It’s probably a testament to just how jaded I am that my first thought when watching The Polar Express was “actually, this animation isn’t half bad”. The Polar Express is notorious for being the start of Robert Zemeckis’ turn to the dark side, where one of the most respected directors of genre cinema became a professional corporate necromancer.
And The Polar Express was his first attempt at making an all CGI mocapped film and is infamous for being utterly, skin-crawlingly unsettling in its depiction of human characters. And yet, maybe it’s because I‘ve seen the absolute depths to which this accursed path would lead Zemeckis I found myself not minding the animation too much, for the most part at least. It just looks like a computer game cutscene. And, if I’m being scrupulously fair, there are even shots that I think are honest to God beautiful.
My, this review is trending rather positive isn’t it? I wonder if that will last.
Heavy Metal began in 1977 as an American translation of Metal Hurlant, a French science fiction fantasy magazine that featured seminal work by such legendary creators as Moebius, Enki Bilal and Jean Claude Forest and had a massive influence on the entire comic book medium because TITS.
Was there some genuinely thought provoking and visually spectacular sci-fi in its pages? Absolutely! Playboy also published plenty of great articles, what’s your point?
Heavy Metal, the 1981 anthology animated film that adapts many of the magazine’s most iconic stories, has tits. It has many tits. It has big tits and small…actually no, it only has big tits. In the ancient swamp of the pre-internet age, that really was enough. The marketing campaign could literally have been the words “CARTOON BOOBS, YA DIG?” plastered on every available surface and this movie would have been a success.
But for a jaded, modern reviewer who sees boobs once (maybe even twice) a month, it’ll take more than that. So, is there more to Heavy Metal than awesome bewbage? Let’s take a look.
Imagine you go to a Burger King and the guy at the counter serves you with a smile, promptly brings the food to your table, thanks you kindly for your custom and wishes you a good day. Someone, in short, who doesn’t have to put nearly this much effort into their job but does it anyway because, gosh darn it, if you’re going to do a job you might as well do it well.
That’s Nelvana. Nelvana is an extremely prolific Canadian animation studio who produced basically any cartoon you saw in the eighties or nineties that wasn’t made by Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation or Warner Bros. They’re probably most famous (if you’re my age, at least) for their many, many licensed animations for properties like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Pet Monster. Nelvana were front and centre in the saccharine, corporatised swamp that was the American TV animation scene in the Reagan era. Like many of their peers, Nelvana had to make ends meet in the burger joint by cranking out barely concealed animated toy commercials. Unlike many of their peers, Nelvana actually seemed to give a damn. Their shows were, broadly speaking, better than they needed to be and demonstrated real skill and craftsmanship in their animation. There were always hints that, if given time and a budget and a premise slightly less anodyne than “Will Grumpy Bear ever get that stick out of his ass?”, Nelvana had the talent to make something truly special. And, if ever there was a time to do it, it was the early eighties.
The late seventies/early eighties were the “Warring States” period of American Feature Animation. The senile old king, Disney, had fallen from his throne and seemingly every animator who could hold a pencil was scrambling for the crown. This was the heady time when Rankin Bass, Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth battled for control of the artform, right up until 1989 when the old king came back and was like “I’m feeling a lot better now everyone, thank you for your concern“.
But all that was in the future. Nelvana was formed in 1971 by Patrick Loubert, Clive Smith and Michael Hirsh with the stated intent of creating a Canadian Disney.
After several well received Christmas specials and animating literally the only part of the Star Wars Holiday Special that deserved to be spared the flame (the cartoon that introduced Boba Fett), the studio began work on their first feature length animation; Rock and Rule. It’s an obvious passion project, clearly made by a young team just bursting with talent and ambition and love for what they were doing. It’s also something that was very obviously begun without a complete script or even a set plot. It’s weird. It’s uneven. It’s a wild, uncontrolled shambling mess of eighties animation that failed when it was dumped into theatres with no marketing by a distributor that neither loved nor understood it. Which obviously means that it was made for me, Mouse, personally.
In a sparring programme, Captain Thadeus of the Zion hovercraft Osiris and his first mate (in more ways than one) Juen swordfight while blindfolded. This doesn’t, as you might expect, result in horrific injuries but instead with them just getting progressively more naked.
They’re interrupted when the Osiris comes across an army of half a million machine sentinels and a big fuck-off drill, burrowing into the Earth’s crust right over Zion, the last human city. Rushing to warn Zion, the Osiris flees the pursuing sentinels. Juen volunteers to enter the Matrix leave a message in a dropbox. The sentinels overpower the Osiris but Juen manages to relay the message before the ship is destroyed and she drops dead.
How was it?
Probaby the least “animé” of all the shorts, this one feels most of a piece with the original trilogy. Everything from the score to the colour scheme to the dialogue feels like it could just slot very neatly into the films. One thing I really admired about the Wachowskis was their commitment that everything mattered. There was no “expanded universe”, every part (whether film, short film or computer game) was equally canon. Sure, you don’t have to see Osiris to make sense of Matrix Reloaded but if you have seen it you’re never in any doubt that it happened in this universe. The events here are referenced and are always consistent with the rest of the franchise. I like that. The animation was some of the most jaw dropping CGI I had ever seen in 2003 and in 2022 it holds up amazingly well. Sure, the sword striptease might seem like shameless pandering (and it is) but it’s also a demonstration of technical power. The flesh of these characters moves realistically and organically, these bodies tense and flex and sweat organically. It’s mighty impressive today. Twenty years ago it was bloody witchcraft.
It’s light on story, lighter on dialogue and pretty insubstantial. But as a visually stunning, slick little thriller it gets the job done.
Well, okay, it’s not. But it used to be. In those weird few years surrounding the turn of the millennium the Matrix was an absolute phenomenon, genuinely one of the most influential movie franchises of all time. In fact, I’d argue that it was a victim of its own success. Its aesthetic was so instantly iconic and easily replicable that it quickly became cliché. Movies don’t look like the Matrix anymore because so many movies released around that time aped its look and suddenly it wasn’t cool anymore. And make no mistake, the Matrix was all about being cool. Less a story than a vibe.
No, that’s not fair. The Matrix’s intellectual depth may have been exaggerated but if you’d never heard of Descartes it could and did give an entry point into various philosophical ideas. Its language and concepts have filtered into our discourse (red pills, bread pills) and has gone on to inspire many a modern science fiction writer (DID I MENTION RECENTLY I WROTE A BOOK?). It’s a damn impressive legacy for a series that, if we’re brutally honest, consisted of one good (if by no means flawless) film, two mediocre sequels and a filmed cry for help.
Oh, and it also gave us the subject of this years Shortstember, the Animatrix. This is an anthology series that came about when the Wachowskis visited Japan to promote the first Matrix and visited some of the animé studios that had been such a huge influence on their work. They then commissioned those studios to create nine short films set in the world they had created, which were then released on DVD and on online to promote the second film, Matrix Reloaded. For something basically created as an advertisement for another movie, The Animatrix went on to become the most critically acclaimed part of this entire franchise with the exception of the original film.
So join me this Shortstember as we review the Animatrix. Which ones are good, which ones are bad, and which ones are like wiping your arse with silk.
I had a realisation when I heard that line. In the eighth episode of Wandavision, “Previously On”, Wanda Maximoff enters SWORD Headquarters to try and retrieve the body of her lover, the Vision. And something about how Elizabeth Olsen delivers that line. Some mixture of ragged sorrow, aggrieved entitlement and barely contained rage…like a soul that’s been crushed into diamond-hardness by life’s cruelties. It’s absolutely terrifying. And that’s when I realised that Elizabeth Olsen is the best actor in the MCU.
Now, a while back I said that I would be reviewing all of the Disney Plus Marvel shows as part of this series, but, in my defence, that was before I had seen most of them. In fact it was right around the time that Wandavision had me convinced that it was one of the most exciting, radical genre TV shows I’d seen in years. That’s…not how it turned out. The Wandavision finale wasn’t terrible, by any means, but for something that was shaping up to be the MCU’s answer to Twin Peaks to end in just another CGI blob fight in the sky…
Well, I wasn’t angry. But I was disappointed. And it turned out that Wandavision was the highpoint, so let’s just breeze quickly through the rest.
Not bad, really liked the John Walker arc, the Isiah Bradley stuff was cool but the villain was just nails-on-a-chalkboard and the two leads were the least compelling part. C+
Didn’t see it. I mean, I watched it but the whole thing was so underlit I don’t even know what happened. Picked up a bit towards the end with the Kang reveal but the writing needed to be a lot sharper for a show about the MCU’s wittiest character. C-
Damn, Marvel just does NOT like Star Lord, huh? This one’s hard to judge, any anthology show is going to have ups and downs. Overall, I think it balances out to be a B-.
Quit after episode 3. Automatic F.
Okay, a Hawkeye series is a tough lift. Fair enough. But how do you fuck up Moon Knight? I quit this twice. I tried to power through because I love the character but life is too damn short. Two Fs.
And I haven’t seen Ms Marvel or She Hulk yet.
So that’s us all caught up.
Multiverse of Madness is basically a thrown gauntlet to the audience. Prior to this, the TV corner of the MCU (whether that was on ABC, Netflix, Hulu or Disney +) was completely vestigial to the films. In fact, prior to Charlie Cox showing up as Matt Murdock in No Way Home, I can’t think of a single instance when the TV properties were even acknowledged in a main series movie (prove me wrong in the comments, folks). MoM though? If you are not at least fully caught up on Wandavision, Loki and What If?
Milligan: Ohhh yes! If we build this mountain on England, England would sink under the weight.
Seagoon: Sink? In that case, this mountain would be invaluable, people could climb up the side and save themselves from drowning!
Milligan: Mercy, you’re right. Hurry and build it, before we all drown!
The Goon Show: “The Greatest Mountain in the World” (1954)
Alright, let’s just dispense with the usual dancing around.
Encanto is great. It’s a great piece of animation. It’s an excellent musical and it’s without a doubt my favourite canon movie in a long-ass time. It’s walking out of here with a good grade, don’t nobody worry ’bout that.
I have to confess that what really fascinates me about Encanto is how it keeps making the most basic, obvious mistakes in screen-writing you can imagine (trying to build a mountain that will cause the country to sink), and instead of just fixing them in a sensible way (just not building the mountain) by doubling down and solving those problems in the most ridiculously over the top way possible (actually building the mountain). And it works.
The best example of this is the first song Welcome to the Family Madrigal.
There are twelve named speaking Madrigal characters, all with unique personalities, powers and familial relationships to keep track of. That is, quite frankly, bananas and any sensible screenwriter would have gone through the cast with a machete looking for who could be cut.
Way I see it, for this story you need Mirabelle, two older siblings to establish the pattern that Mirabelle broke by not getting a gift, and then a younger sibling to get a gift to show that Mirabelle really was a fluke. You need Abuela, obviously, Bruno and Julietta. Augustine doesn’t need to be there and Pepa’s entire family is extraneous. And yes, obviously, that would really suck to lose those characters but that would be the sensible choice. The sane choice. But that would not be the Encanto choice.
Encanto instead decides that it’s going to have an opening song flat out admitting “yes, our cast is far too big and complicated and our premise is weird and clunky so here is a song to help you remember”. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. But simply by dint that it is a phenomenal song it does. They built the goddamn mountain.
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.
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.