Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Both Grunting": A Detailed Look at "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

In preparation for my viewing of Justice League, I decided to revisit Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I've been dithering with this post on and off for a month, and while I don't think it's gotten any shorter, at least I feel like it says all I'm going to need to say on the subject. Also, I added some pictures.

Anyway, you may recall that I did not care for the movie the first time around. I'm approaching this like I did with my Man of Steel rewatch that I did in preparation for that viewing: trying to focus on the positive, to find the movie that I've seen fans posting gifs of on Tumblr for a year and a half. To that end, I'm watching the Ultimate Edition, which I've heard is better than the theatrical cut.

Without further ado...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Justice is Done

I saw "Justice League" last night, was fine. 

Spoilers ahead.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It Disappoints

My experience with "It" has been a bit of a roller coaster. My dad's a big Stephen King fan, and I know the book was around the house when I was a kid, but I didn't see the TV miniseries until sometime in the last couple of years (and perhaps consequently, never had a fear of clowns). I only started digging into King's novels with 'Salem's Lot a year or two ago, so my knowledge of the story was limited to that miniseries and a lot of jokes about a child orgy scene.

So I went into the audiobook expecting that I wouldn't really like it, and I was pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile, I went into the new film with high hopes and high expectations—a far cry from where I was a week or two before. I mentioned on Twitter that I thought the new version of Pennywise fell into the same trap that so much modern horror falls into, making every monster scary in and of itself, rather than having the horror come from placing this common thing in a scary context. In short, it looked a bit like Rob Zombie's Pennywise, and I thought that was an emblematic error.

But reviews have been largely positive, and from people I generally respect with regard to horror movies, so I figured I was wrong. I went into "It" expecting to be wowed.

I wasn't. Or, well, I guess I was, but only at the breadth and depth of wasted opportunities.

Spoilers ahead for "It" (2017), and "It" (1990) and It (1986), I suppose, as well.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ender Bender 13: Chapter 8, "Rat" (Part 4)

Three years later and I'm still in "Rat."

As you might have noticed, I gave up on Ender's Game some time ago. But all the talk about Ready Player One and the terrible excerpts from it brought to mind Card's overrated masterwork. So I went back and re-read the posts I wrote, then re-read the book up to where I stopped, and while I think there were a couple of places where I was unfair, I think I stand by my thoughts. This book is Not Good, but I feel compelled to follow it through to the end. At least for now.

So I sat down to write the next post in the series, having finished Chapter 8, but apparently I started writing this post sometime between the last post and now. So what you're about to read is a collaboration between myself and a past version of myself, the sweet summer child who didn't know what horrors would be wrought by the years 2016 and 2017. Enjoy!

Fun fact: this book has fifteen chapters. I guess that makes this a little over halfway, right? That's something.

So Ender and his dwindling group of friends practice, and again their practice is attended by older boys from other armies. Instead of cataloging who's present, they shout abuse, which begins to wear on the launchies.

"Listen to them," Ender said to the other boys. "Remember the words. If you ever want to make your enemy crazy, shout that kind of stuff at them. It makes them do dumb things, to be mad. But we don't get mad."

It's pretty good advice as long as your enemies are young children who speak the same language as you. But we're in a space station full of young children who are mandated by law to speak the same language, so no problem, right? It's not like there's some inhuman alien menace that these kids might someday try to cow into submission by shouting playground taunts at or anything.

Shen gets the younger kids reciting the insults like mantras, which naturally upsets the older boys, who jump in for a real fight. Some of the kids are frozen and can't fight back, but that doesn't mean they can't be useful!
Ender and Alai decided to throw a frozen soldier in the face of an enemy. The frozen Launchy struck helmet first, and the two caromed off each other.
I had to look up "caromed" to make sure it wasn't a typo, and based on the definition I found, it still might be. Looks like Card consulted a thesaurus rather than a dictionary for that one, or maybe got a kickback from one of those SAT vocabulary book publishers. Anyway, glad that frozen kid was wearing his helmet, hope it's well-cushioned!

Naturally, this escalates the battle. But even though the other boys are older and more experienced, they don't know how to work together like Ender's ragtag group under his expert command. They position themselves to maneuver around the older kids, who have blundered out into the middle of the arena where they have no cover and no ability to move under their own power, which says wonderful things about the quality of training at this facility, doesn't it? You know, the advanced future military training at the elite military training center that Card has presented as training soldiers better than modern militaries with their useless marches and drills and learning not to get caught out in the open and surrounded?

Ender goes for the sacrificial move, heading toward the frozen kid he'd just used as a weapon, who was no longer frozen. This moment makes it fairly clear how little we've been told about how this whole "freezing" mechanic works; I understand not wanting tedious technobabble infodumps, but there's a middle ground between that and "looking like you're making up the rules as you go along." Some authors can pull that off well, but so far Card is not one of them.

As the enemies come after Ender, he notices that Stilson is with them. Stilson, you may recall, is the bully that Ender beat to a pulp back at the beginning of the book. Ender then, immediately, notices that Stilson isn't with them.

Yeah, I don't know either. Like, there's no edit here, no ellipsis:
Ender was startled to see Stilson's face among them. Then he shuddered and realized he had been wrong.
The sentence adds nothing to the moment; the next bit is Ender realizing that this is just like the situation with Stilson, then outlining details of the situation (there's no leader, these boys are much larger, they're in zero-g) that are totally different from the fight with Stilson.

It would be one thing if Stilson were actually there, brought up by the same administrators who want to put Ender through all sorts of hell to make him a better soldier. It would be another thing if Ender had a flashback, or just noticed the similarities, but its portrayal here, with our omniscient narrator saying that Ender saw a thing, then that he didn't, feels like cheap manipulation or bad writing or both. It's the Goosebumps chapter ending scare that I brought up in a previous one of these posts, but without the page turn to make it effective.

One of the boys catches Ender, who kicks at him hard enough to tear his ear. This, of course, causes Ender to go full-on Buster Bluth for causing other people pain.
Then he breaks the kid's nose by headbutting him.

Ender naturally beats all of the older kids, winning him the admiration of the other launchies, who praise him with their awful, at-least-a-little-racist slang. Also, one of the older kids was Bonzo, Ender's old commander who had hit him a couple of times already, which I guess wasn't relevant before or during the fight.

Later that night, Ender checks on his assailants, finding that their injuries have been chalked up as accidents, meaning nobody will get punished for the skirmish. Then he plays the fantasy game on his computer, where it shows him a picture of his brother in a mirror. I'm pretty sure this means that Orson Scott Card invented Creepypasta.

Ender learns that other commanders approve of his practice sessions and send some older kids down to join them, and act as muscle against the bigger kids. He can't get the game out of his head, though, and wonders what the military wants from him. Also, for a paragraph here at the end, it lapses into first-person narration for no discernible reason.

So, that's the end of "Rat," but I wanted to bring up a couple of things I noticed on this read-through that I missed before. First, when Ender's hearing Dink's conspiracy theory about the Buggers, Ender says "I'm not like my father," interrupting Dink in what seems like a meaningful way. And maybe it would be, except we don't actually know what Ender's father is like. We know that his father is a Polish Catholic who distanced himself from the religion but practiced in secret, like Ender's mother, and that's about it. This feels like it's meant to be a significant line, an important thing to say, but it tells us nothing because it's a comparison to an unknown quantity.

Also in this conversation, Dink says "Your grandparents weren't born yet when Mazer Rackham wiped [the Buggers] out." Which means that the big war was several generations ago. All that would be fine and great, except for that bit where Ender said his "great great grandpa would have sold" Alai's grandfather. Did...did slavery make a comeback? Are Alai and Ender meant to be incredibly advanced, highly precocious children except when it comes to the perception of the passage of time and how many generations it's been since Emancipation?

Or was Card just working out his best comeback for someone trying to tell him he said a racist thing?

Saturday, April 08, 2017


Seems like just yesterday that I was dusting the blog machine off to say farewell to one of my favorite long-running comics (and other stuff) blogs, Dave Ex Machina, and remarking how a lot of the bloggers from those old days left for bigger outlets. In reality, it was just over a year ago, and that post is still on the front page, if that gives you any indication about where I'm at with comics blogging.

One of those bigger outlets was Comics Alliance, where you could find Chris Sims, David Brothers, and David Wolkin, some of the comics blogging voices I most enjoyed following. Through CA, I discovered Chris Haley and Curt Franklin, I enjoyed thoughtful pieces by Matt Wilson and Ziah Grace and Kate Leth and Caleb Goellner and Andy Khouri and Joe Hughes and J. Caleb Mozzocco and David Uzumeri and Jennifer de Guzman and Dylan Todd and James Leask and Betty Felon and Luke Brown and Janelle Asselin and Andrew Wheeler and Katie Schenkel and Kieran Shiach and Elle Collins and pal Charlotte Finn and goddamn legend Laura Hudson and probably a dozen others I'm forgetting. It's the only comics website I have linked in my browser toolbar, and I still click it like four times a day without thinking about it.

Comics Alliance was different in a familiar way. The main page of Comics Alliance never read the way that the main pages of Newsarama or CBR do. It felt like a blog, with regular long-form posts on interesting and important subjects, alongside long-running features by creative bloggers with distinctive voices. Where other comics news outlets were shuttering blogs and shifting hard into news content, Comics Alliance went the other way, even covering news with biting commentary. It was this incredible Voltron of the things and people I loved about old-school comics blogging all in one place.

More than that, Comics Alliance cared. It cared about the people making comics, it cared about the people going to conventions and comic shops, it cared about the people reading comics, it cared about what stories mean, who characters are, why representation matters, and it made you care about those things too. CA drew a lot of flak from the worst parts of the Internet for being unrepentant social justice warriors and wading into politics. I spent some time on the old Wayback Machine to get the image up above, wanting to get back to the earliest page of Comics Alliance as I knew it. I didn't succeed, but along the way I saw articles about superheroes and sexuality, articles about the culture of comic shops, and articles about Chip Zdarsky. That makes for a pretty consistent eight years of blogging.

The people who made up Comics Alliance aren't gone, and many of the ones I mentioned have transferred to other projects already. It's a damn shame that talented, good-hearted people lost a source of income, and it's a damn shame that comics media lost a major source of thoughtful, socially-minded commentary. There are other outlets with similar worldviews, but nothing quite fills the niche that Comics Alliance filled. I'm going to miss that, but it's the little things I'll miss the most.

I'll miss David Uzumeri's Morrison annotations, even if it's been awhile since he did them. I'll miss Chris Sims's "Hedging Your Bets" and "Ask Chris," which I looked forward to every week. I'll miss Elle Collins's "Cast Party," which was always fun and thoughtful. I'll miss Collins and Katie Schenkel's "Together Breakfast" Steven Universe recaps, which I always went to right after catching an episode. I'll miss Charlotte Finn's "Lost in Transition," which didn't get a chance for enough entries. I'll miss Kieran Shiach's "This Magazine Kills Fascists," which was so important for the current political climate. I'll miss all the articles I was holding out on—the TV show recaps for series I haven't caught up on, like Riverdale and Supergirl, Charlotte's Transmetropolitan series and Sims's old Transformers series, which I haven't managed to read yet. I hope some of these series manage to continue in one place or another.

I don't know how to end this. I've realized recently that I'm not good with things ending. I've been reading the same comics and books, watching the same TV shows, playing with the same toys, since I was a kid. Those were the constants throughout my life. I moved around a lot as a kid, and I realized recently that the things that ended for me most commonly were friendships. I don't know if that's why I can't finish things or get hit so hard by things ending. But the end of Comics Alliance feels kind of like that. Like I've lost a friend. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Leaping Back In

The subject of a hypothetical Quantum Leap reboot came up on Twitter, and my ideas didn't fit well into 140 characters. Quantum Leap is one of a handful of shows and concepts that I think would work particularly well reimagined for a modern age, but revival attempts never seem to move past the rumor stage. So, here's my idea for the pilot and premise.
It has been 20 years since Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. Project Quantum Leap lost contact with Dr. Beckett only five years later, and he has not been seen since. The timeline monitoring systems note that changes keep occurring, though it is unclear which changes are the result of Dr. Beckett's actions, and which are from outside influences. Unfortunately, the regressive changes threaten to erase Project Quantum Leap from the timeline, and the resulting paradox could rip the entire timeline apart. The project's only hope is to re-establish contact with Dr. Beckett and bring him home.

Enter Thomas Albert Beckett, Sam's 21-year-old son. Tom's feelings about his father are complicated, but his genetic similarity makes him the only person who might be able to track Sam's travels through time. He steps into the Quantum Leap accelerator...and vanishes.

He awakes to find himself in the past, facing a mirror image startlingly similar to his own. He's leapt into his own 19-year-old father, in 1972, on the eve of his piano concert at Carnegie Hall. Except Tom doesn't know how to play the piano, and he finds himself trying to help a young musician on the verge of giving up on her career. Oh, and he's caught in the crosshairs of an assassin from the future! His holographic guides on this journey are his "cousin" Capt. Georgia Calavicci and his genius half-sister, Dr. Samantha Jo Fuller.

If he succeeds, Tom will find himself leaping from life to life, driven as his father was to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each leap brings him closer to finding his father and setting the timeline right once and for all.
The pilot sets up our ensemble cast, with Tom Beckett as the young leaper, often out of his depth in ways that his father wasn't. He's clever, but he gets by more on charm and quick thinking than brains and multiple Ph.D.s. Georgia and Sammy-Jo trade off duties as the "Al" character, allowing for different interactions and more complex relationships between the protagonist and his partners. Georgia would be somewhat older, with her father's lusty streak, while Sammy-Jo is more like Sam was, and really should have been the Leaper. Throwing in a longer-term conspiracy angle that could loop in the Evil Leapers from the last season of the classic series, or more generally, other groups of time travelers with other agendas, allows for the kinds of arc-storytelling that modern sci-fi dramas typically require.

In terms of mechanics, the show would follow the same basic restriction to traveling between 1953 and the present day (which works for a variety of storytelling reasons) and the same basic format of exploring difficult times through the eyes of everyday people (rather than celebrities and world leaders). The old series did a good job for the late '80s of tackling difficult issues, and it'd be nice to do the same with the greater degree of empathy and nuance afforded us by 25 years of progress. Honestly, I think a show about how the past wasn't utopian and how to empathize with different people is kind of what we need right now.

To peel back the curtain here a bit, I started writing this post some months ago, and in the interim the first half of the first season of Timeless aired. It's not exactly Quantum Leap, but it has a lot of the things I liked about that series, and a lot of the things I'd expect to see in a new Quantum Leap reboot. Check it out!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reinventing the Steel

"Superman's getting a new costume" is the new "Superman's getting a rebooted origin." Since the 2011 New 52 reboot, Superman has gone through five costumes, not counting those worn by Earth-2 Supermen or post-Crisis Superman before he assumed the mantle of Superman Prime. Also not counting the beard worn by New 52 Superman post-"Doomed".

Even with the t-shirt and armor overlapping for the first few months of the New 52, this is the sixth costume in seven years, and that's indicative of the problems DC's had with Superman since the New Krypton saga at least, and arguably since the Death of Superman or even Crisis. Superman doesn't get new story arcs so much as new directions, and it's rare that any of these directions get a chance to breathe, let alone to see if they're successful. That third costume up there? Existed for five issues. The last two got nine months and eleven months, respectively.

These shifting costumes are a microcosm of the approach to Superman for the last several years of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and forgetting that you're supposed to wait and see what sticks. Nothing is given any room to breathe, and it's all worked out there on the page rather than behind the scenes. There's no courage here; every attempt to do something radically different is course-corrected back to something more (but not quite) traditional within a few months. There seems to be no comprehension about what works, in part because nothing is allowed to work before being changed again.

Take, for instance, the costume. Jim Lee designs the New 52 armor suit as part of an effort to make the Justice League look more uniform. It being Jim Lee, the costumes are all full of unnecessary lines, and things are changed with no apparent reason. Why does Superman need armor? Why would Superman's costume look like Aquaman's when they have independent origins? From any perspective, it's not a good costume. Getting rid of the trunks causes the costume to be this largely unbroken blue jumpsuit, and the red belt (why does he wear a belt with no trunks?) doesn't do enough to correct the color balance issues. Removing the yellow belt and yellow S-shield on the back means we have these two colors, yellow and black, that are only present in small amounts. The colors don't tie together in any sensible way. And then there's the boots, which were changed for no apparent reason. The costume's like a Superman figure kitbashed from some '90s ToyBiz X-Men toys. Oh, and the S-shield has a sharper shape.

So Romita redesigns it, getting rid of the armor and removing a lot of the unnecessary lines for more understated piping. The color and boot shapes return to a more classic look (though a quick glance at a cover gallery reveals that the darker blue color was anything but consistent on the armor), but the black S-shield on the cape and the high collar are retained. The sleeves get a little longer, but no longer have little S-shield shapes on them, nor does the belt. It's hard to say if the S-shield has reverted to the classic, more rounded form at this point, because Romita draws it differently anyway, and this costume didn't really stick around long enough for many other artists to tackle it. It's a step back toward the classic costume, with a couple of minor new features thrown in.

Skipping over the Truth outfit, we have a fairly big step toward the classic as the pre-New 52 Superman returns to the role. The original rounded S-shield has returned. The yellow cape shield is back, but so is the darker shade of blue (again, not at all consistently). The sleeves are shortened a bit from the Romita design, and incorporate the gauntlet-cuffs of the "Man of Steel" movie costume.  The reduction of the belt to shapes and the removal of the red boots seems like an attempt to lean into the field of blue, but the result is to further upset the color balance and make Superman look like he's wearing footie pajamas.

Then there's the new costume:

The classic boots are back, and freshly polished. The blue is back to that classic almost-teal. Still no trunks, but we're back to a full red belt, tacitly acknowledging the need to break up all that blue. More significantly, there's a yellow buckle on the belt, tying in the yellow elements of the S-shield in the way that the classic yellow belt did. The extra lines and Man of Steel-inspired cuffs are gone, as is the high collar. If you saw a waist-up shot of this, it'd be indistinguishable from the original costume.

So why even bother distinguishing it? This next Zenoesque step back toward the classic costume seems, as the overall trend does, to recognize that the old costume actually wasn't broken in the first place. Every element that Jim Lee changed has reverted, except that the original trunks and belt got exposed to white dwarf star radiation. If you're going to come this close to restoring the old costume, why not go all the way?

Especially when, as the trend suggests, Superman will either be back in jeans or wearing the classic suit within a year?

So, how about those jeans-and-t-shirt outfits? I don't think it's too outlandish to say that those have inspired the most positive reactions of this group of costumes, and I think it's notable that the only costume here that doesn't fit the trend of "more like the classic costume" is the one that's "more like the street-level Rags Morales costume." The reason for that, I think is twofold: first, it benefits in comparison to the regular Superman costume because it's not trying to be a variation on that. It's something different, and something that fits right in with key elements of Superman that go all the way back to 1938—namely, Superman as a farmboy and champion of the common man. Second, I think, is because they're tied to story ideas that have sociopolitical relevance in the way that DC/WB has been trying to achieve for Superman for a decade or more.

The Morrison/Morales Action Comics concept, going back to the days of Superman taking down corrupt businessmen and crooked politicians, resonated in the post-Occupy Wall Street world, and Pak/Kuder's depowered Superman standing with a marginalized community against militarized cops resonated in the Black Lives Matter aftermath. Those comics got media buzz and mainstream attention, so naturally the former shared shelf space with Superman against alien elementals in a story the writer disavowed and the latter gave way almost immediately to a story about chasing Vandal Savage with kryptonite powers.

David Mann has a great, insightful essay about how the Superman of "Man of Steel" and "Batman V. Superman" appeals to people because he's a decent person trapped in a crappy world that he can't meaningfully change, which is a feeling I sympathize with. That's certainly one way to find audience engagement, and like it or not, the powers that be over the DC movies seem to be sticking with it.

Contrast that with DC Comics, whose every movement towards that kind of audience engagement has been followed by a drastic shift to something else entirely. I don't know if it's Eddie Berganza or someone higher up, but someone at DC/WB lacks the courage to let Superman bust the heads of billionaires and racists for more than a couple of months. Let's make him a luchador instead.

The shifting costumes, and the two poles they indicate, represent the audiences DC is chasing: the people who don't see Superman as a character who's relevant to the modern world, and the people who want Superman to go back to what they remember from the glory days (whether that's the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the '90s, or the Reeve films). I think there are people from both camps in the writers' rooms, and I think there's a considerable overlap between those groups. But in zigzagging between the two for six years, they've managed not to attract either, and they've wasted a lot of talent, buzz, time, and goodwill picking courses without sticking to them.

I'm cautiously optimistic about what's coming out of Superman Reborn, but if nothing else, I hope it represents DC picking a direction, for better or worse, and sticking with it for more than six months.

Addendum: I got 3/4 of the way through this post before remembering that Bryan Hitch also redesigned Superman's costume for JLA, bringing us up to one new costume every year.