Quarter Life Crisis – The Three Dueling Identities of Power Rangers

On Tuesday, August 28th 2018, Power Rangers turns 25 years old. Like all millennials, at this age the franchise finds itself in a weird place. Depending on who it is interacting with, Power Rangers presents itself very differently. In fact there are currently three different versions of the series.

What makes Power Rangers different on TV vs film or in the comics? What does it mean that the franchise can’t settle on a consistent version of itself at this point in its existence? Does the fact that I am writing about this say more about my own quarter life crisis than Power Ranger’s? NO. SHUT UP.

I for one am hard pressed to find good intelligent writing about Power Rangers, so I thought I would step up to the plate to investigate these three identities and discuss them.

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Power Rangers on TV

After all these years the TV version of Power Rangers is the same as it ever was, ridiculous as hell. The current iteration of the series is called Power Rangers: Ninja Steel and it’s about a bunch of teens who build morphers and weapons with alien metal so they can fight an evil invading space reality competition TV show. Seriously. One of them is also a cowboy ninja power ranger touring country singer.

The basis of the show is the same as it ever was too, a toy marketing driven action show made on a shoe-string budget re-appropriating footage from the Japanese series from which it is based. It is one of the last of its kind, a relic from the rules of the 80s when every big cartoon was made to sell toys. Every episode was originally the same, the kids play in the park, a monster attacks, the kids morph and beat it up, it gets big, they get in their giant robot zords and beat it up again. The series has grown to be more plot heavy, with new heroes and villains each season, but the basics haven’t changed. It is a kids show, with uncomplicated morality and heaping sense of fun.

On TV the ranger teams remain as diverse as ever, but in a way that someone’s ethnicity has absolutely nothing to do with who they are. It doesn’t matter if they are black, white, asian, hispanic, or anything else. None of that makes up their identity, they are only identified as a teenager (generally). On the other hand, any time a character has an accent of some kind that does become a defining part of their identity. Multiple rangers with New Zealand accents tell immigrant stories, and the one Scottish ranger, when literally asked how he identifies himself, yells that he is Scottish and then fights to bagpipe music. It’s amazing.

Because Power Rangers is made up of American footage spliced with Japanese suit actor and monster scenes, it has a hard time establishing it’s own identity. The series has a very low budget and making an entire episode with american footage is extremely costly. There’s also the question of how much a season should distance itself from its Japanese equivalent. A lot of fans want to see the same show but with an American cast, and sometimes that is for the best. But some of the best seasons used their footage as a jumping off point to tell a completely different story. Now Power Rangers has two different sets of fans who want entirely different things from the series.

Luckily, Power Rangers knows it doesn’t really matter what those fans think. They are adults, and they’re simply not who the show is for. Power Rangers on TV is still aimed primarily at kids. That’s why they ignore their own continuity (except when celebrating an anniversary), so the show can eternally be brand new to a brand new audience.

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Power Rangers on Film

Last year Lionsgate swung big with a new cinematic interpretation of the Power Rangers, and their identity is fascinating. Director Dean Israelite and writers John Gatins, Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless, and Michele & Kieran Mulroney sought to find something real inside the glitz and cheesiness of the original series. They made a toy commercial into a story about teenagers finding themselves and meaningful friendships. The movie is not entirely successful in this endeavor, but I applaud it for the attempt.

This version of Power Rangers doesn’t even get into the suits and zords until the final half hour of the film, making the first hour and a half of the movie more of a teenage drama than a superhero movie. This balance isn’t exactly a strength plot-wise, but it says a lot about how the movie wants to be seen. This version of Power Rangers is grown up and meditative, with excellent chemistry among its cast. It also has the money to make the effets, suits, and zords look truly alien. Personally I think it made those designs overly busy, but hey to each their own.

The new cinematic Power Rangers are also the most meaningfully diverse version of the team ever. Billy isn’t just Black, he’s on the spectrum, and the film doesn’t treat that as a weakness but as something wonderful and lovable. It might even be his greatest strength. Zack is Chinese-American and speaks Chinese at home, his mobile home, with his mother. Trini is identifiably queer, even if they never specify whether she is gay or bisexual, that’s more than we’ve ever seen from the series before. The characters cross a sexual, class, and mental spectrum and it is a crime that nobody is talking about how big of a deal that is alone.

Without having to adhere to footage from another TV series, it’s interesting that this Power Rangers chooses to think smaller instead of larger. The story it tells doesn’t deviate very far from the original series, despite the huge opportunity to change everything. The movie cares a lot about how it is perceived. It wants to be taken seriously, as a legit entry into the superhero canon, and not a shameless cash in. That’s an uphill battle, one that I initially took umbrage with in its marketing campaign.

The Power Rangers movie was a gamble, and I’m not sure it paid off. The movie didn’t do very well in the US or China, but there is still talk of a sequel and I genuinely hope they make one. There are good bones here, and I hope they get to build on them.

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Power Rangers in Comics

The new ongoing Mighty Morphin Power Rangers comic started in 2016 and transplanted the show’s original team into modern day with a story set shortly after the Green Ranger joined the team. Writer Kyle Higgens has stated that, when writing the series, he based it off how he remembered the show and not what it actually was. The comic is massive in scale, a war between good and evil, and most importantly it understands something I’ve been arguing for years; Power Rangers is already a shared universe on par with the MCU, if only we would tap into it.

This series draws it’s identity from the lore of the TV series, and more specifically the first real story it ever told, the birth of the evil green ranger. That character, Tommy Oliver, defines Power Rangers for a large portion of the audience, and the comics pick up right after he turns good and joins the team. From there the story takes a hard turn into a new continuity wherein the rangers encounter a version of Tommy who chose to stay evil, and he declares war on every version of the Power Rangers we’ve seen for the past 25 years. This event is called Shattered Grid.

This is the Infinity War of Power Rangers, with every team ever meeting in their prime and fighting for their very lives against this threat. It’s desperate and epic and I’ve never seen anything like it before with these characters. That’s not to say the series loses track of the character moments though! Across Power Rangers and Go Go Power Rangers, which is set in the earliest days of the series, we see Jason learn to be a leader, Kim deal with her parents’ divorce, and Billy debate if he could be of more use giving his powers to someone else. It sits comfortably between the heaviness of the movie and the lightness of the show.

Once this event ends, a new writer will be taking over the series with a new ranger team made up of members from different eras. This means if the identity of the comics up until now was about giving the original power rangers the scale of adventures we always wanted, it’s about to become something entirely different. And that’s exciting!

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Change is Coming

It’s not just the comics that are about to change. The entire brand of Power Rangers was recently acquired by Hasbro. For the first time ever the next Power Rangers TV season is going back to a version of the Japanese series from which it’s sourced they previously skipped. They are even starting talks about making a sequel to the recent movie. This could change all of these identities in the years to come, but what fascinates me most of all is that they are choosing to maintain all three and not unify them all.

It would be so easy to pick one and force the others to bend to it, but I think it’s actually smarter to maintain all three. Each identity plays to a different kind of person and can bring them to the franchise. It’s not so different from Marvel or DC, where the comics are different than the movies (and in DC’s case the movies are even in different worlds than the TV series). It widens their audience. For Power Rangers, little kids can grow up with the show, grow up to appreciate the movie, and then come back to the comics for the kid inside.

That’s what happened to me, and I couldn’t be happier.

-JP

PS, there is a fourth version of Power Rangers. An official twitch streaming role playing game called Power Rangers: Hyperforce. I just don’t watch it.

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What the Hell is Going on Deep Underground in the MCU?

There’s something afoot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’m not talking about how half of everyone and everything is dead now including all the puppies. The MCU may be 20 movies deep but it also contains 11 TV series. Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Punisher, Inhumans (nothing to see here), Runaways, and now Cloak & Dagger. And there’s a common thread running through them now too.

I’m not asking you to watch all those shows. I know that’s a lot of extra Marvel hours and their quality is much more inconsistent than the movies. But I have watched nearly all of them, and something keeps coming up over and over. If it were in this many comic books it would be a sign that a major event was coming and I just really want to talk about it.

The villains are all after something deep underground.

Exhibit A: Daredevil, The Defenders

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In Daredevil, blind lawyer Matt Murdock’s other senses are so powerful that he can use them and his own incredible agility to defend the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. After defeating(?) The Punisher, Matt’s ex-girlfriend Elektra asks him to help her investigate a ninja organization called The Hand. This leads them to a building with a massive mysterious hole in the ground.

They toss something into it to test it’s depth and they never hear it reach the bottom. Then ninjas attack, they run away, yadda yadda yadda, Elektra dies and they don’t really come back around to the hole. That is, until about a year later when The Hand has built an entire office building on top of the hole in the ground. Matt meets Jessica Jones, a Private Investigator with super strength, Luke Cage, the bullet proof protector of Harlem, and Danny Rand, the most infuriatingly annoying billionaire kung-fu master with a glowing super hand in the world. Together they discover The Hand is burrowing down to replenish the “substance” that makes them immortal. But if they get to it, it’ll destroy New York City.

It’s dragons. Or dragon bones? Look, the villain stuff isn’t very compelling or good in The Defenders. You’re mostly there to see Jessica Jones roll her eyes at everything I’ve been talking about for two paragraphs. But at the bottom of the pit is basically a dragon graveyard and it looks like The Hand is trying to take the bones to make their substance. Anyway, the Defenders collapse the building on top of the hole and ending the threat. A weakness The Hand wouldn’t have if they just kept it as a warehouse around the hole.

So if there’s a dragon graveyard beneath New York, how does that connect to…

Exhibit B: Runaways

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In Runaways, five LA teenagers (with attitude?) discover their parents are of a murder cult. But, like, a sci-fi murder cult called The Pride where each family has their own gimmick or powers. From left to right, Karolina discovers she has disco light powers and can fly, Molly has super strength, Alex doesn’t really get a power but he does have great hair, Chase builds fire blasting gauntlets called fistigons, Gert has a psychic connection with a velociraptor, and Nico can cast spells with a magic staff.

They turn against their parents and learn that they all work for that guy who played Doctor Doom in that first Fantastic Four movie. With their skills combined, they constructed a drill to reach something deep underground. However, the teens get to the drill, stop it, fight their parents, and finally, mercifully, RUN AWAY.

We don’t know what The Pride is after beneath Los Angeles. Sure, it could be dragon bones, it could be something alien (Karolina’s parents are aliens), or if it follows the comics it could be a couple six toed giants who intend on destroying the Earth. We don’t know!

But then with a mystery something beneath LA and a dragon graveyard under New York, does that have anything to do with…

Exhibit C: Agents of SHIELD

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Five seasons in, the Agents of SHIELD who just couldn’t stay retired after Captain America shut the organization down in Winter Soldier got shanghaied to the future. In that time, the Earth was broken apart and what was left of humanity mined the remnants of the planet for alien overlords. They manage to find a way back to the present, but every decision they made from there on was made with the knowledge that it could lead them closer to this future.

Their adventures bring them to a substance from season one called gravitonium. Nathan Petrelli from Heroes winds up absorbing a whole load of it and gaining the power to control gravity. In order to stop Thanos (yeah that’s also happening), he tries to dig more Gravitonium out from under Chicago. Luckily SHIELD stops him from breaking the entire planet apart in time. Unluckily, that future they prevented never went through a Thanos snap. So you win some you lose some.

So not only is there a whole load of gravitonium beneath Chicago, there’s more of it all over deep underground. Gravitonium’s only use is, well, disrupting gravity and apparently absorbing people’s consciousnesses. It’s real weird, but it all worked on a character level so I can’t fault the show. (Agents of SHIELD is the best Marvel show don’t @ me.)

So there’s a large deposit of Gravitonium under Chicago and elsewhere under the Earth, some strange in the neighborhood beneath LA, that dragon graveyard deep below New York, but then is any of that related to…

Exhibit D: Cloak & Dagger

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Cloak & Dagger, currently airing on Freeform, begins with two eight-year-olds named Tandy and Tyrone who live in New Orleans. An oil rig from the Roxxon Corporation (also mentioned in Iron Man 3 and Agent Carter) blows up just off shore, distracting Tandy’s dad on the road enough to get them in an accident that throws them into the water, and shocking a cop enough to shoot Tyrone’s brother who he dives in to save. Something in the tanker explodes and, when Tandy and Tyrone meet again eight years later, superpowers awaken between them.

Tandy’s investigation into Roxxon (her dad helped build the oil rig) has revealed that they weren’t digging for oil at all, but some new and more powerful energy source. We don’t know much about it, but burns “ten times better than oil and is twice as hot.” However, since the disaster Roxxon has been covering the whole mess up. we don’t know if they still want this energy source or if they want to cut their losses and move on.

That makes for the second mystery thing deep underground on the list. It’s also unlikely we will find out in the near future. Cloak & Dagger as a series is more concerned with people and grief. Tyrone wants to convict the cop that killed his brother and Tandy wants to redeem her father’s legacy, maybe also find a stable place to live. I can’t even point to a comic series for this since they’ve changed so much from the source material/ It’s all uncharted territory and also a very good show.

This leaves us with dragon bones beneath New York, something beneath LA, Gravitonuim beneath Chicago and various, and a mystery fuel beneath New Orleans. Oh! And Vibranium beneath Wakanda!

Conclusion: What the Hell is Going on Deep Underground

The nerdiest part of me wants to believe there’s a plan, that Marvel is using the TV side of things to build to something in the next phase or so. Like there’s something in the core of the Earth that’ll threaten the world or something about our planet being made by The Builders and they planned for so many sources of superpowers down there.

But let’s be honest, this is all just a coincidence. Four different writers’ rooms writing shows on four different channels and streaming services thought of ideas completely independently. Nobody at the top of Marvel noticed and the world will spin on and that’s fine. Occam’s razor and all that.

Or maybe it’s all dragon bones.

-JP

PS, wow I didn’t realize how long it’s been since my last post here. In this case I have legitimately been inspired and writing elsewhere but I should do better. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a piece, lose sight of it, and think of it as non-relevant by the time it comes up again. Maybe I need to shut that voice up? As always I’ll try to do better.

What Makes a Great Villain

Yes my last post was about Marvel, but that was before I saw Black Panther and oh man is there more to say now.

The most common criticism against the MCU is that it has almost no good villains. Loki is good, but can anyone even remember what Whiplash was all about? Or Yellowjacket? Or Malekith? I literally just had to look up that last name. Marvel never seemed to particularly care though. It mattered more for you to like the heroes, after all they’re the ones that’ll be back in the next movie. If you want compelling villains you have to check out the various Marvel TV series that are only technically part of the MCU.

Enter Killmonger, bar none the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Light spoiler warning! That being said if you haven’t seen Black Panther you are missing out on what looks to be a significant pop culture moment.

Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is an outsider with a grudge who attempts to usurp the throne of a hidden and extremely advanced civilization. He actually shares a lot in common with Loki, the previous record holder for Best Marvel Villain, but he edges the competition out by having an argument that’s actually relatable.

Wakanda hid itself while the rest of Africa was ravaged by colonists, then continued to hide while Black people across the world suffered subjugation and racism. Wakanda could have saved them, and with its Vibranium technology it very well could. If he can arm the oppressed around the world they could rise up and change things, with Wakanda in control.

Of course Killmonger is also bloodthirsty and dangerous. The guy scars himself for every kill he makes and there are MANY scars. His plan is similar to what the US used in the middle east and clearly that has gone very well over the past few decades. But the fact that the core idea sits in your head means he’s a little right. And to make Killmonger a little right, then T’Challa, Black Panther, has to be kind of wrong.

That’s how Black Panther makes Killmonger such a great villain. The movie allows its main character to be wrong. Black Panther uses its central premise as an afro-futurist wonderland as a cause for debate and not just a setting. Through conflict, our hero learns something from the villain and comes out the other side changed for it, with a better way to be a hero. That relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger brings to mind another Marvel movie from before the MCU.

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Okay sure, Professor X and Magneto follow the MLK and Malcolm X parallel but that’s not what I’m thinking of here.

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Yeah that’s the one! Wayyyy back in (oh god) 2004, Otto Oktavius walked into Peter Parker’s life on four metal tentacle claws and challenged him. He challenged Peter to take risks and try to get the girl. He challenged Peter to pick himself up and be a hero when he thought he couldn’t. He challenged Peter to save an out of control train. He wasn’t just a big bad villain, he embodied both the best of what Peter could be when he was sane, and the worst when his research took him over, and taught Peter to find his way down the middle of those two extremes.

Killmonger similarly challenges T’Challa to be better. Wakanda can’t just hide like T’Chaka wanted it to, but it also shouldn’t wage war against the world like Killmonger wants. It’s up to T’Challa to forge a new path for his country’s place in the world.

But what makes Black Panther so successful at this is how much time it spends telling Killmonger’s story. The movie is equally his to T’Challa’s, so that when you know his origin story and when you see him cry, you feel for him. That’s what gets his point of view in your head. That’s what makes you think he’s a little right.

That’s what makes a great villain.

-JP

PS, Am I the only one who really liked the Civil War Black Panther suit better than the new one he gets?

A Decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – A Love Story

When I was young my father gave me this comic book:

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Fantastic Firsts, a massive paperback full of first issue and origin stories for the heroes of the Marvel universe. By this point, just about anyone could name the characters on this cover, but at the time that knowledge was still fairly obscure. Some of it still is! The man in gold right in front of the Hulk is Iron Man!

In his origin story Tony Stark was captured by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War and suffered a deadly injury. He was able to prevent shrapnel from getting to his heart by building a full size vest that magnetized them away, then from there built an armored suit that allowed him to break free and become a hero.

I rather liked that origin story, then in 2008 I saw the first picture of this:

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I had heard an Iron Man movie was coming, but I didn’t expect them to recreate the homemade suit from the comics! The X-Men movies wore leather instead of their costumes, Daredevil had his silly zip-up, and Batman was running around with his nipples exposed. But this movie, the more I saw in the trailers, used the comics origin story as a template for a more modern superhero story.

Then I saw the movie, and this logo for the first time:

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I had seen Marvel before in front of a movie, but never Marvel Studios. I didn’t really know what a studio was! I was 14! What followed was a very good superhero movie that bucked a lot of traditions in the genre, and as I left while the credits rolled I was content. That would be the last time I ever left a Marvel Studios movie during the credits.

In the next few days people told me about a scene after the credits. I didn’t believe them. We tried to find a clip of it on YouTube. Easy to do now, but not then. Which meant I had to go see Iron Man again and sit through the credits to get to this:

I lost my god damn mind. See I had been reading a series called the Ultimates. It was a more 21st century take on the Avengers and in those comics Nick Fury, traditionally white, looked like this:

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He looked exactly like Samuel L Jackson. He looked like Samuel L Jackson and someone actually cast him to promise there was more to come, to promise not only SHIELD but the Avengers. I was locked in.

Then over the next three years I watched the movies fulfill the makeup of the original Avengers comics (give of take an Ant-Man and The Wasp). The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America all got their movies and a promise at the end of their credits.

They Will Return in The Avengers

The Avengers was, in no uncertain terms, a cinematic event. The first of its kind, a team up superhero movie that was also better than anyone could have hoped. The movie climaxed with a moment that still resonates to this day:

Oh yeah, that movie also changed big budget franchise film making forever. Despite the small fact that literally nobody else has been able to pull it off.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an edge over other wannabes like the DCEU, the X-Men, the already dead Dark Universe, and the Monsterverse (that’s the one with Godzilla and King Kong, the second best connected universe right now). Marvel Studios does only this. WB, Fox, Universal and Legendary are massive movie studios with many projects on the table. Disney may own Marvel now, but they keep hands off and allow the studio to do it’s own thing. It’s own thing, by the way, is tell increasingly complex stories about its characters.

Tony Stark’s arc has taken him from an arrogant weapons dealer to a peace keeper to the man willing to sacrifice himself for the world. Then in phase two, that sacrifice left him traumatized and, when that trauma was stoked, he created something he couldn’t control to protect the world that wound up putting everyone in danger. Coming off of that he surrendered control of himself to the governments of the world, the opposite of where he stood in Iron Man 2, and nearly killed one of his closest friends in blinded rage. Of anyone’s his story is the most complex. While the movies may not have gone all in on his alcohol addiction they’ve given him another one, super heroics. He tried to quit at the end of Iron Man 3 but a call from the Avengers brought him right back. This will probably kill him.

Steve Rogers went from the shrimp who didn’t like bullies to the super soldier who could actually defeat them, and gave up everything to do it. Only he didn’t die and woke up 70 years later to a world he couldn’t recognize but had to live in. For him, World War II never ended, which is why when Hydra revealed itself within SHIELD he found a new opportunity to finish it. At a point he couldn’t see the human he once was, only the super soldier, until his best friend Bucky appeared in the present as the Winter Soldier. For that last tie to who he was he shoved back against the world and gave up his place in it. One wonders if he’ll ever find peace.

Thor’s story is by far the simplest of the founding Avengers. He was poised to take the throne, walking down the path among his people, braggadocios and bold. His father humbled him and sent him to earth where he learned to be mortal, fell for the world and of course Jane Foster, then gave both those things up to stop his brother from exterminating his old enemies. He found his calling as a hero, but refused to take the throne when it was offered to him. Instead he chose to continue his own fight as a hero. Right up until his father died, leaving the throne in the hands of his evil sister. Sometimes greatness is thrust upon us, and after sacrificing Asgard to defeat Hela, Thor once again makes the long walk to the throne. This time, however, he’s solemn and regal. Unlike Cap and Iron Man, his arc is complete. He could fly off into space safely if it weren’t for Thanos’s massive ship bearing down on him.

For these three their stories are likely to come to an end in Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel. Whether by death or retirement we may never see them again. But with them they’ve brought so many more heroes into their world. The MCU has slowly trained its audience to understand heroes and comic book logic to the point that the Vision could just appear in the final third of Avengers: Age of Ultron and nobody has to tell you what he’s capable of. You just kind of roll with it.

That’s the other great strength of the MCU. The sheer power of the brand means that characters who would otherwise never get the spotlight can take center stage with ease. Would we ever see a Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, or Black Panther movie if they weren’t part of this universe? It’s unlikely. They don’t have to explain how their powers work, they just have to get the characters right and we buy into the rest. They didn’t even have to retread Spider-Man’s origin story for the third time in 15 years, they just put him in the world. Thank god.

For a movie studio to have released almost 20 blockbusters in 10 years that are all, at the very least, surface level enjoyable is unheard of. The scope of it all is insane, especially when its thrown into stark view in that class photo header image. (Check out the high res version)

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The greatest thing to happen in my life has been watching my interests somehow become, not only mainstream, but a driving force in pop culture around the world. At the end of Iron Man 2 I had to explain to everyone what a hammer in New Mexico meant. At the end of The Avengers I had to tell everyone who Thanos was. At the end of Thor: Ragnarok I didn’t have to tell anyone what that ship meant. I expect I won’t have to explain Black Panther’s tag either. We’ll see today.

Over these past holidays I found that comic, Fantastic Firsts, and brought it back home with me from my parents house. Flipping through it, there aren’t many classic characters for Marvel to adapt after Phase Three. In whatever comes next they’ll have to look to the present, in newer heroes like Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Kamala Khan as Captain Marvel, Riri Williams as Iron Heart and Kate Bishop as Hawkeye. I cannot wait for that.

Marvel Will Return

-JP

PS, I recently rewatched a bunch of old Marvel trailers, so don’t be surprised if a massive Marvel marketing piece comes out down the line. Maybe I’ll save that one for Avengers 4.

Batman: The Telltale Series is the Last Original Batman Story

In Christopher Booker’s book (nice) The Seven Basic Plots he lays out that across all stories we tell as the collective humanity, there are really only seven fundamental plots.

Overcoming the Monster, in which the protagonist sets out to defeat a force of evil threatening their homeland. See; The Dark Knight.

Rags to Riches, in which the poor protagonist acquires wealth, power, and/or a mate, loses it all, then regains it as a more grown person. See; The Dark Knight Rises.

The Quest, in which the protagonist and their companions seek an important object or location, facing obstacles and temptations along the way. See; Batman: Arkham City.

Voyage and Return, in which the protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming its threats, returns a changed person. See: Batman Begins.

Comedy, in which the light and humorous character is faced with more and more confusing conflicts but has a cheerful ending. See; Batman ’66.

Tragedy, in which the protagonist has one major character flaw that proves to be their undoing. A fundamentally “good” hero falls. See; Justice League: Tower of Babel or Justice League: Doom.

Rebirth, in which an important event forces the protagonist to change their ways and become a better person. See; (technically) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you’ll notice Batman has a story that fits into each of these plots. Hell, considering just how many Batman stories there are he has multitudes for each of those. Batman has had at least four modern animated series, three different film franchises, and has been consistently been in comics for decades. Batman fatigue is a real thing, and for people like myself it has already set in. It’s not that he’s a bad character, it’s just that every Batman story there is to tell has been told already. There are no new stories left,  only variations on what we’ve all seen before.

Enter Telltale Games.

Telltale has been one of the most consistently good video game companies out there for a couple years now. They specialize in episodic licensed brand adventure games that almost always turn out far better than expected. Their The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series is still the best thing called The Walking Dead, their Tales From the Borderlands is a masterpiece, and even their weakest series, Game of Thrones: The Telltale Series, is still an excellent send up of Game of Thrones proper. When they announced a Batman game I was skeptical, especially since Batman fatigue has already long since set in me. Still, I play for the story, and I was willing to try anything Telltale took a crack at so I gave their series a shot.

Plus it’s, like, $5 per episode of the game. That’s a good deal.

The Telltale Series starts in the early days of Batman’s career, still more of a myth than a hero, so that you as a player can craft whatever version of Batman you want the public to see. Heroic or fearsome, the choice is yours. More than that, for once in a video game you get to play as Bruce Wayne, carefully guarding your secret and choosing your actions around familiar characters like Harvey Dent, Carmine Falcone, Ozwald Cobblepot, and Selena Kyle. But it’s at the end of that first episode when Batman: The Telltale Series reveals its hand and cements itself in the Batman canon.

Spoiler alert. Even though spoilers are scientifically proven not to diminish you enjoyment of a story. Spoiler alert.

It turns out that Thomas Wayne was a criminal. He drugged people, drove them insane, and then committed them to Arkham Asylum. He made his fortune working with Carmine Falcone. He was one of the worst Gotham had ever seen. His and Martha’s death was a coordinated hit by a rival crime lord.

I cannot overstate how good of a twist this is and one that, to my knowledge, has never been done before. It fundamentally changes the narrative of Batman. In this, the protagonist learns their call to action was a lie all along, and they must choose if and how they continue from there. That’s something wholly new.

The twists don’t stop there, but that is the main one I want to talk about. See, in my mission to make Batman the hero I’ve always seen him as I have allowed Bruce Wayne to fall from grace. In theory, I could have a violent Batman and a criminal Bruce Wayne, or altruistic sides of both of them, but for me the symbol of Batman as a force for good is so much greater than Bruce’s standing with the public.

The first episode of season 2 of this series just dropped and, along with a vastly improved Bat Suit, this follows the same trajectory the first season started. The Riddler is loose in the city and to find him I had to choose between questioning a criminal as Batman or visiting a crime lord as Bruce. I chose the crime lord and, to get what I needed, O facilitated his escape from the city.

Then the Riddler forced me into the best trap I’ve seen in a Batman story. He locks Batman and a goverment agent in a cell with sonic emitters around them, meanwhile two other agents are caught in “death chambers”. The Riddler asks a question and, if Batman gets it wrong, one of the agents in a death chamber dies, but if he gets it right he and his agent are blasted with deadly sonic waves. You have to choose to take on the pain for yourself and an innocent or give up the lives of two other innocents. A no win scenario.

Basically, they made The Riddler scary for the first time.

That’s what makes this story so original. They take elements from the mythology and fit them into a different puzzle. The Penguin was a childhood friend of Bruce’s, Bruce is helping Harvey Dent with a mayoral campaign, Batman must choose between the police and Gordon or the press and Vicky Vale. It uses your knowledge of where things should be affect how you interact with them.

For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about a Batman story.

-JP

PS, by the same token Telltale has a Guardians of the Galaxy series that is so closely riffing on the movies, but doesn’t quite capture the same spirit, that I don’t like it so far.

Who Is YOUR Spider-Man?

For any character existing in pop-culture long enough, there will be plenty of different interpretations of them. Superman has existed for over 75 years and we’ve seen a multitude of live-action movies, cartoons, and of course comics. Every audience member has a certain interpretation that imprints upon them. There own definitive version of the character. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Mark Hammil’s animated Joker, Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four and Matt Fraction & David Aja’s Hawkeye.

Thanks to the excellent Spider-Man: Homecoming hitting theaters, I’d like to share the version of Peter Parker that imprinted on me. J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man (2001-2007).

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This was slightly before every change in creative staff led to an aggressive renumbering of a comic book series, which is why Straczynski’s run began with issue 30 in June, 2001. It found adult Peter Parker checking in on his old high school in Queens. He takes up an offer to teach at the school part time, providing its own kind of homecoming for the title character.

But it’s later when things get weird. Peter meets a guy named Ezekiel.

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Ezekiel has the same powers as Peter, knows who Peter is, and has his own personal beliefs on where their powers come from.

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He brings up this idea that Peter’s spider powers might actually be mystical in origin, making Peter a kind of spider totem warrior. The text never answers this one way or the other; it’s up to the reader to decide how much they buy in. But one character certainly does, a new baddie named Morlun who nearly kills Peter. Morlun consumes the spirit of totem warriors and wants to chow down on Peter. Morlun is especially notable for two reasons. One of which is that he would be retconned into a member of a multiversal Spider-Man hunting family to be the big bad of Spider-Verse.

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Morlun is the one on the right with the cane

The other reason is Peter walks away from Morlun so beaten and exhausted he passes out on his bed. And then Aunt May comes in.

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But the story took a break after that issue because by then it was December, 2001, and a certain event had changed the world irrevocably in the months prior.

***Trigger Warning***

 

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Issue 36 is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In it, Spider-Man and many other heroes arrive on the scene too late to stop the tragedy, but nevertheless join in the clean-up efforts. Now, I was 8 years old at this time and did not have the mental fortitude to comprehend what had truly occurred. But I can tell you, seeing images like these helped:

Earth’s mightiest heroes stood side-by-side with the firemen, first-aid workers, and military members who existed in the real world to protect us, and it made them stand out as one and the same in my mind. I’ll never forget this comic. Not even that time Doctor Doom cries due to the senselessness of it all.

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It’s not perfect

Spider-Man is THE quintessential New York superhero. To have him ignore such a substantial and transformative event in his city would be like the friends from Friends never once bringing it up in their series.

What’s that? They don’t? Huh.

Either way, Straczynski chose to confront these dark times, but also knew not to dwell on them. Which is why the series comes back to Aunt May in the following arc.

 

***End Trigger Warning***

May accepts and learns to support Peter as Spider-Man. Peter makes up with Mary Jane (who he had been estranged with) and takes on an upstart new Doc Ock with the help of the original. Peter takes on more and more totem warrior themed bad guys. Peter hangs out with Doctor Strange a bit. And then…

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In comic books they like to renumber because a fresh reader is more likely to jump into issue 1 than issue 324. But they always know what the real score is. Which is why they bring the real numbering in when an important milestone is reached, and this particular run hit issue 500 of the Amazing Spider-Man.

Here’s the skinny. Peter breaks time. He sees both an older version of himself and his own origin story. He can interfere with either one. Save himself from his future death or prevent himself from ever becoming a hero. Ultimately he lets both events play out. From there he has to fight all the way from his origin to the present to save the world. Reality? The stakes are high.

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He winds up beneath piles of rubble. An underwater base falling apart around him. In front of him the cure to an illness Aunt May had at the time. This event was in Amazing Spider-Man 33. The first Amazing Spider-Man 33. In that moment it’s real. If Peter fails again, then Aunt May dies this time. Only Peter’s even more tired than before, and he’s lifting an underwater base plus the water pressure atop it. And god dammit he does it.

ICONIC.

Peter saves the day, the world, everything. And nobody knows what it took. Except Doctor Strange, who gives Peter the gift of one more conversation with Uncle Ben. As drawn by John Romita Sr!

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Peter fights Loki, has one final closing chapter with Ezekiel, there’s a not-so-great arc that implies Gwen Stacy actually slept with Norman Osborn before he killed her. Seriously.

The series continues on until Civil War, where Peter reveals his secret identity to the world.

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Civil War itself doesn’t explore the ramifications of this, but Amazing Spider-Man does. It shows how the world en masse reacts, it shows how J. Jonah Jameson reacts, and it shows how people like the Kingpin react. Which, unfortunately, leads to the end of my Spider-Man.

Kingpin has Aunt May shot. Peter makes a deal with Mephisto, who’s essentially the devil, to trade his marriage with Mary Jane for Aunt May’s life. Time is rewritten so he and MJ never got married, Aunt May is saved, Peter’s secret identity is hidden again, and I stopped reading Spider-Man. That is until Miles Morales came along.

What makes this series great isn’t necessarily all the bad guys Peter fights, or even the widening mythology Ezekiel attempts to bring in, it’s a laser focused understanding of Peter and his surrounding supporting cast. Also, he gets that Spider-Man is just a guy in a suit who messes up all the time.

Plus it’s funny!

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It does my favorite Spider-Man bit which is when he rolls his mask up part way to eat.

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It does my other favorite Spider-Man bit, which is when he just hangs out and talks to new yorkers.

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For all its ups and downs and an ending that forever disconnected me from the character, this particular run on Spider-Man imprinted itself on me. For some it might have been the Ultimate Spider-Man comic by Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley. For others it was probably Toby Maguire on screen in 2002. For me it started right here, and that’s why this was MY Spider-Man.

-JP

PS, read this post after watching Spider-Man: Homecoming. You’ll understand exactly why that particular movie is resonating with me so well.

 

 

Star Trek is 50 Years Old

There’s this father and son thing in pop culture, where a dad will watch baseball with his newborn baby boy on his lap. My life was like that, except me and my dad were watching Star Trek.

Captain Kirk has been with me for as long as I can remember. He’s my captain. Every trekker has a captain they latch on to, usually between Picard and Kirk, and I was easily swayed to the gold shirted captain of The Original Series. He defined masculinity for me very early on. I don’t mean Chris Pine’s rebellious bad boy version of Kirk either. William Shatner’s Kirk was a military man who followed orders and expected his to be followed. He was a man who believed in his friends and stood by them in the darkest of times. He was a man who didn’t believe in no win scenarios and always found a way to persevere.

It’s actually kind of maddening that Star Trek has made it to 50 years old. When the original series aired it only got to three seasons, and even that was just barely. Yet it stayed in the public consciousness. That bright future, where humanity comes together to become explorers once more, has never stopped being worth striving for. In fact, I would say it’s become even more of an ideal future for us. The Original Series captured that best I think. In The Next Generation the captain and crew were cerebral people, too smart and too good to relate to. But in The Original Series the crew was made up of very flawed people just trying their best.

The time period that sticks out to me strongest when I think of Star Trek is high school. Because school started so early in the morning, I would wind up eating breakfast with my dad each day around 6 AM. There were only two things on TV at that time. The weather channel, a favorite of his, and classic Star Trek, a favorite of both of us.

We went with Star Trek.

I became capable of naming any episode within the first couple of minutes. I got to see some of all of them, from the stone cold classic;  Balance of TerrorArena, The City on the Edge of Forever,  Mirror, Mirror , and The Trouble with Tribbles to the less fondly remembered; Spock’s Brain.

There are the outlandish _____ Planet episodes. The Gangster Planet, the Nazi Planet, the Cold War Planet.

Many people see Star Trek as the overly intelligent sci-fi series to Star Wars so I’ll say it again. GANGSTER. PLANET. Star Trek is dumb fun and I love it.

My favorite episode, if I have to pick one, is Where No Man Has Gone Before. It’s the second pilot, where the first one starred a different captain and crew save for Spock, and probably carries more personal stakes for Captain Kirk than any other. The Enterprise comes across a strange energy that gifts Kirk’s friend Gary Mitchell with god-like powers. Gary quickly lets his powers consume him and Kirk has to personally take on the duty of putting his friend down, when he’s at his most dangerous. It’s thrilling and epic and would’ve been a great choice to adapt into a Kelvin Timeline movie.

While the movies look back to the Original Series to rebuild the franchise, on TV Star Trek will push forward once more with Star Trek: Discovery. Abbreviated that’s DSC, which along with TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, and ENT makes this the sixth incarnation of Star Trek, boldly going into the realm of streaming television on CBS All Access. Welcome to the future.

There have been so many think pieces on Star Trek today all over the internet, but I wanted to make my voice known among the masses. Star Trek, from the beginning, is one of the most inventive and fascinating series to ever air. No other sci-fi show can come close to it. Star Trek didn’t just bring in TV writers to write its episodes, it brought in big name science fiction authors. Every episode was a new discovery for the characters and audience. Star Trek dared to dream of a future where a crew of people as diverse as Earth itself could explore space, the final frontier, just for the joy of discovery. Who wouldn’t be into that?

Star Trek has played a big hand in making me the person I am today, and this is the best way I know to give back.

The human adventure is only just beginning…

-JP

PS, Star Trek is all on Netflix by the way so get on your butt and watch some.