Saturday, January 31, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Shin Kamen Rider (1992)

ShinKamenRiderPrologue(MIR1_-_AAs Kamen Rider approached its 20th anniversary, the show had been off the air for several years. It was now the 1990s, production styles and audience expectations had changed, and by the time Kamen Rider would return to television screens again in 2000, both would change even more. There was no longer an audience for cyclists in vibrant grasshopper suits fighting against campy villains. The natural step, it seemed, was to move the franchise as far away from these elements as possible.

The proposed trilogy of Shin Kamen Rider films, therefore, became gruesome horror films in which Shin became a Kamen Rider via genetic manipulation and unknowingly slaughtered innocents in his sleep and removes his opponent's skull and spinal column as a finishing move. Also, like Kamen Riders 1 and 2 in the 1970s, he is based on a grasshopper.

It is perhaps needless to say that such a radical departure from the original material was not well received by fans. While Ultraman joined Kamen Rider on a hiatus at the end of the Showa period, Super Sentai carried the tokusatsu torch at the time, airing the landmark Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger – the source of inspiration and footage for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers – in the same year. It was plain to see for all involved that while Shin had the better production values, Zyuranger was the only one that looked remotely like what tokusatsu fans were looking for.

But does that make Shin Kamen Rider (still Prologue, but the second two films were dropped) a bad film? Not at all. It just makes it a horror film (complete with gratuitous nudity) with tokusatsu elements. In fact, Shin is rather ingenius, combining elements such as An American Werewolf in London's transformation scene and nocturnal monster dreams, David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly's half-breed baby, and Kamen Rider tropes such as redemption, hope and martial arts, into a single piece that can't help but to be remembered, regardless of how you feel about it.

While the visuals are top-notch (the comparisons to two of the greatest makeup films of the 1980s don't come unearned), the writing sometimes leaves something to be desired. Some of the best moments come when adapting plotlines from the original Kamen Rider (With Shocker being replaced by an evil Corporation that personally reminds me of Rossum) or the fore-mentioned horror film plots, but when there is not a strong direction to move, the writing starts to slack. The best example of this is Ai, Shin's love interest. They are friends, they have some vague feelings for one another, then Ai takes a shower, goes swimming with Shin, and turns up pregnant with his grasshopper-baby. This takes a semi-clever turn when, rather than the symbol of fear that the baby acts as in The Fly, Ai considers the fetus to be a symbol of hope: that no matter what happens, she and Shin will live on through the baby, which naturally leads to Ai being ceremoniously discarded and carried off into the closing credits.

Still, there are certain levels of writing that are acceptable for certain styles of content, and for a martial arts film about a were-grasshopper, I find the most disappointing thing about the writing to be the fact that this is clearly the pilot for a new series – film or television, it remains the same – that never took place. Had Miyashita Jun'ichi and Onodera Jou known that this would be a standalone feature, the nameless Corporation might have been dealt with in a more final way, and Shin might have done some Kamen Riding. The end result is, while not a perfect film, a great way to kick-start something that fizzled due to lack of a proper audience and something that I really hope gets its due one day soon.

Friday, January 30, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Next Doctor

 

We return again for the last unreviewed Christmas special. This is “The Next Doctor”!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Cabin in the Woods (2011)

the-cabin-in-the-woodsI should stop you. I really shouldn’t even write this. Writing a review of Cabin in the Woods, talking about Cabin in the Woods in a public forum is like talking about the ending of The Sixth Sense in front of a movie theatre in 1999 or being the first person to shout “Snape killed Dumbledore” in July of 2005. Even the title, Cabin in the Woods is a spoiler once you know how to look at it. So please, for the love of god, if you haven’t watched this movie, do so now, before you read another word.

There are three layers to this movie. You can watch it as a tired old film cliche with boobs and a body count, the kind that most people attracted to this film probably wouldn’t mind watching but would definitely like to see something greater than. You can watch the film literally, as it prepares a ritual sacrifice to keep Cthulhu sleeping in R’lyeh (or a similar, unnamed Old One). Or you can take that step one step farther, peel back the layer of satire, and realize that you are Cthulhu.

An unnamed corporation with chapters all over the world is constructing a scenario. These are regular office workers, what you might call “average Joes”. They gamble, they drink, they do anything the boss will allow and are careful to keep anything they won’t under the table. They hate their client’s customers and they’ll do whatever they can to keep the client happy. And they’re working to save the world from certain destruction.

Their clients are “the ones who came before”, which means this is probably part of writer Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse”. The fact that Tom Lenk and Amy Acker work here are only an added bonus. Of course, the twist is, the customers that they’re serving in order to satisfy the clients are human beings, whom they’re sacrificing in traditional horror movie fashion in order to keep the Old Ones aslumber.

Describing what comes next would just be too much detail. Cabin in the Woods is every horror movie ever made, in more ways than one. It’s a movie that distinguishes between “zombie” and “zombie cannibal family” and delivers on both. A man is gored by a unicorn, another is fed to a giant snake, and nameless Cenobites (the Hellraiser kind) make their appearance, among other things. If that’s not enough to sell you on this story, a secret stash of weed keeps Topher Brink from Dollhouse sober enough to upset everybody’s plans.

Not only is this a perfect homage and satire of ‘80s horror, but it’s a perfect 1980s’ creation in its own right. The only thing that’s more a child of the ‘80s than the horror film set in a cabin the woods is the evil corporation beholden to nobody. Lex Luthor isn’t in charge here, but the film loses none of its appeal as a result of it.

If you’ve never seen a student on full academic scholarship turn into an alpha male who calls people “egghead”, an equally studious blonde act in the role of the sacrificial bimbo, or a “virgin” who just broke off a purely sexual relationship with her teacher with an “I knew what I was getting into” attitude, then I’m still telling you too much. Watch Cabin in the Woods if you’ve ever liked a horror movie.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Silent Night (2012)

Silent NightSnapshot of my life: it’s 3am (in the morning, morning) and I’ve just finished my ironing for work tomorrow morning. I could be going to sleep, or I could be writing. What kind of writer would I be if I’m not writing?

In all honesty, some movies are just made to be reviewed. They just fill themselves with points against them so that nobody with the slightest hint of critic in them could possibly bypass the opportunity to review them. I really had no intention of reviewing 2012’s Silent Night, but after watching the film, I really just can’t pass it up.

Watching Silent Night, it’s pretty clear that it is in no way a remake of the classic film Silent Night, Deadly Night. While the original film was a story about a boy who was subjected to the wrong set of horrible experiences and lost his sanity in the process, this is a film about a guy in a mask killing anybody he comes across.

Except it’s pretty clear that the writer had a vision of this film being a remake to the original- or at least, a very strong homage to the original. I counted no less than four scenes that were included as direct references to Deadly Night or its sequel, none of them done well. One of these is so far removed from the plot of this film that the only reason to include it would be as a direct reference to the older movie. Which points to a remake that doesn’t include the plot, premise, or atmosphere of the original film. Unless you’re a modern film writer, which only sees “guy in a Santa suit killing people” as the premise.

This incongruity is all over this film. Silent Night goes so far as to feature a porn shoot to get a topless scene. That’s the only topless scene in the film, however, despite the fact that the killer interrupts a sex scene in order to re-enact a topless murder from the original film. Well, a foreplay scene. Everything about this film is like that generic ‘80s slasher film you always hear about, but almost never see because most ‘80s slashers were actually more original than the stereotype. Except that this film doesn’t take any chances. Everybody’s a slut, but nobody has sex.

This carries over to the violence as well. A woodchipper scene is safe- all you need to show is a bit of red spray and the audience can imagine that it’s one of the most gory scenes they’ve ever witnessed. The scenes that should be really gory, however- like the climax- the movie starts using camera filters like a ‘20s film, coloring every scene bright red or bright green. You know, because Christmas! Or maybe because the trend is PG-13 horror movies, even when the boobs-and-cocaine porn shoot ensured the film get an R rating, because for a direct to DVD feature, it’s better to have the R rating appeal even while maintaining the PG-13 content.

Besides the red and green filters, this film also features brief moments of the overly bright Christmas lights seen in Black Xmas. Thankfully, Silent Night doesn’t go that route, and prior to the last Act I have less complaints about the visual style of this film than I expected to from Act I. There are plenty of well lit scenes, but there are also some decent dark scenes. The fact that the visuals are in the style of 2012 film throughout hurt this as a slasher, but there are other modern elements that hurt it worse.

For example, Malcolm McDowell returns as Zombie-Loomis. Yes, you read that correctly. I’m blaming Rob Zombie for this character, because it seems that now, McDowell is the go-to guy to play a dick with a slight hint of good intentions, and he does not do that well here. I don’t know if I can say that the normally convincing actor is losing his touch, or what, but what I can say is that as the biggest name actor in this film, he shouldn’t have been the least convincing actor.

Another inspiration that Silent Night takes from 2007’s Halloween is the brute force killer- the killer that needs to show you how strong he is. In the ‘80s, a lot was attributed to the strength of madness- that the sheer insanity and evil of the killer would allow them to do things like crush a human skull with their bare hands. Recent slashers, however, have preferred large, wrestler-size men with hulking figures, giant footprints and, in the case of Silent Night, brass knuckles repeatedly ground into the victim.

Ultimately, I was expecting an average film from Silent Night, and in some ways it succeeded. Unfortunately, the film didn’t know what sort of average film it wanted to be- or it intended to be a conglomeration of an average ‘80s film and an average modern film. Ultimately, the haphazard approach to its averageness is what makes this a slightly below average film. I’d still recommend it to the hardcore slasher fans- the sort of person who hears “dumbed down, direct to DVD version of Silent Night, Deadly Night,” and rents it anyway- but it’s a little disappointing, even for that. I mostly chalk that up to the ridiculous red and green filters, myself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Equestria Girls–Rainbow Rocks

My_Little_Pony_Equestria_Girls_Rainbow_Rocks_DVD_cover_artOne of the more interesting aspects of the 2010s is the '80s/'90s cartoon nostalgia projects. Almost any property that was popular in the United States between 1980 and 1995 is seeing a resurgence. Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon are seeing a comeback; Power Rangers is having a nostalgia-laden 20th anniversary special series; and Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe have all seen a cinematic revival. The age 25-35 demographic wants the shows of their youth back, and as most of these were of the “30 minutes toy commercial” variety, sponsors like Bandi and Hasbro are only too happy to give them what they want.

In the midst of this, it was inevitable that My Little Pony would see a revival, culminating in the highly successful Friendship is Magic series, targeted at kids and parents of all genders. Just as inevitably, Hasbro put out a toy that they could not sell with a regular episode, causing the show to move into off-season theatrical productions. Enter the Equestria Girls series of movies. The first film, released in 2013, made a splash by being the most obvious toy commercial in a series of them, and taking the series a bit outside its animation wheelhouse by moving on to bipeds.

Rainbow Rocks comes a year later, and brings with it the experience of making the first film, as well as the established universe. The film features Pony leader Princess Twilight Sparkle as she returns to help her human friends against a trio of villains exiled in Equestria's past. The film improves on the original in several ways, but ultimately struggles to reach the depth of the average Friendship is Magic episode. Twilight Sparkle comes to this film after learning her place as a Princess of Equestria and leading her friends to gain Super Saiyan-like alicorn powers they can use as a team. For the humans, most of the school year has passed, and while their shared experience has made them friends, the rest of the school still looks at Sunset Shimmer as the villainess who tried to take over the world a few months back. As a dedicated calendar and school year are among the things the Friendship is Magic series at large lacks (its main cast generally depicted as though they are the equivalent of young twenty-somethings), it is difficult to discern if this is due to Season 4 taking place in a short period of time, lazy writing, or a difference in the passage of time between dimensions, though the cast questioning why millennia-old sirens were surfacing in the modern day suggests the latter.

The first Act focuses on bringing together the elements – not of harmony, but of the plot. The five humanoid counterparts have formed a band, with Sunset Shimmer having seen the error of her ways and becoming their...mascot? Sidekick? Groupie? She seems to be their only friend who is not in the band, but not for lack of interest. This may have to do – as the characters keep reminding us – with the fact that she almost destroyed the school a few months back, but it might have to do with the fact that these are selfish, pre-season 1 counterparts of the cast. If it were me, it would be because when confronted with a trio of girls making sinister comments about magic and making people do what they want, it didn't even cross this ex-sorceress's mind that this would be a problem until they cast a spel on half the school. Sunset Shimmer did prove her worth, though, by providing a link between the movie world and that of the series in a way that should remove the need to make a new movie every time Hasbro releases a new anthropomorphized pony figure.

The other side of this link, of course, is Twilight Sparkle, the only member of the main cast to truly feature in this movie. This is oddly fitting, as the last episode to focus heavily on developing “The Princess of Friendship” was the last Equestria Girls film. Twilight starts the movie off strong, in the vein of the Victorian inventor using Sunset Shimmer's communications to open a portal between worlds. She explains this by...randomly quoting a Calculus tectbook, probably because she expects her audience not to understand her no matter what she said. Twilight isn't called on until after the threat is established, so the exposition scenes of the villain origins fall to her. Her research is not enough, however, and she realizes that participating in the plot of the film is the only way to activate her allies' latent magic.

While I rarely go out of my way to watch a musical, realizing within the first few minutes that this film would be one of those did not bother me. One reason for this is that Friendship is Magic is a musical series, with characters often bursting into unexplained song. More importantly, they are good at it. Besides, if you need to find a way to pad out a 20 minute episode concept into a 75 minute feature film, going with your strengths and providing a variety of music is not the worst way to do it. In this case, the villains are based on music, Twilight comes from the aforementioned musical series, and the humans discover that their own magical powers are tied to music. It's a good thing they formed a band between films.

The first Act – songs and all – highlights the biggest strengths Rainbow Rocks has over Equestria Girls. Much of Equestria Girls was about Twilight Sparkle as the fish-out-of-water. This is one of the best known tropes in fiction. Aside from a few stand-out moments such as Thor demanding more, however, it's not because the audience enjoys it; it is because it is immediately recognizable and because nearly everyone on the planet is familiar with it. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and literal torture for the viewers to watch as they cheer on the fish attempting to breathe air in order to reach the next stage of the story. The sequel film does away with this, allowing Thor, Captain America, or Twilight Sparkle to jump into the action and move the plot along instead of stalling it for twenty minutes.

While the fish out of water segment is gone, that doesn't save the film from cliches altogether. Once the film is set up, the next third of the film is the spiral into bickering. Next to the fish out of water, this is probably the most-used “familiar but not entertaining” trope. This isn't new to Friendship is Magic, but by and large the show has moved past this. There are only so many times a close-knit maturing group can believably be made to hate one another.

During this bickering, Sunset Shimmer starts to become a problem. It's not because she is unfairly scrutinized or heavily (and deservedly) involved in the bickering. It's because she's a witness. She's not even a witness – she's an audience member. In a series with ten main characters that normally does its best not to need a dedicated audience surrogate, Sunset Shimmer seems locked into the role in this film. She's not like Twilight, bringing her outside experience to the strange problem. She's not like the human cast, caught up in the plot in a situation they can barely handle. She's just...there. She isn't part of the problem; she's not part of the solution until it's too late. Both of these could be forgiven if she played a unique role, like that of Hikari in Digimon Adventure's version of this plot, but she doesn't even do that. This is particularly apparent as the story attempts to engage her and falls flat. She has ample reason to stand up, and never does.

The Problem of Sunset Shimmer is a prime example of why the Equestria Girls series is an inferior knockoff of Friendship is Magic. While the show seeks to engage the viewers, challenge their habits and ways of interacting to push them to grow, Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks are ultimately interested only in providing a spectacle. This is no more apparent than in the case of a song written for character development was written, but never fitted into the script, resulting in it being used only in the opening credits. Sure, the characters learn from the situation...in one scene, the cutting of which would impact nothing else in the movie.

I say Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks are out only for the sake of a spectacle...that's not entirely true. I've made the occasional references throughout this discussion to the film being a 75-minute toy commercial, and these films wear that fact on their sleeve. Trixie – a character popular with fans due to her flamboyant attitude – is a character reintroduced in human form in Rainbow Rocks. Trixie holds almost as much screen time as a member of the main cast, and there are several other Friendship is Magic characters that get a similar treatment. Surprisingly, the third of the four princesses that rule Equestria – Twilight's friend Cadence – does not get a redesign in this film. Perhaps they're saving that for the next release, but I would have thought this film's plot lent itself perfectly to, say, the Principal of a Crystal High School having reason to visit.

Cut down to twenty minutes, Rainbow Rocks could have been a standard quality episode of Friendship is Magic. At full length, it's a passable spectacle, but extremely muddled in its execution both in plot and character development. Its animation is a step up from Equestria Girls to the point of being what you would expect from a higher budget version of Friendship is Magic, save a few out of place animations that are probably left over from the previous film (unless Celestia and Luna were simply intended to be as creepy as possible), and the plot has grown along the same line. Give it two or three more films, and Equestria Girls might even reach the level of quality one expects from the Friendship is Magic name...but does it deserve that many tries?

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: Voyage of the Damned

The full crew returns for the next Christmas review. This week it's “Voyage of the Damned”!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Carrie (2013)

CarrieThe Carrie that I'm a huge fan of is a novel by Stephen King. It is his first published work and is about the tragedy of a girl set up for failure who just happens to have powers beyond her understanding or control that are set off by her misery. It's an early look at several of what would become Stephen King's tropes, and a splendid look at the human condition as envisioned by someone whose gift is to look at things in the most disturbing way possible.

Of course, a good film cannot exist without someone capitalizing on it. Since its release, Carrie has inspired 4 films that I know of: direct adaptations in 1976 and 2002, a loose adaptation/sequel in 1999, and the adaptation we're looking at today, made in 2013. The original version, created and released within the year following the publication of King's novel, is widely considered to be the best by fans, despite taking a small number of liberties with the source material.

Perhaps out of knowing that the MPAA would be unlikely to pass anything that could honestly compete with the opening shower room scene of Brian De Palma's classic, this version starts a bit differently from the others. This film starts with Margaret White, screaming about how she is dying of cancer, lying on a bed covered in blood...as she gives birth to a baby girl. We watch as she tries to bring herself to kill the child as atonement for her “sin” of conception, but can't bring herself to do it.

This sets the tone for the Margaret White of Kimberly Peirce's Carrie. Throughout the film, her affection toward Carrie seems completely at odds with the rest of her personality. Equally at odds with her affection are her occasional steps toward killing her daughter, approaching her room with a knife as the lights flicker in the night and finally stabbing her in the back during the climax of the film. While Margaret was always a caricature of an extreme fundamentalist and the type of person you would never want to expose a developing child to, here her disturbance is less in the form of Biblical outbursts (often, as Carrie points out, passages that “aren't even in the Bible”) and more often in the form of self-harming, even going so far as to repeatedly stab herself as penance for making a prom dress for a customer.

None of this makes Margaret's parenting any more normal – if anything, it would make growing up in her home a bit worse. Despite this, Carrie seems to have come out more normal than she has in any other version. While growing up in an emotionally abusive home is generally likely to produce either fears to stand up for their self, lashes out, or both, Carrie has grown into a girl who can stand her ground and evenly argue with her mother without fear. This is made even more patently ridiculous by the fact that it's clear that she needs her telekinesis to do even this as Margaret is unrelenting.

Carrie being in more control than she should be doesn't only hurt the realism of the story, but it hurts the story itself. The story of Carrie is about a girl with an incredible power that she can barely control, that is keyed more into her emotional state than her rational thought. She is hurt and humiliated and lashes out, with the faintest glimmer of control when her thoughts and emotions coincide. But Carrie in this movie is studying telekinesis, practicing it. When she's humiliated for the second time, rather than lashing out, she makes clear, calculated decisions to kill in specific ways. Her level of control lessens the tragedy: she can do other things and she knows she can do other things, but she makes a conscious decision to hurt people.

A relatively minor, but still distracting thing about this movie is the Youtube product placement. There is a scene – a short scene, but still an unnecessary one – whose primary purpose seems to be to demonstrate that Youtube videos can be played in full screen. And no, it's not a generic video site – the scene in which Chris uploads a video for the purpose of cyber-bullying clearly demonstrates a Youtube logo.

Kimberly Peirce's Carrie isn't the worst movie I've ever seen, but it's certainly not the best. What it is, is the worst movie with the Carrie title that I've seen. The Rage: Carrie 2 is a better Carrie remake than this was, and I see no reason to recommend it to anybody unless they're trying to watch the full set.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy

GOTG-posterIt almost doesn't feel right to look at Guardians of the Galaxy as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2. Not that it isn't; it clearly is. It features the end credit scene villain from Avengers who is said to be the villain of Avengers 3 as the all-but creator of the Big Bad, the Big Bad's Lieutenant, and and one of the heroes, and it features a metaplot that started in Captain America and continues through The Avengers and Thor: Dark World. But while Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (seriously, is Hulk the only one who gets his superlative?) featured well-known characters that were part of the early team of Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy features an obscure team of heroes from a branch of Marvel that the movies have all but ignored, unless you count the ones that aren't part of the MCU (Silver Surfer is part of the Marvel Cosmic line). While the aforementioned movies are primarily action-dramas that draw comedy from the larger-than-life personalities of their protagonists, Guardians is arguably a comedy first, then an action movie. And while the other MCU films have all featured members of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy...does not.

Comparisons aside, one of the things I like best about the MCU is that its films don't all have to fall into a single genre. Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier are more along the lines of what I'd expect a James Bond film to be like (knowing of the series only second-hand) than something like Spider-Man. Each film is unique, or at least they can be. And as Phase 2 continues, they only become more unique.

When Guardians was announced, I was extremely excited. How could I not be? The studio behind Avengers was producing a space opera. I wouldn't be myself if I could suppress my excitement at the idea of a cross between Star Wars and The Avengers. That isn't exactly what we got, however. As I described earlier, Guardians of the Galaxy is far more of a comedy than either of these features and, unfortunately for me, it was not the type of comedy that I look forward to. Rather than the type of comedy exemplified in Joss Whedon's writing – characters that match the dramatic stylings of the universe but surprise you with their whit and reactions due to simply being intelligent snarking people - this is the type of comedy that has a character trying to force their self-described “outlaw name” down the throats of everyone he meets and a bunch of characters using the phrase “a-hole”. This detracted from the film somewhat for me, though I am well aware that not everyone shares the same feelings.

The characters are a mixed bag. While Avengers introduced one hero to the audience and seven to one another, Guardians of the Galaxy has Rocket, Groot, Starlord, Gamora, and Drax to introduce both to the audience and to one another – and without the help of the creator of Buffy Summers and River Tam to introduce the only female in the team (seriously...I'm hoping that Carol Danvers, Janet Van Dyne, Doreen Green, Jessica Drew, and Jennifer Walters all make their way into the MCU by the end of Phase 3 to even things out). The result is that all characters are given a motivation and a backstory, but not much else. There are one or two scenes designed to explain why they are willing to work as a team, but they leave the hope for further development and deeper relationships with one another for the next film.

The result of this, along with other elements, is that Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it is playing it safe for much of the film. There is enough focus on female posteriors and arbitrary default love interests that people who think superhero stories exist for that have them to see, but not enough that people who notice them have a whole lot to complain about. The anthropomorphic raccoon is played completely seriously, contrasting with the comedic stylings of the world around him so that the two seem to have an equal level of ridiculousness for those who are assumed to scoff at the idea of Rocket in and of itself. All of this combined says to me that Marvel carried no faith in the film on its own and did everything in its power to avoid any sort of criticism that could be leveled at it, rather than allowing the film to live on its own merits.

Despite all of that, though, Guardians is a good, and enjoyable film. Its soundtrack is amazing. I love films and television shows that combine sounds and scenes that would normally not be expected but create a memorable experience together, and I'm never going to be able to hear “Hooked on a Feeling” without thinking of its use in the film again. Some of the comedy is particularly good, even if I don't care for about half of it. And, of course, the action.

Fist-fights. Armed fights. Shoot-outs. Super-powered brawls. Starfighter battles. Name a kind of action you would want in a superhero film, and Guardians of the Galaxy probably has it. No, there are no Phantom Menace-esque protracted duels in the film, with the primary unarmed combatants being played by Nyota Uhura and Amelia Pond, but quantity does its best to make up for quality here. Besides, seeing Rocket Raccoon live up to his name is worth the absence of Ray Park any time.

Speaking of which, the sheer magnitude of Sci-Fi actors appearing here is worth all the geek cred the film loses by playing it too safe. Park might not show up to do battle with Ronan the Accuser, but the other half of Darth Maul – Peter Serafinowicz – has a role. I already mentioned Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan. Vin Diesel of Chronicles of Riddick appears as Groot, Benicio Del Toro (brother of Pacific Rim director Guillermo) plays a recurring MCU role, and Nathan Fillion, Lloyd Kaufman and Seth Green all have cameos. The week after the film's release felt like a game of Bingo trying to recognize various actors from Sci-Fi franchises that appeared in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy has been a huge hit, largely winning over fans and, depending on how you see it, either proving to executives at Matvel Studios that the film didn't need to play it so safe to be a huge hit or proving that it appealed to the largest possible audience by doing so. Regardless, the first films of all of these franchises are usually a flop for me, and with Guardians doing so well, I'm expecting Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to be my favorite Marvel film. If any form of fun Sci-Fi film appeals to you, odds are that you will also come to love Guardians of the Galaxy.

Friday, January 23, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Runaway Bride

Slim crew, Bill, Matt, and Ran-San talk about the second Christmas Special. P.S. Sorry for the opening, live show problems.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Captain America 2

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-PosterCaptain America was not one of my favorite superhero films. It was yet another hero origin retelling, so it already had an uphill battle to get on my good side. Perhaps more importantly, it was boring to me. It was a story about an unlikely candidate fighting in a war, winning the day and taking the MacGuffin away from the bad guy. I don't watch those types of movies, because I normally look for something a bit more engaging, with unique elements. When I do watch action movies, they are martial arts movies, and while Cap can fight, he's nowhere near as entertaining to watch as Jet Li. The only thing that made the movie stand out was a sub-plot designed to justify the costume, as though the filmmakers were a little embarrassed to include it. It wasn't the worst movie of Marvel's Phase One – that honor goes to Thor – but it was the least memorable.

Still, Avengers was a game-changer. It brought action, comedy and drama to the right levels to make it my favorite comic book film up to that point, and set a new standard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to live up to. While Iron Man and Iron Man 2 continued a trend of uninspired, okay-but-not-great superhero films, Iron Man 3 met the standard set by The Avengers, taking the story in multiple directions with a primary crime of not being completely faithful to decades of not-always-coherent comic continuity. While I missed Thor: Dark World for personal reasons, I was still psyched to see the rest of Phase 2, Winter Soldier included.

Captain America: Winter Soldier follows the events of The Avengers with the continuing adventures of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Maria Hill, and Nick Fury in a world influenced by Tony Stark. One of Marvel's strengths as a comic book company has always been how easily Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine, and its other properties fit together (except for the occasional mutant prejudice strangeness) into a shared world that is different from our own but with key similarities, compared to the DC universe where it often feels like any crossover between Batman and Superman involves hopping between disparate worlds. That is on full effect here and, once faced with the idea that Stark is making suggestions and doing contracting work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Armed Forces, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that the military is running tests with the equipment that gives Falcon his name.

Amidst all this, plot-lines from Captain America return. Hydra gives Cap and his fellow agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. an external opponent while they also deal with internal issues of trust and identity. Identity also plays a role in Cap's personal struggle, in which he must go toe to toe with his cybernetically enhanced and memory-wiped former sidekick.

Did Winter Soldier live up to the bar set by The Avengers? I'd have to say it did. Unlike the standard action fare, there are enough elements to the climax to provide true suspense, as it seems almost impossible for the five heroes to faces the forces that have been arraying themselves against them for seventy years. Like Iron Man 3, the story bleeds personal drama, spy movie action and mystery, and super-heroics to create a balanced breakfast.

The only thing I'm not completely sold on is the titular subplot. While it's thematically appropriate and definitely a challenge that Cap will have to overcome, nothing came of the Bucky plot except for a few fight scenes and a lead-in for the next sequel. While this sort of lead-in would work perfectly for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode this sort of is, it doesn't make for a very complete movie. It's almost enough to make the case that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is less a series of movies and more a premium version of something like BBC's Sherlock, a show that airs three feature length episodes per season.

Despite the thirty minutes of lead in for the next movie and the misleading title they lend the film, it's still great fun. The character interactions are handled excellently, and it is quite possibly the first thing to get me excited about Captain America. It also does the job of selling a Black Widow film, with the Widow having somewhere around the second or third most screen time of the five featured heroes. Despite this, the film doesn't feel crowded, and Steve Rogers has plenty of time to shine.

Captain America: Winter Soldier is a great film for anybody who loves superheroes – in film or comic form – or anybody who enjoys movies in general with a bit of action in them. As with any other comic film, there's a hearty bit of Science Fiction in there to go along with everything else, and of course plenty of fight scenes. With so much more to this film than the action scenes, though, you don't need to be a fan of the genre to find something to like.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Novel Review: Star Wars–Tarkin by James Luceno

TarkinCoverWhile my review of Darth Plagueis has only been seen by myself and my editors due its being held in reserve for my temporarily delayed chronological look at the Star Wars (Legends) universe, I find it no less worth referencing as I dig into its spiritual successor. The review, written in 2013, starts by discussing “the singularly named Palpatine” and ends with contemplating a sequel book, jokingly named Tyrannous. It's worth acknowledging these things because Tarkin is both a novel that addresses Palpatine's singular name and functions as a sequel to Darth Plagueis.

It's not a perfect sequel, of course: the default mode of being for the Emperor being in the shadows, even if fans such as myself are always clamoring for more of an inside look – but it does the job as closely as can be expected. In this vein, there are even scenes of the Emperor and Vader that the titular character is completely unaware of; these are included, it would seem, for the sake of fans of Luceno's previous novel.

Starting with this review, my look at Star Wars media is going to have manifold purposes. As always, I do my best review the material both with a look at the established Star Wars timeline and the real-world events surrounding the publication. Starting with Tarkin, however, I have two independent Star Wars universes to look at: the original universe spawned from the films in 1970s (and more seriously, in the early 1990s) and the rebooted universe, which is establishing a new timeline with an alternate take on a universe that can produce the seven theatrical films (as of January 2015 and discounting the two films not released Stateside) and the two most recent televised spin-offs.

Before I look at Tarkin compared to what came before, though, what is Tarkin? As I said before, it is in many ways the successor to Darth Plagueis. While Wilhuff Tarkin does not have Force powers and lives only as long as a regular human, the novel nonetheless does its best to tell the same type of story about Tarkin that Plagueis does about Palpatine. Palpatine takes Plagueis's place as a form of mentor character, although in this case he is neither the only nor a point of view character. His role in Tarkin's story is similar to his role in Skywalker's, providing guidance and encouragement to nudge him into the direction of future Imperial leadership over time.

With Wilhuff being an adult before he meets Palpatine, there is much more room for his own story. The story is split up three ways: the present-day story, set in what was once – or may still be – known as the Dark Times, approximately five years following the Battle of Coruscant; the origin story, featuring Tarkin's childhood training on Eriadu; and the interim story, featuring the details of how he made his way from Eriadu to Sector Moff. This third story receives the least attention, given just enough to get from Point A to Point B, although given that distinction it could certainly have included less of worth than it did.

The narrative focus – the story featuring stakes beyond those of character development and inspirations – is the modern-day story, featuring a mission in which Tarkin works alongside Darth Vader. The novel reveals that this is a turning point for both Tarkin and the project he oversees: the Death Star.

I was a big fan of Plagueis, with the exception of preferring more in-depth stories over the “movie adaptation” style in which the novel is written. That is not to say that I dislike movie adaptations or Darth Plagueis, only that in attempting to be understood by the widest audience possible, the total amount of content in the novel tends to be diluted. This means that the chance for a miss is severely diminished, but equally diminished are the chances to be the next great space opera epic. Like its author, Tarkin shares its tone and quality with Plagueis, certainly doing a good job of providing the definitive origin story of a key character in the new continuity.

Which is what this is. In the reboot canon, seven films, two television shows, two comic series and two novels define what is and what isn't. Of these, Tarkin has appeared in two films and one television show. Tarkin begins Wilhuff Tarkin's story well before The Clone Wars and ends it in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, telling a complete story about how a young noble from an Outer Rim planet went on to become the man that would one day unilaterally destroy a Core world (which must have been cathartic for him), and doing it fairly successfully. The novel includes many references to The Clone Wars, with it being the primary source of canon in this universe (and in any other, at this relatively early point in Tarkin's career). The novel also includes heavy references to Sheev Palpatine's past in Darth Plagueis, doing its level best to bring the events of Darth Sidious's training into the rebooted canon.

As for the Star Wars Legacy universe, this is a fairly easy choice in that most of the sources overlap and it would be very difficult to contradict established continuity without contradicting The Clone Wars. One of the ways in which Luceno could have done so would be to establish a first name other than “Wilhuff” for the Grand Moff, and it is telling that such a decisive break was not made.
Tarkin is a novel that lives up to James Luceno's reputation as one of the premiere writers of Star Wars media, and it makes me optimistic for the revitalized future of the Star Wars franchise. This might not be the best novel for those who cannot root for Imperials, even in dire circumstances, but I do believe that most fans of Star Wars will find Tarkin to be more than worth it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: Web of Fear

 

The final episode of 2014 “Lost and Found” episodes, it's “The Web of Fear”.

Monday, January 19, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Blackest Night–Batman

Blackest_Night_Batman_Vol_1_1_VariantBlack Lantern Corps is an Omnibus of isolated events during the Blackest Night series. As such, it effectively acts as Blackest Night: Justice League, except with a cooler title. I’m going to be taking a look at each chapter within the book, and the first is Batman.

Some backstory might be required. In Infinite Crisis, Batman was killed. There were… questions and complications about this raised later, but for the purposes of this event comic, Bruce Wayne is dead. Following his death, his first protege, Dick Grayson, takes up the role of Batman for the sake of Gotham City, which has descended even further into chaos without its symbol. Dick’s first action is to retire Tim Wayne (formerly Tim Drake) as Robin, as he sees his most recent successor in the role as an equal. In Tim’s place, Bruce’s biological son, Damian, has become the new Robin.

This being an event comic, of course, everybody key to the Batman mythos is involved. With one fatal exception, but that’s not something that’s unique to this story: DC in many ways seems to be afraid of the two Robins that were brutally murdered. And came back to life. That said, I’m not asking where Red Hood is right now, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Spoiler.

Probably the biggest exception to the Batman idea is Deadman. I have no idea what his history with Batman is, but he didn’t know Bruce was dead, and the main reason he’s here is because of his role in the greater story of Blackest Night, which is essentially a prologue for his much greater role in Brightest Day.

The story opens with Batman and Robin – Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne- taking the corpses of the Waynes out of their graves and bringing them back to Wayne Manor, after witnessing what was left of Bruce’s grave, desecrated by Black Hand. Meanwhile Deadman is experiencing his own body’s reanimation, and after realizing he, as a ghost, can’t fight it, he heads to find someone he knows can help him: Batman and Robin. When he possesses Batman, he realizes it’s not who he expects, but they share intel. When Tim Drake’s parents rise as Black Lanterns, Batman calls Tim, now the most recent Red Robin, to come and join them.

The story is two parts from here: the fight against the zombie infestation, which includes the group picking up Commissioner and Barbara Gordon and even forcing Etrigan to join them against his will, and the emotional game played by the Black Lanterns. This is what sets Blackest Night apart from other zombie stories. Knowing the emotional depths that the former Robins are capable of and what drove them to the profession in the first place, the Black Lanterns stage re-enactments of both of their parents’ deaths. The only question is whether the Black Lanterns will strike at the right time, or get too greedy and lose the pot.

The only flaw to this story is that it’s a little obvious. Stop me if you think that the former leader of the Titans and his friend and equal are going to be killed by the henchmen before the Big Bad shows up. As a result, the big setup comes across as more an example of how the Black Lanterns can fail than as a suspenseful story. Maybe it’s too many big names or maybe it’s a lack of red shirts to include- with all of these big events it’s not like superhero deaths are rare enough that including them in every event is an option without depleting the population.

The story has its suspenseful moments, but the fact that the Black Lanterns miss their opportunity to take out a major hero (despite actually having that opportunity) is pretty disappointing. Ultimately that makes this big event in our hero’s lives come out as an average comic. It’s still entertaining, but once I saw what was going on I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seats. It’s another part of the Blackest Night saga, and an entry in the lives of heroes that I never followed on a month to month basis, both of which are welcome things, even in an average comic.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Green Lantern–Emerald Dawn

greenlanternemeralddawn6

Emerald Dawn is a story about a self-destructive man who drives drunk, paralyzes his best friend in an accident, evades the law, and finds himself able to control enough power to become one of the deadliest supervillains in the DC universe. Now, you might be waiting for me to redeem the story or the character here – “But wait! He has a heart of gold.” or something like that. And I apologize for that. I really do. Because I’ve got nothing. Emerald Dawn is the single worst thing to happen to a superhero’s characterization except for maybe All-Star Batman and Robin.

What is it about this book? Pretty much everything I just said. The hero of the story is introduced to us as a silent, moping individual who refuses to face up to his actions and their consequences. We don’t know what caused Hal’s fall from grace, but we know that he has been dumped by Carol Ferris and fired from his position as a pilot for Ferris Air before being re-hired as a simulator tester for the sake of his dead father. From there, Hal proceeds to get completely wasted (along with his friends) and drive into a sign with his friends in the back seat. He wakes up, discovers what has happened, and adamantly states that it is the fault of the sign and not his own.

Hal is still some mixture of concussed and hungover from this when he sneaks out of the hospital to avoid arrest and goes to work the next morning, before Abin Sur’s Green Lantern ring decides that this is the shining example of humanity who shall be chosen to be his successor as Green Lantern.

Hal Jordan has received a lot of criticism over the years, both in the pages of his book and out of them. He is impulsive, doesn’t plan ahead, and doesn’t answer to authority well. He has been accused of being given a gift he doesn’t deserve, and of being a stain on Abin Sur’s otherwise impeccable record. In the past, I’ve always been able to see much of this as a positive. His impulsiveness is part of why he is one of the highest willed creatures in the universe – he is the human stereotype that we present in Science Fiction, taken up to 11. He has used his single-mindedness to always to the right thing regardless of whether or not it was the thing most likely to lead to his continued survival. And that last complaint was just Sinestro being Sinestro.

Then I read Emerald Dawn, and I found myself agreeing with every complaint. Blue collar archetype or not, there is nothing heroic about a man who will drive drunk, injure someone close to him, and then shift the blame onto an inanimate object. That’s not the ability to overcome fear, and it certainly has nothing to do with the “honesty” that impulsive assholes are normally credited with and that writer Kevin Dooley talked about in the trade paperback’s introduction. That is a spineless, snivelling worm who has no business being handed trust in anything, never mind the lives of other human beings.

The fact that Hal “proves” himself by being the only individual in the Green Lantern Corps with the foresight to try something new, and in the process pull Ion out of the Central Power Battery a decade before it would be named and over fifteen years before it would truly be identifiable as such. Taken in conjunction with the Emerald Twilight, and the idea of Hal losing it, becoming a supervillain and being possessed by a massive power living within the Central Power Battery seems to be inevitable and planned ahead, although we know that Twilight wasn’t planned until Green Lantern sales were found to be disappointing, while Dawn was created around the time Green Lantern Volume 3 was initially launched. Still, virtually everything about Hal in this story leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s only the way in which he swears to change in some vague, undefined way thanks to his newfound responsibility that I can start to view him as some kind of worthwhile character and not just a stain who should have been left at the side of the road.

The best thing Green Lantern: Secret Files and Origins did was to effectively erase Emerald Dawn from existence, while the best thing Emerald Dawn did was to just be vague enough that we could pretend most of the stories from the Silver Age happened in between. That’s not to say that there aren’t valuable story elements here, such as the hints of corruption within the Guardians and of Hal needing to work to earn a special future, but they’re muddled beneath a story where a drunk is selected to be the hero after standing out against his less likable colleagues, the apathetic and selfish Guardians, the villainous Legion and the often pointless Green Lantern Corps. When you need to tear down everything in order to give your long-standing hero something to stand out against, maybe the whole story needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Friday, January 16, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Dark Tower–Gunslinger Born

Gunslinger Born

The Dark Tower is the crowning epic of Stephen King’s career. The series – consisting of seven primary books and encompassing much more of the author’s universe – is all the more notable because, unlike the majority of King’s work, it is not horror in and of itself. There are a lot of horror elements to the series, particularly in the later chapters, but they are not the main focus of the series, which started with 1982’s The Gunslinger and ostensibly ended with 2004’s The Dark Tower. Since 2003’s Wolves of the Calla, the series has ceased to be a story being built up in the background when King isn’t working on something else and has become a major project.

From 1982 to 2002, four items titled The Dark Tower were released. All of them were novels. Since 2003, however, four more novels were released, not to mention the birth of a comic series of at least 11 collected volumes. This is, of course, ignoring links between The Dark Tower and other Stephen King work set in the same universe, some of the most notable being IT, The Stand and The Talisman.

Since the “end” of the novel series in 2004, much of the work has focused on prequels. Roland’s story was largely kept a mystery, until the popular comics recounting a flashback told in Wizard and Glass, the fourth book of the series, continued further. The eighth Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, is much in the same vein, recounting a story of Roland’s youth and a fairy tale he heard as a child.

Today, though, we’re here to talk about the first Dark Tower comic: Gunslinger Born. Originally told in the pages of Wizard and Glass, this tells the story of how Roland Deschain became a gunslinger. The story introduces to us the concept of ka-tet, going on to include a story of star-crossed lovers. Stephen King knows what’s disturbing, and it’s filled with innocents getting abused. For example, let’s look at the tragedy of Susan Delgado:

Her father is murdered (by the villains of the story). Her aunt sells her as a sex slave to the mayor. She’s sent to an old witch (in the most archaic, negative meaning) in order to have her virginity checked, which is as invasive as it sounds, though not visible in the comic. She proceeds to fall in love, and then be treated like a whore when the person she fell in love with when he finds out her station in life. He repents, and when he takes her virginity, she almost falls victim to a spell placed on her to cut her hair off the night she loses her virginity, which seems to have been placed on her for shits and giggles. Susan later discovers that her and Roland’s romance has not only caused a schism between him and his friends, but put all of their lives at risk. She discovers she’s pregnant, but before she gets a chance to tell the father, she is beat up, dragged away, and burned at the stake.

Mixed in with all this is a lot of world-building, action, and all of the emotions implied in the above story. Gunslinger Born is, at its heart, a dramatic story about how good wins because it’s better, but it takes a hell of a thrashing in the process. This is only made more dramatic by the realization to anyone who has read the novels that evil is going to win for a long time after this. John Farson is not around by the time of The Gunslinger, sure, but neither are Steven Deschain, Cuthbert, Alain or Gilead.

Unfortunately, the comic format does force the story to be somewhat abbreviated. The comic actually draws attention to this: twice, toward the end, the words “Charyou tree” are uttered – once by the disembodied voice attributed to the “thinny”, and once as Susan is burning. “Charyou tree” became an important concept during this point of Wizard and Glass, and its several meanings are stressed at this point in the original flashback. In the High Speech, charyou tree is used to usher in the harvest, as well as to indicate a human sacrifice for the sake of harvest. In addition to this, it refers to a specific tree used for this purpose. Finally, because it is a word in the High Speech rather than English, it has relevance in English: specifically, that “char” is another word for “burn”, the manner in which the sacrifice is usually carried out.

It would be almost impossible to fit this kind of word-play in the last issue of a seven part comic story – particularly if you’re trying to keep the story from being too wordy. In creating this comic, everyone involved was fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the comic and novel structures, and writing endless paragraphs about the way a word itself manipulates the reader and the story is, sadly, not one of the comic’s many strengths. To this end, it’s rather baffling that the comic draws attention to it, by using the word “charyou tree” without any sort of description.

The Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born stands right up there with the best of the Dark Tower series. It doesn’t have the long, drawn out feel of a series that didn’t find its footing until it was twenty years old, and it combines the world-building of several volumes into one volume that fits perfectly for it. This is a story written with the clarity of hindsight, and a great story for adult comic fans that are new to Stephen King, new to Dark Tower, or serious fans of both.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Star Trek–The Modala Imperative

Modala_imperative

Since the late 1980s, some of the most celebrated events in Star Trek were crossovers between the original cast and that of The Next Generation. This started in the first episode of The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint Part 1”, which featured Admiral Leonard McCoy as a guest visiting the Enterprise-D, and continued prominently in “Unification” and “Relics”, as well as the film Star Trek: Generations. Novels and comics continued to feature further crossovers between the two series, which brings us to where we are today.

Star Trek: The Modala Imperative starts off like no comic I’ve ever read: it starts with Walter Koenig apologizing for being butthurt about The Next Generation. Koenig writes a long and involved introduction regarding why he felt defensive about a new Star Trek series, what excuses he used to attack it, and how he realized how foolish he was being and came to enjoy the series. While I can’t help but to wonder how he feels about the new films, for which his attacks of Next Generation are more valid than they ever were for TNG, this is a touching tale of personal growth which can’t help but to set the mood for the story to come.

Despite this story of unity, “Bones” McKoy and Spock are the true stars of this story. The reason for this is fairly simple: those are the only two characters who are confirmed as alive and available throughout the runs of both shows. Despite this, The Modala Imperative tends to play this fairly straight: these characters are the most involved because they’re in both legs of the story, but in each story the spotlight is shared equally among the main cast the same way it would be in an episode of Star Trek. The first part focuses on Chekov, Kirk, Scotty, Bones, Spock, Sulu, and even Transporter Chief Kyle, with moments set aside for Uhura and several other characters. The second part focuses even more equitably on Picard, Troi, Spock and Bones, as well as giving attention to Riker, Data and Worf.

Despite this, this is a story that would have been almost impossible in the original series. The first story is reminiscent of the episode “A Private Little War”: a potential Federation candidate’s fascist faction has been armed by a mysterious benefactor with advanced weaponry. Unfortunately, it is all that Kirk and Chekov (and their rescue team of Spock and McCoy) can do to get back off of the planet without breaking the Prime Directive, and the source of the weapons remains a mystery for another one hundred years. It’s not until a celebration for the 100th anniversary of Modala’s entry into the Federation that the suppliers of the weapons show their faces, and it’s not the Klingons: it’s the Ferengi!

Perhaps more interesting than the plot – which is good, but is standard episode fare – is the arc for the characters in question. This is Pavel Chekov’s first away mission, and he is dealing with issues ranging from nerves to hero worship of his Captain. Throughout the first four issues Scott, Sulu and Kirk all lend their hands to help Chekov develop, while McCoy, Kirk and Spock debate the wisdom of taking him along on this particular mission. The end result is a great story for Chekov in addition to a standard one for the more seasoned officers.

The second story is about aging. McCoy fears he might grow irrelevant, and he even implies that the existence of Data indicates that Spock himself is becoming outdated. Unfortunately, this leg of the story is hurt by the fact that Bones really is pretty pointless in a crisis at this point. At close to a century and a half, there is not much he can do to defend himself. He’s not needed for any medical situations, either; the most he does is to influence morale simply by being his abrasive self. Bones and Spock do bring up the age-old “Kirk vs Picard” debate, but they cop out by choosing “Spock” as the answer.

The first story is significantly better than the second. Not only does it focus entirely on its regular cast members of its own show, but it also provides character development for Chekov of the like that the character rarely gets (doubly so because it provides similar development for his actor). The second story, on the other hand, focuses more on guest stars Spock and McCoy, with nobody really developing in a way that they wouldn’t on the average episode. It’s not a bad story by any means, but it has no particular edge on the average episode other than the novelty of seeing Spock and McCoy together on the Enterprise-D (or possibly E), which loses some of its effect in trade, as the two are seen interacting for the first half of the book.

The end result is that I can easily recommend The Modala Imperative to any Star Trek fan. There are better stories, but at the worst these stories are on the high end of average and there are definitely unique moments that make this worth reading. Fans of Pavel Chekov would really be doing themselves a disservice by staying away from this comic.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

7 Days of Comics: The Death of Superman

Death of Sups

The 1990s were a period of transition for comic books. The period has its own identity, with the rise of Image Comics and all of the mentalities that entails, not to mention the speculator boom. But it was also the first decade to really settle in after Crisis on Infinite Earths, bridging the gap between the shorter stories that we had in the 1980s with the longer ones that we have in the modern day. 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was a twelve issue event, with somewhere in the vicinity of forty tie-in stories, making it the grandest story of its time. 2008’s Final Crisis had a 52 issue prologue before the event even started. 2009’s Blackest Night, the first part of a two-part event, had 64 related issues. The time period that includes the death and return of Superman and Magneto had a lot to do with that change.

And if you think I’m just pulling this comparison out of my ass and that I’m ignoring the lists that claim over 100 Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-ins (many of these are simply comics that illustrate what the heroes were doing before getting involved in the Crisis), here’s some more concrete statistics that I can give you about the manner in which storytelling changed in this time period. The Death of Superman has 160 pages; World Without a Superman consists of 240 pages and The Return of Superman is a massive 480 pages. Simply by scrolling your eyes from one end of the bookshelf to another, you can watch the decompression of comic book storytelling unfold.

I mention all this because, as a reader of largely the modern era, The Death of Superman feels undeniably rushed for a story of this magnitude. It also feels undeniably ‘90s. Here we have the culmination of decades of Superman stories, the true opportunity for him to go out with a bang. Instead, we get a nameless monster with no motive or origin who beats up what I can only assume is the Justice League B Squad (Guy Gardner is the biggest name of the team), engages Superman in a game of “destroy everything” and then they punch each other to death. All the while, attention is being pulled away from Supes by a guy named Bloodwynd, who everybody on the Justice League seems to be investigating because he’s so mysterious. You don’t get more ‘90s than the titular character being upstaged by somebody named “Bloodwynd” with vague powers and origins.

And while I have no intention of downplaying the drama and the tragedy present in the comic, the comic distracts enough from it on its own. “Doomsday” is a name that was given to the monster because of Superman misunderstanding a comment made by Booster Gold. On top of that, if the random questions about Bloodwynd aren’t enough, everybody in the comic seems to have a theory about where Doomsday came from. I could see if there was an investigation going on, or Doomsday were to reveal his identity at the last minute to add insult to injury, but by all accounts Doomsday doesn’t even develop sentience for another decade and I have no idea when his origins are revealed.

The art isn’t the best either. It tends to go from average to worse. This collection comes from five different titles, some of which have pretty good artwork and some of whom look like the artists lack a basic understanding of human anatomy. I think Superman’s mascara is a little runny in some scenes as well.

The Death of Superman is an iconic story that defined a generation of Superman readers. It’s just unfortunate that there’s so little to it. You don’t get spectacular graphics, a massive Earth-spanning threat, or even a solid number of superheroes defeated by this monster who was strong enough to punch Superman to death. I spent half the book wondering where Wally, Hal, Bruce and Diana were. The answer: nowhere. The Justice League didn’t care. That alone cheapened Superman’s death for me. Add that to the goofy graphics when Doomsday and Superman are punching each other and everybody spending all day asking where Bloodwynd and Doomsday came from, and there’s no real reason for this to be the story Superman died, except for sensationalism. Change the last seven pages – which adds up to a grand total of five panels – and this would be any other Superman story, at least if the amount of destruction in Man of Steel is to be considered normal. Read this story, but I can’t guarantee you won’t feel bad doing it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Alien vs Predator–Civilized Beasts

Avp_gn

For almost as long as I can remember, there’s been something about the Alien mythos that’s attracted me. Maybe it’s the extraordinary designs by H.R. Giger, the terror inspired by the original film and the world implied by James Cameron’s sequel; maybe it’s merely the powerful aliens and the aesthetic appeal of the lighting of the films. In any case, despite the aesthetic, chronological, and other differences between the Alien and Predator films, they have been paired together for as long as I’ve been aware of the franchises. Something about John McTiernan’s Yautja and Ridley Scott’s Xenomorphs pairs them intuitively. Alien vs Predator was a viable entity since before Predator ever became a franchise of its own right.

And yet, something about this franchise has been poisoned. To my understanding the second and third Predator films have been at least welcomed as average films or better, whereas the other five related films released since 1992 have earned a greater deal of fan rage than they have love. The paired franchise’s latest foray into the public consciousness, Colonial Marines, seems to have been met with almost universal scorn. Today I discuss such a story, a comic that I would watch any of the films its shares a universe with rather than recommend (except for maybe Alien 3). That comic is Alien vs Predator: Civilized Beasts.

This comic was released in 2008, a tie-in to the two Alien vs Predator films. The back of the book proudly boasts:

Following the events of Thrill of the Hunt, Alien vs Predator: Civilized Beasts again teams fan-favorites writer Mike Kennedy (Lone Wolf 2100) and artist Roger Robinson (Gotham Nights) in an action-packed battle royal to determine the heavyweight championship of the galaxy!

Let’s see how it delivers on these points, shall we?

I can’t deny that it follows Thrill of the Hunt, which I haven’t read, but I can certainly hope that the first volume did a better job of introducing the characters and the situation. Very little attention is paid to how the humans – who seem to largely be the main characters – arrived where they are, or even who they are. It’s not until new cast members are introduced that names start to be used, despite the fact that pages at a time will pass without a single word of narration or dialogue.

Whether or not the writer and artist are fan favorites is something else that I can’t necessarily dispute or confirm. What I can say is that instead of setting up a story, the writer spends time introducing us to pretentious babble about the nature of civilization and whether or not Darwinism is linked to it, seemingly implying that the act of fighting for survival and the use of instinct lead to death rather than civilization. As for the art, I have little in the way of complaint other than certain occasions of human proportion and the way people bend from time to time. It would be a damned bit more useful if the art was sequential enough to tell the story that it tries to tell silently, however.

How about the action-packed battle royal? Well, there’s certainly battling going on, and some action. It’s kind of hard to tell, seeing as how we’re focused on the human plot (which is the only one that gets any speech, while there’s no narration to be found anywhere else). Oh, and there’s the fact that the story with the Aliens and the Predators make no sense. As far as I can tell, the Predators have one, two or more Xenomorph queens, which they use to farm Xenomorphs to fight. And to let humans fight. And they occasionally heal humans were injured fighting Xenomorphs. But they occasionally also kidnap humans and rip their arms off, too. Sometimes they use tasers on the queen so that Xenomorphs will respawn in their vicinity. Need I go on? Slowing down to show things happening in a linear manner, or hell, even using the novel approach of using some sort of text in a comic book, would help… whatever’s supposed to be happening here.

Well, as to the heavyweight champion… actually, yeah. It’s pretty clear that no matter how many Xenomorphs there are, no Predator will ever be injured in combat with one. I saw this as a lack of suspense or interesting combat, but yeah, they hit this one pretty much on the mark.

Ultimately, I didn’t have any reason to care about these characters, to pay any mind to who was or wasn’t an android, or to who died or didn’t. I had nothing to invest in whether the Predators beat the Aliens, or vice versa; it had absolutely no relevance in any of the goings-on with the human story. It’s not necessarily that it was the B story to the humans’ A story, though there is such a distinction, as neither one of them could be followed in a manner consistent of what would be considered the “A” plot. The B and C plots, perhaps. I, for one, wish I had been reading the A plot, which was probably centered on another planet, with other characters, and a different writer.

Monday, January 12, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Dragonball–The Monkey King

Dragonball

When manga artist Akira Toriyama set out to create an action comedy the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, he could hardly have anticipated being one of the major players introducing anime (and manga) to Western audiences. Yet that’s what he did, by virtue of having one of the most marketable shonen of the time period. Whether it’s because he intentionally made the location of Dragonball ambiguous, or simply because it was raw action punctuated by comedy and therefore on par with American television at the time, or whether it was just that good, Dragonball Z defined a generation of kids and sparked many of our interest in anime in the first place.

Dragonball is where it all got started. A manga from 1980 about a group of teenagers on a treasure hunt. Yet there is no simple way to describe this story. Maybe that’s what proves it’s truly manga. It’s a comedy about the mythical Monkey King. It’s a martial arts advancement story. It’s a book featuring adult comedy that would never be considered for children in much of the English-speaking world with an almost exclusively adolescent cast of protagonists.

Volume 1 focuses on Bulma and Goku meeting and becoming friends. It feels so strange sometimes when you picture how much of a background character Bulma would become years later, but in this first volume, Bulma is essentially the main character. Of course, Toriyama knew off the bat that she wasn’t going to be a very likable, universally relatable character, and as the cast increases in this volume, that only becomes more of the case. Goku is the ultimately likable character, the good guy with no penchant for evil (or for being defeated, at this early stage) in him. Which doesn’t make him very relatable either - if Bulma embodies the most selfish aspects of humanity, Goku is even more of an alien now than he is once we know his origins.

Which means that our relatable character is a shape-shifting pig who pretends to be a demon in order to extort money and perverted pleasures. A character who we originally dislike because of the things he’s done, then feel sorry for because he’s more than met his match in the domineering Bulma, then finally, we want him to stick around, because he’s the only one who’s likely to think the way the audience does. And when he doesn’t? That’s okay. Because when he’s being a coward, it’s only natural that we’re following the heroes.

This is the pilot, which means we spend more time introducing our future cast members than seriously progressing the plot. Every character we meet in this volume, save a handful of villagers and the occasional anthropomorphic animal, is going to be a recurring character for years into this series’ future. For the same reason, it’s almost impossible to go into this as though I were reviewing a story, because I’m not; I’m reviewing a series of introductions that were published in a serial format. I don’t know if there are manga that tell a set story in a volume the way an American trade paperback collection would, but if so, I haven’t experienced one. Still, the story changes from volume to volume, and so does the quality, so I would be remiss to give up on the attempt to review this, volume by volume.

This was the introduction, not only of the characters, but of the universe, and of the story. It’s a blend of action and comedy, following the course of MacGuffin that will become something more in the future. It’s a doorway to a magical journey, and I’ve got to say, I’m as along for the ride as I was the first time I watched the Saiyan Saga on Easter morning in ‘96. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we get there.