outfits; Martie’s sports “STP” and “Pink Floyd: The Wall” Patches, perhaps leading one to assume they're at a rock show. Still, I cannot excuse the reality that my $85 has suddenly made me witness to Mr. Whistler’s ass and his inability to shake it in any rhythm consistent with the music being played.
If everyone in the section were standing, this wouldn’t be an issue. No one else is, except Whistler’s girlfriend, whose frantic flailing is threatening to knock the drink out of the person sitting next to her. If I stand up, the two Dixie Chick fans behind me, who aren’t even over five feet tall yet will no longer be able to see. Their dad would be forced to hold one of them at a time, for ninety minutes straight.
Fortunate for Jenica and me, there are the two vacant seats to our left, which we now take advantage of. My right side neighbor is not so fortunate, and he has both Mr. Whistler and Ms. Sprat to contend with, who are, as my aunts always used to say “making a better door than a window.” He politely asks Whistler and Sprat to sit down. Whistler yells, “It’s a concert!”
I’m not quite sure what this means. If it were a Metallica concert, he’d likely have a leg to stand on. Two of them, as everyone in your section would likely be on their two legs as well. And the likelihood of two little girls with colored cowboy hats being in your section would be greatly diminished. If it were a Yanni concert, I doubt Whistler would even be there. It’s a Dixie Chicks concert, and not being a big country fan, I’m uncertain as to the etiquette.
Whistler remains standing, his girlfriend sits down. His gyrations are so distracting I close my right eye in order to focus on the stage. You know someone is being ostentatious when you can’t get your attention to focus on a stage that takes up one third the area of a skating rink. Thankfully Whistler gets either tired or dizzy and sits down. He will continue to do his eighties rock tribute fist wave throughout the show, or air drum sections of songs, but for now at least he isn’t trying to move his hips as well, and he’s no longer blocking anyone’s view. I say a silent prayer for the guy sitting next to him and return my attention to the Chicks.
The show is phenomenal. The girls use the entire stage, walking out onto bridges and platforms to woo the crowd, who really doesn’t need any wooing. Everyone here loves the music, and sings along in the right spots. The girls are flawless musicians, and you can tell the music is live. The mandolin player is fantastic, his fingers a blur at times; Natalie’s voice soars, never lacking control, always clear and defined. There’s no lip-synching going on here, and with it being the last night of the tour, I almost expected her voice to be burnt out. Martie’s fiddle playing astounds me, her fingers dancing across her instrument and her bow frays so many times she has a tech handing her new ones on a regular basis. Emilie handles banjo, mandolin and slide guitar with equal dexterity; I’ve always enjoyed how she plays the banjo with rock star flourishes worthy of Pete Townsend. They rock, loud and proud; sadly, not loud enough to drown out a prolonged session of whistling from our obnoxious neighbor.
It’s a little known fact that high pitched frequencies create the loudest decibel readings. I can say with all honesty and no tongue in cheek that it was loud enough to drown out the music and hurt my ears. And Jenica’s too, since she leaned over and asked him to please stop doing it. After all, he told his neighbor he could, and since his neighbor lacks the testicular fortitude to do so (despite how the 75 degree angle at which he’s leaning away from Whistler), Jenica does.
“It’s a concert!” Whistler yells back.
I once got a Doc Martin boot in the head at a concert. I’m suddenly thinking I want to expand Whistler’s concert going experience to accommodate an Airwalk logo in bright pink on his forehead. I’m pretty sure the chunky guy to my right would get in on a little mob violence about now. I remember the little girls, grind some enamel off my teeth, and remain seated.
The rest of the night is peppered with Whistler being annoying, but like most annoyances, if you try hard enough you can screen them out. There are two moments of bliss when he goes to take a piss, and we enjoy the evening, Whistler free. Those moments were worth the price of admission, right there.
I can honestly say it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. The musicians were consummate professionals, never missing a lick even though many of them played several different instruments; one of them played percussion, guitar, Irish whistle, and even a Jews’ Harp. There was a string quartet in spots, dueling violins, huge confetti showers and a song sung in time to their new, just released video. Sometimes I have to say, “They’re good musicians” but am not entertained. Other times, I say, “They’re good performers,” but know there was canned music being pumped through the system somewhere. The Dixie Chicks are both musicians and performers, and they aren’t good; they’re great.
One more moment with Whistler: it is the end of the night, the encore already behind us. As the last night of the tour, the band and Chicks do a full-crew bow to both sides of the Skyreach. We are now all on our feet, applauding. Somewhere in Whistler’s brain, the instinctive lizard hind-brain, something says, “hey, you’re not attracting attention anymore. You aren’t pissing anyone off.” And suddenly, Whistler is standing on his seat, blocking views once again. I look over at the chunky guy and we share knowing smiles.
You see, it’s like this: if I pay $85, I ought to be able to enjoy the show in the way I choose. Reality is, others in my section also paid $85 to be there. Whistler paid $85, and then about another $300 in beer and burgers. Nevertheless, like any activity in public, our $85 doesn’t guarantee us sovereignty over others. We all paid $85, so we’re all still equal, and need to bear with each other as best we can in love.
Barring that, there’s always Airwalk or Doc Martin.

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Criteria for Rating Comic Book Movies

Roger Ebert make a statement in his review for "X2: X-Men United" that he can't quite fathom how Wolverine aka Logan, the claw popping mutant with extraordinary healing gets to be the main attraction in the film, since his powers really don't rate as being all that amazing. This is the same man who spent most of his review for "Pearl Harbor" going on about the lack of historicity, and for "Fellowship of the Ring" bemoaning that it didn't seem to stay true to the book in some aspects.

I suspect that most of the reviews you'll read about X2 that are negative go something like, "I just can't see how..." and then fill in the blank; ...mutants would be hunted, not made into celebrities, guy with steel claws gets top billing, any of this could actually happen, blahblahblah. Reality check - this movie is not about reality, so quit bitching about how it isn't possible for things to happen. I swear some of these people never played pretend.
If Ebert had done some more research, he could have applauded Brian Singer and his crew for doing what the movie world has finally realized is the key to comic book movies; stay true to the source. In the early 80's, we had Superman doing a mattress dance with Lois Lane which cost him his powers; as a child, I remember feeling cheated, partially because I had to watch so much kissing and pink sheets, but also because I didn't ever recall that being one of the rules about Superman's powers - magic, which is why Captain Marvel aka Shazam can kick his ass, and of course, the oft-sung about Kryptonite. Then in the late 80's and on into the 90's I endured Tim Burton's vision of Batman, which was only true to the comics insofar as the names and personas of the characters. Plot devices be damned. The Joker might have been skinny in the comic but we're going to get an overweight man to play him, 'cause it's Jack. And the Penguin might have been a cavalier-gentleman-thief in the comic, but we're going to have him be a deformed mutant who nearly bites someone's nose off. And sure Freeze should sound like an emotionless automaton which is something Schwarzenegger actually built his career on doing, but we're going to have him mug for the camera and deliver asinine dialogue. And Catwoman is a really adept thief with a few screws loose upstairs, but...oh wait, they got one right. Two, counting the Riddler.
The rules for comic book movies are simple.
1. Don't reinvent the wheel. In other words, stick to the source material and USE IT. If Superman has villains you haven't used, don't make up dumb ones like the Nuclear guy in Superman 4. Pointless.
2. Visual Storytelling is a comic medium which film should use. Show me don't tell me. If you need to waste screentime with expository language, you shouldn't be making a comic book film. For a good example of how this ISN'T done, rent The Phantom with Billy Zane.
3. If you can't make the costume cooler than it was in the book, don't change it. I think one of the reasons The Punisher sucked as much as it did was that Dolph Lundgren didn't have a big skull on his chest. He just looked like The Terminator with a lot of Brill Cream in his hair.
4. Superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way. If Bruce Wayne really had sex as often as the films implied, his arch-nemesis would be an STD, not the Joker. Superheroes are supposed to be good. The only one whose getting some is Spiderman, 'cause HE'S MARRIED. (Okay, I know that isn't completely true, but let's face it; gratuitous sex belongs in suspense thrillers, not superhero movies.)
5. Keep Joel Shumacher the hell away from your set. The man's some sort of neon and black light fetishist. He will turn Gotham into Las Vegas in no time flat. Do not let this man work on your movie.
6. Give the fanboys and girls things only they will appreciate. Like history buffs, we're lurking in the theaters, noticing when Marvel comics guru Stan Lee makes a cameo, or telling our wives that "the girl who can walk through walls and other people is Shadowcat, whose real name is Kitty Pryde and she was real popular during the 80's when she was Collossus' girlfriend...."
7. If you are reviewing a comic book movie but know nothing about the comic, reserve your comments about plausability and plot until you DO know something. Saying that it seems silly that Wolverine be such a central character betrays an enormous lack of knowledge about how incredibly popular that character actually is. To make him fifth billing would be career suicide. And, it would be like saying Titanic would have been a better movie if the ship hadn't sunk.
Very few comic book movies have succeeded, and I think it's because they broke my rules. Sure, it could be argued that only digital effects have really allowed for these sorts of movies to be made and made well, but my issue was never the blue screen lines around Christopher Reeve's cape. It was the way he could kiss Lois Lane in the fourth installment and make her forget they did the humpty-hump. Use chloroform to achieve the same end and they put you in jail. Superman would just never do that.
Then along comes the first X-men movie, and they stayed pretty darn true to the source material. Sure, Rogue didn't join the X-men outright and was actually a team-mate of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants for ages before she ever came in, but the same guys who quibble over those details are the ones who are angry about Liv Tyler being in Lord of the Rings. The point isn't the details; it's the heart of the matter. For example, Hugh Jackman is a good six inches taller than Wolverine is in the comics. Do we care? No, because Jackman is Wolverine. Cyclops was a dork, Storm was aloof and goddess-like, Professor X was...professorial, and Jean Grey was...well, telepathic and not all that impressive, which is what Jean Grey was in the comics.
Now, in the second movie, the whole mythology of the X-men comic book series gets a tip of the hat; the script is not reinventing the wheel. A lot of the movie is culled from the whole "Weapon X" storyline. I remember reading how they got the adamantium into Logan, and feeling a little sick; suddenly it didn't seem so cool to have an indestructible skeleton. So or me it was haunting to have him walk down into the room where they first injected the adamantium into him. There was even the Barry Windsor Smith imagery of Hugh Jackman naked, having escaped the operation and slaughtered the base's security, staring at his claws, covered in blood and screaming in horror.
They let Nightcrawler keep his faith, his charm and wit(Alan Cummings portrayal of Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler is one of the best things about the new movie)and he looks like he did in the comic. Collussus shows up, changes into his metal form, and kicks some ass, and he looks like he did in the comic! We even saw Hank McCoy, the Beast in a cameo, that ever so necessary fanboy/girl moment. In addition (!!! SPOILER AHEAD !!!!) throughout the movie we are seeing Jean Grey's transformation into the Phoenix, and by extension, likely Dark Phoenix.
In the romance area, while it looked like they were going to break my rule about superheroe's shagging when they didn't, X2 gets full marks again. The Visual Storytelling I've already alluded to, but it was awesome. And near as I can tell, there was none of Schumacher's neon or blacklighting.
It was like watching a comic book. Lots of reviewers said that, and I would agree.
This is normally reserved as a derogatory comment in many of the reviews I've read on the film. Like that's a bad thing in this case. It's like having someone review Tora!Tora!Tora! and say with derision, "It's a historical film, and that's about it." Or "Star Wars" and say "It's a sci-fi extravanganza, if you like that sort of thing." Where do these reviewers get off in not reviewing the movie for what it isn't, instead of what it is?
When I say to someone, it's a comic book movie, what I mean is that it has multiple plot threads, the impossible happens, people spout one-liners and I enjoy myself thoroughly. This film is a perfect comic book movie. I personally liked it better than Spiderman, because Spiderman broke my rules of comic book movies and gave Green Goblin a big stinking helmet, hiding Willem Defoe's face and thereby performance from view. In X2, I got to see all of Nightcrawler's emotions through the makeup.
"Of the many comic book superhero movies, this is by far the lamest, the loudest, the longest." This from the Washington Post. I'll let you be the judge, but in my esteem, X2 may have been long and loud, but the lamest award still goes to Batman and Robin. And if you went to X2 and were a little confused, think of how I felt watching Tora!Tora!Tora! Wanna know more? Go read the comics! In the meantime, I'll be in line for X3.