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Movie thoughts: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Spoilers)

I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past today. It’s a very good movie, and while its time travel isn’t entirely plausible (when is it ever?), it’s at least self-consistent and straightforward in its internal logic. The character work is good, although Wolverine doesn’t really seem like Wolverine. The premise requires him to get out of his comfort zone and adopt a role very different from what he’s used to, which is a good place to take a character, but it would’ve helped if we’d gotten to see it balanced with more of who he normally is, either in his 1973 or 2023 mental state. The one moment where he lost control was one that could only really be understood in the context of what came before.

But really, this whole movie only works as an installment in a series, a continuation of things the audience has seen before — indeed, as a culmination of the series to date, bringing the whole thing together more coherently than it’s often been in some of the middle installments. What’s impressive — spoiler alert — is that even though the ending resets the timeline and undoes the events of the not-well-liked The Last Stand (and possibly every other movie except First Class), the film nonetheless acknowledges and uses all of what came before and thus gives the series a greater sense of unity. Which is a good place from which to move forward for future installments.

The recreation of the ’70s was pretty good, seeming reasonably authentic without coming off as a caricature. Although some of the technology seemed anachronistic, like some of the plastics being used in the anti-Magneto guns and the Sentinels. Trask’s mutant-detecting remote control looked more like a product of the 2000s than the 1970s; it should’ve been big, boxy, and black or brown, or maybe that sickly green that was oddly popular in the ’70s. I was also concerned that some of the vocabulary was anachronistic, like when Charles said Trask would “weaponize” Mystique’s powers, but Merriam-Webster said that usage has been around since the ’50s. There was one other usage that seemed too modern, but I can’t recall it now (I think it was something Charles said to Wolverine after his failed attempt with Cerebro). And how did Magneto know “I don’t know karate but I know crazy,” from an early-’70s song, if he’s been locked in a cell with no access to electronic devices since 1963? Maybe he overheard a guard singing it?

Speaking of which, the Quicksilver breakout sequence was just as awesome as the reviews have been saying. Quicksilver’s a great character, despite the goofy silver hair — isn’t it supposed to be white? I hope he’s back for the next movie.

My one big disappointment is that we never really got to see the ’70s Sentinels being what they were meant to be, a threat against mutants.  They just went right to being Magneto’s weapon against humans. Sure, we saw the future Sentinels, but they were more like scaly T-1000s than the classic Sentinels of the comics and cartoons — or the Sentinels I wrote about in X-Men: Watchers on the Walls (shameless plug). So it wasn’t quite the same. It also leaves me wondering about the original timeline. If Trask had the Sentinels designed in 1973, and if his assassination led the government to go ahead with the program, then that implies that the X-Men must have faced them sometime before the movies we saw. The use of a Sentinel simulation in the Danger Room in The Last Stand certainly supports this. So what happened to them? Why wasn’t the government using them against mutants during the original two films?

I also wonder how Xavier got his act together in the original history where Logan didn’t come back. We’ve seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that within six years after this movie, he’s assembling the X-Men (and is bald and is walking, though with his telepathy intact). And of course he eventually becomes the wise mentor we see in the first three films and the future scenes here. So he must’ve found his way on his own somehow — Logan just helped him do it sooner. I’m curious how it originally happened.

The big thing that bugged me was giving Kitty Pryde this time-travel power out of nowhere. It doesn’t really make sense. I understand why they couldn’t be faithful to the original story and have Rachel Summers send Kitty’s mind back, because in the movie universe, Kitty wouldn’t have been born yet in the ’70s. Given the 50-year gap, sending Wolverine makes sense. But giving Kitty an arbitrary power just to keep her involved in the story doesn’t really work for me. What’s the connection between phasing through objects and telepathic time transference? Unless… hmm… unless she phases by putting herself out of temporal sync with matter. Or something. I would’ve liked some kind of explanation. It’s all very contrived.

Also, the timing puzzles me. From the assassination attempt in Paris to the unveiling of the first Sentinels probably took a few days, even if Trask already had the prototypes built. So Wolverine’s mind was back in the past for quite some time. If time in the future was moving at the same rate, does that mean Kitty was sitting there with her hands against Logan’s temples for days on end? Without sleep or food?

And while we’re at it, why can’t Mystique use her shapeshifting to heal her bullet wound? Just shift the tissues back into an intact configuration? If we assume it required an effort of concentration to hold a form, it wouldn’t be a permanent fix, but couldn’t she at least have used it as a temporary patch to aid her getaway? This is a common trope, shapeshifters retaining injuries when they change forms, and it always seems inconsistent to me. (Although come to think of it, this was established about Mystique way back in the original film, where Wolverine’s claws left wounds that remained when she shifted forms.)

Okay, every movie has plot holes, but for the most part this one held up very well and there was a lot to like. In the future portions, I was particularly fond of Blink’s power, which was rendered very nicely. I loved the way her “doors” let you see an action from two angles at once. And in the past, I guess what struck me the most was how much it was the story of Mystique’s redemption — and Charles’s through her, in a way. She’s ended up playing a role in these past two movies that I never would’ve expected from her prior screen and comics appearances. I’m still a little underwhelmed by Jennifer Lawrence, though. She’s reasonably good, but I don’t find her as impressive as a lot of people seem to.

Oh, and I liked the in-joke of the clip from “The Naked Time” showing on Hank’s TV. Although they kind of looped back through the scene a couple of times — Kirk said “A time warp?” at least twice. (So he was doing the time warp again?)

About those final scenes… I’m glad the altered history brought Scott and Jean back, and it was neat to see Kelsey Grammer’s cameo as older Beast (although I convinced myself that wasn’t really him, and it’s only in looking online afterward that I found it was). And since Rogue is back at the school (I didn’t blink, so I didn’t miss it), I assume that means she never got the “cure” and still has her powers. So it’s nice to see the band back together. The problem is that I don’t think we’re likely to see that timeframe again, with the focus shifting to the younger cast in historical settings. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the events of the better films — the first two X-Men movies and The Wolverine — being implicitly removed from continuity. I would’ve liked some reassurance that they still happened pretty much as we saw. Although I guess The Wolverine can’t happen the way we saw, because that whole movie is about Logan dealing with the impact of Jean’s death, and its post-credits scene is a setup for the dark future of this movie.

Well, I guess I can still believe those movies “count,” because it was that sequence of events that led to the circumstances that sent Logan back in time with the consequences we saw here. So there’s still a causal progression that makes them relevant. Still, I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of debate about this continuity reboot in the years ahead. Though less so than there was for something like Star Trek, since it was widely considered that the X-Men franchise had lost its way and the reboot was an opportunity to fix that. Which it certainly did. Bryan Singer himself may not have the ability to go back in time and undo the mistake of doing Superman Returns instead of the third X-Men film, but he’s done the next best thing, at least where this franchise is concerned.

Cincy Library Comic Con report

Here I am at the Cincinnati Library Comic Con 2014 this afternoon:

Me at Cinti Library Comic Con

(Thanks to library volunteer Lori for taking the photo for me.)

As you can see, I brought a variety of my books with me, but I still had most of them by the end of the event. Still, I sold a bit over a quarter of my stock and earned a decent chunk of change, with 20% donated to the library. Not shown in the photo: the one copy I had left of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder. Since this was mainly a comics event, my Spidey novel and Only Superhuman sold significantly better than the Trek titles, a change of pace from what I’m used to. It makes me think I should’ve tried harder to market OS at comics events back when it first came out.

The library had snacks available for the guests, including mini-quiches from Panera. I’m not usually a quiche eater, but I was hungry and I saw that they had a spinach-artichoke variety, so I decided to give it a try, and it was quite good, as one would expect from Panera.

Another thing that really impressed me was the material covering the table, that gold sheeting you see there. The texture had a good firm grip to it and it nicely held my books in that upright position. I usually have trouble keeping them from falling over when they’re like that, but they were all very well-behaved today, so I can only conclude it’s because of the tablecloth material. If I knew what it were called, I’d recommend it to all my conventions.

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER makes AudioFile Magazine’s Best of 2013 list!

December 4, 2013 1 comment

The folks at GraphicAudio just sent me some excellent news: AudioFile Magazine listed their audiobook adaptation of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder as one of their Best Audiobooks of 2013 in the “Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Audio Theater” category.

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook

The list is here:

http://digital.audiofilemagazine.com/i/215700

It may take a few moments to load, but the entry is on page 11. And here it is at GraphicAudio’s Facebook page.

I’m really pleased by this. I’ve always been proud of Drowned in Thunder, but the paperback didn’t get as much attention as I’d hoped. I’m glad to see the story getting a new lease on life thanks to GraphicAudio, and I hope this attention may eventually lead to Marvel reissuing the book (since Pocket’s license has lapsed by now).

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER annotations updated

September 19, 2013 2 comments

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook

I’ve just recently finished listening to my copy of GraphicAudio’s adaptation of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, which was really well-done. Tim Getman did an excellent job as Peter/Spidey, with a voice reminiscent of ’90s animated Spidey Christopher Daniel Barnes and The Spectacular Spider-Man‘s Josh Keaton, and with a good grasp of both Spidey’s wisecracking side and his more angsty, bitter side. Terence Aselford’s Stan Lee-esque J. Jonah Jameson is very different from what I imagined when I wrote the book, but I quickly got used to it and it worked very well. Alyssa Wilmoth, who starred as Emerald Blair in Only Superhuman‘s audio adaptation, played Mary Jane Watson-Parker (the book is set before their marriage was erased from Marvel continuity), and it was interesting to hear how her characterization differed, painting MJ in lighter, subtler strokes than Emry. Lily Beacon was a fantastic Aunt May, reminding me at times of Nichelle Nichols’s voice. The rest of the cast, which has only a few overlaps with the Only Superhuman cast, was effective as well. Here’s the full cast list I was given:

Tim Getman as Spider-Man
Terence Aselford as J. Jonah Jameson
Alyssa Wilmoth as Mary Jane Watson
Lily Beacon as Aunt May
David Jourdan as Electro
KenYatta Rogers as Robbie Robertson
Regen Wilson as Ben Urich and Phineas Mason
Steven Carpenter as Alistaire Smythe
Jeff Allin as Reed Richards
Kimberly Gilbert as Dawn Lukens
Nora Achrati as Marla Jameson and Jill Stacy
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Betty Brant
Mark Halpern as Blush Barrass and Bobby Ribeiro
Ren Kasey as Liz Allan

with Bradley Smith, Joe Brack, Casie Platt, Joel David Santner,
David Harris, Patrick Bussink, Thomas Penny, Christopher Scheeren,
Scott McCormick, Thomas Keegan, and Tim Pabon

Further credits are at the link above.

Anyway, I took notes while I listened so I could update my novel annotations to include the audio edition as well, as I recently did with Only Superhuman. I’ll have to listen again sometime so I can experience it with fewer interruptions. The annotations can be accessed from my Marvel Fiction page here:

http://home.fuse.net/ChristopherLBennett/Marvelfiction.html#DiT

I’m going to be doing a signing at GraphicAudio’s booth at New York Comic-Con next month, probably on Friday Oct. 11, although we’re still sorting out the schedule. I’ll post the info when I can.

 

By the way, while listening to the DiT audiobook so soon after my most recent listen to the OS audiobook, I realized something. Both Only Superhuman and Drowned in Thunder have scenes where an elderly female relative of the protagonist gives a speech that explains the thematic significance behind the novel’s title and contains a paraphrase thereof. I didn’t realize I was repeating that trope. Well, it’s surely not the only trope I’ve repeated in my career.

My visit to GraphicAudio

Here I am visiting GraphicAudio’s studio in Bethesda, Maryland on Monday, August 5th:

My visit to GraphicAudio

Me with director/narrator Nanette Savard, sound designer Patrick Stratton, and producer/actor Richard Rohan. (Link)

As I’ve mentioned, I was able to arrange this visit because I was staying with cousins half an hour’s drive from the GA studio. Based on their recommendations, I decided to take the Beltway route out there and the more direct East-West Highway back — but cousin Barb loaned me their GPS, and it kept trying to direct me to East-West on the way out and the Beltway on the way back! So I relied more on Google Maps printouts.

When I arrived, I also got a bit lost, since I went in by the stairs and the signs there only directed me to the upper floor where the processing and packaging is done. I needed to find someone to escort me down to the studios the floor below. There I was met by producer Richard Rohan, who turned out to have played Hanuman Kwan in Only Superhuman. He was aware I’d imagined Roddy MacDowall when writing the character, but said he didn’t have that voice in his repertoire. When I mentioned his performance reminded me of Tony Randall (which worked almost as well), he said he’d have to think about developing a Randall impression. I also met Nanette Savard, the audiobook’s director and narrator, and when I mentioned that I’d felt Greg Tai and Sally Knox had been perfectly cast, Nanette revealed that she had played Sally! I also briefly met Colleen Delany, who played Psyche Thorne, and who turns out to have a rather Psyche-like smile, very wide and bright. But I just missed a chance to meet Zephyr’s portrayer Thomas Keegan, with whom Nanette had just been finishing up a session when I arrived.

I was shown into the editing room where the above photo was taken, and I got to hear the opening scene of the Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook, plus a couple of other scenes later on. It was pretty well-done. The actor they’ve got playing Spider-Man (I don’t know his name yet) sounds not unlike Christopher Daniel Barnes, who played the role in the ’90s series that made me a Spidey fan, and whose voice I imagined when writing the book. Their version of J. Jonah Jameson isn’t anything like what I imagined (which was Ed Asner from the ’90s show), since they based their version on the fact that Stan Lee always wanted to play the role himself. No, they didn’t hire Stan, but their actor gives JJJ a very Stan-like quality. I also learned that Mary Jane Watson-Parker will be played by Alyssa Wilmoth, the same actress who played Emerald Blair — appropriate, since they’re both redheads.

I learned a lot of this from the trailer they played during the podcast interview, which made the story sound really exciting. I was listening in awe and thinking, “I wrote that?!” Anyway, Richard and Nanette interviewed me inside a cozy recording booth and we had a nice talk about both books. The podcast should be out within the week, and I’ll link to it when it’s available. They even let me go back in and do a retake when I belatedly remembered I’d forgotten to plug the upcoming Only Superhuman paperback. After the interview, they showed me the rest of their facility — mostly one big room where the directors and engineers work at a bunch of computers around the walls, but with some private offices for the producers and a couple of secondary recording booths. They had me sign a couple of copies of the audiobook as well as the OS poster in their lobby, and they gave me a green coffee mug with the company logo on it (though more lime green than emerald green).

Unfortunately they didn’t have any copies of DiT ready to give me, since Marvel hasn’t given final approval yet and they haven’t even printed any CDs. The box I’m holding in the above photo is a mockup they finished just moments before. But it sounds like it’ll be really cool, and I hope it’s a big seller. As I’ve mentioned before, I won’t get any more money from this, but I’m proud of the story and I want it to get more exposure. Plus it could attract more interest for Only Superhuman, and that could benefit me financially.

Speaking of which, I asked if I could have a fuller cast list than the one given on the audiobook, crediting who played what for more than just the lead roles. Nanette provided a list for me, so now I can give a fuller cast list for Only Superhuman, the audio:

  • Nanette Savard: Narrator, Sally Knox
  • Alyssa Wilmoth: Emerald Blair/Green Blaze
  • Colleen Delany: Psyche Thorne
  • Thomas Keegan: Zephyr, Taurean
  • Elliot Dash: Eliot Thorne
  • Ken Jackson: Javon Moremba
  • Evan Casey: Gregor Tai
  • Yasmin Tuazon: Koyama Hikari/Tenshi
  • Tracy Lynn Olivera: Bast, Lydia Muchangi/Lodestar, Detective Barbour
  • Barbara Pinolini: Rachel Kincaid-Shannon
  • Richard Rohan: Jahnu Kwan/Hanuman, Erich Krieger/Wulf
  • Christopher Scheeren: Yukio Villareal/Sensei
  • Michael Glenn: Richard Shannon
  • Kimberly Gilbert: Bimala Sarkar, Elise Pasteris/Tin Lizzy, Ruki Shimoda/Hikkaku
  • David Coyne: Sanjay Bhattacharyya/Cowboy
  • Eric Messner: Vijay Pandalai/Arjun
  • James Konicek: Arkady Nazarbayev/Medvyed
  • Elizabeth Jernigan: Lyra Blair, “Banshee” Starlet
  • Nora Achrati: Maryam Khalid/Hijab, Dr. Monica Railey
  • Joe Brack: Juan Lopez/Jackknife, Aaron Donner/Blitz, Daniel Weiss/Overload
  • Nick Depinto: Marut Pandalai/Bhima
  • Terence Aselford: Ken Auster/Paladin, Jorge Santiago
  • Additional voices by Thomas Penny, Michael John Casey, James Lewis, Joel David Santner, and Steven Carpenter

Hopefully I’ll have a cast list for Drowned in Thunder as well once that comes out.

By the way, here’s the list of GA’s DC Comics cast members. Turns out Richard Rohan plays Batman — and the Joker! (That must make for some interesting recording sessions.) Nanette Savard is Lois Lane, Colleen Delany is Wonder Woman, and James Konicek, who played Arkady, is their Superman.

Before I left, they let me know that they had plans to attend the New York Comic-Con in October. I plan to be there to promote the OS paperback, so I’ll be sure to visit their booth and maybe do some promotion of their adaptations. I’ll be sure to post information about my appearance schedule once it’s arranged.

Wonder Woman goes mod: The “Diana Prince” era (spoiler review)

For a while now, I’ve noticed that my local library branch had all four volumes of the Diana Prince: Wonder Woman trade paperbacks. These are a comprehensive collection of the 25-issue (bimonthly) run from 1968 to 1972 when Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and star-spangled costume and became a civilian crimefighter modeled on The Avengers‘s Emma Peel, a fashionable martial artist who was easily the equal of any man. (This was initially billed as The New Wonder Woman, then Diana Prince as The New Wonder Woman, and finally Diana Prince as Wonder Woman.) The change was masterminded by writer Dennis O’Neil, who did a lot in the early ’70s to bring new maturity and relevance to DC Comics. O’Neil is known for bringing Batman back to his serious, gritty roots (at least compared to the former goofiness of ’50s/’60s Batman comics which the Adam West sitcom quite accurately captured, contrary to popular belief) and for bringing Green Lantern down to Earth and sending him on an extended road trip with liberal activist Green Arrow to find America and explore the conflict between the letter of the law and true justice. The New Wonder Woman reboot was an earlier attempt to make one of DC’s iconic figures more grounded and relatable — and more to the point, an attempt to revive flagging sales of a series which had been under creative decline under former writer/editor Robert Kanigher and was verging on cancellation. The reboot succeeded in that respect, creating new interest and saving the title from the axe, but critical reactions to it in retrospect have been mixed, making me hesitant to read the issues. But recently I read this column on Comic Book Resources which examined the beginning and end of the era, and the excerpts made me curious enough to want to read the whole thing. And yeah, it’s a bit of a mess, but an interesting one.

Also quite a good-looking one. The pencil art for most of the run was by Mike Sekowsky (who also wrote most of it) with inks by Dick Giordano, and their version of “Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince,” as she was referred to in captions, was rather striking and glamorous. The character was not generally sexualized in the way modern comic-book heroines tend to be (although there are a couple of covers of Diana in bondage), but she was definitely nice to look at. Rather than wearing a costume, she went through a variety of “mod” fashions, initially in a range of colors, but by about a quarter of the way through the run, the colorists had settled on dressing her in pure white all the time — perhaps a sort of compromise between the original fashion-plate idea and the comic-book convention of having the main hero in a recognizable “costume.”

The story begins by dismantling the series’s old tropes. First, in issue 178, WW’s love interest Steve Trevor is framed for murder, and WW’s honesty forces her to give damning testimony that Steve had hated the victim, leading to his conviction. Feeling she’s failed him as Wonder Woman, she decides to investigate as Diana Prince — and to blend in with the “hippie crowd” she needs to investigate, she gets a “mod” makeover, ditching Prince’s former frumpy-Army-secretary look for a much more glamorous and contemporary one. She frees Steve, who gains a new appreciation for Diana (unaware that Diana is WW), leading WW to think she has to change to hold Steve’s interest. But clearly the ideas were in flux, because this isn’t followed up on at all. The big changes that happen next issue arise from entirely unrelated factors.

And they happen quite quickly, within a few pages. Steve is convinced by a superior to go undercover as a traitor to infiltrate the organization of the evil Doctor Cyber. WW intends to help prove his innocence, but she’s summoned home to Paradise Island. In just two pages, she learns that the Amazons are leaving for another dimension to recharge their fading magic, chooses to stay behind to help Steve, renounces her costume and powers, and sees her home vanish forever. Now she’s just an ordinary, broke mortal looking for a job and a home. Within another page, she encounters an elderly, blind Chinese man who turns out to be a martial-arts whiz and has unexplained mystical knowledge of her identity and past. He’s named I Ching, improbably enough, and he initially speaks in a stereotyped broken English that fortunately gets toned down later. He’s also an enemy of Dr. Cyber, and spends weeks (but only two montage panels) training Diana into a martial-arts expert. Steve shows up injured and beaten by Cyber’s agents and is hospitalized. But in the next issue, Diana, Ching, and a hardboiled detective named Trench pursue Cyber, and as they enter her lair, Steve randomly shows up with no explanation and gets randomly shot dead. Which is far from the most cursory and ill-justified major change we’ll see in these pages. For one thing, we’re subsequently shown that Diana has opened a clothing boutique sometime during all this training and tragedy. She was thinking about opening a shop of some sort just before she met I Ching, but the details were skipped over and the shop is later presented as a fait accompli.

Dr. Cyber turns out to be a beautiful woman in a high-collared cloak, a Bond-style evil scientist out to conquer the world with various convoluted schemes involving high technology and sexy henchwomen. Diana, having added to her repertoire with spy gadgets disguised as jewelry, works with Ching and Trench to pursue Cyber over the next few issues, though Trench bails on them at the same time that O’Neil turns over the writing reins to Sekowsky with issue 182. From here on, there will be a different romantic interest for Diana turning up every few issues, and she’ll kind of chastely fall for all of them within a few pages even though many of them are kind of jerks. As Sekowsky writes her, Diana is less in control of her emotions now that she’s mortal, and has to learn to cope with this thing we humans call love.

Sekowsky wastes no time reversing one of the key ideas of O’Neil’s reboot. He uses his first issue to wrap up the Dr. Cyber arc, then right after that, Diana is summoned back to Paradise Island to help them fend off an invasion by Ares — just four issues after Diana supposedly cut ties with the Amazons forever. The island is still in an alternate dimension, but now easily accessible — though Sekowsky doesn’t bother to explain why Diana still has to go without her superpowers and equipment if this is the case. Here we also get our first demonstration of the fact that, as written by Sekowsky, Diana is a warrior with no qualms about using deadly force — something that’s often part of how she’s written in modern times, but apparently made its debut here. (Also, weirdly, Diana summons help for the Amazons from other dimensional planes where mythic heroes like Arthur and Siegfried dwell, but it never occurs to her to ask her old Justice League teammates for help.)

The weirdness continues when Diana returns home. She liberates a young girl named Cathy from a trio of weirdly dressed women called “THEM” who keep her as a slave, then gives Cathy a job in her boutique — whereupon in subsequent issues the ex-slave repeatedly jokes quite cheerfully about Diana being a slave-driver of a boss. Either it’s a serious failure of character consistency, or it’s implying that Cathy actually liked being a sub and had something kinky going on with Diana.

The trades include Diana’s crossover appearances in other comics during the era, starting with a completely insane Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane issue by Robert Kanigher, WW’s former writer. The way Lois was portrayed at this time is hard to reconcile with the strong, independent Lois we know today — in her own book, she’s completely, pathologically obsessed with getting Superman to marry her and seeking to destroy any real or imagined rivals for his affections, in this case a Diana who suddenly seems to have her powers back and then some, though all is not as it appears. The cover sums up the whole mentality behind this issue, with Superman cheerfully watching the catfight as Wonder Woman tosses Lois, his own official, titular girlfriend, over her head. Superman really was a jerk back then. This issue is followed by a somewhat less insane crossover, a Sekowsky-Giordano issue of The Brave and the Bold teaming Diana with Batman as they take on an evil race-car driver who kills all his opponents and is somehow still allowed to drive race cars professionally. In this story, Bruce Wayne recognizes Diana as the former Wonder Woman, but she doesn’t know he’s Batman (even after Bruce is injured and “calls in a favor” to arrange for Batman to race in his stead).

Next comes a multiparter set mostly in Hong Kong and bringing back Dr. Cyber, as well as I Ching’s daughter Lu Shan, who turns out to be working for Cyber and accuses Ching of murdering her mother. It’s never explained why she thinks this or whether it’s true. Cyber has her face scarred by hot coals in one issue, and in the next is rather definitively killed off. We next get another rather violent issue where Diana follows I Ching across the Chinese border to help some villagers escape the Communist government.

But the book continues to veer from topical to fanciful, since the next storyline has Diana swept into a parallel dimension where she helps some noble “barbarians” defeat an evil queen who rules from Castle Greyskull (okay, just Castle Skull) by violating the Prime Directive big time and inventing gunpowder and cannons for them. Sekowsky sure didn’t stint on the violence. This story was published across three issues, but the middle issue is actually a reprint of issue 179 with a few framing pages setting up the flashback. The TPB collection doesn’t include the reprint part.

After another more down-to-earth issue where Diana helps catch a murderer, we get an ill-conceived retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda (the credits actually read “Adapted from a story by Anthony Hope Hawkins.”). Diana’s traveling in Europe and turns out to be an exact double for the local princess, and ends up impersonating her to protect her from an abduction plot. Sekowsky seems to forget that our mod mortal heroine spent most of her life as an Amazon princess, since Diana seems clueless about the whole royal lifestyle. I could buy it if she were putting on an act to conceal her past secret identity, but it extends to her private thoughts as well. And this is just two issues after a storyline that depended on her Amazon ties. The inconsistencies in this run are very weird.

After a ghost-story one-shot, we get World’s Finest 204, crossing Superman with Diana in an O’Neil-scripted story touching on the student riots that were topical at the time, though mainly dealing with time travel to a desolate future resulting from the death of a key person in the riots. The story has an interestingly, though awkwardly, ambiguous ending.

Issue 196 combined three stories: a new Sekowsky-Giordano story about Diana protecting an ambassador from assassination, and a couple of Golden Age reprints, one previously unpublished. The trade includes only the original story. This is Sekowsky’s final issue, and I wonder if his departure was abrupt, because the next two issues are double-length reprints of issues 181-184, with only the covers included in the trade.

O’Neil returns as writer for the next few issues, with Don Heck pencils and Giordano inks in #199 and Giordano solo art for the rest of the run. The first 2-parter brings back Lu Shan and the supposedly dead Dr. Cyber, who wants to put her brain in Diana’s body to restore the beauty she lost (an all too typical motivation for female villains in the era). Oddly, in these later issues, O’Neil assumes that Diana Prince is publicly known as “the Wonder Woman,” even though there was no prior indication that the secret of Diana’s former identity had ever been exposed. It’s just another bit of sloppy continuity. However, there’s no specific reference to Wonder Woman ever having been a costumed Amazon superhero; it’s treated as just a nickname that Diana’s picked up through her exploits.

After this is a 2-parter in which Diana gets dragged into the pursuit of a sacred jewel that Catwoman (in one of her less flattering costumes) is also hunting — and in part 2, with SF writer Samuel R. Delany taking over as scripter, the cast gets dragged by the magic jewel into the world of Newhon, home of Fritz Lieber’s prose characters Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser! Apparently this was a backdoor pilot for a short-lived, O’Neil-scripted comic series starring the duo. There’s another random continuity change here, since O’Neil has Diana sell off her boutique to fund her trip in pursuit of the jewel. I don’t know why this is, since it was O’Neil who gave her the boutique in the first place. Lu Shan is also in this storyline, but is rather cavalierly written out, and her accusation that I Ching murdered her mother is never resolved or explained.

Next comes another Brave and the Bold Batman team-up by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, and in this story, Diana knows that Bruce is Batman, though she didn’t discover that in their previous meeting. It’s also the first story in quite a while where we’ve seen Diana wearing anything that wasn’t pure white, presumably due to a different colorist at work (though it’s still mostly white). Diana is randomly assisted by an “Amazon guardian angel” who shows up in all of three panels and is never explained.

The final mod-era issue, scripted by Delany, is something of an embarrassment. It’s billed as a “special women’s lib issue,” and involves Cathy (remember her?) trying to persuade Diana to support a women’s-lib group fighting for equal pay at what turns out to be a crooked department store. Bizarrely, Diana resists supporting women’s liberation and says she doesn’t even like women much.

Um.

Yeah. The former Amazon princess… who spent her formative years and perhaps centuries of immortal adulthood on an island completely devoid of men… and who was sent to the outside world to teach patriarchal society the superior ways of her Amazon sisters… and who’s spent much of the past two dozen issues giving her enemies backtalk about how they shouldn’t assume women are helpless… and she doesn’t like women and needs to be talked into standing up for women’s equality. Excuse me?!

Apparently this was meant to be the first in a 6-issue arc by Delany in which Diana confronted women’s issues, culminating with Diana protecting an abortion clinic. But if this was how it began, maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t see the rest of it play out. And perhaps this rather screwed-up take on women’s lib was a somewhat fitting wrap-up for this era, because it was around this time that Gloria Steinem complained about feminist icon Wonder Woman having her superpowers and costume stripped away. Because of the public protest she raised, DC hastily abandoned the mod era and brought back Kanigher as writer/editor to restore the former status quo.

This happened in a painfully cursory way in issue 204, the final issue in the trade collection, written by Kanigher and illustrated by Heck and Giordano. I Ching is unceremoniously killed by a random sniper, and the police inexplicably allow Diana, a civilian, to ride on their helicopter as they go after him. She’s injured defeating the sniper and wakes up with total amnesia, but feels a salmon-like compulsion to go home, so she steals a jet. She’s conveniently shot down just off the coast of Paradise Island, which is back in our dimension without explanation. The Amazons restore her memory and her old costume; there’s no mention of restoring her superpowers, but she’s implicitly back to her old self, apparently with no memory of the entire mod era. She’s hired as a UN translator by some old guy who thinks she’s a “plain Jane” just because she’s in glasses and a sweater but otherwise looks exactly like she did before. Thus she is somehow “reborn” and the comic is restored to status quo in the most slapdash and creatively bankrupt way possible.

Was Steinem right? I don’t think so. It’s not as if Wonder Woman had been portrayed in a remotely feminist way over the decade that Kanigher had been writing the comic prior to the “mod” reboot. And for all the inconsistency and wackiness of the mod era, I think that removing Diana’s powers made her more effective as a feminist symbol rather than less. It showed that even a typical mortal woman could be a hero on the same level as Batman, achieving great things just with training, intelligence, courage, and compassion. And her wardrobe in this era was rather more practical and less objectifying than the star-spangled bathing suit. For its time, I think it did a good job at portraying Diana in a feminist way, and more understatedly than Delany attempted to do — just matter-of-factly treating her as ultracapable and independent. True, I Ching was an unfortunate stereotype, but less so than he could’ve been, given the era. I think there were definite merits to this version of Wonder Woman, and it didn’t deserve to be retconned and abandoned as completely as it was. At the very least it deserved a better wrapup than that dreadful Kanigher story.

(Some may remember the 1974 Wonder Woman TV pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a non-superpowered Diana who wore a star-spangled track suit rather than the classic costume. That came about because the project began development during the time when the comics’ Wonder Woman was powerless and costumeless. Since the book returned to its original format during development or production of the movie, it ended up being sort of a hybrid of the two different versions of the character.)

Here’s an interesting essay I found covering Wonder Woman’s history in the comics from the beginning through 1986. It reveals (on p. 7) that as soon as issue 212, new editor Julius Schwartz and writer Len Wein did acknowledge that the mod era had happened, and that Diana had lost all her memory of it. Kanigher’s return as writer and editor of the series didn’t work out and lasted only seven issues. Which is no surprise, considering that he’d presided over its decline to the verge of cancellation. The mod era saved the comic and was the first attempt to make Wonder Woman a strong, serious hero since her creator William Moulton Marston had stopped writing her. I’m definitely glad I read it, and I wish it had lasted longer, or at least been allowed to have more of a lasting influence on later storylines. Although in its way, I think it did pioneer some important aspects of the modern version of the character.

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I’m quoted in a Flavorwire piece on comic-book heroes

The folks at the Flavorwire website recently solicited opinions from various comics- and superhero-related authors about which comic-book characters they felt deserved their own TV series (other than their own), and thanks to the efforts of my publicist at Tor, I’m one of the people they asked. To see my answer (which is tenth on the list), read the article:

Flavorwire: Comic Book Characters Who Should Have Their Own TV Show

 

Monitor adjustments (in two senses)

It’s been a process of adjustment getting used to my new monitor — both literally adjusting its settings and adjusting to it psychologically.  I’m not crazy about the widescreen design.  I understand that’s become the default these days, but the screen has less height than my old one along with more width, so there are things I can’t do anymore, like fit a whole page of a word-processor document or nearly a whole page from my Star Trek: The Complete Comics Collection DVD.  Why not make it both taller and wider?  Where’s the harm in having blank space above and below a widescreen image?  Well, maybe it’s my own fault for getting the smallest monitor they had, but I’m not sure a bigger one would’ve fit either my workspace or my budget.  (I kinda wish I had one of those monitors that could rotate 90 degrees, so you could have it widescreen for watching videos or tall and narrow for reading documents.)

Once I discovered the controls, I tried turning down the brightness, to save power and to make it easier on my eyes, or so I thought.  A few days later, I realized the monitor was giving me migraines (not too bad, but frequent) — and I didn’t figure this out until the day after my 2-week return window at the store expired.  So I was worried about what I was going to do.  But I researched monitor-induced headaches online, and I learned that the problem is that LEDs, the source of this type of monitor’s backlighting, can’t be dimmed; they’re either on at full brightness or off completely.  So the only way to dim them is to make them flicker between on and off — the more they flicker, the dimmer the average light level gets.  And though I couldn’t consciously perceive the flicker, I must’ve been sensitive enough to it that it triggered the headaches.  Turning the brightness all the way up again has effectively resolved the headache problem, though it’s probably not great for my eyes to have it so bright.  Well, all the more reason to step away from the computer more often, I guess.

BATMAN: YEAR ONE — DVD adaptation review

I just got the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One miniseries, courtesy of Netflix.  This was a story written back when Miller was still capable of doing good work, before he became a parody of himself, and I don’t even want to talk about the depths he’s sunk to recently.  There’s plenty about that on the Internet already.  This is about the movie adaptation, written by Tab Murphy, directed by Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery, produced by Montgomery and Alan Burnett, and executive produced by Bruce Timm and Sam Register.

In the past, these adaptations of pre-existing comics stories, such as Justice League: The New Frontier and All-Star Superman, have tended to edit them down a great deal in order to fit them into the obligatory 70-odd-minute timeframe — anything longer would require a bigger budget than Warner Bros. is willing to allocate to one of these.  Since this one came out to only 64 minutes, I was expecting a lot to be trimmed.  But after watching the movie, I pulled my trade paperback of the original miniseries off the shelf (it’s the only Frank Miller comic I still own, and the only one other than The Dark Knight Returns that I ever owned) and compared the two.  And it turns out that the movie barely cuts anything from the story, and even adds some new material.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that the miniseries is only 4 issues long, much shorter than the others I mentioned.  Another is that a great deal of it is told through narration.  The main deletions in the movie version are these passages of narration, which tend to be trimmed down, replaced with dialogue, or shown visually rather than told.  Other than that — and the removal of the comic’s references to smoking — the only significant thing that’s missing is a short scene of Bruce Wayne skiing and thinking to himself that he needs Jim Gordon as an ally.  Dropping the skiing scene makes perfect sense — it’s pretty ridiculous of the comic to have Bruce performing elaborate skiing stunts just 8 days after he was repeatedly shot, burned, and otherwise very nearly killed in the tenement scene, and the movie’s approach of treating the skiing purely as a cover to explain Bruce’s injuries is a lot more reasonable.  But having Bruce/Batman express a desire for an alliance with Gordon is something it would’ve been nice to keep in the film.

The new material that’s added is mostly expanded action; some stuff is added to make a couple of scenes even more over-the-top and Milleresque than they were in the comic (like Flass tossing the Hare Krishna at the train station halfway across the platform rather than just shoving him, or making a suspect’s car flip over during a chase).  Some, as I said, is the portrayal of moments only described in narration in the original.  But the best addition in the movie is that Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara gets significantly more screen time, dialogue, and presence.  She was something of a cipher in the comic, but here she’s treated better — at least by the screenwriter and directors if not by Gordon himself, since the plot is extremely faithfully adapted.  My favorite change (spoiler warning) is that in the comic, it’s Gordon’s own words that prompt him to come clean to Barbara about his affair, while Barbara is much more passive and mostly silent; but in the movie, it’s Barbara’s own disgust at Bruce Wayne’s evident womanizing that guilts Jim into confessing.  It’s a definite improvement on Miller’s far more male-centric approach.

There are other directorial choices in the movie that also improve on Miller & Mazzucchelli’s storytelling.  For instance, in the iconic scene where Batman crashes the corrupt politicians’ banquet at Falcone’s mansion to tell them none of them are safe now, the comic’s version focuses far more heavily on Batman’s preparations and actions, but the movie’s point of view stays mainly with the people inside and focuses on their confusion and fear as smoke fills the room, the lights go out, and the wall blows open.  It’s evocative of Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman’s debut in Batman Begins, where the viewpoint is that of the mobsters under attack and Batman remains a mysterious, largely unseen figure like the monster in a horror movie.

And that’s appropriate here, because Jim Gordon is far more the point of identification in this story, while Batman, particularly in the movie version, is a more remote, forbidding figure, a loner who isn’t particularly humanized.  The casting plays into this.  At first, I was put off by Bryan Cranston’s strong baritone as Gordon and Ben McKenzie’s nasal tenor as Batman.  It was a very different approach than what I was used to.  But once I got accustomed to it, both voices worked pretty well.  McKenzie’s Batman reminded me in voice and manner of a cross between Jim Caviezel’s and Michael Emerson’s  characters on Person of Interest (a show from The Dark Knight‘s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan), and was effective at conveying the sense of a colder, more forbidding Batman, one who’s obsessed to a perhaps pathological degree — not an approach to Batman I’m particularly fond of, but one that fits this story, in which Batman is a driven loner who hasn’t yet gained the alliances and partnerships that temper and humanize him later in his career.  And Cranston’s Gordon is sympathetic once you get used to the flat, matter-of-fact, emotionally dull delivery that characterizes the film’s tone, like something out of a gritty ’70s crime drama (and there’s a dubbed-anime sense to it as well, with Cranston’s voice reminding me of Richard Epcar’s Batou on Ghost in the Shell, for instance).  Katie Sackhoff plays Sarah Essen in much the same no-nonsense, passionless way, but I guess that fits these characters who are so battered down by the hell of living in Gotham at its most corrupt.  Perhaps the most expressive player in the cast is Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  She works very well in the role.

The animation by Moi Animation Studio is top-notch stuff, and the visuals follow Mazzuchelli’s art very closely.  The music by Christopher Drake is good and largely fits the ’80s-style setting of the film; in particular, there’s some music in the sequence where Gordon tails Detective Flass that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.  All in all, I’d say this is a very good adaptation that is at once extremely faithful to the original and an improvement upon it in a number of ways.  If you liked the comic Batman: Year One, you should enjoy the movie.

I was pleased to discover that Warner Bros. has changed their policy of leaving their DC Showcase short subjects off of the rental editions of their DC Universe movies.  This rented DVD does indeed include the DC Showcase: Catwoman short that was produced as a companion piece to the movie.  Written by Paul Dini and directed by Montgomery, it’s something of a loose sequel to the movie, bringing back Dushku as Catwoman and including one other character from B:YO whose identity I don’t want to spoil (with all the other voices performed by animation stalwarts John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer), although it replaces the costume Mazzucchelli gave her in B:YO (which she also wears in the film, although it’s colored closer to black there) with her modern Darwyn Cooke-designed costume with the cat’s-eye goggles and the front zipper.  And it is made to fit the tone of the movie somewhat, with a lot of violence and gunplay and an extended strip-club sequence that, while staying PG-13, features the most overt sexuality that’s ever been included in a DC Universe DVD movie to date.  That part did feel somewhat gratuitous to me; did she really need to put on that show for so long in order to get close to the bad guy?  Though maybe it makes sense in the context of Miller’s B:YO version of Catwoman as a former prostitute.  At least she’s using her sexuality as a tool for her own purposes, I guess, but it still feels like pandering to the male audience, even though a woman directed the short.  But it eventually gives way to an even more extended chase/fight sequence that follows through to the climax of the short and culminates with a set of chain reactions that owe more to Wile E. Coyote than Frank Miller and had me laughing long and hard.

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GREEN LANTERN and Cartoon Network’s Friday block

Last night was the premiere of Cartoon Network’s Green Lantern: The Animated Series, the first 3D computer-animated series produced by animation legend Bruce Timm.  I was wary about the 3D animation approach, and it was a bit off-putting at first, but I pretty quickly got used to it. For one thing, even though it looks a little too slick and plasticky, the character animation and storyboarding have a lot of vitality and artistry to them, feeling more fluid and in the vein of WB’s 2D animation, rather than the stiffer animation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. (Although Bruce Timm’s excessively wasp-waisted female character designs look even more ridiculous in 3D — however, that’s only briefly a problem since, unfortunately, the show is rather lacking in recurring female characters, except for one of the Guardians and a ship’s computer.)

For another thing, the writing was fantastic, with lots of rich character work. It’s easy to look past the plasticky look of the characters if you can really connect with them as people. It was cool how even the guest characters — the local Green Lantern and his family — were given a lot of substance and contributed meaningfully to the story. And Hal Jordan was nicely drawn (figuratively drawn, I mean, in the writing sense). He’s impulsive and a bit of a renegade, but he’s deeply, sincerely dedicated to helping people and seeing the best in them. The most awesome part was when he got the ship’s navcomputer Aya to override her safeguards, not by hacking her or playing some logic game, but by appealing to her on a moral level, convincing her to help them do the right thing and take the chance to save lives. The fact that he defaulted to that as his first response says a lot about what kind of person he is.

Good voice work too. Josh Keaton did a great job as Peter Parker on The Spectacular Spider-Man for two seasons, and he’s just as good as Hal Jordan. The always-impressive Kevin Michael Richardson is in rare form as Kilowog. But then, they’ve got great material to work with.

I also have good things to say about the shows they aired earlier in the evening.  Generator Rex has always been a mixed bag for me, sometimes overdoing the irreverent teen-oriented attitude, but with a lot of interesting concepts, worldbuilding, and characterization.  And the past two episodes have introduced a major change in the series’ status quo that’s apparently permanent, as well as introducing a new antagonist, Black Knight, who’s a really neat character — initially seeming quite kind and reasonable, a much nicer boss than the stern, judgmental White Knight, but turning out to have an oppressive agenda beneath all the seeming good intentions (and it seems like the kind of oppression that comes from genuine good intentions getting out of hand, particularly given that Rex’s more-or-less nice-guy brother is a full and willing participant in it).  And this is right after introducing another permanent change of status quo in Rex’s partner Agent Six, who lost several years of memory and went from ultracool veteran to the novice of the group (though it remains to be seen how much that’s been retained in the six-month jump Rex just experienced).  It’s nice that the show is willing to make real changes in its storyline, though maybe it’s piling them on a bit too quickly for their consequences to be explored.

And Young Justice was excellent last night.  I’m not a big fan of Jack Kirby’s stuff, and the Forever People have got to be one of his most obscure and offbeat ideas — the sort of characters who’d fit better in Batman: The Brave and the Bold (and I’m surprised they haven’t shown up there already) — but scripter Andrew Robinson did a fairly good job of making them feel not entirely out of place in the serious, relatively realistic YJ universe.  Still, the real strength of this episode was in its scenes following up on last week’s episode, whose events inflicted serious emotional trauma on the team.  Now they’re having therapy sessions with Black Canary (who isn’t a psychological professional in the comics as far as I know), and those scenes were just superb, particularly due to Vanessa Marshall’s magnificent performance as Black Canary.   I never knew she could be that good.  She totally knocked it out of the park.  At this point I’d be happy to see a whole series of Black Canary, Superhero Therapist.

I wasn’t at all fond of the brief comedy shorts that were shown during breaks in Green Lantern.  Apparently these will be a regular part of the “DC Nation” programming block that’s about to premiere, minute-long segments using caricatures of DC heroes.  One of them was a clay-animated short produced by Aardman Animations (makers of Wallace and Gromit), which I was really looking forward to when I read that, but it turned out to be awful.  It was in the vein of their Creature Comforts short, with animation set to soundtracks of ordinary people talking, except in this case it was apparently small children rambling in character (theoretically) as Superman, Batman, Catwoman, and the Joker.  It was rather ghastly.  The other was something of a Teen Titans revival, except exclusively using the chibi-styled versions of their character designs and being only a “comedy” vignette about competitive belching.  Not great.

I’m not enjoying the current Star Wars: The Clone Wars story arc much either.  Too much combat focus for me, and the antagonist in the story arc, the Jedi general who’s consistently reckless and unreasonable in his decisions for no reason other than to place him in conflict with the clone soldier characters, is unbelievable and caricatured.  At least there’s only one week left in the 4-parter.

On sincerity and the Great Pumpkin

October 28, 2011 1 comment

I’ve just read the following Peanuts strip and it sparked a thought:

http://www.gocomics.com/peanuts/2011/10/28

The strip is part of a series involving Linus’s obsession with the Great Pumpkin.  I’m sure everyone knows about this, but to sum up, in Linus’s heterodox belief, the Great Pumpkin is the Halloween equivalent of Santa Claus, giving presents to children at Halloween.  In this strip, we see Linus carefully preparing his pumpkin patch and explaining to Charlie Brown that “[e]ach year the ‘Great Pumpkin’ rises out of the pumpkin patch which he regards as the most sincere.”  Linus asks Charlie Brown whether his pumpkin patch is sincere enough, and Chuck gives an encouraging but not particularly sincere reply.  Of course, we longtime readers know that, like Charlie Brown’s quest to kick the football or win a baseball game, or just about any other personal quest in Peanuts, Linus’s desire is doomed to remain unfulfilled.  Of course, most would say this is because the Great Pumpkin is merely a figment of Linus’s imagination.

But it occurs to me that even by the rules of his own delusion, Linus is condemning himself to failure.  Consider: what defines a “sincere” pumpkin patch?  Presumably it means a pumpkin patch that’s cultivated for no other reason than the cultivation of pumpkins — one whose nominal function is its only function.  But if Linus is cultivating his pumpkin patch not merely for the pumpkins themselves, but as a means to the end of luring the Great Pumpkin, then he has an ulterior motive and his patch can never be truly sincere.  So by the very act of trying to attract the Great Pumpkin, Linus is ensuring that he never will.  But he’s so obsessed with his quest that he can’t see the self-defeating contradiction in his own premise.

As with a lot of things about Peanuts, I think maybe that says something philosophically significant.  Something about the difference between trying to look righteous and pious in pursuit of personal favor and genuinely practicing a moral, spiritual life without any thought of personal gain.  Of course it could have secular applications as well, but Linus is a pretty spiritual character so it’s easy to look at it in those terms.  Although Linus usually seems to be one of the savvier, wiser characters in the strip, so it’s a bit odd to see him on the self-deluded side of a spiritual allegory here.  Unless I’m reading too much into it.

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Movie review: Marvel’s THOR (SPOILERS)

Spoilers ahead for the movie Thor:

I saw Thor on Monday, and it was really good. It’s easily the best installment yet in the pre-Avengers movie continuity, and one of the best Marvel movies overall. It had a strong character-driven story at the core, the dialogue was excellent, and the action and visuals were impressively done. My main problem may have been the fault of the movie theater’s projector — it was very dark at times, hard to see what was happening onscreen. (And this was in 2D.)

I was particularly interested in this film because it’s co-written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz, whom I’ve been interacting with online ever since they were on the staff of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and who have subsequently worked on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the second season of Fringe.  The credits put Don Payne’s name after theirs, which I think means that Payne wrote the final draft; but the dialogue and characterization felt like Zack/Ash writing to me, with the cleverness and zing of their words.

Thor’s journey from arrogance to humility and wisdom was a little unconvincing to me; I didn’t quite see how his experiences taught him the lessons he learned, and it happened rather quickly. I can understand how being unable to lift Mjolnir and believing that Odin had died because of him would shake his faith in himself, but I’m not sure how that leads to the compassion and self-sacrifice he displayed thereafter. Maybe it’s just that the lessons Odin had taught him were part of him after all, and just weren’t able to express themselves until his arrogance was broken, but that didn’t come across well. Also, you’d think that discovering that Loki had lied about Odin’s death would kind of undo any humility he learned from it. Still, I liked the hero Thor became, however unconvincing the transformation was. I have a lot of respect for characters who are able to admit their mistakes and limitations — and even more respect for protagonists who put protecting the innocent above getting into fights. Chris Hemsworth was effective as Thor, convincing at showing both the arrogant boy and the compassionate hero. And he and his trainer deserve a lot of credit, since he was really built like a comic-book hero, no latex muscles required.  (By the way, if I hadn’t known this was the same guy who played George Kirk in Star Trek, I’d never have guessed.  I found him totally unrecognizable.)

But the real standout here was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. This is one of the richest antagonists in comic-book movie history, so nuanced and sympathetic that I’m inclined to think of him as the second protagonist rather than the villain. He does devious and deceitful things like staging Frost Giant attacks and arranging for Thor to be exiled, but he keeps turning out to be less malevolent than you’d think. He had Thor exiled because he knew that Thor would be a bad king, and at the time, he was absolutely right, even if his methods were deceitful. And then he goes through all this manipulation that we think is about seizing power and arranging for Odin’s assassination, but then it turns out he set up the assassination attempt so he could save Odin and win his favor. Of course, he always had Odin’s love, but on such misunderstandings are Shakespearean tragedies founded. This was very Shakespearean, especially in the hands of Branagh and his cast, but Hiddleston was particularly compelling.

And was I the only one who felt, at the climax, that the reason Loki let himself fall was to save Thor? That even after all his villainy, he still loved his brother enough to die for him? That’s what I choose to believe.

The other characters were largely pretty good. Natalie Portman was kinda cool as Jane, certainly a lot more interesting than she was in George Lucas’s hands. Jaimie Alexander was really cool as Sif, very effective at the warrior woman role. The Warriors Three didn’t really stand out as individuals beyond their surface characteristics, but I guess that’s why they’re billed as a trio. And they were effective as far as they went.

Agent Coulson was his usual charming self. I think he deserves his own movie.

Heimdall was several kinds of awesome. Great character.

What I really loved about the movie was how compassionate it was. Far too many movies celebrate the death of the villains, or treat the taking of life as a trivial thing. But in this movie, that was the wrong attitude that Thor needed to unlearn, and once he became a hero, he was fighting to save lives, even his enemies’ lives, rather than take them. At the climax, he tried to save the villain — and when the villain (apparently) died, he actually mourned the loss. I love that. I wish more movies were like that.

I also don’t agree with the film critics who complained that this was too much of an “installment” movie whose only purpose was to set up The Avengers. I felt it worked very well as a self-contained movie. There were elements that were ties to the larger continuity, but they mostly served purposes that were relevant to this particular story as well (aside from a couple of throwaway moments like Agent Barton grabbing a bow rather than a gun and one of the SHIELD agents asking if the Destroyer was one of Tony Stark’s designs). Certainly the Avengers-setup material felt more integral and less intrusive here than it did in Iron Man 2.

SUPERMAN/BATMAN: APOCALYPSE DVD Review

September 30, 2010 1 comment

Now here’s my Apocalypse review hot off the presses.  Again, beware spoilers!

Whatever they say about the decline of video stores, quite a lot of people seemed to be renting Superman/Batman: Apocalypse in the day or two after its release. I went there Wednesday (it came out Tuesday, I think) and there were plenty of shelf cards representing checked-out copies, but the only remaining copy in the store was lost in the piles at the checkout desk. It took some time for the clerk to unearth it.

So was it worth it? Well, more so than its predecessor Public Enemies was. The story had potential, but the execution was superficial. It jumped from set piece to set piece without a lot of analysis or character exploration. For instance, it never explains why, if Kara was launched from Krypton at the same time Kal-El was, she’s younger than he is now. I think I read that in the comic, it was explained as some kind of kryptonite-induced stasis, but the movie skips over the question altogether (not to mention the question of how she could hitch a ride on a kryptonite asteroid and even be alive).

Also, when a large “meteorite” crashes in Gotham Bay and sends a tidal wave into the city, how come the only person who investigates the impact site is Batman? Where are the police and the military?

As with the previous S/B movie, the characters don’t show a lot of intelligence. As Batman was chasing Kara, it was pretty obvious that she was confused and afraid, trying to run away rather than attack, but Batman treated her like a common thug. That’s weak. Batman’s a keen observer of human(oid) behavior. He should’ve recognized that the best way to handle her was to calm her down, not scare her more. But no, Batman’s role in this story was to be the “bad cop,” the one who didn’t trust Kara, and he wasn’t allowed to have any more dimension than that, even if simple common sense had to take a hit.

And then you have the silliness of Wonder Woman and her Amazons trying to take Kara by force for training rather than just talking to her good friends Clark and Bruce and convincing them that some training on Themyscira would be good for the kid. This is the same problem Public Enemies had — all the characters defaulting to brawn over brain at the drop of a hat.

Too many ideas are crammed in and make it feel cluttered; maybe it worked better in the comic, but with a Jeph Loeb story, I can’t be certain. Like, why would Darkseid clone an army of Doomsdays? And why would he clone them so badly that the Inverse Ninja Rule was in full force? The original Doomsday was an unstoppable force, an enemy Superman couldn’t defeat except by sacrificing himself. Here, Superman takes out a whole horde of Doomsday clones with very little effort, and even Batman is able to kill a few (which raises some awkward questions about Batman’s characterization, even allowing for the “they’re not really alive” dodge). If the role of these entities was merely to be a bunch of mooks for the heroes to take down en masse, isn’t it overkill, as well as a non sequitur, to use Doomsday clones? Wouldn’t Parademons have been a better choice?

And I would’ve liked more exploration of how Kara was subverted by Darkseid — and how she was brought back. For a while, it seemed that Kara had switched over willingly, as a perhaps understandable response to how she’d been treated on Earth, an act of teenage rebellion against authority. That would’ve made sense and been interesting. But instead, after her rescue, she wakes up and is instantly back to normal, suggesting that the whole thing was just brainwashing and rendering it all meaningless from a character standpoint (not to mention, how did they deprogram her??).

Moreover, how did Darkseid even know Kara had arrived on Earth, let alone what her name was? And hang on — Darkseid not only knows that Superman is Clark Kent, but knows where his family lives?? If that’s so, why are the Kents even alive? Darkseid’s totally the kind of guy who’d bump them off just to hurt Superman. The illogic here reminds me of the early Power Rangers shows, where the villains are the only people who do know the heroes’ secret identities, yet somehow never try to kill them in their sleep.

(And is it me, or did the Smallville sequence pretty much copy the Smallville TV series’ design for the Kent farm and its main house? It definitely copied the “Creamed Corn Capital” sign from the show.)

The greatest strengths of this movie are the animation and direction. There’s some truly spectacular action here; director Lauren Montgomery has a real flair for that, as well as a real flair for character animation. There was some marvelously imaginative fight choreography. (I particularly liked a move where Wonder Woman caught Lashina’s lash, wrapped her foot around the cord, and stomped down to pull Lashina off-balance.) And the animation, by Moi Animation Studio in Korea (who also did Montgomery’s Wonder Woman movie and worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender), was significantly better than in Public Enemies.

The character designs were based on Michael Turner’s work in the comics, so I didn’t expect to like them much; the way he drew women was creepy to me, with disturbingly pale eyes and anorexic figures. But while the female designs here reflect elements of his style, they come out much better-looking than they do on the comics page. I particularly like Wonder Woman’s and Barda’s designs here. However, the Turner-styled male characters look kind of odd, particularly Superman, whose eyes and lips are oddly effeminate here. And the character design on Darkseid is the worst version of him I’ve ever seen.

As for the voice work, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy are their usual stalwart selves as Superman and Batman. Susan Eisenberg has really matured into the role of Wonder Woman; her vocal performance here conveyed far more power and majesty than it did in Justice League/Unlimited, though I’m not crazy about versions of WW that stress her martial side to the detriment of her nurturing/diplomatic side. Ed Asner’s Granny Goodness was more hard-edged and toned-down than it was in the DCAU, and thus less interesting.

And the newcomers? My reaction to Summer Glau as Kara was mostly positive, but not completely. In normal conversation, her delivery’s a little flat, which isn’t ideal for a vocal performance. But in Kara’s more emotional moments, I felt Glau did an excellent job, showing a good deal of range. And she’s very, very good at exertion grunts, an important skill for an actor in action animation. Maybe it’s because she’s such a skilled physical performer that the vocalizations associated with physical exertion and strain sound so convincing from her. (I’d be curious to see video of her recording sessions. I wonder if she acted out some of the motions.)

The great disappointment here was Andre Braugher as Darkseid. Braugher’s an impressive actor with a strong voice and presence, so I was surprised that his version of Darkseid came off as kind of a lightweight. He didn’t seem to be putting a lot into it, just generally being Andre Braugher rather than bringing anything specifically Darkseidish to it (like deepening his voice or speaking more slowly). Maybe it’s just that Michael Ironside’s Darkseid is such a hard act to follow, but this just didn’t do it for me.

So overall, it’s worth it for the returning cast members, for Summer Glau, and for Lauren Montgomery’s top-notch action direction. Just don’t expect much plot or character logic.

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SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES DVD Review

September 30, 2010 2 comments

I wanted to review the new Superman/Batman: Apocalypse DVD movie, but first I want to repost the review I wrote elsewhere for the film it’s a sequel to, Public Enemies, plus my review of the original comic thereof.  These films reunite DC Animated Universe cast members including Tim Daly as Superman, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and others, but are in a separate continuity, adapting the Superman/Batman storylines from the comics.  Beware spoilers!

The Movie

Finally saw the movie. The story is just as ridiculous as I’ve heard. Superman is grossly out of character. I don’t care how much he dislikes Luthor, he would obey the law and respect the office of the President of the United States. The idea that you can disregard the authority of an elected president just because of personal dislike is the way Rush Limbaugh thinks, not the way Superman thinks. Okay, granted he was in danger from the kryptonite in Metallo, but still, he resorted to violence way too readily.  Superman obeys the law. All Luthor had to do was, say, issue an executive order banning him from using his powers, or get the INS to deport him as an illegal alien, and Superman would’ve followed the law. Sure, he might have hated the idea of Luthor as the president, but he would’ve responded within the system the way a good American citizen would, through political activism and voting, not by beating up the US government’s duly deputized enforcers. At most, I could see him engaging in civil disobedience a la Dr. King or Gandhi, refusing to follow the policies enacted by Luthor but not fighting back when they came to arrest him. I mean, it’s Superman, the living symbol of truth, justice, and the American way. People would rally to him. He could build up a whole massive political movement that would tie Luthor’s hands. He could stir up support for impeachment hearings in Congress.

Pretty much everyone in the story defaults to fighting rather abruptly and with little justification. The characters are way too broad and caricatured. Luthor in particular is pitifully portrayed, becoming a joke as he descends into krypto-steroid-induced madness. Even with Clancy Brown doing the voice, this ranks down with the Luthor in Brainiac Attacks for sheer lameness.

The whole thing’s irritatingly macho, too. Not just the instant resort to fighting, but the fact that virtually all the female characters were marginalized aside from Power Girl, who comes off as rather passive and indecisive and is largely just there to show off her bust, and Amanda Waller, who’s kind of a strong character here but is undermined by the sheer grotesqueness of her character design.

In fact, all the character designs were pretty unappealing. Everything about them was taken to ridiculous excess — excessively huge muscles, excessively huge bosoms, excessive obesity, excessively spiky anime hair, whatever. It didn’t look very good. And the heroes were so encumbered by their preposterously overinflated muscles that their movements were rather stiff (and the morbidly obese Waller was no better off). It’s a bad design style for animation. Maybe a really good animation studio could’ve done more, but the Korean studio (Lotto Animation, apparently) that animated this did only a workmanlike job.

Oh, and it turns out there’s air in space. The kryptonite asteroid’s slipstream was animated as though it was undergoing atmospheric resistance and turbulence, and Superman’s cape was flapping in the breeze while he was in space.

Interestingly, Daly was playing Superman deeper-voiced and tougher than in the DCAU, while Brown was playing this version of Luthor with a lighter delivery — but Conroy’s Batman was the same as it’s been for a dozen years. Well, why mess with what works? I also enjoyed hearing Alan Oppenheimer’s brief turn as Alfred, and earlier as the general appraising Luthor of the asteroid. CCH Pounder as Waller was good to hear again, though she didn’t come across anywhere near as strong and intimidating as the DCAU’s Waller. Otherwise, the parts were mostly too small to say much about the performances.

It was good to hear Conroy, Daly, and Brown together again. But that’s the only really worthwhile thing about this one, and it’s disappointing that the reunion of these three definitive performers is such a bad movie overall.

The Comic

Well, I just happened to come across a copy of the Public Enemies trade paperback in the bookstore, so I read it out of curiosity. And it gives me a little more respect for the movie.

There are some ways in which the comic is better. I quite liked the opening pages telling Superman’s and Batman’s origin stories in parallel from their own POVs, both visually and in narration. The ongoing dual narration throughout is fairly interesting. And I owe Ed McGuinness a bit of an apology, since his Power Girl isn’t quite as top-heavy as the movie’s version.

In many respects, though, the movie handles things better. It drops the random tangents like the older Superman coming back from the future to kill his past self (huh?) and Luthor trying to distract Batman by planting evidence that Corben killed the Waynes (even though he doesn’t know Batman is Bruce Wayne, so there’s no possible reason why he’d think that would preoccupy Batman unduly). And it makes the Metallo fight more integral to the story rather than just a random incident.

While the movie does a poor job setting up the events that lead to the bounty on Superman, the comic does even worse. Luthor just claims out of nowhere that the meteor is something Superman brought down deliberately to wipe out Earth? As if anyone would possibly believe that? Okay, it’s an obvious pastiche of Bush and the alleged Iraqi WMDs, but it doesn’t wash. Lying that a known dictator has WMDs is at least credible, but claiming that Superman is out to destroy the world? Why would anyone believe that for a second? It made much more sense in the movie — Luthor frames Superman for murder and even explains the change in his behavior by invoking kryptonite-induced insanity. And since it didn’t really make a lot of sense in the movie, that makes the comic’s version look even more arbitrary and absurd.

And while I found the movie’s Power Girl to be a relatively passive character, she’s given a much more substantial and active role in the movie than in the comic. The same with Waller, who in the comic was merely a minor player in Luthor’s administration and ended up under arrest at the end, but who in the movie was a stronger counterbalance to Luthor and ended up turning on him, IIRC. So while I felt the movie was lacking in a strong female presence, the comic was far worse.

The movie also made better use of the gimmick of Superman and Batman disguising themselves as Captain Marvel and Hawkman. In the movie, they actually use those disguises to let them infiltrate Luthor’s base of operations. In the comic, there’s a passing reference that they were going to use the costumes that way, but then they just end up storming the White House by force, so the costume switch is totally without purpose.

Still, there’s plenty of stuff that’s equally stupid in both versions. The rocket, for one thing. And the whole “billion-dollar bounty” thing. Does the President even have the legal authority to issue such a bounty? Even if he does, unless Luthor’s drawing from his own fortune, I doubt he could get Congress to allocate tacking a billion dollars onto the federal budget. And would convicted or escaped criminals be eligible to collect such a bounty?

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As for Lester’s SUPERMAN II…

September 7, 2010 3 comments

Recently, I did a post in which I discussed re-watching Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie followed by the reconstruction of his original version of Superman II, and concluded that both individually and together, they work better than I remembered.  I also concluded that Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut works much better than what I could recall of the final, theatrical version of S2 which was largely reshot by Richard Lester after Donner was fired from the production.  However, my memories of that film were rather vague.

Well, lately, BBC America seems to be forgetting the “BBC” part somewhat and focusing more on the “America” part; it’s apparently running a series of mostly American movies whose only real British connection is that their villains are played by English actors.  And one of those was Superman II (which, true, had a British director and was filmed largely in England, but still had nothing to do with the BBC as far as I know).   I wasn’t too eager to revisit that film, but I was curious to compare it to the Donner version, and I figured that since I’d had the nerve to comment on the films online, fairness demanded that I watch the Lester version so I’d have valid information to base my judgments upon.

And my judgments were correct.  Lester’s S2 is one film I don’t need to change my opinion of — or rather, my opinion of it has actually fallen now, since I hadn’t known just how much it fell short compared to what the story should have been.

Cutting out Marlon Brando was clearly a bad move.  It’s fishy from the start, when the recap of the first film under the titles manages to exclude all images of Jor-El even during the destruction of Krypton, and when the trial of the three villains is retconned to having an anonymous voice pass sentence on them.  (And the attempt to depict their “crimes” is baffling: Zod walks into a room, breaks one crystal, and then the room turns into their trial chamber?  So they were sentenced to the Phantom Zone for petty vandalism?)  More importantly, it badly undermines the plotline of Superman giving up his powers for Lois and then trying to get them back.  In the original Tom Mankiewicz version of the story, that’s a continuation of the Superman/Jor-El relationship, the son defying the father and asserting his independence.  It’s a strong confrontation where the risks, motivations, and consequences are far more clearly spelled out.  And later, when Jor-El sacrifices himself to restore Superman, it’s a meaningful climax with real consequences.  It makes sense: there is a way to restore Superman’s powers, but at great cost, and it can only happen once.

But in the Lester version, that whole arc becomes feeble.   It’s not so much the replacement of Jor-El with Lara that ruins it; if anything, Lara was unforgivably marginalized in the original film and this could’ve been a good showcase if she’d been written more strongly, if a real relationship had been established with her son (although it still wouldn’t have been as strong and unified an arc across the two films).  The problem is that the writing simplifies the tensions and difficulties spelled out in the original version and makes the whole thing so much more cursory.  Things aren’t explained as clearly and the emotions are far more superficial.  “Ma, I love her.”  “Okay, but you have to give up your powers for her.”  “‘Kay, fine.”  “Cool, go into that chamber.”  I don’t recall precisely, but I’m pretty sure the Jor-El version at least offered some explanation for why he had to give up his powers to be with Lois.

And then there’s how he gets his powers back — he goes to the Fortress, yells futilely, then sees the green crystal and picks it up… and then later he suddenly has his powers again!  It’s too random, too easy, with no consequences, nothing sacrificed.  And since Lara had clearly said that there was no going back once he gave up his powers, the ease with which he recovered them feels like a cheat and makes Lara come off as a liar.

Of course one can complain about the excess of comedy beats in the Lester version, and that’s valid, though it’s nowhere near as bad as the third and fourth films.  Most of the East Houston sequence was annoying and unnecessary — though I almost liked the running gag about Non struggling to make his heat vision work, since at least it gives him some personality.  And the comedy intrusions in the Metropolis battle, particularly that whole extended product-placement scene set outside a KFC, undermined the intensity of that sequence.

But the other thing that struck me the most here was how much Lois was weakened as a character in the rewritten scenes.  The Donner version of S2 opens with Lois simply looking at Clark Kent and noticing that he resembles Superman.  Unlike virtually every other incarnation of Lois Lane, she is actually perceptive enough not to be permanently fooled by a pair of glasses.  Then she does an experiment to test her notion, drawing Clark clothes onto a photo of Superman.  Thus convinced, she dramatically risks her life to prove her conclusion, jumping out a window to force Clark to change to Superman and save her.  He manages to save her without revealing his identity, and she’s left uncertain, but ultimately clings to her conviction when Superman shows up at Niagara Falls, and then she enacts another bold ploy to force the truth from Clark, shooting him with a blank so he thinks he’s been exposed and gives himself away.  Throughout, she’s perceptive, strong-willed, and in control.

But in the Lester version, she’s so much less of all of those things.  She doesn’t even begin to suspect the resemblance between Clark and Superman until she accidentally gets a glimpse of him without glasses.   Instead of being observant and deducing that they’re the same man, she stumbles upon the discovery.  She then tests it in a variation of the window-jump scene from the Donner version, but instead, she merely jumps into the rapids — still dangerous, true, but not as extreme and unambiguously life-or-death a gamble, and it’s not that hard for Clark to rescue her while still remaining Clark.  And at that point, Lois is completely convinced she was wrong, and doesn’t even suspect anything further until Clark “accidentally” stumbles over the rug and his hand lands in the fire.  Lois is taken completely by surprise.  They rationalize the stumble by suggesting that maybe Clark subconsciously wanted her to know, but that makes Clark the initiator and leaves Lois far more passive.  All in all, she’s a far less impressive character in this version.  (Not to mention that the shot of Clark taking off his glasses and changing his bearing to become Superman without changing clothes is far less impressive in this version, because his back is to the camera.)

One more thing I noticed was that there were a number of scenes where Luthor’s voice was evidently dubbed over by a different actor with a lower, gruffer voice than Hackman’s.   I recall hearing that Hackman refused to come back to work on the Lester reshoots, so I guess Lester had to go with a voice double for the relooped dialogue.  I wonder who the double was.  I can’t find a listing for a voice double on IMDb.

Bottom line, when the Salkinds fired Donner and cut out Brando to save money, they ended up undermining Superman II on many levels, and we were deprived of a much better story.  Which isn’t really news to anyone who’s familiar with this film’s production history, but now I’ve seen the specifics for myself.

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Re-evaluating the Richard Donner SUPERMAN films

For a long time, I’ve had a fairly negative opinion of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, including the first two that everybody loves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought Reeve did a superb job in the role; but over the years, I came to find the stories of the first two films too cartoony, too corny, too conceptually ludicrous.  They’re full of nonsensical ideas like Superman making time run backward by making the Earth spin backward, or the powerless Clark somehow being able to walk to the Fortress of Solitude in his street clothes without freezing to death in the Arctic.  Their portrayal of Lex Luthor as a comical character who can’t manage to assemble more of a criminal organization than one moron and one sexpot was underwhelming compared to the Lex of the modern comics or Superman: The Animated Series.  I found their depiction of Krypton to be unpleasantly barren and bland, not a place anyone could actually live or work.  And I wasn’t crazy about Margot Kidder as Lois.

But recently, out of curiosity, I decided I’d rent the Richard Donner cut of Superman 2, the film he shot 70 percent of before producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind fired him and brought in Richard Lester to reshoot much of it as a more goofy and comical film.   And to put that in context, I figured I should re-watch the original film first.  I rented the extended edition, which comes with plenty of good bonus features.

And this time, I decided I’d look at it less from a modern perspective, one where we expect more sophistication from our superhero comics and movies, and judge it more from the point of view of its time.  In the late 1970s, comics were getting more sophisticated and plausible than they’d been in the ’50s or ’60s, but DC’s universe at the time, Superman’s universe, still had a lot of very broad, fanciful elements underlying it.  Maybe it’s because I’ve read All-Star Superman now, but I found I was able to have a greater tolerance and appreciation for the corny, Silver-Agey elements of the Donner films.  Sure, they have a lot of fanciful stuff in them that doesn’t even remotely hold up to analysis, but the comics had plenty of the same kind of unapologetic absurdity, and it’s just a question of taking it in the spirit intended.  It’s easy enough to imagine a Curt Swan-drawn Superman making the Earth spin backward to reverse time with wildly inconsistent aftereffects, or a Silver Age comic having a computer simulation of Jor-El say in one scene that he’s been dead for thousands of years and in another that if Krypton hadn’t exploded he could be holding his son right that minute (not to mention having Lex say Krypton blew up in 1948).  Or Silver Age Lex Luthor somehow miraculously deducing the existence of Kryptonite and its effects on Superman with absolutely no evidentiary basis (after Superman is foolhardy enough to broadcast his weaknesses in the big interview).  And Kryptonians being able to breathe and talk in the vacuum of space, as in the second film, is completely consistent with the rules of the DC Universe before Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted things.

So by setting my suspension of disbelief firmly on Silver-Age levels, I was able to look past the silliness and evaluate the first film more on its other attributes.  And it does hold up extremely well.  It’s a very impressive production, and a pioneering one in superhero cinema.  It does bring a level of sophistication and verisimilitude to the material despite the conceptual fancies.  Krypton may not be an inviting environment, but it is conceptually striking and original; I think what annoys me about it now is its constant reuse in things like Superman Returns and Smallville, but one has to respect the innovation in its original use.  And its coldness and barrenness was probably intentional, to underline the harshness of the Kryptonian state that dismisses Jor-El’s warnings and damns itself to annihilation.

The Smallville section is fine, effectively bucolic, but I can’t help noticing that Clark kinda kills his own father, since it’s right after he goads Jonathan into racing him that the heart attack strikes.  Still, I guess that underlines the “All my powers and I couldn’t save him” thing.  That’s a good line, because it helps anchor Clark’s character arc, providing a reason why he chooses to dedicate himself to saving people.  (Shades of Stan Lee.  I wonder if Jonathan ever told him that with great power comes great responsibility.  Well, “you are here for a reason” is in the same ballpark.)

The Metropolis section works pretty well but is still broader at times than I’d prefer; also it bugs me that they just blatantly show off New York landmarks like Grand Central and the Statue of Liberty and call it “Metropolis.”  Still, I no longer feel that Reeve’s Clark is too broad or comical, at least not under Donner’s direction.  And he did do an amazing job differentiating the characters and just plain embodying Superman.  As for Kidder, she’s more appealing than I remember, particularly in her screen test footage that was incorporated into the Donner cut of S2, where she’s kind of adorable (and reminds me of Kate Jackson, whom I’ve always found charming).  She’s not my favorite Lois, but after seeing the other screen test candidates on the DVD, I recognize that she did have a quirky energy the others lacked and brought the role to life better than they did (though I bet Stockard Channing would’ve done a great Hepburnesque Lois).

The one thing that still disappoints me the most in S1 is the villainry.  Hackman’s Luthor may be a rather more menacing figure than the Lex of the Silver and Bronze Age comics (who was basically just out to get Superman and generally wasn’t violent toward anyone else, and would even have been a good guy if he hadn’t felt compelled to war with Superman), but even he remarks at the beginning of his tenure in the film how incongruous it is that he surrounds himself with idiots rather than putting together a more credible criminal organization.  I just find Otis too broad and goofy and I have a hard time believing Luthor would put up with him.  As for Miss Teschmacher . . . well, let’s just say they said on the commentary that Goldie Hawn and Ann-Margret were the other leading candidates, and I would’ve loved to have either of them in the role instead of Valerie Perrine, who filled out her plunging necklines nicely but didn’t have much else going for her.

Still, none of the great superhero films are perfect.  Even with its weaknesses and silliness, it’s still superbly executed, directed, performed, designed, shot, scored, and — uhh — special-effected.  I’ve been too hard on it in the past; it does deserve its status as the seminal work of superhero cinema.  And Christopher Reeve was amazingly important in making it work so well, embodying Superman better than anyone else ever has.

(That said, I’m still not happy with the way Superman Returns and Smallville have tried to slavishly imitate elements of the Donner films.  You don’t honor an innovative achievement by copying it, you do so by being innovative yourself.  Taking something innovative and just rehashing it over and over diminishes it.)

Now, as for Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut (which is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s technically the Michael Thau cut in consultation with Donner): I don’t remember the final Richard Lester version too well, but from what I do remember, I’d have to say that TRDC is, for the most part, a far superior movie and a much better companion piece to S1.  The arc with Superman and Jor-El across the two movies is very strong and emotional and gives the story an effective core.  The Clark-Lois material is stronger and more unified than what replaced it in Lester’s version.  The Kryptonian villains are very effective, especially with Lester’s comedy beats trimmed out in this version.  Terence Stamp is effectively menacing and regal as Zod, though for some reason his voice is electronically lowered in much of the film, which is distracting.  And Sarah Douglas… ohh my, I’ve always loved looking at Sarah Douglas in this film.  It came out during the years when I was first becoming intrigued by the opposite sex, and her stunning eyes and sultry voice (and increasingly less intact costume) left quite an impression.

Even the Lester material deserves some credit.  Lester was responsible for the Metropolis battle between Superman and Zod’s trio, and it remains the first really successful cinematic depiction of a comic book-style superbrawl — though, again, it’s stronger and more focused in the Donner/Thau version with the comedy beats removed.  It even features the kind of thing I love to see — a scene where the common people believe that Superman has been killed (for some reason, since he’s obviously survived much worse than a bus crashing into him) and they band together en masse to charge the superpowered villains.  That kind of scene, of ordinary people discovering their own heroism through their affection for the superhero, was better developed in the first two Spider-Man films, but this was a significant precedent.

It’s still not a perfect film.  I still think there’s too quick a turnaround from Clark/Superman giving up his powers to getting them back, but it’s the nature of feature films to be compressed, I guess.  I’m still not crazy about the wacky, comic-relief Luthor; at least in S1 he had his moments of menace amid the comedy, but here he comes off more as a smarmy con man than an aspiring mass murderer.  No fault to Gene Hackman, who gave a memorable comic performance, but the conception of the character was just too comic to be credible as Superman’s greatest enemy.

Also, though Zod’s trio are effective overall, they’re totally unconvincing in the flying scenes.  As has been often remarked, Reeve really made Superman’s flying scenes come to life, using his training as a glider pilot to shift his weight as though he were really flying.  But Stamp, Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran look like they’re just passively dangling from wires.  It’s the weakest element of the effects work.  What they should’ve done was gotten Reeve to give the other actors some movement coaching.

And, sad to say, I think The Richard Donner Cut falls apart completely after the climax in the Fortress.  I don’t agree with the editorial choices made here.  First off, they cut out the scene where Luthor and the defeated villains are taken away by the Arctic patrol or whatever, so it seems as if Superman destroys the Fortress with the four villains still inside, killing them.  That’s completely out of character.

And the decision to restore the “turn back time” ending to S2 just plain doesn’t work.  The original plan, I believe, was to have Lois die in the climax of the second film, motivating Superman to this extreme action.  But they decided, even before they finished making S2, that they’d move that ending to the first film so that it would end with their biggest bang.  And they planned to come up with a different ending for S2.  That’s what they would’ve done even if Donner hadn’t been replaced with Lester.  And that’s what they should’ve done here.  They should’ve accepted that S1 ended the way it did and constructed this film to work as a companion piece to its final form, not to some hypothetical original version that never existed.  Because, given that Superman already turned back time to save Lois’s life in the last movie, it’s not only repetitive but silly to have him do it again merely to erase her memory.  It’s like it’s become casual to him, his go-to solution for any inconvenience.  “Oops, I spilled my coffee!  I’ll just rewind the planet a few minutes so that never happened.”

What I would’ve preferred, given the available material, would be for the film to end right after Lois says, “There he goes, kiddo — up, up, and away,” with the pullback from her balcony.   Or maybe cut from that to the scene in the original S2 where Superman puts the flag back up at the White House.  Sure, it’s an ambiguous ending, Lois still knows his secret, but so what?  The next two films in the series were no good, and Superman Returns can’t really work as a followup to this continuity no matter how much it pretends to be, so I see no need to be beholden to their version of events.  And the goal of this project was to make this film as true to Richard Donner’s vision as possible, and Donner never made any subsequent Superman films, so why worry about followups?  There’s really nothing to be gained as far as this film is concerned by arbitrarily erasing Lois’s knowledge of Superman’s identity.  Ending it with her wistful “up, up, and away” would be a great, bittersweet conclusion, and an emotionally honest one, with no super-powered cheats to restore the status quo ante.

Sure, we’d lose the scene where Clark goes back to get revenge on the bully from the diner, but I would consider that a major plus.  Superman just wouldn’t be that petty, period.  (Well, the Superman of the ’50s and ’60s comics might, given that he was always playing mean tricks on Lois and Jimmy for convoluted and nebulously benevolent reasons, but it seems totally wrong for the wholesome, iconic Superman Reeve created.)  Not to mention that if he turned back time as in this version, then the initial diner incident should never have happened anyway so he’s just beating a guy up for no reason.

So if I watch this movie again in the future, I’m going to stop it as the camera pulls away from Lois’s balcony at around 1:45.  That’s a perfect ending to the Donner duology.  The rest is just a mishmash I can do without.  TRDC is a good movie up until that point, so there’s no need to ruin it by going further.

Bottom line, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for the Richard Donner incarnation of Superman than I’ve had for a long time.  There are still things about them I don’t care for, but on the whole I now recognize they have a lot more going for them than I’d thought.  They simply have to be looked at as a product of their time, evaluated by the standards of their era.  And their historical significance to the genre of superhero cinema cannot be overstated.  They were pioneering films, and an admirable achievement.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

Patron saint of superheroes?

I’ve just learned that Syfy is developing a series set at a hospital for superheroes — a concept I had over a decade ago but never did anything with, alas.  Anyway, I got to wondering about an appropriate name for such a hospital.  Good Samaritan seems an obvious choice, but I also got to wondering about saint names.  And that led me to an old BBS thread I started that I thought was worth reposting here:

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This is just an odd twist that my mind took… in thinking about superheroes, I got to wondering: if there were a lot of superheroes in the world, and if some of them were Catholic, then who would be considered their patron saint, their protector?

So I decided to look at Wikipedia’s list of saints and their various professional patronages (and will someone tell me how come shepherds need so many different patron saints? Is their job that dangerous?) and see what candidates might fit the bill. Here are the possibilities I see:

  • St. Adrian of Nicomedia: I’m not sure about this one. He’s a saint of guards and soldiers, but also arms dealers, so he seems to be working both sides of the street there. Maybe he could be the patron saint of your more violent, morally ambiguous crimefighters like the Punisher.
  • St. Dominic: Patron saint of scientists. Good for scientist/heroes like Mr. Fantastic and Ant-Man, but limited otherwise.
  • St. Erasmus of Formiae, aka St. Elmo: Patron of “anyone who works at great heights,” so he works for flying heroes or for rooftop-workers like Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Batman.
  • St. George: He seems like a good candidate. His patronages include archers (Green Arrow, Hawkeye), Boy Scouts (Superman, Captain America), knights (including Dark ones?), and soldiers. And he’s a renowned dragonslayer, helpful to heroes needing a little inspiration while fighting monsters.
  • St. Joan of Arc: Patron (matron?) of Girl Scouts and soldiers, so basically the distaff counterpart of George (although they were on opposite sides in a few wars, but that’s okay; superheroes fight each other all the time).
  • St. Jude: Patron of police officers. Plus I gather he can take a sad song and make it better.
  • St. Michael the Archangel: Another patron of cops and soldiers — plus radiologists, so his bailiwick might cover those heroes who get their powers from radiation.

Given some of the weird modern patronages assigned on the list — radiologists, hospital administrators, payroll clerks, medical record librarians — I think it’s inevitable that if there were superheroes, a patron saint or two would get assigned to them. I’d say George, Joan, and Michael are the most likely all-around candidates.

I wonder, has this ever been addressed in comics? Are there Catholic heroes who have invoked patrons?

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Superman vs. The Flash

Courtesy of the library, I recently read a trade paperback collection called Superman vs. The Flash, collecting their various races in the comics.  The first race ends in a deliberate draw, the second too close to call, and one of the later ones is aborted in order to fight the bad guys, although you could say it’s another deliberate draw; there’s a “cosmic curtain” that only one person can penetrate and Superman and the Flash contrive to go through it simultaneously.  But in the other races — SPOILER ALERT — the winner is consistently the Flash, whether Barry Allen, Wally West, or Jay Garrick.  And I like that.  It makes sense.  As one of the later stories points out (“Speed Kills” by Dan Jurgens, from the post-John Byrne era when Superman was powered down to a more reasonable level), Superman isn’t trained as a runner.  When he needs to go somewhere fast, he flies.  So it’s logical that he’d be outmatched in a footrace by the Flash.  (Though this logic wouldn’t apply to Smallville‘s Clark, who still doesn’t fly after nine seasons.)

My favorite race, though, is the Denny O’Neil one from World’s Finest Comics #198-199.  Both Superman and Flash end up wounded and weakened and must drag themselves forward with their arms to reach and deactivate a doomsday device before time runs out.  It’s a lovely twist, and I love the narration:

It is insane..!  It is ludicrous..!  And, yes — it is comical! These two renowned warriors dragging themselves on their stomachs…  Yet mark this moment well!  For behold — they are injured, shocks of agony scream along their limbs!  And still they go forward, fired by the most gallant determination…  Never have Superman and The Flash stood so tall

This is the first race the Flash wins, thus averting the cliche of ending in a draw, but still letting Superman fans feel satisfied that maybe their guy could’ve won if he’d been at full strength.  The Jurgens story has a similarly ambiguous ending, implying that Superman might’ve thrown the race and leaving it to the reader to decide.

There’s at least one Superman-Flash race not in the collection, the Superman: The Animated Series episode “Speed Demons.”  In that one, they abandon the race to stop the Weather Wizard, then at the end they start racing again to resolve who’s faster, with the answer never revealed.

What I don’t get is that the front of the TPB says “Seven of the greatest races of all time!”  There are eight issues including two 2-parters, for six races overall.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , , ,

“The battery’s the weakest part of a car…”

February 17, 2010 1 comment

That’s what the guy at the car repair place told me today.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This morning, I called the insurance company’s motor club to schedule a jumpstart and/or tow appointment once again, and this time I got faster service, in about 45 minutes.  However, one thing the insurance people didn’t tell me is that I’d have to pay cash for the service call.  And I had hardly any cash on hand, and the nearest ATM was several snow- and slush-covered blocks away.

The problem turned out to be a dead battery.  The guy came in a car, not a tow truck, so I guess he was expecting that.  He had a portable gadget about the size of a car battery that he used to jumpstart the car, and he told me I had to keep it running for a while.  After that, he followed me to the nearest parking lot I knew of to the ATM (turned out there were actually two closer ones but I didn’t think of them) and stood watch by my idling car while I slogged through the snow and slush to the cash machine.  Not fun.

He recommended I get the battery checked at a nearby garage, so I went there and they took a look at it for me.  I had a bit of a surprised reaction when the mechanic took my car out into the street, down the block, and around the corner; turns out that’s the only way to get to the area in back where he worked.  Anyway, they diagnosed it as a failed battery and recommended replacing it.  Said it’d be about 45 minutes to get one in (he didn’t have any in stock since they’ve been heavily in demand the last few days).  So I went to do a quick errand at the post office and then walked to the library (a difficult slog since I was on the less snow-cleared side of the street), looked around there for about 20 minutes, then went back to the repair place at the appointed time.  Only to be told the battery people had gone to lunch and I’d have to wait another hour.  My problem is, I expect people to be punctual.  So I walked back to the library, an easier trip on this side of the street but still with some rough patches.

At the library (which has been sadly lacking in new Star Trek novels the past couple of months), I read a collection of Justice League Adventures, a comic series nominally set in the continuity of the animated Justice League TV series, but like most tie-in materials published during a show in progress, they pretty much all contained things that were contradicted by later seasons of the show.  (For instance, they assumed Wonder Woman’s lasso already had the truth-compelling ability Diana didn’t discover until a later season, and their versions of villains such as Chronos, Amazo, and the Royal Flush Gang were very different from what the show later established.)  Still, there were some fairly good stories in it.

And it took just about an hour to read.  When I got back this time, the car was ready.  So I was finally able to go to the grocery store and get some milk and bananas and cheese and yogurt and bread and sandwich turkey and other stuff I was out of or nearly so.  I’m having a light, early dinner now, since I’ve had an exhausting afternoon and haven’t eaten since the early lunch I rushed through before the jumpstart guy got here.

The guy at the repair place told me that batteries are not only less efficient and more strained in the cold, but are having more and more demanded of them as cars become more computerized.  Apparently, even formerly hydraulic systems like brakes and steering are being replaced with computer-controlled, electricity-drawing systems.  More and more, the entire operation of an automobile is depending on the battery, which, according to him, is the weakest part of the car.  Seems like an unwise practice to me.

But I’ve heard there’s some promising research being done into new energy-storage technology.  Apparently there’s a material being developed that so thin it could be used to make the doors and paneling of a car, and would charge faster and function more efficiently than a chemical battery.  The repair guy was skeptical, but with the way materials science is advancing these days, I’m more optimistic about the prospects.

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