In the season 6 Simpsons episode Lisa’s Wedding, we get a glimpse of the far-flung future of 2010. We see Lisa Simpson and her boyfriend Hugh exiting a film festival dedicated to Jim Carrey. “He can make you laugh with a mere flailing of his limbs” Lisa gushes wistfully.
From the perspective of 1995 the joke is simple enough; wouldn’t it be funny if low-brow, gurning over-actor Jim Carrey was one day revered as a Carey Grant-esque screen icon? Well, it’s a neat dozen years after the “future” the Simpsons predicted and, while I wouldn’t say he’s quite there yet, Jim Carrey is definitely a much more highly respected performer than when the Simpsons made their jab. Like the Simpsons, Jim Carrey is still around. Unlike the Simpsons, he’s still approaching everything with maximum enthusiasm and can still manage to be funny so I say, match point Carrey.
That’s a subjective view, obviously. Carrey is very much a marmite performer, you either love him or you hate him. Personally, I’m just the right age where Ace Ventura, Batman Forever and The Mask were childhood staples so yeah I dig the dude a lot. For me, he’s in that rarified “Jack Nicholson” category; there’s is no one else who can do what he does and he clearly has a ball doing it. But sure, he’s not everyone’s bag. Fans of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which, paws in the air, I have yet to read) seem deeply divided on Carrey’s portrayal of the villain Count Olaf, who is (apparently) a far less comedic and more monstrous individual in the books. Sucks to be them. I think this is his best work in anything not called The Truman Show. Look, casting Jim Carrey and expecting him not to be Jim Carrey is like hiring a bouncy castle and then just putting it your front garden for children to look at.
Going in, there were more red flags than a China versus Vietnam World Cup Final. A straight-to-DVD CGI movie I’d never heard of from a studio I’d never heard of helmed by one of the directors of Shark Tale? Yeah, let’s just say I went into this in full Anton Ego mode.
But I dug a little deeper and I started seeing a few green shoots of hope. For you see, director Bibo Bergeron (of, I believe, the Sackville Bergerons) is not just the co-director of Shark’s Tale. As an animator he worked on Fievel Goes West, A Goofy Movie and The Iron Giantwhich is a pretty damned impressive filmography before you even factor in that he co-directed The Road to El Dorado!
There has been a realisation slowly festering in my mind for a good few years now. A realisation whose inexorable truth forces me to re-evaluate core, deeply held beliefs and even my own sense of identity.
And it is this.
One More Day needed to happen.
That’s not to forgive how it happened. Or the rationale given for why it had to happen. Or the long series of mistakes that led to it. But I’ve gone from thinking that it was one of the worst stories in comics history, to a necessary piece of narrative table clearing (that was also just a fucking trainwreck as a comic).
Back when I was doing publicity for Sparrow I was asked who my One True Pairing was and I gave possibly the most vanilla, basic and boring answer possible.
But it’s true! This just works. And there’s so many reasons why. Firstly, you have the obvious chemistry of two very different characters clashing against each other. The quiet, soft-spoken farm boy and the brassy big-city journalist. But most importantly, I think, is the fact that Lois Lane is an integral part of Superman’s story engine rather than simply being vestigial to it. Lois, at least in most incarnations, is a whip-smart investigative reporter and former army brat. What this means in practical story terms is that she has a nose for trouble and the combat training to do something about it when she finds it. This was how the old Fleischer cartoons utilised her; having Lois uncover some nefarious threat which would then allow Superman to arrive and beat the snot out of it. These two aren’t just a great partnership textually, they are metatextually working together to create the story. Superman marrying Lois Lane in the comics was a perfectly logical step because, honestly, what can possibly be gained by having Superman playing the field? There’s only one gal for him. I know it, you know it. Now, let’s take a look at the antithesis of that.
Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me say this upfront. I LOVE Mary Jane Watson. I think she’s a fantastic character, especially considering she was initially created as a gag.
Mary Jane first “appeared” all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #15 when Aunt May mentions “that Watson girl” next door. This starts a running gag of Aunt May trying to fix Peter up with this girl and Peter weaselling out of it because he assumes that any girl his Aunt likes must be strictly squaresville, daddio.
This running gag lasted a full two years until issue 42 where Peter is finally strong-armed into going on a date with Mary-Jane and finally meets her face to face.
Iconic moment. Perfect. 10/10. No notes.
Famously, Mary Jane was such a force of personality that she took on a life of her own. She was initially just supposed to be a secondary love interest for Peter, a distraction from his One True Love, the sainted Gwen Stacy. But fans loved Mary Jane. Of course they did. How could you not? And so it was Gwen who went sightseeing with the Green Goblin, and Mary Jane became Peter’s girlfriend and finally, his wife.
And, on paper, Mary Jane is a lot like Lois Lane. Beautiful, tough, smart, sassy and doesn’t take any shit. But, y’see, Peter Parker has one thing in common with alt-rock singer Lazlo Bane: he’s no Superman. And, like in real life, some characters just aren’t cut out for marriage. And whereas the marriage of Superman and Lois has been one of the most enduring and stable elements of their status quo, the 1987 marriage of Peter and Mary Jane quickly came to be seen as a problem that needed to be worked around.
Peter Parker has always been a younger character than Clark Kent. Clark has a steady job in journalism (stop snickering in the back), Peter lives pay-check to pay-check doing freelance work. Clark is practically invulnerable, Peter is one bullet away from an early grave. Clark Kent is mature, stable, happy and living his best life. Peter is young, insecure and perpetually on the verge of psychological, emotional or financial collapse. Clark Kent is Superman because he’s a good man who wants to help people. Peter Parker is Spider-Man because he is a child broken by guilt. One of these guys is marriage material. One isn’t.
And so the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson became a joyless death march where we got to watch a once vivacious and fun loving woman ground down by the debts of being the wife of Peter Parker. Again and again, she’d try to convince him to give up being Spider-Man and he would, only for the narrative gods to call him back to the webbing because, well, he can’t stop being Spider-Man. By contrast, I can’t remember any time in any media where Lois Lane asked Clark when he’s going to pack this Superman nonsense in. Because why would she? She loves Superman.
Multiple attempts were made to dig Spider-Man and MJ out of this narrative hole. Hell, the entire reason for the two-year long travesty that was the Clone Saga was to get Peter and MJ to a happy ending so that Ben Reilly could take over as a new, single Spider-Man. But nothing worked. The obvious solution, for them simply to divorce, was dismissed as Joe Quesada didn’t want Peter to do something so immoral as getting a divorce (remember that). While I don’t agree with that rationale, I do think having them divorce would have created problems. Spider-Man works best as a young character, that’s the whole reason teens flocked to him in the sixties, and having him divorced permanently ages him and makes him less relatable to your target audience. Not many guys in their early twenties worrying about alimony payments, y’know? So the situation festered until 2007 when Marvel finally decided to cut this Gordian knot with One More Day. If, when cutting the Gordian Knot, Alexander the Great had accidentally killed several bystanders and then stabbed himself in the dick.
I’ll try to keep this brief. During the Civil War storyline Peter Parker made the world class blunder of trusting Tony Stark and unmasked himself to the world as a way of showing his support for the Superhuman Registration Act. But when Peter realises that Tony’s perfectly reasonable agenda of government oversight and accountability for superheroes had started taking its cues from Stalinist Russia he switches sides and becomes an illegal hero. So now Peter, Mary Jane and Aunt May are on the run and every supervillain in the world knows he’s Spider-Man. Aunt May gets shot and is dying and Peter, despite knowing genius scientists, world-class doctors and ACTUAL GODDAMN WIZARDS is unable to find anyone who can treat a perfectly normal gunshot wound. At which point Mephisto, THE LITERAL GOD OF EVIL, approaches Peter and makes him an offer; he’ll save Aunt May in exchange for erasing Peter and MJ’s marriage out of existence.
People were PAID to write this. Actual professional writers.
What makes it worse is that even IF you were dead-set on such a contrived, obvious writer-fiat way of resolving the problem, there were ways to make it better. Linkara had a great suggestion; have Mary-Jane be the one who gets shot and then have Peter have to sacrifice their marriage to save her. Then, at least, it becomes something epic and tragic and genuinely noble, rather than Peter sacrificing his vows to his wife to save Aunt May, a woman who explicitly told him that he should let her go so she could be with her beloved husband in heaven just because he can’t let go.
So other than the terrible contrived writing, the massive character derailment and the huge implied insult to the audience’s intelligence, how was the comic, Mrs Lincoln?
Well…like I said, ghastly business though it was, One More Day was ultimately a success in that it did what it was designed to do. Peter Parker went back to being a young single superhero and the Spider books underwent something of a renaissance during the Brand New Day era. But, my God, it came at a price. And ultimately, I think that’s why we hate One More Day so much. It was the hero we needed, not the one we deserved. Also, really weird pick to base a movie on.
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!
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Apocalypsewhich 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: Origin…to 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.
The video game adaptation has proven a particularly alluring siren for Hollywood over the years. The medium is stacked to the gills with beloved, household name properties with huge fanbases of teens absolutely filthy with disposable income. But, like any siren, it’s probably best to assume that the relationship is not going to end well and skedaddle before you run aground on the jagged rocks of box office disaster. Oh yes, traveler, many studios have tried for the successful video game adatation.
So what’s the problem? Why can we adapt frickin’ LORD OF THE RINGS successfully but not Super Mario Brothers? Well, because your typical video game adaptation is working towards two mutually exclusive goals. On the one had, and apologies for this harsh and mind-blowing truth I’m about to drop on your poor innocent sensibilities, but studios don’t greenlit video game adaptations because the muse demands that they bring Dead Or Alive: Beach Volleyball to the big screen so that the story can be truly appreciated as God intended. They don’t care about the material, they just know these games have large fanbases, and they want those fans to buy tickets in droves. But those fans will rebel and stay away if the studios change too much about the source material. And here’s the big problem: 99% of the time, if you don’t change the source material, you’re not getting a good movie.
That’s because video game plots are like dreams. They’re wonderfully exciting and immersive when you are the one experiencing them, but to an onlooker (or anyone you describe the dream to) it’s alienating and deeply dull. And that’s because people play games and watch movies for very different reasons.*
For example, right now I’m playing Darkest Dungeon. Again. After a month since my last playthrough where I probably sunk the guts of fifty hours. I am rather partial to that game like methheads are rather partial to meth. The premise is, you arrive in a dilapidated hamlet cursed with ancient evil and have to lead waves and waves of heroes into the titular dungeon to finally defeat the Lovecraftian horror that dwells below. And your heroes die. A lot. They get sick, they go mad, they get murdered in countless unspeakable ways. It’s a gruelling, grinding quest where you face constant failure. But every so often, you defeat a significant monster or earn enough to upgrade one of your buildings and it all becomes worth it. The grind and the tedium are what make it satisfying because you, personally, are achieving something. But, much as I love Darkest Dungeon, if I hear that anyone is trying to make a movie of it I will frame that person for murder because that is a terrible, awful idea and would make a terrible, awful movie.
So it’s not simply that video game adaptations are being handed off to talentless hacks. I mean, obviously, that does happen (see everything Uwe Boll has ever done or touched). But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated there are real structural reasons why video game adaptations almost never work.
So, how the hell did Detective Pikachu pull it off? Well, it probably helps to have all the money in the world.
Way back in 2016 I reviewed The Incredible Hulkand 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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
That the main character be the son of Fu Manchu, who Marvel had just acquired the rights to.
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?
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…
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.
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. 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
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 Deadpoolwhere Deadpool’s all “Guess what, CABLE’s going to be in the next one!”? Personally, my reaction was: