1-4 Courage and Sacrifice

rock the dragonIn this episode of Rock the Dragon, we touch on themes of courage and sacrifice as each of the Z fighters lays down his life in an effort to prevent the Saiyans from destroying the Earth. There’s some heavy stuff going on and in the finest tradition of Shakespeare, everybody dies.

Only War

Click here to get it from Amazon!

“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”

Warhammer 40K brought the mythology of the wildly successful Warhammer Fantasy world into space, extending the mythos to embrace sci-fi tropes and aliens. The property started as a tabletop miniatures game, and has gone through many iterations through the years. When Fantasy Flight successfully licensed Warhammer 40K for a role playing game line in 2008, they sold out of their first print run in a matter of months. Along the way, the property has forayed into computer games, music, and fiction. Several attempts to animate a film have finally resulted in the video release of “Ultramarines”, the first official feature-length video project from Games Workshop.

The story follows Brother Proteus, newly armored soldier in the Ultramarines, one of the elite Space Marine warriors in service to the Emporer of Mankind. Answering a distress beacon from a brother Space Marine detachment, a squad of Ultramarines finds themselves in battle with the legions of Chaos. They march for Macragge, and they shall know no fear. Cue bolters and chainswords.

{3reels} Continue reading Only War

Superman vs The Elite

In 2001’s Action Comics #775 , writer Joe Kelly asked the question, “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Kelly was responding in part to a trend in comic books that embraced heroes that took extreme actions towards their villains, often killing or permanently maiming their foes. The violent trend is one part reaction to the “revolving prison door” trope that allows series fiction to reuse villain characters, and one part the emergence into the field of a generation of creators that came of age in the 80s and 90s. Publishers Dark Horse and Image Comics built their entire businesses around providing consumers with content graphically depicting violence and brutality, and populated by heroes and villains that embraced the narcissistic nihilism of a generation raised with a dominantly post-modern viewpoint that insisted on deconstructing any kind of ethical or moral standard.

In this publishing environment, the question of whether a character like Superman could remain relevant, draw in consumer dollars, or even continue to exist in a cultural context was a very real one. Kelly’s response is an emphatic “Yes” that makes the argument, not only can Superman exist in this cultural context, but he must exist in this cultural context if we are ever to move past it toward a future founded on principles other than selfishness. Kelly expressed his point of view in the characters of Manchester Black and the Elite, who embodied the generational values of hedonism, narcissism, nihilism, and entitlement. In combat with Superman, the values that drive the Elite are taken to their logical conclusion, and the effect on society graphically portrayed. Without defending the basis of valuing Truth and Justice, Kelly nonetheless makes an effective argument against post-modern narcissism. The movie is a spiritually faithful adaptation of the comic, not surprising since Kelly wrote the screenplay.

{3reels}

Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The story is fairly simple. The Elite show up and start acting like bullies. Superman puts them in their place. Little time is wasted on complex plotting. The stakes are made clear, and the battle is joined. Story exposition exists solely to allow characters to expound their points of view and provide a logical escalation of tension.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Although we really only get to spend time with Superman and Manchester Black, they are the only two characters that really matter in this story. As it is, we get to see not only what it is that drives each of these individuals, but why their motivations are so important to them. Once again, little time is wasted on supporting characters, except how they relate to the principles. Predictably, Superman’s supporting cast is important to him, while the narcissistic Black focuses solely on himself.

Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I expect better from Warner Bros animation. The voice cast is stellar, with George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, and Robin Atkin Downes performing as Superman, Lois, and Manchester Black. Unfortunately, the animation and character designs are distinctly sub-par, with characters feeling oddly angular and anemic. Special mention has to be made of Superman’s chin, which is broad enough to be a super power all its own. The action sequences feel trite and familiar; there are none of the dramatic visuals and powerful sound design we have come to expect from the DC hero movies. The opening and closing credits feel like they’ve been ripped from a particularly jarring 70s acid trip, and the movie opens with a sequence that turns out to be an intentional parody, but whose childish design almost caused me to turn off the rest of the movie without bothering to watch it. Contrast this with the comic book, whose gritty portrayal of the characters, action, and environment sparked the imagination instead of squashing it.

Literary Value (Pass/Fail) – Pass

This story has some important things to say about humanity, about living in society, about the need for heroes, and about society in general. Thankfully, it just comes out and says them without beating around the bush and making tedious generalizations. Kelly has a drum to beat, and he does so with steadily increasing volume until crescendo. Even though the underlying reasons for the moral imperative are never addressed, Kelly makes a compellingly humanistic argument for the existence and value of the moral imperative.

Shelf-Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Unfortunately, this story is more fulfilling on paper than on the screen. The comic book is a fantastic read, and Kelly’s other outings with The Elite make excellent storytelling. But the slow pace of the film, the poor animation and character design, and the familiarity of the moral message makes me hesitate to pop this movie in as a random Saturday afternoon pick. Even the feature length commentary and two fascinating featurettes don’t make a compelling case for long-term purchase. The lower investment of the comic book purchase and the extended treatment of the premise make it more tempting to buy the trade paperback, though I find myself just as satisfied with a library loan. After a single trip through the material, I feel I’ve gained all the benefit there is to be had.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie with an important and compelling message, but as with many cases where stories have been adapted across mediums – the book was better.

Corporate Oppressors

Released now, calculated to bring as little benefit or press to the film as possible, Curtis and I break down as much of “Avatar” as we can stomach. We lay the entirety of the blame at James Cameron’s doorstep – he really ought to know better. We do some side trails into the fad that is the current generation of 3D movies, “Prince of Persia” – which we both really enjoyed, in spite of my frustrated rant about the ending, and then plug upcoming RPG projects here at Critical Press Media. Hey, it’s worth repeating: look for OpenD6: Agents to hit digital download and POD before the end of the summer!

In the meantime, stick around and kvetch about “Avatar” with us – and if you’ve seen the film, you know exactly why we’re so dissatisfied with the movie – or if you haven’t seen it yet let me get right to the bottom line. Skip it.

{closepodcastalchemist}

Crisis on Two Earths

Alternate and parallel earths are a staple of modern science-fiction, due in no small part to the prevalence, or even dominance, of these stories in the pages of the DC comics titles all through the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s. Though the company departed from this convention during the late 80’s and 90’s, duplicate earth stories are back with a vengeance, in the comics, on the tv series, and finally in the movie-length releases.

{4reels}

Perspective

Evil is never so clearly defined as in the presence of good, and the duplicate reality stories really bring this contrast to light in clear and interesting ways. Whether it is the antimatter universe of Grant Morrison’s “JLA Earth 2”, or the Justice Lords of the millennial Justice League animated series, I have always loved seeing the good guys triumph over their darkest failings brought to life. I was excited to see the teasers for this movie in front of Green Lantern: First Flight, and thrilled to hear that Dwayne McDuffie was the pen behind the script and story originally pitched for the animated series. With this kind of talent and creative team, standing in front of the movie aisle waiting for me to make up my mind, I made a judgment call and filched the price of the Blu-Ray from my Starbuck’s budget.

Background

The movie is not based on any specific Justice League story. Dwayne McDuffie pitched an original story for the millennial Justice League animated series; although it did not get picked up for the series, the script has been revised and is finally seeing the light of day. DC has a long tradition of “evil twin” universes, from Earth-3 of pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths to the antimatter universe of current continuity, and now endless variations of good and bad between 52 worlds of the multiverse. McDuffie is a veteran of comics and screen-writing both, and has a history of balancing the best of characterization and storytelling.

Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The lines between good and evil have never been so clearly drawn. Heroes and villains clash simply for the dictates of moral causitude. Evil is afoot, and those who stand against it must stand. The story of this movie is merely a vehicle for the twin pillars of world-shattering action and moral philosophizing. No plot twists, sudden revelations, or shades of moral gray mar the smooth purpose of this story. With a single exception, care is take so that the viewer is not jolted from his suspension of disbelief by contrived action, unbelievable coincidence, or inconsistent presentation. This story is about people who fight and why they do it.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

If the motivations of good people seldom seem as interesting as those of the bad, here we are treated to flatly small-minded and extremely dislikable villains who at first glance seem only to desire evil for its own sake. As the movie progresses, we discover the truth of the matter. The Crime Syndicate is not a maniacal group of laughing super-villains; they’re merely thugs, gangers, and hoods with unparalleled might. There is no glamor, no humanizing and sympathetic code of honor. With the sole exception of Owl-Man, these characters are repulsive and despicable. Next to them, the sketchily drawn heroes positively shine.

Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Impeccable voice acting conveys perfectly the character of the principle leads. Spectacular action sequences take place in astounding environments. Music, foley effects, and dialog are perfectly mixed, and a treat to the ears. Awesome visual sequences combine modern and traditional effects seamlessly. Although this film never really presents innovative material, at no point does its arsenal of tried-and-true techniques fail.

Content (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Whether Owl-Man is calmly explaining the completely rational purpose behind destroying the universe, denying the presence of inherent good in humanity, or revealing heroes and villains alike as slaves to circumstance and determinism the lead villain (voiced by James Woods) wields the moral and philosophical substance of the movie like a scalpel. Add in some generally excellent bonus features in the way of four additional Justice Leage episodes (two complete stories) from the millennial series, a bonus short starring the Spectre, an analysis of DC comics post-crisis, sneak peeks, trailers, and the complete pilot episodes of Wonder Woman (70’s) and the unfortunately unaired Smallville spin-off Aquaman, and the Blu-Ray is an incredible value. Minus about three hours of content, the 2-disc DVD still rates a hearty second place.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Reluctantly, this offering fails to offer a compelling reason for repeat viewing. No audio commentary tracks are included. Even James Woods creepy and stirring performance only carries so much weight. The movie lacks the emotional punch needed to rate serious study, or the stand-out action to make it a background piece. Even the special features, once viewed, are unlikely to be called again for their own sake. The best value for money on this movie would be a weekend rental. It will reward dedicated viewing, for the sake of the subtext and content, but nothing in this film demands it.

“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”

Planet Hulk

I was surprised to find “Planet Hulk” on the new movie shelf this week, not having seen any trailers for the project at all. Given Lion’s Gate’s track record with Marvel properties, and especially with adaptations of existing stories, I didn’t hesitate to slip the Blu-Ray version in between the laundry soap and frozen pizzas, where my wife would hopefully overlook it until we’re at the checkout lane….

{4reels}

Perspective

I didn’t follow the Planet Hulk stories in the comics when they were current, but made the opportunity to read the back issues once World War Hulk exploded into Marvel continuity. The dozen-plus issues worth of adventure on an alien world brought the Jarella stories of the 70’s to mind, though without the trademark storytelling of Harlan Ellison or Len Wein. I found it especially intriguing to see the differences in popular culture that 30 years has wrought on a very similar story.

Background

The premise of Planet Hulk is straightforward: Hulk is exiled to an alien planet by a group of heroes from Earth because he is too dangerous to keep and presumably too difficult to kill. Now essentially free from all previous continuity, an entirely new cast of characters and settings can be introduced and explored at will. As a comic series, Planet Hulk stands on its own merit as a self-contained story that eventually leads back into the mainstream Marvel continuity with World War Hulk. As a movie, it fares even better.

Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The movie turned out to be a fairly faithful translation of the comic books into animation – as faithful as possible when crushing two-years worth of books and crossovers with overlapping story arcs into previous and future issues into an 80 minute movie. For all that, it is not an incredibly complex story, a superhero/sci-fi rendering of Conan the Conqueror, or perhaps Kull the Conqueror. Either way, the movie could aptly have been titled, “Hulk the Barbarian”, and stood easily alongside the best work of Robert Howard. Little effort is wasted on cleverness or complexity, and the movie smashes into the action fist-first, plunging the viewers into a never-ending cascade of violence, treachery, and injustice.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

If the plot is simply a vehicle for the action, the characters are the beating heart of the story. The leading roles of hero, villain, and love interest are impeccably voice-acted, full of barely restrained emotion, crushing determination, and despicably blind selfishness, And in an alien world where Hulk is the only hero guaranteed to stand at the end of the film, the intensely personal stakes of love, loyalty, and survival hit home with gut-twisting purpose.

Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Although I had hoped for the detailed animation and epic money shots of previous animated Lion’s Gate films, Planet Hulk followed the same pattern of animation as New Avengers, and the TV series Wolverine and the X-Men. Little to no cell-shading or CGI is used to enhance the flat traditional animation of the story. Character designs are simple instead of complex, and backgrounds lack detail and depth. The movie is solid, and very watchable, but feels more like it was produced on a television schedule rather than as a cinematic feature. Even the soundtrack is dutiful and easily up to standard, but fails to excel in emotional resonance.

Content (Pass/Fail) – Fail

The story is artfully simple, but will leave viewers with little in the way of meaningful conversation. A character analysis of Hulk might yield a discussion on the merits of self-control, the benefits of society, and the responsibility of the strong towards the weak, but it seems like entirely too much effort. Although the action is at times incredibly violent, it is mostly downplayed, and there is no sensual content whatsoever. The special features are appreciated efforts, and some interesting behind the scenes of the comic story, but ultimately are too few to justify the price difference between the DVD versions. The Hulk vs Wolverine episode of Wolverine and the X-Men was a nice thought.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Pass

At the end of the film, I immediately wanted to watch it again, both for the film’s own sake, as well as for the two feature-length commentaries. I suspect there is more to this than a simple action fest, and I find myself perfectly willing to put in the time to make a better study of the story and characters. Plus, my son likes to trot out his action figures and help the characters on screen earn their victory.

Hulk smash!

Makes Me Crazy

Mistreatment of my favorite characters makes me crazy.  Unearned reputation makes me crazy.  Spending two and a half years on a comic book hoping against hope that it will turn out to be epic (or at least comprehensible) makes me crazy!  And when the Powers That Be decide to turn a waste of paper into a waste of film, shoot a trailer and promotional reel that looks freakin’ awesome, and then utterly fail to deliver the goods on a product that I really should have known better than to buy in the first place . . . well that really makes me crazy!

To mitigate my craziness, I invited my good friend Karate Drew over for a screening, in the hopes that I was simply cranky from heartburn.  To my horror and dismay, this movie still makes me crazy!  If you have read my review of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, you might be prepared for some of what is about to occur.  If not, brace yourself, as Drew and I pan the living daylights out of this utter waste of time and you get to hear what crazy sounds like as its happening.  Unfortunately, this podcast is not a riff-track, though I’m considering a combination drinking-game and riff-track for this feature.

I just don’t know if I want to sit through it again.

{closepodcast}