Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wherever there's trouble: The G.I. JOE review.

"G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."

G.I. JOE is yet another example of what I like to call a 'six-step' movie. You will no sooner have left the theatre and taken six steps toward your car when the combined stupid of what you've just watched will take the creaking structure that had suspended your disbelief for the last hour and a half and send it clattering to the ground in a broken mass of rubble. It is a film that does have some enjoyable bits of business to it and when it's firing on all cylinders it's an amazingly fun dumb action flick. In the end though the things that irked and didn't work edged out the things I did like to the point where I can't say it'll be on my list of repeat viewings, nor will I be clamoring for the DVD. Let's get down into the nuts and bolts of Stephen Sommers latest popcorn flick and talk about what worked and what didn't. Spoilers ahoy for those who've yet to see it:

The visual aesthetic: The film certainly looks impressive, and does have several eye-catching set pieces (G.I. Joe HQ, the Cobra Stronghold, the Baroness' estate). The film leaps all over the world and if nothing else the movie gives you a truly worldwide battle against the forces of evil, with deserts to cities to arctic ice as the backdrop. I can't fault the film for not looking impressive. Stephen Sommers is an old hand at the globetrotting adventure schtick from his Mummy films, and we're served in good stead with some amazing location work, even if most of it is replicated on a soundstage somewhere.

Ray Parks as Snake-Eyes and Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow: Admit it: deep down these two were the sole reason any of us wanted to see this film. Yeah, the other Joes are cool enough, and yes the Baroness is as smoking hot as the brief glimpses of her have tantalized at, but c'mon. There's a reason that this former kids show had ninjas on the good and bad sides. Because one ninja fighting soldiers? Cool. Two uberninjas fighting each other? Epic. Parks and Lee bring their martial-arts A-game to the film and they really do liven things up in a film where you'd be more inclined to tug at the dangling plot threads and wonder 'hey waitaminute, this movie kinda suc-NINJAS! KEWL!!' The martial arts both warriors exhibit is damned awesome, and makes for an entertaining series of fight sequences, however ultimately brief they were. Both are equally badass in their own way, and their hard work makes this movie almost passable. Almost.

Sienna Miller as the Baroness: Hot. So very, very, very, very, very, very hot. Let's face it, after Princess Leia and the Gold Bikini, Cobra's own femme fatale the Baroness has to stand as one of the all-time fanboy/nerd crushes. I can't speak for everyone else but there's just something about a kickass woman in glasses (sexy Euro accent optional) that melts me like butter. Sadly there's no accent here, but Sienna Miller does fill the Baroness's boots (to say nothing of the rest of that wonderfully silhouette-friendly leather outfit) with some style and aplomb, kicking ass and taking names. My major gripe comes in the form of her characterization but we'll get to that later on. If nothing else, she looks awesome and kicks some ass.

Dennis Quaid as General Hawk: I've liked Dennis Quaid ever since I first saw him as Tuck Pendleton in Joe Dante's awesome adventure/comedy Innerspace, so it's always great to have him show up in a genre popcorn flick. Sadly he's stuck in the role of the 'Older Mentor/Badass who will be disabled by the third act so the Young Turk Hero can step up and save the day', but what little he does have to do here makes me want more in a sci-fi action hero vain from him. Kristopher Straub, creator of the webcomic Starslip Crisis raised the intriguing point that Quaid is exactly the right age to play an older but still believable Indiana Jones and I for one could see it. He's got the grizzled features, the same wry grin. I say slap a fedora on him and let Harrison Ford collect his gold watch.

Marlon Wayans as Ripcord: Hold it, hold it, hoooooolllllld it. A Wayans brother acting in a film in such a way that I don't want to gouge my own eyes out? I know, I'm as shocked as you are. Wayans' character is actually pretty fun, being the Wiseass Sidekick, and he has a good rapport with the Channing Tatum's Duke (in point of fact I think it's the scenes with him that allow us to see the few glimpses of actual personality Tatum brings to the character). Wayans' comedic bits cut some of the tension and help keep the movie. . .well, not grounded per se but at least allow us to chuckle a bit at the sheer implausibility of it all. The scene where he comforts Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) shows some nice interplay between the two characters, and while I never quite bought the Obvious Romantic Subplot between the two, his character does a lot to make these walking action figures just a bit more human.

All right, now that we've gotten the few bright spots in the film out of the way, let's take a bracing breath of air and dive together in the stygian blackess of the abyss, shall we?

You cannot server two masters: G.I. JOE was hobbled by it's attempts to try and be both a kids movie and a movie for the adult who might've been fond of the cartoon. You either make it a straight-up kids flick in the brightly colored costumes and the laser bolts, or you make it contemporary and badass with bullets flying and people getting the crap kicked out of them as people most assuredly do in war. Yes, the anonymous mooks get killed by the handful and yes, Duke and Ripcord's squad gets blown to hell, but none of the key players gets truly dealt a death blow, and the people who do suffer the consequences (who aren't General Hawk) we never hear about or from again. The basic message the movie seems to convey is that war and combat can be truly horrific but if you're one of the Main Cast you'll be fine. Ah well, worked for Luke Skywalker and Company I suppose, but at least the tone of A New Hope lays it out from the get-go. G.I. JOE never commits to whether it wants to be a a serious action film or a kid-friendly toy vehicle, and that wobble in tone can be felt throughout the entirety of the piece.

For the love of God, stop explaining everything:
Look, I know a certain amount of exposition is required in the first film of a potential franchise but for the love of all things good and merciful stop expositing over things that don't really need to be explained. Say, didja want to know where Destro got his mask? Didja wanna know why Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes hate each other? Didja want to know that Duke knew Cobra Commander (oops, I mean, 'The Doctor') before they became enemies, and that he was the one who called Duke a 'Real American Hero'? Didja? Didja? C'mon, didja?! Well too bad, 'cause we're going to explain it all anyway! Every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed! Who needs to build an engaging mystery or just have an opponent we never truly get to know when we can hammer home plot point and backstory via flashback again and again and again! Guhhh. . .it's like the writers (Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett) were just throwing story ideas back and forth while they were playing on a ps3. Exposition is great and character motivation is fine, but this is G.I. JOE for God's sake. I don't need to know where Cobra Commander went to high school, or what his real name was, because Cobra Commander is just an evil anonymous badass. Does he have the HISS tanks? Is the Weather Machine there? Does he have Storm Shadow to fight Snake Eyes? Then I'm set, thanks. Really. Just roll the film and get to the action, rather than giving me flashback after flashback to pad out two hours with.

Enough with the black spandex already:
Seriously. Stop it. Yes, Bryan Singer made it look cool in X-Men but that does not mean you have to keep doing it over and over. The G.I. JOE outfits the heroes wore never looked that implausible, and at the very least some individuality amongst the uniforms would've allowed them to actually, y'know, have some character, rather than have them all really be plastic action figures. I mean, seriously, swap out a couple lines of dialogue from the script that don't feature names and see if you can tell who's talking on the Joe end of things. I have a crisp, clean $5 bill for anyone who can pull that off. The black spandex costume is just a way of trying to wear growed-up pants when they are so very, very unnecessary. I know you wanted to make it look badass and kewl, but when the team looks less like the G.I. JOE of yore and more like--say--Team America, World Police. . .well, that pretty much speaks for itself.
(Speaking of a better movie, which Team America is, does anyone think the destruction of the Effiel Tower was a shout-out to Matt & Trey from Sommers? Because let's face it, JOE is Team America if they played it deadly serious.)

Baffling, baffling character links:
The Baroness was Duke's girlfriend and Cobra Commander's (whoops, 'The Doctor'. Oh, and how funny was it to have Christopher Eccleston calling the kid from Third Rock 'Doctor'? I think I was the only one snickering a fanboy's knowing snicker) brother? Oh, and she turns around to the side of good because her love for Duke burns away the Evil Nanites That Make You Evil, the film's MacGuffin to explain the fanatical loyalty of Cobra troops (they're a mercenary arm of McCullen's operation and not terrorists. Oh no, no no. G.I. JOE fighting terrorists? No. . .) and gives them a chance at love, even though she's quite rightly locked away for killing like a bazillion people. But true love will conquer all!
(These writers need to be beaten with Syd Fields copy of Screenplay and The Best of Larry Hama G.I. JOE trade paperback until they scream for mercy and swear they'll never do it again)

Duke, where's my jet pack:
Not one jetpack in your movie. Seriously? A movie with G.I. JOE, with Duke no less, whose classic toy was packaged with one, and he doesn't get a jet pack or an American flag? Stephen, I'm sampling this movie's sauce. . .and it's weak sir. So very, very weak. I go to the movies for two primary things; lightsabers and jetpacks. With Lucas out of the cinematic game I made my peace with a permanent lightsaber defecit but a G.I. JOE movie with no freaking jetpacks?! Damn you sir. Damn you to hell(and no, that glider wing thing doesn't count. Jet. Pack. Pack, with jets).

Okay, so maybe that last one was a bit facetious, but let's face it; G.I. JOE is good, but nothing to write home about. I can see what they were trying to shoot for, but the actual product lacks the energy and gung-ho (heh) energy of the original cartoon. If they make a sequel let's hope they'll tend to take themselves a bit less seriously, and to learn not to use the term 'Joe' as a verb.

Until next time, YOOOOO JOE!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Superhero tropes I love: The Legion of Super-Heroes.

Not so much a trope as it is a group and a title, but as concepts went in the grand scheme of things the Legion of Super-Heroes has to rate up there with the best of them. Kids like superheroes, and they like superhero teams, so what could be finer than a book featuring a superhero team comprised of kids? In fact, more than a team, the Legion was a club for young heroes, a group where they could get together and not only use their magnificent abilities for the betterment of the United Planets, but they could meet and do that which teenagers do so well; angst it up in the best emo tradition!

Okay, okay, I'm kidding obviously. But in all seriousness I have a lot of love for the classic 1980s Paul Levitz Pre-Crisis LSH. They were getting older, the enemies they were facing were getting formidable, and it was time when a guy could rock a beard and be in his mid-twenties and still be called 'Star Boy'. It also featured one of my favorite concepts; that of Superboy being a member of the Legion and time-travelling from the past to the 30th century to join in their exploits. While I take issue with some of the things Geoff Johns has done with Superman of late (following the Donner films a smidge too slavishly for one) on the whole he's gotten a lot of things right and no better instance of this exists than in the opening of the Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes story wherein Clark meets people who are like him. Kids like him with powers. And they have a club, a place where he can belong. That's the core of the Legion to me. It's a place where you can belong, and I think that underlying theme explains the enduring love fans have for the book, that's allowed it to survive reboot after reboot and still gather fans despite continuity snarls and backstory problems that make even the hardest of the hardcore fanboys reach for the asprin. They've been kids, they've been grownups, they've even been cartoons but at the core of it all the Legion is a family. Sometimes a highly dysfunctional one, but that sense of belonging and community with it's upbeat utopian message that maybe we will make it after all makes the book for me.
The Legion's latest comicbook incarnation came to a close recently and it's now been relegated to a backup story (I'm sorry 'co-feature') with the current Connor Kent/Kon-El Superboy in the pages of Adventure Comics (fitting since that's where the Legion debuted in the first place). But it wouldn't surprise me if those teens from the future returned yet again. They're nothing if not tencacious.

Long live the Legion!

Ps. If I had my druthers and any juice in the comicbook industry I'd have Christopher Bird take a crack at writing the Legion. His 'Why I should Write The Legion' posts over on his blog are nothing less than pure awesome. Check them out here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


My brother purchased the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus for me from Marvel. Sometimes a picture encapsulates my reaction far better than my tawdry scribbling ever could.

Oh, the art is by Tom Beland, whose site you should visit and whose autobiographical True Story, Swear to God is from all accounts wicked awesome. Link here:


Monday, August 10, 2009

Superhero tropes I miss: Fun-lovin' Criminals.

There's just something to be said for a man or woman in a funny outfit committing petty acts of larceny with an appropriately outrageous theme or gimmick. These days it seems to be something of a lost art in superhero comics, at least where the bigger companies are involved. What happened to the stories where our good Captain Cold (pictured above) would knock over a jewelry store, run afoul of Central City's own scarlet speedster and end up cooling his heels in prison after the requisite feats of derring-do and overall badassery? In fact, what happened to this kind of villain in general; namely the Rogue, a reliable source of trouble for our heroes to dispatch within about 22 pages plus ads? And why aren't there any new 'rogues' out there today? Villains who aren't out to destroy the world or kill everything in sight but just want to make the big score and get one-up on the hero? I think a couple of things contributed to the downfall of the rogue archetype over the master/uber-villain.

Part of it comes from the fact that done-in-one stories just aren't how most superhero titles work these days. Before comicbook stores and the direct market, individual publishers sent their books out into the world uncertain as to whether or not the book's final destination would have carried the issue before it or would the issue after. For all the writers and artists of The Flash (I'm using that title as an example but it's hardly the only one) knew, this particular magazine would only reach a certain vendor and a given reader once, if at all. As a result, each issue was largely preserved as a single entity. There'd be the odd cliffhanger issue or multi-part story, but those wouldn't really come into vogue until the direct market allowed for a single venue where issue after issue would be made readily available. As superhero comics progressed the multi-part storyline came more and more into vogue, encouraging readers to come back for more and allowing the creators a chance to go a bit more in-depth than the original system might've allowed.

So while a 'menace of the month' format works great for a book that readers may not be able to read on a regular basis (namely most readers before the rise of comicbook stores), a single overarching villain or (to borrow the parlance of the Buffyverse) a 'big bad' allows for the best of all possible worlds. Yeah, the Parasite or Toyman make for a great villain for Superman to match wits with every now and again, but a schemer like Luthor in his corporate CEO incarnation allows for long-term storytelling potential. And--as most master villains do need their lackeys--it provides us with a plethora of costumed mooks/mercenaries/assassins that our intrepid hero may face without undue risk to himself. Simply put, the big bad works because the big bad can provide you with a mix of monthly menace for newcomers and long-term story arcs that will keep the reader coming back for more.

It's a great device, and one that I can see most writers utilizing because--after all--you want readers coming back month after month and a single villainous entity that will cause problems over a long period of time (say a summer crossover or yearly buildup to the big showdown) keeps the audience coming back. The problem arises in that--for the most part--all the major superhero titles seem to be doing this these days. Dark Reign has Norman Osbourne, The Blackest Night has the Scar Guardian (and her mysterious 'him' who's coming--*cough*NEKRON*cough*). The big titles seem to be caught in a loop of the next major epic storyline. And that's cool, I enjoy a good epic as much as the next guy. But if--as has been said--every comic is somebody's first, can't we have the odd breather period every now and then where we can revisit an old-fashioned superheroic slobberknocker where the Top tries to rob a bank and runs afoul (heh) of the fastest man alive?

Another thing I've noticed lately in the depiction of costumed villains is that there's a distinct lack of joy when it comes to their supervillainy. These days everyone seems to be bestubbled, surly, and behaving in a manner that makes me think they walked off the set of The Sopranos not moments before the first panel catches my eye. I realize that supervillains are deeply flawed, damaged people, some of whom are seriously creepy(your Jokers, your Venoms, etc). But whatever happened to the supervillain who had fun being a heel, that enjoyed matching wits against a daring hero, and who could be relied upon to monologue as the hero struggles to escape the overly intricate trap involving an inordinately theatrical death? These days it seems that they're all either surly brutes or skeezy sexual predators (poor, poor Doctor Light. Someday someone will salvage that gloriously cheesy character of yours).

A hero is only as good as the quality of his villains, but lately it just feels like supervillains have lost something, some essential quality of fun-loving, theatrical evil that got replaced by a need to have them appear more brutal and thuggish. To me, I'd much rather read a Captain Cold that matches wits with the Flash and even (occasionally) does him a solid than the one that helped beat Bart Allen to death. One villain has an interesting character and is worthy of the title of a rogue. The other. . .not so much.

Just my $0.02 and assorted pocket lint.


The Monday Musing.

'They told us not to wish in the first place, not to aspire, not to try; to be quiet, to play nice, to shoot low and aspire not at all. They are always wrong. Follow your dreams. Make your wishes. Create the future. And above all, believe in yourself.'
-J. Michael Stracynski.