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Thoughts on DARK PHOENIX (or is it X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX?) (spoilers)

Thanks to my library, I’ve finally seen the last film in Fox’s X-Men series (discounting the not-yet-released spinoff New Mutants), which was shown theatrically under the title Dark Phoenix, with the X-Men supertitle restored for home video. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg — who co-wrote the franchise’s first attempt at the Dark Phoenix story, X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 — it’s his attempt to use the rebooted timeline of the later X-Men movies to take a mulligan and try to get it right this time.

I actually thought The Last Stand was a decent film, though a flawed one. A major flaw was that its original goal of telling a cinematic version of Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix story (building on what was set up at the end of the second film) was hampered by the studio’s insistence on merging it with the mutant-cure storyline that Joss Whedon had introduced in Astonishing X-Men a few years earlier, so that Jean Grey’s story arc was reduced to a B plot for much of the film and didn’t have room to breathe. The new film lets Kinberg focus solely on Jean’s story this time out.

Dark Phoenix was a box-office and critical failure, so I didn’t go in expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the film has flaws, some that I only realized after the fact and a few that stood out right away and took me out of the film. But overall, I found it to be a reasonably effective story, and on balance I’m satisfied with how it played out.

In some respects, the film uses the same beats as The Last Stand. It keeps the idea that Jean Grey always had extraordinary power that Charles Xavier suppressed with mental blocks, tarnishing his pure image and turning Jean against him when she finds out and the barriers in her mind fall down. (In that version, the Phoenix was purely an outgrowth of Jean’s own exceptional power. Here, it’s a cosmic force that merges with her, but it’s her exceptional power that draws it to her and enables her to survive the merger.) But the way it plays out is very different, feeling like a deliberate counterpoint to TLS’s choices, and I prefer this version, which turns out to be far more optimistic and better serves the characters and their relationships.

In other ways, though, the characterizations are a weak point of the film. It’s relatively short by modern standards, only about 100 minutes of story once you subtract end credits, so most of the ensemble cast gets only cursory attention and the plot is raced through. Some of the character transitions and motivations are too abrupt and extreme. Jean turns on the team too quickly after learning Xavier lied to her about her childhood, although to be fair, it is shown that she has no control when her newly unleashed rage takes over. But when she accidentally kills Mystique (to accommodate Jennifer Lawrence being too big a star now to be available/affordable for the whole thing, I reckon), both Magneto/Erik and Beast/Hank jump way too quickly to wanting to murder Jean in retaliation. It’s kind of silly the way it plays out with Magneto. Erik: “I stopped killing because I realized revenge didn’t make the pain go away.” Hank, a couple of scenes later: “Raven’s dead.” Erik: “REVENNNNNNGE!” Hank’s motivation doesn’t work much better — the film seems to suggest a romance between him and Raven, which I don’t think is something ever suggested in previous films (I could be wrong), and is unnecessary because their long friendship going back decades should be enough.

(That’s another flaw in the film, by the way — it’s set in 1992, three decades after First Class, and there’s no attempt to age the actors up.)

Some of the plot points advance in a similarly arbitrary and unbelievable manner. Mainly, the film is set in a time when the X-Men are admired worldwide as superheroes, mutants are accepted, and the President of the US has an actual X-Phone hotline on his desk… but as soon as one mutant, Jean, goes wild and attacks some local cops, all of a sudden the POTUS is ghosting Xavier and the TV news is talking about proposals for mutant internment camps. That’s way too abrupt a change in response to a single incident, and it badly undermines the film’s credibility. Yes, there would be a surge of bigotry flaring up after something like this, but it wouldn’t lead to such an instantaneous change in government policy; it would take time for anti-mutant pundits and politicians to shift the Overton window far enough.

A better alternative for setting up the climactic sequence — where the military takes the X-Men captive on a train where the bad guys attack them — would’ve been to spend more time on the machinations of said bad guys, the D’Bari (named after the alien species that Phoenix carelessly destroyed in the original comics, but here retconned into Skrull-like shapeshifters who want to capture the Phoenix Force that destroyed their world and use it for conquest). The D’Bari leader Vuk is played by Jessica Chastain (in the likeness of a woman Vuk killed and impersonated), but Elementary‘s Ato Essandoh plays her second-in-command, impersonating an FBI agent. It would’ve worked better if, say, Essandoh’s character had been shown pushing for a more aggressive stance against the X-Men and faced resistance from officials who still believed in them. I wonder if something along those lines was cut for time and replaced with the sloppy, throwaway voiceover line about internment camps.

One more weakness of Dark Phoenix, unfortunately, is the casting it inherits from the previous film. This time, Sophie Turner as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops have a much heavier burden to carry than in X-Men: Apocalypse, and it shows that they’re the weakest members of the ensemble. Turner has her occasional moments (though is nowhere near as appealing as her predecessor Famke Janssen), but she’s out-acted by Summer Fontana, who plays Jean’s 8-year-old self in flashbacks. Sheridan is completely dull and one-note as Cyclops; it’s a role that demands a strong actor to make up for being unable to see Scott’s eyes, and Sheridan totally fails to deliver. What’s more, he and Turner have no romantic chemistry to speak of. It weakens the impact of what should be a core relationship in the film.

Still, what ultimately works for me is how much more optimistically the Phoenix story plays out than in the original film version. In TLS, Magneto wanted to exploit Jean as a weapon for his war on non-mutants; here, he tries to keep the peace and stops her from harming a group of soldiers — and his desire for revenge only lasts for the second act before he chooses a nobler path. In TLS, Jean was so overcome by her runaway power and madness that she killed both Cyclops and Xavier, the two people she was closest to; here, it’s their love for her that reaches her through her pain and bitterness and reminds her of who she is. In TLS, Jean lets Wolverine execute her to stop her from killing her family, but here, she makes her own sacrifice by choice, embracing the power and evolving into something higher in order to save her family. Not only that, but the mature entity she becomes at the end is a really beautiful rendering of the Phoenix in its full flaming majesty, the sort of thing I kept hoping for in the original films but never got. Throw in the additional optimistic beat of that one soldier choosing to trust the X-Men and release them to help defend against the attacking D’Bari, and the upbeat turn the film takes in its last act does a lot to make up for its shortcomings, and works well as a rebuke to the nihilism of TLS.

The action in the last act is also excellent. The train attack sequence was very well-made, I thought, with some very creative uses of superpowers. I’m not crazy about superhero fights where the goal is to ruthlessly kill a whole army of attacking aliens — I prefer superheroes to save lives rather than take them — but the action was intense, frenetic, and creative. It’s the one place where the breakneck pacing did the most to help the film rather than undermine it.

By the way, one odd thing Dark Phoenix shares with one of its predecessors is an apparent desire to homage Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The climax and final scene of X2: X-Men United were deliberately meant to evoke TWOK’s ending, with the closing shot having the same kind of hint of the sacrificed character’s resurrection, a voiceover from said character, and a very similar musical sting leading into the end credits. Here, there’s a sequence where Vuk is tempting Jean with the power of the Phoenix and showing her a mental simulation of using its power to bring life to a lifeless world, and it’s essentially a higher-quality recreation of the Genesis simulation from Carol Marcus’s project proposal in TWOK (the first entirely CGI sequence ever used in a feature film, though beating TRON to the screen by only a month). Interesting to see the same idea executed with technology 37 years more advanced, though it seems a bit incongruous in this film. (As well as making me feel really old — has it really been 37 years?)

So, all in all, Dark Phoenix is a very flawed and inconsistent film, but it’s been a very flawed and inconsistent series. It’s far from the best film of the lot, but far from the worst, and for me the parts that work outweigh the parts that don’t. Despite its cursory, rushed storytelling, I feel it succeeded in its goal of getting right the aspects of the Dark Phoenix story that The Last Stand got wrong. And though it fills the same role of bringing about the end of an era for an X-Men team and film sequence, it does so in a better, more upbeat way that brings closure yet leaves more hope for the future (well, as long as you don’t think about the future Logan established, which may or may not be in the same timeline as this). I think that’s a reasonably satisfactory way to conclude Fox’s long, turbulent X-Men film series.

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER re-released!

I’m a bit late in announcing this, but last month, the 2013 GraphicAudio adaptation of my 2008 Marvel novel Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder was re-released by Dreamscape Media. Apparently Dreamscape struck an audiobook distribution deal with Marvel earlier this year, and it seems that includes the right to republish Marvel audiobooks from other publishers like GraphicAudio. So if you want to buy the DiT audiobook now, Dreamscape is the place to get it, though of course it’s still available on Amazon, B&N, and other online stores as before. Also, Dreamscape is affiliated with the Hoopla digital library that lets you borrow audiobooks and e-books online, so DiT and other Marvel audiobooks are now available for borrowing on that service as well.

Here’s the cover for the new release:

Spider-Man Drowned in Thunder Dreamscape cover

The cover art is a reuse of Mike Deodato, Jr.’s cover to Amazing Spider-Man #520 from July 2005, modified to add rain and lightning in keeping with the original novel and audiobook covers. It’s an appropriate choice chronologically, since Drowned in Thunder is set shortly before that issue, most likely during the “time passing” montage in ASM #515.

Here are the ordering and borrowing links for the new audiobook:

Unfortunately, I don’t earn any new royalties from the re-release, since I wrote the book on a flat-fee contract. But I’m proud of the story, which didn’t sell very well in its paperback release, so I’m glad of anything that brings it to more readers/listeners. Plus the audiobook adaptation is excellent. So go check it out, true believers!

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME thoughts (spoilers)

I finally saw Spider-Man: Far from Home yesterday, and as with Homecoming, I liked it up to a point but didn’t love it. It’s a bit problematical as a Spider-Man movie, because it’s so heavily rooted in dealing with the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame and the larger status quo of the MCU and Tony Stark’s legacy, so it’s more about using Peter Parker/Spider-Man to tell that story than it really is about telling a Spider-Man story.

I mean, sure, it tries to stay focused on Peter’s romantic pursuit of Michelle — sorry, “MJ” — and his travails with his classmates, evoking the classic formula where his duties as Spider-Man constantly get in the way of his personal life. But as I said in the Homecoming review, I don’t understand the movies’ love for putting Spidey back in high school, and I’m not a fan of the teen-comedy vibe these movies go for. I found most of the humor here clunky and mediocre, or a bit forced when it came to the antics of the teachers. And the romantic plot was pretty much totally devoid of tension or suspense, because it was pretty obvious that MJ was into Peter too and wasn’t into Brad, and it was less a question of “Can our hero overcome obstacles to win the girl of his dreams?” as “When will our hero catch on that she’s already chasing him?” — with the only obstacle being his own slowness on the uptake. Not that I can’t sympathize with that. In high school and college, I squandered at least two chances at romance because I was too dense to tell when I was being flirted with. But in this case, it felt like a foregone conclusion, so Peter’s anxiety about the outcome didn’t resonate.

There was an interesting premise in terms of Peter’s desire to be just a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, a street-level hero, and to resist the pressures to fill Tony Stark’s shoes and take on global responsibilities he’s not ready for. And the movie did make pretty good use of Quentin Beck/Mysterio, doing a variation on his debut storyline of (spoiler alert) introducing himself as a hero and turning out to be a special-effects fraud, in a way that tied very cleverly into the larger MCU narrative. I guessed well in advance that the “Elementals” were a trick — anyone who’s seen more than zero previous Mysterio stories would see that coming — but I was totally unable to guess his real purpose and motives, and while the scene that finally explained it was a bit too stiltedly expository, the revelation of who Mysterio and his team were and why they were pulling this scam — basically that they were the Tony Stark Revenge Squad, so to speak — was totally surprising and totally effective, and bringing back a bit player from Iron Man as a core team member was a nifty touch, as was retconning Tony’s holotechnology from Civil War as Beck’s co-opted invention.

I also really liked the visualization of Mysterio’s illusions, the constantly shifting, surreal, dreamlike quality. It reminded me of something from the classic ’90s animated Spider-Man series, though I checked, and their own Mysterio episode didn’t have that kind of imagery; maybe I’m thinking of a dream sequence from another episode. In any case, it was quite visually striking.

Unfortunately, the central MacGuffin around which the plot revolves is where the movie failed to earn my suspension of disbelief. The EDITH system is just far too powerful and destructive a thing for Tony Stark to leave to a high school kid, no matter how much he trusts him. Back in Homecoming, we saw that Tony equipped Spidey’s suit with a ton of “training wheels” limitations that wouldn’t unlock until he’d proved himself responsible enough to use them. The lack of any such precautions on EDITH is contradictory and out of character. Even granted that Peter’s earned Stark’s trust by now, you just do not build a highly lethal automated weapon system without putting in a ton of failsafes and redundant authentication checks. You don’t build it so completely devoid of safeguards that it almost kills a teenager because of a verbal misunderstanding. You don’t build a system that treats maximum lethality as its default setting in the absence of clarity. Tony Stark was famously irresponsible, sure, but not this irresponsible, not this reckless and cavalier about technology of this level of lethality. The whole EDITH concept was just bad plotting, a ludicrous and poorly thought out notion that pulled me out of the film.

Maybe it could’ve been better if EDITH hadn’t been so lethal. Drop the completely unfunny sequence where Peter almost kills his classmates with the first drone — that was just a horrible idea. The whole defining theme of Peter Parker’s narrative is responsibility, and having him so cavalierly make a mistake that almost murders his romantic rival undermines that deeply for the sake of an ill-conceived joke. Give EDITH more safeguards, and have it default to nonlethal options (Tony was supposed to be a hero, after all, not a mad scientist), requiring extra verification to escalate to more destructive methods. Have Beck’s tech people hack the system once he acquires it, breaking those safeguards. They’re ex-Stark employees, so some of them could’ve been involved in programming EDITH in the first place. Then have them modify the drones to be more lethal. Then you wouldn’t have the disturbing scenario of Tony Stark handing total control of a thousand kill-first drones to a 16-year-old kid.

For that matter, I just realized there’s an inconsistency in the premise. Beck’s team was able to fake the mass destruction of the Elementals before they had EDITH, so they already had some pretty darn powerful killer drones. So why the hell did they need EDITH? What did it really gain them that they didn’t already have, besides volume? Egad, so not only does the MacGuffin make no damn sense, but there’s no real reason for the villain to be so eager to obtain it.

Unfortunately, this is the movie we got, and we’re stuck with it. As flawed as the story is, the execution was good as far as the action went. Some of the character work was satisfying; Peter was pretty much in character, and MJ was more likeable this time now that we got to see her softer side. I particularly liked the close relationship that’s grown between Happy Hogan and Peter, a nice change from the icier relationship in Homecoming. They’ve both turned to each other to fill the void left by Tony. I think this may be Happy’s biggest role yet in an MCU film, and it’s ironic that it’s not in an Iron Man film.

But I do wish the film had given us more of Spidey’s life in New York. I read that several such scenes we glimpsed in the trailers, of Spidey catching thieves just like flies and bantering with the cops about doing their job for them, were cut because the director thought the film had too many beginnings. But seeing the film with that knowledge, I feel the opening was too abrupt and cursory, and those scenes should’ve been left in. Seeing Peter’s early cockiness would’ve made it more potent when we saw him start to be overwhelmed by the public’s demand that he fill Iron Man’s boots; without that groundwork being laid, it doesn’t have as much impact. Plus it would’ve given us a bit more of Spidey just being Spidey in New York before getting to the out-of-his-element stuff in Europe. I know they’re putting those scenes on the Blu-Ray as a short film, but the movie itself feels incomplete without them. If they thought the film had too many beginnings, they could’ve ditched the opening “school news broadcast” sequence, which was a mildly cute but (again) stilted way of conveying exposition that was given in dialogue elsewhere. (Also, why are they doing a retrospective of “the Blip” 8 months after it happened? Why 8 months?)

From the beginning, let’s turn to the ending — or rather, the endings. Perhaps the thing I liked best about Homecoming was that it let Spidey succeed in saving the villain’s life and actually benefit from doing so. So I’m disappointed that this film went the more standard Hollywood route of having the villain die through his own actions. It’s a more cliched, less satisfying ending, and doesn’t serve the Spider-Man character as well. Also, I don’t think Beck was really a villainous enough character for such a fate to feel dramatically warranted; he was unstable, sure, but he had some legitimate grievances against Stark. Nor, conversely, was he a sympathetic enough character for his death to feel all that tragic or meaningful to Peter. So it just seemed like they killed him because that’s the routine formula for movie villains, which makes it underwhelming.

I guess the main value of Mysterio’s death is that it sets up the mid-credits scene where Mysterio posthumously blames Spidey for his death (and all the others the drones inflicted) and destroys his reputation. But come on, he’s Mysterio, the master of deception — he could’ve faked his death and had the same effect. He could probably maintain the deception better in life than posthumously. Well, in any case, it was a hell of a way to introduce Jameson at last, and it was a hell of a surprise to hear that familiar voice. (I wonder why they didn’t try to replicate JJJ’s flattop haircut this time, though. Just to be different from the Raimi version?)

As for the post-credits scene, I have no idea what to make of it. Was there a point to it in the larger MCU narrative? Was it setting up some future film? (Given the lack of Captain Marvel 2 on the recently announced slate, it’s hard to see how.) And just how long has the imposture been going on? It seemed like an arbitrary bit of weirdness and it just kind of fizzled out.

All in all, then, I guess I still don’t feel the MCU has quite gotten a handle on how to do a Spider-Man movie. Hopefully the next one will finally get to be just a Spider-Man movie, with Peter dealing with the fallout from the mid-credits scene (though I wonder how they can possibly work out the timing on that, unless they get to work on it really fast) and generally just living his own life and dealing with his own issues, rather than being so heavily immersed in the larger MCU story arc.

Finally, my thoughts on CAPTAIN MARVEL (spoilers)

Since my advance check finally came last week, I finally got to see Captain Marvel yesterday (I still waited for the Tuesday discount). I wonder if it was just coincidence that the multiplex had Captain Marvel and Shazam! (based on the Fawcett/DC character I grew up knowing as Captain Marvel) running in adjacent theaters. I wonder if anyone’s gotten confused and asked for the wrong movie.

Anyway, Captain Marvel is a pretty good movie. I like its structure — the way it introduces us to the character of “Vers” in the present after she’s lost her memory and then gradually has her discover her origins (a nice break from the usual origin-story format), and the way it integrates the flashbacks into her real-time POV as dreams or memory-probe findings, which is deft and economical. And it’s effective in the way it handles the Kree and the Skrulls, setting us up to believe we know who the good guys and bad guys are, only to turn it around in a surprising way. I honestly didn’t see that twist coming. Which is partly because I’m used to seeing Jude Law in more or less heroic roles and know Ben Mendelsohn mainly as Rogue One‘s villain, so the casting helped to fool me. Also because the Skrulls are usually villains in the comics, although the loss of their homeworld is a plot point there too. (Come to think of it, if the MCU Skrulls have been reduced to scattered refugees in the 1990s, that explains why they’re not a significant presence in the 21st-century MCU.)

It was also a surprise, and a pretty nice touch, to tie the origin of Carol’s powers into the Tesseract, and along the way to explain how it ended up in SHIELD’s possession (although that’s a bit of a retcon from what we’d previously been shown about Howard Stark recovering it from the ocean floor; apparently the new version, according to the MCU Wiki, is that Stark helped found Lawson’s Project PEGASUS, although I don’t recall that being stated outright in the movie). They also connected their version to the original comics origin (of Carol getting her powers from Mar-Vell, the original Marvel character to use the Captain Marvel name) in an unexpected way, assigning the name Mar-Vell to Annette Bening’s scientist character.

Speaking of the project, it was weird to have the alien characters talking about a “lightspeed engine” created by a backward civilization like humans as some revolutionary breakthrough when they were already routinely far surpassing the speed of light by making hyperspace jumps. I mean, sure, we learned that the search for the lightspeed engine was just a cover for the (distinct) things that the Skrulls and the Kree were respectively searching for, but it’s implausible that it would even work as a cover story, because it doesn’t sound like something new or important to an already FTL-capable civilization.

As for the Earthbound stuff, it was interesting to get a look at a younger, more relaxed Nick Fury. It was more than just digital de-aging; he was a lot more whimsical and playful back then, which was an interesting choice, though kind of revisionist (but then, the character’s been revisionist since the moment Samuel L. Jackson was cast in the role). It was good to see Phil Coulson too, but he didn’t really serve that much role in the story beyond the indulgence of having him there. Well, I guess his actions do help lay the groundwork for why Fury placed so much trust in him later on, but aside from that one moment in the stairwell, he didn’t really have that much to do that any generic exposition-spouting subordinate couldn’t have done.

I’m not sure the friendship between Carol and Maria Rambeau came through as strongly as it was meant to, since most of it was just glimpsed in flashbacks, and most of the present-day (well, 1990s present) Maria’s role in the film was dominated by exposition and action. But young Monica and her relationship with Carol rather stole the show, which is good because Monica’s presumably the one we’ll see again in the sequel, although she’ll no doubt be played by a different actress.

As far as actors go, I’d say the standout here was Ben Mendelsohn, who did a great job making Talos a complex and engaging character and working equally well when we thought he was the villain and when he turned out to be the nice guy in need of help. Jackson and Gregg did their usual good jobs with what they had to work with. Law was effective too, although Lee Pace was just as wasted as Ronan here as he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Djimon Hounsou only had a little more to do here than there. Gemma Chan was also sadly underutilized.

As for Brie Larson herself, she was reasonably effective, but I’m afraid I find her a little bland. Carol/Captain Marvel in the comics has been a breakout character, impressive in her strength of character, charisma, and heroism as well as her physical power. I haven’t read many comics she’s been in, but I’ve read a fair amount of Ms. Marvel and seen her through Kamala Khan’s admiring eyes, and I remember Jennifer Hale’s effectively strong performance as Carol in the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Animation and gaming fans know that Hale is a pretty hard act to follow, and I’m afraid I find Larson a little underwhelming in comparison. She’s not bad in any way, but her performance just doesn’t really grab me the way Scarlett Johansson, Hayley Atwell, Gal Gadot, and others have grabbed me. (Like just a couple of nights ago, I was watching Caity Lotz in a guest appearance on Arrow as Sara Lance/White Canary, and there was a moment where just her facial expression and a single line reading made me think “Damn, she’s a compelling performer.” I’ve never had such a moment with Brie Larson in anything I’ve seen her in.)

I also feel the film was maybe a bit too humorous and light in the later portions. As a rule, I like most things that involve cats, but the business with Goose in the climactic portions of the film got a little too silly for me, and the explanation for how Fury lost his eye was a bit dumb.

Anyway, now I’m inevitably speculating about what role Carol will play in Avengers: Endgame. Since her powers come from the Tesseract/Space Stone, that kind of makes her a walking Infinity Stone, which is probably why she could be the key to beating Thanos. Too bad Fury never actually told the Avengers who it was they were named after and what she could do — it might’ve saved some trouble if they’d known to call her in sooner. (And if Goose had been there, he probably could’ve just swallowed the Infinity Gauntlet right off of Thanos’s arm.)

Oh, I almost forgot — the opening tribute to Stan Lee. That was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. “Thank you, Stan.”

Two million words!

February 15, 2019 2 comments

It’s time to do another one of my overview posts of the word count of my published works, since it’s been nearly three years since the last one and I’ve gained a significant number of original published works in the interim. Plus, as you can tell from the title, I’ve just achieved another milestone! With the recent release of my second Star Trek Adventures game campaign The Gravity of the Crime, I have now surpassed 2 million words of paid, published fiction!

The list below includes all my paid fiction that has been published as of February 2019, plus two upcoming releases that have already been copyedited so that I have final word counts, namely Crimes of the Hub and Star Trek: The Original Series — The Captain’s Oath. It excludes the sold stories “The Melody Lingers” (Galaxy’s Edge magazine) and “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” (the Footprints in the Stars anthology) because they haven’t been copyedited yet, but they should be around 4400 and 5000 words, respectively. There’s another story for which I’m currently waiting for a contract and copyedits, so I may update this list once that or the others come together. I’ve left out the unpaid essays I’ve contributed to various sites, since it’s hard to keep track of them all, and I do so much unsolicited blathering online as it is.

ORIGINAL FICTION

Default/”Only Superhuman” universe:

Novels:

  • Only Superhuman: 118,000 words

Stories:

  • “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” (revised): 12,100
  • “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele”: 9400
  • “The Weight of Silence”: 7600
  •  “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing”: 8900
  •  “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”: 8200
  • “Twilight’s Captives”: 10500
  • “Aspiring to Be Angels”: 7900

Total story count: 64,600 words

Additional material:

  • Among the Wild Cybers Historical Overview, Glossary, and Afterword: 6500

Total default universe: 189,100 words

Hub universe:

  • “The Hub of the Matter”: 9300
  •  “Home is Where the Hub Is”: 9800
  •  “Make Hub, Not War”: 9800
  •  Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy: 33,300 (preceding stories + 4400 words new material)
  • “Hubpoint of No Return”: 12,400
  • “…And He Built a Crooked Hub”: 12,500
  • “Hubstitute Creatures”: 14,200
  • Crimes of the Hub: 45,600 (preceding stories + 6500 words new material)

Total: 78,900 words

Other:

  •  “No Dominion”: 7900
  • “Abductive Reasoning”: 4100

Total: 12,000 words

Total original fiction count:  280,000 words

MARVEL FICTION

  • X-Men: Watchers on the Walls: 83,500
  • Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder: 71,000

Total Marvel novel count: 154,500 words

STAR TREK FICTION

Novels:

  • Ex Machina: 110,000
  • Orion’s Hounds: 105,000
  • The Buried Age: 132,000
  • Places of Exile: 55,000
  • Greater Than the Sum: 78,500
  • Over a Torrent Sea: 89,000
  •  Watching the Clock: 125,000
  • Forgotten History: 85,500
  • A Choice of Futures: 81,000
  • Tower of Babel: 84,000
  • Uncertain Logic: 109,000
  • Live by the Code: 106,000
  • The Face of the Unknown: 95,000
  • Patterns of Interference: 85,500
  • The Captain’s Oath: 106,000

Total ST novel count: 1,446,500 words

Novellas:

  • Aftermath: 26,000
  • Mere Anarchy: The Darkness Drops Again: 28,900
  • Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within: 25,400
  • The Collectors: 35,400
  • Time Lock: 26,500
  • Shield of the Gods: 28,700

Total: 170,900

Novelettes:

  • “…Lov’d I Not Honor More “: 12,000
  • “Brief Candle”: 9800
  • “As Others See Us”: 9100
  • “Friends With the Sparrows”: 10,300
  • “Empathy”: 11,000

Total: 52,200

Total ST short fiction count: 223,100 words

Star Trek Adventures RPG campaigns:

  • “Call Back Yesterday”: 8200
  • “The Gravity of the Crime”: 10,500

Total ST RPG count: 18,700

Total ST fiction count: 1,688,300 words

STAR TREK MAGAZINE ARTICLES

  •  “Points of Contention”: 1040
  •  “Catsuits are Irrelevant”: 1250
  • “Top 10 Villains #8: Shinzon”: 820
  • “Almost a Completely New Enterprise”: 800
  • “The Remaking of Star Trek“: 1350
  • “Vulcan Special: T’Pau”: 910
  • “The Ultimate Guide: Voyager Season 3″: 1170 (not counting episode guide)
  • “Star Trek 45s #11: Concerning Flight”: 1000

Total article count: about 8350 words

All told:

  •  Novels: 1,719,000 words
  • Short fiction: 385,100 words
  • RPG campaigns: 18,700 words
  • Nonfiction: 8350 words

Total fiction: 2,122,800 words

Total overall: 2,131,150 words

 

(And just a reminder — if you enjoy any of my books, please post reviews of them on Amazon or other sites where books are sold. The more reviews they have, the more notice they can attract.)

“Crooked Hub” now on sale!

It’s a few days ahead of the nominal release date, but Analog Science Fiction and Fact has updated their homepage to show the September/October issue, featuring “…And He Built a Crooked Hub,” part 2 of my ongoing Hub trilogy. Here’s the issue cover:

I’ve updated my home page with ordering links.

What’s more, the Next Issue page at the Analog site reveals that the concluding story, “Hubstitute Creatures,” will be in the very next issue, November/December 2018, going on sale October 23. That’s sooner than I expected, since the first two installments were four months apart. But then, it makes sense, since there was a delay between my sales of the first story and the other two. Anyway, I’m glad we won’t have to wait much longer for the trilogy to be complete.

But I’ve belatedly realized that “…And He Built a Crooked Hub” is a career milestone in itself (I seem to be achieving a number of those recently). It’s my 10th Analog story! (Yippee!! Cue celebratory sound effects.) Which seems like a lot until you consider that it took me almost exactly 20 years to achieve it, since my first story was in November 1998. Although there was a gap of over 9 years between my second and third Analog stories, so this is also my 8th story in the past 8 1/2 years, which is nearly twice as good. It’s also my 5th story in the past 2 1/2 years, which is yet another doubling of the pace. I doubt I’ll be able to continue accelerating, though, since with this story and the next one, I’m already up to one story per issue. I’d say that’s about as good as it can get.

For what it’s worth, “Crooked Hub” is also my 15th distinct published work of original fiction overall, not counting reprint collections (the non-Analog ones being “No Dominion,” “The Weight of Silence,” Only Superhuman, “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing,” and “Aspiring to Be Angels”). I have 3 more coming up with “Hubstitute Creatures,” my fantasy story “The Melody Lingers” in Galaxy’s Edge, and the story I’ll be writing for the Footprints in the Stars anthology. Two more sales and I’ll be up to 20 works of original fiction. For comparison, my tie-in tally currently stands at 27 novels and stories, two Marvel and the rest Star Trek. At this rate, it may only be a few more years before I can say that more than half of my published works are in my own original universes — although since all but one of my original works to date are short fiction while close to 60% of my tie-in works are novels, I’m still a long way from balancing the scales in terms of word count. But that’s another post…

My check came!

I can’t yet say what it’s for, but I got a nice hefty advance check at last. It came Monday afternoon, too late to go to the bank, but I deposited it early Tuesday morning, and this morning the funds cleared and I was finally able to pay off my entire line of credit attached to that account, after which I paid off my other remaining late bills. It’s a good feeling. I’m still dealing with a substantially larger load of credit card debt, but I should be getting a second advance before too long that will help me somewhat with that.

The timing was good, since Tuesdays are discount days at the movie theater, so I decided to splurge 5 bucks and take in Ant-Man and the Wasp to celebrate. I don’t feel like writing a full review, but it was a pretty good movie, a nice change of pace after Infinity War. I liked the smaller, more personal stakes. Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost struck me as the kind of villain that might show up in an episode of Agents of SHIELD, and I mean that in a good way, in that it’s a more intimate, character-driven kind of conflict. (Not to mention a backstory that ties directly into SHIELD’s past, probably the Hydra side of it.) This was a movie about family for most of the major characters, and that made it meaningful and effective. (And Michelle Pfeiffer still looks pretty amazing.) Also, an excellent plot-relevant use of Luis’s chaotic storytelling style.

I kind of wish I’d gone on a different day, though, because I was stuck sitting near a woman who was very impatient with the characters. Whenever they were in a hurry but paused for a moment to exchange some meaningful dialogue, or even just to wait for their equipment to warm up before they could get underway, she’d loudly complain to her seatmate with “They’re still there?” or “Just go already!” or the like. She didn’t comment on much else (though she was vocally confused at first about the mid-credits scene until it finally sank in), but she really had an issue with people dawdling. Granted, she kind of had a point, since the characters’ delays usually meant that they ended up getting caught or surrounded, but still, it got kind of distracting.

I think I’ll re-subscribe to Netflix soon so I can catch up with the Marvel shows and other stuff I’ve missed over the past several months, including the second seasons of both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Still, I need to save most of my expenditures for important things. I’m way overdue for new eyeglasses, and could use some new clothes, plus maybe a couple of new skillets for the kitchen and a new set of drinking glasses. I actually went to the small local Target by the university this morning to see if they had more of the jeans I bought a pair of there last year, but the only ones they had of that brand were pre-faded, and I hate that. I’ll have to try a bigger department store.

In other news, I’m arranging a radio interview with a local public radio station, probably for September or October. I’d hoped to do it in conjunction with the release of Among the Wild Cybers, but I’ve been so preoccupied with my money woes that I waited too long to schedule it, so now it’ll have to just be a general overview of my work, including that book. Although the good news is that I should be able to talk about my new thing by then. Anyway, I went down to the station yesterday to deliver a copy of AtWC to the interviewer. It’s the same building that houses the radio station where my father worked, though it’s been a few years since I was down there and they’ve taken away the streetside parking meters to make a bike lane. So I had to try to contend with the garage, and I didn’t have 3 singles and the machine at the gate wouldn’t take my $5 bill, and finally an attendant came over and tried to direct me around the block to the rear garage, which took a while since I’m bad at understanding directions. And then it took me a while to find my way into the building proper, since I’d never parked in the rear garage before. After that, the attendant was very solicitous about making sure I knew where to go, since he apparently figured I was an idiot. Anyway, I don’t get why the attendant wasn’t just in the booth and able to make change himself. Anyway, the machine at the rear entrance did take my fiver, but as change it gave me back two $1 coins (one Susan B. Anthony and one Sacagawea). What the heck do I do with those? I’ll probably just trade them in for singles or quarters the next time I go to the bank.

Meanwhile, though, I really do need to refocus on writing the thing I’m getting paid to write. Hopefully it won’t be much longer before I can say what it is.

Not having a great week

The universe isn’t done screwing with me yet, it seems.

It looked like I was finally close to getting out of this financial pit I’ve been in all year, or at least making significant strides uphill. I’m waiting on something that should pay off soon, probably next month, and ease my burden a great deal. But in the meantime, it looks like the profits from the Kickstarter campaign for Among the Wild Cybers are lower than I’d hoped due to the costs of printing, shipping, etc., and I probably won’t see them right away. At the moment, I’m still very close to being out of money, biding my time and hoping I can make it through the next month or so with what little I have.

I thought it would help if I took advantage of my soon-to-be-improved fortune to apply for new credit at my banks, either a new card or a credit line increase or whatever. I was turned down before when my income was practically nonexistent, and the bankers advised me to try again when my situation improved, which it’s now just about to do. I tried applying at one bank last week, but it turned out my credit score was just a hair too low for them. I was literally off by 1 point. So I figured I’d go to my other bank and retry the things I tried there before. Hopefully one of them would pay off. If I could get more credit, I thought, it’d give me enough leeway to get some car maintenance done before I have to drive to Shore Leave.

So I went out to my car to drive over to that bank, the nearest branch of which is 5 miles away.

And I couldn’t start the car. My battery was dead.

I could get a jump start and drive to the garage pretty easily, but the new battery would run me up to a couple hundred dollars, and that’s a sizeable chunk of what I currently have left. If I’d already succeeded in getting new credit, that wouldn’t be such a problem, but I didn’t know if I would. This was the worst possible time for this to have happened. Especially knowing that, one way or another, I needed to get my car up and running within the next 20 days.

As it happens, though, a family member who recently moved to the DC/Baltimore area was willing to pay my expenses to pick up some belongings from their former home and bring them when I came to the area for Shore Leave. I realized that would be a way to pay for the new battery, since that would definitely count as a necessary expense. So I made those arrangements through my always-helpful cousin, and once I got the check in the mail, I was able to take the car in and get a new battery. Once that happened, I finally drove over to the other bank and applied for both a new credit card and a credit line extension, hoping I’d get at least one approved.

Guess what. They were both rejected, because my current debt load is too high. Which is frustrating, since I’m within a month or so of being able to start paying down that debt, but I may just need a little more help to make it until then. I know that I will be able to make good on my debt before much longer, that I just need to bridge the gap for another month or two at most, but I can’t convince the faceless decision-makers of that, because it’s all so rigid and by the numbers, so on paper I’m too great a risk. I mean, I understand the reason it’s all so strict these days — the rules were put in place to protect against fraud after the banking crisis a decade ago. So I can respect that. But it doesn’t do me any good in a situation where I could really use some wiggle room.

There’s still a chance that the big thing I’m waiting on will come through soon enough that I won’t need the additional credit cushion, but at the moment I have no idea how long it’ll take. I’d actually expected it to have happened already — I was told “very shortly” over 2 weeks ago. And I have several stories out at various magazines, so something else might pay off at any time, or it might not. I’m stuck just not knowing again, and afraid of what might happen if at least something doesn’t pay off in July. I really thought this would’ve all been wrapped up by now, but I got overconfident. Things are finally moving, but they’re still taking longer than anticipated. I just hate not knowing.

I’m wondering if, instead of applying for a bank credit card, I should just use one of those card applications that come in the mail. Maybe the approval standards would be different. But I just don’t know.

Well, at least I’ll have some books for sale at Shore Leave, copies of Only Superhuman and such. Between that and the convention stipend, maybe I’ll make at least a couple of hundred to help tide me over. Of course, my book sale is still on as always. And who knows? I could get good news from somebody or other any day now. I just hope I don’t have any other unanticipated expenses like the car battery.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the battery that unexpectedly failed me. The pull chain for my ceiling-fan light fixture in the living room broke off the other day, right after I turned it on. It broke off right at the base deep inside the fixture, so there was no way I could fix it myself. I had to wait a while for the maintenance guy to come fix it. At first I thought it was lucky that the light was on when the chain broke, since I could still use the wall switch to turn it on or off. But that meant that I couldn’t use the ceiling fan without the light also being on, and the fan is kind of necessary in hot weather, even when I don’t need the light. I might’ve preferred it if the ceiling light had been stuck in the off position, since I could’ve used my torchiere lamp to fill in. If the situation had gone on longer, I might’ve decided to unscrew the light bulb. But it turned out that it only took a couple of days to get it repaired, so it’s resolved now.

I also asked the maintenance guy to look at the spray nozzle on my kitchen sink’s hose attachment, which was sometimes sticking in the on position. Which was weird, since it was a replacement for the previous nozzle that also stuck in the on position. In trying to fix it, he got it stuck permanently in the on position, meaning all the water was coming through the spray hose instead of the faucet. He had to go out and buy a new nozzle, since he didn’t have any spares. Apparently, I’m the only tenant who still has a spray hose, since I’ve been living here so long that I’m the last one with an un-remodeled kitchen. Anyway, I thought he’d be gone for a while, so I channeled my inner MacGyver and used some long twist ties (from my drawer for spare electronics cords and such) to secure the spray hose to the faucet so I could use it as a makeshift faucet. But he came back less than half an hour later. I could’ve just waited and saved the effort. And the new spray nozzle has a different kind of lever to turn it on, so hopefully it won’t stick like the others.

Oh, one other way the universe messed with me, this time with my unwitting assistance: Yesterday when I drove to that bank 5 miles away, I turned out to get there shortly after the banker I’d been working with went to lunch. I guess I’d given her the impression on the phone that I’d be coming later in the day than I did (we didn’t make a formal appointment or anything). So I went over to the nearby library to wait it out. While there, I came upon several trade paperback volumes of Marvel’s hilarious The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl which I haven’t read yet. I tried to remember which ones I had already read and picked the two I knew I hadn’t, volumes 6 & 7 of the trade collections. Volume 5 was there too, but I got the impression I’d already read it and put it back on the shelf. But when I got home and started in on volume 6, it referred to a previous story I didn’t remember, so I went online to check, and it turned out I’d only read up to volume 4. So I went on the library website to request that volume 5 be shipped to my local branch.

Only to see that the list of volumes available for requesting included volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7.

This didn’t make sense, since I’d literally held volume 5 in my hands less than 2 hours previously. Apparently there was some catalog glitch or mislabeling or something. That meant there was no way to request it electronically, at least not from the local library. I could request a copy from another Ohio library through OhioLink, but that tends to take the better part of a week, at least. But, guys, it’s Squirrel Girl. It’s awesome. And the one place where I knew I could find it was the very branch I’d been in before. So, yes, I actually hopped in the car and drove the 5 miles back to the library to pick up volume 5. I knew exactly where I’d left it 2 hours before. And what were the odds that someone else had checked it out during those 2 hours?

Guess what. Someone else had checked it out during those 2 hours. I made that whole second 10-mile round trip for nothing.

Once I got home, I did the only thing I could and requested it through OhioLink. But that means I won’t see it until sometime next week at the earliest. Whereas I could’ve read all three volumes already and saved myself a pointless drive if I’d just checked more closely when I had the darn thing in my hand.

This is just not my week.

Thoughts on AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (full spoilers)

Yup, I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. I got paid for a writing project at last — a bit later than I’d hoped, but enough that I figured I could spare 5 bucks for a movie ticket on discount day (last week — I’ve been busy since). Honestly, that spoiler warning in the title seems almost unnecessary; despite all the pleas from the filmmakers for people to avoid giving away spoilers, it was less than a day after the film’s release that I got spoiled on the ending by something online, and people have been talking about it pretty openly on the Web ever since. Then again, there were several people near me in the theater who seemed genuinely taken aback by the ending, so I guess not everyone’s been spoiled. So be warned.

Honestly, I’m not sure the film offers much to talk about but the ending. I mean, as a single story culminating the plot and character arcs of 18 previous films and uniting nearly all their casts, it’s a logistically and structurally impressive achievement in its way. It’s kind of a miracle they even pulled it off and that it’s actually a coherent story overall. But the drawback of fitting in all those characters is that few of them really have that much to do. Oh, they get their moments to do their schticks and be the characters we’ve come to know and love, and we get to see various pairs or groups of characters meet for the first time and play off each other in novel ways. (I liked it that they paired Spider-Man with Iron Man and Dr. Strange, two characters he’s often been close to in the comics.) But opportunities for meaningful character advancement and growth are few. The most important character arc left over from previous movies, the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America, is all but completely avoided, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers never actually meeting at any point in the film.

So it’s certainly a well-done film for what it is, one massive action crossover spectacular. I enjoyed it while I was watching, and had fun seeing the characters I liked do their things (though I could’ve done without Star-Lord, who was really kind of a moron here). I even enjoyed the unexpected return of a long-absent MCU villain in a new role as the Soul Stone’s guardian, and it was fun to see Peter Dinklage playing a giant. (Really, come to think of it, it makes biomechanical sense that a giant would have more squat, vertically compact proportions than an average-sized human, so that’s actually very logical casting.) But it left me feeling less than satisfied after the fact, because there wasn’t much else to it in the way of substance. The biggest thing that happened to any of the major characters, mostly, was that a lot of them died. And that quickly lost its shock value as it happened more and more throughout the film. Really, I’ve kind of gotten tired of lead-character death as a story device, because it’s been used so often. Not to mention that there’s no telling how many of these deaths will stick.

Thinking it over, the only heroes who really get any meaningful character growth are the pairs of Vision & Scarlet Witch and Star Lord & Gamora. And both couples have the exact same arc — one urges the other to kill them to stop Thanos, the other resists but eventually finds the courage to try it, but it fails anyway because of the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers, yet the first one still dies anyway after Thanos got what he wanted from them. With so many different characters to play with, you’d think they could’ve found two different arcs there instead of the same one twice. Similarly, Loki and Nebula play quite similar roles — former villainous siblings who largely redeemed themselves in their last appearances and now solidify their redemption. Except in this case, one lives and the other apparently dies (though as soon as it happened, I was expecting it to turn out to be another of Loki’s faked deaths, and Thor suggested later that it might be).

The one character who has a real, complete story arc in this film is Thanos. In a very real sense, he’s the protagonist of the movie — he’s the guy whose quest drives the story, we learn of his motivations and witness his choices and personal struggles as he pursues his goal and overcomes the multiple enemies opposing him one by one, and eventually he prevails against the odds. And of course he does see himself as the hero of the story, believing his goal is benevolent. Although of course he’s a hypocrite. If he has the godlike power of the Gauntlet and can rewrite reality to his will, why not snap his fingers and double the amount of food and resources available in the universe? Or multiply it by a hundred times so there’s more than enough for everyone? He’s too fixated on his obsession with Death (albeit not as literally as in the comics) to see a better way. Still, he was an impressively rich and nuanced character for an MCU villain, and marvelously played by Josh Brolin and the CG animators interpreting and augmenting his performance. Between him and Killmonger, this has been a good year for MCU villains. I just wish Infinity War had had more room to do good work with the heroes.

You know, one thing that’s bothered me about comics’ mega-crossovers is the way they require the individual series to twist themselves into knots to accommodate the big mega-events, often getting dragged off course and forced to change their plans to accommodate the new status quo when they’ve barely even gotten started. We see that here with Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who’ve only just had their solo series get underway and have already been yanked in a whole other direction. Not to mention that the relatively happy ending of Thor: Ragnarok turned out to descend into tragedy literal minutes after that film’s post-credits stinger. (It’s a good thing that I ended up seeing Ragnarok out of order after Black Panther, since it works better there, its stinger leading straight into the opening of A:IW.) I find that the DC Arrowverse shows on The CW have done a defter job with their multi-series crossovers the past two years; instead of swerving the individual series’ storylines off course or negating their plot developments to serve the crossover, they construct the crossover so that it serves and advances the individual series’ existing storylines and character arcs, even if it’s a complete swerve from them in terms of the basic situation and the enemy they’re facing. Granted, this past year’s Crisis on Earth-X crossover had the advantage that most of the heroes had already met in the previous year’s crossover, or at least at the wedding reception early in the story, so there weren’t as many getting-to-know-you moments taking up time as there were in A:IW. (And if you think it was also because they had a lot more running time in a 4-part crossover, think again. With each part only being 40-odd minutes including recaps, they had maybe 10-20 more minutes than the 2.5-hour Infinity War.)

Of course, the saving grace for Infinity War is that it’s just the first half of a 2-parter. Despite the shock of my fellow moviegoers when the film ended with half the cast dead or disintegrated, it’s obvious that the ending will be reversed somehow in Avengers 4, resurrecting at least the characters turned to dust by Thanos’s snap, if not the ones killed earlier as well. After all, several of those characters already have announced sequels coming up after Avengers 4. Meanwhile, the next couple of films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe-adjacent TV series are apparently mostly going to keep themselves in a timeframe before Infinity War, while Agents of SHIELD is saving its next season until after Avengers 4, suggesting that the next film will pick up pretty much directly after this one and mostly restore the status quo in a fairly brief time in internal continuity terms.

Come to think of it, the advantage of killing off half the huge ensemble of IW is that it may give the surviving characters in A4 more room to breathe and develop. In a way, I’m surprised that most of the newer characters like Spidey, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther got dusted while the established core cast like Stark, Cap, Thor, Banner, and Black Widow is intact. But at the same time, I’m not surprised. It makes sense to keep the focus on the big stars. But I, and probably a lot of people, had been expecting that this duology would bring about a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch to the new generation of MCU heroes who will be more prominent going forward. Still, maybe that will happen in A4. Maybe the reason to give the old guard the focus there is to give them a proper wrap-up to their arcs so the new characters can take the lead thereafter. We’ll see.

Anyway, I suspect we’ll learn in A4 that the reason Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone to save Stark is that the one possible future he beheld where Thanos was beaten was one where Tony saved the day after the Snap and somehow reversed things. It figures that the fate of the whole MCU would revolve around Tony Stark. I wonder if maybe he’ll find a way to reset time and give Thor a do-over for that final strike. Really, why didn’t he go for the head? Or chop Thanos’s hand off? You’d think a warrior with millennia of combat experience would’ve known better. So that was kind of contrived.

Speaking of contrivances, it’s kind of weird that the last Infinity Stone Thanos managed to claim, the Vision’s Mind Stone, originally came from Loki’s scepter — which Thanos gave to Loki in the first place! So did Thanos not know he had an Infinity Stone all along? Or did he give it up as an investment, knowing it would set events in motion that would expose the other Stones on Earth? Maybe Avengers 4 will finally explain that plot hole.

Oh, by the way, while the audience I saw the movie with may have been largely unspoiled on the ending, given their reactions, they did know one thing that most prior audiences in my experience have not: that for an MCU movie, you stay through the credits. Usually I’m practically the only person who sticks around to the very end, but this time, most of the audience stayed. Although it helped that there was only one post-credit stinger here and no mid-credit teaser for the next film. If there had been two stingers, most of the audience would probably have left after the first one.

I finally saw THOR: RAGNAROK (spoiler review)

Well, it took quite a while, but I finally reached the top of the library’s hold list for Thor: Ragnarok. So now I’ve finally seen it, out of sequence (after Black Panther) because it took so long. (I almost got it a week sooner from a friend who was going to loan me his Blu-Ray, but it turned out I couldn’t get my inherited Blu-Ray player to produce a picture without connectors that my other equipment can’t handle.) Fortunately, there’s nothing in either Ragnarok or Black Panther that requires them to be seen in order. As long as I saw them both before Avengers: Infinity War, I’m good.

So what did I think of Thor: Ragnarok? Not much, really. It’s a moderately amusing bit of fluff, but is that really enough for a movie about the Norse Armageddon? A lot of really big stuff happens in this movie, numerous major character deaths and permanent changes in the Asgardian status quo, and none of it has any emotional weight because the director is more interested in the comedy. None of the characters really seem to feel anything very deeply; they just look distractedly upset for a moment and then get back to being wry and quippy.

In the original Thor, the conflict between the brothers Thor and Loki was the emotional core of the film. That same family conflict, also including Odin and Frigga, was the most notable part of the second film as well. But here, we have Thor battling the sister he never knew he had — indeed, the original bearer of Mjolnir — and the fact of that relationship has effectively zero impact on the story, beyond the plot mechanics of explaining how she was able to hold and destroy Mjolnir. It just lies there and nothing is really done with it from a character standpoint. Hela is just one more of the MCU’s long list of one-dimensional villains who are more obstacles than characters. Meanwhile, the entire character arc of her henchman Skurge — based on what I gather was a really powerful and beloved storyline in Walt Simonson’s classic Thor run — is conveyed almost completely through Karl Urban repeatedly looking sullen and conflicted. The fact that most of the established Asgardian characters are killed off as an afterthought also weakens the impact of the conquest of Asgard, since there’s nobody there whose point of view we can identify with for much of Hela’s invasion. (I’m just glad that Jaimie Alexander’s commitment to Blindspot spared Lady Sif from the cavalier carnage. Maybe she can still show up on Agents of SHIELD again sometime.)

Then you’ve got the whole Planet Hulk adaptation crammed in and overshadowing the storyline that the movie’s actually named for. Again, as an insubstantial bit of amusement, it was fine. Certainly it deserves credit for going whole hog on the Jack Kirby design sense more than any prior MCU movie (with Stan Lee’s costume being the most Kirbyesque thing ever). But honestly, I’ve never been a fan of Kirby’s artwork, and I find his designs garish and silly. And again, there’s not much substance to the plotline. Thor’s arc with Loki is one that should be quite effective on paper, but it’s directed and played with so little weight and so much snark that the poignancy isn’t there. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie (who isn’t really called Valkyrie, but is just a Valkyrie whose given name is unrevealed) has a lot of inner angst, but it’s only passingly addressed, rushed through like most of the serious and important stuff in this movie. And Mark Ruffalo is surprisingly disappointing as both Hulk and Bruce Banner. It’s good to hear Hulk speaking more than two words per movie at last, but Ruffalo’s voice isn’t really cut out for it, even electronically deepened. And as Banner, he seemed to be distracted and phoning in his part, the charisma and subtle emotion he brought in his previous appearances not in evidence.

I’ve heard a lot of praise for this movie, and I just don’t get it. Sure, it has its funny bits, which is fine as far as it goes. But a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie should go farther. The MCU’s films and some of its TV shows have plenty of humor, even outright comedy, but they also have emotional depth and sincerity and a real sense of stakes and danger. This movie only seemed to care about laid-back snark and put little effort into the rest. None of the characters really seemed to be more than mildly annoyed or disappointed about any of the huge, intense, tragic, dramatic stuff that happened, so it was hard for me as a viewer to care much about it either. It was an amusing way to pass 2 hours and a bit, but it provided no substance that lasted beyond the moment. It’s really quite dissatisfying after the fact. This is the way Asgard ends: not with a bang, but with a shrug.

GraphicAudio sale this weekend!

Heads up: GraphicAudio is running a sale this weekend on its comics/superhero-related audiobooks, with 20% off when you buy 2 or more. This sale includes their adaptations of two of my novels, Only Superhuman and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, so that works out nicely. The ordering links are here:

Only Superhuman audiobook  Only Superhuman

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook  Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder

It looks like OS is only available in digital audio formats, but DiT is still available in a 5-CD box set as well as digitally.

Admittedly, Only Superhuman has never been done in comics (not yet, anyway), but it’s a superhero story and is largely an homage to superhero comics, so GraphicAudio lists it along with their comics titles. Anyway, this is a good time to call new attention to OS, considering that my story collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman, featuring the brand-new Only Superhuman prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels,” is due out later this year.

Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther yesterday, since I have a bit of money coming in and figured I could spare a few bucks to see the phenomenon while it’s still in theaters (and before Avengers: Infinity War comes out). I never got around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok in theaters — I’m in the hold queue for the DVD at the library, but there are about 1350 people ahead of me at the moment — but this was a film I had to see, given its rave reviews and its larger importance.

Usually when I go to see a film this late in its run, and in a matinee showing, I’m one of only a few people in the theater. For this film, though, the theater was fairly packed. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with an audience that was so emotionally invested in the film — with people who said “Oh, no!” when a supporting character was about to be killed or applauded when the hero made a grand entrance. For once, I wasn’t annoyed when people talked in the theater, because I was interested in the way people were reacting to this movie and engaging with it.

I don’t really want to go into detail about the plot and specifics of the film, since it’s all pretty terrific and it’s all been talked about really extensively elsewhere. I thought it was fascinating on a lot of levels. I loved the portrayal of Wakandan technology and architecture, of African designs and sensibilities extrapolated into modernity and futurism without colonial influence. It made for something really fresh and intriguing to see. And I love it that the film didn’t just depict an Afrofuturist utopia, but made it textured, with its own internal problems and conflicts and mistakes, and also confronted what it would mean to black Americans — both the sense of hope and empowerment it offered, and the harsh question of whether they had the right to maintain their utopia by abandoning others in need. Killmonger is certainly the richest, most sympathetic villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since Loki, if not ever, since he had a legitimate viewpoint to offer, even if his methods were too violent. He was right that his people deserved liberation, but wrong to think that just adding more violence and oppression to the world would achieve that. I could tell from very early on that the film was likely to end with T’Challa realizing he needed to open up Wakanda to the world and offer its benefits to others, to make amends for Wakanda’s past through peaceful outreach and support rather than armed conquest. I’m very interested in seeing the answer to the question T’Challa is asked at the end of the mid-credits scene.

The cast was really solid, excellent all around. Michael B. Jordan is a standout as Killmonger, bringing enormous charisma while still being a credible threat. Chadwick Boseman is effective in the lead. Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Nakia, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. (This is the first movie of hers I’ve seen where I could actually see her face.) Letitia Wright (who had a recurring role in Humans season 2 as a troubled schoolgirl pretending to be an android) is lots of fun as Shuri, and I love it how the film just takes it for granted that their resident Tony Stark-meets-Q is a teenage girl. (She has the kind of vast high-tech underground playroom that I dreamed of having as a teenager.) I was impressed by Person of Interest‘s Winston Duke as M’Baku, a character who had to be handled very, very carefully to skirt the offensive implications of his comics counterpart, the villain called “Man-Ape.” He had to start out as a convincing antagonist and then reveal a more admirable side, and he pulled it off well. Martin Freeman did his usual excellent work as Everett Ross, going from a smugly clueless American to a stalwart ally who slipped comfortably into a supporting role, rather than trying to dominate the narrative. (I’ve seen this movie compared to a James Bond film, so I guess that means Ross would be Felix Leiter.) Andy Serkis was unexpectedly impish as Ulysses Klaue, who we initially were led to think was the primary villain but who ended up being secondary to Killmonger. In the comics, Ulysses Klaw was the murderer of T’Challa’s father, but Captain America: Civil War gave T’Chaka a different fate, so that arc was transferred to T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), motivating him to turn against T’Challa and aid Killmonger. W’Kabi is a minor antagonist, but one who has a well-drawn arc and understandable motivations for doing the wrong thing.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the music, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. Before the movie, the theater showed a trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, scored with a partly orchestral arrangement of the 1984 pop song “Take On Me.” (I don’t know pop music well, but I heard that song constantly on the PA at the UC Bookstore when I worked there.) Then the film came on, and the orchestral theme used for the Black Panther was exactly the same melody as the first six notes of “Take On Me”‘s refrain. So because of the trailer, every time I heard that leitmotif, I was reminded of the song. Otherwise, though, the score by Ludwig Göransson does some fairly interesting things blending African rhythms and styles with conventional orchestral movie scoring.

When I first heard that there’d be a Black Panther movie, I was concerned about how an American-made film would portray Africa, since there have been so many stereotypes and misconceptions about it in past films and TV shows. Some of the Marvel animated TV productions that have depicted Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) have been deeply rooted in ignorant stereotypes about Africa, tending to portray it as a single monolithic culture consisting of nothing but thatched-hut villages surrounded by wilderness. The ideal that I hoped for but wasn’t sure we’d get was a film that avoided all those assumptions and cliches, that did the research about modern Africa and portrayed it authentically. And this film essentially did fulfill my hopes. It’s certainly well-researched and rooted in real African culture rather than Western preconceptions, and it satirizes those preconceptions by contrasting them with the reality of Wakanda. Although its tight focus on the fictional nation of Wakanda means that it didn’t necessarily counter preconceptions about what the rest of Africa looks like. It would be nice, in a sequel, to see more exploration of Wakanda’s neighbors on the continent now that it’s not hiding from them anymore. Let’s see some major African metropolises like maybe Lagos, Nigeria, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities on Earth.

Still, that’s a minor note. Even if Black Panther doesn’t do all the work itself, its success will hopefully bring more attention to African-American voices and African culture, and perhaps other films can follow in its footsteps. (Pawprints? Sneaker prints?) That’s a change that’s long overdue, and I’m glad to see it starting to happen. Even aside from the importance of equal representation and diversity, it’s just good to have a wider range of ideas and perspectives informing popular culture, making it richer, inviting more people into the tent both as fans and creators. And it’s really satisfying to see an audience really engaged and excited by a movie like the folks around me in the theater yesterday. Black Panther, like Wonder Woman before it, was a movie that needed to knock it out of the park in order to dispel Hollywood preconceptions about what kind of films could succeed. And like Wonder Woman before it, the film met that challenge and surpassed it, and hopefully has opened a door that will never close again.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

Annotations update: dead links fixed

A TrekBBS member called Extrocomp was kind enough to go through the Star Trek annotations pages here on my blog and alert me to the various links that have gone dead in the years since I posted them, even providing updated file names from Memory Alpha. I spent the morning correcting the dead links — either updating the file locations, linking to Internet Archive snapshots of the now-defunct pages, or finding suitable alternative links to convey the same information (such as Wiki pages, or in one or two cases, the original source of an article that I’d linked to a mirror of). After which, since I can never resist being thorough, I went through my Original Fiction and Marvel annotations on my own and updated or replaced broken links as needed. So now all the annotations should have fully updated links, although there might still be broken links I haven’t yet found on some of the non-annotation pages of the site.

So, thanks, Extrocomp, for your diligence!

 

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING thoughts (spoilers)

I don’t have the budget to see many movies this summer, but Spider-Man: Homecoming was one I felt I needed to see (even though I’m waiting to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 until the library gets it). And I made enough money on my recent Shore Leave trip that I felt I could afford to spare a few bucks for recreation. Though of course I went on discount Tuesday.

Anyway, I liked the movie, but I didn’t love it. I guess I’m not the target audience for the John Hughes-style teen romantic comedy vibe they were going for — I don’t think I ever was. I got kind of bored during some of those teen-drama sequences, though the young actors were all pretty good. I didn’t dislike it, and it was pretty fun at times, but it didn’t wow me. I dunno, everyone these days seems to be excited about putting Peter Parker back in high school, even though he spent only three years and 30 issues in high school in the comics (well, more like 44 issues counting guest appearances in other books), but I first became interested in Spidey as a college-age character in the 1990s animated series, and I got to know him best when writing about him as a college graduate and part-time high school teacher in Drowned in Thunder. So I guess the idea of making him a kid doesn’t do that much for me.

Still, for what it was, it worked well. It captured the essence of who Spider-Man is, his sense of fun and his desire to help and his commitment to justice even when it screws up his personal life, as it invariably does — just in a more teenagery way than usual. And in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I can definitely see the value of stepping away from all the big important adult heroes dealing with matters of global or cosmic significance and taking a look at what life in the MCU is like for the little guy down on street level. And Spider-Man is a very good character for that, a hero who often hobnobs with superhero royalty but never loses his connection to the streets. (Which was approached fairly literally here. He tended to stay more on the level of brownstones and bodegas than skyscrapers here, and there was a fun sequence showcasing how hard web-swinging is in suburbia. The few times he did get up high, he had trouble coping with it.) Moreover, it was really interesting to see a street-level villain. Adrian Toomes could soar to any height, but he didn’t want to rule the underworld or conquer the planet, he just wanted to make a dishonest living because he blamed Stark and the government for taking his honest livelihood from him. He wasn’t exactly a victim in the vein of your classic tragic Batman: The Animated Series villain — it’s not like he couldn’t have found a different way to make an honest buck, he just chose to become a criminal and occasional killer because he was ticked off at the system — but he still saw himself as just a guy looking out for his family, making him a more nuanced and relatable villain than the MCU usually manages.

Now — spoiler alert — I could say it’s a huge coincidence that that Vulture turns out to be the father of Peter’s school crush Liz (wait, is she Liz Toomes? Liz Allan-Toomes?), but then, that’s the classic Parker luck. The villain always turns out to be either a family member of one of Peter’s friends, Peter’s own beloved mentor, or both. So I can give that a pass. And it plays out interestingly. We’ve seen the beat of the villain deducing the hero’s identity before in superhero films, perhaps too often, but it rarely plays out on such an intimate scale, and with the villain not really wanting to hurt the hero. Although it does get rather hard to sympathize with Toomes toward the climax, as he’s actively beating up a teenage boy and trying to kill him. That felt like too much of a standard action-movie beat being imposed on the characters. I think that Toomes as established through the rest of the film should’ve had more qualms about such face-to-face violence against such a young opponent.

But I love the way it turns out. I’ve spoken before of my dislike of the way superhero movies insist on killing off the bad guys, either by having the heroes kill them or going the “I don’t have to save you” route or having them die by their own actions or a twist of fate. It was so satisfying to see a movie not do that — to see Spidey risk his life to save the villain, succeed, and even get karmically rewarded for it in the post-credits scene. That’s the way I like to see these stories play out. I was worried about how Spidey, a character largely defined by his refusal to kill, would be handled in the MCU, which tends to make its heroes rather less non-lethal than they usually are in the comics. (Seriously, why would Tony even install “Instant Kill Mode” in that suit?) I’m relieved that they’re keeping that aspect of his character intact.

By the same token, I liked the scene with Spidey and Donald Glover’s character (who apparently is Miles Morales’s uncle). Spidey started out trying to intimidate the guy, but it turned out that what did the trick was Spidey’s kindness — he’d invited the bad guys to shoot him rather than Glover, and the latter appreciated that and was thus willing to help, as well as sharing a common concern for their neighborhood’s safety. That’s the sort of thing that really uses the idea of a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and makes it mean something.

I’m a bit disappointed that Spidey ended the film with the same Stark supersuit he started it with. I figured the arc of the film would be that he’d learn that all those gadgets were too much of a crutch and that he preferred something more basic. Maybe that will still be the case, though — maybe he’ll re-enable “Training Wheels Mode” voluntarily. (Although I read a review that pointed out that having the “Karen” AI to talk to was a nice substitute for Spidey’s constant internal monologue in the comics.)

Speaking of Stark, it’s interesting how he has his own parallel plotline sort of running through this movie, even though he’s mainly there to serve Peter’s story as a surrogate father figure and (rather bad) mentor. Even though he seems to treat Peter as an afterthought, he’s invested an awful lot (literally, financially) in this kid and his training as a hero. It matters to him, even if he’s inadvertently following in his own absentee father’s footsteps. One could wonder why he places so much importance on this one young protege, and partly that’s because it’s Spidey’s movie, but it also fits with where Tony is at this point in the MCU. This thing he’s built, the Avengers, has fallen apart. He’s lost almost his entire team, save for War Machine and Vision, and Rhodey’s probably still on the disabled list. So he needs to cultivate new members — not just for the optics or the logistics, but out of his personal need to keep his dream from being a failure. He’s trying not to rush the kid into it, trying to give him a chance to start out small and work his way up, but he’s equipped the Spidey suit with an AI designed to guide Peter’s training and hone him into Avenger material. And once Peter bypasses all that and proves himself by saving the day in his hoodie and goggles, Tony can’t resist jumping forward and offering him the works, just going all-out for the kid the moment he has an excuse. Because he needs this. Not just to rebuilt the Avengers, but because, as he said, he wants Peter to be better than him. He sees himself in the kid and wants to help him be a better man and a better hero than Tony could ever be. It’s interesting how much this film reveals about Tony Stark even though it’s nominally in a different series and even from a different studio. Some might hold that against the film as a Spider-Man story in its own right, but I enjoy the interconnectedness of all this and how unusual it is for movies. I love it that you can put all these individual films together and get an ongoing story running through most of them as a bonus.

Oh, and speaking of bonuses… Yes, as usual, I was the only one in my theater who stuck around through all the credits and got to see the Captain America tag at the end. It was worth it. (Plus, Michael Giacchino’s score was a good one, so I was happy to listen to the whole end title cue.)

A pretty good day

Well, at least it was better than it has been for a while. About a week ago, I came down with a dreadful cold and fever. For days, I wasn’t up to doing anything but lying down and watching TV or just napping, and I just felt miserable. I spent more time sitting and lying down than is probably good for me, judging from the twinges I was starting to get in my leg.  Yesterday, I finally felt well enough to go get some much-needed groceries, but it was hard to get up the energy to do it, and my joints were sore afterward. But I also felt more energy that evening. I think what happens to me when I have a bad bout with sickness is that the days of inactivity make my metabolism slow down, and eventually it’s hard to tell whether I’m still sick or just stuck in low-energy mode. I think going grocery-shopping helped get the blood flowing again. So I felt more like myself today, well enough to go for a brief walk in the park and enjoy the sunny day. I felt pretty energetic at first, though it didn’t last long.

But when I got home and checked the mailbox, I was surprised to see my last advance check for Patterns of Interference! I only got notification of the approval 9 days ago, so I hadn’t expected to see this check for another week or two. Needless to say, I was quite pleased. It lets me recharge my bank account just in time to pay my rent and some other bills.  Luckily I still had my shoes and jacket on from my walk, since it let me go right back out and drive to the bank right away.

After that, I went to the library near the bank, and I happened upon some nice finds there — the fourth collection of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s hilarious The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Marvel, the DVD of Star Trek Beyond (which I’ve been wanting to see again but haven’t found at the library until now), and all four Hunger Games movies, which I’ve been meaning to check out and watch back-to-back at some point (to date, I’ve only read the books and seen the first two films). Although I realized I haven’t gotten vol. 3 of Squirrel Girl yet, so I requested it, but I’ll have to wait to read that. And a couple of the Hunger Games discs look a little scratched, so I just hope they play back well enough for my binge to work.

So overall, a reasonably good day. Still, one thing I didn’t manage to do was to refocus on the story I’m writing, which I need to do now that I’m feeling functional again. I did get an idea for how to handle the next scene, but actually getting it done is another matter. Anyway, I need to get a move on with this and other projects. It’s cool that I got my check, but it’s a reminder that I need to get more paying work lined up soon.

Supernatural TV pilots of the ’70s: Roddenberry’s SPECTRE and Marvel’s DR. STRANGE

Having previously covered Gene Roddenberry’s failed 1970s SF pilot movies Genesis II, Planet Earth, and The Questor Tapes, I’ve finally managed to complete the set with 1977’s Spectre, a supernatural-horror show starring Robert Culp, Gig Young, and John Hurt. While Roddenberry tended to prefer to keep his science fiction grounded and plausible — in principle if not always in practice — he made Spectre with the intent of taking the supernatural seriously, disdaining what he saw as the usual television approach of treating it as a hoax. Which means, going in, that there’s no chance of treating this pilot as a possible offshoot of the Star Trek multiverse as I prefer to do with G2/PE and TQT. I had wondered if maybe there was a chance of treating the supernatural forces as alien phenomena, a well Star Trek went to on multiple occasions, but I doubt that would work here.

Spectre, scripted by Roddenberry and Samuel A. Peeples and directed by Clive Donner, opens with Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton (Young) answering an urgent summons from his old friend William Sebastian (Culp), an eccentric criminal psychologist who has now become an expert on the occult, to Ham’s disbelief. Sebastian explains that he was almost killed by a voodoo curse of some sort that’s left him with a weak heart, and he needs Ham to keep him alive as he investigates a case involving the Cyon family in London. He says he was saved by his spell-casting housekeeper Lilith (Majel Barrett, an inevitable presence in any Roddenberry production), who also casts a spell to cure Ham’s alcoholism, which has come close to costing him his hospital practice. It soon becomes clear that Sebastian and Hamilton are modeled on Holmes and Watson, if Holmes were an occult detective and Watson a skeptic (and if they were both womanizers, this being a Roddenberry show).

Sebastian is visited by a seductive woman claiming to be Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) and telling him that she was mistaken in believing something supernatural was going on at her estate. Sebastian figures out that she’s a succubus and burns her up with a book, though Ham is locked out of the study and doesn’t see it happen. Later, when flying to London in a private jet piloted by Mitri Cyon (Hurt, who looks amazingly young), the jet loses power and almost crashes, in what Sebastian interprets as another supernatural attempt to scare him off. Perhaps these are simply tests of his resolve?

In London, Sebastian takes Ham to meet an occult expert, but his house is on fire and they rush inside, finding him dead just short of the center of a pentacle drawn on the floor. They’re oddly untroubled by the flame and smoke as they examine the scene, then get into the pentacle to evade a demon of some sort that’s driven away when the fire department arrives along with a Scottish inspector (Gordon Jackson) who’s the Lestrade of the piece, I guess. The inspector, Cabell, is investigating a string of murders and desperately does not want the influential Sir Geoffrey Cyon linked to them.

Cyon Manor is an old abbey, refurbished inside with lots of erotic-themed artwork. Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) leads an openly hedonistic lifestyle and keeps a household staff of sexy young women, who (among other services) entertain prominent leaders of finance and government from time to time. The real Anitra, looking more “spinsterish” than her succubus impostor, believes Sir Geoffrey is possessed by a demon, though he insists she just disapproves of his lifestyle, and she privately admits to Sebastian and Ham that she may just be jealous of the more attractive women surrounding her, though Ham says he finds her more attractive. Oh, and Sebastian finds the coffin from his voodoo doll in the house (but not the doll), and there are various attempts on their lives including glass shards in the wine and a breakaway balcony railing. Sebastian reads the journal of the dead occult expert, who feared that “Cyon” was possessed by Asmodeus, the Prince of Lechery, though it’s unclear which Cyon he meant. (The mythology presented for Asmodeus has only the most cursory connection to the real lore.) Later, Cyon’s women make a comically exaggerated attempt to seduce Ham, but Sebastian interrupts. He takes Ham to investigate strange wails coming from a small henge called the “Druids’ Firepit,” only to be waylaid by a Creepy Groundskeeper (TM) and his hounds. According to the journal, the Firepit is where Asmodeus was bound by the ancient druids until Cyon’s excavations released him. Sebastian explains to Cabell that Asmodeus takes the form of a dead person whose body has not yet been found, but Sir Geoffrey has alibis for a couple of the murders. (At this point, is anyone not expecting John Hurt to be the demon?)

Still, the movie keeps trying to make Mitri seem sympathetic and Sir Geoffrey look guilty, while arranging things so Sebastian and Ham can discover the underground catacombs where Asmodeus escaped from and prepare magical defenses. But they may be too late — Anitra is reported missing, and when our heroes witness a debauched ceremony in the catacombs below (complete with extra nudity added in the European release), they find not only that Mitri is Asmodeus and Sir Geoffrey is his disciple, but Anitra is their sacrificial victim. Suffice to say that good triumphs and evil is destroyed, and along the way, John Hurt turns into a really silly-looking lizard monster. Then there’s an obligatory Roddenberryesque tag where Anitra shows up at Sebastian’s home and charms Ham with her newly glamorous appearance.

Well, this was a mixed bag. The idea of a Holmes-like supernatural detective had promise, and Robert Culp did a terrific job as usual. But Gig Young was disappointing as Ham, not managing to achieve the same kind of chemistry with his co-star that Shatner had with Nimoy or The Questor Tapes‘ Mike Farrell had with Robert Foxworth. Casting Young would’ve been problematical if this had gone to series — not only was he unreliable due to his heavy alcoholism, but a year after this was made, he killed himself and his new wife for reasons that were never understood. Which makes it creepier to watch him than John Hurt.

The Roddenberry preoccupation with sex got a little tedious too, but by ’70s standards I guess it wouldn’t have been too bad. It’s odd that, both here and in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (which Roddenberry scripted and produced), Roddenberry portrays characters as licentious as promiscuous as himself as villainous figures. Was that just the only way he could sneak such things past the censors, or did it reflect some ambivalence about his own proclivities? We’ll probably never know. Anyway, the constant debate between Sebastian and Ham about whether the supernatural had a rational explanation was a little tiresome as well, but I suppose that’s because I’m looking back from an age where there are countless series that take the supernatural for granted — and even they generally go through the same beats of skepticism and doubt in their pilots. Ham was fully convinced of the supernatural by the end of the pilot, so that wouldn’t have been an ongoing issue except where guest stars and authority figures of the week were concerned. This could possibly have worked as a series, given a better co-star than Gig Young. But it would’ve had its problems that might have kept it from holding up too well today.

I’ve also finally gotten around to watching the 1978 Dr. Strange pilot movie, the one ’70s live-action Marvel Comics adaptation that I don’t remember seeing. I was curious because it was reportedly more authentic to the source than other contemporary Marvel adaptations like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (both airing on CBS, like this pilot). Apparently it’s the one project that Stan Lee consulted on most closely. Although it’s still pretty revisionist compared to the recent feature film version. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere, Jr., who would later head up the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.

After a main title sequence featuring the distinctive Blaster Beam musical instrument, we go to a Steve Ditkoesque dimensional plane where a vaguely seen, multi-eyed stop-motion demon called the Nameless One assigns Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) to strike at the current Sorceror Supreme, Lindmer (John Mills), before he can pass his power to Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who works as a psychiatric resident at a New York hospital and is apparently quite the ladies’ man, like most ’70s TV leads. Lindmer sends his aide Wong to locate Strange, whom he knew years before. Wong is played by Clyde Kusatsu, later ST:TNG’s Admiral Nakamura and one of three Star Trek veterans to have played the role (George Takei voiced him in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, and onetime DS9 guest Paul Nakauchi voiced him in the 2007 animated DVD movie). The next day, Morgan strikes at Lindmer by possessing a young woman, Clea (Eddie Benton), and pushing him off a bridge. He survives, but is concerned that Clea is now in danger, since such possession has consequences.

That night, Strange and Clea both fall asleep watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (a reminder of the days when there were only a few channels on TV) and share Clea’s nightmare as she relives her possession and is stalked by Morgan. Clea flees into the street and almost gets hit by a cab, whose driver finds her amnesiac and takes her to the hospital, where Strange recognizes her and has her admitted. She insists she’ll die if she falls asleep, so she’s upset the next morning when Nurse Ratched (well, the nearest equivalent) tries to give her a sedative. While Strange argues with Ratched and the uncaring hospital administrator about his more compassionate admissions policies, Morgan tests the wards on the Sanctum Sanctorum (with its iconic window accurately rendered) and Lindmer uses a straight-up Jedi Mind Trick to get in to see Clea. He instead ends up talking to Strange, who turns out not to be aware of him or his world. But Lindmer gets him interested enough that, when the uncaring administrator tricks Clea into taking a tranquilizer that puts her in a coma, Strange goes to Lindmer and gets the expository speech about sorcery. Turns out Lindmer and Strange’s father were friends and worked together to protect Strange from the demonic forces that killed his parents. Lindmer convinces Strange to take a journey into the astral planes to rescue Clea’s wandering soul, and it’s a very psychedelic journey with Strange flying through a 2001/Time Tunnel corridor of trippy lights and fighting a Ted Cassidy-voiced black knight in a blurry astral realm before spiriting Clea’s spirit back to her body.

Dormammu — err, the Nameless One is mad at Morgan for failing to kill Strange because she thinks he’s hot, so he gives her one more chance. But Strange is still unconvinced even after his mystical journey, walking out on Lindmer — and Morgan uses the old “pretend to be Lindmer’s cat trying to get out of the rain so Strange will carry you across the threshold” trick to get into the Sanctum, strike Wong down, and overpower Lindmer, calling on the demon Asmodeus (oh, hi again, how’ve you been?) to spirit him away. Morgan then interrupts Strange’s date with Clea (now his ex-patient, so it’s ethical, allegedly), sends her back to sleep, and takes Strange with her to the astral plane, where she seduces him with wealth, power, knowledge, and, err, other stuff. But he resists the temptation and finds the power to battle her, rescuing Lindmer and foiling Morgan’s plans. He then accepts the transfer of Sorceror Supreme power from Lindmer to him, under the auspices of an Ancient One that’s just a bright light with Michael Ansara’s voice. And somehow Morgan is back pretending to be a motivational speaker or something, a hook for the theoretical series to come, despite her fate at her master’s hands just minutes of screen time before.

This is very ’70s, but actually pretty good. It’s a decent interpretation of the material, it’s pretty well-written, and the effects are rather good for a ’70s TV movie (although it occurs to me that this was the same studio and the same year as Battlestar Galactica, though a different effects house, Van Der Veer Photo Effects, who did some Star Trek work a decade or so earlier). I’d expected it to go a bit differently, with Lindmer dying due to Strange’s mistake and Strange vowing to make amends. But I guess if CBS’s Spider-Man wasn’t willing to use that origin for Peter Parker, I shouldn’t have expected it here. TV heroes at the time were generally expected to be more infallible and pure than that. And I imagine, given that Strange was a practicing resident here rather than an ex-surgeon, that the intent would’ve been to use a lot of standard hospital-drama tropes, with Strange continuing to clash with his uncaring administrator much like Quincy or Trapper John, and to use that comfortable formula to ground the more fantastic elements and make the show more palatable to the general audience, much like how many genre shows today get shoehorned into a crime-procedural mode. Which could even have worked, with good enough writing, and De Guere did a pretty good job of that. Stan Lee blamed its poor ratings on being scheduled opposite Roots; if not for that, maybe it would’ve gone to series. I doubt it would’ve been as good as the contemporary Hulk series, but it would probably have been better than Spider-Man. Too bad the pilot is all we got.

Thoughts on DOCTOR STRANGE (spoilers)

November 24, 2016 1 comment

I finally got around to seeing Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I hadn’t been in a rush to see it because the reviews have been mixed, with some praising it but others saying it was just another run-of-the-mill Marvel origin movie. But I quite enjoyed it. The formula may have been familiar, but the execution was fresh and engaging in a lot of ways.

I grant that it’s a little hard to sympathize with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange at first. He’s good at what he does, and the opening surgical sequences do a good job of establishing how important the precision of his hands is to him, but he’s also an arrogant jerk, and not as charmingly so as Robert Downey, Jr. But if the goal is to make us want to see him get comeuppance and begin a journey of transformation, it succeeds. Although I wish the movie had done more to give us some indication of why Strange would be chosen as a sorceror candidate, what this great potential was that the Ancient One saw in him. If anything, the lead character himself is one of the least well-drawn figures in the film.

But that’s the film’s strength, in a way. Marvel films have a tendency to focus on the heroes’ journeys and complexities and keep the villains kind of simplistic, which is a shame, because Marvel Comics have long been known for the richness of their villains’ personalities. Here, though, the supporting cast and the villains (both present and future) are nuanced and well-drawn. The main villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) was not what I expected — far from seeking power or vengeance or some standard villain motive, he sincerely believes he’s saving the world and doing good for its people; he’s just been misled by Dormammu’s promises, and is too dismissive of sacrificing individual lives to save the greater number. I was surprised at what a sympathetic figure he turned out to be. And Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is a fascinating character — an ally of Strange and the Ancient One rather than the power-hungry traitor he was in the comics, but one who has harsh and unyielding sensibilities — a willingness to do whatever violence is necessary to achieve his goals, and a rigid adherence to the rules that makes him unwilling to accept it when his allies break the rules to save the world. In an inversion of the original character, this Mordo sees himself as the betrayed one instead of the betrayer. I’m somewhat reminded of Ejiofor’s Operative character in Serenity — an antagonist who stood for law and order and believed that the unethical things he did were necessary to defend a peaceful, orderly system he revered above all else. Although the Operative went from antagonist to ally, while Mordo went the other way. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a nicely nuanced character as well, taking questionable steps that make Mordo’s sense of betrayal understandable.

One thing I did really like about Strange, in contrast to prior Marvel Cinematic Universe screen heroes, is that he has a clearly stated aversion to killing, and shows remorse when it becomes necessary. This is something that’s been standard for the majority of comic-book superheroes since the ’40s, but it’s all too rare in their movie counterparts, since American adventure movies tend to be made within a paradigm that presumes the villains must die. This is something that’s always bothered me about feature adaptations of superheroes, and I’ve always found it hypocritical that the movies’ Tony Stark supposedly gave up the weapons business due to a crisis of conscience but still routinely uses lethal armaments as Iron Man. But it seems we’re finally starting to see a movement toward heroes with more of a resistance to killing. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang was pretty firm about being opposed to violent methods (although there was dialogue there suggesting that the Avengers were presumed to use lethal force by default), and on Netflix, both Daredevil and Luke Cage are firmly against killing (though in the former case that seems to waver where ninjas are concerned) and Jessica Jones avoided it except in one special case. I do find it ironic that the supposedly darker Netflix shows have more non-lethal heroes than the supposedly light and fluffy MCU movies, although that’s going to change somewhat now that there’s a Punisher series in production. But maybe the movies are starting to turn away from lethal heroes somewhat. I certainly hope that’s the case with Spider-Man: Homecoming, at least.

As far as the visuals and the depiction of magic are concerned, I admit I’m not a big fan of the kaleidoscopic urban-origami Inception-ish stuff that’s featured in all the trailers. It’s certainly a fresh way of depicting magic, but it’s just too overcomplicated in its execution, all these pieces of buildings folding over and reduplicating and tessellating. I mean, these are supposedly changes that the sorcerors are making to the environment to benefit themselves and confound their foes. That much makes sense. But it doesn’t seem necessary to make all those thousands of nibbly little changes to the environment to achieve one specific effect, and it’s hard to believe one person could have the concentration to initiate and control all those individual changes at once. So I might’ve liked it better if it had been a little less overdone, less mechanical-looking, less cluttered with detail.

But I really liked a lot of the other things they did. There’s some very clever stuff here. I liked the way Strange integrated his sorcery and his medicine, using his “Sling Ring” to teleport to the hospital and draw on his colleague/ex Christine (Rachel McAdams) for help in key moments. It helps explain why he holds onto the title “Doctor Strange” instead of Master — he’s not giving up that side of himself completely, but is finding ways to integrate the old and the new. There was some clever stuff in the astral-body battle, and the final scene between Strange and the Ancient One was beautifully done, both visually and in writing/character terms. The battle in Hong Kong was inspired, the way they integrated the combatants moving forward in time with the environment moving backward, including some very clever ways of using the time inversion against the villains. I’ve never seen anything like this in a movie before, and it was delightful. The climax with Strange confronting Dormammu was also excellent, and it really showed how far Strange had grown, to the point where he’d finally set aside his ego completely for the good of the world. That was really effective.

I decided to splurge on seeing the movie in 3D, to get the full effect of the visuals, and it did add to the experience somewhat. Still, I’m not sure if the problem is with the theater or my eyes, but I had the same problems with depth of field that I’ve had with other 3D movies, in that things seem to be closer than they should — a lot of things seemed to be right in front of my face when they should be at least a bit further back, and characters in long shots often seemed tiny and close rather than normal-sized and distant. The theater also had a pretty bad sound mix that made some of the dialogue hard to hear, though it wasn’t as bad in the film as in the trailers.

One thing’s for sure — Cumberbatch definitely looks the part of Dr. Strange. And judging from the mid-credits scene, he’s wasting no time involving himself in the business of the superhero community going forward. I do look forward to seeing where he and Mordo go from here. (And Wong. Wong is cool. I should’ve said that.)

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One further thought about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (spoilers, probably)

I was just reading this article at Forbes comparing the success of Captain America: Civil War to the failure of Batman v Superman y Tu Wonder Woman Tambien at telling the same kind of story about heroes in conflict, and it made me think of something:

Everyone agrees that the big hero fight at the airport in CA:CW is one of the best superhero action sequences ever committed to film, and you know what? It features very little destruction. It doesn’t have whole city blocks collapsing. It doesn’t indulge in 9/11 imagery or disaster porn. The entire airport isn’t destroyed — just a jet and a couple of trucks, maybe. There aren’t a bunch of bystanders screaming and running for cover — presumably Team Iron Man had the airport evacuated in advance. (At least, I think so. Maybe there were bystanders in the part where Spidey was fighting Falcon and Bucky inside the building, but I don’t recall any.) And the climactic fight doesn’t go bigger and indulge in an orgy of mass devastation — it goes smaller, more personal, more concentrated. Once again, it’s someplace where no bystanders are endangered. And that’s just why it works. Mass devastation doesn’t matter without a personal impact. If anything, the smaller scale of the destruction makes the two acts of mass violence we do get — the accident in Lagos and the bombing of the Vienna conference — feel more potent. The death of a few dozen people can be felt and grieved over as the tragedy it is, rather than trivialized in comparison to the destruction of whole cities.

Granted, I’ve always preferred it when superhero stories were about the heroes saving people rather than fighting. One thing that makes the mass-destruction sequences in the Avengers movies work better than most such scenes in modern film is that the Avengers focus so heavily on rescuing innocents. Civil War doesn’t have much in the way of rescuing, now that I think about it (although there is a lot of guilt about their failures to rescue, so there’s that). But movies today have gotten to a point where the spectacle of mass destruction has become overindulged to such a degree that the CGI tends to overwhelm the story and characters. Civil War shows that a movie doesn’t need cataclysms to be powerful. Going bigger doesn’t have to mean wreaking more physical havoc — it just has to mean going for bigger personal, emotional, or ideological stakes. That’s something more filmmakers and studio executives could stand to learn from.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR review (Spoilers!)

I went to see Captain America: Civil War on Saturday morning, then went to the grocery store, and was kind of worn out for the rest of the day, so I thought I’d let my reactions simmer for a while before I wrote my review. I went for the cheapest showing, the early-bird 2D one, and the sound in the theater was oddly quiet, so I had trouble hearing some of the dialogue.

Overall, it was definitely a very effective and well-done movie, an excellent continuation of the MCU saga and one of the most thoughtful movies in the series. I like it that so much of the conflict over the Sokovia Accords was conducted through the heroes talking to each other in meeting rooms and debating the philosophy and emotion of the issues, rather than just hitting or zapping each other. The comics version of Civil War definitely went overboard with the physical conflict and armed rebellion and superprisons and so forth, and though this movie definitely had its marquee fight sequence taking up a fair portion of the second act, it was just the one.

Still, for all the comic’s excesses in execution, I don’t think the film works quite so well in concept. The comic, in principle, was an allegory for real-world concerns about the compromise of individual freedom in the name of security. It handled the issue badly, but the issue itself was worth exploring. And there was a lot at stake, a threat of the loss of freedom for a whole class of people. Here, though, it’s basically an argument over who among an elite group gets to make the decisions that affect everyone else. The stakes don’t feel like they extend much beyond this immediate group of less than a dozen people, and the only character who ever really feels unjustly victimized by the Accords is Wanda Maximoff. It works well as a personal story, but the sense of larger social commentary isn’t really there. I wish there’d been a way to combine the allegorical weight of the original’s concept with the far superior and less excessive execution of the movie.

As far as the issues go, in the comics, I was pretty soundly on Team Cap — and it was hard not to be, given what a caricature they made of Iron Man and the dictatorial extremes he and his supporters went to. (Although I think J. Michael Straczynski wrote Tony with a lot more nuance in The Amazing Spider-Man than other writers did in the rest of the Civil War narrative.) There, it was clearly about defending the rights of the individual against oppression that used security as its excuse. In the movie, though, I tend more toward Team Iron Man. Not only because Tony is portrayed in a far more positive light this time, but because I believe strongly that every powerful entity needs checks and balances to keep it from abusing its power. Cap may have been right that the UN’s agendas couldn’t necessarily be trusted, but the Avengers should have someone to provide a balance to their power, to give them oversight and accountability. (My friend Keith DeCandido pointed out in his review that the comics’ Avengers have had a charter and rules to follow from the word go, and I do recall them having Henry Gyrich as a government liaison for a while.) The Accords may not be the right solution to that problem, any more than the USA PATRIOT Act was the right solution to terrorism — both were policies forged in haste and out of fear, and thus tending to go to more extreme lengths than were necessary or appropriate. But there should be something. I suppose the best path would be somewhere between Tony and Steve on this issue — Team Black Widow, perhaps.

I found Henry Jackman’s musical score a bit disappointing. It was okay, but it didn’t use any of the character themes established in earlier movies. Age of Ultron did a nice job incorporating existing leitmotifs into its score, and I would’ve liked this and subsequent Marvel films to continue that practice. Superheroes need their own themes and fanfares. That’s something only a few MCU movies have bothered with, and AoU had me hoping that was starting to change.

Edited to add: I feel I should comment more on the big airport fight sequence. One reason it worked well for me is that nobody involved really wanted it. For one thing, that gave it emotional stakes — it was sad seeing friends and allies on opposite sides. It also lowered the stakes in another way, because nobody was trying to kill anyone, so we can freely root for the combatants’ skill and cleverness without having to deal with the moral issues that most movie battle scenes gloss over. I’ve never been happy with the MCU movie characters’ use of lethal force, and there was some of that here in the Lagos sequence, it appeared — plus T’Challa and then Tony trying to kill Bucky. But in the airport fight, nobody was interested in causing death, so it was more like the action sequences of the comics and thus could be more unreservedly enjoyable, even with the sad personal aspect. It was downright sporting, really, with a lot of mutual respect between the opposing sides — like that nice Cap-Spidey beat about their proximate origins.

Going through it all character by character:

Captain America: Still the principled man we know and admire, but maybe with a bit of a blind spot where Bucky’s concerned. He was right to stand up for his falsely accused friend, but he was perhaps a bit too headstrong in Bucky’s defense. I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken the time to give Tony a fuller explanation about the threat from the other Winter Soldiers, rather than just going “We fight.”

Tony Stark: Even though this is Cap’s movie by title, I feel Tony made a stronger impression, perhaps because he had more character growth. He really wrestled with the issues and stayed open to both sides, though he did rather lose it in the third act with the whole revenge thing. That part didn’t make sense to me and seemed contrived to force the final fight, since Tony must surely have understood that Bucky was not in control of his actions. There was a game attempt to make it more about his betrayal at Steve not telling him, but that still didn’t quite justify it. Aside from that, though, this is the way Tony should’ve been portrayed in the original.

Black Widow: They’re still doing a good job keeping Natasha front and center, the most valuable supporting player (even though they’re dragging their heels ridiculously on giving her a solo movie). She didn’t have as much to do in this one as in the past couple, but she still made a strong impression, and her fight choreography is fantastic.

Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman was effective as T’Challa, thoughtful and quietly strong. The portrayal of Wakanda mercifully shied away from a lot of the usual African stereotypes seen in plenty of past movies and comics, although it’s a little odd to hear them speaking the southern African Xhosa language while worshipping the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, from the opposite end of a very large continent. I particularly like it that T’Challa turned his back on vengeance — especially that he actually saved the life of the man he would’ve wanted to kill before. That’s a nice change from all the “I don’t have to save you” or “Take my hand — oops, never mind” endings that too many superhero movies have had. I was actually expecting T’Challa to break up the Steve-Tony fight at the climax and talk some sense into them, and I’m more than a little disappointed that he didn’t.

Vision: Interesting to see more of his evolution as a person, and Paul Bettany does a great job making him thoughtful and naive, gentle and imposing at the same time. Odd that Wanda calls him “Viz” instead of his usual “Vizh” nickname.

Scarlet Witch: Despite her key role in the emotional core of the film, I found Wanda didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me. Elizabeth Olsen just doesn’t have the same presence or charisma as most of the MCU cast.

Hawkeye: He has such a minor role that I’m not sure why they even bothered to include him, unless it was so they could do the thing with Ant-Man riding his arrow. His relationship with Black Widow was touched on in maybe one two-line exchange. I’ll grant, though, that he was probably the best choice for convincing Wanda to leave, given their history in Age of Ultron.

Bucky: Sorry, Sebastian Stan is just kind of boring. He doesn’t do much except fight and brood. He doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond his role as a plot catalyst.

Falcon: On the other hand, Falcon totally rocks. Anthony Mackie is one of the most charismatic players in the cast, and Sam’s a terrific partner for Steve. I love his fight choreography too, and the Redwing drone is a great addition. I would be totally happy to see Sam Wilson take over as Captain America once Chris Evans’s contract is up, although that’s not looking likely with Sam part of Cap’s Kooky Fugitives and the shield still in the few remaining Avengers’ hands.

War Machine: Rhodey’s still a stalwart background presence, though not as much of a standout as he’d be in a smaller cast.

Ant-Man: A decent supporting role, a nice followup on his debut film. Paul Rudd brought some effective humor to the proceedings,  the callback to his history with Falcon was good, and Ant-Man — I should call him Giant-Man as well — contributed, err, massively to the big fight.

Sharon Carter: Not a bad supporting role, helping out quietly and passing along some valuable words from Peggy Carter. I love how consistent the portrayal of Peggy through her words was with her characterization in the TV series, given that continuity between TV and movies in the MCU tends to be unidirectional. It helps that this movie’s writers are the creators and executive producers of Agent Carter. And I cried at Peggy’s funeral, even though there’s still a chance (though a slim one at this point) that she could return to TV for a third season. Sharon wasn’t nearly as impressive as her aunt, though, and the attempt to sneak in a romance between her and Steve felt cursory and forgettable.

Helmut Zemo: Now, this was weird. The MCU has reinterpreted a lot of comics characters, but while this version of Zemo worked well as the antagonist of this particular story, he’s so completely unlike his namesake that I wonder why they even called him Helmut Zemo. He did some awful things, but he’s not exactly a Master of Evil. As a character in his own right, though, he was nicely handled. The MCU has rarely given any of its movie antagonists any real personality or depth. Zemo is the most nuanced and sympathetic MCU movie villain since Loki, probably even more so.

Secretary Thaddeus Ross: Nice bit of continuity to bring back William Hurt and tie the largely overlooked The Incredible Hulk a bit more closely into the saga, even though Ross here is in a rather different role than before, a role that could’ve been filled by a lot of other characters. It would’ve been nice to see him show a bit more intensity in his comments about the missing Dr. Banner, given that Ross’s obsession with the Hulk is his defining trait in the comics.

Everett Ross: Did they notice they had two characters on the government side who were both named Ross? Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Martin Freeman in a role where he didn’t totally steal the show. Partly because he used an American accent, and that always makes British actors less interesting. But he really had very little purpose in this story, although I gather they were setting him up for a bigger role later, presumably in Black Panther, since that’s where the character originally comes from.

Spider-Man: I’ve saved this for last because I have a lot to say. Peter was handled pretty well, and Tom Holland is pretty good, but I can’t gush as much about him as most people are. I actually liked the Andrew Garfield version, and I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 captured Spidey/Peter almost perfectly even though it screwed up so much else. This was a good portrait of a Spidey who’s just starting out, and I like the way they rejiggered the Tony-as-mentor bit from the comics to explain how Spidey got his fancy threads (and the size-changing eyes are a nice way to bring a cartooning conceit into live action). But I don’t feel this movie captured Spidey’s banter as well as ASM2 did. I mean, sure, Spidey’s a chatterbox, and that’s partly a manifestation of his anxiety and insecurity, but he’s also funny. He’s a nonstop wisecracker, a comic hero in the Bugs Bunny mold. He should be hurling jokes and bad puns and insults as readily as Downey’s Tony does, and then some. And that didn’t come through here, since this Spidey was mainly just geeking out and talking science and chattering nervously. I hope he’s funnier in his solo movie. (And having Tony be his mentor could work nicely if he becomes more of a confident wisecracker by following Tony’s example.)

Also, I felt the Spidey portion of the movie was a bit tacked on. The movie just kind of dragged to a halt in the middle to swerve into a side story introducing this new character, then used him in the fight, then forgot about him until the post-credits scene. Structurally, it could’ve been better. I would’ve preferred it if Peter had been seeded earlier — if Tony’s initial talk had been at Midtown High instead of a university, say, or if we’d seen a bit of Spidey or Peter having a “kid on the street” reaction to the news from Lagos or Vienna or Washington.

I’m also not sure that Peter was worked into the story as logically as he could’ve been. The speech he gave in his bedroom about how something is your fault if you have the power to stop it and you don’t (a reference to his famous origin story, natch) sounded like it aligned more with Steve’s side of the argument than Tony’s. After all, Steve was the one saying they had to act when it was needed rather than letting a higher power tell them they couldn’t. Then there’s the fact that it was kind of a contradiction for Tony to support government oversight of superheroes, yet be totally fine with Peter keeping his identity secret. It works because this Tony has always been kind of a rebel and has only recently come around to the idea that he needs to be kept in check, so that inconsistency is in character. But it does seem that Peter was more naturally suited to Team Cap, and it would’ve been good to see him switch sides as he did in the comics.

So I guess my praise for the film is a little lukewarm. But that’s only because it’s been so heavily hyped as the best superhero movie ever. It is quite good for the most part, no doubt. I just have a few issues with it, ways it could’ve been even better.

Anyway, where does the MCU stand now? The Sokovia Accords are still in effect (and we’ll see some of the impact of that on Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night). The only still-active Avengers seem to be Iron Man, Vision, and War Machine, who’s on the disabled list. Spidey’s an ally, but not quite ready for the big time — but will he have to register? T’Challa’s still an independent party, though sympathetic to Steve. Bucky’s back on ice. Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and probably Black Widow are wanted fugitives. Things don’t look good for the superhero community. I wonder if so many of them were removed from the board to clear the way for the spate of new characters coming up in Phase 3. Over the next couple of years, we have Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok (co-starring the Hulk), and Black Panther before we presumably see the rest of the Avengers again in Infinity War in 2018. (Hey, Netflix, this would be a great window for a Black Widow miniseries, ScarJo willing.) So the current state of affairs is likely to be a dangling thread for some time. Honestly, that’s part of why my reaction to the film is a bit lukewarm. It ended at kind of an uneasy and unresolved place, and I’m a little dissatisfied with the situation, if not with the execution of the story.

But then, this is Civil War, and wars very rarely leave things better at the end.

Fall TV, Week 2 (spoilers)

First, a couple of updates, since my second looks at a number of shows have caused me to reappraise them:

Minority Report: I’m afraid episode 2 didn’t work as well for me as the pilot. There was some nice tech futurism (the microbiome analyzers were interesting, and the future version of a tablet is nice), but it wasn’t matched on a cultural level. All that pickup artist stuff and people using slang like “negging” and “booty call” is way, way too present-day for a show set 50 years from now, and that really damaged the credibility of the story and the world. It felt like a script for some ordinary, present-day cop show that was rewritten for this show. Which I doubt it really was, since it was written by the showrunner. But it doesn’t bode well for the quality of the mysteries — or the worldbuilding — going forward.

Some decent character work with Dash and Vega dealing with the aftermath of Dash killing the bad guy last week. I’m glad they addressed that instead of dismissing it. But I’m finding Stark Sands rather underwhelming as a lead. And the stuff about his inept attempts at detective work is getting old really fast.

Blindspot: I gave this one more chance, after reading an interview with the showrunner saying that there would be some major revelations this week.  I think I’m getting a little invested in it now, or at least curious enough to stick with it for the moment. Jaimie Alexander is definitely the main draw. Although it’s kind of nice to see Ashley Johnson — or rather, to hear her, since I know her mainly from her animation roles such as Gwen in Ben 10 and Terra in Teen Titans.

It’s occurred to me: We now have two series on the air, Dark Matter and Blindspot, that revolve around characters who’ve had their memories wiped and are wrestling with the question of whether they were good or bad people in their previous lives. And they’re both created by veterans of the Stargate franchise — Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie for the former, Martin Gero for the latter. Is there some causality there, or just coincidence?

The Muppets: I’m out. I was open to a more adult and “edgy” version of the Muppets, getting back to their roots in late-night TV, but last night’s episode was something I don’t think the Muppets have ever been before: mean-spirited and cynical. Kermit has become an angry, neurotic jerk, Fozzie is committing felonies, and the characters are just being generally nasty to each other, with no sign of the affection that always underlaid their squabbles in the past. It didn’t feel like a story about the Muppets; it felt like a generic modern sitcom plot acted out by the Muppets. Which is lame. If the Muppets are going to do something in the vein of a contemporary TV trend, they should be spoofing and subverting it (Veterinarian’s Hospital, Pigs in Space), not just playing it out by the numbers. More importantly, it just wasn’t very funny. In the pilot, I laughed a good number of times, but very little amused me here.

The one good point is that Pepe the King Prawn, the most annoying Muppet ever, was more subdued and less obnoxious here. But he was the only Muppet who was less obnoxious. And maybe it’s just symptomatic of the general out-of-character writing.

And now to the new stuff:

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, ABC): Pretty solid opening. Things have ramped up to a new level. More superpower action, new threats, new status quo for various characters. Daisy (formerly Skye) is looking pretty good in her action gear and new haircut. And a passel of movie references — nods to the alien attacks on New York, London, and Sokovia (though Ultron was kind of indirectly alien), an appearance by President Ellis, even a nod to “the Pym Technologies disaster.” (Which is perhaps an overstatement given that nobody died in that.) And the lines about the laws of man catching up with the laws of nature could be foreshadowing Captain America: Civil War.

Sleepy Hollow (Thursdays, FOX): This just screamed “soft reboot.” Last season ended with the core foursome reunited and standing together; now suddenly we learn they all went their separate ways and are only grudgingly coming back together, with Irving gone for good. That’s kind of an awkward transition. And the episode was so much about setting up the new status quo that it’s hard to get a sense of what the season will be like.

But while the core cast was still fun to watch, the episode felt like it was going through the motions. The Horseman was swept aside very cursorily. Abbie was given a new grizzled mentor figure to suffer a predictable, telegraphed death at the hands of a demon, like Sheriff Corbin 2.0, but we didn’t see any emotional aftermath to the event, any reaction from Abbie once the scene was over. Crane and Abbie cursorily reasserted their friendship, but the sense of deep warmth and connection between them wasn’t as strong. Crane was given a new Colonial-era love interest in Betsy Ross, but without the depth of feeling and need he had for Katrina — and so far, the only impressive thing about Nikki Reed in the role is that she makes Katia Winter seem interesting in comparison. And Jenny was just there to help out and make wisecracks. Before, it was the depth of feeling behind the characters and their relationships, the underlying passion, that made the show engaging and grounded its insanely silly plotlines. There didn’t seem to be any passion here.

Also, how is it that an experienced demon-hunter and FBI agent like Abbie can run into a woman named Pandora, who’s into ancient history and lore and who’s just arrived in Sleepy Hollow at the same time a new evil descends upon the town, and not immediately suspect that it’s the Pandora? That’s just dropping the ball.