Friday, July 31, 2009

Anti-hero villains

I was just thinking about some of the early Marvel villains. I've always maintained that one of the reasons for Marvel's prominence is that they have better villains than the competition. Part of this is that many Marvel villains were more complex than elsewhere.

This started with FF #1 and the Mole Man. He wasn't just a megalomaniac who wanted to conquer the world. He was a ugly little guy with glasses who wanted to conquer the world because he was too short to get a date.

Magneto's motivations were pretty straightforward at first. He felt that mutants were superior to normal humans so they should be in charge. He was solo in his first appearance in X-Men #1 but he was back a few issues later with the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants". This was a very strange brotherhood. They all hated each other and only stayed together because they feared Magneto. The brotherhood consisted of the Toad who was mainly there to flatter Magneto's ego. Mastermind was kind of creepy and obviously in it for the power. The unusual ones were the brother and sister - Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Magneto had rescued the Scarlet Witch from a mob earlier. They joined him out of gratitude and stayed out misplaced loyalty and fear.

The X-Men recognized this and tended to go easy on these two. Eventually Magneto was taken off-world by the Stranger and the Brotherhood broke up. Shortly afterward Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch joined the Avengers along with Hawkeye.

Hawkeye was another example. A circus performer, he decided to become a superhero using trick arrows. He quickly foiled a robbery but was soon with the stolen money and assumed to be the thief. Not long after that he met and became infatuated with a Russian agent - the Black Widow. She convinced him to attack Tony Stark's factory which brought him into conflict with Iron Man. Not long after that the Widow wanted to quit spying but her parents were threatened (the became a continuity problem later). She was given a costume and sent to re-enlist Hawkeye. She vanished after this appearance and Hawkeye joined the Avengers.

The Black Widow eventually resurfaced. She had defected and become a member of New York society. She made herself a new costume and tried it out on Spider-Man who was, as usual, wanted by the law himself. SShe eventually joined the Avengers herself.

Friday, July 24, 2009

DRM and digital devices

Two incidents have come up recently which illustrate the problems with modern electronic devices.

The first happened with Amazon's Kindle e-book reader. Recently they discovered that the company that was selling electronic versions of George Orwell's works did not have the rights to do this. If this had happened with a printed book then money would change hands between publishers and booksellers but people who actually had a printed copy of the book could keep them.

In the new digital age, this has changed. Amazon remotely deleted the books (along with any notes that students had been keeping) and refunded people their money. This is a reminder that you are not buying a book, you are paying for the rights to read a book. The rights are subject to many more restrictions than a physical book.

Amazon announced that it has changed its internal procedures and will not do something like this again - unless it changes its procedures again.

The other incident involves Apple's iTunes and the Palm Pre. When the Palm was released, one of its features was that it could load music directly from iTunes. Apple recently pushed out an update to iTunes that stopped non-Apple devices from connecting to it (the Pre is the only non-Apple device that can connect). Palm just released an update that restores this feature.

Again, with iTunes you are not buying music. From Apple's point of view, you are buying the right to listen to music on specific devices - theirs. Loading music that you have paid for onto an unauthorized device is a violation of their license and they have the right to stop it. This will probably hurt Apple in the long run. Once someone has paid for something they don't like it being tied to a particular manufacturer.

Sony learned this the hard way. Since Sony has both a media publishing arm and a hardware arm, the media wing was able to impose restrictions on their media players. Sony never released an MP3 player. Their digital players used a proprietary format that only they supported. No one was interested. They wanted to play MP3s.

Apple got around this two different ways. The first was that iPods can play MP3s. Most of the music on iPods was ripped from CDs (yours or someone else's). The other way is that Apple's DRM is fairly light-weight and their price per song is so low that people don't worry about it.

Imagine what would happen to the iPod market if Apple did what Amazon did - remotely removed content that people had paid for. They can do this with the iPhone.

The bottom line here is that there are still major issues with digital rights that have not been solved.

Comic Con

It is amazing how important Comic Con has become. A few years ago hardly anyone knew about it. Now it gets national attention. A good bit of this has little to do with comic book characters per se. It is the way that studios have used the convention to market new movies.

Consider what the news is - movie previews. Twilight is the big story but major directors and stars are coming to the convention to promote their new movies. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were there along with a sneak peak at Alice in Wonderland. James Cameron showed 20 minutes of his new 3-d movie. A sequel to TRON is coming and Jeff Bridges was showing concept sketches.

All of this becomes a cycle feeding on itself. The bigger the stars who show up, the more national press it gets which attracts even more stars, etc.

While the studios have figured out that going to Comic Con is a cheap way of getting publicity it also shows a major shift in attitudes about superheroes and comic book characters (or characters who could be in comic books).

Back in the 1960s, comic books were dismissed as kid stuff. Yes, the Batman TV show was a big hit for a short while but it defined camp. The 1970s didn't help super hero acceptance much. The Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man all had TV shows but they were cheaply produced. The Hulk was critically the best of them but it followed the same formula as a dozen other shows. A rewrite of the script could change an episode from the Hulk to Airwolf or Kung Fu. Attempts were made to adapt Captain America and Doctor Strange but these were flops that never made it past the pilot movie. Superman the Motion Picture made a lot of money and showed that a comic book character could appeal to a broad enough market to support an A-level movie but there was still far too much camp.

The 1980s were kinder to superheroes (except for the Superman movies which came out with decreasing quality). Original superheroes did fairly well on TV. Shows like Beauty and the Beast moved beyond camp and attracted critical praise.

The big breakthrough was 1989's Batman. While over the top in places, it showed that a comic book movie didn't have to be campy.

The 1990s is when comic book based entertainment really took off. Batman descended into camp (along with bat nipples) but other comic book-based movies were bit hits, especially ones adapted from independent comics. They also established comic book movies as adult entertainment. By 2002, the Road to Perdition, which was adapted from a graphic novel, was on several critics' top movies list.

Which brings us to the 2000s. This decade has been dominated by superheroes. Spider-Man was one of the top draws of the decade. The reboot of Batman was phenomenally successful. The new Superman movie was a mess but it still made a lot of money. The X-Men movies became important events. Ghost Rider was an unexpected hit. When it was announced that the category for best picture would be expanded to ten nominees, Dark Knight and Iron Man were given as movies that should have been nominated but were not.

Even the blockbusters that have not been comic book adaptations featured characters who would fit nicely in a comic book. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Matrix all featured characters with superhuman powers.

Somehow comic book conventions have incorporated this better than more general science fiction conventions. Which brings us back to Comic Con and the convergence of popular culture.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thor Rumors

I'm seeing a lot of rumors about the upcoming Thor movie. Chris Hemsworth has been cast as Thor. He seems kind of young and thin for the part. Natalie Portman is Jane Foster. Brian Blessed as Odin. Kenneth Branagh is directing.

This will be a tougher movie than Iron Man. The character of Tony Stark had a lot of dramatic potential and updating Viet Nam to Afghanistan made the movie relevant.

In contrast, Thor started out fighting the Stone Men from Saturn. It took years before Odin and Asgard were incorporated into the comic. During that time, Jane Foster became a liability and was eventually cut from the book. The high points of the comic were the Lee/Kirby years and the Walt Simonson years. Both built on previous works and the Norse myths. I'm not sure how this can be worked into a movie.

Branagh has a mixed record as a director and his best works have been Shakespeare. On the other hand, Thor speaks a kind of Shakespearian English so maybe it will work out.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Chrome OS

Google announced that they will produce an operating system called Chrome OS to go with their Chrome web browser. The OS will come out sometime in the second half of 2010 and be targeted at netbooks. The PC pundits have gone crazy over this. Some think it is the most significant announcement in years and signals that Microsoft's dominance in operating systems is at an end. Others think that it will crash and burn. Let's take a closer look.

First, this announcement does not affect Microsoft's core business in any meaningful way. Netbooks are the hottest part of the market right now, but they are still a tiny portion. By definition, they are not gaming machines or business workstations. That leaves the majority of the market to Microsoft. In fact, the netbook market is one that Microsoft is still trying to figure out. Currently they are selling Windows XP for netbooks and only charging a few dollars (the rumor is $15). They floated the idea of having a stripped-down version of Windows 7 for netbooks then relented. Either way, this is not their taditional market and they do not make much money on it. Losing it would not affect them except in a pyrrhic way.

So, Google is not a real threat to Microsoft. What about the other way - can Google establish itself on the netbook?

The first generation of netbook was based on the Linux operating system which is what Chrome OS will use. As netbooks matured, the market switched to Windows XP. There are several reasons for this and Google can learn from them.

The first netbooks were based on the ARM chip which Microsoft does not support. That made Linux the only choice. Intel introduced the Atom chip for low-powered applications and most netbook makers switched over. At the same time, Microsoft made several concessions, allowing netbooks to run Windows XP instead of Vista and reducing the licensing fee. This made Windows a viable choice.

The Linux that was being offered on the netbooks was not that attractive. since it is a new operating system, the makers wrapped it in a gui that tries to simply everything. This reenforced the fact that Linux is not Windows. When presented with an alien gui or the familiar Windows, most customers went with Microsoft.

Google's lesson here is that it is possible to make an operating system too friendly. The transition from Windows XP to a full-featured version of Linux such as Ubuntu is no worse than the transition from XP to Vista. More important, once you fire up your browser, there is virtually no difference. Google seems to have figured this out. They are promising that the operating system will not get in your way.

Google is promising an operating system that will boot fast and be virus-free (good luch with that part) and that will mainly exist to run the browser. Everything that you really need will be web-based.

There are skeptics:

But it's not just Office that will keep Microsoft's hold on the PC market. Can you replace Active Directory with a web app? Is there a site I can visit to connect to my office's shared printer? What do you mean World of Warcraft doesn't run in the browser? How do I play a DVD in Google Chrome?

This argument misses a big point - people do nto buy netbooks to connect with active directory or an office's shared printer. You cannot play World of Warcraft on a netbook and they do not come with a DVD player. Netbooks are used by people who want small, light PCs that are easy to carry around.

I will add that I have an Aspire One netbook. I installed Ubuntu Linux on it with a dual boot. I can switch between the two operating systems and do about everything I need in either. I can even play DVDs on an external drive in Linux.

This brings me to a final point. With Ubuntu I had to load several drivers and plug-ins. Some of these are deliberately kept out of the distribution because of licensing restrictions - you have to pay a license fee to distribute them. Presumably Google is big enough that they can cut a deal on these packages so that Chrome OS will come with everything that you need, out of the box.

If they manage that then they could capture a significant portion of the netbook market. If they can convince some of the makers to switch back to the ARM chip for extended battery life then they will have that portion of the market to themselves.

None of this is a threat to Microsoft but it could affect Apple by offering a second alternative to Windows.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Flash Gordon

On the 4th of July Spike TV showed Star Wars and G4 showed Flash Gordon. What a contrast.

Flash Gordon was one of a spate of science fiction movies produced after Star Wars in the hope of attracting the same audience. There were several others including Start Trek, the Motion Picture, but Flash Gordon manages to distinguish itself in its look and feel.

Ironically, the two movies share the same background. Star Wars was meant to recapture the excitement of the serials - movies released one reel at a time over several weeks. The Star Wars movies (and the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies) each break down into three distinct chapters per movie. The capsule description at the beginning of the movies comes straight from the serials.

While the serials were one influence on George Lucas, there were several others. The serials mainly influenced the form of Star Wars, not the content.

On this other hand, Flash Gordon was essentially a remake of a serial and took all of its inspiration from them. The result is visually stunning but very campy. A good bit of the dialog is tongue-in-cheek. The special effects manage to look expensive and cheesy at the same time. They capture the look of the old serials when spaceships were hung from wires but with state of the art (1980) effects. For example, the cloud of hawk men is impressive but their tiny wings could never support them.

The musical score deserves mention. It was done by Queen not long after their classic hit Bohemian Rhapsody. I think that this and Highlander were the only two scores that they did (It is hard to tell for sure. IMDB lists every movie that used a clip from Queen which is a very long list).

The cast includes Max Von Syndow as the Emperor Ming, Topol, Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, and Brian Blessed as the bombastic ruler of the hawkmen.

The plot is too fast-moving and superficial to describe. The movie is best enjoyed by ignoring the plot twists and holes and listening to the over-the-top dialog. Just a few examples from IMDB:

Dale Arden: Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!

Flash Gordon: Prince Barin! I'm not your enemy, Ming is! Let's all team up and fight him.

Zarkov: We are only interested in friendship. Why do you attack us?
The Emperor Ming: Why not?

Zogi, the High Priest: Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?
The Emperor Ming: Of the hour, yes.
Zogi, the High Priest: Do you promise to use her as you will?
The Emperor Ming: Certainly!
Zogi, the High Priest: Not to blast her into space?
[Ming glares at Zogi]
Zogi, the High Priest: Uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.
The Emperor Ming: I do.
Dale Arden: I do NOT!

Dale Arden: I'm a New York City girl. It's a little too quiet around here for me.

Princess Aura: But my father has never kept a vow in his life!
Dale Arden: I can't help that, Aura. Keeping our word is one of the things that make us... better than you.

Prince Barin: [to Flash] Welcome back from the grave.
[to Princess Aura]
Prince Barin: I knew you were up to something, though I'll confess I hadn't thought of necrophilia?

Klytus: No one - but NO ONE - dies in the Palace without a command from the Emperor.

Doctor Hans Zarkov: Look at them! The poor wretches are just waiting for someone to lead them in revolt...!
Flash Gordon: [annoyed] Oh, are you looking at ME, Zarkov?

Kala: We're going to empty your memory as we might empty your pockets... Doctor.
Doctor Hans Zarkov: Don't empty my mind! I've spent my whole life filling it!

The Emperor Ming: Klytus! Are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!

Robot: Long live Flash! You've saved your Earth. Have a nice day.
Flash Gordon: YEAH!

Prince Barin: I've changed.
Princess Aura: I've changed, too.
Zarkov: [Successfully picks the electronic door lock] A-ha! I knew it was one of the prime numbers of the Zenith series. I haven't changed.