Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A few lessons from Heroes

NBC made it official - Heroes has been canceled. What happened?

The first season was far and away the best. We spent most of it meeting the various heroes and learning about their powers and lives. At the same time, the show had an urgency. First, there was the mass-killer Sylar who kept becoming more powerful. At first, Sylar was a shadowy man in a ball cap who killed heroes in a gruesome fashion. There was also HRG and the group that employed him. Finally, there was a future event that would wipe out New York City and the need to stop it.

There were problems in the first season, especially with pacing, but it was worth watching through the end.

The second season had some real problems. The biggest was the writer's strike which caused things to be tied up in a couple of quick, messy episodes. This caused major pacing problems. The addition of some romantic subplots slowed things down even worse. Still, you could give it some slack because of the strike.

Things went very wrong in the third season. They tried too hard to recreate the first season and failed totally. Plot elements like an eclipse removing everyone's powers made no sense. The first half of the third season was called "Book 3 - Heroes and Villains". This meant constantly shuffling who was on which side. By the end of Book 3, the writing staff had been fired.

Book 4 was more promising. The government found out about the heroes and moved to imprison them. Several escaped and spent time on the run. While an improvement, it was not up to the original season.

Season four, aka Book 5 made some improvements. The regular cast was cut way back with the rest appearing just a few times. New characters were added. It was not enough to attract the viewers back.

So what went wrong? Sylar was the biggest problem. He started as a memorable villain. He killed people so that he could steal their powers. He was powerful and scary. Over the rest of the show he alternated between reforming and going back to merciless killer. Between inconsistent characterization and overexposure, he lost his edge. He was no longer scary. Other villains were introduced but none could match Sylar.

There was also too much Claire. A teenage girl who could heal from anything, she kept getting in over her head. Her powers made her a natural victim. And, her relationship with her father, HRG, took the edge off of him.

In fact, most of the cast should have been discarded after the first season. Part of the magic about the first season was meeting these people and seeing what they could do. We got to know them too well. The constant shuffling in Book 3 hurt the characters a lot, too. It might seem like an interesting literary device to make people heroes one week and villains the next but it ruins long-term characterization.

The biggest problem was the need to keep the show fresh. Lost did this by having a plot arc that contained all six seasons but also allowed for seasons that were totally different from each other. Characters were added or killed. Only about half of the cast from the first season made it to the sixth season but new characters have been added along the way.

Lost started dragging when the producers decided where the show was going but were not sure how long they had to stretch it out. Heroes never looked forward any further than the end of the season so it could not build on itself to a conclusion.

That's probably the big lesson here. Continuity dramas need a goal. It is not enough to remember where you have been, you have to have a destination. Characters should grow, not simply change and be discarded when they start to drag down the series.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Early Iron Man

I've read over the early Iron Man comics from his origin to his red and gold armor. Most of these were plotted by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby.

There's no polite way to say this - the Lee/Kirby issues suck. They are formulaic and generic. Each started with Tony Stark introducing some new, impossible weapon - an automatic weapon that could demolish buildings or powered roller skates that can transport troops at 60 MPH. After that, Stark would move on to the real adventure. The stories ran around 14 pages so there wasn't much room for characterization or anything else.

The stories themselves were standard super-hero stories. There was nothing that made them Iron Man stories. It would take less than five minutes to rewrite any of the scripts for any other hero who was stronger than Daredevil. They would even work as Green Lantern or Flash stories.

Things got a lot better when Kirby left and Don Heck took over the art. While Kirby is remembered for his ground-breaking art from the late 1960s, in the early 1960s he could be boring. Heck's artwork was much more dynamic.

Not long after Heck took over the art, several elements were added to the character. Happy Hogan, an out-of-work boxer saved Stark from a race car crash (which was suggested in Iron Man 2) and Stark hired him as a driver and bodyguard. Stark showed Hogan around his plant in Flushing New York next to the site of the 1964 World's Fair (the inspiration for the 1974 Stark Expo in Iron Man 2) and introduced his secretary, Pepper Potts. From that point on, Happy, Pepper, and the plant figured prominently in most stories.

Once the plant was introduced, it became the target for saboteurs - some Communist, some rival munitions makers, and some scientists trying to steel Stark's inventions. Iron Man stopped being a friend of Stark's who happened to be hanging around and became the unofficial protector of the plant.

An unusual story element was Congress. Whenever someone disrupted Stark's plants, Congressmen and other government officials started talking about pulling contracts. This came to a head years later when a senator ordered Stark's plant closed until he testified before Congress (another element in Iron Man 2).

The final element was Iron Man's armor. In his first appearance it was gray. In his second appearance, he heard people react to the armor in fear. Stark's girlfriend at the time (in her only appearance) suggested that he color his armor gold which he immediately did. While this outfit did look like an "iron man", it was also bulky for a super hero. In a one-shot drawn by Steve Ditko, Iron Man decided that he needed a lighter suit.

The Iron Man story finally came into its own. No longer could you use an Iron Man plot for another character. By the time you subtracted all of the Iron Man-specific details you had lost at least half the story.

All of this was in the early 1960s. As the Viet Nam war progressed, readers became uncomfortable with Stark making munitions. Eventually he divested his company of weapons and started making unspecified civilian products.

Note - In an earlier post I mentioned Stark keeping his new armor in a briefcase. I forgot that he also kept his original armor in a briefcase. Somehow he was able to fold the bulky suit up like tinfoil.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost - Jacob and Nameless

We finally know more about where Jacob and the man in black came from. Their mother, a Roman named Claudia, washed up on the island shortly before having a set of twins. Claudia was assisted in her delivery by another woman whose name was not given. Claudia only had one name chosen - Jacob. When a second child was born, she didn't know what to name him. Before she could think of anything, the midwife killed her and raised the boys as her own.

Jacob was loyal, incapable of lying, and wore light colors. His brother was clever and wore black. Sometimes the brother knew things without being told like when he found a game. He also kept secrets and could lie. For some reason he assumed that his (adopted) mother would not let him keep the game.

Claudia appeared to Nameless. I assume that this was a real haunting like Hurley's instead of the Smoke Monster appearing as Claudia. She led nameless to a camp of her people. While Claudia was dressed like a Roman, had a Roman name, and spoke Latin, these people looked like Celts. That puts the episode 2000 years in the past, plus or minus a hundred years or so.

Nameless confronted his mother about their real past and their real mother. Mom admitted the truth and Nameless went off to live with the other people. He didn't like them but they knew things. Mom had shown the boys a glowing cavern. Nameless and the Celts kept digging dry wells until they found it. Then they built the wheel - the one that moves the island through time and space.

Mom didn't like this so she knocked out Nameless, filled in the hole, and killed the rest of the people. We have no idea how she did this but it implied that she had supernatural powers.

She made Jacob her successor guardian of the island, apparently using the same bottle that Jacob gave to Richard centuries later.

Nameless killed Mom. Jacob killed Nameless and sent his body into the glowing cavern. The pillar of smoke erupted from it but Nameless's dead body came out the other side. Does this mean that Smokey was only using Nameless's form the same way that he used Locke's form?

Jacob placed the bodies of his nameless mother and brother in the cavern where they were discovered by Jack and Kate in the third episode.

So, now we know where the wells came from and how Jacob became guardian of the island. We might know where Smoky came from (if Nameless's soul was transforemd into the Smoke Monster). At the very least, we know how he came to look like the man in black. We also know where the in-joke of the white and black pieces representing a giant game came from.

There is probably a lot of symbolism in Mom's loom. She spent a lot of time at it and Jacob took over from her, although his work did not look as good. Before Nameless killed her, he ruined her weaving.

I figured that "Adam and Eve" would be one of those mysteries that was never answered. With only three and a half hours of episodes left, I'm not sure that this was worth the time spent on it.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Iron Man 2

It is tough for a sequel to live up to an original like the first Iron Man movie. When they expended the best picture category for the Oscars, Iron Man was given as an example of a picture that should have been nominated but was not.

So, given that baggage, I don't think that the sequel is quite as good as the original. That said it is still a lot of fun.Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark continues to be as much fun out of the armor as in it.

The first movie had two sets of villians - a Taliban-like group of terrorists living in caves in Afghanistan and Stark's partner. The new movie has a Russian genius who hates the Stark family and a munitions manufacturer name Justin Hammer.

While the names come from the comic books, the characters are very different. Hammer, in the comics, was a businessman who would enhance supervillians' powers in exchange for a take of their future earnings.

The Russian becomes Whiplash although his name, Anton Vanko, comes from the original Crimson Dynamo. The character is much more dangerous than the comic book version of Whiplash.

In the original book, Stark seems driven to create his Iron Man armor. In this one, he is haunted by his coming demise. The arc reactor that keeps his heart pumping is slowly killing him.

The action has been ramped up. There are more and bigger fights. There is also more laugh-out-loud humor which keeps things going during the slow parts of the plot.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Chuck - Season 3.5

In its first season, Chuck was good but it always seemed like it should have been better. During the second season it started firing on all cylinders, especially near the end of the season.

At the end of season 2 they shook things up a lot. The original premise was that a slacker computer nerd had a confidential database in his head. He had a pair of agents guarding him and running missions based on the information in his head. There was always some plot contrivance so that he had to come along, even though he was untrained. There was also a long-running almost-romance between Chuck and Sarah, one of the agents.

Season three shook things up. Chuck got a new set of information including abilities and the season was devoted to him becoming a real spy.

Originally NBC ordered a short season of 13 episodes. Part-way through production they expanded the order by six episodes. Apparently the scripts were already in place when the expanded order came through. This resulted in a season 3.5.

At the end of the original season 3, Chuck was finally a real spy and finally got together with Sarah. There was a break of a couple of weeks and things picked up from there.

Often when a series is based on will they/won't they, the series declines when they finally do. Moonlighting and Remmington Steel are prime examples. This is not a hard and fast rule. Cheers had its best days after Sam and Dianne got together.

Chuck seems to have improved again. Instead of concentrating on Chuck's ineptness, it is exploring his relationship with Sarah.

The show has always had a strong supporting cast between Chuck's sister and her husband and his co-workers. This is also continuing as Casey, the other agent tries to train Chuck's best friend, Morgan. While Chuck was a slacker with potential, Morgan is a genuine idiot. This relationship promises to continue any comic relief that was lost when Chuck became competent.

In the meantime, loyal fans formed flash mobs yesterday to try to get the show renewed. With the Leno disaster leaving NBC with a gaping hole in its schedule, the bar may be lowered. At the same time, Chuck's ratings are up a bit so it may make season four, yet.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Armor in a Briefcase

"As a little tip of the hat to the fans, I wanted to pull off the suitcase suit," he says. "In the comic book, they have this ridiculous thing where Tony Stark would open up an attache case, throw a glove on, and on the next page, he'd have the whole suit on. How do you make the suitcase suit real? That was another challenge we presented to ourselves." - Jon Favreau

The original version of Iron Man was big and bulky. It had a lot of cast iron pieces and it limited the artist. Stan started improving it immediately. In the first issue, Iron Man was iron gray. In the second issue he noticed that people were nervous around him and, at someone's suggestion, he painted the armor gold (earning the nick-name the "Golden Avenger"). That wasn't good enough and a few months later they redesigned the armor completely. Don Heck had been doing the art with Jack Kirby providing some of the breakdowns. For the redesign, Steve Ditko took over the strip for an issue or two.

The new armor was light and flexible. It had the red chest piece (it actually covered his entire torso) which Stark could wear over the unit keeping his heart beating. To put on the rest of the armor, Stark would pull on a red glove or put a foot through a thick red ring. Golden armor would emerge from this, pulled up his arm or leg by magnets and lock into place in the chest plate. The boots worked the same way. He just stepped on the sole and the boot covered his foot. The mask slid over his head like a hood. The faceplate was hinged and could be raised. It also has larger eyeholes so his expression could be seen through it. The whole assembly was so small and light that he could put it in his attache case and carry it with him. The lock could be set to release tear gas if someone unauthorized opened it. This had to be set separately, allowing someone to steal his armor once.

This remained the basic armor well into the 1980s. There were a few modifications. The face plate became part of the helmet. The pods on his hips grew. The position and size of the unibeam and two smaller plugs moved around.

In the late 1970s, the helmet was redesigned to allow for Stark's nose. It looked ridiculous and Stark quickly returned to the original helmet.

He also went through a phase with red and white armor instead of red and gold. Eventually the armor was redesigned to look more armor-like and began looking like the suit(s) in the movie.

There was a long-running debate in the letter column about the armor. It was flexible when it went on and it had no visible joints so how could it give Stark added strength or even protect him from crushing force?

Eventually a writer threw in the word "polarized" and the debate stopped. Apparently the armor stiffened when a current was applied to it. What is more, it would take different shapes depending on the current, allowing movement.

Something that no one ever commented on is the weight. A thin sheet of high-carbon steel can be pierced by bullets and would weigh something in excess of 100 pounds - not something you could lightly carry with you. Stark's armor is significantly stronger than steel and significantly lighter.

Then there are the batteries. Most of his power was supposed to come from the pods at his hips plus (indestructable?) solar cells in his armor. Batteries that size are more suitable for powering a laptop than a battle suit.

But that's comics. A large portion of disbelief is required.