Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Cannonball Kessel Run

Marvel Comics Han Solo (2016 Volume 1).
Written by Marjorie Liu with Art by Mark Brooks and Olivier Coipel.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna.

Han Solo is always defensive of his beloved spacecraft the Millennium Falcon. Unlike Luke’s streamlined X-Wing fighter, designed to invoke the essence of an earth fighter jet, the Falcon’s size, asymmetry, and cobbled-together look do not suggest speed. But Han assures the skeptical Luke, Obi-Wan (and the audience watching) that this is a fast ship. In his capable hands this ship made the Kessel Run in an impressive 12 Parsecs (and nerds being nerds, there has been decades of discussion and retcons about Han’s famous boast). Over the course of the saga we see the Falcon tear through space, swerving around asteroids, running imperial blockades, and leaving Death Stars 1, 2, and the Starkiller base as refuse in its wake.

But maybe it’s about time Han put his money where his mouth is and prove just how fast the Falcon really is and whether he is as great a pilot as he claims. What if, instead of getting mixed up with a blood feud between warring sects of space wizards (which doesn’t end too well for him in episode VII), Han and Chewie found themselves in a classic madcap racing movie like Burt Reynolds's Cannonball Run?

Yes, in this story from Marvel Comics, Han, Chewie, and their iconic Millenium Falcon are up against the galaxy’s most esteemed racing pilots in the glamourous Dragon Void Space Race, a harrowing three-stage ordeal. Each stage consists of a jump to hyperspace, an obstacle course, and a mandatory refueling period at a nearby planet. For the pilot with the first ship across the finish line waits a Hutt’s Ransom of a winner’s purse, for the losers, the agony of defeat at best, or death in the cold vacuum of space at worst.

Set shortly after the events of A New Hope, Han and Chewie are racing for their lives on a mission for “Her Worshipfulness” Princess Leia and her rebel alliance.

There is an intelligence leak within the rebellion and three rebellion operatives need to be retrieved from the field and brought back for debriefing. This is all the more crucial because one of the operatives is most likely an imperial mole and will need to be dealt with. As Han and Chewie are not known to be part of the established rebellion hierarchy yet, Leia enters the pair into the Dragon Void Race with each of the three refueling pit stops to serve as chance to extract one of the operatives from the field.

When Han swaggers into the opening reception of the well-heeled professional racers with their purpose-built racing ships and corporate sponsors, my mind went instantly to the film Hidalgo where the American cowboy and his mustang go up against the thoroughbreds (both equine and human) of Arabia and Europe. In short order we are introduced to a handful of other pilots in the race worth knowing who turn up their nose at the smuggler that has found himself in their midst, with the notable exception of one respected elder racer that speaks of outer space racing with mystical reverence for the spirituality underlying all things laser gun and hyper drive. This being Star Wars, wizened elders that speak with mystical reverence tend to be on to something.

To defend the honor of the Falcon against these snobs (and accomplish the mission to thwart the Empire), Han and Chewie will have to push their piloting and smuggling skills to the limit not to be left in the dust or in the hands of the Imperials.

Is this arc of Star Wars a new epic for the franchise? Does it reveal new truths about the established characters or provide crucial errata for the saga’s lore? No and no...which in many ways makes it a fun quick read. I’m surprised I hadn’t come across other stories in which Han and Chewie take their cues from classic Burt Reynolds. Fun Fact: with his cowboy swagger and smuggling ways, Reynolds was actually offered the opportunity to play Han Solo in the first Star Wars, which he turned down. So it would make sense that Reynolds's style car chase movies are deep down in the Solo DNA.

The art is sharp, conveying the kinetic action the story requires, and Han and Leia look very much like Ford and Fisher looked when they portrayed the iconic heroes. I mention that last part because over the years, the degree to which the most recognizable characters resembled their screen incarnations varied from artist to artist, and with the new Solo movie landing this week, with Alden Ehrenreich in the title role, it’s possible future pen-and-ink Han will look more like Alden than like Harrison.

So if you still aren’t sold on the new Han Solo yet this may either help get you in the mood or reassure you that there are more classic Han Solo tales to be told.

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.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Smooth Criminal

Star Wars: Lando Volume 1 (2015).
Written by Charles Soule. Art by Alex Maleev.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna.

With Solo: A Star Wars Story just around the corner, I wanted to take a look at a spin off interquel novel staring Lando Calrissian, another character from the original saga set to return in the Han Solo movie but this time played by a new actor (Donald Glover taking over for Billy Dee Williams).

First introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, Lando’s character, buoyed by the natural charisma of Billy Dee Williams, was an interesting contrast to Han as far as what a rogue or morally ambiguous character could look like in this universe. Whereas Han was drawn from the archetypes of the cinematic western, Lando, like his fly capes, was cut from the cloth of more recent hustler and blaxploitation hero archetypes.

While Han is scruffy, flying by the seat of his pants in an outdated ship, with a wild man-creature as co-pilot, Lando is a smooth and well kempt “legitimate” businessman accompanied by the professional and stoic cyborg aid de camp Lobot. Instead of eking out an existence as a smuggler, Lando has retired from the game and seemingly invested his ill-gotten gains towards becoming the head of the mining colony Cloud City. Whereas Han’s hesitation to officially join the rebellion was more selfish, Lando’s concerns are more selfless as he is trying to defend an entire community from the Empire.

The new movie won’t be the first piece of extended universe Star Wars fiction to wonder what Lando was like when he was a criminal contemporary of Han Solo. Which brings us to today’s review of Star Wars: Lando which, like Star Wars:Darth Vader, was a comic series created by Marvel when they were charged by Disney to take over the pen and ink side of the Star Wars galaxy.

Right off the bat we learn just how charismatic Lando is (here still looking like Billy Dee Williams) when we find that he has charmed his way into the bed of a beautiful, but notorious, Imperial Governor, with an aim to steal a valuable artifact from her personal collection. He accomplishes this...by telling her all this during pillow talk and asking politely if he can have it.

Lando’s con isn’t as quick as a Jedi mind trick but the rate of return is much better.

But there is no rest for the wicked. After turning in the artifact to his creditors, Lando is off to his next heist: stealing a luxury space yacht laden with treasure from an imperial shipyard. Since every good heist needs a team of eclectic characters, Lando is accompanied by the loyal Lobot (much more talkative here than in his non-speaking role in Empire), Korin Pers, a diminutive antiques expert, and to provide muscle, Aleskin and Pavel, a pair of panther-headed martial artists.

Unfortunately for Lando and his crew, their haul might be hotter than they can handle. The ship they steal turns out to belong to none other than Emperor Palpatine himself, who dispatches not just the Imperial Navy but also a Bobba Fett-style bounty hunter, Chantha Cha, to bring the ship back or blow it and the thieves out of the heavens.

From here the story becomes a game of cat and mouse as Lando must evade pursuit while also dealing with some of the nastier surprises hiding aboard Palpatine’s ship.

Like many examples of extended universe Star Wars fiction, there is a challenge in creating stakes when we the audience know that characters that appear in a story have to survive to make it into the movies. Like Star Wars: Darth Vader, the Lando series offsets the protagonists’ plot armor with a fast paced tale that also gets us invested with the mauve shirts around them. Putting Lando in the spotlight gives some much needed time to a character that was very intriguing in his introduction in Empire but was relegated to a C plot in Jedi.

The first volume, collecting issues 1-5 of the series, works as a standalone novella so if you, like me, are a bit ambivalent about the new Star Wars movie, maybe giving this a read and pouring yourself some Colt 45 will put you in a more positive frame of mind.

I mean what else are you going to drink before a Star Wars Movie? Blue Milk?

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 18, 2018

A Deadpool that tries too hard

Movie Review by Michael Isenberg.

Some years ago, I went with friends to visit the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. We got it into our heads to sneak into one of the towers, which was closed to the public. Although we never made it to the top, we had a terrific time. It was a fun and memorable day. Afterwards, my friends suggested on a number of occasions that we go to the cathedral again, but I always turned them down. I thought that we would end up trying too hard to recreate the magic of the first visit, and the pressure to do so would ensure that we wouldn’t succeed.

The makers of Deadpool 2 know exactly what I’m talking about.

No one expected the first Deadpool to be such a hit. The wise-cracking, fourth wall-breaking, morally dubious, and somewhat effeminate protagonist broke the superhero mold. Which is why everyone was surprised when he also broke box office records: the movie had the all-time number one opening for an R-rated flick, leaving the previous record holder, The Matrix Reloaded, trailing in the dust (something that Deadpool points out in the current movie). Deadpool 1 was not only hilarious, but some of the jokes had that grain of truth that separates a forgettable quip from a meme that endures forever.

So the pressure is on for Deadpool 2. The writers are aware of this and in the trailer, they promise to deliver. DP tells his bartender friend, Weasel, “It lives up to the hype, plus, plus.”

“The probably won’t even make a three,” Weasel replies.

“Why would they?” Deadpool asks. “Stop at two. You killed it.”

They didn’t kill it. They tried too hard.

The problem starts with the plot. They tried to tug on our heartstrings by putting a kid in it. That rarely works in an adult franchise (Logan being a happy exception). The kid in question is Russell, a troubled mutant teen who must get his inner Drew Barrymore under control before he gets too fond of pyrokinetically starting fires and has to be put down. I’d be cool with that. Russell is obnoxious and annoying.

As he tries to help Russell, Deadpool reconnects with Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead from the first movie. Once again Negasonic is criminally underused, as is her new girlfriend, Yukio, a purple-haired cutie straight out of an Anime. Other newcomers include Cable, a “one-eyed Willie” with a “Winter Soldier arm”; Peter, who has no powers at all, he just saw DP’s ad for superheroes and showed up; and Domino, whose thing is that she’s extremely lucky. That leads to a recurring debate with Deadpool as to whether that’s actually a superpower, and some fresh ideas as she lucks her way through the action sequences in an industry that sometimes seems to be devoid of fresh ideas for action sequences.

So there are a great many characters and the movie goes into overdrive to force Deadpool’s relationships with them to have the kind of endearing sweetness that characterized his relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa in the first movie (despite their relationship being based entirely on pop culture references and sex). Alas, these attempts to give the movie heart fall flat, mainly because the writers ignore the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. Deadpool keeps telling us how they’re a family. But what the movie actually shows us is that Colossus and Negasonic don’t like him very much, and the newcomers just met him yesterday. It was embarrassing enough when Diablo went the “We’re a family” route in Suicide Squad. Is that really who you want to steal from?

Despite the visible effort, there are a couple places where the movie doesn’t try hard enough. First of all, the title: Was Deadpool 2 really the best they could come up with? How about The Pool Strikes Back? Or Dawn of the Deadpool? Or The Walking Deadpool? Deadpool and Loving It? Night of the Living Deadpool? Things to Do in Denver when you’re Deadpool? The Incredible Mister Pool? Pool Hand Luke? Pool Runnings? Poollander? High Pool Musical? There were any number of ways they could have gone more creative than Deadpool 2.

(At least they did a better job of naming the thing than the producers of the new shark movie coming out. That one’s called The Meg. When I saw the trailer last night, several people in the theater were unable to restrain themselves from blurting out their initial reaction.)

In addition to the lazily written title, there’s some lazily written dialogue. We know this because Deadpool keeps pointing it out. Pro-tip: you don’t get a pass for lazy writing by having your hero say, “That’s lazy writing.”

All of the above are missed opportunities rather than anything actually wrong with the film. But there were some things I intensely disliked.

One was the cavalier attitude toward death. I get that Deadpool is all about the inappropriate humor, but killing off a character for laughs is a tricky business. Some good rules of thumb, if you insist on going for the comedic death, are that the guy you kill should be a bad guy and the joke should be damn funny. The original Deadpool managed to pull it off (One word: Zamboni). This new movie, not so much.

Another thing I disliked was the cheap shots at the GOP. There were several throwaway lines to the effect that Fox and Friends are haters and Jared Kushner abuses children. This constant Hollywood sniping at leading Republicans—and by implication, the 62 million of our fellow citizens who voted for a Republican president—is unhelpful at a time when we desperately need a dose of civility in our national discourse. Also, it’s getting boring.

Don’t get me wrong. Even though Deadpool 2 doesn’t live up to Deadpool 1, it’s not a bad flick. There are plenty of DP’s signature one-liners to make you laugh (Deadpool to Cable: “So dark. You sure you're not from the DC universe?”). There’s a delightful twist on the bit from the first movie about the studio only being able to afford two X-Men, neither of them big names. And there’s a mid-credits scene that by itself is worth the price of admission to anyone who endured X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Trust me, it’s a scene you really, really want to see.

So drive to the MegaMaxiPlex this weekend and plunk down a few bucks for Deadpool 2. You’ll have a good time.

And then hope the filmmakers take their own advice and not make a three. As someone said in another movie from the X-Men universe, “At least we can all agree the third one's always the worst.”

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, May 4, 2018

The Power of the Dark Side

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol 1-3.
Written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Salvador Larroca and Adi Granov.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna.

With a new Star Wars movie landing this month, I wanted to take a look at Darth Vader’s comic book interquel series from Marvel Comics. I was curious about what the creative team was going to do with it.

There is a long history of comics and Star Wars: from adaptations of the shooting script to promote the movie in the 70’s, to decades of original material created to sate the thirst for new stories between movies, to that stretch in the 90’s when no one knew when, or if, there would ever be more movies in the Star Wars saga.

When Disney took charge of the Star Wars franchise, they looked at the volumes of authorized stories in prose and comic book form of what could have been happening between and after the movies, and did a bit of Death Star-style spring cleaning to declutter things.

So now the new Marvel Comics team has been charged with writing new Star Wars stories to tie in not only with the movies, but with the original saga and the prequel series. I thought the most challenging of these monthly series would be the Darth Vader one. In a series set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, shouldn’t Vader be rather boring? You’d think his series would be about always chasing Luke, Han, and Leia only for them to escape at the end of every issue, because they have to. We know that they have to because everybody and everything has to be in place for Empire.

Well, I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised that the team at Marvel came up with a rousing serial adventure despite the seemingly restrictive borders of an interquel series centered around a villainous protagonist.

Vader himself, as Obi-Wan described him, is more machine than man now. His characterization is what it was in the first two films and Rogue One: the dreaded enforcer for the emperor and twisted remnant of the bygone chivalric and mystical age of the Old Republic, a golden age, that he was crucial in ending. Now he is an anachronism within the Empire he helped found.

Having fallen into disfavor with Emperor Palpatine after the destruction of the Death Star, he charts a bold but narrow course of serving both as the Emperor’s ruthless catspaw and gathering his own allies and power base so that he might discover the truth of the mysterious pilot that bested him at the Death Star, and one day take the imperial throne for himself. Yes, his face is always a cipher but you can’t help but hear James Earl Jones’s voice reading every piece of dialogue with the bluster and menace that made this character so iconic.

In addition to Imperial Officers and the famous bounty hunter Bobba Fett, Vader winds up with an entourage that are dark reflections of the heroes of the rebellion. And here’s where the series finds its stakes. While we as readers know what is going to happen to Vader, we don’t know what will happen to his quirky band of underlings or anyone that gets in their way. With Vader’s history of telekinetically choking his colleagues and minions, Vader himself might be the greatest threat to anyone in his circle. The life expectancy of Vader’s minions is something the Sith Lord’s first recruit, Doctor Aphra, is very much aware of and even embraces with a certain plucky devil may care attitude.

Aphra is a doctor of archaeology in the pulp tradition; with a blaster strapped to her thigh, she cuts a roguish figure as she robs tombs, pulls heists, and leaves mayhem in her wake as she chases after fortune and glory. She is a dark reflection of the George Lucas-style criminal anti-hero...in that she is an unapologetic criminal with no heart of gold underneath. The series even references that she is a doctor of archaeology that goes in search of relics of mass destruction in order to give them to fascists, the inverse of another famous archaeologist created by George Lucas. Vader needs her for off-the-books research projects, like finding out who that farm boy that blew up the Death Star is, or repairing a pair of very dangerous droids...

"I'm 0-0-0 or Triple-Zero, if you prefer. I'm a protocol droid, specialized in etiquette, customs, translation and torture, ma'am." - Triple-Zero

 

“Bleep!-Bleep!-Bleep!” -BT-1

When I first heard that the Darth Vader series would feature “evil” doppelgangers of beloved, long-suffering droids C-3P0 and R2-D2, I really didn’t expect the idea to work. But once I saw them on the page I couldn’t imagine the series without them. Leaning full tilt into the evil droids idea, this diabolical duo steal every scene that they are in. BT-1 is a squat droid on wheels that bristles with hidden weapons. Triple-Zero is a protocol droid, which, while programed to be loyal to his masters, is unapologetically delighted at the suffering of organic life around him (even more so if he’s the one causing it). A running gag is that Triple-Zero has concluded that the reason that organic life can use the Force while droids cannot is that the former has blood. So if droids drain the blood of organic life they would become force wielders, QED. He's the Renfield of robots. The voice of Anthony Daniels as C-3PO is as ingrained in my mind as James Earl Jones is for Darth Vader, so hearing this effete robot casually mention torture, dismemberment, and exsanguination is quite disorienting.

And speaking of disturbing subversion of the familiar, remember Chewbacca? Remember in A New Hope when Luke, the droids, and the audience first meet Chewbacca the Wookie? The hint of danger that this massive creature, always baring its teeth and growling, might actually rip somebody’s arms off if it doesn’t get its way? Well, what if that sense of danger and unease never went away? What if the big hairy monster was just as wild and brutish as it first appeared.

The bounty hunter Black Krrsantan is the 800-pound space gorilla that throws his weight around to get what he wants and lives to brawl and dominate. As a bounty hunter in service to the Hutt crime family lent out to Vader as hired muscle, he’s a brutal weapon for Vader to deploy when needed.

The adventures of Vader’s motley crew as they blast, backstab, and assassinate a bloody swath through the margins of Star Wars lore make for great pulp action. And since the first three volumes are all available in digital format, I highly recommend downloading them in case you want something to read during the long wait in line for the Han Solo Movie. Or—if the film doesn’t scratch your Star Wars itch—during the movie.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 12, 2018. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Avengers: MacGuffin War

Movie Review by Michael Isenberg

Avengers: Infinity War is an entertaining, impeccably paced, and visually stunning epic.

I hated it.

Not at first. I was, in fact, very excited to see this movie. Spent the previous day catching up on Ragnarok and Black Panther, tied a double Windsor in my special Avengers necktie, and shelled out the extra couple of bucks for IMAX. But sadly, I was disappointed. I’ll get into why shortly, but first, the obligatory overview:

We’ve known since he popped up in 2012’s The Avengers: Thanos is coming. Now it’s 2018 and Thanos is here. And he’s collecting something else that has been popping up in Marvel movies: infinity stones. Collect all six and you become super-powerful. Like end the universe with a snap of your fingers powerful.

Fortunately for the universe, Thanos does not want to end it entirely. He just wants to kill half the people. “It's a simple calculus,” he explains. “This universe has finite resources. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.” After the culling, Thanos doesn’t even want to rule those remaining. He just wants to “rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”

And so the Avengers assemble to stop him. With the help of a few other people. Well, actually they disassemble, going in several different directions. Captain America, Bruce Banner, and a legion of lesser knowns go to Wakanda, home of Black Panther. Their mission: protect Vision, who has one of the stones embedded in his forehead. Thor, meanwhile, teams up with Rocket Raccoon and Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy on a quest to get a battle axe to replace his hammer, which you may recall his sister destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok. Parts of the mission are suicide, but, Thor reminds us, “So is facing Thanos without that axe.” As for the rest of the Guardians crew, they chase down another of the MacGuffin stones to try to keep it out of Thanos’s gauntlet. Which is a little stupid because they’re bound to run into him and Gamora knows the location of yet another one. Finally, Iron Man, Spidey, and Doctor Strange fly off into space to take the fight to Thanos. Which is very stupid, because Strange has one of the stones on him.

I was concerned that with four distinct plotlines and God knows how many characters, things would get confusing, and favorite characters would get short shrift. But the movie did a great job of keeping everything straight and giving the various heroes sufficient screen time. (Well, almost everyone. I would have like to see more of Cap.) I think one reason it worked was, despite the numerous threads, it's really a very simple plot. Thanos wants to get six things. The Avengers want to stop him. Far more straightforward than Zemo's overcomplicated plan in Civil War.

My favorite scene is one in which Thanos must make a choice. Standing at the edge of a cliff amid a bleak landscape and swelling, dramatic music, he is told that in order to collect the next stone, he must give up something he loves. Love vs. Power. And he’s in tears. It’s a truly Wagnerian moment (and those who know me understand that I mean that as a compliment).

The following scene features a joke about Starbucks coming to Wakanda. Nice pacing, interspersing the humor amid the drama that way, to give the viewer a bit of a respite before the next blow. Indeed, the humor we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios was well in evidence. Spidey, having seen too many movies from the Alien franchise, can’t stop talking about extraterrestrials planting their eggs in people’s chests. Stark, on learning that Doctor Strange is a wizard, asks what he does besides make balloon animals. Peter Quill is jealous that Thor is so much more manly than he is. Drax doesn’t help, what with him waxing rhapsodic about Thor’s good looks and muscles. Mantis still gets expressions wrong (“Kick names. Take ass.”). And when Thor finally shows up at the final battle—with his new axe—Banner exultingly taunts the enemy, “You guys are so screwed now!”

Great characters. Drama. Humor. So why did I hate it?

There are two reasons.

The first is the political overtones. I can’t help thinking the writers have a secret sympathy for Thanos’s plan. American writers are, unfortunately, disproportionately Leftist. Raised on Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, many no doubt fantasize about having the power to wave their fingers, commit the unspeakable evil of making half of humanity disappear, and, since they won't be among the dead themselves of course, bask in the gratitude of the universe. Thanos is an eco-extremist’s wet dream. Tellingly, Infinity War isn’t the only major work in recent years based on this premise; Dan Brown’s Inferno might be literally more down to earth, but the plot is basically the same. And this view isn't confined to writers. I'm seeing many comments in Infinity War online discussions along the lines of "Thanos is right."

The underlying argument, that population growth inevitably outstrips resources, has been refuted time and again by events since Thomas Malthus first made it in 1798. It turns out humans have an uncanny knack for using technology to expand their resources. And yet, no one in the movie seems able to disprove Thanos. The best attempt, such as it is, comes from Gamora. When Thanos explains his reasoning to her, she replies with a lame “You don’t know that!”

If there’s any doubt that the writers are sympathetic to Thanos’s plan, it is removed by the second reason I hated the movie, and here I must warn the reader: THERE. WILL. BE. SPOILERS.

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SERIOUS SPOILERS.

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I'M NOT KIDDING.

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HERE IT IS...

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THANOS WINS.

He gets all six stones. He kills half the humanoids in the universe. Trillions of people just dissolve into a sort of floating black dust. The core team (Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor) survive, but Spider-man, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, the Winter Soldier, and all the Guardians except Rocket are gone. Thanos settles down to watch the sun rise, and the screen fades to black.

What a downer.

Superhero movies fill an important psychological need. They are escape from a world where evil often wins. It’s comforting to have this group of powerful individuals to guarantee that the forces of niceness prevail—at least on the screen. It’s unsettling to see them so impotent that the outcome would have been exactly the same if they had stayed home and washed their tights.

I don’t have a problem with unhappy endings per se. Many great works of literature have unhappy endings. But there’s usually a twist. Romeo and Juliet “with their death bury their parents’ strife.” The Three Musketeers fail at stopping Milady de Winter from assassinating the Duke of Buckingham, but they make her pay for her crimes. Cyrano de Bergerac is killed by an unseen enemy, but with “mon panache” intact. Sydney Carton, in A Tale of Two Cities, goes to the guillotine, but finds redemption there, “a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” Robert Jordan, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, dies (presumably), in a hopeless battle, in a hopeless war, but he goes down fighting, determined to take as many of the enemy with him as he can.

But Infinity War has no silver lining, no justice done, no moral victory, no redemptive struggle, no glorious last stand. The bad guy just wins. Everybody dissolves, far too quickly, painlessly, and numerously for the viewers to feel anything other than shock that it was really going to end that way, followed by disappointment. When I saw it, the audience sat through the closing credits in icy silence. And of course you can’t leave. It’s a Marvel movie. You have to wait for the end credit scene, which is Nick Fury, his body dissolving, managing to send off a text.

That text tells us the story’s not over. Something is up. They’re going to Days of Future Past everyone back to life. In fact, they have to. A powerful environmentalist message is all very well and good, but dammit, there are profitable upcoming releases of Spider-man and Guardians on the calendar. It’s that Ovaltine moment that Kerey wrote about in his post yesterday. Ha ha, moviegoers! You only got half a movie. If you want to see the Part II, you have to wait a year and pay us another thirteen bucks to see some bulls--t that undoes Part I.

It’s a scurvy trick, and yet I’ll pay it. Because I really, really, want to see justice prevail, Thanos destroyed, the dead restored, and the effects of this miserable movie erased from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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 1, 2018

The Annual Comic Book Massive Crossover Event

By Kerey McKenna.
Part III of a Series.

In Parts I and II of this series, I traced the rise of the Massive Crossover Event in movies and TV, coming to a climax in this weekend’s box office record for the opening of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. But back in the world of comics, where superhero crossovers were born in the 1940s, things might not be going so well.

For those once mighty titans of childhood imagination that Disney and Warner Brothers keep around to keep generating more superheroes to one day adapt for TV and Movies, things are going a bit more The Mummy than Infinity War. Is it possible that fans no longer want to see big crossover events with heroes and villains duking it out? Is it possible EVENT FATIGUE is a drag on the growth of comic book purchases, deterring new readers from getting into comics, and sending once loyal readers elsewhere?

I had my own episode of event fatigue as a young reader due to the Onslaught event. I call it my “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine” moment.

Fans of the annual holiday classic, A Christmas Story, should immediately get the reference: in one scene in the movie the now adult narrator takes us through the childhood anticipation of collecting Ovaltine labels, sending away for a special prize, a Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring, initiating him into the “secret circle” that helps his favorite classic radio character in her adventures. Receiving the ring weeks later by mail (forever in “kid time”), he carefully decodes the special “secret circle” radio broadcast, only to discover that this “very important message” from the characters and entertainers he loves is… “Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine.” All this time, effort, and money spent on Ovaltine labels just for a commercial for more Ovaltine.

In 1996, the culmination of Marvel Comics’ event Onslaught left me with the same feelings of betrayal and cynicism. My childhood attention span and petty cash had been traded in on something that would just string me along with no satisfying end, just the next pitch to consume more product.

The Onslaught event started as part of the popular X-men series of books. Onslaught was a new villain, the corporeal gestalt of Magneto’s hatred and distrust of regular humanity combined with the darker urges and raw psychic power of Professor X. As this new creature gained power, he started causing problems all around Marvel’s shared world and came to challenge other Marvel icons like the Incredible Hulk, Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. To follow the story you not only had to be reading the X-men books, but also the books of those other characters, many of which I usually didn’t buy. But this event seemed so BIG, I had to run around buying as many of those other comics as I could to follow the story.

Over the course of the event the different narrative threads where woven together leading the Marvel heroes to battle the monstrous Onslaught in New York City. With their combined might the heroes win the day, but at the cost of the lives of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the heavy hitters of the Avengers. To me it felt like the proper ending to a story, that nothing could ever really be the same for a world that lost so many of its iconic heroes. But on the very last page there was a last minute reprieve from the editors. Fear not true believers, this is not the end of your beloved heroes, they will be REBORN.

Yes, much to my dismay at the time, I learned that on the heels of this event, a new series of books would launch called Heroes Reborn, a mini-series to create new, more contemporary origin stories for characters like the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. And while I read some of these books (mostly borrowed from friends), I felt let down that this big epic story wouldn’t have lasting consequences.

These events are becoming a pain for the artists and writers as well. Creative teams tasked with writing a monthly serial about one set of heroes now find that one or more issues have been hijacked by the story of another creative team. For example, the original Infinity Gauntlet mini-series from 1991, on which the new the Marvel movie is based, used one creative team (Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim) to tell a grand story in sequence over 6 issues. In contrast last year’s Secret Empire Event (see my commentary on that controversial story here) ran from April to August of 2017 and by my reckoning played across over 50 issues, (eleven of those by a team tasked with the event and then the other issues parts of their regular runs tying in with the new storyline).

So now you have creative teams that had or were working to develop their own narrative style, voice, and ongoing story lines getting an editorial mandate that everything would be placed on the back burner as the fallout of Captain America seemingly handing over America to the crypto-fascist Hydra organization played out.

And this was an annoyance to both those readers who wanted to see Secret Empire play out, and those who would rather not follow the storyline of Captain America Sentinel of Liberty turning out to be a fascist sleeper agent. Those who wanted to see the story played out had to get all of the main books in the mini-series plus the tie-in and crossover books that might contain vital information. Those who were repulsed by the story had little choice but to simply not buy their regular issues until the whole thing blew over.

Even if those events left bad tastes in the readers’ mouths, they were admittedly trying to tell big grand stories. But other yearly events were more like company-wide pranks, DC being more fond of this thing sort of thing for a while. It ran the event JLApe: Gorilla Warfare in which the Justice League and other DC Characters where transformed into talking gorillas for the duration of the event.

It was a storyline so silly that years later the crew over at DC animation would look back on it and go out of their way to comment on the inanity.

As much as a shared universe of heroes and villains means to comic book fans, it’s possible that the big sprawling crossover event needs to be reined back in. As monthly comic book shop stand sales stagnate or decline, while digital readership and trade paperback collections increase, perhaps it is a time to return to a more self-contained mini-series style for large stories. One of my favorite big epic crossover stories was Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross which told a grand sprawling story across the DC universe but did it as a four issue mini-series managed by one creative team (and as a result holds up excellently as a graphic novel when published as a trade collection).

Similarly Marvel’s 2008 mini-series Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven used the expansive Marvel lore to present a bleak future and a worn down world-weary Wolverine being pulled out of retirement for one last adventure.

If that premise sounds familiar it’s because it is the loose inspiration for Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the cinematic Wolverine in the film Logan. And that adaptation shrunk the scope of the bleak possible future too, from what happened to the entire Marvel universe, to what happened to the X-men and other mutants. Similarly the film Captain America: Civil War distilled some of the best parts of the premise of the Civil War Comics event, and smoothed out the rough edges by having the crossover aspects contained in one work. Yes, events from civil war are alluded to in other Marvel movies and TV series, but when Civil War: the Movie was playing in the theater the action didn’t have to be annotated with pop ups telling people to tune into Agents of SHIELD on ABC to get more of the story.

So although a shared universe is a device that works well for superhero comics, perhaps publishers should show a bit more care in how they expect their readership to explore these massive universes. Otherwise, they may find more and more readers dropping out to wait for clever Hollywood writers to make a better version of the story later.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 12, 2018. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Annual Comic Book Massive Crossover Event

By Kerey McKenna.
Part II of a Series.

Avengers: Infinity War opened to a new box office record this weekend, taking in $250 million domestically and narrowly edging out the previous record holder, Star Wars: The Force Awakes. As Box Office Mojo put it, “Audiences assembled.”

There’s no doubt about it: MASSIVE CROSSOVER EVENTS rake in the cash.

It wasn’t always the case.

In Part I of this series, I explored the concept of the “shared universe” that underlies the crossover event. In this part I’ll give some history of these events themselves, and show how we got to this record-breaking weekend.

What TV and movie producers have been experimenting with since the late 60’s, comic book creators have been doing routinely since the 1940’s, when the Human Torch fought the Submariner.

What's better than a title bout between two characters? A team composed of a bunch of their most popular characters, like the All-Star Game in baseball.

Comic book fans quickly became accustomed to characters from different stories sharing the same fictional universe in a way that was seemingly rare in other mediums. Publishers had characters interact for walk-on cameos, team ups, or fist fights. Unlike in TV and movies, crossovers are logistically very easy for comic book publishers because adding new characters is just ink on paper. As long as a publishing house has the rights to two or more characters, they just have the artist of book A draw in characters from book B. And because a character’s creator wasn’t owed royalties for much of comic publishing history, popular characters could be used throughout a publisher’s line of books to help launch new titles and tell “epic stories.”

By the 1980’s larger crossover events became more and more frequent. By the early aughts it was expected that every year the Big Two publishers DC and Marvel would each feature at least one annual event to get as many characters together as possible. These events would take over many or even the majority of their books for one or several months like Secret Wars, Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Infinity Gauntlet, and The House of M, just to name a few.

But translating this concept to the mediums of film and TV has its difficulties because it introduces all the challenges of working with the flesh and blood actors, production staff, and physical logistics of two or more productions. Even a quick walk-on cameo by a character from a different story must be squared away with that actor’s contract, pay requirements, and schedule. Telling a story across the multiple time slots of different series requires the collaboration of all the production teams.

Despite these obstacles, producers wished to build upon brand names, repeat successful formulas, boost the ratings of their series, and hopefully somewhere in there tell great stories. There had been attempts to make comic book crossover projects in the 1980’s: a Supergirl movie spun off from the Christopher Reeve Superman films, a Mighty Thor pilot spinoff from the popular Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk TV series, but nothing ever stuck. It seemed movie and TV audiences would only put up with these garish comic book characters in fits and bursts, not long enough to sustain the “shared universes” comic book fans had come to know. It wasn’t until Marvel Studios painstakingly set up its 2012 Avengers crossover with four years’ of Easter eggs spread across its Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America franchises, that the crossover event hit blockbuster status on the big screen.

Since then, other companies have been trying to ride Marvel’s coattails (now Disney/Marvel) or copy its formula with varying degrees of success.

Sony has a sort of joint custody agreement with Disney/Marvel for the use of Spider-man and is basically leasing space in the Marvel universe after it failed to launch a fully self-sustaining Spider-man franchise of its own.

20th Century Fox, the other inheritor to Marvel IP characters, had been pushing its licensing agreement as far as possible to maintain films (The X-Men series and Deadpool) and TV projects (Gifted, Legion, and New Mutants) in the shared universe based on mutants. At the time of this writing, with Marvel’s parent company Disney purchasing 20th Century Fox, it's unclear if these stories or future projects will also be folded into the established Disney/Marvel Universe.

Their “Distinguished Competition,” DC Comics (the comic publishing subsidiary over at Warner Brothers) is undergoing drastic course correction after is superhero projects as planned out by Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan failed to soar (with the notable exception of Wonder Woman). Although things aren’t all bad for DC/Warner Brothers on the Crossover front. By building a shared universe for some of their TV series (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, currently all airing on their network, The CW), crossovers between two or all of the shows have gone over pretty well with their fans, becoming regular events as they have been in the comics.

But back in the world of comics where all these colorful characters sprang from, things might not be going so well. I’ll address the phenomenon of “Event Fatigue” in Part III of this series.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 12, 2018. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.