Monday, June 25, 2007

Fantastic Four II

I finally had a chance to see Fantastic Four II, the Rise of the Silver Surfer. I was a bit disappointed. After thinking about it, I realized that the premise of the movie was problematic.

In the comic, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wanted to do something special for the 50th issue. They came up with the idea of someone who eats planets (Galactus). The way that they did the comic was to have a story conference where they came up with a general plot. Jack would come up with the detail plot and do the art. Stan would then add the dialog.

When Jack turned in the first of the three-part story it had an extra character. "Who's this?" Stan asked. "I figured that someone this powerful needed a herald," Jack answered. Stan named him the Silver Surfer.

The story started with the FF returning from the Inhuman's city. The sky suddenly filled with fire, causing mass panic. The fire disappeared and Reed locked himself in his lab. Next, the sky was filled with boulders. Sue burst in on Reed and found that he was with the Watcher, an advanced being whose purpose was to watch and record the development of the human race. The Watcher had caused the phenomena in order to hide the Earth from the Silver Surfer.

It didn't work. The Surfer threaded his way through the rocks, landed on the Baxter Building, and signaled Galactus. A moment later the Thing knocked him across town.

Galactus landed at the source of the signal and began setting up his planet-eating apparatus. The FF tried to stop him but they were like insects to him - he used cosmic ant spray on them.

In the meantime, the Surfer fell through Alicia's skylight. In a brief conversation, she awakened the Surfer's humanity and he left to challenge Galactus.

While this was going on, the Watcher sent the Torch to Galactus's home to retrieve the Ultimate Nullifier.

The Surfer lost but before Galactus could kill him, Reed threatened Galactus with the Nullifier. Appalled at the thought of such a weapon in the hands of a human, Galactus agreed to spare the Earth in exchange for the Nullifier. As he left, he imprisoned the Surfer on Earth.

When they adapted the movie, they decided to shift the focus. Galactus is more of a cameo than a major character. The movie is about the Surfer.

That meant that they had to pad the plot. What took around four pages in the comic had to be stretched out.

Spoilers ahead - you've been warned.

The Surfer caused a number of sink holes. This was never really explained. It was suggested that Galactus used them but they were really there as a plot device. They gave the Surfer something to do between his arrival and Galactus's.

The wedding didn't really add much, either. Again, it filled time.

Doom stealing the Surfer's powers was an ok plot point. It gave the FF a chance to bond with the Surfer and it was one of the few things in the movie that came from the comic.

I wanted to see an actual fight between the FF and the Surfer. The closest we got was the Torch chasing the Surfer. I thought that we would see a fight in London but instead we got a lame rescue.

I can see why they had the Torch fight Doom using all of their powers. It got around the problem of non-flying characters trying to keep up.

Things I didn't like:
  • Doom - his whole characterization.
  • Sue acting like an airhead over the wedding. In the first movie they tried to convince us that she has multiple degrees. Ha!
  • In the comics, Johny could be hot-headed but he was never a greedy jerk. I realize that they were setting up for him to redeem himself at the end but it didn't really work out.
  • I don't understand the General's treatment of Reed. They came to him then pushed him out. Doom did little except show a home-movie but he got access to the board.
  • Galactus as a god-like being is a lot more impressive than as a really big, hungry cloud.

Regardless, it was still better than the first movie. It is too bad that this series has been hampered by bad writing. In the 1960s, this was the premier comic book and one of the biggest influences on the industry since Superman. Now, my daughter's reaction is "It was kind of cheesy but I thought that's how the comic book is."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hulk Vanish!

It's been a while since I said much about comic books so I'm going to talk a bit about the Hulk.

This character has probably gone through more re-inventions than any other. In the short run of his original comic book he started out as a cross between Frankenstein, the Wolfman (or maybe Dracula) and Mr. Hyde. At night he turned into something that looked a bit like Frankenstein's monster but had the personality of Hyde.

Because Marvel used a cheap printing process back then, the Hulk's gray didn't reproduce well so he was green by his second issue. THen he went from fairly smart but mean to nearly brainless and under the mental control of Rick Jones. Then he got Bruce Banner's intelligence and became almost a normal hero - something would happen and Banner would run to his gamma ray machine and turn into the Hulk. But something happened and the transformation stopped being reliable. And all of that was on only a half dozen or so issues.

Hulk moved into the back of Tales of Adventure as the back-up for Giant-Man (and later for the Sub Mariner). By this point he changed into a dumb Hulk when angry and changed back when he calmed down. This went on for a couple of years until Banner got shot in the head. Rick snatched the body and managed to trigger the change back to the Hulk. With a bullet in his brain, the Hulk had Banner's personality again but if he changed back he would die. A few months later the Leader dissolved the bullet but gave him such a high dosage of gamma rays that he was permanently the Hulk. Until a few years later when a radioactive pool turned him back into Banner.

Exposure to a radioactive missing link caused a one-time change to Banner with the Hulk's personality.

For the next several years it seemed like the Hulk had found his niche. He was a dumb but well-meaning guy with a bad temper and a liking for beans. Sometimes he changed back into Banner but it never lasted long. Also, the phrase "The madder the Hulk gets, the stronger he gets," became a major plot point. The Hulk could beat anyone if he got mad enough. In a cross-over, he knocked Superman into orbit. Something had to change.

One day, after a fight with an extra-terrestrial energy being and a trip back to Earth, Banner woke up in the Hulk's body. This was different than before. Usually when the Hulk had Banner's intellegence he still had a different personality. Not this time. He was pure Banner. Banner went back to inventing stuff.

It didn't last. In about a year the Hulk's personality was coming back and Banner withdrew completely. The Hulk became a mindless, savage beast. He was banished to a mystic crossroads int he hope that he could find a new home dimension that he liked.

None of this was well-written and the strip was turned over to John Byrne to jump start.  Byrne split them into two beings - a smart but crippled Banner and a savage but stronger-than-ever Hulk. Banner formed a group of Hulk-busters to hunt down and kill the Hulk. This didn't work out either and the strip was turned over to Peter David who had the longest and best run on the strip to date.

David started out with a clean slate. Banner and the Hulk had been broken apart and put back together. This appeared to cure Banner of being the Hulk but it turned out it only regressed him. He became the gray Hulk at night. For extra fun, Rick Jones turned into a green Hulk for a few issues.

The gray Hulk was smaller and weaker than the green version. He was also smart, or possibly "sly". He was no longer the strongest so he won some of his fights by outsmarting his opponent.

This phase was followed by banner becoming the gray Hulk full-time. Taking the name "Joe Fixit", the Hulk got a job working security for a Las Vegas casino.

Eventually Banner re-emerged and they went back to Banner by day/Hulk by night. Then the green Hulk showed up during the day. Dr. Sampson figured out that banner should be regarded as suffering from a multiple personality disorder with a different physical form for each personality. He managed to merge the personalities into a new being. This new Hulk had all of the green Hulk's strength, Banner's intellegence, and the gray Hulk's slyness. He joined up with a high-tech bunch of demi-gods. This lasted for a few years and is often regarded as the Hulk's best run.

Eventually the demi-gods were broken up and the Hulk went into hiding with his wife Betty. There were several more shorter story arcs before Betty was killed and Peter David left the book.

The Hulk broke back into four versions on a rotating basis. Plus Banner found out he was dying. Eventually he died but, like most Marvel deaths, it didn't take.

Marvel had just killed most of its non-mutant heroes (actually sent them to a pocket universe) then brought them back with a flurry of #1 issues. They decided to start the Hulk over with his own #1 issue and turned it over to John Byrne again. This only lasted a few months.

Apparently one goal at Marvel was to make the character more like the one in the movie (the movie that tanked). Bruce Banner was to be the lead with the Hulk acting as a supporting character. The storyline veered into a long spy plot. Banner was on the run. He had shaved his head as a disguise which proved that skinny white guys look bad with a shaved head. It didn't look good on the Hulk either although this was minor. We only saw the Hulk for a page or two per issue - maybe eight panels at most.

Then the Hulk totally vanished from his own book. Banner was shot with a long-term sedative that prevented him from getting mad enough to hulk-out. New characters were added, shot in the head, then returned months later to explain what had really happened. This went on for months.

Somewhere in this mess I realized that I didn't much care for Banner and I disliked the new supporting cast so I quit reading it.

Years later they resolved the plot, somehow - I don't care how. Peter David came back for three issues then they started the Planet Hulk story arc. The Hulk was sent to a different world because he is too dangerous to stay on Earth. He was supposed to got to a pleasant but unpopulated world but ended up on a desert world. At first he was a gladiator then he led a rebellion. It worked and I started reading the book again.

All good things come to an end. The new story arc - World War Hulk - is off to a terrible start. In the kick-off issue, the Hulk only appeared in one panel in a flashback. The rest of the book was about his cousin, the She-Hulk. Except Iron Man infected her with nanites so she was human except for a page and a half. This looks bad.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What does the opening weekend say about Pirates 3?

Here's a movie critic who finds justification in Pirate's opening weekend.

So when does $114 million lose an argument?
When its predecessor made $135 million in 229 fewer theaters.
We got our share of threes last month, didn't we? First Spider-Man 3, then Shrek the Third, then this thing. Each set a box office record. Spider-Man 3 set the weekend box office record ($151 million), Shrek the Third set the weekend box office record for animated features ($121 million) and Pirates 3 set the weekend box office record for Memorial Day ($153 million). Remove Thursday night's previews and Monday's numbers, however, and you get Pirates' dinkier $114 million total. I know: "dinkier."

Even so, when one of your franchise movies underperforms you have questions to answer.

Box Office Mojo attempted to answer some of them for Pirates 3 . They wrote, "Among major franchises, the norm is for the third movie to gross less than the second." (Except Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3, etc. etc.) The second movie, they wrote, "satiated" demand, and marketing made the third film look like "the same thing audiences experienced just ten months ago."

I.e., "2" performed too well and "3" wasn't marketed well enough. It had nothing to do with the quality of the product.

Here's my thought. Maybe it did have something to do with the quality of the product. Maybe quality matters, just a little. Just enough to not set box office records.

By the way: I'm not referring to the quality of Pirates 3. I'm referring to the quality of Pirates 2.
Before I go any further I will admit that Dead Man's Chest was not as good as Curse of the Black Pearl. That said, it does not account for the drop in box office between the two. Pirates 2 made a billion dollars worldwide. More than 100 million people paid to see it. You don't get numbers like that unless a movie has good word of mouth and a lot of repeat business.

So why didn't World's End do as well or better? There are several reasons that have little to do with relative quality.

First - last year was the year of the pirate. It seemed like every store and catalog had some sort of pirate-related merchandise. Most of it wasn't licensed. They just slapped a skull and crossbones (or crossed swords) on something. By the time Pirates 2 came out it was an event. Disney couldn't do that again so soon. It's been less than a year. The pirate boom is dying out and it is too soon for a new one.

Then there was timing. When Pirates 2 came out, its main competition was a disappointing Superman movie. Pirates 3 had to compete against two other successful franchises.

Then there is the problem of a holiday weekend. It throws off the traditional Friday-Sunday count. People are not as likely to go to movies on Memorial Day weekend.

Oh, and the Thursday night take does count. That's money that the movie would have brought in over the weekend otherwise.

Plus, Pirates 3 beat last year's X-Men 3 handily. That really argues against Lundegaard's point since X-Men 2 was better than X-Men 3.

What really counts is how much the movie brings in total, not what weekend it brings it in. Pirates 3 is approaching a half billion world-wide. It may be that it will not make as much as Dead Man's Chest, that Disney saturated the market by releasing the two too close together. It doesn't prove much overall.

The Children of Hurin

I finally got a copy of the Children of Hurin last week. This is the first new novel by J. R. R. Tolkien since the Lord of the Rings. That said, I want to be clear what this novel is and what it is not.

It is not a light happy work like the Hobbit. It isn't even a serious work like Lord of the Rings. It is high tragedy.

People who have already read the Silmarillion will be familiar with the story since it contains a shorter version. Tolkien's son Christopher wanted a version that is more approachable.

A little background:

The novel takes place thousands of years earlier than the Lord of the Rings during the war between the elves and Morgoth. Morgoth is sort of an evil god. He stole the Silmarils - three gems glowing with a godly light. They were made by the same elf who created the pallantirs in LOTR. The theft of the Silmarils triggered a long war between the elves who had journeyed to the undying lands of the west and Morgoth. Many of the elves returned from the west in pursuit of the gems. Most of the elf kingdoms mentioned are this group. There is also Thingol who rules Doriath along with his wife, Melian who is a maya - sort of a lesser god (Sauron, Gandolf, and the balrog are all maya). Doriath is protected by the Girdle of Melian which prevents anyone from entering the kingdom without permission.

Besides Doriath, the other two great elf kingdoms are Gondolin which is hidden in the mountains and Nargothrond which is hidden underground in the manned of a dwarf kingdom.

Shortly before the novel begins, the human Beren finds his way through the Girdle of Melian and falls in love with Luthien, the daughter of Thingol and Melian. In order to rid himself of Beren, Thingol gives him an impossible task - to bring one of the Silmarils. With much aid from Luthien and others, Beren eventually succeeds. He dies in the effort but is restored to life for a short time at the entreaty of Luthien. She becomes mortal and marries Beren, producing a daughter who is Elrond's grandmother.

The Children begins shortly after Beren and Luthien recover a Silmaril. This leads the elf kings to decide that it might be possible to defeat Morgoth after all. A great battle is held. Morgoth is triumphant and Hurin is taken prisoner. Morgoth tortures him by setting him in a chair where he can see all that takes place. Morgoth then curses Hurin's line.

Most of the book follows Hurin's son, Turin. Turin is sent to live in Doriath where he is welcomed as a kinsman of Beren. His pregnant mother has to stay behind in occupied territory and Turin eventually looses all contact with her. As with Anakin Skywalker, worry over his mother leads to bad things. Turin is always well-meaning and is a great warrior. His fatal flaw is that he constantly underestimates the power of Morgoth. Because of his prowess, he becomes a leader wherever he goes but he is at war with an enemy who cannot be defeated. Worse, Morgoth's curse brings about some tragic coincidences.

The book is full of heroic deeds and great sorrows. Despite the subject matter, it is a quick read. It is 313 pages but they are small with a large font plus there is an introduction and appendix.

People who are looking for another LoTR will be disappointed but anyone who wants to know more about Middle Earth history should enjoy the book.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The real influences on Star Wars

As part of the Star Wars 30th anniversary, the History Channel has been airing a special on Star Wars. Various politicians and celebrities talk about how George Lucas went back to mythic tradition in creating a new mythic structure. This is not new - Lucas has been saying this for years. The thing is, it isn't really true.

I don't argue that many of the themes in Star Wars can be found in myth. My point is that these mythic structures are common to an entire class of literature. I think that Lucas simply drew on the literature of the day and later tried to elevate his movies by pointing out mythic elements.

Lucas himself used to point to other influences, ones that are no longer mentioned. The biggest of these was the Saturday morning serials. Lucas wanted to recreate the serials with high production values. We need look no further than the first few seconds of the original movie to see the influence. The narration scrolling past is straight from the serials. This is also where the structure of the movies comes from. Each of the six movies is divided into three "chapters".

The other acknowledged influence was Japanese culture, especially the films of Akira Kurosawa. The Droids were probably inspired by two supporting characters in The Hidden Fortress.

As for Lucas's other inspirations, most of these came from the paperback racks of any 1960s and 1970s bookstore. The most common plot in science fiction novels at the time had a young man, either through knowledge or heredity, suddenly taken from his boring life. After spending some time with a mentor, he went out to save the world. Along the way he won the love of a woman who would normally be hopelessly above him. Lucas simply gave his own spin on the details and we have the original Star Wars.

Note that there was a radical shift in the characters between the first two movies. In the original, there was clearly a mutual attraction between Luke and Leia. By the second movie Lukas and his writers had redefined the relationship between Luke, Leia, and Vader. To keep things from being creepy, Leia treated Luke as a brother (how about that) and only showed romantic affection for Han.

In the second movie we see more of the Japanese influence. In most Japanese stories, a young man would train to be a samurai by studying under a master. The master would be an old hermit. He might not even be recognized as a master at first. The training was different than we would expect. The student was taught to be a samurai through everyday activities. The movie the Karate Kid is also based on this tradition. In it, the kid learns basic moves by waxing a car and painting a fence.

Lucas made the old hermit into a shrunken muppet. In keeping with the Japanese tradition, we see Luke running through the swamp with Yoda on his back and doing other physical activities but we never see him taught to use the lightsaber.

The big twist in The Empire Strikes Back is Vader's real relationship with Luke. This one is a slight stretch, but a possible influence for that was the master of adventure, Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini wrote dozens of adventure novels, many of them best sellers. The best of these were reprinted and widely distributed in the 1970s. Sabatini pretty much invented swashbuckling adventure and some of his best novels revolved around a hero who finds out at the last chapter that his nemesis is actually his father. It is unlikely that neither Lukas nor Leigh Brackett (who wrote Empire) had never read Sabatini.

For Return of the Jedi, I can find a couple of likely influences. One is Alan Dean Foster. A prominent science fiction writer at the time, he wrote the first authorized Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Foster had a recurring theme in his novels - primitive natives overpowering high-tech invaders. The fight between the Storm Troops and the Ewoks was classic Foster.

In a bit of irony, Lucas was his inspiration for Jedi. In the novel (written by Lucas from his screenplay) it was clear that the X-Wing fighters were actually flying through the Death Star. The special effects people at ILM were unable to figure out how to do this so it was changed to an equatorial trench in the movie. By the third movie, Lucas had the budget and technology to go back and redo the fight the way he originally envisioned it. Thus, Jedi featured a battle to eliminate a second Death Star and this time they flew right through it.

So, where does this leave us? I think it is clear that Lucas was adapting genres of popular fiction rather than drawing from myth. As far as the end product goes, it doesn't matter. Prior to Star Wars, no one had done a good job of putting science fiction on the screen in an approachable form.

Just don't try to find deep insight in it.