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ANT-MAN Review (spoilers)

I’ve seen some reviews criticizing Ant-Man for not being as “necessary” to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as other films have been. But I think that’s missing the point of the MCU’s interconnectedness. It’s not about how the films serve the universe; it’s about how the universe serves the films. And I think that was very much in evidence in Ant-Man. It’s telling its own story, but it’s a story that’s informed by the larger context it’s part of, and that sense of being in a larger world is useful to the story.

For starters, the ties to the larger universe serve as a shorthand to help us understand the mindset of Dr. Hank Pym, as played by Michael Douglas, who’s very convincingly de-aged in the opening flashback to the 1980s. We already know what SHIELD is (in the person of a mature Peggy Carter), and we know who Howard Stark is (with John Slattery reprising the older Howard), so that gives us context for where Pym is coming from when he walks away from SHIELD rather than share his powerful Pym particles with them. And we know how Howard’s son Tony formed the Avengers and how SHIELD connects to Hydra, so that gives context for later developments such as Pym’s unwillingness to call in the Avengers and the plans of Pym’s protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) for militarizing the shrinking tech and selling it to disreputable parties.

So that background simplifies the exposition and lets the film focus more fully on the story it’s telling in the here and now, with catburglar Scott Lang (star and co-writer Paul Rudd) trying to go straight and be worthy of his totally adorable 5-year-old daughter, but being lured back into thievery by Pym, who intends to recruit him to steal Cross’s Yellowjacket prototype before it can fall into The Wrong Hands. Both Scott and Hank are defined by their troubled relationships with their daughters — Scott close to his daughter but kept away from her by his ex-wife and her cop fiance, and Hank marginalizing his gung-ho daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a way she resents, but that turns out to be based on protectiveness and his grief about the loss of his wife Janet, the winsome Wasp. It’s a pretty effective story about well-meaning but flawed people gradually finding their way to the same page. Not profound drama, perhaps, but fine for giving a human core to a comedy-adventure movie.

What’s interesting about Hope’s arc, which is largely about her wanting to don the Ant-“Man” suit herself and resenting Hank’s insistence on recruiting Scott instead, is that it feels like a metatextual nod toward the treatment of female heroes in the MCU thus far. Hank may be acting out of love, preferring to risk the expendable Scott over his own daughter, but it’s still a paternalistic choice and keeps a clearly qualified woman out of the lead role she deserves. Hopefully the resolution of that arc is also symbolic of where the MCU is going with regard to its heroines, but it still feels like too little (no pun intended), too late.

Another MCU trend that this film fails to buck is the tendency toward one-dimensional villains. Darren Cross is an obvious bad egg from the first scene, and he has no character arc. It’s explained that the effect of his knockoff Pym particles has warped his mind, but that’s an easy copout. Making a villain insane is a cheat, because it saves the writer from having to come up with plausible motivations or nuances. And Marvel has had so many rich, nuanced villains in its comics over the decades that it’s surprising the MCU falls so short on that front even while capturing the Marvel spirit so well in other respects.

For me, perhaps the best example of that was the scene where Hank sent Scott on a “trial run” to steal a security bypass device from an old Stark facility which turned out to be the new Avengers HQ, leading to a fight with the Falcon. This was the part that felt the most like a scene out of a comic. You’re introducing a new hero and you want to show his stuff, so what do you do? You bring in an established guest hero and have them fight. That’s a classic Marvel move. And now the MCU is such a well-developed, continuous universe that it feels as natural in the movies as it does in the comics. It’s also good to see Falcon get a featured role after the way he was marginalized in Age of Ultron — though it’s a shame that his first action scene as an Avenger ends with him losing.

Also, I was bugged by Scott’s boastful line afterward about how “I fought an Avenger — and didn’t die!” That implies the Avengers go around killing as a matter of course, and that’s disturbing. That’s another respect in which the movies have consistently failed to capture the comics’ flavor — the casualness with which the “heroes” kill, something that their comics counterparts usually avoid as a rule. I find it ironic that the TV series Daredevil, which is touted as the darkest and most violent incarnation of the MCU yet, is the only one in which the hero has a code against killing. Ant-Man was pretty good in that respect too; both Hank and Scott were opposed to violence, and they and Scott’s comic-relief accomplices made a point of evacuating the building they planned to destroy in the big heist. (Indeed, the moment where Luis went back to rescue the tied-up guard was perhaps the moment when he really crossed the line to the side of “the good guys,” a nice redemptive beat.) Even Yellowjacket’s fate in the end is somewhat ambiguous. This film probably has the lowest body count of any MCU production to date, and that’s refreshing.

Otherwise, I feel the action was very well-done. Ant-Man’s shrinking powers and the microscopic setting in which he operated made for some very novel visuals and action beats, a nice, fresh addition to the usual roster of superpowers. When was the last time we had a live-action movie that played around with miniaturization? Was it way back with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? If so, it’s a trope that’s been overdue for a revisit with modern effects. The control of ants as a major part of the action was also a novel element, though as a lifelong entomophobe, I appreciate that they made the digital ants “cuter” than the real things would be at that scale of magnification.

The comedy aspects of the film are also pretty effective, and I can tell that a lot of Edgar Wright’s ideas and sensibilities have been retained, particularly the use of super-quick cuts and visual montages. It’s probably more homogenized than it would’ve been if Wright had stayed on the film, but as a middle ground between the Wright style and the MCU house style, I think it worked pretty well.

The theater I went to was pretty crowded, since Tuesday is discount day and it’s the first week of release. (Normally I would’ve waited longer, but there were already so many spoilers out online that I felt I had to see it before I got too completely spoiled.) Nearly everybody stuck around for the mid-credits tag scene, but only a dozen or so people, myself included, stayed for the second tag scene. I found it interesting that the order of the tags was inverted compared to earlier movies. In both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mid-credits scene was a teaser for the next film in the sequence, and the final post-credits scene was a tag to the film we’d just watched. I felt it would make more sense the other way around — and this time, it was, with the mid-credits scene being a tag to Ant-Man and the final scene being a setup for (and, I think, an actual excerpt from) Captain America: Civil War. It works better that way, especially with so few patrons being patient enough to stick around to the very end.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

New ANALOG story coming: “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”

I’m pleased to announce that I recently sold another novelette to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It’s called “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad,” and though the Agatha Christie nod is intentional, the primary reference is to a different kind of railroad… well, you’ll see. But yes, this is a murder mystery, my second after “No Dominion” — although that was more a police procedural, while this is a proper whodunit with clues hidden in plain sight. But not everything is as it seems, and there are a couple of pretty major surprises.

“Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” is also my first Analog story in 15 years that isn’t set in the Hub universe. In fact, it’s going back to my main original universe, the one my first two Analog stories occupied. It takes place in the same colonized Solar System setting as Only Superhuman but about 15 years earlier, and it connects indirectly to the backstory of one of that novel’s major characters. (That’s because I wrote an earlier version of this story years ago and cannibalized it for ideas when fleshing out that character’s past.) A hint: The story involves the nature of artificial intelligence and the ethics of AI rights.

No word yet on the publication date, but I’ll let you all know once I find out.

Tap dance

My faucet was going pip.

When I first noticed the faint, repeating sound from my kitchen sink, I thought it was a drip, but there was no drip. Just a faint, recurring pip sound from somewhere inside the faucet assembly. I could sometimes get it to abate by adjusting the knobs just right, or maybe it just seemed that way through random variation. But though it was quiet, it was enough to be distracting to me, because I’m easily distracted. (Oh, look, a shiny thing!) It sounded like maybe some kind of air bubbles forming and popping inside a pipe or gasket somewhere, but I couldn’t be sure.

So at one point last month, I mentioned it to the building manager, along with the fact that there tended to be small amounts of water leaking around the edges of the faucet assembly from time to time — which, in retrospect, was probably the more important thing to mention. Anyway, the maintenance guy came in and put in new valves or whatever they’re called inside the knobs. The pips stopped, but the knobs became stiffer and hard to turn. This is a problem for me, since I like to turn the knobs with my forearms in order to keep my hands clean after washing them. It was hard to apply enough torque with my forearms with the new knobs. So I happened to mention to the manager that the knobs were too stiff.

So the maintenance guy came in again a few days later and tried installing a different kind of valves or whatever in the knobs. He also put plenty of grease on them to lubricate them. But afterward, the knobs were even stiffer, and seemed to get harder to turn by the day. The maintenance guy couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Although I did learn more than ever before about the anatomy and functioning of my sink knobs.

But that knowledge quickly proved moot, since the maintenance guy decided just to replace the whole faucet assembly, and that’s what he and the senior maintenance guy did today. The old assembly proved difficult to take out, since the nuts were so old that they’d become stripped or worn or something and the senior guy needed to use a drill to break them open (they were plastic). Apparently, I’ve been living here so long that they haven’t had a chance to renovate the kitchen in over a decade. (I could ask them to, but it’d mean a rent increase, and, well, I’m a writer.)

Anyway, he gradually made progress, and it was fun watching the effects up above as he wrestled with the pipes below. It was like the faucet was dancing in gleeful anticipation of finally being freed from its bonds. (Hence the post title.) But I happened to be looking away at the moment it finally came loose, so I missed its triumphant leap into the sink.

So now I have a gleaming new faucet assembly, and the best part is, it has a single lever rather than separate hot and cold knobs! That’s the kind of kitchen faucet I used to have before I moved here, and it’s the kind I’ve always wished I had again, because it’s so much easier to turn on and off and adjust the temperature with, especially without using my hands. Come to think of it, it’ll probably be easier to keep clean as well. It wasn’t easy to clean underneath the old knobs, and they tended to accumulate mineral deposits or gunk of some sort. (The water in this neighborhood is alarmingly hard. I’d make some geeky joke about it giving Jay Garrick superpowers, but the science of that is so dreadful that I just can’t bring myself to do it.) Now I’ve just got a nice smooth plate with the faucet and lever in the middle, and fewer places for water to leak from.

EDIT: I just remembered the most important reason I prefer a single-lever faucet. In this building, in the winter, the cold water gets really cold, and the hot water tends to get really hot to compensate for it. So while in the summer, I can get by comfortably using just one or the other, in winter I need to find a tolerable mix of the two, and that’s a lot easier to do if I can just nudge a lever, rather than having to constantly use both knobs and try to find a good balance between them. At this time of year, when both hot and cold are at more moderate temperatures, it doesn’t make much difference, but I’m sure I’ll be grateful for the change come winter.

So all in all, I’m very pleased with the end result of all this. I guess it pays to mention it when your faucet goes pip.

Although I still wish I knew what that sound was.

Categories: Uncategorized

ROTF 4 title revealed: LIVE BY THE CODE

As usual, 8of5 at The Trek Collective has been alert to the latest updates on Star Trek news, and that includes the news that the title and pre-order information for Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation Book 4 has now gone public. So I can now freely say (heck, I probably could’ve said months ago, but I wasn’t sure) that the book is called Live by the Code. It’s a title that has several meanings, but one of them is a play on computer code, since this novel continues the Ware narrative begun in Uncertain Logic.

Here’s the pre-order link on Amazon:

Order Live by the Code on Amazon

Nobody else seems to have it up for pre-order as of this writing.

The Collective‘s item includes a preliminary blurb for the novel, but it’s just an excerpt from one scene in my outline, and one that isn’t representative of the overall plot, so I won’t reprint it here. It does reveal, though, that the Klingons play a major role in Live by the Code — and readers of Keith R.A. DeCandido’s The Klingon Art of War may recognize a plot point or two. This is my first published book to deal heavily with the Klingons (though they figured in my unsold TNG spec script back in 1992 as well as my cancelled novel Seek a Newer World), and I drew heavily on TKAoW for inspiration, as well as getting invaluable input from Keith himself. As you can guess, the title also alludes to Klingon codes of honor (plural used deliberately). Among other things.

No cover yet, but the cover artist was nice enough to contact me and discuss possibilities, and I think the result should be quite interesting.

And yes, I’m aware that the acronym for the novel is ROTFLBTC. At least it’s better than the last one, which was ROTFUL.

Revisiting the 1987 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST TV series (spoilers)

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revisiting the original 1987 Beauty and the Beast, the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman fantasy series that was the very loose basis for the current CW Network series of the same name. I gave up on the CW remake partway through the second season, but I remembered liking the original, so I wanted to rewatch it before Netflix pulled it from streaming at the end of the month. Oddly, though, Netflix’s stream is missing two episodes (and one of the final episodes is shown out of order), and I eventually ended up borrowing much of the series on DVD from the public library. The series is badly in need of an HD remastering, and I’m afraid it actually looks better on my old, standard-definition TV set — the format it was made for — than it does on streaming video, where there are often serious scan-line artifacts.

Beauty and the Beast was created and showrun by Ron Koslow, and its writing staff featured novelist George R.R. Martin, best known today for A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones. Other writing staffers included Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, David Peckinpah (season 1 only), and P.K. Simonds, with Paul Junger Witt & Tony Thomas (best known for various sitcoms) as the executive producers along with Koslow. The series had only the loosest connection to the fairy tale of the same name. Linda Hamilton played Catherine Chandler, a pampered corporate lawyer who was subjected to a brutal, random attack (a case of mistaken identity, since ’80s TV didn’t demand that every plot point be part of some vast conspiracy directed at the main characters) and was nursed back to health by Vincent (Ron Perlman), a powerful but gentle lion-man who lived in the tunnels underneath New York City, part of a secret utopian community led by Father (Roy Dotrice), a stern but kindly older man who adopted Vincent when he was found abandoned as a baby. (The series never explained Vincent’s origins or nature.) Catherine is initially shocked by Vincent’s appearance once her bandages come off and she can see him, but she’s had time to discover his caring, educated nature, and the two form a powerful bond that enables Vincent to sense her emotions empathically and feel when she’s in danger. And that comes in handy later, since she leaves her cushy law firm and gets a job at the district attorney’s office, which often leads her into danger on the gritty streets of a New York City that was portrayed (at least in the first season) as a rather hellish, squalid place. Though Vincent was a soft-spoken, compassionate being with the mind of a scholar and the soul of a poet, he had a ferocious animal side that came out with lethal effect whenever Catherine was endangered.

Vincent’s leonine makeup was created by FX legend Rick Baker, and it’s one of his finest creations. It works so well with the planes of Ron Perlman’s face while also transforming it utterly and making it beautiful. Perlman also uses a very different voice than he usually does, a soft, contemplative, highly articulate growl that probably had female viewers swooning. (Jay Ryan on the CW remake attempts to do the same kind of rumbly voice, but in his case it just comes off as mushmouthed, lazy mumbling. Even though he doesn’t have Perlman’s impediment of a mouth full of fake fangs to talk through.)

I have a theory that TV series with unusual premises are often obligated to start out in a formulaic mode to appease network executives and more conservative viewers, and only later are free to begin exploring the ideas that make them distinctive. B&tB is a classic example of this. The show was always literate, with characters constantly reading books and quoting poetry and literature and listening to classical music, and the production values were excellent, particularly the lush musical score (initially by Lee Holdridge, but mostly by future The Matrix composer Don Davis and occasionally William Ross), one of the last great, lyrical orchestral TV scores before the age of minimalist atmospherics and electronic scores took hold in the ’90s. But the first ten episodes were quite formulaic and rather boring after a while. The stories were mainly focused on the surface world (“The World Above”), with the underground “World Below” given very little exploration, even though it was the most interesting part of the premise. The World Below was based on the real-life phenomenon of homeless people living in the extensive abandoned tunnels beneath New York City, but it was a fantasy extrapolation beyond that, a warm and inviting cavern world filled with books and artwork and ornate hand-me-downs from the World Above, and with gorgeous underground settings represented by elaborate matte paintings. But for nearly half a season, the inhabitants of the World Below seemed to consist entirely of Vincent, Father, and occasionally a few orphan children. It was a secondary element tacked onto an otherwise fairly conventional crime drama, with Vincent as your formulaic superhero who was constantly running through tunnels and riding on top of a subway train to race to Catherine’s rescue. Those episodes that didn’t involve Vincent saving Catherine usually involved Vincent getting captured or trapped up above and needing Catherine to rescue him. The main exception was an episode where Father had to venture above when summoned by an old love, but immediately stumbled upon a murder and got arrested for it.

But about halfway through the season, that suddenly changed, as if the producers were finally given the freedom to explore the side of the show that the network was uneasy with. In the course of just a few episodes, the World Below was fleshed out into a whole community of recurring characters including: Pascal (Armin Shimerman), the master of the tunnelers’ communication system based in tapping code on underground pipes; Mouse (David Greenlee), an eccentric, semi-feral tinkerer and troublemaker with an idiosyncratic speech pattern (“Okay good, okay fine”); Jamie (Irina Irvine), a plucky teenage girl; Mary (Ellen Geer), the matronly midwife of the community; Winslow (James Avery), who started out being just the big angry guy who was wrong about everything but who got to be on more or less the right side in later appearances; and the main recurring bad guy, Paracelsus (Tony Jay) — a co-founder of the underground world with Father, but long since exiled due to his supervillainous ambitions. For the rest of the season, although we still got a few more conventional Above plots, most of the stories were about events Below or about the impact that people and events from one world had upon the other. There was also a decreasing emphasis on action and a shift more toward more character-driven, dramatic stories.

These trends become even stronger in the first half of season 2, which focuses primarily on the World Below, or on aboveground plots driven by characters and situations from Below. The tunnel world and its culture are fleshed out more fully, and the show becomes less about the romance between Catherine and Vincent and more about Catherine’s relationship with the entire underground community, her role as the bridge between worlds. Personally, I liked the show far better in this vein. There’s only so much you can do with “a love that can never be,” especially when it’s defined as vaguely as it was here. The relationship between the two remained totally chaste; they never even kissed, for reasons that were left vague. I suppose the implicit reason was that Vincent’s fangs and claws and superstrength made it too dangerous for her, and that the “beast” within him would go out of control in the heat of passion. But when they finally did an episode that gingerly addressed this, fully halfway into season 2, it was clearly the first time Vincent and Catherine had even spoken about it, which was deeply implausible. It’s startling from a modern perspective how utterly chaste the show was, never talking about sex overtly. But then, it was an 8 PM show back when 8 PM was considered a child-friendly viewing hour. And maybe the show was designed to appeal to female viewers who were drawn to a fantasy of a heroic, perfect male companion with the thrill of danger but no need to worry about the complications of sex. I have to wonder what it says about Catherine that she was okay to have that with Vincent for over a year without even wondering why.

Season 2 also toned down the action and violence in the first half, mercifully avoiding the Catherine-in-danger formula and the recycled footage of Vincent racing to her rescue. On those few occasions that Vincent did give in to his rage, we finally saw how it troubled him, how he feared and hated that side of him, something we’d never really seen in season 1 when it was a handy device to kill off the bad guys of the week. For a show that was so prudish about sex, it was surprisingly cavalier about killing, and I was glad to see it get away from that. Plus I found the exploration of the World Below more engaging than the action and romance elements. The problem with romance series is the need to keep the characters constantly apart or in turmoil through one contrivance or another, and that was something that really got tedious to me when I watched the show in its first run. I was happiest at the point when Vincent and Catherine’s relationship was just this stable background element in a show that was about fleshing out this charming fantasy world beneath the city. The World Below was the kind of fantasy that drew me, a safe haven free from violence or cruelty, a place where outcasts and the vulnerable could be taken in and nurtured. Of course, the more we explored the World Below, the more crises had to befall it for the sake of drama, and I remember getting tired of how maudlin the second season got, with one disastrous thing after another seeming to befall the leads. Yet on my revisit, that didn’t seem to be quite as constant a thread as I remembered.

Unfortunately, the pattern of season 2 was the reverse of season 1, in that the half-season devoted to gentler, dramatic stories driven by the tunnel community was followed by a half-season devoted to action/danger plots in the World Above. My recollection is that there was network meddling to fight sagging ratings, and that meant a return to the formulaic and familiar, with the tunnel characters all but disappearing in the back half of the season. Even in the episode where Catherine’s father dies and she retreats below to grieve, that sense of the larger community is absent and it’s solely about her and Vincent. Even a scene between her and Father would’ve been welcome. And then there’s a whole run of episodes set topside and dealing with various crime/danger or courtroom-drama plots. It’s only in the last two episodes, as the Paracelsus arc comes to a climax, that the World Below is featured again.

All in all, the first two seasons are a study in overcorrections. The show swings between extremes, half a season spending too little time in one world followed by half a season spending too little time in the other. I preferred the roughly year-long stretch in the middle that focused on the World Below, but I would’ve appreciated more of a balance throughout.

The show went through more radical changes in the third season, as Linda Hamilton’s pregnancy forced the producers to write her out. Also, Ron Koslow left the series after co-writing the season premiere to set off the new course, although the rest of the staff remained intact. Most of the season revolved around a new archvillain named Gabriel (Stephen McHattie), a nebulously all-powerful crime boss who secretly rules the city, and who’s prone to rambling monologues about his evil philosophy (I’m not sure whether the writers intended them to be as incoherent as they were). Although he’s played with effective menace by McHattie, and given a memorable leitmotif by Davis (like a cross between Lalo Schifrin’s “The Plot” and Gerald Fried’s “Pon Farr”), it’s never really all that clear just who he is, what he does, or how he got so powerful.

Anyway, the second season ended with a cliffhanger where Vincent was lost in his rage and Catherine went in to try to help him, and in the third season premiere, that “help” evidently consists of the physical intimacy the show aggressively avoided until now. Although the avoidance is still intact, because their “love scene” is in the form of a hilariously cheesy video montage of blooming roses and explosions and hands clasping, with the song version of the main title theme playing over it. This cheesy montage has two effects: One, it gets Catherine pregnant, and two, it breaks their empathic bond so that Vincent can’t find her and save her when Gabriel abducts her (before she can tell Vincent about the child). But Gabriel learns of Vincent and wants to possess his child, keeping Catherine alive until she delivers and then killing her, with Vincent just too late to save her. The show remains intensely euphemistic about sex even in her dying words to Vincent: “We loved. There is a child.”

The show then introduces a new female lead, Jo Anderson, as Diana Bennett, an NYPD profiler/analyst who gets assigned to Catherine’s case in the second episode and eventually finds her way to Vincent about halfway through the 11-episode season. Now, when this cast change happened, most of the show’s fans were outraged. Vincent and Catherine are eternal lovers! How can you kill off our beloved Catherine and expect us to accept this interloper in her place? But I never felt that way, because… well, I’m sorry, but I’ve never actually liked Linda Hamilton much. She’s okay as Sarah Connor, but I found her performance as Catherine rather unappealing, particularly in the first half-season, when she tended to deliver her lines in a high-pitched lilt that I found weak and insipid. Her delivery got better over time, perhaps as Catherine outgrew her pampered-heiress origins and became tougher, but I still never liked her delivery much, the weakest voice in a cast filled with gorgeous voices like Ron Perlman, Roy Dotrice, Tony Jay, and James Avery. I also never found her to be as beautiful as advertised. So her departure didn’t trouble me at all. And while Jo Anderson didn’t seem all that striking to me at first glance, she had the kind of face that gets more compellingly beautiful the more you look at it. She was a redhead with enormous, soulful blue eyes and luminous skin, like a Titian painting brought to life. And she had an earthier, subtler appeal than Hamilton had; Diana was more of a middle-class character with a New Jersey accent (the actress’s own) that I found rather charming. I didn’t think of it until just this moment, but she reminds me of Elisa Maza from Gargoyles. (She’s also very reminiscent of Gillian Anderson of The X-Files, but apparently they aren’t related.)

(Edited to add) Season 3 also makes a regular out of the late Edward Laurence Albert, who’d had a recurring role in the first two seasons as Elliot Burch, a morally ambiguous industrialist who was a rival for Catherine’s affections, and whom Vincent approached for help in investigating her death. (If Diana reminds me of Elisa from Gargoyles, Elliot is basically a nicer David Xanatos, even to the point of resembling Jonathan Frakes.) Albert was the son of comic actor Eddie Albert, but he did terrific dramatic work as Burch, so it’s no wonder they made him a regular. Although it was odd in story terms that Vincent went to him instead of the other male regular, Catherine’s boss Joe Maxwell (Jay Acovone), who’d been a stalwart friend to her throughout (and secretly in love with her, though it was never made explicit until season 3). As it was, Joe became a somewhat adversarial figure as he latched onto Vincent as a possible suspect in Catherine’s murder (albeit without knowing more than his name). He was the one who brought Diana into the story, though.

Which is not to say that I liked everything about the third season. It’s far more plot- and action-driven than the previous two, a lot less thoughtful and rarefied and a lot more violent. It’s striking how heavily serialized it is, with almost every episode ending on a cliffhanger. I tend to think of that level of serialization as something that didn’t develop in SF/fantasy TV until Babylon 5, but B&tB had it beat by several years. Oddly, though, the Gabriel arc wraps up after 9 episodes, with the series concluding with an unconnected 2-parter. I’d guess that 2-parter was a “pilot” for the new status quo just in case the series got renewed, as it served to bring Diana fully into the tunnel community at last.

But season 3 is the only one that manages to find a good balance between the Worlds Above and Below, though somewhat at the expense of Below’s isolation and otherness, with more characters crossing from one world to the other. I would’ve liked to see that balance achieved while the series was still more driven by character drama.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast never found the perfect balance of its elements. It was at the mercy of constant executive meddling, frequent retools and overcorrections that never let it find and keep a consistent identity. The saving grace is that the writing staff remained mostly consistent, with the only major changes being the departures of David Peckinpah after season 1 (probably for the best, considering how he later screwed up Sliders) and Koslow after the season 3 premiere. Koslow aside, George R.R. Martin and the Gansa/Gordon duo remained the primary guiding voices throughout, so it did manage to maintain a degree of consistency despite its changes. (Including, I think, a change of venue. The first season seemed to be shot in New York for real, but the last two were made in LA. It gave it a less authentic feel.)

One thing that surprised me is how old this show felt. I don’t think of the ’80s as being that long ago, but it was nearly three decades, and the world was very different. There are no mobile phones and hardly any computers in the show. The DA’s office has some computer consoles off to the side, but no desktops, and Catherine writes her legal briefs in pencil on a yellow pad. They even have old-style phones with mechanical ringers, although they get upgraded later in the series. Many of the special effects are really dated as well. There’s gorgeous matte work by Illusion Arts and Effects Unlimited representing the tunnel world, but there are occasional some really bad-looking video chromakey mattes, and I mentioned the terrible-looking “lovemaking” montage. (But there is one cool video effect. In the second-season finale, when Vincent was losing control of himself, some of his point-of-view shots were distorted with the same kind of “howlround” effect used to create the original Doctor Who titles, resulting from the time-delayed feedback you get by pointing a video camera at its own monitor.) The rich orchestral music is also a vestige of an earlier era, albeit a far more welcome one.

But that’s not the most dated aspect. Unfortunately, the show’s treatment of race is rather poor. The cast is overwhelmingly white, unrealistically so for New York City — especially since so many in the World Below are outcasts, orphans, and homeless people who came seeking refuge. The show starts out with several prominent black characters who systematically disappear. Initially, Ren Woods is a regular as Edie, the computer researcher who’s Catherine’s best friend in the office, but she disappears after the first half-season (though, oddly, her name remains in the main titles clear through the third-season premiere). Delroy Lindo has a recurring role as Catherine’s self-defense instructor Isaac, but he also disappears after three early episodes. And James Avery’s Winslow is stuck not only with the stereotype of Angry Black Man, but with the stereotype of First One to Die, late in season 1. He’s replaced for the rest of the series with the nearly identical character William, played by a white actor, Ritch Brinkley. There are occasional guest roles for nonwhite actors, including a significant turn by Richard Roundtree in late season 2 and early season 3, but not often.

And in the first season, there are a few episodes painting other cultures in a rather stereotyped light. There’s a “voodoo cult” episode, the lowest point of season 1, that’s so racist it’s actually called “Dark Spirit.” It tries to be non-racist by having the black suspect be innocent and the handsome white voodoo-expert professor be the real villain, but it’s still horrendous in its portrayal of Haitian religion, with Father dismissing vodou as “primitive superstition.” The episode also introduces the other major black character in the World Below, Narcissa (Beah Richards), a blind mystic constantly spouting cryptic warnings about de world of de spirits. There’s also a Chinatown episode and a “Gypsy” episode that both portray the cultures in question as insular, exotic communities with their own harsh, intractable traditions, needing the show’s enlightened white heroine to convince them that there’s a more humane way. (Although the Chinatown episode, “China Moon,” features fully eight cast members from Big Trouble in Little China, even pitting James Hong as the bad guy against Dennis Dun and Victor Wong as good guys, which is kind of awesome.) It’s such a striking contrast from the modern remake on The CW. That’s a much weaker show in most respects, but it does a terrific job of inclusion, with a Chinese-American Catherine Chandler and a regular cast that’s always been at least 50% nonwhite. I’m sure the original show wasn’t trying to be discriminatory, but it unthinkingly fell into so many of the default racial attitudes of its era.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast was a flawed show, but an intriguing one. In many ways, it was the classiest, most literate and cultured show of its era, though it had to contend with constant network pressures to be more conventional and lowbrow. It had a mostly really good cast (Linda Hamilton being the exception for me), and it was my introduction to multiple actors who went on to become SF or animation stalwarts, including Perlman, Jay, Avery, and Shimerman. (I’d heard Avery’s voice before, but never seen him in live action before this.) And it had mostly terrific production values, making it perhaps the most beautiful show of its day (which is why it really needs an HD upgrade). All in all, it was worth a revisit, even though it was a more flawed show than I remembered.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Re-evaluating SUPERGIRL (1984)

I hadn’t planned to do any further entries in my coverage of Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s Superman film series (including the Donner films, the theatrical version of Superman II, and Superman III), but the buzz over the pilot to the upcoming CBS Supergirl TV series got me interested in revisiting the movie — particularly after reading this defense of the film on The Mary Sue not long ago, which argued that it worked as an unapologetic Silver Age story, basically the same mindset that let me enjoy Superman III.

Now, my prior impression of the Supergirl movie, which was written by David Odell (The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal) and directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who’s since gone on to direct many episodes of Smallville and six of Heroes), was not much kinder than my prior impression of the Superman movies. I remembered thinking Helen Slater looked great and was reasonably good in the role, and I remembered loving the Jerry Goldsmith score, but I also remembered finding it rather silly and resenting the way that Supergirl got stuck with a love-triangle plot while her male counterpart got to save the world. Let’s see how that holds up.

First off, Goldsmith’s score is still fantastic. I think I need to get the CD. It’s very much in the vein of John Williams’s Superman work (which was in turn an elaboration on the earlier Superman themes of Sammy Timberg and Leon Klatzkin and just the general heroic-march tradition), but it’s also very much a classic Goldsmith score, with many of his trademarks including the use of novel electronic sounds to supplement the gorgeously arranged orchestra. I also quite like the main title sequence created by Derek Meddings, with reflective titles swooping through the mists and bright lights flashing off them. It’s the kind of title treatment that would soon go on to become a garish cliche of computer-animated titles, but it was done live with actual reflective cutouts, which gives it a much greater elegance. Though the film has some weak effects (like a couple of really blatant jump cuts), it also has some spectacular ones, particularly Meddings’s superb work with a moving camera and a glass painting to represent the villainess Selena’s fortress in the climax.

The film opens in Argo City, evidently created by Peter O’Toole’s inventor Zaltar as an extradimensional artists’ colony of sorts, much more inviting and organic than the sterile, jagged crystals of Donner’s Krypton. It’s never explained whether it was created/moved to “inner space” as a means of escaping Krypton’s destruction or if it was already there and happened to survive as a result. Anyway, Slater’s Kara Zor-El, a favorite of the iconoclastic Zaltar, is girlish and a bit gawky, a convincing teenager even though she was around 20 at the time. She has a nice rapport with O’Toole, but it all goes wrong when their playing around with the Omegahedron (one of Argo City’s two power sources, Zaltar says, though the identity of the second is evidently lost to editing) causes it to be ejected into space, endangering the city’s survival. (That second power source must not be all that impressive, then.) Kara hijacks the pod Zaltar had made to travel to Earth (where her cousin Superman lives) in order to pursue the Omegahedron and bring it back, while Zaltar gamely sentences himself to the Phantom Zone for his crime. Technically it’s as much Kara’s fault as his, and I like it that the film sets her up with a strong motive to correct her mistake, although it unfortuntely forgets it almost immediately.

After a trip through the lava lamp dimension, Kara somehow emerges from the pod in Supergirl costume, and the coltish teenager has somehow given way to a graceful and lovely young woman, just by a change of hairstyle, clothes, and manner. Slater’s eyes are just extraordinary — perfect for Supergirl and convincing as Christopher Reeve’s cousin, and just plain compelling to look at. And the design of the Supergirl costume is fantastic.

As Supergirl discovers her powers on Earth, we get the lengthy “aerial ballet,” which is just beautiful, a charming sequence as Kara revels in what she can do and the beauty of the new world she’s entered. It’s fittingly named, as Slater’s flying technique is more balletic than Reeve’s, more like swimming through the air, with arms out to the sides and one knee bent. It’s different, but it works for her. Later, she rather randomly adopts the identity of girls’ school resident Linda Lee, and apparently has the same power as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to change into any desired outfit instantaneously, except she does it by passing behind things rather than spinning. This includes the ability to change from blonde to brunette as well, and again, she looks very different as Linda. Performance-wise, allowing for the fact that this was her debut role, I think she did a terrific job, creating a mostly strong and expressive character who was also young and innocent. She’s particularly good in her scenes with O’Toole in the Phantom Zone, exhorting him to get out of his self-flagellating funk and help her escape. I would’ve loved to see her mature in the role in later movies.

Most of the film’s cast is terrific. The villains consist of Faye Dunaway as Selena, an ambitious novice witch who gains great power from the Omegahedron and uses it in pursuit of conquest; Brenda Vaccaro as her roommate/sidekick Bianca; and Peter Cook as Nigel, the mentor in black magic who craves her but whom she tosses over in favor of the Omegahedron’s power. They’re all extremely good, particularly Vaccaro, who shows great comedic flair. (Useless fact: When this movie first came out, I knew Vaccaro mainly from The Pride of Jesse Hallam, a TV movie that was filmed at the high school I then attended. I don’t think I ever saw her in person, though. I was too shy to audition for a role as an extra.)

Maureen Teefy also does a good job as Linda’s roommate, who coincidentally happens to be Lucy Lane, sister of Lois and girlfriend of Jimmy Olsen (with Marc McClure reprising his role from the other films and not really doing much). Lucy’s main role in the comics was to be the most mean-spirited and disapproving girlfriend in history (for some reason, Silver Age DC love interests tended to be thoroughly awful toward the male leads), but here she’s basically a mini-Lois, sassy and fearless, with much of the same spirit as Margot Kidder’s Lois. In one of the film’s big set pieces involving a magically controlled runaway construction vehicle, Lucy throws herself into danger to try to take control of it, while Kara/Linda just stands around doing nothing for two or three minutes to let the action play out — a major logic hole, and far from the only one in the film. Lucy is knocked unconscious in the process, and Supergirl rather callously abandons her in order to rescue the male lead from the vehicle.

Unfortunately, that male lead, Hart Bochner as the “love interest” Ethan, is by far the most awful part of the film. The attempt at a love story is atrocious. Ethan is a total non-entity, just eye candy until Selena decides to cast a love spell on him to test it as a tool for control — and he’s thoroughly unpleasant and abrasive in his first dialogue scene, up to the point where she slips him the potion. It’s supposed to make him love the first person he sees, but he staggers off and wanders through town for a good ten minutes, then gets caught up by the construction vehicle and needs to be rescued by Supergirl, all somehow without actually looking at anyone until Supergirl randomly changes to Linda after the rescue. Then he’s “in love” with Linda for the rest of the movie, and though Kara/Linda initially discourages him, she ends up sort of falling for him — which is deeply creepy considering the non-consensual angle to his participation in the story. Which is balanced by the fact that she’s evidently underage, so neither participant is really in a position to consent. It’s creepy and wrong for both of them. The fact that he’s shown to be still in love with Linda after the spell breaks doesn’t ameliorate it any, because that “love” is totally unmotivated; Supergirl even points out that he doesn’t know a thing about Linda. Plus Bochner is a dull, unappealing actor and his character has no discernible personality. I suppose that’s sort of a counterpoint to the way female love interests were often portrayed in male-led action movies — vacuous, personality-free eye candy existing only to be romantically available to the hero — so perhaps one could read a certain satirical statement into it if one desired. But I doubt that was the intent, and it doesn’t do much to ameliorate the unpleasantness of the character and the storyline. The most annoying thing is that Kara pretty much spills her secret identity to him because she can’t resist kissing him as Supergirl. Superman gets to keep his secret to himself, but Supergirl spills it to the first guy who turns her head? Okay, that could be chalked up to her youth and inexperience, but it feels a bit gendered, in terms of who has the control and power advantage in the relationship.

Still, I have to admit, the movie is less centered on the love triangle than I thought. Supergirl and Selena are fighting over Ethan, but Selena’s interested in Ethan more as a trophy and a pawn than anything else, and as a way to manipulate and hurt Supergirl. Her agenda really is world conquest, and she gains the power to pull it off. So, even though the romantic angle is terrible, it isn’t quite as demeaning as reducing Supergirl to a petty love triangle while Superman gets to save the world. The stakes really are global and the villainess quite dangerous, once she gets the hang of her powers. In terms of potential for global domination, Selena easily rivals Zod and surpasses Lex Luthor and Ross Webster. Which makes sense, since she’s getting a power boost from Kryptonian technology. (Which is perhaps amplified in its power on Earth just as everything else from Krypton is, by the logic of Silver/Bronze Age comics. When she first touches it, it seems to bond with her as a “child of the Sun” — the same yellow star that empowers Superman and Supergirl.) True, that threat is more potential than actually demonstrated; we only get one scene of the townsfolk protesting her evil reign without any real portrayal of its effects. But I was clearly wrong to believe Selena’s goals were limited to stealing Supergirl’s boy toy.

Selena’s fusion of magic and Kryptonian technology even allows her to banish Supergirl to the Phantom Zone, the first time in the series that we see what the Zone is like on the inside, and it’s a pretty dark and grungy place. (A brighter version of the Zone would later be depicted in Smallville, but never in an episode directed by Szwarc.) The problem is that getting out of it is implausibly easy. Sure, the way out involves risking a deadly maelstrom to which Zaltar sacrifices himself to help Kara, but still, given that onscreen evidence suggests a roughly 50 percent survival rate, you’d think Krypton’s criminals would be braving the rift all the time and periodically succeeding in their escapes. My personal rationalization is that the rift was only created when Zod, Non, and Ursa were blown out of the Zone in Superman II (either version), and maybe Zaltar was the first to discover it.

It’s in these climactic sequences that Slater’s mostly strong performance as Kara is undermined. Twice, once in the Phantom Zone escape and once when battling Selena’s final-boss demon, Supergirl is overcome with despair and whines “I can’t!” until Zaltar encourages her and gives her the confidence to go on (in the flesh the first time, Obi-Wan-style later). Again, this could perhaps be attributed to her youth, but it feels like the movie was saying a mere female couldn’t succeed without borrowing strength from a man. (And its one attempt to show any kind of “girl power” message is in questionable taste, as she fends off a couple of truckers who randomly sexually harass her, implicitly with rape in mind; and though she thrashes them handily, they’re played more as figures of humor than menace. One of them is a young Matt Frewer, in what is not one of the finer roles of his career.)

The ending is also kind of arbitrary. Since the filmmakers evidently wanted the Superman and Supergirl films to stand more or less independently of each other (or at least decided they did after Christopher Reeve bowed out of appearing in Supergirl), the film ends with Kara getting Lucy and Jimmy to promise to tell no one about her. Really? Don’t tell Superman that he’s not the last son of Krypton, that his cousin, uncle Zor-El, aunt Alura, and hundreds of other Kryptonians are alive and well in “inner space”? That is just so not cool. It’s also unbelievable that she could keep her existence a secret, given her public appearances in the city fighting Selena’s attacks.

All told, it’s a film with a lot of flaws and plot holes and an absolutely horrible excuse for a love story, but there’s still a lot that works, at least by the turn-off-your-brain Silver-Age standards of the series. It’s reasonably well-made, and it has great music and good costume design (by Emma Porteous, who did several Bond films, Clash of the Titans, Aliens, and season 2 of Space: 1999). Bochner aside, it has one of the strongest casts of any of the Salkind Super-movies, and Helen Slater is a worthy addition to the Kryptonian family.

Indeed, Kara herself is a terrific character — she’s intelligent, adaptable, a problem-solver. She spends much of the movie actively searching for the Omegahedron, even plotting out search grids on a map at one point. The sense of urgency she should have about rescuing Argo City is missing, and she does tend to get easily distracted by schoolgirl antics and creepily wrong romance, but those are flaws in the writing and direction, and perhaps can be somewhat attributed to her youth. Indeed, in a sense, they underline her inquisitive nature. Superman grew up on Earth, but to Kara, it’s an alien planet and she’s got too lively a mind to resist exploring its novelties.

Anyway, even with the flaws in execution, what’s intriguing about the premise is that Supergirl is one of the few screen superheroes who’s actually the protagonist of her movie. As my friend David Mack recently pointed out in his comments on Mad Max: Fury Road, a hero and a protagonist are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. The protagonist of a story is the character whose action or pursuit of a goal drives the narrative, and the antagonist is the one countering the protagonist’s actions. Usually in superhero stories, it’s the villain who’s actively pursuing a goal (such as world conquest) and the hero who’s reactively trying to thwart them, so generally the villain is the protagonist. That’s certainly true of the first three Superman films. And in a sense, Selena fills the classic villain-protagonist role, since she’s pursuing the goal of conquering the world and Supergirl has to stop her. But Selena’s powers are merely a side effect of Kara’s mistake in losing the Omegahedron, and Kara is the one who sets the story in motion both by making that mistake and by going to Earth in order to correct it. She’s the one trying to retrieve the Omegahedron while Selena thwarts her efforts with magic. And she’s the one who motivates Zaltar to help her while he’s content to wallow in despair. So she’s the primary protagonist of the film. It makes her a nicely proactive and motivated heroine, and is a real strength of the film, despite its constant efforts to undermine itself.

In sum, I have to conclude that, like the other Superman films that preceded it, Supergirl is not that bad, and is in fact rather fun to watch if approached in the right spirit. (Although the same does not go for the film that followed it, The Quest for Peace. Don’t expect me to change my mind about that one.)

Helen Slater has gone on to play several other DC characters. She was the voice of Talia al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, and played Clark Kent’s Kryptonian mother Lara Lor-Van (billed as Lara-El) in Smallville. And she’s appearing in the upcoming CBS Supergirl series as Sylvia Danvers, Kara’s adoptive mother on Earth (opposite Lois and Clark‘s Dean Cain as Kara’s adoptive father). Hart Bochner also returned to DC, playing Councilman Reeves in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Marc McClure, in addition to playing Jimmy Olsen in four other films, played Kryptonian scientist Dax-Ur in Smallville. Matt Frewer’s extensive career is surprisingly light on DC roles, but he did a memorable turn as Sid the Squid in Batman: The Animated Series‘s “The Man Who Killed Batman,” as well as playing Moloch in the Watchmen feature film.

It’s a shame that Slater didn’t get the chance to play Supergirl again, since she was really good at it. It might be a stretch to say that playing Supergirl’s mother on the upcoming series is the next best thing, but it’s something, and I look forward to it. I hope the new series manages to make Kara a comparably strong, charming, and proactive character, while avoiding the film’s many failings.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

Coming up for air

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while. The reason is that I’ve been deeply immersed in writing Rise of the Federation Book 4. I started out a bit over three months ago with a plan to write 25,000 words per month, and I only just managed to meet that goal for the first month; but then my website disappeared and I had to reconstruct it here, so that distracted me for a while and I fell behind. I ended my second month 9,000 words behind my target, then managed to get a fair amount done in the following week, but then got stuck and fell even further behind. At six weeks to deadline, I had the novel only half-written.

But then something changed. I think it has to do with the fact that I recently started drinking coffee. I actually had my first cup back in March to help me with my drive to Detroit, and it was only after that point that I started to fall behind; but I only gradually started experimenting with drinking more coffee, investigating and sampling possibilities. Note that this was specifically because I hoped it would help improve my focus and alertness for my writing. I can’t say I actually like the taste of coffee. I need it really, really sweetened. I found an instant mix at the store that had sugar and creamer pre-mixed into it, and that was okay, but a bit too sweet, and hardly good for me. It actually has more sugar and corn syrup by weight than actual coffee. So I tried getting regular instant coffee — I know the brewed stuff is better, but I don’t intend to drink it regularly enough, just when I need it, so instant works better. The kind I got was pretty foul at first, but I’ve gotten a bit acclimated to it, and I’ve found that it’s not bad if I mix the coffee crystals into a cup of hot milk and honey. I wish I could find a sweeter, milder variety, though, so I don’t need quite as much honey and can cut a few calories. Though honey is better for me than processed sugar.

Anyway, I’ve been having coffee and tea pretty regularly for the past three-odd weeks, and though I can’t be sure there’s a causal correlation beyond the placebo effect, in that time, I’ve had the most amazing burst of productivity I can ever remember having. The coffee didn’t seem to help immediately, i.e. when I got stuck in early May, but I was still trying to feel my way through a subplot, do some complicated worldbuilding. Once I started to get some momentum three weeks ago, I just kept going and going and couldn’t stop. I’ve had creative surges like that before, but it’s been years at least since I had one last so long, and without the pressure of a looming deadline.

And my word counts per day have been impressively high as well. In just over three weeks, I’ve written more than 50,000 words, more than half the novel. Yesterday, three weeks before my deadline, I wrote the climactic scenes and part of the denouement, and I was up to 6,900 words written by the end of the day (or actually early the next morning), which is at least close to a career record. And today, I wrote the last few scenes and completed the first draft. I now have a comfortable 20-day window for revisions. And it feels wonderful to be so unrushed.

Still, I do feel I overdid it. Even though I haven’t had that much coffee — usually just one cup a day, plus a cup or two of tea — I think the combination of the caffeine and my own creative adrenaline surge made me a bit too wired toward the end there. A couple of nights ago, I lay awake almost all night, even though I’d tried going to bed early to catch up on lost sleep. Hopefully in the future I can find a happy medium between falling horribly behind and having a surge like this. Honestly, I’m not even sure I needed the coffee that much; when I get into an up period like this, I tend to work pretty fast and stay pretty wired anyway. The problem is the down periods where I have to force myself to write anything. Maybe I should save my coffee consumption for those times, in the hopes that it’ll level me out more.

Anyway, I should get going now. I have a couple of library books due today, and I don’t want to forget. And tomorrow I need to deal with my dead car battery. Yes, it’s still dead (see previous post). I’ve just been making so much progress on the novel the past few weeks that I didn’t want to deal with the distraction of car repairs (since I need to ask about some other repair issues besides the battery) and risk losing focus. So I’ve been getting my groceries on foot every few days for the past two weeks, although I made one trip with my bicycle last week and used its hook-on pannier bags to carry groceries for the first time in years. Which is not an experience I’m eager to repeat, since I got a bit carried away and got a heavier load than I should have.

But yeah, I really need to stop writing stuff now. Really, Christopher. You can stop. Anytime. Just…

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