Friday, December 22, 2017

"The Last Jedi" hits a few wrong turns, but delivers a fair movie experience

Movie: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley

Director Rian Johnson ushers in Round 2 of the new Star Wars trilogy, and while the returning cast - both old and new - give it their all in an admirable showing, the strange pacing, weak side-plots, and generally off characterizations of some beloved franchise staples dull the enthusiasm a bit, with only its intelligent deconstruction of the Star Wars legacy to lift it above mediocrity.

In depth:
The Star Wars brand has seen a lot of ups and downs since The Force Awakens was released two years ago.  The loss of Carrie Fisher was a tremendous blow, which will obviously leave lasting reverberations for the films to come.  Meanwhile, though the new trilogy’s first film was largely a success - or at least, silenced fears that Disney would completely wreck the franchise - there was still heard the faint sounds of fan grumbling over the supposed stark changes it brought to the beloved series.  A female lead, a black male protagonist, and the surprise death of arguably the franchise’s most popular character all left die-hard saber-swingers floundering in the dark side on to what to expect in the future.  And now, The Last Jedi brings everything full circle, for while the first movie teased at changes to come, this one nearly deconstructs, or at least questions, some of the standard tropes that have been endemic to the enterprise since Luke first stepped out into the Tatooine sunset.  Everything from heroic machismo, to the pedestal treatment of “legends,” to even the notion of a “chosen one” all get a pretty bad spanking throughout the film.  Fine, fine, you might be saying.  But is it any good?  Well, yes and no.  But mostly, yes.

Unlike previous films, The Last Jedi seems to pick up almost immediately where we left off - an odd pacing choice, admittedly, though it doesn't rattle the cage too much.  The Resistance, lead by iron lady General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher) is forced to evacuate their base before a First Order fleet lead by General and all-around slimeball, Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).  Ace pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac, leads a successful but horribly costly counter assault on a First Order Dreadnought before jumping to hyperspace.  Meanwhile, Rey (Ridley) has finally caught up to the elusive Jedi Master and living legend Luke Skywalker - played, as always, by the incomparable Mark Hamill - only to discover, to her horror as well as ours, that the former hero has become a burned-out cynic, closed off to the Force and unwilling to resurrect anything resembling the Jedi.  As Rey struggles to overcome his walls and learn more about her gift, first film favorite Finn (John Boyega) wakes from his coma to discover that the Resistance escape ship was being tracked, ushering a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the First Order.  With Leia out of commission during a surprise attack and the Resistance leadership in confusion, Finn joins forces with his old friend Poe and new ally Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to find a way to break free of the Order’s grip.  And all the while, the ever-conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wrestles with murdering his father and his tenuous place beside Supreme Leader Snoke, and in the process, forms a link with Rey as they work through their common concerns of belonging and destiny.  Where all of these ambitions collide will witness both the rise of a new power, and an altered course for the destiny of the Jedi.

Compared to most other movies in the franchise, the Last Jedi really plays fast and loose with its many inherited tropes.  No doubt a huge part of Star Wars’s monumental popular appeal lies in how it modernized ancient mythic archetypes and braised them in a cool, sci-fi coating.  The traditional hero - his (and it’s almost always “his”) call to adventure, the escape from the belly of the beast, the final apotheosis as the hero realizes he’s the Chosen One and redeems the world - have all been staples of the traditional Star Wars order, and indeed, remain the source of its undeniable power.  The Last Jedi pushed open the cracks in this formula left by the Force Awakens: Poe’s hot-headed heroism causes more harm than good; the last-ditch Indy ploy dripping with macho adventuring fails spectacularly; and the “Chosen One” seems, at this point, anything but.  Even the idea of the conflicted young villain is mercilessly deconstructed, and provides the film with its most effective sense of suspense in its entire run.  This is a controversial element for some fans, but for me, at least, it shows a great deal of creativity, and enhanced my experience quite a bit.

Even if you're not a fan of Disney taking a swipe at a few Campbellian sacred cows, the A-list cast goes along way to sweetening the pill a bit.  With this being their second go around, the actors by now have all settled into a comfortable groove with their characters, and it shows.  Ridley and Boyaga are the real stand outs, with Rey and Finn stealing the show in this new leg of the franchise.  Rey has bloomed into a more nuanced character, with a smaller chip on her shoulder and a more appealing vulnerability born of recognizing her link to the Force and her desire to learn more of her past and her place in the grand scheme of things.  Finn’s delightful oscillation between practical cowardice and flashes of the utmost heroism marches on, and he even forges a distinctive edge over the course of the film, culminating in an epic battle against his own personal nemesis.  Finn’s everyman quality had been my high point in the preceding movie, and while much of his screen time was spent floundering in a bloated arc, he was still a delight through every moment of it.  Though Kylo Ren has been a divisive character since his introduction, I’ve always liked his take on how a young man can slip into evil through a muddled mixture of fear, ambition, and insecurity.  And of course, we must all bow to the great Carrie Fisher in her final performance - even if she spent about half of it in a virtual coma.

Still, even with all this praise, some bizarre narrative choices result in a somewhat lopsided showing for the story as a whole.  One drawback to taking a deconstructive turn in a popular series is that everything comes together in a more intentional - and hence, calculating - fashion.  The humor felt too pressed upon and unnatural at times; the “twists” were beaten to death by foreshadowing; and all the many plot points came across as blatantly calculating, and not as organic as the original series or even its decidedly mixed-bag predecessor.  This is the underlying rot under every shaky foundation of the movie, and explains quite a bit of its other follies.  The need to intentionally break open the hero archetype laid down by Han Solo has warped Poe into an intensely unlikable figure - hot-headed for no good reason, secretive, and resorting even to mutiny to enforce what he wrongheadedly believes to be the “right thing to do.”  More frustrating is that despite this, and the fact that he is directly or indirectly responsible for about half of the deaths for the Resistance (no, really), his actions are waved away in an oddly enforced status quo.

But perhaps the most devastating change for many fans is where they left the Skywalker legacy.  Now, granted, I can’t fully jump on board with this; the central aspect of the Force, after all, is that it should belong to everyone, and wrapping everything around one bloodline makes a mockery of that lesson.  But reducing Luke Skywalker to a shell of who he was off screen can seem a lot like character derailment, and it doesn’t help that the film grants relatively few positive depictions of masculinity.  While I was ultimately satisfied with Luke’s character arc and understood (and appreciated) the lessons he imparted to Rey concerning a balanced view of the Jedi legacy, seeing him morph into a bitter cynic and viciously dismiss Jedi history as one of “failure, hypocrisy, and hubris ” with very little in canon to back it up can feel quite jarring without deeper reflection.

There are a couple of other things to pick at, if you’re really looking for it.  Finn’s side plot to find a hacker for a harebrained scheme to break the First Order’s tracker was a bloated and unpleasant affair, and not even Finn’s charm could surmount its plodding pace.  A major part of that objectionable little detour was new character Rose, who was a bit of a mixed bag in general.  While her initial scenes and sad loss of her sister at the very beginning lend her some potential and pathos, she quickly loses my interest as the subplot drags on and she fades increasingly to the background - relegated, it seems, to the slum of last-minute love interests and potential romantic plot tumors which come out of freaking nowhere.  Even beyond the sideplot, though, the film seemed to drag on longer than it needed to; there were several points before the finale where the film could have ended but didn't. Instead, it just ambles on, diffusing the tension and making me check my watch every five minutes.

And yet, despite these flaws and their seeming gross weight on the scales versus the Last Jedi's more positive attributes, this was still a worthwhile film.  While I understand that flirting with genre deconstruction can be quite unnerving in such a beloved series, I believe it was handled tastefully as a whole.  We don’t know what the next film will hold; Fisher’s demise put the ultimate monkey wrench in any plans Disney had for her and the film.  But Star Wars now stands at the crux of a cinematic crossroads: will it continue down the arduous road to deconstruction, or will it rebuild itself into something more akin to the original series?  Either path can be fraught with difficulty, but as long as it keeps its balance, it may be worth the effort.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Play Review: Fences

It was a Sunday evening, and we were shuffled into an intimate little setting at the Out Front Theatre Company, nestled to the northwest of Atlanta.  This indie outlet hosts a playhouse no bigger than the cheap seats at the AMC, which serves only to enhance the intimacy of venue.  The lights dim as the image of Troy Maxson - Illiterate garbageman, former Negro league star, checkered husband and father - leaps into view.  He’s standing alone, bat in hand, swinging at Death as his whole world slips away due to his own flaws and personal misdealings.  It is one of the most iconic images of the modern stage, closing out the visible history of its demon-haunted hero.  August Wilson’s tragic creation helped launch his name, and made Fences the most well-known and studied play of his ambitious Pittsburgh Cycle.  It has been subject of analysis from scholars and critics alike since its 1985 debut, and luminaries such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington all stepped up to the honor of playing its flawed patriarch - the latter bringing Wilson’s masterpiece to the big screen in 2016.  But for the inspiring minds behind Atlanta’s Independent Artists’ Playhouse, the intimate environment of the indie theater scene is well-suited to draw out the power and tragedy of Wilson’s work.  The talented cast, despite some minor flaws, brought Troy, Rose, and the rest of the characters to life, bestowing a force and agency distinct from the admittedly stellar performances of Jones, Washington, and Viola Davis.  The small setting, in fact, only enhanced the play's claustrophobic feel, earning another tip of the hat to the producers and their stylistic choices.

Wilson’s play centers on the fall of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector living in a small house in Pittsburgh, with his nurturing wife Rose and their son Cory.  The central story unfolds over a series of episodic vignettes featuring Troy as he interacts with the rest of the cast: his strained relationship with Lyon, a son from a previous tryst; the damage wrought upon his marriage due to his infidelity; his unresolved shame and doubts centered on his brother Gabriel, who sustained brain damage following his war tour; and, perhaps most central of all, the disintegration of his relationship with Cory, as he first sabotages the boy's chance to play college football, and finally drives him away completely as his son loses all respect for him and they clash in the climax.  Though Troy’s cut from the same mold as tragic heroes of old, the eternal question both within and without the story is how much of Troy’s downfall can be blamed on the racist society around him, and how much lies his own faults and foibles.  Wilson himself seemed ambivalent on the question, and a common thread running through all iterations of the play is how far they tilt to one side or the other.  

The minds behind Independent Artists’ Playhouse offer their own interpretation, thanks to the commanding performance of Marcus Hopkins-Turner as Troy Maxson.  Marcus is a tall man, physically imposing but lean and lanky.  He plays this up in his nuanced depiction of the Maxson patriarch; he’s not James Earl Jones’s stern authoritarian, nor is he a prickly imp like Denzel Washington, but rather, convincingly blends both portrayals into one whole.  The strength of Hopkins-Turner’s character lies in his ability to catch the audience unawares; his lean, grandfatherly form and penchant for good-natured ribbing suddenly morphing into a towering, bellicose figure who at moments seems capable of any act of violence.  And yet, the actor also bring a sense of weariness to the figure; his Maxson seems, above all else, a man fundamentally fed up with his life and what he has been through.

His cast mates all live up to their roles, though results may vary.  The two most important characters in the play after Troy are Rose and Cory.  Britny Horton was a lovely Rose Maxson - jovial and good-natured, and trying desperately to be a supportive wife to the cranky Troy, though her squealing pitch at times got the better of me.  A key, easily forgotten fact about Fences is that the titular structure belongs to Rose just as surely as it does to Troy; while Troy guards against all the outside forces conspiring to do him in, Rose wants to protect all she holds dear, and Horton’s graceful and breezily feminine interpretation - challenging to Troy, but largely devoid of any self-aware snark or biting remarks - makes us feel for her struggles as strongly as Troy’s.  Jael Pettigrew holds up well as an adequate Cory, though the play’s direction leans heavily towards Troy and Rose, and Cory, despite being the play’s designated antagonist (if of a heroic sort) gets completely overshadowed by the other two.

One performance I distinctly did not enjoy was Jared Brodie as Lyons Maxson.  Though obviously a talented and expressive young actor, he plays Troy’s elder son as an overly emotional whiner, liable to storm off in a huff if he can’t get his father’s ear.  Though that is, I suppose, a legitimate angle on a character whose own spotty actions often only inferred, seeing him play a strong counter to his father - hardened and a bit bitter for his absence in his life, even as he tries to steer down a different path - would have been preferable.  Besides Brodie, some of the stage direction did not work according to the atmosphere of the play.  Troy and Rose spent too much time looking off in different directions during their most heated exchanges.  This makes sense in some cases, as in the infamous “baseball dialogue,” during which Troy talks past his long-suffering wife with sports metaphors while they argue over his infidelity.  But at other times it didn’t fit, and looked as if Troy was having a soliloquy off on his own while Rose lectured him.

By and large, though, these is small trifles before a strong and tightly directed play, and the fitting resolution at the end gave no question onto which side of the fence they stood regarding how much blame Troy should shoulder for his misfortunes.  It was a concise and fitting end to a well-done interpretation of Wilson’s seminal work, and though this showing of Fences has, tragically, run its course, if you are in the Atlanta area and in the mood for an evening rendezvous with the stage, you’d do well to swing by and give the IAP a look at any of their venues.  It would be time well spent.

Grade: A

Friday, December 1, 2017

December Premieres

December Releases

Alright, let's get real: we all know what the biggest story is this month.  You know - a certain internationally renowned modern mythology?  Starts with an "s," rhymes with "tar pours?"  Whether you're a new fan, an old staple to the franchise, or even just a casual moviegoer with a pulse, odds are you will be seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi if nothing else this December.  I honestly feel bad for the poor slobs that have to open on the same weekend, but hey - you never know.  Besides that gaping crater on the surface of the end-year movie world, Jumanji is getting set for a modern face life courtesy of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and others, while Hugh Jackman stretches his post-Logan legs in P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman.  Last but certainly not least, Anna Kendrick brings her rag-tad girl posse back together for one last song in the conclusion of the well-regarded Pitch Perfect trilogy.

Check out the links down below to find out what else is popping in the entertainment world:




See you at the movies!


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November Releases

November Releases

It's November, and 2017 is winding down as it gets set to enter the holiday season and all the jolly studio competition that comes with it.  Adaptations seem to be high on the list this month, with Thor: Ragnarok stepping out swinging to rouse the MCU fan base with it's typically solid blend of humor and high-flying action.  Later in the month, DC will also be taking a stad at consolidating its fickle movie verse with Justice League.  Here's hoping it goes down more like Wonder Woman and less like...well, like everything else they've produced.  Besides the big guns, Blade of the Immortal, based on  Hiroaki Samura's famous manga of the same name, is set for it's limited US release after debuting in Japan earlier this year.  This Tokugawa-era chanbara staring an emotionally constipated samurai named Manji who cannot die has been a staple for Japanophiles in the West for nearly two decades, and now has a chance to reach a slightly wider audience.  Last but not least,  R. J. Palacio's uplifting juvenile novel Wonder, featuring a young boy with a disfiguring congenital condition and his attempts to navigate through childhood, hits the big screen November 17th.

Check out below to see more movies, plus new releases across the entertainment industry:





See you at the movies!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

One Punch Man: Deconstruction and Reconstruction - Part One

"Just a series that's a parody for fun."

I’ve made no secret of my respect for One-Punch Man and its fairly recent but profound fixture in the cluttered world of modern anime.  This senin send up to the shonen superhero genre -  born from the unsteady hands of creator ONE as a webcomic nearly a decade ago - initially appeared as nothing more than a poorly drawn gag manga, and even its most stalwart fans often balk at providing a detailed explanation on why it got so big, so fast.  What is it about this bland, bald protagonist in a goofy costume and his zany cast mates that strikes such a chord with so many people - some who’d be the last to call themselves anime fans?  

Of course, there’s the obvious draw of a new massively powerful, near-invincible character fans can add to their roster of titans - a cudgel with which to play out their vicarious power fantasies.  There’s no end of the toxic hate flung about the Internet whenever someone innocently (or not) asks, “Who would win in a fight between Saitama and [X]?” - with “X” being anyone from Goku, to Superman, to God himself.  While amusing in a train wreck sort of way, these pissing contests don't help us understand the wider appeal of the series - and in either case miss the point entirely.  One-Punch Man has been called everything from a gag series to deconstructive satire - usually by people with little understanding of what these terms really mean.  

In fact, One-Punch Man nimbly straddles quite a number of genre lines - partly because ONE didn’t have a solid sense of direction after his crudely drawn webcomic found a bigger audience than he anticipated.  But the series rides on thanks to his skills as a storyteller, particularly where he manages to maintain a compelling story arc without losing sight of the absurdity of his premise - letting his fans in on an extended joke even as he (seemingly) plays typical shonen conventions straight at times.

The crucial figure in this tightrope dance is Saitama himself, and ONE expertly uses him to pivot the fraught nexus of literary deconstruction and reconstruction: the dismantling of literary archetypes by exploiting the real-world implications and consequences of their outlandishness; and the more difficult task of rebuilding them into something a bit more solid and more resilient to both past and future critiques.  

A Hero Shall Lead Them...   
A good place to start is with the the idea of the shonen hero and what he represents.  In these series the main protagonist is usually the central focus.  True, he (and it's almost always a he) may get eclipsed every once and awhile by another character due to creator preferences or fandom response, but it's still his actions driving the plot, and his growth keeping our butts in the seat.  To accomplish this and keep our interest, it’s usually necessary to endow him with some standout feature: good looks, a sad backstory, a drive towards an impossible dream, or just plain, simple badassery.

...Or not  
Saitama’s got precious little of any of that.  On the surface, he’s a vanilla, rather boring protagonist - dull, plain-looking, and lacking any semblance of motivation or ambition besides “having a good fight.”  He doesn’t have a particularly tragic backstory, or any other issue that isn’t, in some way, of his own making.  He even falls a bit short in the “badass” department, since unquestionable power and ability aside, he’s too low-key and lazily efficient to capture the attention of his in-universe protectorate.  Despite his phenomenal powers and obscene strength, despite his status as the main character, there’s nothing about Saitama that really stands out - at least, not in the way most audiences expect from a shonen hero.  He defies our assumptions about what a hero is supposed to look and act like.  But what makes this a brilliant twist instead of a recipe for tedium is the reason why Saitama obtained his unbelievable power.  No mutant bite, no phenomenal superpowered lineage; he's just a guy who trained so hard that he accidentally became the strongest being in the known universe.  If you think that sounds utterly ridiculous, well, you’re right - and you’re not alone; several characters in story aren't drinking his Kool-Aid, either.  But the consequences of his current state is where the real fun lies.  Saitama paints the picture of the quintessential shonen hero during his training - striving to be the strongest, pushing his body to the limits, and stopping at nothing to fulfill his goal.  And guess what?  He succeeds.  The boring battles, easy victories, and existential ennui that defines and constrains Saitama is merely the end result of what happens when our shonen heroes take “wanting to be the best” to the logical conclusion.  Saitama woke up one day and found that he really was the strongest guy around - and without the convenient serial escalation of threats that’s such a hallmark of every other series of this kind, he can do nothing but mourn the lack of any challenge to his unwanted supremacy.      

Heroes, Inc.
Saitama’s blandness stands out all the more because he is surrounded by so many colorful characters who to varying degrees of sincerity strive to reach the pinnacle of heroic gestalt.  Unfortunately, that amounts to all of jack squat in this world.  Heroism is less a service to mankind or a motivator to help the helpless than a stepping stone to stardom, a way to blow off steam, or just a simple paycheck in the mail.  The Hero Association who employs most of these “heroes”  is a shady and slightly corrupt organization, warping the concept of heroism into some bastard offspring of a numbers game and a popularity contest.  Many of the Association's cronies are apathetic to all but their names headlining the front page news, and even those who shun the limelight tend not to hold heroism in the most ideal light.  Genos, our hero’s faithful cyborg Number Two, is a perfect example of this, especially in the beginning: the call to heroism had little appeal to the intense, vengeful youth, and even after joining the Association, he cares nothing for the hero culture it brands and advertises.  Not that you can blame him; One-Punch Man lifts the veil on what happens when heroism becomes a commodity - much like My Hero Academia at times, but with neither that show’s affirming narrative of striving for your dreams, nor its generally upbeat framing of heroic actions through the eyes of idealistic youths.

The Breakdown of the Ideal Hero
All of the above combine to drive home the deconstructive aspect of the series.  In the One-Punch universe, heroism is a public relations racket, meant to boost your social capital or that of the association who hires you.  Those few who sincerely wish only to save other people often find themselves overwhelmed by powerful foes and unappreciated by an ungrateful populace.  And when Saitama - a genuine powerhouse who, despite his laziness, does believe in the call to protect and serve - shows up and makes everything look so damn easy, both his fellow heroes and the people they watch over have a hard time believing he’s anything but a fraud.

At play here, then, is a fracturing of two of the most dearly-held beliefs of the shonen superhero genre: that pursuing power with single-minded focus - even if for the right reasons -  will somehow make your life easier or better, and that being a hero is a noble calling that carries its own rewards.  The following example shows just how ruthlessly One-Punch Man can grind down the above “logic” over the course of its run.

Case study: The Deep Sea King
The Deep Sea King Arc (for anime viewers, episodes 9 -10) is a narrative turning point in what had been up to that point a largely episodic gag fest.  Besides giving us the series’  first persistent threat to actually cause a significant degree of damage to both the image of the Hero Association and the heroes themselves, this arc also established several trends that come back to wallop the shonen enterprise at many points during the show’s run.  For one, we have the introduction and development of multiple heroes, each given a chance to shine and show how deadly they would be if they were up against any normal foe.  Stinger, Lightning Max, Snake Fist Snek: all members of the Hero Association’s Class A, the second strongest; all laying out their well-earned hero cred, either here or in previous episodes.  And all fall to the Deep Sea King with little or no effort.  It only escalates from there: Speed-o'-Sound Sonic, One-Punch Man’s resident ninja and self-proclaimed rival to Saitama, fails to inflict any lasting damage on the brute.   As does Puri Puri Prisoner, the first S-Class (the best of the best in the Association) we see in action besides Genos, despite a rather impressive showing.  Even Genos himself gives a strong if futile effort against the evil beast, accustomed as he is to getting ragdolled in order to make the monster of the week look more dangerous before Saitama fists it to oblivion.

So far, this all still follows the standard shonen patterns: evil enemy appears, carves a bloody swath through a line of lesser heroes, and eventually stumbles into a final showdown with our protagonist.  Even so, One-Punch Man still has time to play with a few genre archetypes along the way to varying degrees of faithfulness: the power of teamwork, which fails miserably; the heroic transformation sequence, which only served to show a side of Puri Puri Prisoner most of us definitely did not want to see; and even the infamous “nakarma power up,” during which resident low-ranked muggle hero Licenseless Rider gained a second wind in his hopeless battle against the Deep Sea King because the crowd he’s protecting all rallied behind him...which does absolutely nothing to change the outcome in any way.  It's at this point - with all the shonen-trope fish riddled with bullets at the bottom of the barrel - that Saitama finally steps in, annoyed and ready to throw down with the king.  

By now, most fans probably know the deal - but those few who miraculously missed the memo on what this series is all about might be expecting a decent fight for once.  And were this any other series, they’d have every right to.  Years of shonen narrative archetypes have conditioned us to expect a fight in these circumstances- maybe one-sided, maybe back- and-forth, but still, a fight.  What we get was the usual half-assed, one punch victory; Saitama drops him like an afterthought, just like every other baddie on the show.  But it is the crowd’s reaction and what follows that really twists the deconstructive knife.  Saitama’s hilariously effortless dispatching of the Deep Sea King is par for the course for him, but completely throws his spectators for a loop- so much so that one particular ingrate uses it to argue against the efficacy of the Hero Association and heroes in general.

For most fans, this venom-spewing cretin should be burned in effigy.  But his arguments, on closer inspection, don't deviate much from the tirades shonen fans often level at “weak” characters in many franchises.  He questions the strength and usefulness of heroes and the hero ranking since a low-ranked nobody like Saitama can come along and end it in a single punch.  Truth be told, he does have a point about the rankings' unreliability, but when he equates strength with heroism, thus casting all the heroes who risked everything to keep him and his fellow citizens safe into the proverbial waste bin, he’s not saying anything out of the ordinary for fandoms like Dragonball or One Piece, where “weak” characters are often the butts of many jokes for the sin of not being in the top power tier.  

What's at heart here is the very nature of heroism itself, and who gets to define it.  Our obnoxious jerk lays out his own understanding: “Anyone can buy a little time, but a hero has to beat monsters.”  With that, the heckler shows his shared lineage with those who lust after the violent anti-hero archetype - the ones, like Saitama in the beginning, who are motivated more by the thrill of a good fight than a desire to save people.  These are the heroes who stop at nothing to “beat the bad guy” - collateral damage, protecting innocents, or a sense of higher purpose driving their actions be damned.  These are the heroes who own a dominant share of the current shonen market and who power the 90s Anti-hero trope so well known in Western comics.  These heroes, and their fans, hold “badassery” as the most important and defining trait a hero can have, giving lift to the most reprehensible personal and moral views so long as they have what it takes to annihilate the enemy and confer bragging rights to their vicarious backers.

Tear Down, Build Up
There are many other instances like this all throughout ONE’s webcomic and especially the fabulous redrawn manga made in collaboration with the great  Yusuke Murata.  Teamwork among these heroes is seen not only to fail, but to be fundamentally flawed when weighed against the egos and relative powerlessness of the parties involved.  The Hero Association gets rattled a few more times over the course of the series - each time revealing an even more unsavory underbelly in the process.  Perhaps the most troubling manifestation of One-Punch Man’s deconstructive digs is Handsomely Masked Sweet Mask, the Association’s top A-Class and unofficial gatekeeper to the coveted Class S.  Popular, charming, and incredibly handsome, Sweet Mask harbors an almost sociopathic degree of black and white thinking.  His main quirk - aside from badgering other heroes for not living up to his ideals of “perfection” - is his relentless desire to vanquish “evil,” however he sees it.  This isn’t new, of course; hero teams across genres and cultures often have at least one moral monster to wreak havoc with the series' karmic tilt.  But ONE keeps true to his ironic bent by showing how flat-out insane it looks from the outside to idolize someone like that.  Sweet Mask will disregard orders to bring a target in alive,  threaten other heroes and even children who dare interfere with his directives, and all the while his fans cheer him on because hey, he looks so damn good doing it.  This creep's in-universe fandom love him for all the most shallow reasons, and though most of us in real life are thoroughly repulsed by him (if the tremendous amounts of hate he gets across the Internet is anything to go by) Sweet Mask slyly reveals the many illogical ways we justify flocking to characters that intrigue us superficially, even as we’d find their behavior under any other circumstance - or even if enacted by a less attractive or "cool" character - repugnant.  

One-Punch Man, far from being a simple gag series, runs quite a few deconstructive currents under the smooth surface of in-jokes and silliness.  Sure, it’s no Voltaire or Jonathan Swift, but ONE’s crafting has more than a little method behind the madness.  Indeed, you might be forgiven for assuming that the series is primarily satire - a brutal poke at the superhero premise specifically and anime archetypes generally.  But there’s another side to the story; just as the little creep in the Deep Sea King Arc made his case of what a hero is supposed to be, Saitama himself had his own answer.  And we’ll examine that in depth in the next part, along with the slew of other gems ONE throws in to veer his series away from simply demolishing fictional heroism’s house of card and towards rebuilding it in (partial) glory.