Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Bring on the Villains

In an earlier post on the early days of Marvel. I pointed out how different things were behind the scenes. While this contributed to the end product, that is not what a 10 year old boy was interested in. We wanted fights. That meant having good villains.

Quick - name a good fight in a DC comic published no later than 1965. I don't think that there was one. The heroes were always stronger than the villains. Superman's main opponents were brainy like Luthor and Braniac or worked over Batman villains like Toyman. Half the time there was no villain. Superman was turned into something by Red Kryptonite or something similar.

Batman wasn't much better. Even Robin could beat Joker. Except for a couple of interesting but underused characters like Clayface and Blockbuster, most of Batman's foes were regular guys with a gimmick.

The same thing is true for Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and the rest. As soon as they got their hands on their opponent the fight was over.

Things were different at Marvel. Their heroes were regularly fighting out of their weight class. The Fantastic Four took on giant monsters, an alien invasion then more monsters, all in the first three issues.

Spider-Man started slow (a sneak thief, a run-away space capsule, etc) but his opponents quickly improved. Most of them were stronger than he was one way or another. By the end of the second year fought the Scorpion who was created to be stronger than Spidey. He was beaten to a pulp, twice, before finally winning by out-fighting the Scorpion.

Most issues were like this. You really didn't know who would win. You assumed that the hero would but every now and then he lost. When fighting the Adaptiod, the best Captain America could do as survive. The Absorbing Man decked Thor. The Hulk beat Spider-Man in Spidey's own book. Later he took on the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, beating them all. At various points, the Submariner beat the X-Men, Daredevil, and the Hulk in their own books.

It's easy to act heroic when there's little chance that you will lose. The Marvel heroes didn't have that luxury. In the DC universe, Superman was the stongest there was, period. Over at Marvel, there was a whole class of beings who were more powerful than any hero. This started with the Watcher and escalated with Galactis.

Even Dr. Doom, the closest thing that Marvel has to Lex Luthor, is a lot more interesting. He carries enough weapons in his armor to take on anyone - plus, Luthor turned evil after loosing his hair, Doom turned evil after his face was scared. Which one is lame?

So, you are a 10-year-old and you only have enough money to buy one comic. Spider-Man has been captured and chained up by the Green Goblin who is fighting a masked crimelord for control of New York. Batman is fighting the Joker (again). Which one gets your twelve cents?

Sunday, June 26, 2005


It could have been better. It could have been a lot worse.

(Spoiler) I sort of understand how Aunt Clara was conjured up to solve things but I don't understand who conjured up Uncle Arthur? I wonder if something got cut that would have explained this?

They recreated bits from the TV show. Just to be certain that you got it, they showed clips of the scenes.

They kind of ignored the show past the first season. It's just as well. The first season was about Samantha trying to blend in. Sometimes she failed. Sometimes she felt that she had to help people. Episodes were warm-hearted and you often felt that she was too god for Darrin. Later episodes revolved around witchcraft going wrong and the show lost a lot of its warmth. By the end it was playing against All in the Family. The plots were recycled from earlier seasons, sometimes line for line. The show seemed dated - early 60s optimism in an early 70s downbeat world.

Plus, I never liked Darrin II.

Anyway, Kidman captures a lot of the innocence that made Samantha so likable.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Marvel vs DC

DC invented the costumed superhero (Superman) and the costumed crimefighter (Batman). There were challenges during the Golden Age but they all died off in the 1950s. The only superheroes who have an unbroken run going from the 1940s to the present are Superman and Batman (Wonder Woman made it into the 1980s before being cancelled and resurrected).

In 1961, Timely, a small comic book company, changed its name to Marvel and put out a superhero comic - the Fantastic Four. By the end of the decade they were the dominant force in comics. By the end of the 1980s, DC had reworked all of their characters to be more like Marvel.

How did this happen? What did Marvel do right?

I'm going to give full credit to Stan Lee. A lot of others will disagree. Various artists have complained for years that Lee did nothing but self-promotion, taking credit for the work of talented artists, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

After they made their mark at Marvel, both Kirby and Ditko moved to DC. Their work, while good, lacked a certain spark. Both men were great storytellers but had problems with dialog. There were other less-tangible issues. Kirby lost focus and Ditko never created any villains worth mentioning.

Over at Marvel, Stan farmed some books out to his brother, Larry Lieber. Larry was competent but uninspired. Even working with the same characters and artists, he was unable to write stories that matched Stan's.

Finally, every book that Stan touched had a certain spark. It didn't matter who drew it or which character was featured.

Given all that, I think that Stan deserves all the credit he got for creating Marvel Comics.

But what did he do?

This is going to take a lot of posts. For now I'm just going to look at how the books were created.

The first thing Stan did was invent "Marvel-style" writing. In the old days, the writer would write a complete script. It specified how many panels a page would have, what happened in each panel, and what the characters were saying. The artist's job was to illustrate this story.

As Marvel grew, Stan decided to share some of the workload and, at the same time, tap the artist's talent. He would start with a plot. This might come from a story conference or he might simply write it down and send it out. From there, the artist would decide he pacing and draw the story. It then went back to Lee to add dialog. Sometimes the artist did the plot and Stan did nothing but the dialog.

Remember, everyone else was still handing the artists story sheets complete with dialog. This is why Stan got the reputation for putting his name on other people's work. Besides, prior to Stan, no one cared about the names on the book. Stan created the industry superstar by slapping credits on each comic (and handing out clever nicknames so that people would read them.)

Sometimes what Stan got back wasn't what he expected. He and Jack Kirby decided to create someone really powerful for Fantastic Four #50 and came up with galactus. Kirby decided that such a powerful character needed a herald and threw in the Silver Surfer on his own.

As new artists entered the field, they expected to work Marvel-style and that has become the industry standard.

But all of that was behind the scenes. What the kids cared about was what was on the page. This was heroes fighting villains and that's what my next post will be about.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

TV to Movie

Why do they do it - make TV shows into movies? Sometimes it works but usually it doesn't. MSNBC has an article on this but I don't agree with them on some and I haven't seen others.

Of course, the reason they do it is for money. A TV show has a built-in audience and name recognition so it sounds like a good idea. There are enormous problems with the concept, though. The record of successes to total flops is almost as bad as for movies based on SNL sketches.

TV shows often work because of the chemistry of the cast. That is hard to reproduce. Just look at the Avengers. The movie was totally miscast.

There is a tendency to try to make the movie bigger than the TV show in order to justify it being a movie. The Avengers is an example of this. So is the first Star Trek. The studio kept rejecting scripts as "not big enough". In the push to make a BIG movie, the qualities that made the show appealing in the first place are lost.

TV shows have more time. Even though they are packaged in smaller chunks, a sitcom will have around six and a half hours per season of material. An hour drama will have twice that. This gives the writers time to throw in off-beat episodes. Star Trek 4 & 6 gave each of the cast their own little bits but in the series these characters might get an entire episode.

At the same time, the concepts of the TV show often go down better in small doses. The Adam west Batman movie had the same cast and crew as the TV show but it just didn't work. It tried to be too big and it pumped up the plot to last 90 minutes. The show continued successfully in half-hour chunks.

Given that, it is a wonder that any TV shows ever made a good movie.

Star Trek managed with both the original cast and the Next Generation but it is well known that odd-numbered Trek movies suck.

The House of Dark Shadows also worked - one of the few TV-to-movies from the 1960s that did work.

The Addams family worked. They kept enough of the original show to suggest it but reworked it enough to fashion an interesting movie.

Maverick also worked (my wife and I liked it). I know that I watched it when it was new but I cannot remember a single episode so I was not comparing it with the original.

This was not true for Wild Wild West. I loved that show and I hated the movie.

Scooby Doo worked surprisingly well. It also did something that the original cartoons never did - it surprised me when they reviled the villain.

Hitchhiker's Guide was good. It suggested the original while packaging it into a movie.

I'm not sure how to count Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the Hulk. They started as comic books, then became TV shows and eventually moved onto the big screen.

Bewitched is coming out this weekend and the Firefly movie Serenity will be out in Sepember (not a good sign). We will see if either of these is any good.

How Would They Vote?

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith is supposed to be anti-Bush. Conservatives claim Batman Begins. In keeping what that, here is how I think various comic book heroes vote:

Superman: He stands for Truth, Justice, and the Status Quo. He might topple a foreign government if the UN asked but never otherwise. He did special missions for President Kennedy. His arch-enemy is a rich industrialist. A Kerry internationalist.

Batman: He believes in righteous vengeance. He is not above bending the rules a bit. A neo-conservative.

Wonder Woman: She isn't a citizen so she can't vote for president, except for president of the NOW.

Green Arrow (Oliver Queen): Nader Green (also known as a watermelon - green on the outside and red on the inside).

Green Lantern/Specter II (Hal Jordan): Conservative but more liberal than people give him credit for. Nixon Republican

Nightwing (Dick Grayson): Kerry Democrat (just to piss-off Batman)

The Fantastic Four:
Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic): When government red tape stopped him from launching a privately financed space craft, he launched anyway. A Reagan Republican

Sue Richards (Invisible Woman), Johnny Storm (the Torch): New York City celebrities - they must vote Democrat.

Ben Grimm (the Thing): Same as above but also Jewish.

Spiderman: Never got around to registering.

Daredevil: A lot like Batman except poor. A neo-conservative interventionist.

The Avengers:
Thor: Back when he was Don Blake he was probably Republican. He had no problems with the imperial presidency. Now that he is Thor full-time he is not a citizen.

Iron Man (Tony Stark): When he was first introduced he was a munitions maker in the war against communism. He even supplied weapons for the troops in Viet Nam. Later it was pointed out that this made him a Pig since he made money from war. As time went by he changed. He started chasing hippy chicks in a pathetic attempt at validation. After the war, he embraced the role of international party boy with a few time-outs for substance abuse. Now he does non-weapons consulting. All of this makes him an Arianna Huffington liberal.

Captain America: He started as a Roosevelt Democrat but the party changed a lot since then. Make him a Zel Miller Democrat who votes Republican.

Hulk (Bruce Banner): He designed bigger, better nukes for the military. Nixon Republican.

Henry Pym (Ant Man, Giant Man, Goliath, etc.): One vote for each candidate (Hank is a very confused man).

Wasp (Janet Van Dyne/Pym): Republican.

Black Widow (Natasha Romanov): A refugee from Communist Russia. She was personally threatened by the evil empire. Reagan Republican.

Cyclops (Scott Summers): Reagan Republican (A Cyclops solo limited series started with Scott quoting Reagan and disagreeing with the quote saying, "I never could stand the man." That is what got me thinking about this in the first place. Cyclops is at the top of my list for superheroes who vote Republican.)

Professor X: A mutant Dr. Martin Luther King in a wheelchair. A Kennedy Democrat.

Angel (Warren Worthington III): Really, really rich. A no-inheritance-tax Republican.

Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler: foreign nationals. They cannot vote.

Iceman: Democrat (but only because his parents are Republican)

Beast: Gulianni Republican.

Related link - Meryl Yourish rates superheroes for dating.

Batman Begins

It's the best Batman movie since Batman Returns, possibly since Batman (the Tim Burton one, not the Adam West one). It does have some flaws. Some of these were probably corporate-dictated. It is interesting to compare Christopher Nolan's version with Tim Burton's.

First, the continuity is different but this is more or less the same Batman as the Tim Burton. The basic elements are the same including the batsuit. This is not surprising since it is the same producers.

There are three big differences. One is the look. Burton gave Gotham City a very distinct, timeless architecture. This extended down to the cars. This gives the movie a timeless look. It still holds up pretty well today. Compare this with any of the Superman movies. They age real fast. Parts of New York City were duplicated as Metropolis and the cars were all current models.

BB (Batman Begins) is somewhere inbetween. Gotham City looks like any other modern city. Sixteen years from now it might look dated. I am sure that this was forced on the director. They wanted to get as far away as possible from the black-light Gotham in Batman and Robin.

The second difference - the focus of the BB was on Bruce/Batman. There was at most fifteen minutes of the movie that did not feature Bruce/Batman. Very little time was spent on the Scarecrow and less on Ras al Ghul. Burton left us wanting more Batman. Nolan gives us our fill.

The third difference - plot holes. I cannot think of any in Burton's Batman. They might be there but I can't think of them. BB has lots. Here are a few (warning - spoilers):

Ninjas are from Japan. What are they doing on mainland Asia? And why are they now sort of a force for good?

How does a fairly small box generate enough microwaves to blow underground water mains? Through a train car, even! I'm not sure that this is possible with an unlimited power source. If it is, you would think that it would vaporize anyone standing near it.

How does a group of Ninjas cause a depression? In a global economy, a local depression would be hard to manage. In the movie they kept saying that the depression was what was making things so bad. Gotham needed to be destroyed because is was corrupt. It was corrupt because of the depression. The depression was forced on it to destroy it. There were also some references to Gotham cleaning itself up somewhat after Bruce's parents were killed. This implies that a depression is a moral failing, not an economic problem. There's a big piece missing here.

Any cave with that many bats is going to be knee deep in guano (bat droppings).

The dry well led into a dry cave with a waterfall at one end. How did this well ever work? Why not pipe water from the waterfall?

Bruce got all of this training in using swords. You would think that he would carry one.