The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Phantom Strikes!

So...some Australian company has the rights to the "Phantom" stories, and is trying to do a reboot. I'm suspecting it may not be possible to ring ANY variation on the "Great White Father" mythos: the white protector of the African jungle. Jungle Jim, Tarzan, and so forth. And I suspect that the filmmakers can't or won't look directly at the underlying racist and imperialistic belief patterns that made such films and books so powerful. And without such analysis, it may be impossible to reinterpret them in a way that doesn't create a subconscious "queasy" response on the part of audiences, crippling their film.

Just my thought. Been noticing how long it's been since any of the "Lord or Lady of the Jungle" movies have worked. Disney did a cartoon "Tarzan"...but did you notice that there were NO Africans on view? Pretty amazing, actually. This actually reminds me of the fate of the "Charlie Chan," "Mr Moto," "Fu Manchu" "Kwai Chang Caine" type movies and TV shows. They are popular...until it becomes verboten to have white actors play the roles. After which time, they disappear.


Still watching "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." I don't know how I'll ultimately feel about it, but can definitely say that it is a technological wonder. This film about a man who ages backwards is SO good technically, that for the most part you aren't even sure you're looking at effects. But...they have to be. I mean, that's Brad Pitt as the 3-foot-tall wrinkled gnome. You just know it is. But there is no showiness to the effects, just a matter-of-fact presentation of the miraculous. This is definitely one of the most mature usages of complex CGI and makeup I've ever seen.

BTW--much is made of "Queenie", the black matron mother-figure who cares for Benjamin as a boy. No, I didn't find her irritating. She had her own life, her own husband, and ultimately her own child. By definition, then, she is not a "Spiritual Guide." In fact...she has a little love scene. That means that if "Button" earns over 100 million dollars, that it would, in at least a tangential way, cross that magical threshold.

We'll see.


Saw "Defiance" with Danial Craig as an ass-kickin' Jew in WW2. I'm tellin' ya, I LOVE this movie. So much more fun than Schindler's List (which was probably a better film) but the fact of these desperate people taking their fate into their own hands and deciding to go down killing Nazis...well, it warms the cockles of my little heart. And Craig is just so good. But there is a scene where he reaches the end of his strength (the dark night of the soul) and his little brother picks up the involves a swamp, and you'll know it when you see it. I just started crying, man. I loved it. Fine movie. An "A".


Re-watching Season 6 of "24" and for all its flaws, it's still a season of my favorite show. Man, it's fun to watch Jack torture people. Still blows my mind that people took this shit seriously. Whatcha gonna do?


Fun watching people fulminate over Carolyn Kennedy's hat being thrown into the New York senatorial ring. I actually have no real opinion about it, but when people act as if wealth and power aren't passed through family lines...I wonder if they've been paying attention. On the other hand, maybe they have been watching, and are just protesting responsibly. I guess I like that. I'm one of those people who thinks that Bush would NEVER have been the problem he became if he hadn't had Daddy's Rolodex. Either he would have been forced to mature and develop more fully, or he never would have risen high. Personally, I think that without Daddy he would have been manager of the second-largest K-Mart in Akron. Or something.


I have two research-heavy projects coming down the pike, one an historical mystery/suspense novel/film, and the other a contemporary SF/technothriller with links back to one of my early, favorite books. More as they develop.


The Question of the Day is: what is your favorite way of easing yourself into the Christmas Spirit?


Josh Jasper said...

Speaking of interesting reboots, have you seen the TV show "Crusoe"? It's got an interesting twist on the concept of the Friday character. The character is clearly smarter in a lot of ways than Crusoe, more physically capable, more able to see moral dilemmas clearly, and more at home on the island.

I'm not really happy with some of the cinematography or dialogue, but they're clearly making a solid attempt to address the imperialism and racism of the time.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have never been able to ease myself into the Yule spirit. I am always involved with final exams which take up all my attention until the holiday is upon us.

I have long thought that there was room for a transition movie in the Phantom world wherein the next Phantom is black, after the current one dies without a biological heir, after training another apprentice. Sort of a resignation from Great White Father status, which is long overdue.

Steve Perry said...

Go to YouTube and watch this:

Best Christmas song in years.

On a less tongue-in-cheek note, it ain't Christmas for me until Christmas Eve. Yeah, we put up a tree and lights and wrap gifts, but Christmas Eve, I put in the DVD of "A Christmas Story," aka "The BB Gun Movie," and watch it. Usually by myself, since my wife is asleep.

That's my personal Christmas ritual.

Josh Jasper said...

Hanukkah spirit. Possibly solstice spirit.

Michelle said...

Lights! Happy, blinking, little colorful lights!

mjholt said...

On reboots: I have such a problem with the Crusoe idea that I haven't watched it. If they had the guts to really turn it on its head, it might be fun.

BTW, where are the Chinese, Japanese, other Asians, and Native-Americans on TV? I live in Seattle, our Chinese speaking community is so large that our ballots automatically come in Chinese, too. I think the tipping point for this is 10% Chinese literate. I do not appreciate the Charley Chan type of thing, or the Ninja. I'd just like to see regular, hard-working people. Maybe this is my universal Cosby moment.

Re Bush 43: As I have had the stomach, I have read some of his "reflections" on this presidency, and they are revealing. The man has no empathy (not news), no imagination, and a very strange sense of where he fits in the world, which makes me doubt even more that he really "held" the office. He would never qualify to be a "manager" anywhere that the title meant something. He is not management material. He would be running small grifts on small businesses, or he would be unhappily holding a bottom of the barrel white collar job. He would have a rap sheet, and probably be drinking more heavily than he is now. (I have read several MSM reports that he is drinking again.) The whole life that he lives is because of his father and grandfathers and their friends who needed a front man. He was chosen because his brothers are worse. Jed is reputed to be stinkingly corrupt. The others are also propped up by Daddy's friends. Scar (I think) could have been speaking for all of Bush 41's children when he said in "The Lion King," "some of us are from the shallow end of the gene pool."

Kami said...

We bring a live tree into the house for Yule and hold a vigil on the shortest day/longest night of the year (I won't go to sleep until dawn.) In prep for that we need to get food! Lots and lots of food, and we get our presents to each other earlier than most as well.

Anonymous said...

I get into the Christmas spirit by fantasizing that you're talking about either the sequel to The Kundalini Equation - (The Kundalini Equations)? - or Charisma). ;0) Actually, I'll be the one curmudgeon to reply and say that I don't get into the spirit.

Someone did a Phantom movie a few years ago, and it just seemed to be a fun dumb adventure movie, without any particular racial issues (that I'm aware of; granted, I don't notice them in movies unless they hit me in the nose). I thought the big problem was that the adventure aspects of the Phantom that were just so cool when I was a kid - riding the cool horse, running with the cool dog, brawling in fun, pseudo-karate ways, etc. - just aren't very impressive by today's action/adventure-flik standards. It would be hard to stick to the original material and still have it be really exciting to a modern audience. However, nowadays the horse and dog don't have to be white. ;0)

Master Plan said...

I too was hoping for a Kundalini Equation sequel. ;-)

Master Plan said...

I think to avoid the racial stereotyping you'd want to do a few things, re: The Phantom.

First would be to indicate that Tarzan or The Phantom or The Shadow (trained by Tibetans, but...white), or who ever is a singular and awesome individual. He's not The Phantom because he's white, but because, "I'm Batman!".

Second would be to indicate that his training, at least significant parts of it (the fighting skills would be fun I think) come from the culture they are in. It's not white man rules the jungle but Superhero Man (who happens to be white) is trained in the secret and deadly arts of black\brown\yellow people Jungle Fighting of Doom.

Third would be of course to have his mentor be one of these folks which he is not (Blade was trained by a white guy, right? the reverse) and well as his best friend and many of his henchpeople schmucks (who get killed in the 2nd act when the villain figures out where his base is wait, that IS Blade isn't it...well something along those lines to show that he considers himself one of them, that they matter to him more than just subjects he lords over with his superior skin tone, etc) something to indicate a celebration of the culture that doesn't reduce it to the tired "primitive people are so much more honest and spiritual than corrupted city types" trope.

So first you make him "post-racial". He's cool because HE is fucking COOL. And then make him a member of the culture which gives him his (fucking cool) skills that allow him to do whatever he does (fight evil i suppose).

You could even make him a gay man and have his lover

That might seem gimmicky and pandering tho. Or edgy and next-level, depending on how you write it\"sell" it.

Gorgons, right? The New Men, can't remember right now, no books here.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I'm not sure it's possible to do fully PC (everyone is a person, everyone has a point of view and interests, no one is a spear-carrier because they're in the low-status group) adventure fiction. OK, you can probably do it if it's people vs. nature. Can it be done with people vs. people?

In re fun torture in fiction: I suppose the only solution is to also have torture with realistic consequences in fiction. Part of torture as generally presented in fiction is that it has *no* consequences. You don't see the longterm damage to the person tortured, who is usually a minor character set up to be disliked by the viewer. You don't see emotional damage that the torturer does to him or herself. You don't see bad information having serious consequences. And if the torture is done by an authority, you don't see anger and fear against them having effects.

If I had my druthers, there'd be a long-running drama set in a torture rehab ward.

If GW somehow became manager of a K-Mart, he'd run it into the ground. He does have more going for him than his daddy's rolodex-- he's got extraordinary ability to get culturally appropriate people to like him. Maybe he would be a con man.

Approximate quote from the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, from his mother who knew a lot of the top people on the right. "We always prayed for George. He didn't seem like he didn't have anything going for him. Are you sure you didn't mean Jeb?"

Dan Gambiera said...

Man, it's fun to watch Jack torture people. Still blows my mind that people took this shit seriously. Whatcha gonna do?

Boycott the show? Hunt down the degenerate fuckers who write it, star in it, and greenlight the episodes and "Jack Bauer" every one of the worthless pieces of shit to death? 24 is pure evil. According to interviews with producer and writers a year or two back they set out to normalize torture.

And they succeeded. Tony *spit* Scalia has said twice in Supreme Court arguments that "you cant' stop Jack Bauer from saving Los Angeles". He's using a politicized TV fantasy as a legal precedent. A survey of US troops in Iraq revealed that many, possibly most, believe that torture is the right way to do interrogation because they saw it on 24.

Hurray for Fox! They've made the unthinkable entertaining and common. Everyone involved from Murdoch down has earned a special place in Hell for the suffering, mutilation and death they've caused.

Travis said...

So..."The Phantom"...I have to say I've never seen any of the previous work: comic, tv, movie- none of it. I went and read Wikipedia on the Phantom and I don't see any reason it couldn't be an awesome story. (Though super hero movies tend to be either really good or, well, the opposite and there is a huge risk of the opposite).

Now I don't know what they have in mind with the reboot but I think Master Plan is on the right track with the idea that the Phantom would need to be cool/bad ass simple as an individual rather then as a representative of a race. So essentially you could create a sort of 'Batman in a exotic locale'. As far as the idea of transitioning to a black Phantom, if they are dedicated to the idea of 'rebooting' rather then 'continuing' they wouldn't even to transition, they could simply write it as if the Phantom has always been black. Or Indian. Or Tibetan. or Whatever. If done in the superhero in a cool place manner race is largely irrelevant. (largely? entirely?)

Now going on to the 'Great white Father' issue from a different perspective I think it could be interesting to keep the rich white guy thing and adjust everyone elses' reactions. Tribal leader who knows his secret identity and is his best friend? - scratch that. How about tribal leader who realizes that 'the Phantom' is just a man, not a supernatural entity and doesn't trust him and/or resents his position/ reputation/ prestige? Two good men who are rivals, maybe even enemies simply from different perspectives and motives.

I don't know... just some ideas. Probably not feasable for a movie but better for a book or ongoing graphic. I doubt anybody is going to listen to my 2 cents on the Phantom anyway. I just think there ARE ways it could be done. Whether it IS done is another question for another day this post is too long as it is.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

The thing is, it's fun to see a character you don't like being tortured.

I was getting into a good guy tortures scene in Bolt (a fairly good movie about getting over grandiosity, the need for ordinary life and love, and the occasional partial usefulness of wild dreams), and then I remembered that this is evil.

The answer the hero is given to his completely delusional question even turns out to be correct. And he and the cat he tortures (the hero is a small dog) become close friends and allies, with that hanging over the bridge incident completely forgotten.

Art can present very bad things as normal and attractive, or as harmless amusement. Consider minstrel shows and the idea of happy slaves.

Anonymous said...


Are you counting down to Seven Pounds? Word is Will and Rosario do the nasty in this one. And with Will, well it's just gotta hit that 100mil mark don't you think?


Marty S said...

This whole 24 discussion is interesting. It raises the whole question of art reflecting the real world versus portraying a vision, perhaps ideal, of the real world. It seems to me both are valid. In that case ones view of 24 depends upon which you believe the shows producers are doing. Suppose some black authorwrote about an alternate universe in which the masters were black and the slaves were white. If I were a white supremacist reading such a story, by a black author I might interpret it as promoting blacks to revolt and take over society. On the other hand it could be an attempt to get white readers to empathize more with blacks.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

More about the ill effects of satisfying art: assuming the study was done well, people who like romantic comedies are more likely to believe that people who love each other automatically know what their partner is thinking.

Scary thought: maybe people are attracted to art that reinforces their delusions.

Josh Jasper said...

The way torture is presented in 24 is just bad writing. The writers never actually looked into he mechanics of interrogation. It'd be like an episode of House where they suddenly decide to peruse a course of leeches to improve someone's bodily humors.

Interrogation scenes are central the to the show often enough, but the writers don't understand how interrogation works, so they made something up that titillates the viewer, but doesn't really work. They might as well have Jack mind meld. But that wouldn't be as viscerally satisfying, would it?

What they're really doing is creating a scene in which the viewer's real desire for violent revenge is getting acted out against a fictional character. They could just have Jack torture a bad guy for nothing more than revenge. But we need to trick ourselves into thinking it serves a noble purpose.

As far as I can tell, that's why Jack gets to torture people, a gets results from it. It justifies an extra level of vengeance outside of a fight to stop or defend someone from bad guys, which does work in reality. We love a violent guardian figure because we want to see violence and vengeance meted out to bad guys. And doing that does actually work in real life. If someone is getting raped in an alley, and you fend off the thugs by violence if necessary, you're heroic.

But if you capture them and decide to torture them, you're violating social rules. So what's needed in a story to have the hero look sympathetic while hurting bad guys who're captives is a sense that, if we torture them, we save someone else.

So in the case of the rapists, we could have the hero torture them for information on where some hostage is being held, under a contrived "countdown clock", and that would justify the torture, even though torture doesn't actually work. The viewer lies to him or herself and then the scene is justified.

In real life, though, torture is something that should be morally opposed. It is morally opposed by every major religion, ethical philosophy, and even by our own military leadership.

Steven Barnes said...

I couldn't be more opposed to torture as an official tool of government. I believe it is inefficient, and corrupting, and just wrong. And I enjoy watching Jack shoot someone in the leg to make them talk. I also enjoy watching the Roadrunner kill the Coyote again and again. I don't think that it's "bad" writing. I think that, for television (which is an assembly line), it is good, but manipulative writing, playing to a pretty ugly need in their audience. I always liked watching kids get carved up in the woods, and saw every "Friday the 13th" movie on the first day it opened. Go figure.

Steven Barnes said...

The "Phantom" and "Tarzan" myths, done today, need to answer the question of why the natives don't teach their own kids those cool tricks. A rather glaring omission, don't you think?
Having the natives teach him doesn't work unless you solve that one, and no matter what you do, it's clear that all you're really doing is playing with racial sterotypes. There's a damned good reason we've never been interested in "Black lord of the Jungle" stories, and I suspect that the underlying conceptual/emotional engine would sputter.

Steven Barnes said...

I know nothing about "Seven Pounds" including being unable to figure out the coming attraction. What the heck is it about?

Master Plan said...

What about the Black Panther of the Marvel comic series? Black, runs his own highly technologically advanced nation, total badass.

I would play it that way. It's not that they don't teach their own folks that, it's that they exactly do. They are all nearly that good, just happens (again IF you want The Phantom to be white in the reboot) that The Phantom is, for no racial reason, the best of the best of the best.

I think there is a story of Willem deThouars learning things directly from a troupe of monkeys\apes. Tarzan I believe is classically the same. "Raise by wolves".

This could also be included to explain certain aspect of why the white guy is the number one ass-kicker of evil.

Personally the Black Panther and some of his reboots in the Marvel U are indeed some of my favorites and I'd like to see more of him and stories along those lines.

You could pretty easily transplant him to a more Captain Planet type roll working against awesomely stereotyped exploitative Old White Men intent on strip mining the Amazon or Africa or...anywhere in the world really. A kind of protector of indigenous cultures the world over and nature and endangered animals.

Trying to remember....there was one like that wasn't there? I mean a situation where you had an entire people who were reaving badass super people, living in perfect isolation....I think so, doesn't come to mind readily tho.

Those would all be options. I DO think it would be more interesting to have The Phantom just be a member of whatever group\race\society he originates in, but if the question is about how to make him white and not have it be a Grand Master Whitey saving the poor savages from themselves or something along those lines that would seem best. Give him additional training unrelated to that society and give everybody in that society that same level of training but, like Aubry Knight, for instance, he's. just. that. much. better. For whatever reason.

Then he becomes their agent in the world, a small semi-superhuman society like that is only likely to work in relative isolation, and in order to protect it, and because he's presumably heir to an ancient and massive fortune, or they happen to have piles of diamonds and rubies lying around (or vibranium for the Black Panther) he's a more suitable agent in the world of men.

It's certainly not perfect, but that would be how I'd try to approach it, again, if the intent is to have a reboot that keeps the white masked avenger trained\raised by a isolated tribe of keepers of ancient knowledge type deal.

Travis said...

"The "Phantom" and "Tarzan" myths, done today, need to answer the question of why the natives don't teach their own kids those cool tricks. A rather glaring omission, don't you think? "

Of course its an omission. That's why I think it makes sense to just place it into another culture rather then to try and reconcile them.

Although a more accurate reconcilliation narrative has a certain appeal.

The assumption I would make is that they DO teach there kids the same stuff. Who in the hell WOULDN'T? I think in some cases (the Shadow- at least the movie version- comes to mind) it serves simply as a ghost in the machine to move the story. Maybe lots of people CAN do the same thing, but if they are all in Tibet it doesn't really affect NYC.

"There's a damned good reason we've never been interested in "Black lord of the Jungle" stories, and I suspect that the underlying conceptual/emotional engine would sputter"

I just don't see it. I remember having a set of books as a kid (10 vols. I think) that had myths from different parts of the world in each book and I loved every one of those things. An adventure story in a faraway land is an adventure story in a faraway land. I just don't see it making a whole lot of differance if someone put together a good version of the story.

Now, I've been following your discussions on race and movies for a while and I realize there is an obstacle somewhere in convincing people to DO IT but I kind of think it might be news for about a day and then no one would care. Rather like Obama as President. Most people I know think along the lines of. "Oh wow, what a historical moment; the first black president. I wouldn't care if he were green and horned if he can fix this country." And then proceed into the discussion of the current problems and hoped for fixes. So is race an issue? yes. is it a big issue? no.

Of course as I write this I think to myself 'Yeah, but you don't exactly hang out with a represenative cross section of the general public'. So, maybe my opinions on people's thought process are way too limited to be relevant to the culture as a whole.

I've been wanting to get to the 24/Torture thing for awhile but am taking a break for now.


Josh Jasper said...

Steve - don't think that it's "bad" writing. I think that, for television (which is an assembly line), it is good, but manipulative writing, playing to a pretty ugly need in their audience.

It's good writing. It just appeals to our bad side.

Anonymous said...


Re: Seven Pounds, I have no idea what's it's about. I'm intrigued by the fact that the trailers don't give anything away. So intrigued that I have deliberately chosen not to read the reviews. I'm seeing it Saturday and I want to be suprised.


Anonymous said...

I'm not entirely sure why The Phantom and his ilk *need* to be white. I mean, they're usually done that way, but frankly, the cool parts have nothing to do with being white. The cool parts are having a secret jungle hideaway and magical evil-fighting powers, or living in the modern world but being raised by wolves / gorillas / whatever. I would *totally* be on board for a movie or comic that had the cool parts with a non-white character.