Film

'Thor' Spot

One of the biggest issues a comic book movie adaptation has to overcome is staying/not staying "true" to the source. However, when there are multiple configurations of same, such creative reverence becomes harder and harder.

For many of us, the only Batman is...Adam West. Yes, those of us old enough to remember the original Caped Crusader phenomenon recall when ABC would actually air its successful TV show TWICE a week, just to satisfy public demand. We smile when considering how campy and kitsch it all was, how our pre-teen personalities melted whenever our superhero donned the cowl, gathered up his "ward" Dick Grayson, and went "SMASH!", "BANG!" "ZAP!" on aging celebrity supervillians. With his paunchy belly and less than flattering tights, this version of Batman came directly from our collective memory, of a time when characters were carried across generations of 'funny book' readers and straight into the mind's eye.

Now, there are "versions" of Bruce Wayne's crime fighting alter ego, each with its own considered cult of preference and personality. For many, it's Tim Burton's take derived in part from Batman's late '80s graphic novel renaissance. For others, it's Christopher Nolan's modern businessman as genius vigilante update. With each adaptation, new inspirations are added, ways of making old properties "new" for a fading readership. Yet with each one of those changes comes an entire cult of adoration, a personal connection that can thwart even the most noble efforts. Indeed, one of the biggest issues a comic book movie adaptation has to overcome is staying/not staying "true" to the source. However, when there are multiple configurations of same, such creative reverence becomes harder and harder.

For example, over this last weekend (6 May), that blond Adonis from Asgard, Thor, finally dropped down to Earthly Cineplexes to announce the start of Summer 2011. Long in gestation and always aesthetically questionable, the $60 million-plus return is seen as weak by Marvel movie standards. Hulk weak. Not Iron Man weak. 'Why wasn't it better?' weak. With a near 80% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes and a more or less genial consensus among critics (good, but not great), it still signals for all a positive preamble to Joss Whedon's Avengers movie in 2012 - if nothing else. While director Kenneth Branagh (a real question mark beforehand) has proven his popcorn mantle, for many, this update on the fallen God was less than stunning.

From a personal perspective, the reason "why" is easy. This is not MY Thor. Not by a long shot. As a minor geek on the character, I read almost all of the Norse nobleman's comic run from about 1968 to 1970. Along with Plasticman, the occasional Archie (don't ask - it's a Betty and Veronica thing), and some Fantastic Four, Thor was my primary comic addition. Yes, it was short-lived, but I stuck with the handicapped Dr. Donald Blake, his flirtation for Jane Foster, and his various battles against Loki and main foes - Ego the Living Planet, the High Evolutionary, and the Man-Beast - for many a long summer afternoon. Along with the help of fellow hero Hercules, Thor was my main introduction into the world of outsized heroes and villains. On TV, Batman and Robin were guys doing battle with human puns. This was the real muscle and death deal.

Of course, my Thor is nowhere to be seen in the new film. Granted, it is the same character with a similar origin, but once he lands on the fabled third rock from the Sun, the hunk with the mighty hammer is turned into - well, into not very much at all. He's a stranger in a strange land, an alien presence investing the modern Jane with newfound purpose. Since almost the entire film is plotted around the eventual Avengers tentpole, Thor doesn't get much of his own. He (SPOILER) saves Asgard and Odin, defeats Loki (though the post-credits teaser suggests differently) and then remains an extraterrestrial overseer of the Nine Realms. While it looks and feels familiar, this reflects none of my devotion to Thor. As a matter of fact, while watching the film (which I did enjoy), I felt myself imposing my own memories of Dr. Blake, his walking stick, and those sensational sequences when said cane would magically turn into Mjolnir.

Clearly, at age 50, this take on Thor was not and is not meant for me. That doesn't mean I didn't like it, it just means it's not MY Thor. It's someone else's. It belongs to those who discovered the character in the 616 and Ultimates runs. It belongs to those who reinvigorated the artform with their nerd enthusiasm and geek demands back in the latter part of the '80s. It's a movie for the new Messageboard Nation, not the huddled masses yearning to spend some of their hard earned discretionary income. It';s a limit that truly undermines the potential returns. In fact, this has become the big bugaboo in current creative circles - catering to the demo without destroying the overall product brand. Thor more or less succeeds, but within very structured limits. Iron Man, on the other hand, went for humor and was hailed as a gem.

The lessons learned when Bryan Singer re-imagined the X-men remain firmly transfixed in studio sensibilities. In essence, by skewing younger, by aiming directly at those most invested in the current comic book marketplace, the results should be set - or at least much easier to see. Granted, everyone's favorite mutants are going all the way back to before Dr. X's school for the latest reinvention of the franchise, but that doesn't mean that everyone is happy about the back peddle. In fact, when it was announced that Spider-man would return to high school to mine focus group gains, some fans groaned. There's catering, and then there's pandering. Even a Captain America, more or less devoted to the original arc's premise, is being picked apart by those who want to see their version of the avenger hit the screen.

It's no surprise then that, once he's finished fiddling with Gotham's favorite/least favorite son, Christopher Nolan is turning Batman over to someone who will, once again, reconfigure it for a new contingency. Fanboys and those familiar with such obsessions have already voiced where they'd like to see the character go, while those who fell in love with the fabled Dark Knight several decades ago watch age render such requests and reprimands moot. For now, our heroes remain the inspiration, if not the instigation, for these big screen updates. One day, perhaps, MY Thor will see the cinematic light of day. Until then, I'll have to settle with another generation's vision. Heck - I've done it before...and by all accounts, it's what myself and a lot of other aging comic book fans will be doing for quite some time to come.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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