Humour

 “I don’t wear a cape.”

You know what? I confess. I phoned the New Mutants review in. I was feeling tired, uninspired and unenthused about the movie and in the end I just kinda bashed it out. Sorry. Sometimes I just don’t have anything particularly insightful or funny to say about a particular film. Maybe it’s because I’ve just come off anti-depressants. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I was just lazy. Whatever it was, I apologise. Now let’s draw a line under it and talk about something I’m actually passionate about…OH GAWD NO.

No. No! I don’t care about the Eternals and ya can’t make me dammit!

Ughhhhh…

Okay. Some of what I’m about to say may seem a little harsh so let me preface it with this:

Jack Kirby was one of the most influential comic creators in the history of the medium and a bona fide American hero to boot. He co-created Captain America and fought Nazis before America even entered World War 2. He combined a singular, iconic art-style with a rock solid work ethic and a fantastic imagination capable of coming up with far out, head-melting concepts.

BUT.

“Concepts” are not “plots”. They are not “characters”. And they are most certainly not “dialogue”. And I do not think its a coincidence that, whatever the ups and downs of their tempestous relationship, Kirby’s best work was done in collaboration with a certain somebody who excelled in those areas.

Or should I say “he excelsiored”?

There’s a saying that everyone has one good story in them, but for some people one is their lot and I’m afraid that, when it came to narrative, Jack was kind of a one trick pony. That trick, admittedly, was pretty neat; superheroes as gods. Six years before the appearance of Thor in Marvel, Kirby did his own take on the God of Thunder for DC in the anthology series Tales of the Unexpected before updating the Norse pantheon as the race of super advanced alien Asgardians for Marvel. He later co-created the Inhumans, a secretive race of superhumans who act like a pantheon of gods and were created as a result of “Chariots of the Gods” style interference by the alien Kree. After years of being slighted and disrespected by Marvel editorial, he jumped ship to DC where he created the Fourth World, a series about god-like superhero aliens. After that was cancelled, he returned to Marvel and created The Eternals, a series about gods from ancient mythology who are actually superhumans created as a result of “Chariots of the Gods” style interference by alien gods.

You see what I’m talking about? The dude kinda had a limited pool of ideas to draw on and I think that his solo work really demonstrates why he needed Stan Lee. On the other hand of course, Stan Lee’s catalogue shows that Stan Lee was an iconoclastic genius auteur who didn’t need help from anybody.

SARCASM. THAT WAS SARCASM. PITCH BLACK AND BITTER AS AN EXE’S KISS.

The big problem with the Eternals as a concept, the reason why they’ve never been a fan favourite and why Marvel has always struggled mightily with knowing what to do with them is this: the Marvel universe is so packed to the gills with Kirby’s influence (either from his own creations or those of creators building on his concepts) that the Eternals can’t but help feel utterly redundant. There is no Eternals story that can’t be told with the Inhumans, or the Avengers, or the Asgardians, or the X-Men or the Titans (Thanos’ crowd) because they all arose, directly or indirectly, from the febrile primordial soup of Kirby’s imagination. Which is probably why they have always been one of the few Marvel properties I just cannot bring myself to care about. Because whatever you think the Eternals bring to the table, chances are there’s another table serving the same thing only better. And, from a cursory glance, it appears that their fortunes did not improve with the move to the big screen. Its box-office performance was pretty good (especially considering the pandemic) but rather anemic for a Marvel movie with a $200 million price tage. And it has the ignominous distinction of being the first Marvel movie with a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Which means, of course, like the contrarian rodent I am, this particular Eternals-hater finds himself nonetheless liking this movie quite a bit.

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“They’re not training us to be X-Men.”

Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the Wolverine from snikting with a juicy bone. Clean away the electrified toads. Shutter the Department of Redundancy Department. Roll up the carpet under which we swept away the allegations against Bryan Singer. The X-Men are dead. Long live the X-Men.

And yet, in a very real way, we already have covered the final X-Men movie, as Dark Phoenix was actually filmed after New Mutants. New Mutants long stay in purgatory while Disney tried to figure out what exactly to do with this malformed creation that Fox had hurriedly thrust in their arms is now well known and need not be re-hashed here. Between the Fox/Disney merger and Covid has any movie had worse luck in terms of timing than New Mutants? Yes, almost certainly. But learning about them would take time and I’m feeling lazy today.

Anyway, like Dark Phoenix I’m feeling oddly charitable to New Mutants, maybe because of its rough upbringing, or maybe just because, deeply flawed though it is, it’s trying to do something that I’ve been saying superhero movies needed to do for years.

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“You’re always sorry, Charles. And there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.”

And so, after a long journey we finally reach the last main series instalment of the Fox X-Men films, a once proud dynasty now culminating in the flabby, five-chinned inbred monarch we see before us (in this analogy, New Mutants is the secret bastard child the king fathered on a tavern wench and then hid in a dungeon for three years).

And sure, the odds were against Dark Phoenix. It was released after the Disney/Fox merger all but assured that this series and its continuity would shortly be scrapped, giving the whole enterprise an inescapable stink of futility. It follows in the wake of Age of Apocalypse which was the cinematic equivalent of someone pissing up your nose for two hours. And it tries again to tell the story of the Dark Phoenix saga despite being written by the same dude who ballsed it up last time.

And yet…maybe it’s the contrarian in me. Maybe it’s the fact that the DVD yelped and recoiled in fear when I opened the case. Maybe it’s the fact that that the critical consensus on this film, that it’s the worst X-Men movie (it has less than half Apocalypse’s score on Rotten Tomatoes) is just flatly wrong.

Maybe it’s that I went in with expectations lower than a snake’s ballsack. But dammit, I kind of enjoyed Dark Phoenix. It’s bad, but it’s bad in weird and surprising ways and I never felt as horribly bored as I did with The Last Stand, Wolverine: Originto hell with it, I’m just going to say it. I would watch Dark Phoenix over any of the other bad X-Men movies. So there.

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“My son is… unique. That’s why you can’t relate to him. And because he is unique, the world will not tolerate his existence.”

Way back in 2016 I reviewed The Incredible Hulk and gave a pretty thorough overview of the character and his history. Obviously, there’s no point rehashing all of that again, so I’m just going to share this little tidbit I came across while researching this movie, because it’s the most perfect summation of the Ultimate Marvel universe I’ve ever seen.

Screenshot 2022-03-14 at 11.19.50

Wow. That’s mature AND realistic.

Most people familiar with the comic book movie genre are aware that, only a scant five years before the Ed Norton starring Incredible Hulk, there was another big-screen version, the Ang Lee directed and less-boastfully titled Hulk. What many may not remember (because unlike me they are not ancient, decrepit relicts dancing forlornly on the lip of the grave) was just how big a deal this movie originally was. Yeah, sure, now it’s this weird half-forgotten little afterthought, but back in 2003 this movie was supposed to change the game totally.
Picture the scene. It’s Summer 2003. America is settling into what will surely be a short and uneventful occupation of post-Saddam Iraq and the world is breathing a sigh of relief as Vladimir Putin ushers in safe and steady governance in Russia following the chaotic Yelstin years. And at the box-office, movies based on Marvel characters have finally broken their decades long curse and are seeing box-office success and even a measure of critical appreciation. But still just a measure. Comic book movies were still regarded largely as silly, disposable (if entertaining) mental popcorn. We had yet to see a movie that could truly capture the intellectual and emotional heft of the graphic novel medium at its best.

shaq

With a few notable exceptions.

Hulk was meant to change all that. In Ang Lee, it had the most critically acclaimed director ever to helm a movie in the genre. With the Hulk, it had a character that not only had mass name recognition (thanks to the seventies TV show) but had the potential to tell a more mature tale about rage, trauma and masculinity. And the early buzz and interviews made clear that this was exactly what Lee was aiming for. This was not going to be a dumb summer actioner. This was going to be a serious film, with serious themes. This was the film that was going to force the superhero movie to grow up. This was what would finally break the genre’s “cred-ceiling”. Did it succeed?

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“Is this what you wanted?”

NOTE: This review was written mostly before the stunning and unprecedented events in Ukraine. If you wish to donate to one of a number of vetted charities to help those suffering due to the criminal actions of the Putin regime, you can do so HERE.

Here’s a challenge for you. Try to find a book, article or blog post about the phenomenon of “Yellow Peril” that does not include a reference to Sax Rohmer’s fictional creation Doctor Fu Manchu.

One of the earliest fictional supervillains, Fu Manchu was a brilliant, devious Chinese scientist and master criminal who sought world domination and was basically the entire concept of the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man. And if you think I’m being unfair to Sax Rohmer, please be aware that the phrase “Yellow Peril incarnate in one man” is a direct quote describing Fu Manchu from the first novel he appears in. He is a hugely controversial creation, and no, not just in these more enlightened times. Fu Manchu has never been uncontroversial and every fresh wave of popularity for the character has prompted massive backlash and accusations of racism which are pretty damn hard to refute as, by his own admission, Rohmer basically just monetized anti-Asian xenophobia and based the character on Bayard Taylor’s notoriously racist descriptions of the Chinese.

But, here’s the thing…Fu Manchu also kinda rules? I mean, he is like Asian Dracula. He is badass. He is cool. He has menace and charisma to burn. He has a moustache named after him. He is a fantastic villain and pretty much codified the whole archetype of the brilliant, dastardly criminal mastermind, even more so than (I would argue) Professor Moriarty. And he has been incredibly influential in film too, having been played by such notable Asian actors as Christopher Lee, Boris Carloff and Nicholas Cage (oh shit, I think we took a wrong turn and ended back in Racism Town).

So on the one hand you have an extremely compelling villain with ninety years of rich history, but on the other hand you have the incredibly uncomfortable creation of the character. It’s a very thorny problem. How do you extricate Fu Manchu from Rohmer and Taylor? Could you do a non-racist Fu Manchu? Is it worth trying? Who would even want to take that on? And how would you go about it?

Well, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin took a crack at it in 1973.

Results were…mixed.

The comic that would eventually become Shang-Chi was initially pitched to DC as an adaptation of the hugely popular TV series Kung Fu starring noted Asian actor David Carradine. DC passed and Englehart and Starlin took the idea to Marvel who agreed to the basic premise of a kung fu themed comic with the following stipulations:

  1. That the main character be the son of Fu Manchu, who Marvel had just acquired the rights to.
  2. That the main character be half-white.

Why 2? Well, Marvel had recently tried to cash in on the blaxploitation craze with their character Luke Cage but had been burned when some Southern retailers had refused to display a comic with a black main character. By making Shang-Chi half white, they hoped to avoid a repeat. Which…how does that work exactly?

“Hello, my good sir! Would you be interested in stocking our new comic, “Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu” in your fine establishment?
“Whut? I ain’t stockin no rassin frassin comicky book with no Chinee!”
“Fret not, my fine racist, you see, Shang-Chi’s mother is white for he is the product of racial mixing.”
“Oh that’s fine, I’ll take your whole durn stock.”

Despite that deeply compromised beginning, Shang-Chi went on to become Marvel’s first Asian superstar character, carrying his own book for a very respectable 125 issues (which was only cancelled when Marvel declined to renew their rights to Fu Manchu). While he’s never recaptured the same prominence in the comics that he did during the Kung Fu craze of the seventies and eighties, he’s always been a well respected and popular mainstay of the Marvel universe. So when the time came for Disney/Marvel to turn their all-seeing rapacious eye to the martial arts genre, naturally they first thought of…

Ha ha, be honest. You’d totally forgotten, hadn’t you?

But when the time came for Disney/Marvel to make their second attempt at the martial arts genre, this time with an eye to Asian representation (and absolutely nothing to do with cracking the obscenely lucrative Chinese market they’re perennially eyeing like a dragon’s horde to the point that they will desecrate their own properties and literally collaborate with a genocidal regime just for a chance of making some cold hard yuan and I think need to wrangle this sentence back into shape) they chose Shang-Chi.

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“Everybody calm down. The X-Men are here. A dated metaphor for racism in the ’60s.”

Well damn, what do I do now?

By this point I have the formula for these X-Men review worked out like, well, a formula. A brief look at the history of the characters and storylines that inspired the movie in question, a few thousand words of recounting the plot with a couple of puerile gags masquerading as legitimate film criticism, wrap up, score, bing bang boom.

But goddamn, I do not want to talk about Cable and X Force.

Obligatory disclaimer: No bad characters. Only bad writers. Yes, there have been good Cable stories. Yes, I have enjoyed those stories.  Yadda yadda yadda.

But ultimately Cable is not so much a character as an icon. You know, like a bio-hazard sign. He’s the perfect poster child for everything that was just plain bad about the X-Men universe specifically and comics more broadly in the nineties. Masculinity exaggerated and distorted to the point of unwitting caricature. A backstory as incoherent as it is overly complicated. An emphasis on violence and “ends justifies the means” morality that walks riiiight up to the line of outright fascism. Guns, guns, guns. Pouches pouches pouches. Hell, considering Cable’s central role in fuelling the Comics Speculator Bubble it’s fair to say that this character very nearly killed Marvel comics.

five million

Five. Million. Copies. Sold.

But okay, quick and dirty history of X-Force and Cable. By the early eighties, the X-Men comic book had gone from a weird little also-ran to a sales powerhouse under the creative direction of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. I’m actually currently in the middle of reading the entire X-Men run in order and, having gotten to this era I can confirm that, yeah, it absolutely lives up to its reputation. But by this point the X-Men had drifted pretty far from its original conception as a school for mutants. The main cast were almost entirely adults and, apart from the fact that they were mutants and therefore faced increased suspicion and prejudice from the normies, they were just a standard superhero team not much different from the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter ordered Claremont to create a new team of young mutants and he came up with the New Mutants. Story goes, Professor Xavier is in mourning for the death of the X-Men (don’t worry, didn’t take) and gets guilted by his ex into recruiting a new team of teenage mutants. The New Mutants was a moody, introspective little book with a cast of emotionally damaged teens learning to cope with depression, trauma and isolation. And then Rob Liefeld took it over and turned it into X-Force, a book about a rip-off Terminator trying to prevent the future by shooting it in the face

terminator

Cyborg with glowing eye travels back in time to prevent a bad future. I feel like this doesn’t get talked about enough.

So when in the stinger of Deadpool where Deadpool’s all “Guess what, CABLE’s going to be in the next one!”? Personally, my reaction was:

[Comm] Unshavedmouse alt

“Are you threatening me, sir?”

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Metropolis (2001)

My oh my. A year goes by so fast, doesn’t it?

Why, it was only last January that I was telling you all how there was a new Covid Variant which was causing our local school and créche to close, meaning I had to mind the kids all day, which meant I was getting absolutely no writing done. And now, look how far we’ve come!

The FUCKING variant has a FUCKING different NAME.

OH BRAVE NEW WORLD.

“Eh Mouse? Your eye is doing that twitch again.”
“Yeah. I twitch now. Deal with it.”

Anyway. Yeah. Shorter review than usual. Not my fault. I wish this virus was a person so I could punch it in the dick, yadda yadda yadda.

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Balto (1995)

Back in my review for Roller Coaster Rabbit I called Steven Spielberg the “Forrest Gump of American Animation”. Pick any seminal development in the history of the medium over the past forty years or so and chances are Spielberg is involved somehow, showing LBJ his ass. But the problem with history is that a lot of it is really, really, really sad and few things ring a tear from my dusty old eye ducts like the collapse of traditional hand-drawn animation in the face of CGI like a proud old Mesomamerican Empire succumbing to hordes of plastic-faced, eyebrow-raised, pop culture spouting Spaniards. Perhaps the earliest death-knell of the hand-drawn animated feature was heard all the way back in 1995, ostensibly when the Disney Renaissance was still going strong. Balto, the third and (as it would prove to be) final film produced by Spielberg’s Amblimation studio was one of the biggest box office flops of the year, tanking so hard that Amblimation closed as an animation studio and now lives in quiet seclusion as a Self-Storage company based in Acton. Because, well, let’s just say 1995 was a bad year to be competing in the market of feature length animation.

You will know them by the trail of dead in their wake.

This was the first of many high profile examples of hand-drawn animation competing and failing against CGI movies which ultimately led to the near extinction of traditional hand-drawn feature animation, at least in America. But I think Balto’s failure can’t just be attributed to its unfortunate status as the first notch in CGI’s gun barrel. For starters, I know for a fact that I actively avoided this film. See, from the moment The Little Mermaid lit the touch paper, every studio in Hollywood had been trying to cash in on Disney’s success with their own Disney-esque movies. And I steered clear of them because Disney inculcates brand loyalty like a psychotic mother stroking her child’s hair and whispering “no one shall ever love you as I do, little one, least of all whatever whore you end up marrying”. In my defence though, most of the wannabe Disneys were god-awful and the more “Disney-like” they tried to be, the worse they tended to turn out. And Balto, even from a cursory look at the poster, wants to be Disney so, so hard it’s honestly a little sad. So I think that many people, like myself, had learned to distrust non-Disney movies that were clearly trying to be Disney movies. For as wise Mr Beaver once said: “if you meet anything that’s going to be Disney but isn’t yet, or used to be Disney once and isn’t now, or ought to be Disney but isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and get ready to leave a bad review on Rotten Tomatoes”.

As unexpected as the movie’s initial failure was its equally remarkable afterlife. Its home video sales were robust enough to spawn two sequels, meaning that there was definitely an audience for this film, just not one willing to go out in public to watch it. Which I find inexplicable.

“Oh Mouse. Sweet, innocent Mouse.”
“Ah. The furries. Got it.”
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“Sever the nerve.”

Paws in the air, the real reason why I delayed reviewing this movie was that I honestly can’t remember a review I’ve had less appetite to write.

I re-watched Black Widow for this review only a few days ago, and yet whenever I try to remember anything about it I get the mental equivalent of this:

And it’s not like it’s a bad movie! It’s not like it’s an anything movie frankly. It’s just…a movie. It’s a glass of cinematic water. Absolutely flavourless. It’s…I what am I even talking about again?

Oh right. Sorry, I keep forgetting.

My point is, I can write about good movies and I can write about bad movies but bland, perfectly acceptable movies are my kryptonite and I literally cannot remember a film that left me so utterly emotionally unmoved, in either a positive or negative sense, as this. So I probably am not going to break any word count records for this review. Hey, maybe a brief comics history of the titles character will help pad this thrill ride out? Worked before.

So like pretty much every interesting female superhero created during the Golden or early Silver ages, Natalia Alianovna “Natasha” Romanova was introduced as a villain. She first appeared in 1964 in the pages of Tales of Suspense as a Soviet spy tasked with bringing down Tony Stark, embodying his two greatest weaknesses: beautiful women and Communism. In her early days she was less an ass-kicking super-spy and more a seductress, using her wiles to get any man she wanted to carry out her sinister schemes. And with a whole pantheon of super powered beings to choose from she used this power to ensnare…um…Hawkeye?

Won’t know. Won’t care.

By the end of the sixties she’d defected to America and become a superhero and proceeded to spend the next fifty years bouncing around the Marvel Universe. Never an A-tier character, she nonetheless maintained a fairly high profile and you could usually count on her being in someone’s book. Natasha as a character is something of a renaissance woman. She’s an Avenger. She’s a SHIELD agent. She’s Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend. She’s a superhero. She’s a morally dubious black ops assassin. She’s friends with Spider-man, Wolverine, Hercules…basically she’s the Kevin Bacon of the Marvel universe. If a given hero doesn’t know her, they know someone who knows her. And then something strange happened. In 2012, The Avengers was released and Black Widow, by dint of various factors like Marvel not owning the movie rights to some of their own most high profile female characters (like Sue Storm and regular Storm), won the position of Token Female Avenger almost by default. And suddenly, Black Widow was the most high profile female superhero in the world complete with lunchboxes, action figures (fucking eventually) and kids’ Halloween costumes. And…that’s kinda weird, right? That’s like if the most famous male superhero in the world was Punisher instead of Superman. Weird though it was, it didn’t last long. While there was a clamour for a Black Widow movie almost as soon as she appeared in Iron Man 2, work couldn’t begin until Ike Perlmutter was prized from Marvel’s hide with a set of tweezers. And by then, well, the moment had passed. It’s not 2010 anymore. We have had female superhero movies. We have had BIG female superhero movies. We have had superhero movies with female directors. Black Widow’s biggest claim to historical significance is that it is the first ever mainstream, big-budget Hollywood summer movie with Jewish women as its star and producer, director, and supporting actress and frankly that feels a bit strained (which is in no way intended to dismiss the oppression of three-person creative teams of Jewish women in the film industry and the incredibly specific hurdles they have had to overcome). And, as a trailblazer myself (what with being the first Greek-Cypriot Irish bisexual science fiction author), I think that’s great! It’s great that simply being a female led superhero movie is not enough any more to be considered a big deal. It’s great that the movie wasn’t burdened with the same expectations that Wonder Woman faced with being the first female superhero movie…

…whose existence decent God-fearing people will acknowledge. It’s good that it has a reason to exist other than being THE FEMALE SUPERHERO MOVIE.

Doesn’t it?

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Bats Versus Bolts: Marvel Animé

I know, I know, I know I said I’d do Black Widow. But that was before I realised a couple of very important things:

  1. Not doing a horror themed post on Halloween is super lame.
  2. In the 1980s Toei animation did two animé movies based on Marvel’s versions of Dracula and Frankenstein.
  3. One of these movies is regarded as one of the worst animé ever made, which, as you can imagine, is a title with competition that is not merely “stiff” but positively turgid.
  4. Both of these movies are just sitting on YouTube, misshapen shambling things made and then abandoned by their creators to the cruelties of an uncaring world like…someone…I can’t think of a good analogy right now.

I mean c’mon! A crappy animated Marvel Bats versus Bolts on Halloween? How could I not?! I was BORN for this post. Seriously, this is what it’s all been leading to. My magnum opus. My masterpiece.

Our story begins in the late seventies when Toei Animation acquired the rights to the Marvel comics horror series Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell buys the rights to a property based on Dracula or Frankenstein? That’s like paying for a Pornhub Account. They’re public domain for chrissakes! Why not just do your own version of the characters? Well, friends, you’re missing a crucial piece of relevant context, namely that Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein were the mutt’s nuts. TOD in particular was one of the very best comics produced by Marvel in the seventies, with one of the all time great portrayals of the Count in any medium. From this acquisition came today’s movies Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned and Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein. They are…my God. Words fail me…

These movies are special. They are dear to me. Come, come.

such-sights-to-show

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