Around the Web 2

H.R. Giger, the artist who designed the xenomorph in Alien, passed away. Den of Geek has a nice write-up.

The trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is intriguing.

A photo of Ben Affleck as Batman rocked the internet. Here’s an enhanced version that reveals more of the costume’s texture. It’s reminiscent of the costume from the Arkham games. Also, the Bat symbol itself clearly shows Frank Miller’s influence.

Two former James Bonds, Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton, speak about their tenure as 007. In my opinion, both actors are a bit hard on themselves. Dalton is one of the most underrated actors to play Bond. He was doing the darker, grittier take on the character long before Daniel Craig. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t appreciate that portrayal at the time.

A new Hercules movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is coming out soon. Donald Robertson takes this renewed public interest in the Greek myth as an opportunity to talk about the legacy of Hercules in Stoic philosophy.

 

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More DC on TV

In addition to The Flash, these other DC shows look promising.

 

 

If Gotham is anything like the Gotham Central comic book series, we’ll have a winner. Here’s hoping FOX doesn’t cancel it. And this version of Constantine is way more faithful to the source material than that Keanu Reeves movie. Alan Moore will still hate it though.

News Flash

CW has released a trailer for their new Flash TV series!

I have to say, it looks pretty good. A few thoughts:

It looks like the Reverse Flash, aka Professor Zoom, is responsible for the death of Barry’s mom. I wonder if they’ll eventually incorporate the Flashpoint storyline from the comics which was turned into a decent direct-to-DVD animated feature.

There’s a nod to Ferris Air at 2:12. Could Green Lantern make an appearance on the show? In the comics, GL has often teamed up with the Flash and Green Arrow, so it’s quite possible they plan to introduce other heroes for potential spin-offs. In any event, there seems to be a self-conscious attempt at Marvel-style universe building going on here.

It looks like Flash’s first villain will be the Weather Wizard. The Flash has an extensive rogues gallery for the writers to play with. It also looks like Flash’s and Weather Wizard’s origin are related to the extra-dimensional incursions. The Speed Force, perchance? Flash’s villains being ‘meta-humans’ is a departure from the source material (with the exception of Reverse Flash). The extra-dimensional incursions seem to serve a similar function to the meteor shower in Smallville: to explain the origin of the weekly enemies the hero has to overcome. But I can live with that change.

I heard a rumor that John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash in the short-lived 1990 TV series, was scheduled to make an appearance. I didn’t see him in the trailer, but it would be fun to see him on the show in some capacity, even if only a cameo.

The suit looks pretty cool. It follows the trend of grounding superhero costumes in the ‘real world’, looking like some sort of high tech bodysuit from the world of sports. The way he gets his name is corny, but hey, it’s based on a comic book!

For fans, this show can’t get here fast enough.

The Amazing Spoiler-Man 2

As the title indicates, this review will be chock-full of SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further. If you’ve seen the movie, or just don’t care about spoilers, read on. If you just want to know whether or not I recommend the movie, skip to the very last paragraph.

First, however, some general comments. I have to admit I was underwhelmed by The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. I felt it was an unnecessary retelling of the origin. I’ve always been puzzled by why studios don’t treat superhero franchises like the Bond movies. Recast them, change directors, but don’t hit the reset button every single time. We all know who Spider-Man is and we could have just hit the ground running with The Lizard, who was already set up in the Raimi series.

Speaking of Raimi’s movies, the new Spider-Man franchise invites the inevitable comparisons. One way to justify a hard reboot, would be to do something completely different with Spider-Man’s origin. To be fair, the Amazing series does draw much more explicitly on the origin from the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, which is outside the main Marvel continuity. The first one established the mysterious death of Peter’s parents and his dad’s connection to Norman Osborn. This thread is carried forward in the sequel and provides sufficient motivation for Peter to become Spider-Man. Uncle Ben’s murder in the first outing felt too perfunctory; it’s there because we expect it. (There’s another one of these deaths in the sequel too.) I got the feeling that the filmmakers were playing it safe here, rather than taking a risk. I thought it would have been interesting if Uncle Ben had survived the first movie.

I should also add that I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man much more on Blu-ray than I did in the theater. It looked dark and washed out when I saw it; maybe it was the fault of the projectionist. The Blu-ray looks great and the movie has its moments. I prefer Andrew Garfield to Toby Maguire. Again, the interweaving of Spider-Man’s origin with his father’s scientific work for Oscorp is interesting, if not fully developed until the sequel. I also prefer mechanical web-shooters to organic ones. And it was cool to see Spidey use his webs like trip-lines to detect movement, the way real spiders do. (After all, he’s supposed to do whatever a spider can, right?)

To return to the Raimi series, however, the high watermark for any of the Spider-Man movies is still Spider-Man 2. Although I’m sure we’ll see Doc Ock again (we see his mechanical arms in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) because this film franchise is building up to the Sinister Six, I doubt we’ll get as good a performance as Alfred Molina’s. I give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 some credit for not simply remaking Raimi’s sequel, but it didn’t achieve the same success for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it as a fan. If I were to take off my fanboy hat, however, and put on my critic hat, I admit that the movie has its faults. So this is really a two part review: first the fanboy review, then the critical review. By the way, we are now well and truly entering SPOILER territory. You’ve been warned.

The film starts off with Peter’s parents fleeing the country by private jet. Richard Parker is attempting to upload his research to something called ‘Roosevelt’ to prevent it from falling into Oscorp’s hands. However, there is an assassin on the plane who kills the pilot causing the plane to go into a nosedive. Before the assassin bails out, he kills Richard’s wife and attempts to kill him. The two men struggle, and Richard manages to eject his attacker from the plane. He then uploads his research before the plane crashes. This will be an important plot point later.

We then cut to Spider-Man swinging around New York in an effort to stop the hijacking of a truck containing radioactive isotopes. The main hijacker is a Russian gangster played by Paul Giamatti, who will later become the Rhino. By the way, the majority of Rhino’s scenes are in the trailer. He doesn’t play a major role here; I take it they’re just laying the groundwork for the next movie. Anyways, Peter keeps seeing the ‘ghost’ of Captain Stacey, played by Dennis Leary (maybe he’s stealing material from the ghost of Bill Hicks 😉 ), and he’s reminded of his promise — which he hasn’t kept — to stay away from Gwen. After summarily defeating the bad guys, Spidey rushes off to his high school graduation where valedictorian Gwen is giving a speech. Unfortunately, this speech — about how brief and precious life is — telegraphs what will happen to Gwen by the end of the movie. Anybody familiar with the original Spider-Man comics knows that her story does not end happily, but it should be obvious to any moviegoer familiar with the usual cliches, that she’s foreshadowing her death in this speech. This somewhat diminishes the drama of Peter breaking up with her because we know they’ll get together again, which will lead to her demise.

The main villain of the film is Electro, played by Jaimie Foxx. A friendless electrical engineer who works for Oscorp, Max Dillon is rescued by Spider-Man during the truck hijacking and becomes obsessed with Spidey and wishes he could enjoy the same adulation. Although they only met once, Max considers Spider-Man his best friend. Later, after he falls into a vat of electric eels, gaining the ability to absorb electrical energy, Max is drawn to the lights of Times Square. Spider-Man inevitably shows up, and Max is upset when Spider-Man doesn’t remember him. They fight. Max is further angered when Spider-Man steals his newly-found limelight. Eventually, Spidey prevails and sends Max to prison. As far as villainous motivations go, this one is pretty weak. Unfortunately, this weakness is shared by most of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. They’re either mad scientists — with some connection to Peter Parker’s life — or they’re schmucks who stumble into some superpower or advanced technology and decide to rob banks and fight Spider-Man, so maybe I should give Electro a pass.

In the meantime, Norman Osborn has apparently died and Harry Osborn has inherited Oscorp. Naturally, Peter and Harry are old friends. Harry discovers that he has also inherited Norman’s genetic disease. He also discovers that his father and Peter’s father, Richard Parker, were working on a spider-human DNA hybrid that could cure Norman’s ailment. The testing never officially made it to human trials, but Harry figures out that Spider-Man must be the result of some such experiment. Since Peter takes pictures of Spider-Man, Harry enlists his aid to find the wall-crawler, so Harry can extract some of Spidey’s blood which Harry believes will heal him. Spider-Man visits Harry and tells him he won’t donate his blood because the effects could be dangerous and unpredictable. Of course, this causes Harry to hate Spider-Man. Harry proceeds to break Electro out of prison and the two vow vengeance on the web-slinger. Again, as far as motivations go, these are thin.

Peter discovers that ‘Roosevelt’ is a reference to an abandoned subway tunnel used to transport President Roosevelt during WWII. Peter’s father, Richard, has stashed all of his research in a subway car to keep it out of Norman’s hands. Norman was going to use the research to create biological weapons and sell them to the highest bidder, but Richard coded the spider venom to his DNA so only a blood relative could use it. This supposedly explains why it bestowed spider powers on Peter. However, this makes Spider-Man’s origin spectacularly improbable. By pure chance, the spider bit the one guy in the world who could possibly become Spider-Man! What are the odds? With great power comes great improbability.

The rest of the movie is pretty perfunctory. Harry gets his hands on the spider venom, which turns him into the Green Goblin. The suit and glider conveniently rise out of the floor ready for him to take flight. Spider-Man, with Gwen’s help, manage to defeat Electro by overloading his circuits or some such nonsense, before he drains all of New York’s power. The Green Goblin shows up, immediately figures out Peter’s identity through his relationship with Gwen, and Spider-Man and Goblin fight. As Gwen falls down a clock tower, Spidey shoots his web to save her, but the recoil snaps her neck and she dies. This is all comic book canon, but it felt really rushed here. There was a lot of compression in the movie. It felt like the Green Goblin showed up for the express purpose of killing Gwen because that’s what we expect him to do. This could have been deferred to the next movie and it would have had more impact. The film then rushes through a year of Peter moping and not being Spider-Man. Then, after a few minutes, he triumphantly returns to defeat Rhino. Again, this should have been saved for the next installment. It would’ve had much more impact. After all, these stories play out in the comics over years, not two hours, and there’s too much content here for one film.

The movie ends with a set-up for the Sinister Six. I can’t help but cynically conclude that the studio is rushing to this point. They also seem to be in a big hurry to reestablish the status quo. Now that Gwen Stacey is out of the way, I expect it won’t be too long before we see Mary Jane. I heard rumors that she was introduced in an earlier cut of this movie, but dropped due to running time.

And that’s another thing. This movie is a bit too long. It could’ve used a more streamlined story and a stronger edit. There were a few long stretches without any Spider-Man action where I wasn’t engaged. Again, the scenes between Peter and Gwen — the will they, won’t they stuff — didn’t play well after her demise was so clearly telegraphed a few minutes into the movie. I know that the teenage romance elements are a staple of the Spider-Man story — the genius of the original comic is that it’s a soap opera — but it’s wasted here. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are a charismatic couple, but the cliched writing didn’t allow these scenes to have the impact they should have.

So would I recommend The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Yes, I would give it a mild recommendation. It’s visually interesting and probably the most faithful Spider-Man ever put on screen. Everything from the costume to Garfield’s performance is right out of the comic book pages. If you’re a hardcore fan, it’s a double edged sword. You’ll probably appreciate more of what’s going on, but you’ll also probably notice a lot more flaws. If you’re a casual moviegoer who isn’t burned out by the superhero genre yet, and just want some escapist fun, then check it out. If you go into it with moderate expectations, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Libertarianism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally got around to seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Friday night. I enjoyed it immensely. Although there are the requisite comic book elements, it felt more like an action movie/political thriller. Without giving away too much of the plot, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in a web of lies and political conspiracies. He doesn’t know who to trust and several of his former allies have turned against him. He begins to question what he has been fighting for and whether or not he can, in good conscience, carry out the missions he’s assigned. In addition, The Winter Soldier is one of the most libertarian films I’ve seen. It doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with its message — it isn’t Atlas Shrugged with superheroes — but it does present a relatively sophisticated articulation of libertarian philosophy. That’s quite an achievement for an entertaining comic book movie. More on this below.

As for the film itself, it’s difficult to discuss without getting into spoiler territory. So from here on, all bets are off. In general terms, however, it really succeeds as an action movie. The action beats are well-shot and are, more or less, realistic. The filmmakers are clearly taking the material seriously. There’s no trace of camp or self-awareness, even when handling material that could easily have looked silly. This is a very earnest treatment. The actors involved, especially Robert Redford, lend a real gravitas to the project. Chris Evans is thoroughly believable as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Scarlett Johansson does her best work of the Marvel franchise in this film. It’s definitely an ensemble effort with Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson rounding out the cast. Everybody performs to a very high caliber.

Although it clocks in at 136 minutes, it’s well-paced and none of the scenes feel like filler. The conspiracy plot is effective and there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Arguably, there may be a few too many twists that audiences — especially those familiar with the source material — will see coming, but that didn’t diminish the impact for me. After all, the characters don’t see it coming, and the actors sell that, so the reveals work. I’m also saying this as someone who read the Winter Soldier storyline in the comics a few years ago, so I was already privy to the spoilers. Nevertheless, I was fully engaged in the story.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. The Helicarriers are easily reprogrammed by inserting a piece of hardware into the ‘mainframe.’ In addition, there’s a lot of the usual ‘computer hacking’ silliness we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. But that’s a minor quibble that’s easily forgiven. It’s even justifiable insofar as it reinforces the juxtaposition between Cap’s analogue world and our digital one. Despite its flaws — which are intrinsic to the genre — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best film of the Marvel franchise, just edging out Iron Man. It’s easily the best sequel of the series.

But the movie doesn’t just succeed as an entertaining action flick. It works as an indictment of the reigning political paradigm. In short, it’s a pro-libertarian film. If you’ve seen it, I don’t think that statement will be controversial. You may, of course, disagree with its libertarian message, but it’s hard to deny that it’s there. In my judgment, this is the right direction for the series. In fact, one of my criticisms of Agents of SHIELD when it first aired, was that it was too sanguine about the potential evil of such a powerful, covert agency. I’m not current with the series, so that might have changed, but the episodes I watched were alarmingly out of touch with the times, and especially with younger audiences. The show basically portrayed government agencies as good and freedom of information activists as bad. Thankfully, The Winter Soldier goes a long way towards correcting that perception. However, it does so in a surprisingly subtle way; not everyone involved in SHIELD is bad, but such an organization has the capacity to do great evil.

The way this message plays out in the plot, is that SHIELD is attempting to launch weaponized Helicarriers that can assess and eliminate threats before they develop. They are willing to trade liberty and civil rights for security. Ironically, in attempting to make the world safe for democracy, SHIELD is prepared to undermine democracy’s very foundation. As Cap remarks to Fury: “This isn’t freedom. It’s fear.” Or, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security will find they have neither.” Unbeknownst to Fury, however, Hydra has secretly infiltrated SHIELD and is steering its operations. The lack of transparency — ‘compartmentalization’ as Fury calls it — has enabled Hydra to seize control.

There’s a great scene in which Cap and Natasha encounter Dr. Zola — whose mind has been uploaded into an old-school computer bank — who explains that Hydra realized after WWII that people naturally resist having their freedom taken away. They must be convinced that freedom is dangerous. They must give it up willingly; they must be convinced that doing so is the only way to remain safe. This message resonates in a post-911, post-Patriot Act, post-Wikileaks world. Captain America, however, recognizes that the ‘price of freedom is high’ and is unwilling to trade liberty for security, especially when such security is an illusion.

Captain America is a libertarian with respect to the limits of government power. He realizes that too much state power can be pernicious. He realizes that the real enemies of freedom are not ‘terrorists’, but those who claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom while simultaneously undermining it. In the end, he realizes that he has to fight against that system in order to preserve his ideals. Ironically, this makes Captain America, a symbol of the state, a fugitive from the state. This symbolic reversal gives the lie to the notion that patriotism requires simply going along with the program. Rather, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “The highest form of patriotism is dissent.”

The film’s message also gives the lie to the oft repeated mantra that democratic governments can’t be oppressive, because the government is us. There are several problems with this slogan. Of course, the government does not simply reflect the will of the people, but even if it did, and the majority of people were willing to give up their civil liberties in the interest of security, that wouldn’t make it less oppressive. The democratic tradition has long recognized ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and that even democratic governments can be oppressive. Simply because democratic governments have a better track record in this regard, doesn’t mean that they can’t oppress. Indeed, the reason they have a better track record is that they operate on the assumption that power corrupts and that checks and balances should be in place to prevent any government from becoming too powerful.

Another problem with ‘the government is us’ argument is that it assumes that all levels of government exemplify the transparency we associate with democratic systems. Of course, this simply isn’t true. In the case of Captain America, a covert agency which trades in secrets and lies, has been given carte blanche to steer the administration in ways that aren’t democratic. By contrast, it is trying to stamp out dissent. Granted, this is an overstatement for dramatic effect in the film. Personally, I’m skeptical of the many conspiracy theories that are popularly associated with the libertarian movement. I don’t see government conspiracies and cover-ups everywhere. Nevertheless, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, one would have to be hopelessly naive to think that ‘the government is us’ or that such surveillance is good for democratic values. In fact, quite the opposite. As Snowden has said, the NSA even keeps track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography in case they need to damage their target’s reputation. This makes character assassination — if not actual assassination as in the film — a trivially easy matter. How is such meticulous control over the democratic process by unelected and unaccountable agencies healthy for any democracy? The Winter Soldier makes this point quite eloquently, albeit in the exaggerated way we’d expect of a comic book action movie. Still, we shouldn’t reject its core message due to its heightened dramatic sense.

In summary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of those rare movies that works both as popcorn entertainment and deeper social and political commentary. Just as it urges us not to sacrifice freedom for security, it doesn’t sacrifice entertainment value for heavy-handed ideological messages. The underlying political philosophy is there if you want to see it, but is never distracting if you don’t. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Another Batman Short

Here’s another Batman short, this time from Darwyn Cooke.

A friend of mine gave me the complete Batman Beyond series on DVD for Christmas, so I’ve re-watched it recently. The show holds up remarkably well. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. The network wanted a younger Batman, a teenager, who younger viewers could relate to. Bruce Timm, who produced the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series, was reluctant to do it, but the more he thought about it, the more he became intrigued by the concept. There are several reasons Batman Beyond worked. The highlights include:

1. It provided a plausible reason why Bruce Wayne would retire and pass on the mantle. Not even the The Dark Knight Rises managed that. The mentoring relationship between Bruce and Terry was the core of the series.

2. It was set in the future, but not too far in the future. Yes, there were flying cars, but not everybody had a flying car. The writers wisely realized that such technology would be expensive, at least at first, so only the rich, i.e. Bruce Wayne, would be able to afford it. Gotham City also looked like a plausible place. The designers borrowed pages from Blade Runner, Manga, and Judge Dredd in coming up with a believable future urban landscape. City blocks and public transportation went vertical. There was a fusion of Asian and Western designs. Also, there was a clear demarcation between rich and poor. The poor lived close to street level, while the rich lived atop skyscrapers. If our current economic situation is any indication of the future, the writers accurately forecast this aspect too.

3. The temptation when doing a show like this is to have future Batman facing ‘the son of the Joker’ or ‘the son of Two-Face.’ In other words, the writers could have taken the easy road and just recycled classic Batman villains. Instead, they created new baddies for Batman to battle. Yes, there was the Jokerz Gang, but that gets a pass. Interestingly, the new villains often contained elements of Batman’s classic rogue’s gallery; for example, the character Inque, who combines elements of Catwoman and Clayface.

One of the reasons I’m less than optimistic about DC’s attempt to build a live-action ‘universe’ is because there’s no chance it could possibly be as good as their animated universe. They should just give their film budget to Bruce Timm so he can produce great cartoons in perpetuity. Now, that’s something I’d pay to see.

Universe Building

It seems that ‘universe building’ is all the rage in genre movies these days. Marvel’s success means that other studios are trying to build their own ‘cinematic universe.’ However, universe building to cross-promote different properties isn’t new. In fact, CBS in the 80’s provides a cool example of it.

I’ve been watching the first two seasons of Magnum P.I. and caught several references to ‘Five-O’ and even ‘Steve McGarrett.’ Of course, both shows are set in Hawaii and Magnum utilized the production facilities that CBS had established for Hawaii Five-O. Still, this means that both shows are set in the same ‘universe.’ But it doesn’t stop there. Magnum did cross-over episodes with two other CBS shows: Simon and Simon and Murder She Wrote. That means all four shows take place in the same ‘universe.’

Perhaps most intriguing is the cross-over that never happened. After Magnum’s run, producer Donald Bellisario had planned to do an episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) “leaps into” Thomas Magnum! (Even though Quantum Leap aired on NBC, Bellisario had produced both shows.) The cast of Magnum was set to return, but plans for a 90’s reunion movie that never materialized, put an end to that idea. Too bad! Where the episode of Quantum Leap would have fit into the Magnum P.I. ‘continuity’ we’ll never know. Since Quantum Leap episodes were time travel stories in which Beckett would “put right what once went wrong”, it may have even altered the continuity in some way. It’s fun to speculate about which episode of Magnum it would have changed.

Anyways, it seems that ‘universe building’ is not quite the novel innovation the studios think it is. Thanks to magnum-mania.com for the Quantum Leap connection!