I Already Miss the Bad Guys Being in Charge

Siege #4, the last issue of Marvel’s latest crossover, came out yesterday.  For those not keeping score, Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, has been the “top cop” in the Marvel Universe for a while now, basically running everything with the help of a secret cabal that included Dr. Doom, Loki, and some other baddies.  Siege brought all that to an end, with Osborn overreaching the limits of his power by invading Asgard (home of the Norse Gods and what-not), leading to his inevitable downfall.

The Siege storyline was fun, a bit different from the usual crossover, though the end was somewhat anti-climactic. But then crossover endings are almost always anti-climactic, and writer Brian Michael Bendis’s strength has always been small, funny, and sometimes poignant moments of (super)human interaction, much more so than the big battles.

Maybe it’s the geek purist in me, but I do wish there had been a bit more of a role for Spidey in this one.  The Green Goblin *did* come to us from Spidey’s rogue’s gallery, after all.  One of my favorite things about Dark Reign has been that Cap and Ms. Marvel and all these big-shot Avengers are all, “OMG, the villains are in charge of everything in our lives, this is the worst thing EVAH!” And Spidey basically says (1) Welcome to my world; and (2) Don’t worry, Osborn will shoot himself in the foot eventually, trust me, he always does.  It was really fun watching Spidey school the other super-heroes on how to handle being the underdog, and a big part of me wanted him to have a moment of standing over a defeated Osborn saying, “See, told you so.”  Maybe that’ll happen in the first issue of the New New Avengers re-launch or whatever they’re calling it.

But, more than anything, some part of me is sad that the super-villains aren’t in charge anymore.  It’s just so much more fun when the villains are on top.  (See also the original Star Wars trilogy, Lex Luthor’s tenure as president of the United States in the DC Universe, or the many Cylon victories in BSG.)  I suspect there are several reasons why it’s appealing when the villains have the upper hand, among them, (1) it gives the heroes a bigger and more interesting challenge, almost always a good way to go; and (2) at some level, don’t all of us occasionally, secretly identify with the villains, and want their crazy schemes for world conquest to succeed?  Who wouldn’t love for poor Brain *just once* to succeed when he tells his friend their plans for the evening: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky.  Try to take over the world.”  Seriously, I’d pay a lot of money to see an episode where Brain succeeds.  Among other things, I’d like to know, What would Brain do next?  How would humanity feel about their rodentia overlord?  What would Pinky’s role be in a Brain dictatorship? Etc.  With stories like Dark Reign, we get to see both heroes and villains react to situations we haven’t normally seen them in before – especially refreshing in the comic book sphere, where so many stories and battles get recycled.

(Minor spoilers below the fold.)

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Five Signs a Superhero Movie Franchise Has Jumped the Shark

I didn’t catch the opening of Iron Man 2 yet, but several things I’ve read about the movie have got me worried.  I have no expectation that it will be as good as the first one; I’d be happy with merely decent.  My worry is that the Iron Man movie franchise has already completely jumped the shark.  To assess the situation, I’ve identified five signs that a superhero sequel has gone to very bad places.

(Note: My main focus here is on superhero movie series that start out at least decent and become quite indecent.  So there is no place for, say, Fantastic Four in this analysis, since that series had nowhere to go but up after its frightful start.)

1. Supervillain Proliferation

As a franchise goes on for one or more sequels, some brilliant producer inevitably gets the idea, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there were two supervillains in this movie?”  Alas, it is rarely cool.  Mostly it just leads to a crowded cast and a crowded script, and lots of cornball moments.  An early example is Batman Forever, when the Riddler finds Two-Face in his lair and basically says, “Hey, we’re both supervillians with weird fetishes and a shared hatred of Batman.  Let’s team up!”  Jim Carey’s over-the-top humor almost makes it work.

More recently, Spider-Man 3 had a major supervillain overdose, with Sandman, a new Green Goblin (Harry Osborn), and Venom all crammed into one plot.

There are notable exceptions to the rule, of course. Batman Begins worked perfectly fine with both the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul – but in that case, Scarecrow was working for Ra’s al Ghul from the start – very different from an awkward team-up or a jigsaw puzzle of disparate plots.  And, of course, at least two X-movies did okay with a team of super-villains.

Things don’t look great for Iron Man 2 on this count, with both Justin Hammer and Blacklash/Crimson Dynamo taking the stage.

2. The Hero Goes Bad, Often for Silly Reasons

The superhero going bad seems to be a low-hanging fruit for comic-book sequels, often for fairly contrived reasons, and almost always with disastrous results.  The first superhero sequel to go this route was probably Superman 3, wherein Supes goes bad after exposure to faulty kryptonite mixed with cigarette tar. But, without a doubt, the most painfully egregious offender on this score is Spider-Man 3, in which possession by the black suit makes Spidey go evil, exposing millions of unsuspecting fans to Tobey Maguire dancing awkwardly to disco music.  A lesser offender is X3: the Last Stand, with Jean Grey transforming into the evil Phoenix.

Also of note are the clever visual cues directors use to indicate the hero’s new, evil-fied persona:  evil Phoenix’s veins pop out of her skin; evil Superman is unshaven, has a tan, and a costume that looks like it hasn’t been laundered in a while; and, most frighteningly of all, evil Peter Parker has bangs.

I’m not sure how they’d depict an evil Iron Man, since Tony Stark already has a beard and what-not, but it does sound like Stark is a bit of a jerk in Iron Man 2, but far from full-on evil.

3. The More Plots the Merrier

This one is a close corollary of indicator #1.  As villains proliferate, so too do the number of plot convolutions.  Many storylines are crammed together – some of them even interesting! – but none are explored in-depth because the script is just too crowded.  Witness Wikipedia’s sad attempt to briefly summarize the premise of Spider-Man 3:

The film begins with Peter Parker basking in his success as Spider-Man, while Mary Jane Watson continues her Broadway career. Harry Osborn still seeks vengeance for his father’s death, and an escaped convict, Flint Marko, falls into a particle accelerator and is transformed into a shape-shifting sand manipulator. An extraterrestrial symbiote crashes to Earth and bonds with Peter, influencing his behavior for the worse. When Peter abandons the symbiote, it finds refuge in Eddie Brock, a rival photographer, causing Peter to face his greatest challenge.

Yikes.  A more distressing example was X-Men: The Last Stand, which took two awesome storylines directly from the pages of the comic books (Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix Saga and Joss Whedon’s more recent “mutant cure” story), and then put them in a blender to make one awful mess of a movie.

No one seems able to summarize the plot of Iron Man 2 in three sentences or less, which has me worried.

4. Awkward Love Sub-Plots

At some point in any superhero series, the standard superhero love interest gets boring, and convoluted love sub-plots often ensue.  And so we have Lana Lang attempting to fill in for Lois Lane’s absence in Superman 3, Cyclops getting killed off so that Wolverine and Jean Grey can have more sexy screen time in X3, and a lazily undeveloped love triangle between Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3.

With both the Black Widow and Pepper in Iron Man 2, this may be yet another sign of danger…

5. The Title Has a “3” in it

As you may have noticed, I’ve picked quite a lot on Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Superman 3.  All four represented turns for the worse in series that, up until that point, had produced movies that were at least decent, if not excellent.  One final thing they all have in common is that they were all the third in the series.  So perhaps there’s still hope for Iron Man 2!

Tio Gilberto All Over the Internets!

My short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” is now available for free online at Realms of Fantasy’s website.  It’s also being featured next week in io9’s short-story reading club.  The short story club is a new feature at io9, and the first few stories featured included stories by Isaac Asimov and Elizabeth Bear, so it’s a thrill and an honor to be in such amazing company. 

BTW, io9 is one of the coolest places on the internets for sci-fi goodness, as exemplified by recent posts such as 38 reasons why Iron Man is cooler than Darth Vader, Patrick Stewart Explains How Shakespeare Prepares You for Science Fiction Acting, or 20 Great Infodumps from Science Fiction Novels.  Definitely worth adding to your RSS and/or regular routine of obsessive blog-checking. 

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the discussion of “Tio Gilberto” at io9 next Saturday. Many thanks to David Grossman at io9 and Doug Cohen and the gang at Realms for making Gilberto’s internet tour possible!

E.T. Rewatch

Last night I was hanging out with my cuz, searching for a movie to watch amidst the labyrinth of on-demand menus, and he mentioned he’d never seen E.T.  And I was all, “You’ve never seen E.T.!?” and so we immediately ended our search and purchased it for the very reasonable price of $1.99.

I was probably 7 or so the last time I saw the full movie, and it was fascinatingly familiar yet new.  I remembered most of it in surprising detail, but my experience of it was through entirely different eyes – kind of like going back to your old elementary school as an adult.  To pick an obvious example, I remembered Eliot’s high-school-age brother and his friends as being “big kids,” unknowable giants to my 7-year-old eyes.   As a kid, I was completely terrified by Eliot’s first meeting with E.T. in the backyard, when they both get scared of each other and run off.  I also think I completely missed the whole divorce theme that looms over the whole story – or at least I didn’t remember it at all until re-watching.

Mostly, though, I was just amazed at the storytelling – so emotionally powerful, effective – and economical!  Not one minute of the movie is wasted: Spielberg spends a few minutes setting up that E.T.’s stranded and establishing the characters in Elliot’s family, and then goes straight to their first encounter, and while he’s building their friendship makes sure he also plants the seeds for the confrontation with the scary guys from the government.  As soon as he’s established that E.T. and Elliot have a psychic link and that E.T. wants to phone home, the bad guys show up and E.T. gets *really* sick *really* fast and we jump straight to the satisfying climax. 

They just don’t make movies that tight anymore.  I feel like if E.T. were made today, it would be three and a half hours long, would start with several scenes presenting a detailed picture of life on E.T.’s homeworld, and would also include a romantic subplot for Elliot. Plus at least three epilogues of E.T. and his buddies in space and Elliot and his family having dinner and God-knows-what-else.

In any case, this one holds up, to say the least. If you haven’t seen it since you were a wee lass or lad, it’s definitely worth seeing again – it’s a different but equally wonderful experience.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is More than Fun

For Christmas, my fab sister gave me Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (Okay, she gave it to Hassan, but she knew I’d read it too.)  Bechdel is the author/artist behind the successful and hilarious comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Fun Home is her autobiography in graphic form. 

The main thrust of the story focuses on her relationship with her father, an English teacher who is obsessed with the historic restoration of their gothic revival home.  His hobby makes the family’s home a bit like a museum – both in its archaic beauty and its stifling atmosphere.  Dad seems more interested in restoring the shingles to their former glory than he is in showing any affection for his kids.  In college, Alison comes out to her parents.  She prepares herself for rejection but gets something possibly even more overwhelming: she learns her father has had affairs with men, including her former babysitter.  A few months later, as she’s still processing this new understanding of her family history, her father dies in what may have been suicide.

It mean some like these are spoilers, but all of this is clear within the first few pages.  Alison unfolds the narrative of her family not-quite-chronologically, going back and forth in time, creating a picture that grows more complex and fascinating with each new detail.  At some point, I think I may haveto re-read the book just to get a better understanding of how she structured it. 

Bechdel is an exceptional master at using the combination of words and pictures, for maximum, astoundingly efficient effect, as in the image below.  She tells her story with honesty and skill, and along the way draws on everything from the Icarus-Daedalus myth to Stonewall and James Joyce.  And on the final page she manages to bring her non-linear narratives together in a way that added yet another layer of complexity to her story and was also deeply moving.  Go forth and read it – you won’t be disappointed!

Finally Converted to Dr. Who

For years friends have been telling me I have to check out Dr. Who, but I resisted it like , um, like something that resists another thing a lot.  Then on a long airplane ride I discovered a few episodes were among my in-flight entertainment options. I watched one, then another, and another until I had spent most of my flight on adventures in the TARDIS.  More recently, Hassan and I have been working our way through the new incarnation of the show from the very start.  I love the unabashed over-the-topness of it, the Doctor’s wonderful combination of glee, confidence, and goofiness in the face of intergalactic danger. A few of my favorite moments so far are…

  • Captain Jack Harkness is captured by androids who disintegrate his clothes live in front of a global television audience.  Captain Jack: Am I naked in front of millions of viewers?  Android: Absolutely.
    Captain Jack: Ladies, your viewing figures just went up. 
  • Harriet Jones explaining, “There’s an act of Parliament banning my autobiography.”
  • David Tennant pulling together his outfit shortly after he regenerates as the new Doctor.  Tennant pulls it off the combination of self-discovery and casual wardrobe-searching beautifully and I am officially attached to him as my favorite incarnation of the Doc (though my sample is admittedly small so far).

Jack Harkness is an especially fun character and I’m looking forward to the Torchwood marathon that will follow close on the heels of the Dr. Who marathon.

Of course, the show’s not perfect.  The endings often seem rushed and tend to rely on deus ex machina a bit too often, and the “science” makes Star Trek technobabble look like rigorous scientific inquiry.  But these are minor forgivable foibles  for a show that offers such a fun ride almost every time.

Joan Aiken and Joe Abercrombie

best served cold coverCurrently alternating between reading Joe  Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and Joan Aiken’s Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Tales

Abercrombie is one of the hot new names when it comes to fat fantasy epics (so I’ve been told), and a quarter of the way through the book he’s living up to the buzz.   Our heroine is Monza Murcatto, a bad-ass mercenary whose employer betrays her and murders her brother.  (He tries to kill her, too, but it doesn’t take.)  That’s just the prologue: the real story is Murcatto seeking vengeance by killing the seven people responsible for her brother’s death.  As you may have noticed, it’s much grittier than most fantasy, and moral ambiguities abound, making it quite a bit more interesting than your standard epic quest.

Actually, the cool part of it is that Abercrombie has taken a lot of those tropes and turned them inside-out like a used pair of underwear.  Murcatto is indeed on a quest, it’s just that it’s a quest for vengeance, not some Enchanted MacGuffin.  And she has to run around the kingdom collecting plot coupons, but they’re not gems or sacred weapons, or pieces of the parchment; the plot coupons are the dead bodies of the seven dudes she’s determined to kill.  She even has a little band of heroes, but instead of the swordsman-dwarf-wizard standard, her merry men are a poisoner, an ex-con, and a poor immigrant.  And though it’s dark, it’s all done with a light touch and a sense of humor.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Serial Garden is a collection of children’s stories from Big Mouth House, the children’s book imprint from Small Beer Press.  Best Served Cold is a bit heavy for my poor old-and-achey-before-its-time  body to be lugging around, so Aiken’s book hasserial garden made for perfect subway reading.  (Actually, most of the stories last exactly one 20-minute subway ride into Manhattan, which is lovely since it’s always nice to have a sense of closure before moving onto the Next Thing.)  Mark and Harriet are the Armitage kids, who encounter strange and magical things every week – usually on Mondays.  A unicorn appears on the front lawn, the board of incantation commandeers their house, their father is transformed into a cuckoo, etc.  The characters waste no time at all being shocked at the impossible, although, occasionally, when strange things happen on Tuesday instead of Monday, it is very disconcerting for everyone, especially Mr. Armitage.  The stories have great telling details and are just plain fun – I only wish I’d discovered them when I was seven years old so I could fully appreciate them.