Monday, March 7, 2016

In Memoriam: Paul Ryan 1949-2016.

I received word that Paul Ryan passed away at the office today, and I spent the rest of the work day in a daze. I couldn't process it. I thought I would have more time, that I'd get the chance to meet him at a convention, shake his hand and thank him for the hard work he put into the comics of my youth. It's strange to be so affected by the death of a man I never met, but in a very real way Ryan had a hand in shaping some of my favorite comics and thus had easily as much impact on my life as Christopher Reeve, Jim Henson, and Leonard Nimoy.

Erik Larsen once posited that there are certain characters that become yours as you grow from a kid who reads comics into a comicbook fan. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, these are the giants. They're untouchable, and my relationship with Superman as a character is part of the bedrock of my psyche. But Superman belongs to the world, or at least so it seemed. Some characters you find and you feel like it's a discovery. Like it's something only you know about. You develop an affection for the character. He becomes 'yours' in a way that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man just can't. For me in my Marvel Comics heyday, that character was Quasar.

 QUASAR was written by the late, great Mark Gruenwald, and he teamed with Paul Ryan in the wake of their excellent collaboration on the 12-part SQUADRON SUPREME series which I'll rave about given any opportunity. Ryan's work had a distinctive style that caught the eye. He wasn't showy or ostentatious, but he could deliver spectacle. He was especially suited for the more cosmic books like QUASAR, FANTASTIC FOUR, and SUPERMAN. He had a style and an attention to detail even in the most fantastic of scenarios that I can only call "pure comics." He never felt like he was phoning it in. He delivered on every issue and he made every character he drew feel alive.

 Picking out a favorite issue is tough, but if I have to pick it's easily LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS: THE UNTOLD STORY. Written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Ryan, it's a missing chapter from the epic saga that brought down the curtain on the DC Multiverse (for a while, at least). Ryan's art manages to create a comparable sense of grandeur as George Perez's work on the original CRISIS. The creation of a completely distinct parallel Earth complete with it's own visually distinctive take on the classic  DC Comics' heroes couldn't have been easy either, but Ryan handled it with aplomb and made you feel real sympathy for the heroes of a doomed universe. It's damned impressive and if you can find it in the back issue bins at a convention I highly recommend it.

Ryan also illustrated FANTASTIC FIVE, one of my favorite titles to come out of the MC2 stable of comics: a futuristic take on the World's Greatest Comics Magazine that was at once familiar and fresh at the same time. One day I'll cover the MC2 universe (and it's most famous scion SPIDER-GIRL) later on down the line, but suffice to say FANTASTIC FIVE was my hands-down favorite. You could tell Ryan loved getting to release his inner King Kirby, and it showed in every panel on the book Again, if you can track this series down, do so. It's wonderful stuff.

While the man himself is gone, the quality of his art will stand tall for years to come. I wish I could have met him in person so I could have thanked him for the wonderful body of work. Mr. Ryan, you will be deeply missed.

Friday, March 4, 2016


"They're coming to get you Lois. . ."

  I'm Stacy, and I am a tabletop RPG addict.

 You'd think that without access to a regular gaming group and the time to even engage in roleplaying games I'd wise up and save my hard-earned dollars for something a bit more sensible, like socks or regular tire rotation. But no. Each week invariably finds me at my friendly local games store, browsing through the aisles for a setting to catch my eye and part me from aforementioned cash like Jack from the family cow.

 Those who know me, either from long friendship or from my work on The Fanboy Power Hour (/shameless plug), may have detected a more than partial bias to superhero comics, particularly those of the Silver Age variety. Four-Color superhero worlds with talking monkeys, jetpacks, and diabolical mad scientists out to Take Over The World. . .I eat that sort of thing up like a big ol' bowl of Frosted Flakes on a Saturday morning. But for all that, there is this twisted little part of me that loves to see those heroic archetypes get pulled through the proverbial ringer. Books like IRREDEEMABLE, LEAVING MEGAOPOLIS, THE MIGHTY, and MARVEL ZOMBIES which take those shining symbols of idealism and hope and warp them almost beyond recognition.

 Why yes, I feel fine. Why do you ask?

 Which brings us to ROTTED CAPES, the Post-Apocalyptic Superhero Game of Zombie Survival Horror from Paradigm Concepts.

The scenario is simple enough: a zombie apocalypse takes place on a world that just so happens to be home to a variety of superhuman heroes and villains. Your character is one of the few superhumans remaining in the aftermath of Z-Day, when something happened that changed the world into a nightmare of walking undead horror. Even worse than the standard undead hordes, a number of superheroes and villains were infected by the virus and became z'ed themselves. Intelligent and amoral and in complete possession of their powers, they're stalking you as the undead hordes stalk the people under your protection. Can you keep the enclave of humanity you're working to support safe from the undead, or will you fall in battle and become the horror stalking them in the night? Will you hold on to your ideals or slowly sink into the morass of questionable ethics the world has become? This is the world of ROTTED CAPES.

 Superheroes and Horror can make for a tough balancing act. One the one hand Horror's mission objective is to scare you, to illustrate the world as a stalking ground of terrors and to prove to us that humanity is ultimately insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Superheroes allow us escapism and the hope that we can be better and that we can help each other make the world a better place. From a storytelling perspective tilting the balance too far in either direction will cause one of the elements to become insignifcant. Make things too grim and your players will lose hope, believing they can't make a difference in the face of unrelenting evil. Make things too optimistic and you lose the higher stakes feel that a zombie apocalypse can provide. One of the ways the game works to balance the issue is to ensure your characters are 'b-list' superheroes. Simply put, you're not Superman or The Mighty Thor. You're more like Black Lightning or the Guardian. You have powers and abilities that put you a cut above most people, but you're not invincible. No, most of those 'A-list' heroes either were killed in the initial conflict or were infected and become Super Zombies. They will never stop hunting you, have all the powers they had in life, and they're completely amoral. Imagine a serial killer with Superman's power set. Sweet dreams. . .

 System wise the game utilize a dice set of four, six, eight, ten and 12-sided dice. You will need two ten-sided dice (2d10) to act as your Action Dice. The mechanic is simple: Roll your Action Dice, then an attribute die (Strength, Vitality, etc). Add the results of the roll, then modifiers for powers, skills, advantages, and the like and compare the results to a Target Number set by the Editor-in-Chief (the Game Master). If you beat the target number, you achieve your goal. The system allows for a number of superhuman abilities, talents, and skill sets. You can build just about any superhero from Batman to Luke Cage, and even the big guns if your EiC is feeling generous and wants a higher powered game.

 Artistically the imagery in the game ranges from good to great, with a few striking images such as the book's cover that really help set the game's equal parts horrific and heroic tone. The In-Game setting of Paradigm City is well-constructed and the Non-Player Characters provided as examples for character creation and potential supporting cast/player characters or even antagonists make for interesting reading material. The setting is an intriguing one and hands a lot of guns on the wall for the EiC to build upon. The actual nature of Z-Day is kept deliberately vague for a future revelation, but some potential causes are discussed and explored if the Editor wants to provide an explanation out of the gate.

 ROTTED CAPES makes for a lot of fun but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out a few flaws here and there that took me out of the game a little. The power sets break down into three primary modes: Super-Human (Inherent physical powers), Skill Hero (trained heroes like Batman), or Tech Hero (mad scientist/Iron Man types). This seemingly limits the game for anyone who'd like to create a character a bit outside of these three paths. Magic-based heroes for example are possible, but in comparison to other superhero systems (Green Ronin's MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS for example) the game can feel a little limited. But again, this is a nitpick and far from a deal-breaker.

Overall ROTTED CAPES has an intriguing premise and is a fun-looking system that looks like it'd be a blast to play. If you're looking to spice up the gaming table with a supers campaign that's off the beaten track or want to give your horror heroes a decidedly potent edge against the forces of the undead this system has plenty of toys in the box that'd make for hours of fun gameplay. Thus far the core rulebook and a single adventure sourcebook entitled MIND GAMES are the sole products for the RC line, but I'm hopeful Paradigm will produce more. Despite the minor flaws here and there the game overall is a strong beginning to a setting I'd love to see explored in further detail. Consider it recommended.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

You Should Read This: ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR.

  Orc. For Fantasy fans the word alone is enough to send a light shiver up the spine. Whether you first encountered them on the printed page or the silver screen, in the works of Tolkien or in the press of melee during an intense session of Dungeons & Dragons, we all know what Orcs are: brutes, monsters, savages. Cannon fodder for the forces of evil, wave after endless wave of largely disposal mooks for the intrepid (and mostly human) characters to charge through with drawn blades flashing. They are the foot soldiers of darkness, and deserve nothing but the scorn and righteous fury of all right-thinking beings in your typical fantasy world. Simple as that.

 Come say hi to the bad guy.

 ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR by Stan Nicholls and Joe Flood tells an epic fantasy saga, but posits a very intriguing "What if"? With history primarily written by the victors, what if orcs themselves were in fact a violent but nevertheless noble people? What if orcs are in fact fighting for the very survival of their way of life in the face on an encroaching humanity whose presence is slowly but surely snuffing out the magic in the world?

 Stryke leads the Wolverines, an orc war band sworn to the service of Jennesta, a despotic sorceress who has allied herself with the Followers of the Manifold (Manis), those humans who follow ancient pagan traditions and are (slightly) less intolerant than the humans who follow Unity (Unis), who adhere to a cult of monotheism. Under orders from Jennesta to escort a band of goblins to ostensibly test a weapon that could turn the tide of the war against the Unis, Stryke and his band soon find themselves neck deep in trouble. Damned if they fail, unlikely to succeed, it's the kind of fight that would leave lesser men broken. Good thing the Wolverines aren't men.

 Stan Nicholls has written a number of prose stories set on the world of Maras-Dantia (The ORCS: FIRST BLOOD and ORCS:  BAD BLOOD trilogies respectively), but knowledge of those works isn't required in order to enjoy FORGED FOR WAR. Nicholls writing provides each orc with their own distinctive personality, and Joe Flood's art makes the principal cast distinctive. Flood's artwork has a nice mixture of classic fantasy along with a Herge-like quality that I found highly enjoyable.

Favorite characters include Stryke, an orc with a gift for war who's far more than a hulking berserker, Jup, the sole dwarf in the Wolverines and one of Stryke's sergeants whose loyalties are ever-questioned in a world where dwarves have frequently sold out the Elder Races, and Coilla, a corporal in the Wolverines as well as their tactical genius, her plans save the orcs' collective bacon on more than one occasion. There are a number of characters you love to hate, from Jennesta's equal measure of condescending cruelty and magical malevolence to the bigotry and persecution of the Unis fanatical leader Kimball Howbrow. If there's one thing this graphic novel excels in, it's making humans look to be utter and complete bastards. One sequence in particular had my lips skin back from my teeth like a wolf in equal parts anger and disgust. When a creative team can pull that off, you know you've got a keeper.

 Well-written, well-illustrated, and with both an engaging premise and an entertaining story to boot, ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR is one to enjoy. Get ready to root for the bad guy.

Monday, February 29, 2016

You Should Read This: FAITH #1 & 2.

If there's a word I'd use to describe my comic-book shopping agenda on those weekends when my time is my own and I owe nothing to the world it'd have to be "random." A lot of comics fans like to establish weekly pull lists for their friendly local comic book store, or they subscribe to a certain title on Comixology or the like. They have plans, favored titles and creators that they follow with regularity and basically invest in their haul much the same way as a Netflix subscriber has their to-watch list. Me, I'm not like that. Frequently I'll have an idea of what titles I'd like to check in on, but for the most part I just wander among the new release shelves, letting my feet take me where they will. Some enjoy the thrill of the chase, I just like to wander into new places and see what's doing. So it is with my discovery of Valiant Comics FAITH by the team of Jody Houser, Francis Portella, and Maguerite Sauvage.

 Back in the halcyon days of the 1990s I was a huge fan of Valiant Comics. Initially luring me in with their enjoyable takes on classic Gold Key characters like Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Magnus: Robot Fighter (one of my All-Time Favorite Characters), the Valiant brand expanded to a number of unique creations such as Bloodshot, X-O Manowar, and Harbinger. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons too involved to go into for the purposes of this article, Valiant in the '90s shut down and their stable of characters was consigned to the limbo of back issue bins for the better part of two decades. Recently the line made a comeback however, and with the aid of a number of talented creators the line has again become a force to be reckoned with. Books like RAI, ARCHER & ARMSTRONG, and THE ETERNAL WARRIOR are once again making their way back into my To-Read pile and I couldn't be happier.

 The eponymous lead of FAITH spins out of a title called HARBINGER, but you don't need to have read that book in order to enjoy this one. The elevator pitch is as follows:

 "When a car accident left her orphaned, Faith Herbert was raised by her loving grandmother and found comfort in comic books, science fiction movies, and other fantastic tales of superheroes. In her teens she would discover her fantasies were reality when it was revealed she was a psiot--a human being born with incredible abilities. Faith joined a group of fellow psiots called the Renegades to stand against the forces of evil. She's since left her Renegade family behind to take on the world's challenges on her own. She may have a lot to learn about the superhero game, but if there's one thing she's always had, it's. . .FAITH."

FAITH BEGINS opens with our heroine attempting to make a life for herself as a superheroine and reporter in California, but with the journalism game not being all it's cracked up to be she's settled for being an online content generator for an entertainment website by day and the superheroic Zephyr by night. Gradually though she's pulled into a greater mystery that may involve ties to the psiot community, and when things escalate, they escalate quickly for our heroine.

You ever meet a character in a fictional piece and it feels like you've known them forever? Faith Herbert is like that. She's got superhero memorobilia, statues, she makes pop culture references. One of the highest compliments I can give Jody Houser's writing is that the character feels like people I've known in my life in fandom. . .hell, people I still actively know. People like myself. An engaging protagonist who you come to care about and actively root for is a key to longevity in an increasingly expensive comics fandom, and the team succeeds in bringing her to life with aplomb. Francis Portella's artwork allows for a nice blend of the fantastic and the familiar, from high-flying superheroics to the office politics many of us know only too well. And a special shout-out has to go to Marguerite Sauvage, whose work on Faith's fantasy sequences give us a fun snapshot of our heroine's psyche.

 It's a rare treat to find a title that you grok to so quickly and easily as FAITH. Whether you're a longtime fan or a complete comics neophyte, titles like this are ones everyone can enjoy. The first and second issues are on the stands now and I give them my heartiest and highest recommendation possible. I haven't had this much fun with a character since THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL. Not feeling most of the superhero titles out there? Have some FAITH my friend.  You won't regret it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Stacy (Finally) Watches THE FLASH.

"Now run, Barry. Run. . .!"
 I have no earthly idea why, but there's just something inside me that is extremely reluctant to embrace the mainstream wholeheartedly. I remember being a young man and absolutely refusing to have anything to do with the Harry Potter books solely because they were popular. I wasn't going to be taken in by this pokemon-literature. I was a Serious Reader of  Serious Fantasy. It was only after HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE was assigned to me for a course at university that I gave it a chance and immediately learned a truth: sometimes the zeitgeist actually know what it's talking about. It's rare, but it's true.

 Which brings me to THE FLASH. Yes, my friends raved about it. Yes, people in the know whose opinions I trust told me I absolutely, positively, had to watch this show as I would take to it like a duck to water. But for all the praise there was still this little part of me that resisted. ARROW's initial take on the character of Oliver Queen as a vigilante who flat-out killed criminals had turned me off a bit to the DC Television stable, and while I was assured that this series was to be a complete 180 from ARROW in many ways, it's hard to make me want to watch genre television, particularly adaptations of favorite titles like THE FLASH. This show was about Barry Allen. My Flash was Wally West. This show had a darker take on the Flash costume. I wanted the wings and the yellow boots. I had a vision in my mind of what the character should have been and while my vision wasn't wrong it wasn't entirely compatible with what was on the screen. So I hesitated.

 But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. On a whim I picked up the first collection of DC's SMALLVILLE SEASON ELEVEN, a comics continuation of the CW series. Now, understand that I -did not- care for Smallville. The liberties taken with the canon and the long, loooooong time it took to get Clark into the suit and actually becoming Superman drove me bananas. But, in need of a Superman series to read I picked it up. . .and devoured the first trade pretty much in a single sitting. Bryan Q. Miller's take on the SMALLVILLE-verse was a mixture of the familiar and the conceits of the series in such a way that I realized something not only about the series but about myself.

 With the series, it was the notion that this take on the DC Universe could literally have it's cake and eat it too, incorporating all the coolest toys in the toybox without worrying about the budgetary constraints of the SMALLVILLE TV series. Seriously, if you haven't checked out the 7 trade collections out so far from DC I heartily recommend them.

With myself, it was simply this: I was being silly. Holding out for a version of a character you enjoy that's sympatico with your ideal take on the character (the 'real' version you hold in your mind) is about as worthwhile an endeavor as trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. With this in mind, I bought the first season of THE FLASH on Blu Ray, and having some time free over my Christmas vacation I say down with it and watched the first episode. And the second. The third. And so on into the night. By the time the credits rolled on FAST ENOUGH, the season finale, I was both an emotional dishrag and a devout believer in the power trio of Berlanti, Kriesberg, and Johns.

 The beauty of the series isn't just the love that goes into the costumed characters and the fights (which are plenty awesome, believe you me), but the thing I absolutely love about the show is the heart. Good -God- the heart. If you can make it through the sequence where Barry Allen/The Flash (played with aplomb by Garrett Gustin) gets to say goodbye to his mother (you know the sequence) without rolling tears you are stronger than I will ever be. I haven't bawled like that since the end of THE GREEN MILE. The family dynamic between Barry Allen, His father Henry (played by John Wesley Shipp, the Flash of my youth), his foster-father Joe West (Jesse Martin, who absolutely crushes as the moral anchor of the show), Barry's unrequited love Iris (Candice Patton, who is intensely charismatic and idealistic in her own right). . .not to mention Team Flash consisting of Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) and Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes, expect to hear from my attorney because your character's nerdity is clearly infringing on my copyright).

And then there's Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh).

 Dear God in Heaven, I could do a rant and half of the character of Harrison Wells, on how the arc of that character is in many ways equally as fascinating as that of our protagonist. If you haven't watched the show, I will do my utmost not to spoil it, but this take on the Mentor Archetype is so wonderfully crafted and put to such amazing use that I was left gobsmacked. As a writer, the gears and mechanisms of Making Story sometimes keep me from fully appreciating a book, movie, or TV show as I can usually pick up on the cues of a series or story unfolding and see things coming from a mile out. Like a magician watching another magician set up a trick. But with Wells. . .well, that'd be telling, but regardless my expectations were played with and I loved it. A gun was hung on the wall in the pilot, and by the end it went off with one seriously powerful bang.

And the love of the source material is insane. Costumes. Code names. THE FLASH MUSEUM. Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Trickster from the '90s FLASH series. Jay. Frickin'. Garrick (whom I've yet to see, but his helmet showed up in the season finale). All handled with such skill that the neophyte and the longtime comics reader can sit down and enjoy it and be equally entertained. I watched an episode of THE FLASH with GORILLA GRODD people. With my father. And he liked it too! We live in blessed times.

So yes, I was late to the party But now that I'm here I can't wait to see where this is headed. Consider me a fan.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

There & Back Again: A Fantasy Fan's Tale.

 So, here we are. The End of All Things.

 It's hard to believe that the film adaptations of LORD OF THE RINGS are now over a decade old. It seems like only yesterday my brother Ryan and I were settling into our seats at the cinema in Red Deer, Alberta to watch the theatrical cut of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001. At the time, I had reasonable, if relatively low expectations for the film. Traditionally to that point Fantasy as a movie genre had experienced only middling success over the past few decades: there were the odd diamonds in the rough (your DRAGONHEART, your WILLOW, your BEASTMASTER), but none of them had really had any definitive staying power and after CONAN THE DESTROYER's rather disappointing follow up to CONAN (the film that had sparked the brief Fantasy revival in movies), the genre was treated much like the Western is now; they can be done, but usually as low-rent, direct to VHS or low-rent cable fare. At the time I had no idea who Jackson was beyond the fact that he'd directed THE FRIGHTENERS(I was blissfully unaware of MEET THE FEEBLES. I will never be that innocent again). I remembered liking the flick, so I thought we'd get something akin to that, with the usual low-rent effects and swiss-chesse narrative of the Bakshi attempt at the Lord of the Rings from years prior. And then the credits rolled, the New Line Cinemas logo appeared. . .and everything changed.

 A moment of painful honesty here: While Tolkien's work as a visionary and a fantasist is beyond dispute, his actual prose tends to leave me a little cold. As an idea man he is without equal. Much like Isaac Asimov, the man created concepts, whole culutres and worlds from the fabric of his imagination. He created the Elvish language in his idle time teaching at Oxford. . .and then created the whole of Middle-Earth to support the linguisitic equivalent of doodling. That is amazing beyond all the telling of it. But his prose has always been a bit problematic to me. I think it suffers from an unfortunate case of bad timing, really: by the time I got my hands on the 1992 Centenary Editions of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, I'd already been to Krynn, the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Lankhmar, Florin, and Camelot. The works of Tolkien were good, make no mistake, but in the wake of those more contemporary authors I was left wondering what the big deal was all about. I was seventeen, people. Grade on a curve is all I'm saying.

 What Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Phillipa Goyens, and Steve Sinclair managed with the adaptations of each of the three texts to film I liken to William Goldman's grandfather in THE PRINCESS BRIDE: they provided "The Good Parts" version of the original work. Of course, it could also be argued that they took more than a few liberties with the series (THE HOBBIT becoming the basis of an entirely new trilogy of films stands testament to that) but I like to think where they erred, they did so on the side of telling an entertaining story, not out of malice or in any effort to upstage Tolkien himself. The novels will always stand as touchstones of epic fantasy, and the films themselves do their best to honor that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is by no means a perfect film: the romance sub-plot is eye-rolling at best and irritating at worst(seriously, Tauriel is seventeen shades of badass but the minute Kili comes into view she gets distracted and beat down? C'mon now), and it was getting to be a bit much to see Legolas constantly playing in God mode(though the impossible happened and he actually ran out of arrows, which was something at least), serving at the Ace Rimmer of Jackson's Tolkienverse. But Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield is easily one of my favorite characters in fantasy film, thanks to the actor's wonderful performance. Whereas Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn wanted no part of his lineage, Thorin is desperate to reclaim it, to see Erebor restored and his people brought back from the misery they endured at Smaug's talons. In the hands of a lesser actor he could have easily gone moustache-twirling, hammy evil when suffering from the Dragon Sickness of the treasure and his need for the Arkenstone, but Armitage makes it clear that there is a very real war going on in the soul of this noble dwarf, to the point I almost expected a Superman III-style fight between King Thorin and Thorin Oakenshield atop the lake of gold.

 Martin Freeman's Bilbo isn't given as much to do here as he did in the previous films, but he is the heart of the films and it shows. His concern for Thorin's sanity, his compassion at the plight of his friend going more and more obessessed with the Arkenstone contrasts neatly with Bilbo's own growing fascination with an object that is equally. . .precious. . .to him.The scene where he takes his leave of Erebor and the dwarves. . .when he says goodbye to Balin and when he returns home. . .if your eyes don't get a little dusty, you're a stronger person than I.

And while yes, the scene with Gandalf's rescue is pure fanservice, I cannot in good conscience state I was at all put out by the arrival of the White Council in the nick of time, to say nothing of the epic smackdown given to the Nine and Sauron. Unnecesary? Maybe. Fun? Ohhhhh hells yes.

All the actors are doing solid, credible work here, but c'mon. We all know Billy Connolly walked off with the movie as Dain Ironfoot. Peter, Fran, Phillipa. . .when do I get my Dain Ironfoot movie? Whose palm do I place the money in? Tell me when to stop.

It's strange to think that the last of these films (THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES) has been released, and with it the entire saga of Tolkien on film has come to its conclusion. As a society raised in part by syndicated television and movie sequels the concept of the third act and the conclusion has always been a problematic one. Stephen King argues in his magnificent ON WRITING that the reason we have so many Fantasy novels stems from that primal desire to continue walking that road that leads ever on, for we cannot fully accept in our minds that the story has come to a close. As a superhero fan, I'm keenly aware of this willful resistance: supehero stories consist entirely of first and second acts. There will never be a final Superman story or final Batman story (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW & THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are mere shadows, 'what-ifs' or 'imaginary stories' that take place outside of canon). Those characters will continue to be written and rewritten, due to a near primal desire to have the familiar reinterpreted for a new generation. But even the best stories end eventually. Arthur faces Mordred at the battle of Camlann, Robin Hood fires his last arrow to mark his gravestone, Beowulf slays the dragon and is in turn slain himself. The best stories end because the destination is as important as the journey itself. Like Bilbo, we come home from the best stories a little older, a little wiser, and with the understanding that it is who we are when standing among good company or playing riddles in the dark that ultimately matters. Be it on the big screen or in the pages of a novel, the journey itself is what's important, and while one story may end we can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be new roads to travel, with new people to meet and new lessons to learn. And that is an encouraging thought.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Dawn of a Dark Tomorrow: Why Caesar's victory was anything but.

 I turned 39 years old this week. That's a chunk of change, to be sure. So like most adults who reach this point in their life, I want to talk about monkeys. Specifically the ending of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and what it means for the franchise as a whole. It goes without saying that pretty much everything below this point is SPOILER country, so if you haven't seen the film (and seriously, why is that? I mean, you did see the trailer where a chimpanzee is dual-wielding machine guns whilst riding on horseback, right? RIGHT?), you may want to take the time to check it out. Seriously, both the Apes movies are way better than any of the fly-by-night remakes and revamps of recent years.

 All right? We good? Here we go. Fairly warned be ye:

 The ending of DAWN has Caesar (masterfully played by Andy 'Can This Man Get A Damn Oscar Already' Serkiss) send Malcom (Jason Clarke) on his way, reunited with his people and having defeated Koba(played to extremely disturbing effect by Toby Kebbell). Caesar holds his family close, but you can tell from the look in his eyes that this victory is practically the textbook definition of pyrhrric. We're allowed the moment of 'victory' because of the three-act structure of the film but you can see it in Caesar's eyes. He is absolutely screwed and he knows it.

 Caesar's development over the course of the two Apes films is easily one the franchise's greatest achievements. It would have been all too easy to set him up as a slavering lunatic, rabidly anti-human and plotting for  the complete and total overthrow of humanity from the get-go in the best supervillain tradition. Instead, they let the story build gradually, allowing us to bond with Caesar and the Rodmans as people rather than merely archetypes to get us to the scene of astronauts screaming at the sight of a ruined statue of Liberty. Like any of us Caesar is the product of his environment, he sees both the good and the bad in humanity but it's ultimately the bad that has him take his genetically modified tribe into the wilderness to raise at a safe remove. That humanity is decimated by the coincidental release of a supervirus that brings about the near-total collapse of civilization is something that I think Casear regrets, but not too much. He sees humans as deeply flawed but not an evil to be eradicated. The trouble is he feels that his people are better, that their burgeoning civilization is the superior one. Enter Koba.

 Koba is one seriously twisted individual. He hates humanity with an absolute passion, and here's the most damning thing: he is not entirely wrong. He sufferred brutally at the hands of the scientists at Gen-Sys, his experiences about as close to a 180 degree turn from Caesar's as you can get. I love that in this film, both sides get an equal say, and both have valid points to make. Especially when Koba catches wind that Dreyfuss(Gary Oldman in a solid role) is preparing for war, just in case the Apes decide that they don't want to cooperate. The humans need that electricity, and while Dreyfuss wants Malcom to succeed, he and his people have lost too much too soon to trust the altruism of a species that (for all they know) originated the plague that killed his wife and family. Koba sees this as vindication of all his beliefs about humans: lying, backstabbing, cheating, and murderous. His world view is simple: The Strong control the Weak. Humanity was Monstrous when they were strong. Now Apes are Strong, and the Humans are Weak. The Apes should seize this moment and kill the humans. All of them. And if Caesar can't see this. . .then Caesar has to go. Koba is so blinded by his hatred that he can't see how much he has in common with his enemy. And Caesar is so blinded by his idealism that he can't see how much his people have in common with Humans. It's an amazing character study, one that I remind you is in a film who only really had to deliver the sight of a chimpanzee dual-wielding machine guns on horseback to have my complete approval.

 But the absolute best thing about the film is that it ends on a triumphantly bleak note. Koba may have been defeated and the Apes may have escaped Dreyfuss' suicide gambit, but in that last moment before the credits roll we see in Caesar's eyes that he realizes how absolutely doomed he is. Koba may have died, but in death he achieved exactly what he wanted: a war between humanity and the apes. And we as the viewers know (from previous experience with the franchise) the outcome of that war: Caesar will lead his people to victory over the humans, with humanity becoming the slave caste of a dominant civilization of intelligent primates. Caesar's name will be revered, but it will be as the heroic liberator of apekind from human tyranny. He'll be a figure of religious awe, not a person. And in that moment at the end of the film you can almost see the mantle of that future history settle around his shoulders. It's a great moment of acting from Serkiss and the reason that it's one of my favorite movies to come out this year. A character goes from child to adult to leader to legend. . .in a movie about talking apes.

 Ps. (Seriously, that scene with the machine guns. . .so. Awesome.)