The Event Comic

I’ve been wanting to write a piece about event comics for a while. Ever since Infinity War hit theaters actually. But, like many of my post ideas, I took to long to actually write the piece and the timing just wasn’t right for it anymore.

And then last night this happened:

For anybody who knows comics, saying, “They’re doing Crisis” is a powerful sentence. Crisis on Infinite Earths is the most famous superhero comic story ever written and it set the template and rules for the Event Comic, an annual crossover along the entire brand line or both DC and Marvel comics. Crisis on Infinite Earths is the reason we have Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.

Here’s why:

682601

In the Golden Age of comics the first superhero team was the Justice Society of America. The team featured heroes like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman, and they all fought in WWII. Then DC comics decided to reboot their entire line (they do this a lot) and re-imagined their characters. For example; Green Lantern went from a man with a cape, magic ring, and a weakness to wood to a space cop with a science ring and a weakness to yellow (much cooler). The new characters joined forces as the Justice League of America, because leagues are cooler than societies and that’s a fact.

And then a few years after the Silver Age began, the Justice League and Justice Society teamed up. DC explained how they could both exist by setting the Justice Society on an alternate Earth dubbed Earth-2 while the League exists on Earth-1. Kind of rude since the Society was first but I digress. The Justice League and Justice Society started teaming up annually, much like how The CW’s Arrowverse does now.

As time went on they added more and more Earths. The one where everyone is evil; Earth-3. The one with Shazam and his family; Earth-S. The one where Superman landed in Germany and WWII never ended; Earth-X. Eventually the barrier for entry into DC grew to high. There were too many alternate realities for new readers to keep track of. So DC decided to simplify everything.

Sure, they could have quietly removed the multiverse from their stories. But instead they decided to go BIG. And potentially make some money off of the whole thing.

crisis-1527117062943_1280w

Crisis on Infinite Earths was a 12-part Maxi-Series that ran from 1985 into 1986. It featured every single character in the DC Universe, added some more, and then killed off even more. Supergirl and The Flash died stopping the evil Anti-Monitor from wiping out the entire multiverse. The five earths that survived were all folded into one New Earth with one shared history. Now the Justice Society and Justice League both existed in one world. DC stories have been filtered into either Pre-Crisis or Post-Crisis ever since.

Crisis was a best seller and might have even saved the company. It spawned the sequels Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis, and it convinced Marvel comics to try the same thing with Secret Wars on their end.

The rules of the Event Comic are simple. It must be at least six parts long, it must have special tie-in issues about specific characters in the event, and the universe the story is set in must be different in some way afterwards. They are written in a way where there is rarely a single point of view character. Instead the whole universe is the main character and more often than not you, the reader, are expected to already know who everyone is.

While Crisis is the first, there have been many great Event Comics since. DC’s best always go big in scale like with Invasion!, Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, The Final Night (the rare soulful DC crossover), the aforementioned Infinite Crisis (which brought the multiverse back) & Final Crisis, and Blackest Night. Marvel started out aping DC’s scale with Secret Wars, the Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade, but found a much better character based style later on with House of M, Civil War, and erm… another Secret Wars.

And now Event Comics are being adapted for the screen. The Arrowverse did Invasion! The MCU adapted the Infinity Gauntlet into Infinity War, a movie that checked all the boxes on an event Comic including the massive change to the setting at the end. And now the Arrowverse is going to do Crisis on Infinite Earths. Before these crossovers couldn’t be so big to completely throw off their respective series, but I don’t think that matters any more. The question is, will it work? It has every time in the past.

Holy crap they’re doing Crisis.

-JP

PS, I owe everyone a piece on Supergirl, a show I deeply regret writing off for petty reasons back in Season One.

Advertisements

Welcome to the Fandom Apocalypse

Let’s talk about reboots.

Let’s talk about remakes too actually. And adaptations franchises and shared universes and everything about how entertainment is built in the modern age.

And then we’re going to talk about artificial intelligence. So yeah it’s one of those pieces.

I think the notion of the remake changed something permanently in how we engage with stories. Remakes taught us that if we don’t like a story, it can be changed. And that is extremely powerful knowledge to give to all of us.

At first it was slow and only entertainment insiders could participate. If you had a good pitch for a new version of an old story you could tell your version. But that has changed significantly. Fandom culture has become pop culture, a remake or a reboot is a sure thing while anything new is dangerous. Those fans who know a story can be changed also know they have some control over what is changed.

Look at something like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After fan backlash to the Spider-Man costume and the main character’s decision to break a dying man’s last wish and continue dating his daughter in the first movie, they changed both of those things in the second. New suit. Dead relationship. Fan response made that happen. When that film tried to launch it’s own Spider-Man shared universe, all while failing to tell it’s own film’s story, the fans responded so negatively that the entire series was abruptly cancelled and rebooted yet again to try and right the ship this time as part of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe’s whole.

We made that happen.

But as these fandoms opened up to allow more people in, they stopped being a monolith. As they became a defining part of global culture, they also became something worth attacking. Which is all my build up to talking about The Last Jedi. Now I don’t want to talk about whether it was good or bad. I want to talk about the fact that the argument exists, how pervasive it is, and this:

Star Wars Russian Trolls Study

A recent study by Morten Bay at the University of Southern California found that, much like the 2016 American Election, Russian bot accounts stoked the fires of dissent within discussions of Star Wars: The Last Jedi to further divide people and sow chaos. The fact that it works, that we care so much about our entertainment that it can convince us to wish ill on another person, should be crazy talk. And yet…

Some of these fictional worlds have been so fully realized that they feel like a real place, and when the rules of that place are changed it becomes a battle field for people. Anything that threatens that place and how we conceive of it needs to be fixed and changed to maintain the whole. Everyone knows stories can be rebooted, remade, or changed to fit their image. But that doesn’t take time anymore. It’s instant now.

So anyway, artificial intelligence. Have y’all heard of deepfakes?

Here’s the basics. Using an AI system of deep learning, we can superimpose someone’s face onto somebody else’s body. It started in porn because of course it did, you could throw a celebrity’s face onto a pornstar’s body for fun, or your ex’s face for revenge. Then it grew from there to fans “fixing” movies. Doing a better job than WB at erasing Superman’s mustache, inserting a more accurate version of Carrie Fisher onto Rogue One, and the moment that made me want to write this piece, replacing Alden Ehrenreich with Harrison Ford in Solo:

Because this time people didn’t think a special affect wasn’t very strong. This time people just didn’t like an actor very much in a role. So they decided to replace them. Which also pales to the people who edited stills from the Captain Marvel trailer (A TRAILER) because they want her to “smile more.” Sure, the testing ground for this technology is centering on various films in pop culture, but the applications could be far more nefarious:

We’re entering a time when the information age can be corrupted and used against us. Where the average person could not only change who stars in their favorite movie but also put the face of someone they hate onto a terrorist. You might say it’s a stretch from entertainment to politics but stop for a second and remember who the president is.

It’s important that the people who opt to edit pieces of pop culture call their work “fixing” it. It’s not enough to simply not enjoy something, it must be supplanted and replaced with something better. Maybe it comes from fear. Fear of losing a direct connection to something you love, but that’s going to create more targets for enemies who want to divide people, and that’s going to turn to real hatred. To use pop culture to analyze itself, the little man once said, “fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Welcome to the Fandom Apocalypse. Stay woke bitches.

-JP

PS, in other news I’ve got a pretty good idea for a sci-fi future now.

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.

download

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.

power-rangers-movie

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.

mmpr30c

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!

xnivrkv51zrbgyubsdfc

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.

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

apd0qzhbetq4z2dnitpc

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

marvels-runaways-episode-doomsday-3

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

8-graviton_absorbs_gravitonium

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

cloak_2526_dagger_tv_show_06h45m39s259

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.

thor-ragnarok-16

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.

patrick-stewart-professor-x-ian-mckellen-magneto-x-men-chess

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

docok

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:

959243

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:

iron-man-mark-1-suit-001

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:

marvelstudioslogo1

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:

nick_fury_28earth-161029_016

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)

marvel-class-photo

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.