Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Immortality through Christmas Specials

While watching some classic Christmas specials last night I was struck by how they have altered our perception of several actors. Take Darren McGavin. IMDB has 180 entries for his work. This includes a couple of TV series that he starred in and at least two cult movies from the 1970s (Tribes about a hippy drafted into the Marines and Night Stalker about a vampire in Las Vegas). However, to most people he was the unnamed "old man" in Christmas Story.

Jimmy Stewart was one of the most celebrated actors of his generation with one Oscar and four other nominations (plus one for lifetime achievment) but It's A Wonderful Life is the only movie he made that is regularly played.

For several generations, Boris Karloff was the most famous horror movie actor ever. A victim of type casting, he seldom played anything but a villain and usually was cast as a mad scientist. However, the last few generations mainly know him as the voice of the Grinch. He also won a Grammy for narrating this story.

There are worse ways to be remembered. These are classics for a reason and it is likely that these would not have reached classic status without these actors.

I suspect that Jimmy Stewart would prefer to be remembered for some of his meatier roles. McGavin spent most of his career playing an "everyman" so he would probably be ok with being remembered for Christmas Story. Karloff would probably be gratified to be remembered for doing a children's story. He was a gentle, cultured man, very unlike the characters he usually played.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Heroes Book 3

Looking back on Book 3 of Heroes, I'm not impressed. The season started out with an interesting premise - exploring the dividing line between heroes and villains. Unfortunately, the execution was lacking. Most of the characters crossed the dividing line multiple times - so often that I became numb to it.

A major subplot was Sylar's attempt to reform. While this had its moments, it conflicted with earlier depictions of Sylar. He is at his best when he accepts what he is. He finally got back to this in the last couple of episodes.

I think that the point of the season was to save the world. An image of the Earth splitting apart was constantly shown. The trouble is that this happened in the future but we have seen so many alternate futures that it is hard to take one seriously. They need to drop this quest to stop a future menace. It was good in the first season and tiresome in the second and third seasons.

Too many elements were retreads from the first season. Hiro lost most of his memory and recreated his character development from the first few weeks of the first season. They even brought back the comic book and Hiro's cheer, "I did it!".

The eclipse was a stunt that added little or nothing. It was also the longest and widest total eclipse in history.

Aurthur didn't add much. He spent most of the season lurking instead of actually doing something. When you are that powerful you should take a more active hand.

They wrapped things up too quickly. Doesn't anyone on the show understand pacing? Last sason I could understand the rush to wrap up a slow season in a couple of episodes but there is no writers strike going on now. Why limp along and then cram too much in at the end.

That's the second time they had a character killed when a fiery bulding collapses.

Book 4 looks promising. They at least have the heroes in a different situation. It looks like they come out of the shadows.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What happened to the holiday movies?

This is something like the fourth weekend of the holiday movie season and I'm still waiting for something I want to see to come out. Past years have brought such releases as the three Lord of the Rings, the first Harry Potter movies, Titanic, and several Trek movies. We were supposed to get both Harry Potter and Trek but they were moved to the summer in the hope of making more money.

In the meantime we have things that I just don't want to see. I burned out on James Bond after the first Roger Moore release. I am not in the target audience for Twilight. Most of the other releases are Oscar-bait - critically acclaimed but not of interest to the average audience-member.

This week we get a remake of The Day the earth Stood Still. The ads make it look like a boring message movie. The reviews confirm this.

What happened to Hollywood?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Boston Legal

Boston Legal is about to end. Unlike most cancellations, this one is voluntary.

The show has had a strange run. Most of the cast is recycled from other shows. At one point two cast members were from different incarnations of Star Trek with a third (Candice Bergen) having been in a different Gene Roddenberry show. Younger cast members came and went without a ripple, replaced by more colorful actors.

Originally the premise of the show was that nothing is illegal. Whatever you did or wanted, they would plead it in court, with passion. James Spader's character was an example of the world's shadiest lawyer. He didn't win cases. He intimidated people. In one case he hired someone to break into a plaintiff's house and tie him up. Spader then informed that person that this would happen weekly.

A few years ago things changed. Spades's character started pleading cases. He also started pontificating. The show started including a weekly anti-Bush rant. It was also horribly unbalanced. Characters who were supposed to disagree usually said something like, "Yes, everything you say is true but..."

Spader's character also engaged in enough hijinks to get an entire law firm disbarred. He had affairs with the presiding judge. He bet on his own cases.

The real fun in the show was watching Shatner's character, Denny Crane. He shot people. In one episode he was on trial for shooting his doctor. The doctor pulled out his own gun and threatened the court whereupon Crane shot him again. It seems that they both knew how to bypass the metal detector.

The show took a different turn this season. In one case a teenager wanted to have an abortion. Candice Bergen's character was all for this until she realized that it was for the wrong reason. The girl who was of Chinese ancestry, wanted an abortion because the child was a girl. Bergen's character objected to the procedure, earning a lecture from the judge. In a surprising bit of nuance, Spader's character admitted that he was in favor of abortion because he was looking for justification for his own actions. He had impregnated two women and paid for their abortions and he worried about the morality of it.

The show wraps up next week with a two-hour finale. They will plead before the Supreme Court that someone who might benefit from a drug should be allowed to bypass FDA approval. This is surprising from them since this has been a conservative/libertarian position for years.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Unintentional Irony

New this year - a plastic reproduction of the Christmas tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can also get an entire kit with both book and tree. The tree with the kit is much smaller.

There is a cruel irony about this. The Peanuts special was all about the over-commercialization of Christmas. In an effort to get the Christmas spirit, Charlie Brown goes to buy a Christmas tree to go with a play about the nativity. He and Linus find a lot full of search lights and artificial trees. Charlie Brown finds the last natural tree - a spindly branch nailed to crossed boards that sheds needles when touched. The other kids are outraged that he didn't get a proper plastic tree but, after a Bible quote from Linus, they relent, decorate the tree, and wish Charlie Brown a Merry Christmas. The special is a gentle rebuke to the commercialization of Christmas already underway in the 1960s.

Over the years there has been a lot of Peanuts merchandise. Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts, became quite wealthy from this and used some of his money for public works. Given this, I normally don't have any problems with Peanuts merchandise.

This one is a bit different since it is exactly what the special was complaining about - plastic trees and over commercialization.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stan Lee Honored

Stan Lee, who helped create hundreds of comic book superheroes, including "Spider-Man," and Olivia de Havilland, 92, who won an Academy Award in 1939 for her portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in "Gone With the Wind," were among the recipients of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal at the White House today.

"I wonder what took so long," said Lee, 85, in an interview Sunday. "Say 'He said it with a laugh' or I'll shoot you."

See the entire article here.

Who's the most powerful?

For decades Marvel danced around the question of which hero is the most powerful? They did create a hierarchy with a select few at the top. This was refined by several notable battles. The first was the original Hulk vs the Thing fight. This was an important issue. It wrapped up the Hulk's run on his own comic and set up for him to move into the back pages of Tales to Astonish. It also had the Avengers. Things like that just didn't happen in comics in those days. Regardless, the main even was the Thing trying to stop the Hulk even though the Hulk was stronger.

Not long after an issue of Thor featured a Thor/Hulk fight. This was a bit of a cheat. It was done as a flashback of a fight between the two in Avengers 3. Through a special dispensation from Odin, Thor's hammer was unenchanted for a few minutes so that they could meet hand-to-hand. The fight was still inconclusive when the time expired and Thor recovered his hammer.

The two met a few times afterward with no conclusion. In an Avengers/Defenders crossover, the two strained against each other without giving an inch for hours until the rest of the heroes told them to knock it off. This obviously violated the Hulk's most basic attribute - the madder Hulk gets the stronger he gets.

For a short time the Hulk and Thor were at the top of Marvel's pyramid. Then new characters were introduced. Thor fought Hercules a few times with results that were just as inconclusive. Hyperion, a Superman surrogate, moved into the Marvel universe from an alternate world (although Thor used his magic hammer to beat him when they first met).

During the Silver Surfer's short run in double-sized comics, he fought Thor. He won but concluded that Thor was stronger so Loki must have augmented the Surfer's power. Even this was inconclusive since the Surfer had been substantially depowered prior to getting his own comic.

The Sub-Mariner is often forgotten in these calculations but, when in water, he can take on anyone. He shared Tales to Astonish with the Hulk for a few years. The last issue had the two squaring off against each other. The Sub-Mariner actually won although he did it by swimming fast enough to create a vortex around the Hulk. The Sub-Mariner had no trouble overpowering the original X-Men but his fights with Iron Man and the Thing were less definitive.

Under Stan, when unequal heroes fought you usually got a definite winner. This often happened in the weaker hero's comic where just surviving the stronger hero was a feat. I already mentioned the Silver Surfer and Thor and the X-Men meeting the Sub-Mariner. Spider-Man spent his first encounter with the Hulk dodging blows and trying to stay alive. Daredevil threw everything he had at the Sub-Mariner and failed miserably (but the Sub-Mariner departed out of respect for a valiant foe). Giant Man and the Wasp managed to survive the Hulk at the beginning of his run in Tales to Astonish. On the low end, Daredevil was no match for Spider-Man.

A strange thing happened as other writers took over from Stan. When two heroes fought, the outclassed hero usually won, usually by a trick. Both the Invisible Girl and Ghost Rider beat the Hulk by cutting off his oxygen. In an Old Avengers vs the New Avengers annual, Captain America, the Black Panther, and Hawkeye all beat Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. At one point in the 1980s, the Thing mutated into a stronger form while the Hulk reverted to a weaker gray version. When they fought, the Hulk won anyway. He outsmarted the Thing!

Marvel seems to have a new editorial policy. Thor is the most powerful. Earlier this year he smashed Iron Man's armor. More recently he fought the Red Hulk. It was clearly established that the Red Hulk is the stronger Hulk (although he overheats if he gets too mad). He also admitted that he was likely to loose a fight with Thor.

This matches an early letter page where someone asked who would win - the Hulk or Thor? Stan(?) answered that he suspected that Thor's hammer gave him the edge.

I'm leaving the Sentry out of all this. His powers are too poorly defined and I've missed most of his appearances.

Of course, defining the most powerful hero in the Marvel universe is just an intellectual exercise. There are several beings who are vastly more powerful than any hero. These include the personifications of space and time. Once anthropomorphic projections of the universe enter the picture, everyone else is outclassed.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Rulk vs Hulk

I have to admit, the whole Red Hulk (Rulk) plot has me hooked. The first issue was a little off-putting since the Hulk didn't really appear. I worried that this meant a return to the plots of a few years ago when the Hulk got, at most, a page or two per issue and sometimes didn't even appear at all.

It turned out that this first issue was just a tease. They didn't want us to realize that there are two Hulks - the traditional dumb green one and the smart red one.

Over the next few issues they established that the Rulk is probably a regular but not anyone we suspect. He is not Banner (still the green Hulk) not is he Rick Jones (the new Abomination aka A-Bomb). They faked us out that he could be Dr. Samson or General Ross but those were reh herrings.

They also established that Rulk is really strong. He's beaten the green Hulk and stopped Thor's hammer in mid-stroke. He is also smart. He used loopholes in Thor's powers to temporarily beat him.

With the end of the first six-issue arc we established that Hulk can beat Rulk and the two went separate ways. The Green Hulk is temporarily gone, replaced by the grey Joe Fixit. In the meantime, three of Marvel's most powerful women are trying to bring in Rulk. Without much luck as it turns out.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is Blu-ray Dead?

ZDNews has a column on the impending death of Blu-ray. It goes into some of the problems that Blu-ray faces but he misses a couple of vital reasons why Blu-ray will not take off like DVDs did.

Tiny Market
To play a DVD, all you need is a DVD player. To appreciate a Blu-ray you also need a fairly high-end high-def TV. Not a lot of people have these. This changes blu-ray from an impulse purchase to a major entertainment system upgrade. Conventional wisdom says that the format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD hurt them both but this overlooks how few people had TVs that would show the better picture.

High Entry Cost
Blu-ray player prices are coming down but they are still high. The lowest are in the $150 range (according to the ZDNews column). At this point in their life-cycle, DVD players were already commodity items going for under $100. Just as important, DVD prices were around $5 less than VHS tapes. It didn't take many purchases before you saved the initial cost of the player. Blu-ray disks cost around $5 more so switching to Blu-ray will cost you beyond the initial purchase.

No New Functionality
DVDs offered several advantages over tapes. A better picture was one but the smaller size, the ability to go directly to scenes without having to fast forward or rewind, and the DVD extras made it a completely different experience than a VHS tape. Blu-ray offers a better picture but no other new features. Many people consider the DVD extras the best part of the DVD and that drove DVD acceptance as much as anything.

If Blu-ray hangs in there then it might eventually gain market share as people upgrade their TVs but this will take a decade. Does Sony have the patience to support it that long?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heroes and Brickbats

I read two columns today complaining about Heroes. Both are complaining that the show is not living up to its initial season. Before I take that on I will point out the places I agree with them.

Time travel has been overused. I lost count of the number of alternate futures the heroes have to avert. There are at least two that involve blowing up cities, one with a plague,  and one where everyone has powers and someone blows up everything. There was one where people with powers are hunted but I think that this was also one of the exploding city ones. You get the idea.

So what about any and all other complaints? I don't think that these people remember what they were watching two years ago. The series up to the December break was slow and confusing. None of the plotlines had been resolved and new ones seemed to be launched weekly. Hiro was the only fun character.

Not that it wasn't engrossing, but as of mid-October all we knew was that they had to save the cheerleader to save the world. We had no idea how that worked. All we knew was the New York was going to blow up. When they finally did save the cheerleader, people were still upset because it happened so fast and because Sylar seemed to get away.

The second half of season one was a lot better and that is coloring people's memories.

In the meantime, the writers are having a lot of fun with the Heroes/villains concept. Most of the characters have jumped back and forth. Hiro is the consummate good guy but he killed his best friend. Except he didn't. His speedster nemesis is a thief but is repelled by her killer associates. Sylar was always a nice guy when he wasn't slicing the tops off of people's heads. Now we see this as an aspect of his power (This makes scense. He didn't start killing people until his power woke up).

The show's producers have promised to end the current arc by the mid-season break. I'm holding off judgement until then.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Looking back at Lost

First season reruns of Lost are showing on a couple of channels. Watching them reminds me why the show was originally so popular and why is seemed to decline, especially in the 3rd season.

One thing that strikes you is how much used to happen in an episode. The episode might feature the person who got the flashbacks but there were usually sub-plots going on, some of them totally unrelated to the person with the flashbacks.

The flashbacks were a lot shorter, also. Several 3rd season episodes were little more than framing scenes for the flashback. In the first season the flashback never dominated the episode. I would guess that they took 1/4-1/3 of the screen time. In later seasons I would put it more like 2/3 of the screen time.

Knowing what is coming doesn't change the experience much. I know that half the first season cast will be dead by the end of the fourth season but the episodes are interesting enough to distract you from this.

There were a lot of dropped sub-plots. A few of them like the meaning of the numbers were resolved in other media. Others might yet be resolved but it is hard to see how. Danielle's entire backstory would appear to have been dropped when she was killed. Then there is the statue and the skeletons in the cave. Some plot points have been contradicted. It was important that Claire raise her child but Kate ended up with him.

Some characters lost their edge. In the first season Kate was secretive and manipulative. At one point she wanted on the raft so she arranged for Sun to drug Michael, drawing suspicion to Sawyer. She regularly lied and tricked both Jack and Sawyer. More recently she has simply become part of a love triangle (or possibly a love pentagram).

Of course the biggest difference is that in the first season we were still meeting the characters and they were still meeting each other. Plus the island was still new. Now we are familiar with them. Introducing new characters helps a little but the core cast is still there and getting a little tiresome. Especially Jack.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Princess Bride

I see that The Princess Bride is on AMC tonight. That gives me an excuse to write about it. This movie was a modest hit when it came out 21 years ago. According to IMDB, it cost $16 million and made nearly $31 million. At some point in the 2 decades after its release it became a cult classic.

I should mention that I have a Dread Pirate Roberts T-Shirt(I am Dread Pirate Roberts #73249—Ask about franchise opportunities in your area).

  • A few examples of the movie as a cult classic (not counting the special 20th anniversary release they did last year).
  • We had a staff sleep-over on the Columbus Santa Maria in May. It was mainly volunteers in their late teens. A TV was set up for movies as part of it. The two movies shown were Princess Bride and Batman Begins. The teens knew a lot of lines from Princess Bride.
  • Last week we were camping as part of a historic reenactment. Some parents asked their young daughter if she knew what our bellows was for. She remembered Miracle Max using one (and was surprised that I knew about the movie).
  • In the 2nd season of the TV show Eureka!, an Australian character lifted a line from the movie, "He just made a classic mistake. Never go up against an Australian when death is on the line."

Part of the movie's appeal is its timelessness. The only part that looks dated is the video game that Fred Savage is playing in the opening sequence and that lasts less than a minute.

A bigger appeal is that it is one of the few movies that works for multiple ages. The plot is simple enough for a young child but there is quite a bit of depth to it, especially the dialog. There are all sortf of actual historic references (most of them anachonistic). During the duel, they drop the names of real fencing masters. The names of the rival countries (Florin and Guilder) are old currency. The rule about never get into a land war in Asia is a real warning.

Then there is the historic setting. Most of the movie was filmed at Haddon Hall, my favorite English Country House. Parts of it are nearly 1,000 years old including the chapel where they did the wedding. The boat that they used was so accurate that it even had medieval-style teardrop-shaped deadeyes (and I expect that few people reading this will even know what I am talking about which kind of proves my point).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The new season

The new TV season is off to a good start. All of my favorite network shows have shown at least one episode. Too bad the list of favorite shows is so short. Here's the list.

The Simpsons.
TV's longest-running sitcom, ever. Also the longest-running prime-time cartoon. The show was in a slump for years but pulled out a few seasons ago. It's impossible for it to be fresh after so many years but it still manages to be relevant. The season opener poked fun at Dog the Bounty Hunter and similar shows.

I didn't dislike the second season at the time but the third season feels much stronger. After an early a two-episode premier, we are now three episodes into the season. As always, we don't exactly know what is going on but we have a better idea than at this point in previous seasons. We do know that the heroes are going to save the world again but we also know that there are at least two alternate futures that the world has to be saved from - not counting the ones from the first two seasons.

The lead-in show for Heroes is about an electronics store nerd who got involved in James Bond-style spy stuff. The first season was ok but it always seemed like the show should be better. It either should have taken itself a little more seriously or a little less. The season opener seemed stronger. They seems to have gone for taking the show a little more seriously. It is just as well. The Middleman on ABC Family sets the bar pretty high for over-the-top spy spoofs. There is still plenty of room for a classy crime-solving show with light comedy. There were several of these in the 1980s but they died off in the 90s.

Pushing Daisies.
One of the best shows from last year and one of the most original shows ever. ABC is pushing it hard which is a good thing. The show has a lot of continuity from one episode to another but it also has a narrator who tells you everything you need to know. The show features off-beat plots and stunning visuals. It picked up right where it left off. With the exception of a longer-than-usual opening naration, it felt like the next episode in season one (this is a good thing).

For those who have not seen it, it features a pie-maker who can raise the dead with a touch (they die again on the second touch), his partner, a detective who has a fondness for knitting and pop-up books, his girlfriend who he brought back to life (and can't touch), her aunts (one of them is secretly her mother), and the waitress in the pie shop who knows almost everyone's secrets.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Night of the Lepus

I'm watching Night of the Lepus on TCM. I remember seeing this when it was new in 1972. Time hasn't improved it. This movie was the tail-end of the giant animal horror movies that began with Them (1954).

Them was very good of type. The special effects were well done for the time and the script was well-written. Them was about a colony of giant ants. They were introduced slowly in the dessert. This colony wasn't difficult to take care of once the leads knew what they were fighting. The problem was that a few queens got away leading to a world-wide ant-hunt. The last of the queens turned up in LA in the sewers where the army had to go in and fight them.

Other giant-animal movies followed. The Beginning of the End had praying mantises attacking Chicago. Obviously, Tarantula featured a giant spider.

Lepus went for something completely different. Where other movies took insects which are already strange and alien, this took something harmless and cute. Lepus is Latin for Rabbit. The monsters in the movie were giant, carnivorous bunny rabbits.

The cast was first-rate with Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh plus a post-Star Trek DeForest Kelley.

The special effects were... well, not so special. They mainly used close-up shots of rabbits to make it seem like the bunnies were large. They also had a fake rabbit that would only be seen for an instant when a rabbit was hopping on someone to bite their throat out.

I'm not sure why the rabbits turned carnivorous but it was crucial to the plot. Without the occasional bunny-slaying accompanied by bright red blood, the rabbits weren't any more menacing than a herd of buffalo. Given how slow they looked, a buffalo stampede would probably cause more damage.

The script didn't help a bit. No one seemed skeptical, or even surprised at the idea of giant rabbits. Near the end of the movie they need to lure the rabbits onto an electrified train track. Someone runs up to a drive-in theater and announces that a pack of giant rabbits in on the loose and no one questions it for a moment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Mark Hamill

The man who was Luke Skywalker turns 57 today.

Hamill got his role in Star Wars mainly because he could say the rather pretentious lines like he believed them. He describes himself as just a fanboy who got lucky.

His voice work goes back to 1973 when he did a few episodes of Scooby-Doo but it really took off after he played the Trickster on the short-lived live-action Flash. Until then people still typecast him as a hero but his version of the Trickster was so over-the-top that he was cast as the Joker for the animated Batman. He continues to be the voice of the animated Joker along with a long list of other voicework.

In 2004, Hamill and some fellow voice artists improvised a movie at the San Diego Comic Convention. It was entitled Comic Book the Movie and I swiped it for the name of this blog.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Save Superman's Birthplace

Auction raises cash for Superman's Ohio birthplace

An online auction began Tuesday to raise money to restore the inner-city house where the idea for the Superman character was conceived.

Two high school boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, hatched the idea of the man who could bend steel with his bare hands in 1933. Hattie and Jefferson Gray have owned the home and lived there for more than two decades, tolerating unexpected visits by Superman fans.

Auction organizers hope the sale will raise at least $50,000 to fix the roof, replace rotting wood siding and repaint the house, with anything left over going toward upkeep and future repairs.

(AP) Superman memorabilia is shown in the front windows of the boyhood home of the superhero's creator...
Full Image
Among the items to be auctioned during September will be a T-shirt signed by Siegel, a walk-on role on television's "Heroes," and original art by Jim Lee, Murphy Anderson, George Perez, Tim Sale and others. Lee's drawing offer drew a $710 bid on Tuesday.

The Cleveland-based Siegel and Shuster Society and novelist Brad Meltzer's charity - Ordinary People Change the World - will run the four weeklong auctions of about 12 items at a time.

The Grays recently agreed to give the Siegel and Shuster Society first rights to buy the house at fair market value when they decide to sell it.

Richard Pace, chairman of the society, said it's important the old Siegel home be preserved.

"It's also great to see that we're finally recognizing the creativity of Siegel and Shuster and what they did to create Superman," he said. "We must save the house for future generations so people can take their kids to see it and be inspired to create something on their own."

Hattie Gray said she's excited about the start of the auction and what it will mean for her house. She also gets a big kick out of all the attention the home has received.

Meltzer's novel, "The Book of Lies," partially takes place at the Siegel house. Over the past several weeks, Tom Batiuk's "Funky Winkerbean" comic strip has been set in the house, with a "Superman" writer visiting the home for inspiration.

Friday, August 29, 2008

War Games

I was watching War Games on cable last night. It offers some interesting insights on how things have changed since 1983.

First, there is Matthew Broderick who was 21 at the time but looked convincing as a teenager. He played enough roles as a teen or young adult that it is difficult to think of him as being in his late 40s.

This was the first movie to feature hackers or home computers (the IBM PC hadn't been introduced when the movie was made). The computer that Broderick uses is an Imsai 8080. It was one of the first home computers made (I think it was the second). By the time the movie came out, the computer was obsolete. Most home computers made by 1983 were plain boxes, much like today. The script specified this computer, probably because it had lots of switches and lights.

When the Imsai 8080 came out, computers didn't have a bios to tell them how to load the operating system. The very first home computers didn't even have an operating system. In order to run a program you wrote it in assembly code on paper then hand-translated the assembly code into machine instructions. Finally, you used all of the switches on the front to enter your program, one bit at a time. This required toggling at least 8 switches per instruction.

The movie was meant as a message movie about nuclear disarmament. It begins with a sequence where a couple of soldiers log into a missile silo. They are given the order to launch (as a test) and fail. As a result the human element is wired out of the launch sequence. This sets the tone of the movie and is a plot point later when a self-aware computer decides to initiate a nuclear strike. The first time I saw the movie we got in late and missed the opening sequence. This changed the tone of the movie completely. I was quite surprised how different the tone was when I saw the whole movie.

The movie features a self-aware computer, the WOPR. From it's case it seems to have been built in the 1950s but it is still far advanced over 2000s technology. That's movies.

Here is a link describing how the technology was set up.

In 1983 the nation was convinced that we had to do something immediately about nuclear disarmament before the world ended. Compare that with today's urgency about global warming.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where did Superman Come From?

There are two current theories about the origins of Superman. The newest one starts with the father of writer Jerry Siegel dying during a robbery. A year later he invented a bullet-proof hero who could stop any crime. Did the one lead to the other? Maybe but there was another strong influence.

Meanwhile, a character in Funky Winkerbean who writes comic books was assigned to write Superman. He is suffering from writer's block so one of the other characters took him to the house that Siegel lived in when he created Superman. The writer imagines Siegel lying in bed, bored. Beside him is a copy of Philip Wylie's book Gladiator.

Wikipedia says: The novel is widely assumed an inspiration for the character Superman,[1] though no confirmation exists that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was influenced by it.
For anyone who has read the novel and the early issues of Superman, there is no question about the novel's influence. In the novel, a scientist discovers a way to give superhuman strength and speed to any organism as long as his treatment is applied in early development. After a successful test on a kitten, he tries it on his unborn son.

The experiment is a total success. The scientist's son is superhuman. He can hurl boulders like pebbles. He can run at fantastic speeds and make incredible leaps. He is nearly indestructible as he discovers in World War I the first time he is shot with a machine gun. But he has limits. He is only one man and he eventually tires. He has to hide his strength or people fear him.

During the novel he tries several things. He is a football star and a soldier. He tries cleaning up Washington DC. None of these work out. Eventually he decides to create a city of people like himself. He challenges god to stop him and is killed by lightening.

In the first couple of issues of Superman, he goes undercover as a football player. He stops a war. The cover of the first issue where Superman smashes one car into an other happened while he was cleaning up Washington.

And of course, in the beginning Superman couldn't fly. He just leaped, just like Wylie's character. Superman didn't have X-ray vision or any of his other powers, either. He was strong, fast, and indestructible.

It is clear that Siegel and Shuster used Wylie's character but they made their own changes. They gave him a costume and a secret identity. They reasoned that someone in a flashy costume wouldn't scare people. They also changes the source of his powers. Instead of a scientist working in secret, they had Superman come from a different planet. By far the biggest divergence from Wylie was that Superman was successful at everything he tried and that he devoted himself to helping people. Wylie's character never had any luck helping people.

Even though they swiped the concept for Superman from another medium, Segiel and Shuster's own spin on the character was far more important than the source material. Costumes characters had existed for a while (the Phantom, for example, was created two years before Superman), but they created the model for superheroes to come - the idea of someone with superpowers adopting a costume and secret identity continues to today.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Superman doesn't return

Wired has an article on Superman. A good bit of it is devoted to a court battle between the widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and Time Warner but it also mentions that Bryan Singer couldn't come up with a treatment for his next Superman movie that the studio would accept.

The speculation is that the next Superman movie will reboot the franchise. This is a good thing. The original Superman the Motion Picture was OK for its time but parts of it were too campy, even then, and it got dated very fast.

Superman's relationship with Lois got complicated in Superman II. She discovered his identity, he gave up his powers and the consumated their relationship only for Clark to realize that the world needed Superman. He recovered his powers and removed Lois's memory of the event. It didn't seem especially creepy at the time but what he did was similar to the use of a date rape drug.

By Superman IV he was restoring her memory so that they could talk then removing it again. It was definitely starting to get creepy by then.

Singer pretended that Superman III and IV didn't exist and picked up after Superman II. His version of Superman raised the ick-factor. Lois was engaged and living with someone and had a son. It turned out that Superman didn't use protection in Superman II so Lois had his son without no memory of how he was conceived. Did she know? Did she suspect? Is that why she wrote an award-winning essay on "Who needs Superman?"

Plus, Superman was raised to demi-god status or higher. He sees and hears everything and decides who he will save and who he will ignore.

Plus he used his powers to super-stalk Lois.

Then there was the gratuitous torture of dogs (one dog ate the other, Luthor planned to eat the survivor, Clark's dog wanted to play fetch and he threw the stick over the horizon).

It is hard to see just where Singer thought he could go after all this. He should have started from scratch... like the next director will.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Deja Vu Summer

We went to see the The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor this weekend and I flashed back to several other movies.

The opening sequence has Rick's grown son Alex (Luke Ford) opening a tomb in China. Between the traps and his leather jacket, it seemed like an Indiana Jones sequence. Parts of it were also reminiscent of National Treasure 2 (although that had more water).

Then there was Jet Li playing a powerful emperor who can only be killed if he is stabbed in the heart by one weapon. The Golden Kingdom had the same set-up (including Jet Li). Both movies also had a romance between a young westerner and an oriental girl who was dedicated to killing Li's character.

One thing it didn't feel like was a Mummy movie. It doesn't matter how many times they kept calling the characters mummies, they weren't. Clay warriors just aren't mummies.

The movie was like Indiana Jones in another way - the original cast is pretty small. Four characters were returning from the last movie. One, the female lead player by Rachael Weisz, was replaced by Maria Bello. Alex who was ten in the last movie was also replaced. That only left two characters from the original movie.

I haven't decided if it was a good or bad movie yet - two days later. Some of the action scenes seemed a bit off. It had the humor of the originals but it came and went.

Possibly the problem was Brendan Fraser - or the lack of him. To a large extent he carried the first two movies. Most of the humor came from his character. Few actors can handle an action movie with a light touch the way that he can. With his character's son given an expanded part, there was less of Fraser and Ford simply doesn't have Fraser's light touch.

The movie also lacked a suitable side-kick for the villain. In the first movie we had Beni. In the second we had the Mummy's girl friend Meela. In one of my favorite exchanges in that movie, Alex asked her why he should do what she ordered when he wouldn't for his mother. She replied in a musical voice, "Because your mother wouldn't put poisonous scorpions in your bed while you were sleeping."

There just weren't any lines like that in the Mummy 3.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Monks and sharks

For the last several years, USA's show "Monk" has been one of the best on TV. Originally passed over by the networks, it has won several awards and has even appeared on NBC.

The premise of the show is that former policeman Adrian Monk is an amazing detective but he has "problems" that keep him off of the force. Monk notices everything and can solve the most impossible crime while combating his personal demons.

At least that was the original premise. The show has drifted a lot in the last few years. It used to be about watching Monk solve the case and guessing what forgotten clue would be the murderer's undoing.

The new premise is to place Monk in new situations weekly. There are still crimes but they are secondary, more often an afterthought than the driving force behind the plot.

The current season opener is an example. Monk bought the house that had been a crime scene. The explanation for this was that Monk's psychiatrist died (as did the actor who played him) so he wanted to change everything in his life. In reality, this was just an excuse to place Monk in an uncomfortable situation.

Monk noticed that a ceiling light was off-center and had a handy-man move it. While doing this, the handy-man noticed several other problems and called in a helper. The two kept finding additional problems and tearing up the new home.

Monk's phobias include dirt, dust, and messiness so having two strangers tear up his spotless house was a nightmare for him. Eventually it turned out that they were looking for money that had been hidden in the house. Monk didn't do any actual detective work in this one.

This is either because the writers got lazy or because the management at USA wanted to stress Monk's character over the crimes. Either way, the show has jumped the shark.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Taking the law into their own hands

{warning - spoilers ahead}

At a time when we are struggling with the limits to government power, it is interesting to look at our heroes.

First there was Iron Man. When he discovered that his weapons systems were being used by terrorists he built a suit of armor and took them out personally.

Then there is Hellboy. If someone refuses to answer a question then Hellboy beats on him until the subject talks.

This question is asked again and again in Dark Knight. Batman tries to beat information out of the Joker and the police let him. District Attorney Harvey Dent puts a gun to someone's head and flips a coin to see if he should shoot (this is a bluff since it is a double-headed coin). At one point a criminal tells Batman straight out that he isn't scary enough to compete with the Joker. Eventually Batman lets the world think that he is merciless in order to uphold Dent's reputation.

Out here in the real world, none of this would be tolerated. We want results from our heroes but we also want their hands to be clean. Funny how we allow our fictional heroes more latitude than real-life law enforcement authorities.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Movie Ratings

Coming home from dinner tonight we were talking about movie ratings. We remembered 1984, the year that created PG-13. Steven Spielberg was the person responsible with two movies - Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which he directed and Gremlins which he produced.

Later my wife stumbled on this list of movies that shouldn't have been rated PG.

Which led to this post on rating inflation.

Originally movies were suitable for all audiences. In the 1960s this changed slightly. Some movies were rated "M" for Mature Audiences Only. They weren't kidding about this rating.

The next step was a five-tiered system, "G", "PG", "R", and "X". The "G" rating was not meant to specify children's movies. It was meant to designate the type of movie that had been made for decades. PG meant some violence, blood, or possibly a flash of nudity. R meant either gory violence, nudity, or soft-core sex. X usually meant explicit sex.

During the 1970s, a movie rated PG was at least equivalent to the modern PG-13. That's how most of the movies on the list got a PG rating.

A few trends converged over time. Porn movies started using the designation "XXX" which tarred all X-rated movies as soft-core porn. The fact that several early X-rated movies had strong sexual content cemented this association. Decency groups began protesting and theaters stopped booking X-rated movies. If a movie was rated X the studio would either appeal the rating or cut enough footage to lower the rating.

At the same time, studios started requesting a PG rating for movies that should have been rated G in order to imply that they were not kid's movies. Soon, Disney was the only studio releasing G-rated movies.

By the early 1980s movies were either rated PG or R. In the two notorious releases in 1984, both needed a wider audience than an R rating would get them so Spielberg managed to get them released as PG. When the complaints came he was the first one to say that there should be a stronger rating (which shifted blame from his movies). Make no mistake though, he was to blame. He had already sold the toy rights for Gremlins. He had to appeal to kids.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Which Hulk?

Most comic book characters are fairly straightforward when moving to live action. The specific treatment may change as the various Batman movies have shown, but he has always been a masked crime-fighter.

The Hulk is a different case. I've written before about how many times Marvel has reinvented the character. During his comic's original run he was reinvented every issue or two.

Which one should be brought to the screen? And how?

The TV show followed THE FORMULA for high concept TV shows. In this the high concept appears twice. The first appearance is a teaser. The second appearance is longer and wraps up the plotline. The high concept never gets more than 15 minutes screentime, total, often much less. This formula has been applied to everything from the fights in Kung Fu to aerial combat in Airwolf. It was the rule for the Hulk TV series. That meant that Bruce Banner was the real star.

The original Hulk movie and the current reboot followed this formula but that isn't the only way they could have made the movies. They could have had Banner in Hulk mode the whole time. This would have been in keeping with the comic where Banner has gone for years without making an appearance.

The Lord of the Rings proved that a realistic CGI character can have an important part with major screentime.

Then there is the guy in a rubber suit. It worked for both the Thing in the Fantastic Four and for Hellboy. This would have been a less impressive Hulk but he would have been more believable. The quality of the CGI was one of the complaints people had about the first movie and early reviews have indicated that it still isn't as good as it needs to be.

One option that was rightly abandoned was painting a body builder green which is what the TV show did.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Comic Book Menace

The Ten-Cent Plague is a new book about the crusade against comic books in the 1950s. I haven';t seen it yet but I've read a review of it and the author was on the Colbert Report last night. I'm not going to try to review a 448-page book that I haven't seen but I can talk about the period.

Most people forget but in the Golden Age of comics, during the 1930s through World War II, more adults than kids read comic books. Like the pulps, comic books were cheap, escapist entertainment. When America came back from war and the economy took off, adults left escapism behind for kids. This caused some important changes in the industry. The first was that some publishers dropped out of the business. DC had been suing Fawcett, the publishers of Captain Marvel over copyright violations. After dragging the case on for years Fawcett looked at their declining sales figures and folded in 1953, turning the characters over to DC.

DC's superhero line survived and grew by cutting back nearly everything but their core of Superman and Batman. Marvel (then known as Timely) tried to revive their superheroes a couple of times but failed.

The audience for comic books had changed. It was a new generation and they wanted something different than their parents' comic books. The new trends were in horror and crime comics. Other subjects included comedy, funny animals, war comics, westerns, and teenagers (Archie and friends). Still, it was the crime and horror comics that dominated lead by EC Comics.

In the early 1950s a school psychiatrist named Frank Wertham noticed that every child who was referred to him read comic books. He started looking at these comics and was horrified at the content. He became convinced that the comic books were corrupting the kids. Worse, he discovered that even kids whose parents didn't allow them to buy comic books knew all about the contents. Even young girls who said that they only read funny animal books could describe the contents of the crime comics.

Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent that scared Americans to death. He began by listing a number of crimes with the clincher that all of them were depicted in comic books. He suggested that reading Wonder Woman made girls lesbians and got a gay male to describe his fantasies for what Batman and Robin did in their off-hours. But Wertham's main focus was on the horror and crime comics.

There were Congressional hearings and mass burnings of comic books. There was talk of outlawing them.

The comic book industry responded by creating the Comics Code which regulated the content of comic books. EC found that nearly its entire line was outlawed. Their publisher, William Gaines responded by changing the format of his remaining book from comic to magazine and aiming it at a more mature audience. This was Mad and it continued to appeal to adults through the 1960s (the first issue I read was my parents').

The comic book industry turned back to superheroes as its mainstay. DC began introducing new characters based on ones from the 1940s starting with the Flash. In 1961 Marvel followed suit by introducing a superhero team, the Fantastic Four. All of this led to the Silver Age of comics.

Since then the Comics Code has lost its grip. Stan Lee and Marvel challenged it around 1970 with some anti-drug stories. All drug use was banned by the code, even anti-drug stories (a lot of crime comics involved drugs). Marvel published three issues of Spider-Man without the code symbol and no one cared. As a result, the code was modernized.

Today most comics are sold through specialty stores. Most independent labels don't bother with the Comic Code and the target audience is back to mainly adult.

We've come full circle.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Impossible Expectations

Many critics and many viewers were disappointed in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Is this justified? It depends on your expectations.

No, this wasn't the greatest action movie ever made.

Yes, it was a satisfying sequel to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. As far as I am concerned, it was the first satisfying sequel. The second movie, Temple of Doom, was just plain bad. I watched it again a couple of weekends ago and it has not aged well.

The third movie, Last Crusade, was much better but I didn't like the ending for several reasons. The biggest is that they found the Holy Grail only to lose it forever. Oops. I thought that Indy's father should have stayed to become the Grail's new keeper, thus fulfilling his life's ambition.

Crystal Skulls follows the general formula pretty well. There is an opening sequence followed by the real plot. In this movie the two are more closely linked. Indy starts out looking a little old and rusty but the longer the movie goes on the less you notice it.

It was established in the first movie that Indy can beat the average goon so Skulls doesn't even bother showing all of the fights. The supporting characters watch Indy climb on top of a truck and commies start falling off.

The communists are a good replacement for the Nazis. They establish early on how ruthless they are and go from there.

There are some major plot holes. I won't go into them. Ignore them and the movie works better.

I went in expecting a 50s adventure movie with 50s aliens and I was not disappointed. Mutt was a lot more enjoyable than I expected. The return of Marion was a great move.

So why are people complaining? The original movie was a lightening in the bottle event that holds up after decades and multiple viewings. That is nearly impossible to top. The Crystal Skulls at least manages to capture a lot of the original feel without embarrassing itself but it cannot stand on its own. Too much of the movie references the earlier releases.

But this is a sequel so what's the problem?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Flight part 4

I've written some other entries on how superheroes fly but I didn't get into assisted flight. This is usually done with rocket boots, jet packs, flying belts, or, occasionally, rings.

The Rocketeer is a great example of flying with a jetpack. As portrayed in the movie, there are serious issues with control. The Rocketeer solved some of these problems with a fin on his helmet. The movie also had a few other nods to physics. He only flew in short bursts reflecting the fact that a pack like that couldn't have more than a few minutes of fuel. Landing was difficult. Finally, the whole thing ran on highly alcohol and could burst into flames if there was a leak.

More common in comic books are rocket boots. These are usually as light as hiking boots but contain enough fuel for extended flight. They also allow the wearer to hover, fly like a missile, or land. Obviously several laws of physics are being violated here.

The movie version of Iron Man addressed several of these. Stark's first attempt at flight gets him airborne for a few seconds but doesn't allow for any sort of soft landing. It's more a ballistic trajectory. Later Stark adds thrusters to his gloves so that he can balance. He also has flaps that pop out of his suit to assist banks and other maneuvers. Even with all of this, he still has some problems. This is probably the most realistic example of powered personal flight.

There is one big question about Iron Man's flight - how do those thrusters work? The movie drops the term "repulsor" early on. These might work something like the repulsor rays in the comic version. These were always represented as being different than his boot jets but jets that are only an inch or two thick (and still leave room for retractable skates) are impossible. Presumably the repulsors are similar to ion drive except with much greater thrust. They are powered by Stark's chest piece which represents a miracle in electrical power production.

The Legion of Super-Heroes has gone through a few generations of powered flight. They started out with backpacks then moved to flying belts. Finally they developed flying rings. These use an anti-gravity metal. Will-power is also required.

Meanwhile, in the real world, someone demonstrated a jet-powered flying wing. This has several drawbacks. You have to be dropped from an airplane in be high enough, you only have around five minutes of fuel, and you use a parachute to land. Control is accomplished by the flier's body movements. Still, this is getting close to the Rocketeer.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man & Politics

I mentioned the politics of Iron Man briefly before. I'd like to go into more detail.

--------- SPOILERS ------------------------

A couple of minutes into the movie Tony Stark has a life-changing experience. He is blown up by one of his own company's missiles.

So what does he do? He builds a new weapon and breaks out. When he gets home he announces that his company is going to stop making weapons but not because he has suddenly been transformed into a pacifist. His concern is that the wrong people are getting hold of the weapons.

His solution - build a better weapon and take over personally.

I'd like to point out that this isn't a comic book where heroes don't kill. Iron Man kills lots of terrorists. Some of them are faceless like the crew in the tank. Others he targets and blasts without a trace of remorse.

He's fighting a war with the terrorists. When he flies through a no-fly zone and has to take on a couple of American jets, he doesn't fight them, he just tries to avoid one, eventually having to save a pilot.

Eventually the big villain turns out to be an American - Stane - but Stane is a traitor. He is selling weapons to the enemy.

The US government, as embodied by SHIELD, supports what Stark did and would have arrested Stane if he hadn't gotten his Iron Monger armor working first.

There is never any suggestion that US policy is at fault. No snarky comments about how everything is W's fault. No suggestion that the military is anything but dedicated. When he returns, Stark tries to get his military liaison to help with the armor.

In the opening part of the movie, Stark is grilled by a liberal reporter who hits him with leading questions. He answers all of them and seduces her for good measure. He never shows any signs of backing off of the sentiments expressed. It is unlikely that, even before he was injured he would have approved of selling arms to terrorists. The main difference is that after his injury he started taking matters into his own hands.

I've seen a conservative or two complain about the movie. I don't see this. I suspect that the person complaining is so used to liberal Hollywood productions that he assumed there must be a liberal message hidden in Iron Man somewhere.

Not here.

Iron Man took in over $100 million its first weekend for the second biggest non-sequel opening. The way things have been going, the just-announced sequel will bring in even more.

This is the first movie to show Taliban-style terrorists as the bad guys and Americans (except for Stane) as the good guys. It's opening weekend gross was higher than the last several anti-US movies put together. Coincidence?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man - the movie

I've made a couple of posts about the history of Iron Man in comics. Now the movie is finally out. It's very good. It also manages to hit most of the high point of Iron Man's history.

The origin is almost exactly as it was in the comics. The location was moved to Afghanistan instead if Viet Nam and the enemy is a Taliban clone instead of Communists but it works even better this way. In the comic, his first suit was cast iron. In the movie is it wrought iron and it looks like something that someone made in a cave. There is a twist on it that but that doesn't come out for most of the movie.

Other elements - Tony's relationship with Pepper Potts. It's complicated. His driver, Happy Hogan, who never actually gets to drive him is there, too.

In the comic his pilot and best friend is Jim Rhodes who eventually takes over the armor for a while before getting his own suit. In the movie Rhodes looks at a prototype and says, "Maybe next time."

The armor developed over decades in the comic starting with the primitive cast iron suit. The next version iced up if he flew too high. This was represented in the movie with three generations of armor.

In the comic, Stane was a rival businessman who took over Stark International in a leveraged buy-out. In the comic he is a mentor and second largest stock-holder and, yes, he tries a corporate takeover.

BTW, Stane uses the term "iron monger" to describe their business. This is a term for munitions manufacturers.

For years Iron Man kept running out of power during fights. Since his life-support used the same power system, this could potentially kill him. They managed to include this in the movie, also.

Early on Stark discovers that the Taliban-clone has weapons from his company and launches an attack to destroy these munitions. This is an echo of the Armor Wars, a plotline where Stark discovers that Stane sold controller chips that he meant to keep secret. Stark went on a mission to shut down all suits of armor using this technology regardless of who had it (some of the technology was being used by the US government).

What about the politics? I saw one complaint that the movie lapses into Ralph Nader corporate responsibility. Yes, there is some talk of this but it is mainly in terms of keeping the technology out of the hands of terrorists. After being shot with one of his own missiles, Stark's message seems to be that if he can't keep it out of the hands of the US's enemies then he wasn't going to make it. But it never really went much beyond talk. Stark never came up with a new corporate plan.

I think that conservatives would agree that selling weapons to the Taliban is bad so this doesn't bother me.

And this is the first movie to feature an action hero taking on a Taliban-style enemy. That has to count for a lot.

Marvel has been saying that casting Robert Downey jr. was a triumph. I can't argue with that. He is to Iron Man what Johnny Depp is to PoTC. Word is that Downey is a huge Iron Man fan and loved playing the character and would be quite happy to keep making Iron Man movies through Iron Man 15.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Iron Man Moves Up to the A-List

Back in the mid-1960s it was easy to tell which Marvel heroes were A-list and which were B-list. The A-list heroes got a monthly book all to themselves and a summer annual which was a double-sized comic. This was a pretty short list - The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Sargent Fury and the Howling Commandos, and the Avengers. The B-list heroes either shared a monthly book with someone else or were published bi-monthly. This included the X-Men and Daredevil in semi-monthly books and the Human Torch, Dr. Strange, Giant Man and the Wasp, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America, all sharing monthly books. Later the Submariner replaced Giant Man and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD replaced the Torch. As sales increased all of these got monthly books and several mover up to the A-list.

In the early days Marvel has so few writers and artists that you couldn't tell A-list characters from B-list ones by the quality of the staff working on them. This changed over time. The more popular characters tended to get better talent with the B-list talent going to the B-list characters.

Iron Man spent most of his career solidly in the B-list. When he got his own solo comic he had Roy Thomas and Gene Colon, both very talented, but the comic was soon handed off to lesser creators. It had a run of several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s with some A-list talent. When they moved on the comic returned to its B status.

The other way of telling a comic's status was how much freedom the current team had to change things around. Changing Spider-Man's girl friend was a top-level change. Other strips worked the characters over several times.

There was a fad for replacing characters then bringing back the original. This started with Iron Man (and Green Lantern in DC at the same time). Tony Stark's alcohol problem overcame him and he spent a couple of years living as a homeless bum while Jim Rhodes took over the armor. Stark eventually sobered up and took back the armor. Later he died and Rhodes took over a gain for a short time until Stark was resurrected.

The comic was retconed and rebooted several times. Iron Man's origin moved from Viet Nam to China. He was turned into a teenager then returned to adulthood. He moved his base of operations from Long Island to California. His heart problems came back and were fixed a couple of times.

In the 1980s Marvel expanded the Avengers franchise with Stark founding the West Coast branch. This also introduced a new abrasive, manipulative facet to his personality that eventually became a defining trait leading up to his role in the Civil War.

With tomorrow's release of the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark finally moves into the A-list. Ironically his long-time status as a B-list character may help him here. Marvel grew tired of other studios licensing their characters then making movies that didn't do them justice (Ang Lee's Hulk). Iron Man is the first movie directly produced by Marvel and is supposed to usher in a new line of movies that are true to the characters. All indications was that they are off to a good start. Preliminary reviews have been very good. By all accounts, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. was a masterstroke. Not only does he have a history similar to Stark's but he manages to keep the character interesting throughout the movie. Ghost Rider was a success because Nicholas Cage did the same thing with Johnny Blaze.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Iron Man and Technology

With the Iron Man movie coming out soon, I thought I'd look back at how his technology has changed. No other hero is so intimately involved with technology  and the changes that have occurred over the 45 years since Iron Man was created are impressive.

Iron Man was a product of his time, the early 1960s. Tony Stark was an inventor and a patriot. His genius was in adapting transistors to armaments to be used in the cold war in general and in the hot war being fought in Viet Nam. He was separated from his group and triggered an explosive booby trap. The communists recovered his wounded body and were told that he was terminal in around a week. When Stark revived he was told that he had to create a new weapon for the communists within a week and surgeons would save him, otherwise he would die. Not fooled by the threats, Stark and an Asian scientist created a life support system for him. This included head-to-toe armor and a servo system that amplified his strength. The original suit didn't have any weapons built into it although it had enough spare components that Stark could improvise some weapons on the spot. The armor's strength wasn't that great. The communist warlord pinned him for a time with a dresser filled with rocks. Stark blew up the communist base and returned home.

He quickly started modifying his armor. He added boot jets so that he could fly and boosted the armor's strength. He also added a built-in radio with a shoulder-mounted antenna.

The original gray armor was given a gold paint job fairly quickly. Still, it was bulky and didn't project the hero image very well.

After a villain with a voodoo doll defeated him, Stark did a major rebuild of his armor. The new armor was close-fitting with a red and gold color scheme. With a few minor changes, this was what Stark used for the next couple of decades.

The new suit was exceptionally light and thin. It could be carried in a briefcase. The arm and leg pieces collapsed like fabric until activated. This led the the big question - how does something like this give the wearer strength and protection? Eventually a writer explained that the armor was polarized. Presumably it responded to his motions by re-polarizing itself to mimic his movements.

Iron Man's biggest problem in those days was his batteries. They constantly ran down. Since his life support system was powered by the same batteries, this was potentially life-threatening.

As time passed, the built-in weaponry in the armor was defined. His main weapons were repulsor beams in his gauntlets. He still had jets in his boots. He also had pop-out skates. His chest had a "unibeam" which was basically a spotlight. Radar and sonar were added fairly early as was an internal oxygen supply good for a half hour.

In the early 1970s Stark was the recipient of a different kind of technology - a synthetic heart transplant. This was only partially successful and he was back to wearing the armor to stop tissue rejection.

During most of the 1970s the writers wanted to focus on the man inside the armor instead of the technology. They were also embarrassed by Stark's background as an arms maker. Stark got out of the weapons business and spent a few years chasing a hippy passivist (who had an anarchist brother).

Things changed dramatically in the late 1970s. Iron Man got a new creative team - David Michelinie (plot/writer) and Bob Layton (plot/inker). They went through a few artists, most notably John Romita, jr. Under this team Stark went back to his roots as a millionaire, jet-set, playboy. They also introduced James Rhodes, his pilot and friend.

Under this team, Iron Man rediscovered technology. His armor had computers built in and he had a few more weapons. They also introduced the idea of special-purpose armor. Stark built suits for orbital travel, underwater work, and stealth. These had different strengths and weaknesses.

They also introduced Stark's drinking problem. I think that Stark was the first super hero to have a personal problem like this. Stark also made the first major change to his armor in over a decade - he built a red and white model.

Later, under different writers Stark's drinking problem reemerged and became worse. Within one issue he was a drunk in the gutter. That left a void while Stark was missing. Who would be Iron Man? This turned out to be James Rhodes.

Eventually Stark sobered up and built himself a new red and gold suit. Rhodes kept the red and white one for a while. The new suit was bigger and more powerful. This started a series of new suits of armor,all giving the same general impression but with minor differences.

At one point Stark was declared dead but he left Rhodes a new suit to replace him as Iron Man. When Stark returned from the dead, Rhodes started calling himself War Machine. Bulky and angular with a shoulder-mounted missile rack, the War Machine armor is probably the best example of what a man in powered armor would actually look like. Poor sales doomed the armor.

In 2000 Stark's armor made the ultimate upgrade. A combination of the Y2k bug and a lightening strike made the armor self-aware. Stark quickly found himself in conflict with his merciless armor. This was ended when Stark had a new heart attack and the armor sacrificed itself in order to give Stark an artificial heart.

For most of his career, Iron Man was placed in the same general class as Thor. Recently the two fought and Thor tore Stark's armor to pieces, prointing out that Stark is a man in a suit while Thor is a god.

In another few weeks we will see if Iron Man is a box office attraction.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Star Wars vs Lord of the Rings

TNT has been showing all three Lord of the Rings movies this weekend. Spike has been showing Star Wars 1-3. How do they stack up side-by-side.

Star Wars has more special effects - lots more, even counting the Hobbits and Dwarf. It also has more going on during the battles. Revenge of the Sith also has a bit of Greek tragedy going on. In trying to save his wife, Anakin sets in motion the chain of events that lead to her death and his own corruption.

On the other hand, LoTR has bigger battles.

Both have Christopher Lee.

Both have a pivotal scene involving lava.

In both, a central character loses a body part (Frodo loses a finger, Anakin loses a hand and later both legs).

Star Wars has actors with more notable careers prior to the movies. LoTR made its cast famous.

When all is said and done, LoTR is much better written. It is based on one of the great novels of the 20th century. Star Wars made it up as they went along based on stray comments from the original (and better) set of movies.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Lost - Season 4

I held off writing about season 4 because I wanted to see where they were going with it including how they would handle the writer's strike.

The good:
  • Replacing flashbacks with flash-forwards was a welcome change. We know as much as we need to about most characters (too much about Jack).
  • Increasing the percentage of time spent on the island. Especially in season 3, entire episodes would be spent on a flashback with only around five minutes of island-time to keep the story going.
  • Less of Jack.

The bad:
  • Two, maybe three episodes were mainly filler. Very little happened in the first episode and the episode with Desmond unstuck in time didn't advance the story much. This isn't so bad since they are going to finish the season but it would have been a real pain if they had wasted scarce air time ths way.
  • The episode with Sun and Jin was a cheat. There were a couple of clues that Jin was in the past (his bulky cell phone and his general personality) but it was carefully cut to make you think that both people were in the flash-forward, especially when Sun said to call her husband and Jin's phone rang.

Other observations:
  • My wife thinks that Locke has gone over the edge. I think that he is behaving reasonably when you consider that lives are at stake.
  • The freighter people are a lot more interesting than the Others turned out to be.
  • Ben's people says that Widmore planted the fake plane. Widmore's people say that Ben's people did. Is there a third group that the other two are unaware of? The bodies came from the same graveyard that had the polar bear skeleton. The bear had a Dharma collar. Are they still around and acting as a third player?
  • When Desmond was in the past, Widmore was bidding on a painting of the Black Rock. At the time it seemed like a coincidence. Then we learned that he sent the freighter. Does that mean that he knows about the Black Rock, also.
  • Speaking of the Black Rock, I still think that some of the Others are survivors from the shipwreck.
  • We still haven't heard how Danielle could have had a child on the island. Or who the father is. Was it really Ben or is he just Alex's adopted father?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iron Fist

Marvel's character Iron Fist has surfaced again. This seems like a good time to look at his original run.

When the superhero craze that marked the Silver Age of comics crested, Marvel was looking for something to keep it going. They came up with a combination of Sword and Sorcery, monster, and martial arts. This was fueled by a loosening of the Comic Code and Marvel's entry into the oversized black and white market. One trait during this period was that, if something sold, then they should create a copy. Marvel was full of these. The list of originals and copies includes:

Dracula/Morbius the Living Vampire
Werewolf by Night/Man-Wolf
Conan the Barbarian/King Kull
Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu/Iron Fist

Where Shang-Chi was the some of Fu Manchu who had been raised by his father in seclusion and trained in the martial arts, Iron Fist was Daniel Rand, a westerner whose father was killed by his partner/best friend over Danny's mother who then sacrificed herself to hungry wolves so that Danny could make it to the safety of an extra-dimensional city called Kun Lun. Danny learned martial arts and performed a ceremony in which he killed a dragon by smothering it with his own body, branding his chest. He then plunged his hands into the dragon's glowing heart, gaining the power of the Iron Fist. Ten years after entering Kun Lun, Danny left it to get revenge on his father's killer.

This led to a high-energy plot involving a mystic ninja. There was little time for characterization and Danny never removed his ceremonial costume or mask. He did manage to pick up a supporting cast including Professor Wing, his daughter Coleen and her bionic partner Misty Knight. At the time Marvel had special titles reserved for premiering new characters. If they sold then they were moved to their own book.

In this case, Iron Fist wrapped up the initial plot just in time to start fresh in Iron Fist #1. The character went through several writers but Chris Claremont was assigned to the the permanent writer. It also had gone through several artists (it seems like it was a different artist each issue). It finally gained a permanent artist a couple of issues in. This was a young John Byrne in his first Marvel assignment.

Claremont started as an assistant editor who wrote a few text stories as filler for the black and white line. He progressed to fill-in writer before getting Iron Fist, X-Men, and a few others. Byrne came from Charleton where he had the reputation as a good story teller who could only draw one face (and that one was oriental). The team of Claremont and Byrne is famous for their run on X-Men but this is where they perfected their craft.

Iron Fist needed a new plot arc so Coleen Wing was abducted and Iron Fist followed her trail to London (Claremont was an Anglophile). He eventually returned empty handed. The London clue was just to distract him while Coleen was brainwashed to hate him. This was all part of a plot by the Master Khan who had connections with Eventually she was Kun Lun. Coleen was unleashed against Iron Fist in a battle to the death.

This is where the strip got interesting. By this point Byrne's art was pretty good but the character was in a rut. He would use his martial arts for most of a fight but he would finish things by using the Iron Fist - a "super powered punch". In order to end this fight he did something different with the power - he used it to force his consciousness into Coleen's. A few issues later he was dying from a poison and used the Iron Fist to heal himself. This opened a lot of possibilities.

Byrne started  stretching as an artist. He worked in several moving figure panels, something that acclaimed artists Steve Ditko and Neil Adams were known for. He also got over his trouble with faces.

Claremont was at his best when focusing on characterization. They did one issue where Danny was given the keys to his parents old townhouse. He spent part of the issue following memory/ghosts from room to room.

Danny also had one of comic's first inter-racial romances with Misty Knight. She was a black ex-cop who lost an arm to a terrorist bombing and had a bionic replacement.

A lot of the characterization focused on Danny's youth and inexperience in the modern world.

One issue is notable for featuring the first appearance of Sabertooth. At the time, Claremont and Byrne meant him to be Wolverine's father but things worked out differently. Later Iron Fist took on the Wrecking Crew by himself and survived (he needed Captain America's help in the next issue to beat them).

There was also a sub-plot about someone with a similar brand.

The 1970s were hard on comics. A lot of great strips were canceled. Marvel had confidence in the character. Claremont and Byrne finished the sub-plot in Marvel Team-up with Spider-Man. Then they created a new team - Power Man and Iron Fist.

Power Man stared as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. He was basically a super-powered private eye working out of the then dilapidated Times Square. The comic changed the name to Power Man to boost sales which only worked for a while. Eventually it was merged with Iron Fist. The premise was that Danny needed the real-world experience that working with Cage would give him.

Sales were good for a while and the team took on a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope feel.

Eventually it just sort of ran down. After a return to Kun Lun, Iron Fist traded his green costume in for a red one and started talking in formal English. At the end a crazed super hero beat Iron Fist to death before vaporizing, leaving Cage wanted on suspicion.

Iron Fist was revived a couple of times. It turned out that an impostor had returned from Kun Lun. Danny was upset that no one noticed how different the impostor acted and figured it out.

With the latest revival it turns out that the current Iron Fist is one of a long line and is expected to fight champions from other mystic cities.

After Iron Fist was canceled, Byrne took over X-Men. The two made it the highest selling book of the time. Claremont continued with X-Men for years after that. Byrne went on to draw and write the Fantastic Four and then was tapped to recreate Superman.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Microsoft & Apple

Someone made a long comment to a post I made last November on Windows vs Mac. I looked over what I said and stand by my statements. I do want to make a few things clear.

I am not a big fan of Microsoft. They have plotted to take over the world (metaphorically) too many times. They have often gone out of their way to destroy competition. Back when Windows ran on DOS they put in some code to keep it from running on DRDOS. Later they bundled Windows 95 and DOS together as a single product in order to eliminate DRDOS as a competitor.

In fact, the whole launch of Windows 95 seemed designed to eliminate competition. The product was over a year late to market and companies stopped buying new software during that period. Microsoft which had deeper pockets survived but the competition did not.

More recently their Palladium proposal would have made them the gatekeepers of the world. This was a hardware/software encryption system that not only verified that you were running a trusted operating system, it could also act as DRM for nearly anything. You could even revoke access to a document after it had been distributed. Portions of that are embedded in the X-Box and Windows Vista.

I never cared much for Bill Gates or Steve Balmer, either.

I have spent used other operating systems when possible. During the days of Windows 3.1 I used IBM's OS2 Warp which was a nice multi-tasking operating system and ran Windows better than DOS. It was also a good game platform in the days when you have to have a separate boot disk for each game. It would detect the settings the game needed without user effort.

More recently I have used various versions of Linux.

But the Apple premium has always kept me from trying a Mac.

I pay attention to specs. Apple sells premium machines but they still charge a bit more than competitors for equivalent hardware. The extra charge is for the cool factor.

Apple has had some quality control issues, also. The Macbook air has cooling problems. The iconic iPod has had enough quality control problems that it got special mention in Wikipedia.

Then there is the control issue. Steve Jobs wants too much control and he refuses to license his software. Microsoft was recently fined for being too slow to release developer documentation. They are still ahead of Apple on this. Look at Fairplay, Apple's DRM. They refuse to license it to anyone. Suits are pending against Apple over this. They could well join Microsoft in being fined by the EU.

When the Apple II first came out it was as open as anything ever seen. The documentation included an assembly listing for the firmware - something now regarded as a state secret. By the time the original Macintosh was introduced Apple had become as closed as any company ever seen. Just hooking a 3rd party printer to your Mac violated the warranty. They have opened up a great deal on the Mac but closed down on the iPhone. Simple things like rearranging the icons or changing the wallpaper are not allowed.

Too often Apple's great innovations are the form factor rather than usability. If you don't agree with Steve Job's vision of how a workstation should look (or cost) then you are stuck since they control the hardware.

If you don't mind the Apple premium and you agree with Steve Jobs on everything then Apple is a great company. I know several people who are enthusiastic Apple users. In fact, my main hands-on experience with Apple has come from giving these people technical support.

But it is not for me. I would find it a constant source of irritation.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The n800 a Month Later

Last week Apple announced the SDK for the iPhone and iPod Touch. While I'm sure that a lot of cool stuff will come out of this, I still prefer my Nokia N800.

I'm going to quickly repeat the differences between this and Apple's offerings.

First, it is not a phone so don't compare it to the iPhone. If you really want to use it for phone calls then you can make using voice over IP on WiFi. If that isn't good enough then get a bluetooth enabled phone. The n800 will connect with it. If you shop around then the n800 and phone will cost less than an iPhone.

From here on I will compare the n800 to the iPod Touch although some of the comparisons are valid for both.

The biggest difference is how open the n800 is. You can store any file you want on it multiple different ways. The most obvious is through USB. If your PC can take a memory card then you can copy directly to the card. By default, Windows XP has a Shared Documents folder. The n800 will connect with this allowing you to copy and paste files through the network.

You can use an external keyboard, either through bluetooth or through a USB OTG cable. The OTG cable also lets you connect external disk and thumbdrives. I have to admit that I have not gotten this to work, yet.

Steve Jobs explained that Flash animations are too much for the iPod and iPhone so they will not support it. These work just fine on my n800. In fact, nearly every web site I have tried works including news sites with streaming video.

I have several movies, MP3s, and videos I converted from YouTube (this takes specialized but free software).

It is a pretty good platform for comic books. I have several comics as scanned images. The built-in image viewer is ok but the Quiver Image Viewer is better. I can see the entire page at once but too small to read. If I zoom one level I can see half of the page and can usually read the word balloons. If the lettering is too small then I zoom a second time and I can see a quarter page, larger and clearer than life.

Unlike the Apple SDK, programs developed for the n800 can run in the background. On the iPod Touch, you cannot switch to a new program without closing the current one. I usually let the Claws email run in the background while web browsing.

I could go on but you get the idea. The iPhone is a phone that also offers Internet. The iPod Touch is a media player that also offers Internet. The n800 is an Internet device that has been shrunken to pocket size.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Warning - spoilers ahead.

I complained a few months ago about the Hulk disappearing from his own comic book. A few years ago he vanished for months thanks to a long-lasting tranquilizer given to Banner. When that plotline finally ended, the strip went back to featuring the Hulk. It was also a Hulk I rather liked - smart but anti-social. He spent a couple of years on a different planet, first fighting in an arena then leading a rebellion.

Then came World War Hulk and the title character was reduced to being a supporting character.

Now they've started the strip over again at issue one but something is missing - the Hulk.

There's a Hulk, but not the Hulk. Bruce Banner is sitting in a prison and is not changing forms. What we have instead is a mystery Hulk. We got a mystery story arc to go with it.

In issue #1 we never really see the Hulk clearly, just the set-up for the mystery. We finally get a look at him in issue #2 but he is a different Hulk. First, the new Hulk is red instead of green. It appears that he is both smart and ruthless but we don't know for sure. When he fights Iron Man he only growls. He does talk to She-Hulk but it is off-panel. He does finally speak in the last couple of pages - I think he got two word balloons. Rick Jones got more than that. So did She-Hulk and various SHIELD agents. Tony Stark got the most. He is featured so much that I had to remind myself that I was reading the Hulk and not Iron Man.

So that's problem number one - the Hulk is a supporting character. I stopped reading the last time they did that.

Problem number two is the plot, or the lack of it. There just isn't much there. The art tries to make up for it. There are full-page panels and double-page spreads. These look good but they eat up a lot of space. If the comic went back to a traditional format they could probably have squeezed both issues into a single comic.

I know that some people buy the comics for the art. I want a good story to go with the art. And I want the character on the masthead to be the featured player in the comic instead of making a cameo appearance.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Flight part 3

I've talked about super heroes fly but so far I haven't really talked about comic book heroes. In a static medium like a comic book, characters normally just fly. There are some variations.

Back when Superman was under different editorial control than the rest of DC, characters in the Superman universe pretty much all flew. There was no explanation. If you could fly then you could fly and probably at any speed you wanted to. Supporting characters in Superman often got the power of flight and kept up with Superman. Similarly, most people who suddenly "became super" got flight along with strength and invulnerability regardless of the source of the powers.

The Legion of Superheroes was similar. The big three, Superboy, Mon-El, or Ultra Boy (plus Supergirl but they seldom counted her) had pretty much equivalent powers. Ultra Boy could only use one power at a time and could see through lead. Otherwise they all seemed to be on the same level. The rest of the Legion used flight rings (originally they used rocket packs then flight belts). They didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up. Ultra Boy often used his flight ring to stay in the air while using other powers.

The rest of DC was slightly different. Wonder Woman originally could ride air currents. Presumably this was slower and more limited than real flight since she also used a transparent airplane. Hawkman, in his various incarnations, used artificial wings. Green Lantern had his ring carry him where he needed to go.

One interesting one was Deadman who was a ghost. In his first several appearances he simply walked where ever he was going. Sometimes he was walking through thin air, hundreds of feet off of the ground. Later he started flying more like a conventional hero. Since the artist was the great Neal Addams, I'm assuming that this evolution was on purpose. When he first died, Deadman still acted like a normal man even though he was weightless and immaterial. He was flying all along but he was mimicking walking. As he grew to accept his altered state he stopped acting he was still alive.

Over at Marvel, things were different, at least most of the time. Marvel's science may have been shaky but they at least provided some explanation for a character flying. The Human Torch was supported by the updraft caused by his flames. The Sub-Mariner had winged ankles.

During the Silver Age, Stan got creative with some of his characters. The Hulk didn't fly, he jumped. Thor threw his heavy hammer then caught the unbreakable thong on the handle and was pulled after it. Presumably, once he got going, Thor used his control over weather to created an updraft to keep him going and winds to change his direction.

Iron Man had jets in his boots. Doctor Strange had a cloak of levitation. The Wasp had actual wasp wings grafted to her body (they didn't grow when she did so they vanished when she was normal-sized). Ant-Man rode flying ants.

Stan put limits on his characters. The Sub-Mariner's wings were slower than other characters and only good for short-term flight. Iron Man had to stop and recharge his batteries and could freeze up if he flew too high. On the other hand, the Angel who had real wings, was the most maneuverable. This makes perfect sense when you remember that everyone else except the Wasp was rocketing through the air somehow. Angel was the only one with aerodynamic surfaces. He also trained more than the other heroes thanks to Professor X.

Marvel's Captain Marvel is an interesting variation. He started out with a rocket belt which was part of his Kree uniform. Later he gained some "negabands" which gave him strength and flight and became cosmically aware. He was the first hero I can think of to really use his flight during a fight. In a battle with the Controller he was using his flight to duck under the Controller's swings and outmaneuver him. Writer/artist Jim Starlin was thank for this.

A later Starlin character, Adam Warlock, did things a bit differently. He was being attacked by a giant artificial shark in space. He tried slugging it without success. Next he tried standing on a tiny space rock, using it to anchor himself. This makes sense depending on how strong his powers of flight are. What with action and equal reaction, standing on something would allow you to hit with your entire body with the force of your blow going down your legs to the mass below you. If you hit something while flying then your powers of flight will have to substitute for this. Not that it helped Warlock against the shark.

When the Marvel Handbook came out in the 1980s the editors made it their purpose to give a rational explanation for every hero's powers. It turned out that many people can harness gravitons to propel themselves. This was the first time that someone pointed out some of the obvious limitations on flight. Once you pass 300 MPH you can no longer breath. Faster speeds will cause friction heating.

DC heroes never paid any attention to this. They move faster than the eye can see without causing more than a tiny breeze and they violate the laws of physics at the drop of a hat.

One other character should be mentioned while I'm talking about flight - Neo from The Matrix. His ability to fly is easily explained since he can alter reality. The interesting thing is the wash of unreality that follows him like a jet trail. This was visible in the final scene of The Matrix. In the sequel he found himself hundreds of miles from where he needed to be so he flew as fast as he could. This either created a powerful wind or wave of unreality. Either way, cars were being scooped up in his wake.