Thursday, December 27, 2012

Superheroes: Why Can't They Die?

"Death is a fact of life," is a phrase I think we've all heard at one time or another.  It's a fact of art, too.  It's portrayed in film in every fashion imaginable, from casual slayings in action and horror movies, to tearful goodbyes in more sentimental efforts, to dramatic disappearances (off a cliff, into a vortex) of the main villain in various Disney films.
Being truthful, as I look back on my childhood, some of my first emotional experiences of death were fictional portrayals in media.  The slaying of Bambi's father and the execution of Ol' Yeller were experiences that pre-date any real wake services I was allowed to attend, at least according to my memory.  At those points in my life, if I'm honest with my self, a vague knowledge of the story of the Passion of Christ, imparted via Sunday mass and the teachings of my parents, simply didn't hit as hard.
I think I was about three when I remember accidentally seeing someone killed on a tv show. I think they had been shot, but however it was, I remember clearly thinking that it were real, and my mortified parents having to explain to me that it was an imaginary thing, and that the actor was indeed ok. As I grew older, of course there were more fictional portrayals, many treated with less care for younger sensibilities:  The death of King Kong, the act of revenge in a saw mill in Walking Tall, the administration of various coups de grace by Mr. James Bond, are all stand-out movie experiences in my mind. My experiences with assigned reading in early adolescence were no doubt more meaningful:  The devastating mercy-killing of Lennie in Of Mice And Men,  Finny's death, preceded by a supreme act of forgiveness, in A Separate Peace.  For myself, I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy by the time I was twelve, and even these rarely shied from portrayals of death both meaningful and incidental.  I'll never forget reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and realizing that Tolkien, at the height of his storytelling power, had created in his fantasy world a place where death was not only re-defined metaphorically, but as a matter of the economy of his universe as well. I would wonder later if, having experienced world wars, the author had a need to ascribe additional meaning to a character death than was likely for the vast majority of the millions who died senselessly in those conflicts.
And yes, death is portrayed in comics.  In fact, if one were to list the most impactful comics in recent memory, they almost to a one portray the death of some important character.  Alan Moore's Watchmen,  DC's first (and last) Crisis event, the Death of Superman, the assassination of Captain America, The Dark Knight Returns, the list goes on....and now, as I write this, Spider-Man is seemingly joining the ranks.  But he isn't truly dead, to be sure....these super-heroes just can't stay dead, can they?  Even Rorschach survives in print media after his obliteration, having wholly and completely served his character's purpose, albeit in prequel fashion in some inferior attempt to ring the registers one more time without covering any new, meaningful ground (in my humble opinion).  Why is that?
Part of it, to be sure, is in their nature as characters:  What is Superman, if not an icon of human virtue set loose with all our human frailties erased?  We've been ascribing such abilities to gods and goddesses, to magical beings of folklore and myth and religion for thousands of years...why wouldn't illustrated fiction create a character with abilities "far beyond those of mortal men"?  And why wouldn't such a character survive through the decades?  What is Batman, but a timeless representation of human need for justice and order amidst the deadly chaos of lawlessness?  A character who, in every respect, represents the pinnacle of human aspiration....the perfect detective, the most knowledgeable of consultants, the most capable martial artist, the richest of businessmen, the most prepared to defeat evil. His connection to his parents (really, the only thing distinctly human about him), and their death, represents a life-debt owed him by criminality that can never be paid, despite his unceasing efforts to collect, and connects us to the character in ways as old as civilization.  We've all experienced loss, we all have a need for order, we all fear lawlessness but are occasionally subject to circumstances that don't demonstrate care for the well-being of ourselves or our loved ones.  Who wouldn't want to read about a character who, although human, ceaselessly prepares for the worst, who stays at the pinnacle of physical prowess, whose mental faculties are forever keen, who stands as a bulwark of order in the darkness...who, after remaining in his thirties for 75 years, give or take, is human AND immortal? The cardinal sin in the latest cinematic portrayal of the character, for many fans, was that Batman demonstrated human frailty:  He wasn't prepared.  His detective skills weren't perfect.  He aged, he lost, and eventually, having experienced both fundamental loss and fleeting moments of triumph, he stopped.
And what is Spider-Man, but an iconic portrayal of the responsibility of those entrusted with great power?  Of the human need, even in the face of time's unrelenting march forward, to attempt to re-set the clock with actions that, however heroic, cannot affect the failings of the past?  The character, no matter how many punches he delivers, can't change the story of how his uncle was killed, and what he could have done to prevent it.  We, the readers, can see the futile nature of this conflict with things already past.  Strange, then, that some of those same readers purporting to "love" the character of Peter Parker, and who indubitably "get" the nature of his heroism at odds with a past he can't change, seem to balk at the seeming end of his if the ending of that story could invalidate fifty years of if his humanity (you know, the humanity Marvel became a household name for giving their characters in the first place) and mortality were the absolute worst thing a writer could illustrate.  To me, the events of the last issue of Amazing are fitting:  The character is demonstrated as mortal, but in death, he sets one of his greatest enemies on a path to heroism that continues.  His heroic act, at the last, ensures the continuation of his crusade, and stamps his legacy on his world well past his own "sell-by" date.
These stories all start from places literature had trod for thousands of years prior, and will likely go on with for that much more.  The question is not from whence they come, but rather, as characters, where they're capable of going:  How fully realized can a character be at some frozen state of development?  How many times can we open the cover to find them on the same mission, motivated by the same compulsion, at the same age, with only slight tweaks to the nature of their nemeses to clue us in to the fact that this story could be any different from those that came before it?  How many times must any changes to the status quo be redacted to please nostalgia, to assuage reader insecurities in the face of an uncertain future, to give them the dependable, static portrayal of their fantasies before any semblance of truth or lasting meaning bounces off the literary wall like bullets off the iconic "S"?  True, there are those works in comics where these paragons seemingly experience loss, are hurt, come to new realizations about themselves, enter into new relationships, etc.  Those are all character arcs, right?  But can they stick?  Do they ever change things in some fundamental way?  And if they do not do so, where is the meaning, and how can there be real progress?  
What is the cost, then, of such faithfulness to iconography? Superman, for example, purports to be a beacon of hope to the masses, an example for us to follow...but how can the character realize this, either literally or within the fiction, unless humanity is left in some way changed by his presence?  The seeming fact is that neither real fans nor the fictional Metropolis can deal with a world without a Superman. Instead, it appears they're stuck in some sort of nostalgic time-loop that's dependent on he being there, unchanged, for next month's episode.  In a character where any lasting change to him, or to the fictional landscape that hosts him, is forbidden, there can be no real character arc, can there?  Forbidding lasting change, forbidding death itself, preserves the character for future generations...or does it?  Do those stories all disappear if the character dies?  And if we keep him alive and unchanged, how is there hope that the story has meaning beyond what it had fifty years ago?
Some would explain that there is a conservationist value in the everlasting icon itself, that its immortality parallels for us some unceasing battle that mankind must fight against the darkness, and I'll admit there is some literary value in this.  But there is a reality that concerns me at work here:  We of this earth are mortal.  We crave things with staying power, things that deny aging, and the idea that our existence is memorable in some way.  We don't want our stories to end.  But eventually, end they will, and we can immortalize ourselves only by creating lasting change, whether through our works or our human progeny.  To be sure, I'd like for my daughter to enjoy the works of fantasy and fiction her father enjoyed on life's journey, but I would hope that her generation is able to create their own such works to surpass those that came before.  I wonder to what extent we, the aging fan base of comics, have put boundaries around what will come after with our demand for dependability in the characters we love.  I love the medium of comics as a concept, but I question whether the endeavor is served, after 75 years or so, by an aging fan base laying the yoke of their iconic, unchanging characters around the necks of so many of their brightest young writing and artistic talents.  How much paper is enough to devote to these characters?  How much of the industry's resources must revolve around them? How much of our young talent should be devoted to a re-treatment the essentials of which haven't changed in decades?  And how much storytelling opportunity is wasted by denying ourselves the two words most essential to all our childhood fables:

The End.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jim's Comic Reviews: Week of 19 December, 2012

Yeah, I know how long it's been since this page has seen an update.  Yeah, I'm gonna try and up the frequency, starting now.

Here are my comics reviews for the week!

Journey Into Mystery 647 / Thor God of Thunder  #003 

Man, I'm really psyched that Marvel is putting these titles out, and that Journey Into Mystery is giving the same in-depth treatment to Sif as a character as it did Loki over the past few years.  Journey picks up with Sif as she's just attained the ancient knowledge of how to invoke the berserker trance her forefathers used on the battlefield. Her and her kin are soon to find out she got more than she bargained for.  Immonen's writing remains a tight balance of mysticism and cold realism that's perfect for an Asgardian warrior in the modern age, and Schitti is bringing it all to life wonderfully with his sense of movement, skillful choices of viewing angle, and excellently rendered facial expressions.   Bellaire's color palette is a little less wide than Svorcina's is on Thor, but it really lends to the idea that Sif's new-found abilities are taking her in an unhealthy direction.  I do so love it when color choices lend to story over style.  

On Thor, Jason Aaron continues the tale of Thor's pursuit of the god-butcher, a killer of deities whose victims span the cosmos.  The story is told from three different viewpoints in time:  Thor's distant past, his present, and his future.  While it does jumble the narrative at times, it also gives the reader the sense that Thor's endeavors can span eons, and that his consciousness doesn't necessarily work on the same frame of reference as us mortals.  And the art...skillful layouts, action-oriented, just the right amount of detail when necessary, and just plain beautiful.  I wouldn't change a thing.    

Astonishing X-Men #57

Not as impressed with this effort.  While Walta and Ruiz's art is competent, the styles are different enough that it jars the narrative a bit when they switch, and the color tones can change mid-page or even panel-to-panel in a way that disrupts the flow.  That, and the twist to this story, essentially about Warbird being exposed to a something her culture has long feared, comes off a bit like an after-school special or Twilight Zone-style means-to-a-punchline. 

Hawkeye #006

Let's call this one It's a Very Barton Christmas.  Not much happens in this issue, and, like the Holidays, it serves as a somewhat brief respite between major story arcs, affording Clint the opportunity to do a little soul-searching and attempt to solve some of the sideline issues plaguing his personal life and what he sees as his responsibilities.  It's a very well-executed and consistent story arc, but there's not much story material to cover here.  That, and the one character element belabored early in the issue, Clint's stubborn need to define his own corner of life free of his Avengers compatriots and all the glitz/glamour/fuss therein, kinda bothers the reader when the mob is targeting the people in his building in retaliation for his solo interference.  Clint may be stubborn in his desire to "lone wolf" this conflict, but c'mon...a guy with a Norse god on speed-dial can't long call himself "hero" when he lets his personal desire for solitude put people in danger.  The art actually works better for this type of story than it did in previous issues, however. C'mon Fraction, you gotta stay on point with the excellent storytelling of the first 5 rest for you!

Indestructible Hulk #002

What a fun read.   As soon as I heard the premise for the new Hulk title under the Marvel NOW! moniker, I thought, "Teaming Hulk up with Shield is a great way to get him into the situations that we want to see him in."  And it has been.  Waid's writing examines Banner and Hulk equally, bringing the good doctor to light as the genius he is (which takes place too infrequently in his books) by placing him in a lab environment under the watchful eye of SHIELD.  He also affords Big Green the opportunity to right the wrongs and pummel stuff real good by having SHIELD use him as a rather blunt, but powerful weapon against threats on a global scale.  One of the problems facing writers of the character in times past has been getting him into the fray in the first place...after all, why would Banner/Hulk know or care if Hydra's stealing plutonium from some African country, or building a secret underwater lair in the North Atlantic?  With SHIELD involved, the logic is plain.  This issue sees Banner (not Hulk) setting the dominoes up to settle a score with a "most of the time" ally.  It's a kind-of character examination of Banner, revealing some of the undercurrent of emotion that can bring about his change.  Unlike past iterations, this isn't a Banner that's running from, or trying to eliminate his other self, it's a Banner that's embracing that self, and acting to fulfill some of those more violent urges before they internalize into a destructive force that can no longer be channeled.  And unlike Fraction with Hawkeye this week, Waid doesn't forget the action.  Art-wise, the line work and coloring in this issue is really good, but it looks over-inked at times...well, all the time, really.  It adds weight to Hulk's bulk, but what should be Iron Man's sleek and futuristic visage ends up looking just as blunt and weighty as ol' Incredible's, and that just shouldn't be.


Captain America #002

This issue opens with Cap trapped in the pocket-dimension created by Arnim  Zola, trying to escort a young ward he picked up escaping Zola's lab safely back to our own continuum.  The landscape and its denizens are all very Kirby, and although I just don't take to JR Jr.'s blocky and line-driven style, it's very skillfully rendered, and he manages to impart the oppressive landscape of the alien dimension very well. Romita's a great storyteller with his art, it's just that it rubs me the wrong way style-wise, which is entirely subjective.  Still waiting to see that kid turn into a man-eating beast or turn out to be Zola's child or some such twist.  Overall, it's a decent read.

Avengers #002

Man, this is starting to look like an all-Marvel week, huh?  Anyway, Hickman's writing, and the art by Opena and White is pretty durn good.  The Avengers have decided to "go bigger", and Captain America and Iron Man have put out the call to form a new team.  This issue serves as a good reveal for the origin of their current nemeses, a trio of planet-judges, or sort of galactic gardeners bent on reshaping Earth for the better, at the expense of the current Terran status-quo and dwellers therein.  I feel that the individual team member personalities are being well cared for by Hickman (was there any doubt?) and although this one is short on the bruises delivered, the story arc is taking shape nicely. "Bigger" does indeed seem to be the tone for the Avengers under NOW!   

Supergirl #15

Whew!  While I'm still too light on independents, it's nice to at least have both of the Big Two represented.  This issue continues the H'el on Earth crossover story line, and unlike the last, seems to really cement Kara as a necessary cog in H'el's plans...plans which, given his disdain for all things non-Kryptonian, will likely result in humans getting the short end of the stick.  Johnson's writing delves into more of the life experiences on Krypton which separate Kara from her earth-raised cousin, as well as her immaturity, which leave her more susceptible to H'el's influence.  While Asrar's twisty style of pencil-work doesn't always flatter Kara, it does convey her relative youth well, and his facial expressions and panel layouts are spot-on. That, and the inkers (there are three) all seem to know when to add weight and shadow, and when to spare it.  A good effort all around. 

Image Firsts

Before I go, I gotta mention here that Image has put out reprints of the first issues of many, if not all, of their current series, and they sell for a buck each.  In case you've passed over some of the finer works such as Fatale, Thief of Thieves, and Revival, now's you're chance to test the waters before seeking out trades and back issues.   

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Jim's Comic Reviews:  Justice League #13

Okay, so it's been a while since I picked up a new Justice League comic besides thumbing through one at Captain Blue Hen.  I came off the reboot last year confused and disillusioned with the series, unable to put together a simple sequence that explained the book's overall timeline. This was exacerbated somewhat by Jim Lee's work on the title, where I would look at a given two-page spread and think, "looks great!", but a page or two later, and I'd be wondering what was going on.  It was as if the characters were well-crafted but inarticulate action figures traipsing through backgrounds that were just too full of imposing heroes to convince me the world was greater than the space between the gutters. Superman doesn't fly, he poses in the narrow sky.  Batman doesn't tumble, he's too busy holding up the margins of the page with his shoulders.  Aquaman doesn't swim, he's holding back the tide by standing in front of it, heroically brandishing a trident or something.  Too many flashbacks being the main course, there was not enough meat on offer, story-wise or art-wise, to justify my cash.

This brings us to issue #13, where a pleasant surprise awaited me, in the form of some very solid pencils by Mr. Tony Daniel, and some tight storytelling by Geoff Johns.  This issue explores the recent lips-smacked-round-the-world between Superman and Wonder Woman, re-introduces Cheetah not only as a capable nemesis for Wonder Woman, but a challenge for the entire league assembled, and features a back-up story centered around lovesick Steve Trevor that hints at things to come.  Overall, a competent effort by Johns that, while it's not going to win any awards, was a right-sized chunk of episodic fun and brought enough entertainment for me.

What got me about the issue's art is the cinematic nature of it.  Tony's never been a go-to artist for me, but reading this issue, I'm wondering why.  He seems to have all the good bits of Jim Lee down:  The characters are as heroic and imposing as Lee's own rendering, but he maintains a tight control over the space they take up in the panel, and the timing imparted by the panel size and action therein.  Action-wise, Wonder Woman and Cheetah, the two major combatants, slug it out with the battle moving from panel to gracefully rendered panel fluidly, and there seems to be no snapshot in time Daniel can't convincingly render them frozen in motion. There's an eye for environments at work, and attention to the movement of the chess pieces, and the world seems larger for it.  When things slow down, the facial expressions contain nuances of performance to do any actor proud, particularly the glances shared between Wonder Woman and Superman, and the combination of grudging respect and rivalry between Batman and Aquaman.

The issue comes off as having just the right amount of character development, exposition, and action for this title and flagship-worthy art, and I came away well satisfied with the read.

This is the Justice League I was looking for.  4/5 stars.      

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jim's Comic Reviews, Batgirl #13

Batgirl #13 picks up where #12 left off.  The issue opens to find Barbara nearly incapacitated from a knife-wound inflicted by Knightfall in the previous issue, desperately clinging to consciousness as her attacker continues to press the fight.

This issue serves as a wrap-up to the Knightfall storyline and lead-in to the Death of the Family crossover event, and is a collaborative writing effort from Batgirl's regular writer Gail Simone, and Scott Snyder who helms the crossover.  As a tie-in to DotF, however, you only get a single page...and that's fine.  Ms. Simone has hit her running stride with this character in this story, and there's no sense in derailing it for the sake of the tie-in, regardless of my faith in Snyder's storytelling.  It seems Mr. Snyder and co. are accounting for the needs of the story as it exists over the desire for crossover sales or creative hubris, which is refreshing.  

The art in this issue is very good.  Benes is proving a welcome addition as penciller and inker to the title, having recently put forward a rather elegant effort with the #0 issue of same.  Although there is that tendency to place the camera rather strategically to showcase Barbara's lady parts, it's only a few panels, and it's a far cry from the blatant cheesecake of Benes' early days on Birds of Prey in the old DCU. Further, we're getting a lot more emotional depth and eye for tone and pacing than we did back then.  What comes through here is the strong, determined, and committed character Simone is writing, not the fact she has a cool outfit that's a color change away from nudity.  For example, Benes spends a protracted sequence of several panels to depict Barbara fighting her way to her feet after nearly succumbing to unconsciousness, and the fatigue, pain and determination to succeed at all costs to herself are all brutally evident in her expression, the slowed pacing really bringing it into focus.  This is the kind of close-quarters combat where Benes' work shines.  In the past, I've had problems with his seeming inability to do the sort of wide-angle establishing shots frequently needed for an ensemble title without making characters look out of place or not in touch with their environments...I think he does much better on a solo book like Batgirl, and look forward to more of same. His work as an inker is also looking rather layered and gives the book a textured look that lends to its gritty, hard-hitting gravitas.  As colorist, Arreola gives us a competent delivery that never strays far from realism, but lends to the sort of episodic crime-drama feel Simone's writing goes for.  Like the pencils, it's going for story, not gimmicks or pretense.

So yes, I recommend the book, especially to fans of the character that perhaps didn't make the leap across the reboot based on earlier issues in the title.  4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Please Make It Stop: Epitaphs On Car Windshields

Have you ever heard anyone say, "I hope that when I die, someone writes my epitaph on the rear window of a late 80's Cutlass with two missing plastic hubcaps and drives it around town for the next seven years, so folks can read it at intersections and ponder the futility of life."?  Have you ever heard a new husband promise his wife that were she to precede him to the great beyond, he'd be so distraught he'd have no choice but to partially obscure his rear window in ivory Times New Roman, and totally reduce the effectiveness of the defogger to, like, 85 per cent?

Neither have I.  Yet this disturbing trend has apparently taken root, and the number of rust bucket tombstones I see on the daily commute is growing.

Yes, I know we lose loved ones as we move through life, and being reminded that there are those who will miss us when our own time comes, can be a comfort.  But what is the purpose of parading this sentiment among people who never knew the deceased?  Are drivers supposed to cross themselves, or turn their vehicles eastward in homage to the sanctity of your rear window?  Does the Good Lord bless your commute out of deference to your rolling shrine?  Will onlookers be inspired to google the dearly departed and therefore be granted some of their parting wisdom? Is the hope that the Pope-mobile rolls past on the interstate one day, your touching remembrance inspiring the Holy Father to secretly canonize your loved one from the fast lane? Or maybe your aims are simpler...maybe the guy at the Burger King drive-through slips an extra apple pie in the bag and as you take it, clasps your hand with just that right amount of extra familiarity, saying, "Just take it...I knew Jason...I totally feel your pain, man."

Some of these are messages to the departed, saying "We miss you," as if the angels are smiling down on the bubbly purple window tint, and the heavens boom along with that ported subwoofer to the missives of Tupac.

I guess different strokes for different folks, right?  But are people really so different that what ranks for me one step above going to the convenience store for rolling papers in a bath robe, or loud farting in church, could mean so much to so many others?

I blame blogs.  And Twitter.  And Facebook.  In this world of constant fishing for feedback, of putting your "self" out there in the form of bytes in the ether, and expecting instant gratification in likes and +1's and badges, our approximation of eternity has been reduced from loving messages carved into granite, to decals on a glass/plastic hybrid surface. People in the age of Twitter, used to receiving instant kudos for photographic evidence of their adventures in fast food or their choice in clothes simply can't believe a thing can affect them so deeply, yet there remain those who simply don't need to know and can't care.  Yes, the hypocrisy is strong in this one, I have 5 posts on my blog, 5 "like"s, and they're all mine. But at least I know the difference between having an opinion on Batman no one cares about, and symbolically showering disinterested drivers with my salty tears as they trudge to work.

I'd be horrified to find out someone had planned a rolling eulogy for me, with the intent of advertising my death to the masses day after day as if life couldn't just, you know, roll on.  If this happens to me, and there is an afterlife, and any way at all that my soul can claw its way back across the ethereal plane to once again produce cause and effect in the land of the living, I am totally going to foul those spark plugs with smokey sulfur, clog that air filter with my ectoplasmic waste, and spook a flock of migrating geese to let go right over it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Snippets from around the web: Prometheus

Before this blog was created, I frequently used internet discussion forums as pulpits from which to belabor my observations on films.  These would usually be a more in-depth treatment of certain aspects as part of an argument, dialogue or detailed discussion.  What follows are my thoughts on Prometheus, re-assembled from various forum posts around the web. Keep in mind that these are simple cut/paste jobs, and have not received much by way of editing for grammar.  

Also, there may be spoilers ahead. 

On the back-story vs. what we saw in the theater:  

"Prometheus has a great story...someone really should make a movie about it.

I'm not talking about a formulaic approach to writing, I'm talking about being able to tell a story in general. Yes, it's fun to pick apart Prometheus by adding our own "what if's" and "I woulda's" and "the director says's" point is that there is little on screen to justify any of it. The merit, for me, in a piece like Prometheus must be demonstrated by what it conveys in the theater, not the enrichment we exercise in terms of adding content from outside media, relying on cast and writer/director interviews, etc. just to decipher main plot points and ideas central to its function. An artist doesn't present a painting and then say, "See, this is a nice painting, but what really makes it cool is if you imagine it being a better painting than it is, and imagine a bunch of really interesting bits I didn't paint happening in areas outside the canvas. What I painted was a bunch of random, scary, violent bits happening to people we don't care about...but it's really about religion, the quest for knowledge and the birth of humanity. It's just that all the smart things happen off-canvas. Smart people will imagine really smart things on the blank wall next to the painting, see?"

Prometheus has some great imagery. A few of the actors conveyed emotion very well. It just has very, very little in terms of story to offer, and even less character development. Unless you write a story for it yourself, or let that story be told to you in an interview or by someone with similar taste in guesswork to your own, you're relying on gossamer-thin elements on screen to create some sort of grand scheme to explain it all."

A more generalized review, but continuing the themes above:  

"I think Prometheus presented some pretty compelling imagery and acting performances, and perhaps the background to the story is insanely rich and complex...but what they put on the screen in terms of story is seriously lacking. Honestly, any movie where you have to rely on interviews with the director to fill in the plot holes, background, symbolism and character motivations isn't doing it right. Prometheus hinted at a grand and epic scope, but delivered a claustrophobic and cut-off viewpoint that left the machinations of the antagonists incomprehensible, and the motivations of the protagonists indecipherable.

[Spoilers]"Well, it's sin-goo, see, and it mimics your demeanor, becoming an abhorrent biological weapon of destruction in the presence of the evil of mankind by subordinating both the fearful imagery of his dark, twisted soul and his genetic pro-creative processes, as revenge for the crucifixion of Jesus, who is obviously an alien emissary of the engineers, they being a representation of man's proto-self and having been imbibed with the power of divinity via science! I mean, black slime equals sin equals jesus equals aborted squid-monster, it's all very one-two-three, very connect-the-dots. Here, read Neitsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, then watch these interviews, oh, and familiarize yourself with the New Testament. It's sooooo obvious now, isn't it? The engineer tears the android's head off and kills everyone in the room because the android is a mis-representation of the selfless model of perfection man was meant to achieve, begotten of man's greed and there as an errand-boy for an unenlightened glutton who wants more life, like Roy from Blade Runner. A two-year-old could figure this shit out!"

So, yeah, I didn't find it the be-all-end-all statement I'd hoped for. I do believe the background to the story, as pieced together by various interviews, reference to written work, and seat-of-the-pants conjecture on my part could be something just didn't manifest in the movie itself...and these (let's call them "douche bags" because it's entertaining) people that read all those interviews with writers and directors, and peruse all the blogs written about the theory behind the movie, then come out swinging with quips like "I can't believe you didn't get the obvious metaphors here," and "the symbolism is self-evident" and all that can just suck it: There's little in the movie itself to justify these connections to a larger back-story, or creative links to religion and other words, the movie itself is what I prefer to critique, not the more far-reaching thoughts of the writers that, while they may be compelling, just didn't make it into the film. 

Here's a hard example of what I'm talking about: When the party is exploring the engineers' hangout, one of them makes the observation that the facility is 2000 years old. Now, according to interviews with the writers, this is a reference to the time of Jesus, and that the supposed straw that broke the camel's back and made the engineers build a weapons facility with the intent of destroying humanity was the crucifixion of Jesus, he being an emissary of the engineers meant to show us how to right the course as a species. Sorry, but while that may be a great plot point, simply having "2000 years ago" appear once in the dialogue isn't enough for any audience member besides Jeff Goldblum to draw that conclusion. The antagonists in this film have complex motivations, but every opportunity to bring these to light, or give the audience even a cursory outline of their motivations, is wasted. 

One might be asking, "With the the decision having been made by the engineers to wipe humanity out, what obligation do the antagonists have to reveal their purpose to the crew, and what opportunities do they have to do so?" Well, to that I say the obligation is that of the writers, and the android himself seems a character designed with exactly that in mind....he deciphers their language, and much of their intent, early on. He could serve as the perfect translating mechanism between the mind of the author and the audience. But at the one opportunity for dialogue between the two species, the engineer is written to immediately tear his head off. At other opportunities for the android to expose the machinations of the engineers, such as when he enters and manipulates their computers for information, he stays quiet. So, there are these perfect opportunities to let the audience in on some of your plot, but they're wasted... 

Here's a thought: Wouldn't this have made a better tv show? Imagine if, instead of two-hours or so of exposition, you had tens of hours to flesh out the plot and provide hints and detail...I think this was written by someone in a tv-centric hand, having bitten off too much background and plot to portray well in the running time allotted, and leaving way too much expose in the dark recesses off-camera. I get the sense this is an epic story that was only given an episode's worth of storytelling."

Snippets From Around The Web: Dark Knight Rises

Before this blog was created, I frequently used internet discussion forums as pulpits from which to belabor my observations on films.  These would usually be a more in-depth treatment of certain aspects as part of an argument, dialogue or detailed discussion.  What follows are my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises, re-assembled from various forum posts around the web. Keep in mind that these are simple cut/paste jobs, and have not received much by way of editing for grammar.  

Also, there may be spoilers ahead.

On the difference between Nolan's Batman and the Batman of DC Comics, and what that means to fans of either:

"I think a lot of the criticism from the comics community (of which I am a member) stems from the fact that Nolan's Batman takes different elements from the essence of the character and forgoes some of the others from the comics. This is done to make the character more grounded in a world a little closer to the one we live in. Nolan's Batman is, at his core, a driven man who seeks to undo criminals by his own actions and to motivate others through the symbol he creates. He's smart (Princeton, wasn't it?) and he's strong, having trained himself to fight even before he met the league of shadows. What he's not, as opposed to the comics, is simultaneously the World's Greatest Detective, the World's Greatest Martial Artist, the World's Greatest Tactician, the World's Most Dilligent Crimefighter, and the World's Most Prepared Man. As opposed to the comics, Nolan's Batman cannot ride around town every night in the Batmobile and not expect thousands of 911 calls from concerned citizens along with police and press helicopters to follow him everywhere he goes. As opposed to the comics, Nolan's Batman cannot engage in year after year of nightly bare-knuckle boxing against armed thugs and jumping from 3-story parking garages and rooftops onto cars without quickly extracting a toll on his body. As opposed to the comics, Nolan's Batman is not given free reign to swing around the city on his grapple like Spiderman, going from rooftop to rooftop and crossing town parkour-style as if all building roofs are connected and Batman is not subject to permanent injury or exhaustion. Nolan's Batman has an actual story arc (with an end) as a character, and he is not frozen in the same place for decades at a pop as he is in the comics. In the movies, Batman is a symbol and the man behind him is the comics, Bruce Wayne is the one who is "more than a man", with such a check-box of abilities that the combination in any one human being borders on "super", even without x-ray vision and flight. The comics Batman is everything he needs to be to win, the movie Batman has a certain and defined skill set. The comics delve deeply into science fiction and fantasy at times, where Nolan's Batman barely scrapes science fiction. Superman and Green Lantern do not, nor can they, exist in Nolan's world.

So, to some comics fans, Batman isn't "super" enough in various aspects. He's a good detective, not a great one. His weapons are slightly sci-fi, not killer satellites and moon bases. His friends are cops and prosecutors, not aliens and Greek godesses. His enemies are people with resources, determination, and guile, not people who can command plants to do their bidding or open portals to ruined worlds at the other side of the galaxy. And, perhaps most impactful of all, and the root of most of the criticism from comics fans, imho...the story of Nolan's Batman has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Some comics fans cannot fathom that Nolan's Batman would actually seek retirement ("Batman never quits!"), that he might see that his duty to his parents and to his friends is to enjoy some semblance of life after sacrificing so much ("Batman can never get old!"), or that he might honor their memory by pursuing projects that could unite the city in ways other than putting criminals in jail ("Batman can never let go!"). They cannot stomach a Batman that doesn't scrape molecular samples off his batarang and trace them to the criminal's lair with the bat-computer all CSI-style ("Batman is the World's Greatest Detective!"), or a Batman that can't quote Shakespeare and recite the constitution of Yemen word-for-word, you know, just in case it becomes useful to solve a riddle ("Batman is always one step ahead!"). I think if some of those people would stop in the middle of a few "Batman wouldn't"'s and just let the story unfold, they would find it a compelling story of a batman...just not the one they expect."

On the portrayal of class struggle in the film (response to previous post):

"Okay, so that makes sense, if you want the movie to be more about the redemption of Gotham than about Bruce Wayne coming full circle and giving Gotham the hero it needs. I think your ideas on the class warfare and struggle taking more of a center stage might work, except that the premise is cheapened by the emptying of the prisons, the isolation inflicted on the city, the means of supply being fully under the control of a terrorist army, the "courts" led by a madman, and the police being trapped other words, you can't really do a convincing treatment on the class struggle if you illustrate one side of that struggle as being forced and whipped along by fantastic duress from outside forces. Any beliefs they have are moot as the deck is too stacked in the favor of "revolution". And remember, this is a city being portrayed as largely having fixed itself, where the people were given the sense of hope necessary thanks to the efforts of Batman and Harvey Dent's deified persona. To give Batman a reason to return, you had to have the threat be clear, fantastic, and outside the power of the citizens to handle without asking for heroism on the part of a few. I think as important as it is for the movie to show the basis for the class struggle, more important is the notion that people can choose to behave as heroes, even when the compulsion to destroy and despoil is inflamed beyond reason. As Gotham's disposition was dragged into hell, they needed such heroes to answer the call to greatness, rather than succumb to chaos. As far as "fighting the people, not the police force"...I think you missed one of the main points of the last two movies when it comes to the police: They are the people, just like the DA, the judges, the lawyers, the psychiatrists, the mobsters...They can be susceptible to corruption as anyone else, and choose as individuals to either uphold the ideals of the badge or not."

On the apparent anti-occupy lean in DKR:

"The first thing I would say is, I assume Nolan is somewhat intelligent based on his ability to helm various multi-million dollar projects to success. So let's postulate he's got his anti-occupy agenda, and he wants to illustrate that it's this and that using a parable as an aside to a movie about Batman. Well, if that's the case, I think he picked the worst possible way to generate ill feelings toward the occupy movement. I mean, Gotham is clearly illustrated as a city under siege, not by occupy, but by armed outside forces in a military organization. Food supplies and medical supplies trickle in. Power is a luxury, as is heating fuel. Prisoners have been released into the streets en masse. Bane got the response he wanted out of Gotham at the point of a gun. So, how do you illustrate citizens under such extreme duress and try to make a point on their behavior? Just going by the thematic elements of Nolan's various scripts, I think he is a complex enough writer and thinker that if he were to try to make such a point, he would realize the flaws in trying to draw a parallel using this story...the circumstances just don't match up. I think the point Nolan was trying to make revolved around the character of Bruce Wayne more than it did around any current political movement. Meaning, Bruce was willing, even as a figure of some privilege, to put his fortune and his life on the line for the people of the city at many opportunities. If you were to broaden the scope, and I don't necessarily think he would look at it this way, I would say the point is more about the need for civic responsibility and selflessness on the part of one of the 1%, rather than the mob mentality on the part of the 99%. On the flip side, there is clear mention of the draconian and freedom-stifling measures the city took to fill the prisons to begin with, which just doesn't jibe with some sort of conservative agenda. Sure, you could look at the thing on a very shallow level and conclude that it's anti-occupy, but nothing I've seen in Nolan's vast inventory of writing techniques suggests to me that he's trying to write parables with simplistic political bent."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jim's Movie Reviews: Dredd 3D

Dredd 3D is the second major motion picture concerning the exploits of Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban), a fictional law enforcement officer in the post-apocalyptic metropolis Mega-City One. The character and his world were created by John Wagner and first rendered by Carlos Ezquerra in sequence art for the UK scifi anthology magazine 2000 AD, and published under various titles for the better part of the last 35 years or so.  Dredd is as old as Star Wars, even if he doesn't enjoy the same level of attention.

Written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame), this film pairs Dredd with rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on an investigation into a run-of-the-mill triple homicide in a massive residential skyscraper that turns into all out war as the plot unfolds.  It seems that this structure is home to the undisputed queen of the city's drug cartels (Ma-Ma, played by Lena Headey) and once she puts the building on lock-down, no one's getting in or out until justice is served or the Judges are dead. Fortunately for our heroes, Judges in Mega-City One are equipped with plenty of justice (read: 'bullets') and the authority to try, convict, and sentence miscreants on the spot, up to and including the death penalty.

What follows could be described as a blood-bath, but there are also plenty of bone fragments, shards of glass, teeth, freshly skinned corpses, and various displaced anatomy flying around the screen for most of the film.  Each death is exquisitely rendered in stunning detail, with 3D used to great effect, resulting in a level of violence that makes your average Rambo tussle look like a Saturday afternoon spa treatment.

Through it all, Dredd remains the stoic, unyielding figure we are introduced to at the beginning of the film, with his only character arc being the traversal from floor to floor, Die Hard style, in the great high-rise of death he finds himself in.  What little character growth there is is managed by Cassandra, who lays aside her initial squeamishness to become capable of doing what's necessary to survive, that is, kill a whole bunch of people in varied and spectacular fashion.

I feel I've been flippant enough about the characters and the violence in this film that I should take a moment to say the following:  As a screenplay, this piece does only what's necessary to advance the rather pedestrian and cliched plot from beginning to end.  As it was filmed, however, it succeeds on several aesthetics that not only make it a wonderful film to watch, but one of the most skillfully rendered action movies in recent memory.  The photography in evidence is astoundingly good, and no surer hand with set pieces and backdrop have I seen in a movie of its ilk since Blade Runner.  Yes, I went there:  Mega-City One is so stunningly realized, it invites comparison to some of the best works in the genre.  Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (yeah, the one with the Oscar) puts his best foot forward here.  With flyover shots taken from about thirty thousand feet, the city is established from horizon to endless horizon in orderly rows and columns, where gargantuan project buildings housing seventy thousand people a piece stand as ominous sentinels peppering the land.  The oppression and hopelessness of the citizens is palpable from the opening shot.  And let's not stop there:  The vision of its highways and byways at ground level is richly realized as well, with nary a surface unmarked by dust, blood, crumbling stone, offal or graffiti, and all is awash in punishing sunlight glare.  Interiors are dark, suitably cramped, and packed to the gills with gritty detail.  Never once in the film are you fully removed from the presence of decay, not even during the dream-like sequences depicting the drug-induced ecstasy of some of the city's more fortunate junkies. There are no green trees, no fountains, no garden parks, no glimpse of nature to relieve you from the visage of a world that is simply used up.

The viewer never has to wonder, then, about the role of the addictive substance peddled by the antagonists' goon squad.  Called slo-mo, the drug serves the user by slowing the apparent passage of time to 1/100th that of normal speed, the effect being to render beautiful, for a time, the simplest gesture or happenstance.  The camera uses this to breathtaking effect in several sequences during the film, including some of the more prominent death scenes.  Filmed in ultra-high speed, the sweat, blood, and splintered bone performs a ballet in mid-air, rendered in a crisp 3D effect that, to my knowledge, has never been demonstrated so effectively in this media.  Unless you are one of those people who absolutely detests 3D film-making to the point of nausea, you'll want to see this one with the glasses on.

The film is edited well, ramping into a smooth action pacing early on, and firing on all cylinders to the end.  The actors do a fine standout soliloquies or emotional revelations, but Mr. Urban's Dredd is confidently delivered and maintains the necessary air of menace and finality necessary for the character.  Thirlby's Cassandra convincingly moves from timid to decisive as the situation comes to a rolling boil.  Headey is a sufficiently damaged, ferocious, and utterly remorseless Ma-Ma.  The score is wonderfully integrated and sets an eerie tone in the slo-mo sequences, changing to an arrhythmic artificial heartbeat for much of the fast action.

All in all, where the film fails to deliver a complex story or engaging character arc, it succeeds so fluently in its aesthetic that it's hard to dismiss.  I recommend it to fans of the genre, and to fans of the character wholeheartedly, but the level of violence and lack of literary merit may be valid reasons to stay away for others.  8 out of 10.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Jim's Bizarro Blogocube

Hi there, and welcome to my blog!

I know it's not much to see yet, but soon this place will be filled with insightful and penetrating observation of things I find interesting.  At least, I will try to make them sound insightful and penetrating.  Some likely topics include movies (scifi is where my attention is most often drawn), comic books, gadgets and interesting corners of the web I happen across.  Hopefully, this will inspire you, the reader, to take similar interest, or offer your opposing viewpoint, or simply while away the hours in the day amused in some small fashion by my ignorance and utter lack of sophistication.  That is, if I'm lucky.

More than likely, there will be thousands...nay, millions of such observations for you to find out here in the endless tracks of the etherwebs, with the majority of these of better quality and more frequently frequented by people whose opinions you actually respect, and this place will just melt into the background noise of the all-pervasive internet mediocrity.  Everyone has a blog by now, right?  Everyone is offering an observation to everyone else, with no seeming qualifier other than hit counts and reader comments to distinguish themselves from the masses.

Still, there is a point, at least for me.  Spewing forth an opinion piece on the latest news byte, or a review of the latest blockbuster movie or monthly comic book is, for me, an exercise in writing structure, an invitation to those with similar interest to opine together, and a way to organize my thoughts on a matter of trivia such that I enter discussion on the topic armed with salient points.

So thank you, and enjoy.