humor

 “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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“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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“Go. Don’t be what they made you.”

It’s always tempting, when a creator reveals themselves to be a bit of a shit, to look back on their past work and say “ah, I never liked ’em anyway”. This was certainly the case with comic book creator Frank Miller, whose politics took a hard right turn after 9/11 resulting in such works as Holy Terror, initially intended as a Batman story for DC before they dropped it like a hot, extremely Islamaphobic potato. This in turn led to many comics fans deciding that Miller had never been that good or important a comics creator to begin with. And, frankly, that’s not entirely unwarranted. Dodgy politics aside, a lot of Miller’s back catalogue simply hasn’t aged that well. There were always dodgy undercurrents of racism and misogyny in Miller’s work (he wrote origin stories for Batman and Daredevil that both had scenes of the protagonist fighting prostitutes), and knowing the path he went down makes those elements a lot harder to overlook now. Also, whereas Alan Moore (Miller’s contemporary and the creator he is probably most often compared to) brought a real intellectual and emotional richness to the comics genre, Miller’s most successful works were often empty showcases of style over substance. Sin City and 300 are visually striking as all hell. But ultimately, they’re hollow, emotionally stunted things. That said, there is at least one work that I will defend as still holding up (mostly).

dark knight

There are female characters in this that AREN’T prostitutes! I swear ta God.

The Dark Knight Returns depicts an aged and embittered Bruce Wayne, coming out of retirement to fight the sky-rocketing crime and urban malaise that was such a feature of Reagan’s America. As he becomes increasingly violent and unhinged in his methods, the US Government sends in the only man they think can stop him:

darkknight

What gives the story its power is the incredible weight of the history of these characters and an overwhelming, almost crushing sense of despair. This, Miller, seems to be saying, is how your heroes will always end; either bitter fanatics who were unable to change, or corrupted, toothless stooges who sold out to a corrupt status quo. This is how the World’s Finest Team ends, two old men beating each other to death in an alley way. And it’s depressing, and it’s cruel but it also feels true. And the inescapable knowledge that all those decades upon decades of stories and triumphs and battles of these, THE two greatest superheroes, that it was all leading to this awful, final confrontation? That’s when the story stops being merely tragic and becomes proper, classical, Tragedy. It’s Twilight of the Gods. It’s Ragnarok. It’s epic as fuck.

And that’s why Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice is fucking terrible.

batman-v-superman-batman

Sorry, that’s one of VERY MANY reasons why that movie is terrible but I will never, for the life of me, understand why no one twigged that a fight between Batman and Superman means nothing if they don’t even know each other. That’s what gave the final confrontation in DKR its power. The weight of history. The tragedy of watching two men who once loved each other as brothers reduced to this brutal slugfest. All that goes out the window if they’ve just fucking met.

Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe

“Uh Mouse, isn’t this supposed to be about Wolverine or something?”

I’m getting there. Okay, with DKR Frank Millar created (possibly?) and popularised (definitely) the stock superhero trope of the Last Story. The Last Story is a tale (almost always out of continuity), that shows you how a certain superhero ends. They are almost always set in a bleak future, and will usually depict the hero coming out of retirement for One Last Job. These stories often will try to serve as a capstone, and a summation of the meaning of that hero. When they work, they work because they are able to deliver the things that most superhero stories by their very nature can’t; climax. Conclusion. Finality. Stakes. Characters can finally die and be at peace without an inevitable resurrection on the horizon. Arcs can be concluded. The story can finally end (at least, in this one corner of continuity). Pretty much every major character you can think of by this point has had a Last Story; Superman, Spider-Man, Punisher and of course, Wolverine, who’s died more times than Kenny McCormack and so has had plenty of opportunity for “Last Stories”. One of these, Old Man Logan was a miniseries that released in 2009 and was written by Mark Millar.

frank miller

unlikely

This series sees an aged Wolverine having renounced violence and living in a dystopian future where the villains won and everything’s awful and the Hulk’s an incestous cannibal who fucked his own cousin and spawned a whole tribe of inbred hulk hillbillies and Jesus Christ we made Mark Millar one of the most successful comic writers of the aughts what the fuck were we thinking?

Anyway, apart from both featuring Old Men Named Logan there is actually very little connecting Old Man Logan and the movie that it nominally inspired (thank fuck). Logan arose out of a desire of Hugh Jackman and The Wolverine director James Mangold to do something radically different with the character and genre. That is, after all, the great strength of a Last Story. You get to take some risks.

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The Little Mermaid, The Series: Scuttle

Wha’ Happen’?

Oh Disney’s The Little Mermaid The Series, how could I ever have doubted ye? After the snore-fest of Metal Fish I was resigned to this retrospective ending in a disappointing (if thematically appropriate) damp squib. Oh Mouse of little faith. Strap in folks, we’re riding this train all the way to crazy town.

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The Little Mermaid, The Series: Metal Fish

Wha’ Happen’?

There’s an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth where Captain Edmund Blackadder is being courtmartialed for eating a carrier pigeon. He’s not worried, though, as he tells his jailer that he’s retained the services of Massingbird, the greatest lawyer of the age:

Jailer: I hear he’s a dab hand at the prosecution as well, sir.

Blackadder: Yes, well, look at Oscar Wilde.

Jailer: Ol’ butch Oscar.

Blackadder: Yep! Big, bearded, bonking, butch Oscar. The terror of the ladies. 114 illegitimate children, world heavyweight boxing champion and author of the best-selling pamphlet “Why I Like To Do It With Girls.” And Massingbird had him sent down for being a whoopsie.

That scene kept running through my mind as I watched Metal Fish with its depiction of Hans Christian Andersen as a flame haired, barrel-chested adventurer of the deepest depths of the sea and not, as he was in real life, a wee Danish pastry who spent much of his life in an undisclosed location hiding from his own erections. But I get ahead of myself.

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The Little Mermaid, the series: Wish Upon a Starfish

“Hey Mouse. I did you a solid with that Ursula episode, right? So how’s about you don’t rag on me quite so mercilessly from now on?”
“My my. Am I already at the part where I hallucinate that the series I’m reviewing is talking to me? How time flies.”
“C’mon Mouse. Isn’t there enough negativity in the world? Just give me a good review and I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Lie to my readers? Why that’s…I couldn’t possibly…NO! GET OUT! GET OUT OF HERE! LEAVE ME ALONE!”
“Suit yourself. It was only a suggestion.”

Wha’ Happen’?

Of all the nerve! I’m going to be absolutely brutal on this one. Wish Upon a Starfish begins with Sebastien looking for Ariel and telling her she’d better be studying for her “Crab Philosophy” test…okay, I already have a million and one questions here.

Ariel is receiving some kind of education? Sebastien is her tutor now (why am I not surprised)? But most importantly, which crab philosophers are on the curriculum? Crabistotle? Socrabstes? Crab Camus?

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk beside me because I walk sideways. Because I’m a crab.”

Anyway, Sebastien tells Ariel that there’s a storm going on overhead so she swims to the surface to see if she can get some of that sweet, sweet human swag. She finds a music box with a ballerina figurine (I would really have liked if this was the same music box we see in Part of Your World but alas) but Sebastien and Flounder yell at her to come back because the storm is dangerous. Somehow.

Oh no! They might…drown?

Well yes, actually. They get hit by a wave and we next see Ariel unconscious, washed up on a beach with Flounder beside her. And Flounder’s first words are “Ariel, are you okay?!”

Yeah dude. She is. Because she has LUNGS.

Like, sweet and all that he cares about her so much but sometimes it’s okay to prioritise your own needs, y’know?

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