Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Death of Spiderman

Comics are not films.

Films are not comics.

A film is, by definition, finite.  120 minutes.  In a film we live and die an entire lifespan, to be reborn into our own lives when the lights come up.

Comics are, by definition, infinite.  They are mythology, and we turn to them for the same reasons our ancestors turned to their mythology:  hope.

Something the Ultimate Spider-Man comics have done so well is creating story arcs that are very cinematic - taking Peter Parker to the lowest depths he can go over a six to eight issue arc, the reader convinced each time that Peter might not make it.  He might bite the big one.

And yet, Bendis always found a way to reset, to take things back to 1 (or perhaps 2), and create another great build in the next story.

But not this time.  This time Peter Parker is dead.  And as the Ultimate brand is committed to actually keep the dead dead (sorry, Daredevil!  Sorry, X-Men!), he will probably stay that way.

Sure, the book will continue - with a new costume and a new man (or woman) behind the mask.  But it wasn't Spider-Man that propelled 11 years of scintillating storytelling.  It was Peter Parker.

I am too grateful with Brian Michael Bendis for these eleven years to be mad at him, and yet I find myself unable to reconcile this irresponsible handling of mythos.

Yes, with great power comes great responsibility.  It's funny how often the writers of Spider-Man books have forgotten this over the course of the character's various incarnations (I'm looking at you Clone Saga and Brand New Day!).  Now, sadly, one of the greatest scribes to handle the character has gone the same way.

It would be different if the book or imprint were ending, to give it a finality.  Yes, the hero's journey usually ends in death.  That's what being a hero - putting oneself in harm's way - usually leads to eventually, given enough time.  But the book continues.

The Death of Spider-Man thus becomes "Ultimate Ben Reilly."

Vote with your dollar, true believers.  Stop buying the book, until The Death of Spider-Man receives the same editorial oopsy-fix The Clone Saga did.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Luther Series 2 Trailer

Last week's post about Luther was written after we'd screened the first half of Season 1.  Having seen the explosive final 3 episodes in which the show hit its stride in both tone and character, we are excited to find out, as the titular character utters at the series finale, "now what?"

DCI Luther returning to the BBC in a month, and these two stylish trailers only whet our appetite even more!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

All-Star Superman: A Shining Animated Adaptation

Volume One of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman is a revelation.  Morrison invigorates the character with a fresh, modern sensibility.  One of my favorite moments (which embraces the most implausible elements of the character) takes place during a prison break, where Clark's glasses fall off, and Luthor hands them to him - a moment that clearly defines Clark Kent, far more than a pair of spectacles, as the real disguise.

Volume Two is less satisfying.  Morrison is a very imaginative writer whose strengths often lie more in presenting ideas than completing a story (his work on New X-Men is case and point to this - where the second half of the run couldn't satisfactorily pay off the groundwork laid behind it).  Volume Two suffers similarly.  While it has some interesting new ideas thrown into the mix, it lacks the strong narrative drive that had tied together the episodes of Volume One.

So I was a little nervous when I sat down to watch the animated adaptation, as film more so than comic books demands a narrative payoff.  As it turns out, there was no need to worry.

A very clever and judicious adaptation, the script pares and adapts the book's episodes into a satisfying three act structure.  The skill of the adapters was seen in those elements they sacrificed - (including Morrison's most cherished creation for the series, Dr. Leo Quintum, who appears only briefly at the bookends of the film).

Also to great effect - some new voice actors that haven't been heard in previous Superman animated films.  The voice acting is universally excellent, but of special note are James Denton's calmly subdued Superman, Christina Hendricks' sophisticated Lois Lane, and Anthony LaPaglia's envious and intelligent Lex Luthor.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BBC's Luther: A Delightful Throwback to Pulp Noir

The pilot of the BBC's new cop drama Luther begins with a scene that leaves the audience a little fuzzy on the tone of the series.  As the show's hero stands on the edge of a precipice from which a child murderer hangs from his finger tips, tight close up jump cuts show us DCI Luther getting more and more frantic, worked up.  A bit schmaltzy, it brought to mind a similarly cheesy moment in the 1986 film Manhunter, where William Petersen's character hits his hand against a tree while realizing how nasty the killer was.

Is this the kind of heavy handed treatment the viewer is in for?

Well, yes.  And no.

It takes a while to orient to Luther, because it doesn't fit into the boxes one would expect it to.  Today's cop shows rest pretty much in one of two polarities.  On one side, there's the world of the typical cop procedural like Law and Order and CSI, where characterization is paper thin following a whodunnit trail.  On the other end of the spectrum, there's shows like The Wire and The Killing, which painstakingly strive for naturalism and realism.

Both poles, however, try to serve as representations of truth.  Stories seek to encompass not just the possible, but also the plausible.

But this forgets an entire bygone style of story telling - the pulp detective, who could find himself up against the occult just as easily as a mugger.  Luther is a delightful throwback to this kind of pulp noir.  It doesn't live on the same continent as CSI or The Wire, but a forgotten land where vigilantes, psychopaths, and occultic killers are just as likely to be hunted by a hardboiled detective.  The crimes aren't ripped from the headlines, but rather from the deepest recesses of imagination.

Sure, the show flirts with serious themes - are all murders equal?  What is the nature of evil?  Is it okay to murder your parents if you can touch your nose with your upper lip?  But it does so without pretension.  The show takes itself just as seriously as it needs to, with healthy dollops of dry wit and humor served up by the ever capable Idris Elba.

So catch up on the first season of this exciting new season, and don't try to put it in modern boxes.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the storytelling of yesteryear, meted out with contemporary sensibilities.

Friday, May 20, 2011

10 Reasons AVATAR Was Lame

Avatar: Now in Exciting 3D!  (Characterization in 2D)

10)  Sam Worthington is possibly the least charismatic actor to work in Hollywood.  Never has an animated character been so dragged down by his vocal counter part.

9)  The script has the predictability of a high school screenplay that is waterlogged by lengthy inserts of exposition that come back for a single payoff.  Biggest case in point?  The air of Pandora.  Such a huge deal is made about the air being deadly to breathe, and yet this seemingly most lethal element of the planet comes into play dramatically... exactly ONCE. At the very end, when Sully is suffocating.  The only other brief mention of it, the hangar escaped, is nullified by Sergeant Hard Balls holding his breath.  If the air was so toxic, wouldn't it hurt his eyes?  Come in through his pores?  Exotic animals be damned -- if you can't BREATHE that's the biggest killer, and it was all set up for one very dumb payoff at the end.

Similar moments -- the hammer head rhinos in the beginning, which served no purpose but to come back in the deux ex machina at the end (more on that later).  Also, the Sigourney Weaver ascension into the tree.  As though we didn't figure out within 10 minutes that Sully would be spiritually joining his Avatar, this LOOOONG section (which has no dramatic payoff, particularly coming so close after the death of Cat Lady's father) just telegraphs the final moments, taking away any surprise but adding to the "I get it, get on with it" feeling this film inspires.  Why not kill this character off in an actual heroic way?  Allowing them to escape the hangar, or something of such?

8)  Possible suspense was undercut at every turn.  For all the exciting visuals, the only moment I felt a twitch of peril was in some of the climbing stuff, and that was my own fear of heights rather than the intentions of the film maker.  Never has an action film been set up with a conceit that so completely limits peril -- (if anything happens to Sully as Avatar, he's okay back at the base; something verified by the other dude getting shot and waking up.  Oh, and there's another plot hole -- what happened to that dude?  Why didn't he have gas masks ready when the window was breached?)  Adding to the peril is the fact that the Na'vi are trained to do all this high flying acrobatic stuff, but apparently everyone can be awesome at this from the beginning, because we never see reckless young Na'Vi falling to their deaths.

7)  Dialogue... okay, that's too dings on the script, but seriously -- BAD.  Not just bad, uninteresting, and devoid of conflict.

6)  Hopelessly dull.  Not only do we have long sections where ostensibly nothing happens, but the film falls into traps of repetition where we get more of the same without any addition or payoff.  One thing that comes to mind here is the Avatars being people "logged off" and falling camatose.  This did not feel like something that needed to happen twice (and served no dramatic purpose, since they interrupted two scenes which were identical).  Also, for all the exposition in this film, why do we not find out until the end that there were other tribes on the planet?

5)  Already stated, but the 2-dimensionality of the characters. Everyone was dull, uninteresting, and unbelievable. And not just Satan the CEO and Mr. Hard Balls.  Sigorney Weaver and the nerdy dudes were equally one note (and equally with intentions beyond my comprehension).

4)  Super Ewoks.  Say what you will about ROTJ, the Endor battle is very clever because it sets up a mechanized force that can PLAUSIBLY be taken down by little furry natives.  Why?  Because they have weaknesses.  The AT-ST's are slow, have poor visibility, and their numbers are relatively few.  The final confrontation was COMPLETELY unbelievable.  As so many reviewers said, "why didn't they nuke the tree from space?"  The closest they came to a weakness was "Their radars won't work up here"... but did that matter?  Did that have ANY bearing on the outcome of the battle? Was there any part where they were all "shit!  My radar didn't work!"  The setup was obviously to have them crashing into mountains, but even THAT didn't happen.  Also, the deux ex machina?  Lame.

3)  Giant logical inconsistencies in the "Corporation."  First of all -- why do they bother with Sully's infiltration?  He provides ZERO intel that is used during their attack.  Second, the home tree contains the biggest natural supply of unobtainium... okay, fine.  But that implies there is unobtainium ELSEWHERE.  And even if it is in smaller supplies, wouldn't it be more economical to mine in those places rather than maintain a big, expensive army?  (on the subject of unobtainium -- WHY THE HELL DO WE NEVER SEE IT EXCEPT AS A FLOATING PAPER WEIGHT??  If the largest supply is under the hometree, wouldn't it figure in some way into the Na'vi culture?  As arrowheads, or to burn for fires, or SOMETHING??  Never has a Maguffin been contrived with such utter scorn for the audience's intelligence).  Third, after the home tree dies -- why do they go on to try and kill the Na'Vi?  Why not set up their miners, and setup a perimeter with guns?  What the military did next served no logical purpose except the schema of the film; when the film needed them to do nothing but sit around and wait for the final fight, they did that.  When the film needed them to attack for no reason, they did that.  THEY MADE NO SENSE.

2)  The case for civilization.  This is the biggest of the "missed opportunities for the film to have depth and dimensionality."  Cameron sets up this EXTREMELY hostile environment (never mind that he forgets about that for most of the film).  And yet, the Na'Vi are completely unfettered by it.  Nothing ever seems to kill them, or even threaten them.  Why did people build civilizations?  Primarily to keep from being killed by hostile outside forces (be they animals, natural disasters, or other friendly people).  The ethical dilemma before us in the 21st century is finding a balance between industrialization and ecology.  But this kind of intelligent thought is several tiers beyond what was even attempted.

1)  Faux-spirituality.  Like George Lucas before him, Cameron is too techno-cynical to actually have unexplained "magical" phenomena, and so has to allow life forms to create literal neural links.  First off, this completely erases any possibility for analogy to, um, the world we live in, because we can't do that.  Nobody can do that (except, perhaps, for some traumatizingly special moments at camp, but we don't talk about those).  (jumping back to the last point -- why didn't this evil corporation which is smart enough to traverse galaxies think about tapping into this neural net to figure out how to harvest the unobtainium?  Down, logic!  Down!)

On a final side notes (because it was really hard limiting this list to 10).  The film took a lot of flak for copying from other movies.  This is bull.  If it had, it would have been interesting.  Also?  How about that native civilization needing a white dude to lead them to salvation?  Little bit of unintentional racism much?