Poor Michael Ignatieff. For months he’s been neck-and-neck with Harper in the polls, and people have been warning him that if he doesn’t force an election soon it’ll make him look weak. Then no sooner does he say he won’t support the government any longer but his support drops by ten points, because people say they don’t want another election. Even the publication of a nearly hagiographical profile in The New Yorker probably can’t cheer him up now.
So what’s behind the about-face? Were people’s eyes just bigger than their electoral stomachs? Personally I think the not-another-election thing is a smokescreen, a rationalization for the ugly truth: people feel they ought to want to vote for Ignatieff, but nobody really does. Outside of the West nobody much wants to vote for Harper — certainly nobody wants to hand him a majority government — but they’re not ready to vote for Iggy either. He’s the classic case of someone who looks good on paper, the computer-selected date that generates no chemistry: he’s everything we say we want in a prime minister, but when it comes down to it we just can’t get behind him.
The reason, I think, is that he isn’t mean enough. It seems odd to say it, since Canadians are renowned for our polite and easygoing nature, but the fact is we like our leaders to be sons of bitches. Sure, we tell ourselves we like Trudeau because he was charming and did pirouettes and brought home the Constitution, but what we really liked was that he fought with US presidents and gave people the finger and invoked the War Measures Act. No wonder Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark — nice guys both; try to get anyone to say a bad word about Joe Clark — didn’t stand a chance. Mulroney was certainly mean: the only thing more dangerous than being his enemy was being his friend, always a temporary condition. And Chretien? The man choked a protestor! He made jokes about people being pepper-sprayed! He FOUGHT OFF A BURGLAR WITH A PIECE OF INUIT SCULPTURE! (That’s to say nothing of the damage he did to the English language daily.)
But Ignatieff is in a bind, because if he goes on the attack too much he’ll sound like he’s lecturing, which nobody ever likes. He also seems to be a guy who instinctively plays defense rather than offense, which doesn’t bode well for him. So Harper, whom we all say we don’t like, will probably stay, because he’s mean enough for us to respect him. (He’s also learned the secret to governing with a minority, which is to bypass Parliament completely and run the country through the PMO.) And we’ll all grumble and complain about the money that was wasted for yet another election that doesn’t change anything, and six months later we’ll be wondering why Ignatieff doesn’t man up and bring down the government already.
Revenge of the third banana
In all the hoopla around the Marvel-Disney deal and the Warner-DC restructuring, one point that’s come up again and again is the rich bank of characters each publisher owns, with the assumption that this is a good thing. The problem is that each company only owns one or two genuine first-tier properties (with first-tier being defined as “someone with whom a non-comics fan is almost certain to be reasonably familiar.”) For DC it’s obviously Batman and Superman; for Marvel it’s Spider-Man and maybe the X-Men or the Hulk — the X-Men weren’t really familiar to non comics-fans before the movies, but their fanbase was enthusiastic enough to guarantee good sales, while the Hulk is well-known to a certain part of the population which is, unfortunately, not the part that goes to movies. When you’ve only got a small number of properties, you’ve got to get them right: it took eight years for Warners to relaunch the Batman franchise after Batman and Robin, and they’ll probably have to wait ten years before the stink from Superman Returns blows away.
The success of Iron Man has people saying that the future is in the second-tier properties — which is a reasonable argument to make if you forget about Daredevil, Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider. I would argue, in fact, that Iron Man was successful because it wasn’t a comic book movie, or at least it didn’t look like one to the general public. After all, no matter how successful a comic book is, there simply aren’t enough fans to make a movie successful, never mind a franchise; you’ve got to appeal to people who don’t read the comic, and in most cases the trappings of a superhero comic — the costume, the secret identity, even the superpowers — work against that. But Iron Man, as presented in the movie, doesn’t have any of those things. The suit is presented as a tool or a vehicle throughout (note the direct comparison to a car), and the emphasis is always on Tony Stark as the pilot of the suit; we’re not invited to conflate the two into a single identity, as we are with Batman or Superman. As well, note that the villain uses the exact same technology as the hero, removing the two-origins problem that afflicts so many superhero movies. Even though it’s not actually more plausible than a typical superhero story, Iron Man feels more believable to people who aren’t accustomed to the tropes of superhero comics.
So are those thousands of characters, the ones that Disney just paid a mint for and Warner just realized they own, actually worth anything? Sure — but not the way people think they are. It’s very unlikely that Deadpool or Green Lantern or Thor or Wonder Woman are going to be franchises or even successful movies — cripes, I don’t know why Wonder Woman is even still a comic — and, more to the point, a flood of unsuccessful superhero movies, like the one that followed the 1989 Batman, will most likely make comic-book movies in general radioactive. If either studio is sensible, they’ll focus on the properties they own that, like Iron Man, can be sold to a broader audience: it’s probably no coincidence that the next two DC movies to hit the screen will be Jonah Hex and The Losers, both non-superhero comics. Another good example is Blade: could anyone have guessed that a supporting character from a long-cancelled comic would wind up being one of Marvel’s most successful licensed movies? But in fact it was the lack of baggage, the absence of superhero trappings that let Blade just be an action/horror movie, and that’s what let it be successful.
See, as comics fans we tend to assign an inordinate value to these properties, but to the movie industry they’re just more grist for the mill: they don’t care if something’s had one issue or a thousand, they don’t care if someone read it by flashlight under the covers when they were nine, they just want something that can be quickly made into one of the hundreds of scripts that keep the development cycle flowing — the more cheaply the better. If I were a production company, I wouldn’t even look at a DC or a Marvel property; I’d be scanning the small presses and webcomics, looking for the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Men in Black.