Thursday, July 19, 2018

What if some other flag were on the moon?

Alternate Histories of Space Travel.

Ministry of Space, written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Chris Weston and Laura Martin.

What If? Vol 1: Russians on the Moon!, written by Fred Duval, Jean-Pierre Pécau and Fred Blanchard, illustrated by Philippe Buchet and Walter.

Graphic Novel Reviews by Kerey McKenna.

So with the anniversary of the first Apollo Moon Landing tomorrow and all this talk of new American space travel projects under a militarized “Space Force,” I started to think, what if America didn’t land on the moon on July 20th 1969? No, I’m not saying Americans never actually went to the moon—I don’t want to get punched by a national hero. What I mean to say is what if America hadn’t been the ones to take those first small steps into the cosmos, but another nation? What might that mean about the politics and technology of space travel?

Well, if you, like me, enjoy exploring a little bit of contra-history, two graphic novellas, What If?: Russians on the Moon! and Ministry of Space, play with the idea of manned space travel in the twentieth century that wasn’t dictated by America’s on again off again love affair with space.

What If?: Russians on the Moon! starts with the premise of a tragedy befalling the brave crew of Apollo 11. America’s moonshot is thwarted when a micro-meteor ruptures the hull of the lunar lander during descent to the moon, killing crew members Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. However moon exploration doesn’t end there: a Russian Cosmonaut lands on the moon successfully, putting another tally on the board for the USSR in the space race.

Presumably because the US cannot afford a Moon Gap, they in turn send more successful missions to the moon. After about ten years of Cold War tit for tat, the USSR and America each have functioning moon bases just a moon rock’s throw away from each other. The men and women of the moon bases (the US adopts the Russian practice of sending men and women into space together, presumably fearing a Moon Gender Gap) are actually quite cordial with each other. In the harsh barren moonscape the astronauts and cosmonauts have come to value each other’s company more than ideological purity. However when the Soviet Political Officer and an American Military operative discover a pair of star-crossed lovers among the space travelers, Cold War tensions escalate and the love farce may lead to nuclear apocalypse.

In the second book, Ministry of Space, we see space travel driven not by national rivalries, but by near-unrivaled supremacy by a single nation. Neither the USSR nor the USA leads the post-World War II space race, but rather a dark horse candidate: the UK. According to this alternative history, during the closing days of the war, Britain's RAF snatches up all the German scientists and rocket prototypes they can smuggle back from the continent, and leave scorched earth behind for their American and Russian “allies.” Led by the fictional flying ace Air Commodore John Dashwood and a former German rocket scientist (unnamed but presumably Wernher von Braun), the Ministry of Space pushes Britain to the stars, reaching every milestone of space travel (artificial object launched into space, man launched into and returned safely from space, manned mission to the moon, man mission to Mars) years or decades ahead of the real-world schedule. While The UK’s earthly empire dwindles and dissolves much as it did in our timeline, by 2001 this alternate Britain has become a gleaming futurist’s dream of jet packs, space stations, (relatively) safe colonization of the solar system, and the preservation of the “British” way of life.

However, aside from the evolution of the technology and the triumphs and disasters along the way to claiming the stars, there is a lingering mystery about how the RAF managed to get the funds to launch its first satellite in 1948 and its first astronaut in 1950, amid a post-war UK economy in such a state that wartime rationing didn’t end until 1954. Among all the crisp science fiction art it’s easy to overlook that niggling question and assume it’s just the brilliance and drive of the RAF fighter pilot and German mad scientist. The fictional Doctor Wernher von Braun (presumed) is unconstrained by a risk-averse US government that kept the real-life Wernher from realizing his plans for space stations and off world colonies (not-Wernher at one point muses that the Americans lack a sense of “Opera” and that their space program would be a plodding cautious affair). Dashwood races into space under the ethos that if throwing wave after wave of men into dangerous machines that had just been invented was good enough to save England in the Battle of Britain in 1940, then that ethos will get them to Mars by 1969. However at the end of the story the Original Sin of the Ministry is laid bare, and in one final gut punch of a panel it is revealed that while their nation took giant leaps in the development of technology, they also made steps backward in their humanity.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if the Stars and Stripes wasn’t the only flag "flapping" up on the moon (or was never planted in the first place), here are two graphic novellas you should look at. Aside from wonderful space age art, they both have a different feel and scope to them. What If? is a more traditional tale with clear heroes and villains, while Ministry of Space seems more like a pretense for an illustrated guide to the space program the twentieth century promised but didn’t deliver.

And I’m going to say this again, we totally did go to the moon. USA! USA!

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

For more alternate history starring Wernher von Braun (and Hedy Lamarr!), check out this Nerds who Read review of Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings’s 2004 novel, Anarquía.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

An Ending I didn't Ant-ticipate

Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Movie review by Michael Isenberg.

The trailer promised “The perfect summer movie.” Ant-Man and the Wasp delivered: it’s exciting, it’s heartwarming, and it’s very funny. Just don’t think about it too much. Summer’s not for thinking.

The curtain rises on Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest—fallout from fighting on the “wrong” side in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (Go Team Cap!). But the Feds aren’t satisfied with having Scott under lock and key. They want his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), along with Hank’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), the duo who furnished Scott the Ant-Man suit that gives him the power to shrink to ant-size and benefit from that insect’s proportional strength. So Hope and Pym are on the lam and needless to say they’re not too friendly to Scott these days.

Scott passes the long hours playing the drums, learning close-up magic from Internet videos, and staging elaborate make-believe heists in which he and his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) crawl through ventilator shafts made of cardboard boxes and slither through laser grids made of string in order to “steal” his most precious possession: a trophy she had given him for his last birthday. It’s labeled “World’s Greatest Grandma.”

The time spent with Cassie, now about eight years old, is endearing, especially since for all we’ve heard about how she’s THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN HIS LIFE, we’ve seen very little of them together.

Alas, playtime must come to end when Scott has a peculiar dream: he finds himself in the persona of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Pym’s wife and Hope’s mom, seeing through her eyes and sharing her memories. We heard about Janet in the original Ant-Man movie—she was Hank’s partner in superheroics, the first to wear the Wasp suit, until she shrunk too small, slipped between the molecules, and never came back. Shaken by his oh-too-real dream, Scott contacts Pym and Hope, who know instantly what happened. After Scott himself went subatomic and did come back, Pym thought that there might be a possibility that Janet is alive and could be recovered. He and Hope have been working on opening a tunnel to the subatomic realm. Somehow, their first test run has caused Scott and Janet to become quantum entangled (or ant-tangled). And so Pym and Hope bury their differences with Scott—not very deeply—and set out to work with him to bring Janet back.

The technology involved is quite advanced and absolutely everybody wants to get their hands on it. What follows is a standard MacGuffin-driven plot, with a twist—the MacGuffin is a building, Pym’s lab, reduced to rollerboard size by his shrinking technology, complete with wheels and telescoping handle.

Our first contestant is Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), who has been quantum shifted out of phase with our reality thanks to a lab accident. She is unable to grab hold of ordinary matter—hence her moniker “Ghost.” Albeit, when she wears the special suit (yes, another suit) engineered by her guardian and mentor Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), she turns into a formidable fighter. Foster and Ghost want to get their hands on Pym’s lab to shift Ava back.

Then there’s the shady arms dealer and restauranteur Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to sell the technology on the black market.

Finally there’s FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) who just wants to capture Hope and Pym and prove that Ant-Man has been sneaking away from his house arrest. Woo is mainly comic relief, and the humor is a little corny. He is constantly on the verge of catching Ant-Man away from home, only to burst into the house with a dozen agents and discover him there doing something comical like taking a bath. It reminded me of Dr. Bellows perpetually stymied efforts to catch Major Nelson in the 60s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. I kept expecting Woo to blurt out Bellows’ catch phrase, “He’s done it to me again.”

As the lab bounces from hand to hand, there’s no shortage of action. Scott’s fighting style is humorous as he quips his way through a series of technical failures, always a little surprised when something actually works. In contrast, Hope is all sting as the Wasp. She seriously kicks ass.

Everything leads up to a big car chase through the streets of that marvelous car chase city, San Francisco. I thought I knew every chase scene trope there is, but Marvel threw me for a loop. Because the dynamics change completely when vehicles can shrink to matchbox size or be restored to their original dimensions at the touch of a button.

So, big fun. But like I said, don’t think about it too much. The science is mostly technobabble. Even the characters think so. Scott’s old partner in crime Luis (Michael Peña) asks whether the more technologically-oriented characters just put the word “quantum” in front of everything to sound scientific. Michael Peña would be excellent at Cinema Sins. By the way, he steals every scene that he’s in. (On the downside, his car horn plays La Cucaracha. C’mon, Marvel. That’s racist.)

Ant-Man and the Wasp also suffers from the absence of any real conflict. Ghost is a formidable ant-tagonist, but she really isn’t a bad person, and in any case there’s no reason why her interests are incompatible with Pym’s. As for Sonny and Woo, they never really pose a serious challenge to our heroes.

The trailer makes another promise: “The ending will ROCK. YOUR. WORLD.” They weren’t kidding. I literally gasped during the mid-credit scene—although upon reflection, I should have seen it coming. But if you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to see the movie. And if, after seeing it, you want more Ant-Man, be sure to check out the 2015 prose novel Natural Enemy, which I reviewed last week.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Friday, July 6, 2018

Escape from Staten Island

The First Purge.
Movie review by Kerey McKenna.

Warning: contains spoilers for The First Purge and other entries in the Purge franchise.

Escape from New York, co-written by horror icon John Carpenter, is a survival action yarn that imagined a fascist America that had sealed up NYC in hopes that its denizens would destroy themselves. The First Purge deals with many of the same themes, expanding upon the politics and dialing back on the camp. If certain people feel “triggered” that dystopian fiction “suddenly got political,” they haven’t been paying attention. When used right, a political dimension to horror movies can be more effective at unsettling an audience than a jump scare.

When the Purge franchise began in 2013, the dystopian backdrop seemed to be a cheap narrative device, a contrivance to explain why, in a world with cell phones, private security, neighborhood watches, and safe rooms, an affluent, white family would be threatened by a gang of killers in fright masks besieging their gated community McMansion. In the world of The Purge, we are informed that in the not-too-distant future, America is ruled by the regime of “The New Founding Fathers” and a national holiday has been created in which Americans are allowed, even encouraged, to rob, maim, and kill their fellow citizens, without repercussions for twelve uninterrupted hours as part of a night of national catharsis. It’s a fairly straightforward scenario that seems to invite so many more scenarios and questions then a simple tale of an affluent family besieged by killers (for that you could watch The Strangers, Funny Games, or House on the Left, just to name some off the top of my head); questions like: How did the Purge engineers get citizens to start killing each other? How do they expect citizens not to retaliate against each other the next day? Can’t the citizens use the murder holiday to take arms against the regime that puts them in a murder holiday every year? Who is suffering most in the Purge and who is benefiting? It’s a premise that demands further exploration or at least spoofing by the likes of Rick and Morty:

For their subsequent installments, the Purge movies (The Purge: Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year, and now The First Purge) have been doing the hard work of expanding upon the premise and dedicating more time to world building around that scenario of national murder day (it’s logistics, it’s winners and losers) and doubling down on a very clear political hill to die on. The Purge is the haunted house reflection of neoliberalism: it’s a campfire tale centered around fears that de-regulation isn’t actually leveling the playing field in society but actually serves to comfort the comfortable while letting the poor and disadvantaged fall behind and die from neglect.

I wonder if the movie has some thoughts about current political events?

So politics aside, what should you expect from the movie? Well, this is my first outing in the Purge movies, and I found it to be a well-paced survival horror ride that put me more on edge and impressed me more with its world building than the much lauded Japanese film Battle Royale.

The First Purge is set in a future in which the ascendant New Founding Fathers Party have designated Staten Island as the proving ground for the purge concept to sell the idea to the nation. Those who choose to participate (or are unable to leave the island) are promised money if they can survive the night (with additional cash bonuses if they “participate” in the mayhem). I believe this installment features more science fiction and special effects than the previous installments, as military drones fly through the air monitoring the island and some purgers have volunteered to wear special contact lenses that will broadcast their purging activities out to the rest of the country. The contacts come in a multitude of hues and glow in the dark. Seeing the bright glow in dark eyes as purgers hunt or hide from each other invokes the idea that the purge has reduced these people to a primal animalistic state of fight or flight. The new sci-fi elements make the feature feel a bit like a blown up episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror.

In a very deliberate statement, and unlike previous installments of the series, all our heroes are black and brown. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is a saintly neighborhood activist protesting the purge and sheltering the civilians that cannot leave the island. Meanwhile her wayward younger brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade) has snuck out to purge in order to make some much needed money and settle a score with a violent junkie (Rotimi Paul) who the Purge has let loose into the streets. The local drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) begins the night protecting his gang’s territory but as the true horror of the night unfolds, he and his hoods become an impromptu militia and constabulary trying to hem in the carnage. As chaos ensues, their story lines converge as they attempt to survive the night.

Overseeing the purge are New Founding Fathers party stooge Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) and its apolitical architect Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei). When a few hours of the purge only result in ruckus block parties, some vandalism and a little bit of murder (i.e. a standard holiday weekend in NYC), Arlo unleashes secret death squads of military contractors and white supremacists (in classic KKK, Nazi, and tiki-torch varieties) using the Purge as cover to cull the island along racial and economic lines. For some reason this both surprises and appalls Dr. Updale, who had envisioned the Purge as a temporary and egalitarian return to a state of nature, not the night of state-sanctioned violence against only the poor that it so obviously is. If Arlo is a horror movie straw man for Republicans/neoconservatives, then Dr. Updale is presumably a strawman of libertarian thinkers like those in the CATO institute, proposing ideas that in a vacuum would provide more freedom for all but are in practice used by the powerful enrich themselves at the expense of others. Yes, if the movie has a weak link, it’s trying to set up that the architect of the Purge a) has a conscience that is so easily pricked, and b) didn’t think a political party so excited to create a murder holiday might have some shady characters in it with ulterior motives. I think it would have been stronger commentary if they had gone full on Dr. Strangelove and have her more upset that her party superiors are messing with her pure scientific data than upsetting her sense of fair play.

Like Thanos in Infinity War, the heroes face a villain that drew a lot of dangerous conclusions about population from a Malthusian reading of history and instead of working to grow and expand existing resources and infrastructure with the considerable resources they have at hand, they have concluded that a percentage of the population must be murdered for the whole to survive.

Dystopian fiction often resonates with audiences by mining societal fears and intergroup tensions. Soylent Green and Children of Man are centered around over- and under-population respectively, but both are rooted in the fear that humanity is on an unsustainable path. Judge Dredd and RoboCop patrol the streets of American cities rotting from urban decay and under siege from gang crime. Demolition Man and Wallie are farces about nanny states that have infantilized the population so much, only throwbacks from a harder more difficult time can force them to grow up again. Logan’s Run and Battle Royale are about taking ageism (against the old and young respectively) to the extreme of one group culling the other through blood sports. Death Race 2000 and The Hunger Games imagine those blood sports as modern day bread and circuses used by decadent tyrants to distract and oppress the downtrodden masses.

So if you are looking for an ostensibly apolitical scare this summer, wait for the giant shark monster movie The Meg or for the Halloween reboot coming down the pipe from the same studio (and oh-so-subtly referenced by one of the characters in The First Purge who has a HUGE Halloween Poster). But if you can deal with not just slashers and blood but your political buttons being pushed, then check out The First Purge.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

An Ant-ertaining Read

Ant-Man: Natural Enemy by Jason Starr.
Book Review by Michael Isenberg.

Tomorrow marks the premiere of the latest ant-ry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Ant-Man and the Wasp, which for some reason means it’s in theaters today. I’ll let you know what I thought of it, but in the meantime, since this is Nerds who Read, here’s my review of the Ant-Man prose novel Natural Enemy. Yes, there really is such a thing as an Ant-Man prose novel.

Published in 2015 to coincide with the Ant-Man origin movie, Natural Enemy picks up about ten years later. Scott Lang has had many adventures in the Ant-Man suit, and mastered his powers of shrinking to ant size, communicating with ants, and kicking ass using his proportional ant strength. He’s fought side-by-side with the Avengers a number of times and even developed a friendship with Tony Stark. Still, rather than saving the world with the big boys, Scott prefers to fight crime in his New York neighborhood. Indeed, we first see him in an action-packed takedown of an armed robber in a Third Avenue bodega.

Scott’s primary motivation in keeping a low profile, indeed his primary motivation in everything, is his daughter Cassie, who we’re told about two hundred times is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN HIS LIFE. You may recall from the first movie that it was to be with his daughter that Scott wanted to put his life of crime behind him, straighten out, and fly right. She was about five years old back then. Now she’s a teenager and living with Scott. It’s not exactly clear how his ex-wife, who has very little good to say about him, allowed that to happen, rather than taking Cassie with her when she moved out west to take care of her ailing mom, but anyway, that’s the living arrangement. Nor is it clear how Scott affords his Upper East Side apartment on his salary as a cable installer, but we are assured the apartment is a small one.

So he’s got his life in order and his daughter with him. But his world is turned upside down when one of his old criminal associates, Willie Dugan, busts out of prison and goes on a killing spree, rubbing out members of the old gang who he blames for his incarceration. The FBI shows up at Scott’s door and insists on providing him, Cassie, and Cassie’s mom with round-the-clock protection. Or maybe it’s the US Marshal’s Service—the author seems to treat the two, which are separate agencies, as interchangeable. Needless to say, with an FBI agent (or US Marshal) following Scott wherever he goes, it puts a crimp in his ant-manning. Cassie’s mom is furious and threatens to take Cassie away. The only one who enjoys the situation is Tony Stark, who texts, I’m looking for a recommendation for a babysitter, maybe you can help me out, Little Guy. I hear you’re using a good one.

But the FBI (or US Marshal Service) isn’t prepared for the likes of Dugan. He manages to kidnap Cassie and holds her prisoner in an old house out in the boonies. Scott must slip away from his minders, don the Ant-Man suit, and jump from car to car to hitch a ride upstate in order to confront Dugan and rescue his daughter. But when he gets there, he finds that Dugan is merely a pawn in a larger, more sinister plot.

I found the characters in Natural Enemy to be a bit cardboard. I’ve already commented on Scott’s one-note motivation. The female characters are even less developed. When Scott has a date for coffee with “Anne with an e,” she turns out to be a stereotype of the bitter divorcee who can’t talk about anything on a date except how awful her ex-husband is. And Cassie is another stereotype: despite some interest in technology, she’s basically the cliché teenage girl who only thinks about cute boys.

But of course, nice as it would be to have some depth of characterization, the main reason one reads a superhero novel is a good story with plenty of action. In that department Natural Enemy delivers. The story is well-paced, taking its time to unfold (which I like). The action scenes are spaced out just right to keep things moving along. There’s some humor, a couple good twists, and then a sprint to the climax.

One of my favorite scenes was one in which Cassie steals the Ant-Man suit, to get revenge on another girl who was mean to her (over a boy). Although that motivation is childish, we share with Cassie something we can no longer get from Scott: the thrill and wonder of being ant-sized for the first time, seeing the world from an ants-eye view, and experimenting with amazing new powers.

I’m seeing mixed reviews for Ant-Man and the Wasp, so I’m not sure what Ant-Man fans should expect at the theater this weekend. But I imagine they’ll come away wanting more Ant-Man, either because it was that ant-astic, or because it was that disapp-anting. Either way, I definitely recommend Natural Enemy.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Monday, June 25, 2018

It’s Luke’s show. But…

Luke Cage: Season 2.
Review by Michael Isenberg.
MAJOR SPOILERS.

I like Luke Cage: both the character and the series. It’s refreshing to see a program which celebrates black people and black culture, confronts police harassment and racism head on, and yet is not too cowed by political correctness to also take on the tough issues that have torn black communities apart, like gang violence, fatherlessness, and corruption.

I binge-watched Season 2 over the weekend, and obviously any series must have something going for it to keep me saying “one more episode” every time the credits roll. Marvel’s trademark humor is well in evidence, much of it revolving around Luke coming to terms with his own fame, one manifestation of which is that he is frequently stopped on the streets of Harlem for selfies. There’s even a Luke Cage app which use the tags on all those selfies to track his whereabouts. When Piranha, a rich investment broker, hires Luke for a party, and insists that he wear a bullet hole-ridden hoodie, Luke groans stoically, “Cosplay.” When Luke refers to police detective Misty Knight as his sidekick, and she demands to know why he isn't her sidekick, he breaks the fourth wall, Deadpool-like, and says, “It’s my show.”

Some scenes are nothing short of gripping. One that stands out for me (and here's the spoilers part) is the “Rum Punch Massacre,” in which crooked nightclub owner and ex-councilwoman Mariah Stokes wreaks vengeance on the family of the Bushmaster, who had previously set fire to her house—with her inside. Mariah and her gang show up guns blazing at Gwen’s, a Jamaican restaurant owned by Bushmaster’s family and named after his mother. As if the slaughter of innocents at gunpoint isn’t horrific enough, Mariah then sets fire to Bushmaster’s uncle. When he doesn’t die fast enough, she shoots him. The scene plays out twice, once in real time, once in Detective Knight’s imagination as she reconstructs the crime (It’s a thing she does). Both versions are worthy of a Tarantino movie, with Quentinesque touches such as exterior shots of the restaurant strobing with gunfire; the hesitant, suspenseful, will-it-or-won’t-it ignition of the fire; a brassy score straight out of a Spaghetti Western; and close-ups of a drinking bird—reminiscent of the old wooden pump in the climactic scene of Kill Bill Part I. Brilliant! The only thing missing is a slo-mo sequence of Mariah and company approaching looking cool, but then there are plenty of those elsewhere in the season.

The talented Alfre Woodard turns in a nuanced performance as the sometimes repulsive, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes even sexy Mariah. Theo Rossi’s ever present smile made me rather like Mariah’s henchman-slash-boyfriend “Shades,” despite the character being a dirt bag. But it’s Luke’s show and Michael Colter brings a quiet dignity to the title role which can be intimidating or likable as the scene demands.

Indeed, the character has come a long way since his birth as part of Marvel’s attempt to cash in on the 1970s Blaxploitation movement. For background, I turned to Nerds who Read's expert on all things comical-historical, Kerey McKenna, who explained to me, “Old Luke Cage knocks down Doctor Doom's Castle Door, yes that Doctor Doom, Nemesis to the Fantastic Four, because Doom's embassy stiffed Cage on a $200 bill.

“New Luke Cage says that it happened [and] kind of humble brags about it as his old crazy days before he became a pillar of the community.”

Indeed, the difference between the brash Luke Cage of the 1970s and the slow-burn Luke Cage of the 2010s is right in their tag lines: “Hero for Hire” vs. “Hero is your word. Not mine.”

(I love the way the debut appearance screams "Sensational Origin Issue!" on the cover as if Luke Cage were already a thing.)

The cerebral 2010s Cage gives a great deal of thought to what a hero is, and is never sure whether he lives up to that.

Alas—and this is my only significant complaint about Season 2—there’s one sense of “hero” that the writers overlooked: the literary sense. The hero is supposed to drives events. Luke doesn’t do that. The arc of the season is basically the conflict between two villains, Mariah and Bushmaster, with Luke merely responding to events, weighing in first on one side, then on the other, as his conscience struggles to do what’s best for Harlem.

Luke Cage isn’t the first franchise to be tripped up on this. James Bond spent most of Goldfinger as a prisoner, merely along for the ride (and that’s widely considered the best Bond ever!). And, as Amy Farrah Fowler pointed out on The Big Bang Theory, Raiders of the Lost Ark would have ended exactly the same if Indiana Jones had just stayed home.

More spoilers: Luke might just as well have stayed at home as well, washing his hoodie. He was not instrumental in taking down either villain. Mariah’s eventual comeuppance comes, not at his hands, but rather courtesy of Shades. Shocked by the brutality of the Rum Punch Massacre, and simultaneously dealing with feelings of insecurity that he’s losing Mariah’s affection, he turns state’s evidence. Mariah’s reign as Queen of Harlem comes to an abrupt end behind prison bars.

As for Bushmaster, he turns out not to be such a villain after all and then, having burned himself out on holistic steroids, he quietly slips away to his home island of Jamaica to recover.

Indeed, plotline seems to be the weak point of The Marvel/Netflix Defenders universe in general. The franchise got a promising start with the awesome first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. But frankly, the subsequent entries in the series haven’t lived up to that promise. We’ve had an overcomplicated Daredevil Season 2 featuring the most incompetently conducted legal trial in the history of legal trials, a less than compelling Jessica Jones 2, an Iron Fist whose plot was mainly driven by the fact that the title character was an idiot, and a short Defenders (only eight episodes) that took four episodes to start defendering. Hey, Marvel, you’ve got some great characters here. How about slowing down the production schedule a bit to get the plotlines right?

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Movie(s)

Part 2. Why Disney thought a Solo movie was a good bet, and why they were wrong.
By Kerey McKenna.

Han Solo always believed that he could do it all by himself and carry the day on pure bravado. Could he carry a movie?

No.

It looks like despite the hype and the Star Wars brand name, the Solo origin movie had a rough opening weekend.

Reviews are in, and they are mixed, including mine. The movie made money, but not Marvel movie money. In case any Disney employees are reading this and their job depends on explaining to the higher ups why they thought a Han Solo origin movie was going to do well, maybe this little history review will help remind everybody why Solo seemed like a decent bet.

Licensing Agreements: More Powerful Than You Could Possibly Imagine

It’s no exaggeration to say that when Star Wars premiered in 1977, it didn’t so much break the mold as create a new one: blockbuster as cultural phenomenon. But perhaps even more significantly, it created fortunes in merchandising beyond the dreams of avarice, or as Mel Brooks called it in Spaceballs, "Moichandizing." THE SEARCH FOR MORE MONEY.

Pre-Star Wars, knick-knacks like toys and memorabilia were considered a nice way to turn a little extra profit leading up to a movie’s premiere or the Christmas Shopping Season. However, Star Wars mania drove demand for Star Wars merchandise year round, year after year. Kenner Toys, seeking to fatten the Golden Goose of their licensing agreement for action figures and vehicles, started creating new characters and vehicles to sell. When Marvel, which had the comic book rights to the original trilogy, ran out of shooting script to adapt into pen and ink, they ordered their writers and artists to start making new content to continue the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han. Having cannily negotiated for merchandising rights of his creation, George Lucas was willing to let his license holders start expanding the Star Wars saga with new content. With the exception of the laughable 1970’s-style variety show Star Wars Holiday Special, which was intended to be a narrative bridge between Star Wars and the upcoming Empire Strikes Back, the hard core fans, general public, and nascent collectibles speculators’ market welcomed anything with the Star Wars brand on it.

After seemingly concluding his big screen saga with 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Lucas appeared to have no interest in continuing the series on film and went about tending the Star Wars merchandising empire. With only some TV projects in the mid-80’s aimed at younger fans, (two animated series, Star Wars:Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks, and two made-for-TV live action movies centered on the Ewoks, Ewok Adventures and Battle For Endor), adult fans gravitated to novels, comics, and video games that were set in…

THE STAR WARS EXPANDED UNIVERSE

"After Star Wars was released, it became apparent that my story—however many films it took to tell—was only one of thousands that could be told about the characters who inhabit its galaxy. But these were not stories that I was destined to tell. Instead, they would spring from the imagination of other writers, inspired by the glimpse of a galaxy that Star Wars provided. Today, it is an amazing, if unexpected, legacy of Star Wars that so many gifted writers are contributing new stories to the Saga."–George Lucas, introduction to the 1996 reprinting of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

In 1978, still riding the runaway success of Star Wars, but with the future of the saga still uncertain, George Lucas gave his blessing for what is considered to be the first official work of Star Wars fiction he did not author himself, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Alan Dean Foster, who had ghostwritten the official New Hope novelization, created a new story based on Lucas’s ideas for a sequel assuming 1) the studio severely cut their budget and 2) Harrison Ford didn’t sign on to return as Han Solo. Instead of the planet hopping and ship-to-ship battles of Star Wars, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is a more focused tale of Luke and Leia fighting their way through a jungle planet to keep a powerful McGuffin, er artifact, from the clutches of Darth Vader (with no startling revelations about heredity). Small potatoes when compared to the actual sequel Empire Strikes Back, but just the thing for fans that wanted more adventures of the brave farm boy and the fearless space princess.

From these humble beginnings sprang an entire literary universe of prose novels and later comics set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Over the years Lucas and his publishing partners set up a stable of creative talent to tell more Star Wars, sometimes about the main cast, sometimes about the supporting cast, sometimes just a walk-on appearance, and ultimately about some original characters. Under Lucas and his paid continuity guardians, creative teams were given license to weave narratives around the existing three movies and the further adventures of the main cast and their offspring.

Through George Lucas’s in-house video game company, LucasArts, and its subcontractors, the canon expanded into ones and zeros with video games like Shadows of the Empire, Dark Forces, and Rogue Squadron. In turn, to promote the games, prose and graphic novelizations of the video game storylines were created.

Without the guarantee of new movies, the Star Wars saga now thrived in a seemingly self-sufficient ecosystem of prose, comics, and video games. Even when the infamous prequels dropped, the Expanded Universe not directly under Lucas’ control continued to turn out work that kept fans engaged. For example the animated series The Clone Wars: As a weekly serial, it was limited by a TV budget, but it had more screen time than the movies in which to unfold a more epic war story that arguably used Lucas’s characters better (yes, even JarJar Binks) than Episodes I, II and III.

Given the argle-bargle about subsequent Star Wars projects, whether they were helmed by Lucas or Disney, I think many fans would have been happier if no new big screen projects were created. They would say that they wished the Han Solo origin trilogy could have been brought to life. Or that they want to see the adventures of the Jedi Academy and that one kid Han and Leia had that turned to the Dark Side. And maybe the story of unknown and unsung spies working to bring down the Death Star in Dark Forces would make a good movie someday.

They would have said that, and some may even still believe that their favorite piece of authorized fiction would have made a better Disney Star Wars movie, but...

The new Star Wars movies are the Expanded Universe writ large

The new Disney overlords of the franchise may have declared their intentions to create a new Expanded Universe, but it’s a cash crop planted in the remnants of the previous harvest. Invariably a generation of creators raised on the original Star Wars Expanded Universe (now dubbed “Legends”) have already started taking characters and plots from the old works and putting them into the new. And back on the big screen, both entries in the “Star Wars Story” movies, Rogue One and Solo, are authorized fiction novels blown up into feature films. Between the two of them they pretty much encompass how an Expanded Universe property usually played out, either a group of wholly new characters providing a new point of view and elaborating back story for previously established events (Rogue One) or giving characters we met in previous movies origin stories and more adventures (Solo). The whole endeavor has the same freedoms and constraints as the novelizations did. Because Star Wars doesn’t deal in time travel (yet), there isn’t the setup that was used in the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot films that “it’s a new timeline so characters don’t have their plot armor.” Any new projects can doodle in the margins of Star Wars canon but they can’t erase the whole texts.

Rogue One and Solo aren’t direct adaptations of any particular pieces of Expanded Universe prose but rather are distillations of the whole experiment. There were novels based around the fighting men and women of the galactic civil war and the espionage that was required to thwart the Death Star. Before Solo there was a trilogy of novels fleshing out the adventures of young Han and how he met Chewbacca and acquired the Falcon.

So if prose, comics and video games were keeping the saga alive and thriving before, and even after the prequels, than it stood to reason that audiences would adore these distillations of the expanded universe right?

“Your overconfidence is your weakness” - Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

Expanded universe novels have made number one on the New York Times bestseller list (even during times when no new movie was anticipated). The post 2000 Star Wars TV shows (Clone Wars (2003), The Clone Wars (2008), and Rebels 2014) ran for a combined fourteen years. So for Disney, flush with the success of its Marvel films, doubling down on another nerdy shared universe seemed like a safe bet.

However, with Solo stumbling on the starting block, it looks like Disney may have to keep some things in mind going forward, the first being that while the Expanded Universe did maintain and expand the value of the brand, it often did it as a niche product for invested fans, not with the all-demographic mass appeal of the original movies. They may also be coming up against the event fatigue I wrote about previously in the context of comic book universes. Audiences may not be ready to have each Star Wars movie come so close to the last. It took Marvel Studios films a bit of time to build up that kind of momentum and audience goodwill.

Whether Disney will hit its stride with the Star Wars films or ease off and greenlight fewer movies, we will just have to wait and see.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Movie(s)

Part 1. Review of Solo:A Star Wars Story.
By Kerey McKenna.

Okay, right off the bat I’m going to say, despite some initial ambivalence to the project, I liked Solo: A Star Wars Story. I want to thank Steve Higgins of the Outer Limits Comic Shop (Waltham MA) for getting me some early preview tickets so I could see it before reviews are posted, and thereby not be biased by their hype—negative or positive.

Solo is a fast-paced action romp that’s well-executed—although that’s not as impressive as it sounds because it’s not particularly ambitious. The filmmakers didn’t take any risks that could backfire spectacularly—like George Lucas did when he cast Jake Lloyd in Phantom Menace to make a point that the most evil cyborg in the galaxy started out as an adorable moppet. Solo threads the needle of new actors taking on the role of iconic characters in a way that feels authentic without slipping into parody and caricature. Befitting a character that’s all about speed and making it to his next payday, the movie pace is frenetic compared to other entries in the saga. Right from the start, Han is an artful dodger raised in the slums of an Imperial industrial world. He literally races from scheme to scheme (and set piece to set piece) trying to find some measure of independence. Han bursts onto the screen already a roguish flyboy trying to bluff his way out of anything he can’t run from. Along the way he acquires the style (surname, clothes, broom handle pistol, and Millennium Falcon) and associates (Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian) that make him the Han Solo who will eventually pluck Luke and Kenobi off Tatooine in A New Hope. It is basically the feature-length version of the prologue of another Harrison Ford character in another LucasFilm adventure, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we see a teen Boy Scout Jones go on a chase that foreshadows his adventures and affectations as the adult Indiana Jones we know from the rest of the series.

Upon reflection, I think some of my weariness in anticipating the film, and why I had to psych myself up for it with reviews of three separate Marvel Comics Star Wars series (Darth Vader, Lando, and Han Solo) was my weariness of the prospect that under Disney’s leadership we are due a new Star Wars movie every year as long as the merchandise sells and the movies don’t bomb at the box office. The accompanying prospect of annual debates over whether the latest Star Wars project is too derivative or too divergent from what came before tends to induce, well, weariness.

One such debate we’re sure to encounter concerns a big “twist” towards the end of Solo, that a) doesn’t contribute much to the story and b) will come completely out of left field if you haven’t been watching the animated Star Wars: Rebels TV series. I’m not going to reveal what it is here but when it happens, you’ll know it. Expect it to come up a lot in dissections of the film as soon as the “No Spoilers” grace period runs out

Speaking of dissecting the film, I won’t be doing that here. With all the hype around the movie, there are plenty of rundowns of who the new actors playing old characters are, who the new actors playing new characters are, and how well it all was executed. Instead, I’d like to trace how a revenue stream of licensed Star Wars prose and comic book fiction from the 80’s and 90’s became Rogue One and Solo. It’s not exactly Joseph Campbell's Hero Cycle, but the cycle from movies, to books, and then back to movies is quite the tale in its own right, which I’ll tell in Part 2 of this article.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.