Category Archives: Modern Mythology
Well, a funny thing happened on my way to the forum, today. I had intended on writing about Batman v Superman and the dangers of over-stuffing films, but with the new Suicide Squad trailer and Wonder Woman footage that dropped last night, I wanted to take this week instead to discuss trailers and -following up from last post- tone.
One of the biggest problems I’ve had (as indicated last week with regards to Fantastic Four) with the DC Cinematic Universe has been it’s Grimdark Aesthetic (grimdark, for the uninitiated, refers to an overly gritty, grim tone).
“Who’s your favorite superhero, Jimmy?”
“I like the one that tells the other one he’s going to make him bleed!”
When Suicide Squad was announced, everyone was a little surprised…introducing DC villains and the Joker in a film without Batman? Unheard of! (Though we later learned that Batman IS in the film both through the trailer and through living in Toronto) We were also shocked when Will ‘Holy Shit, Seriously? Will Smith?!’ Smith was announced as Deadshot. With A-Listers Smith and Margo Robbie (Harley Quinn) in place, producers pulled another coup by courting Oprah for Amanda Waller (the role eventually went to the eminently talented Viola Davis; a much better choice). Already there was something different and neat about this film. Writer/Director David Ayer kept talking about fun, but our confidence was shaken considerably with the reveal of Juggalo Joker (albeit with the caveat that Heath Ledger’s casting was also met with anger and guffaws. Granted, he didn’t have a fucking grill, but that’s neither here nor there…)
Fucking magnets…how do they work?!?!
In spite of this, the first trailer looked vaguely promising…just having Will Smith as a DC villain is already interesting enough to warrant attention, as is the first cinematic appearance of fan favorite Harley Quinn (with extremely promising casting of the yet untested Margo Robbie) and Jared Leto -continuing to prove that he’s a goddamn wizard when the camera is on- proved his Joker, despite the questionable design, was still going to be worth the price of admission. It was necessarily expository (Waller sets up the premise in voice over), gives glimpses of the main cast and essentially builds to a reveal of the Joker.
But it didn’t read as fun. It read the same way the other DC Cinematic trailers had: gritty, dark, IMPORTANT. ACTION-Y. Complete with unnecessarily dark cover of a classic song by a tragic-sounding children’s choir. FOR EMPHASIS AND IMPORTANCE. Here it is for reference:
So, some neat stuff, but worth being excited about? Meh.
But all that changed about two days ago, with the release of some new images, followed promptly by a new trailer.
In today’s post, I’ll be taking a look at how the tone and narrative surrounding Suicide Squad had changed and why: in addition to getting me genuinely excited for the film, this shift also signals hope for the DC universe and how -yet again- a grimdark overlay can set films up for failure.
One Look? One Look? I’ll Show You One Look!
Here’s the first image of the cast that was released:
But which one is Keyser Soze?!?! Smart money is on Margo Robbie.
The image gave fans lots to mull over: it was our first look at how far they were going to go with Killer Croc’s look (hint: exactly far enough!) We got further confirmation that Will Smith was actually in the film (which still seems pretty unreal), and the direction they would go with Harley Quinn (I’ll cover the many looks of Harley Quinn in a future post, but to whet your appetite, here is the range of costumes and looks the film had to choose from…mercifully they found decent mid-ground):
…As you can see, things have kinda been going downhill since her original look from the 90’s.
We also got final confirmation about who would comprise the Squad (the roster in the comics has changed a lot over the years.) The characters from left to right: Slipknot (a master of knots and ropes/50 Shades of Grey Aficionado/Expert Arctic Air pilot), Boomerang (think Green Arrow, but with trick boomerangs instead of trick arrows. Played by Jai ‘Oh, for god’s sake stop being in things’ Courtney of A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys ‘fame’), Enchantress (the one standing, she is a magic user possessed by a witch), Katana (crouching, wields a sword called Soultaker that captures and draws power from the souls of those she kills with it), Rick Flag (an elite soldier; was supposed to be played by Tom Hardy, but he was too busy playing ‘get the Oscar nom!’ in the woods with Leo), Harley Quinn (Formerly obsessed with the Joker), Deadshot (The Fresh Prince; super skilled sniper), Killer Croc (a Batman villain with a genetic condition that gives him reptilian looks…in some versions, like this one, he eats people), and El Diablo (a gangster with pyrotechnic powers). They looked fine, but also at home with the tone of the Superman and Batman photos we’d seen so far: gritty, dark, grim.
Here’s what we got two days ago:
Each of these images has its own breakout poster focusing on the individual characters: they’re funky, interesting, colorful: these suggest a much different film than both the first image and the first trailer. Usually, these are the kinds of posters that fans make (like the spectacular Mondo posters) but here we are with an official series of posters that are a far cry from anything else we’ve seen from the DC Cinematic Universe so far.
This was followed by another poster:
“The difference is stark. Everything’s so muted. The characters look either mildly concerned, or outright bored. All the personality and vibrancy these characters should have—Batman! Superman! Wonder Woman! The World’s Finest!—is just drained, replaced by an endless malaise.”
Suddenly, Suicide Squad was looking much different from the rest of the DC Universe, but that could just be savvy marketing…after all, the discount bins of the world are full of garbage made to look desirable by great ad campaigns…
But the fact remained that regardless of the posters, the trailer still felt tonally incorrect.
Until this dropped yesterday:
And with that, shit got real (interesting)
Tonally New Trailer and Friends
Tone wise, this trailer is much more alive: we get to know the characters, see them in action, the film seems fun and snarky, rather than gritty and grim. Even the use of Bohemian Rhapsody (as sung by Queen, not the Glee Club of the Damned) gives the film a more fun and distinctive vibe. Suddenly, I know what this film wants to be and happily it’s not another grimdark DC flick.
But it is a little familiar…remind you of anything?
If you’re like me, you greeted the announcement of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a resounding ‘What the fuck?’ but this trailer completely turned me around. It was so unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had a sense of fun and play that none of the other films had (being familiar with James Gunn also helped in this case). But really, above all else, two things stand out in this trailer: the humour and the music.
When I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) at Boomerang sneaking a beer in a combat zone, I realized Suicide Squad had hooked me in a similar way. So, why the sudden turn-around? Guardians, already being a long-standing success, can’t be the reason for the recent shift in marketing focus (though you can be damn sure it’s success as a fringe property helped this -and the ill-fated Sinister Six film that I’ll be talking about in my next post- green-lit). While it’s entirely possible that we’re just getting too close to the film to continue to pretend it is tonally similar to Batman V Superman (hell, even Ben Affleck describes Suicide Squad as having ‘a cool cousin’), I think the final push that caused this shift lies in the spandex-clad hands of another hero altogether: Deadpool.
The story of how the Deadpool movie came to be is a fascinating one that I’ll be delving into close to the film’s release date, but in the meantime: Deadpool is a smart-cracking, meta-character (that is aware he’s in a comic) and often engages in hyper-violence and the eating of chimichangas. After a long campaign led by Reynolds himself (and some conveniently leaked test footage), Deadpool was green-lit and has engaged in one of the most brilliant campaigns of fan service I’ve ever seen. From the first trailer (which featured a joke about not putting him in a costume that was neither ‘animated or green’ -burning the much maligned Green Lantern film), to a delightfully violent fake-out announcement that the film would be getting a PG-13 rating (fans were furious) followed by Deadpool murdering the announcer and declaring the R-rating, to the recent campaign of parody posters, and finally, the above trailer. This is a film that by all conventional super hero film logic should not be possible (hard R, sex jokes, swearing, hyper violence…all the fun things studios can’t stand being anywhere near their super hero films; particularly as the rating limits their audience intake. This was a huge issue on Watchmen and even Live Free or Die Hard, which famously censored John McClane’s ‘Yippie Kai Yay, Motherfucker’ and continues to be an issue with Deadpool, even spawning a campaign led by an eight-year-old to get a PG-13 version released) but despite this, Deadpool has become more hyped that even the new X-Men film. In large part, this is because of how fully the film has embraced its tone: it knows it’s a different beast and it’s reveling in it. Consequently, we know what we’re in for, we know whether we’ll be excited or not, and this weird movie can just let its freak-flag fly.
While there may not be a link between the three marketing campaigns, the parallel sends a clear message: regardless of the cinematic universe your film exists in, the tone of the film -not the universe- needs to be front and centre. By allowing us to see the film as director David Ayer has been describing it for the first time, Suicide Squad has gone from being a curio to a project of genuine interest. If, however, the marketing had continued to depict the grim, en sepia world of Batman v Superman, we might have no idea why this film was interesting until it was too late. Now, good or bad, Suicide Squad can stand on it’s own.
I’m now quite unexpectedly eager to be there on opening night to find out.
So. Ben Affleck is Batman.
It has been a long time since the casting of a superhero role caused as much of a collective groan and snarl from the legion of both filmic and comic fans (I think the last big one was the casting of Keanu Reeves in Constantine…)
Immediately the Internet was alight with nerd rage, amplified by the fans of the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, whose only point of comparison for Batman is Christian Bale. Instead we get Affleck. Gigli‘s Ben Affleck. Hero of the Michael Bay-verse for much of the early 2000’s. Star of the horrendous Daredevil film. Most recently, guy who directs movies about Boston accents and who forgets Canada had a role in that whole Argo affair (that was, you know, facilitated by the Canadian ambassador…)
“Why the hell is Ben-fucking-Affleck playing Batman?” the Internet demanded.
But to my mind, we’re asking the wrong question: everyone is so fixated on who got cast, that we’re ignoring the greater question (particularly in-light of the Man of Steel film): what kind of Batman are we getting and why?
If we’re getting the Batman I think we are, Affleck is a pretty damn good choice; but we can argue about that later. First, let’s take a look at what we know…
50 SHADES OF BATMAN
Batman has been around a long time and a lot of artists have had a hand in crafting the stories that have become the legacy of the bat. For example…
This is the original design for Batman, as imagined by the credited creator of the Dark Knight, Bob Kane. It wasn’t until un-lauded hero Bill Finger suggested a re-design that we got the Batman we now know and love. As a result, there have been many, many incarnations of Batman across the mediums, from comics, to cartoons, to films (and perhaps most importantly, in the imaginings and play acting of kids…who grow up to be fans…and write blogs…). Consequently, every incarnation chooses which elements to focus on and develop, allowing for a large amount of variation, despite the character being fundamentally the same. Grant Morrison offers this helpful summation of the eras of Batman in comics:
“[I was researching Batman’s rich history] from the savage, young, pulp-flavored ‘weird figure of the dark’ of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ’50s, the superhero detective of the ’60s, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ’70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ’80s and snarling, paranoid soldier of the ’90s.” (Morrison, Batman Incorporated Special #1)
The 60’s show brought us the wacky antics of the Golden Age comics (Batman meets the Native American Man of Bats!) In the films, we get a vaguely militaristic Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film, a quirkier, cartoonist Batman in Forever, and buddy cop Batman in Batman and Robin. The cartoon takes an interesting mix, bringing more of a noir/detective sensibility to the character and also bringing us a more developed and present Bruce Wayne (one of the most singularly interesting facets of which was both Bruce and Batman referring to all his villains by their first names, rather than their super villain names. It’s a small touch, but an important one as Batman refuses to put up with their super villain non-sense…despite the whole ‘being dressed as a bat’ thing).
Which brings us to the Nolan Batman. Nolan’s Batman draws its inspiration most heavily from Frank Miller’s seminal Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, both of which are regarded as cornerstones of the mythology. Year One features a younger, less experienced Batman training in martial arts and beginning to fight the mob corruption of Gotham (sound familiar?). Dark Knight Returns, on the other hand, explores the opposite end of the spectrum, with a retired Batman returning to seize control of a Gotham in chaos, eventually faking his death in order to continue his work in secret (sound familiar as well?). In order to create his trilogy, Nolan draws from many of the strongest arcs and villains in the Batman universe: we get Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia Al Ghul, two of the most important (though generally unknown to non-readers) villains in the rogue’s gallery (Talia is the mother of Bruce’s ill-fated son -and most recent Robin- Damian). The multi-issue arc No Man’s Land saw Gotham cut off from America by an earthquake and becoming its own nation ruled by gangs (one of which was led by Commissioner Gordon) in lieu of an absentee Batman…until people start marking the walls with his logo signalling his return. With Bane, he brings in the Knightfall arc, which involved Batman’s spine being broken and cataloged the psychological toll recovery took on him (of particular note was his sudden reluctance to leap off buildings. A nice touch in an otherwise ham-fisted story). These are many of the fundamental stories about Batman and make for a fairly fascinating survey of the past few decades of stories…so what do you do now?
My guess is that you explore Detective Batman. Bale’s Batman was very much a brawler and a thug, like Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale: Bale’s Batman lets others (namely Lucius Fox) do the thinking for him, rushing headlong into many fights full of piss and vinegar, leading to Rachel’s death in the second film and his back breaking in the third. There’s very little detection, but plenty of reaction; it’s a passionate, fierce performance, but lacks the intelligence element of Batman. This is a superhero who can, at times, operate more like Sherlock Holmes than Bruce Lee. So, when rebooting a character so soon after an iconic take, it would make sense to explore this element of the character -as yet untapped in the live films- particularly when placing him next to a physical powerhouse like Superman.
With as iconic (and complete) a trilogy as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, you cannot simply reboot the character with a focus on the same elements: this is a fundamental issue in the new Spider-Man films; which present a better take on Peter, perhaps, but generally a worse universe and one not dissimilar enough from Raimi’s to warrant the reboot. They’re telling many of the same stories, but with a few details and players changed. Not good enough. Many people discussed the potential for a Batman Beyond film, something so different from Nolan’s that it could stand on its own.
Including Batman in the Man of Steel series is a clever workaround: it allows us to examine Batman through a different lens, not as THE hero of the film, but A hero of the film; something that is frequently visible in team books like Justice League and help us re-examine what specifically makes Batman Batman.
Thus, in order to figure out what kind of Batman we’re getting, we need to examine the film we’re getting him in: what kind of Batman lives in the Man of Steel universe?
Well, Zac Snyder has given us a pretty damn good clue:
REMEMBER MY HANDS
“I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments. I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.
In the press conference announcing Superman/Batman, the above line was spoken following the logo reveal. This immediately set the Internet alight, as the fight that line concludes is one of the most epic ever featured in a comic book: Batman and Superman come to blows in a fight to the death. Crazy. (There’s a passable film version, if you’re interested, but please ignore Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller’s horrendous Batman voice). The line is delivered after Batman has defeated Superman, re-emphasizing that using his brain and technology, a human has defeated a god. This is the grand climax of The Dark Knight Returns and the best example of a Batman and Superman fight ever.
That this line is the one used signals a lot of info about what we can expect (particularly given that Frank Miller is said to be consulting on the film). I gave Dark Knight Returns a re-read the other day and was surprised at how much has already been used in the Dark Knight Rises; we’ve seen reclusive, reluctant old-man Batman return to the fight and Nolan even included a verbatim set of lines (when the old cop tells the young cop that they’re in for a show) in the film. What’s left is the entire political undertone and Superman plot, which are an incredible, incredible resource, particularly given the close relationship Man of Steel has developed with the US military.
In a nutshell: Reagan (who is ancient and uses an avatar to do his PR appearances) has been using Superman -the last, licensed superhero- to help win the Cold War (think Dr. Manhattan in Watchman). The rest of the heroes were out on trial and generally decided to go their separate ways (Wonder Woman returned to the Amazons, Green Lantern to space), with only Superman still working…justifying the acts of war he is carrying out by the ‘doing the most good for the most people’ argument. Batman, meanwhile, has been defiant, retiring out of guilt over Jason Todd (the second Robin)’s death (which was determined by fans calling in to vote. LOL)
Now, his return and large scale vigilante actions (he recruits an army) has forced the government’s hand and Superman is sent in to take him down.
The dynamic at work here is awesome and fairly characteristic of how Batman and Superman differ: Superman, the big blue boyscout, is not concerned with the big picture, failing to grasp the greater politics at work (as Bruce says, “You let them do it. I always knew you would…I’ll assume Russia has taken the lead in the arms race. I keep track of these things, Clark. One of us has to.”)
Batman, on the other hand, has been keeping track of the global situation, but simply doesn’t care, focused instead on his personal crusade in Gotham. Superman works with the authorities, Batman defies them. Superman is a trusted weapon in the army’s arsenal, Batman ends up spending half his time fighting the police force in Gotham.
This dynamic is a useful basis for what we can reasonably expect from Superman/Batman given the heavy military presence and co-operation in Man of Steel (drone killing excepted): we already have a Superman who could reasonably be expected to co-operate with the military, so we will likely see a Batman who is on bad terms with the law and has perhaps detected something sinister about the motives of those commanding Superman (think Tony Stark’s paranoia about S.H.I.E.L.D. compared to Captain America’s trust and faith in The Avengers).
This is not to suggest that Superman is blindly naive (though he can be) nor that Batman is an infallible genius (though he can be), but to suggest that emphasizing Superman’s faith in people and in doing the right thing against Batman’s paranoia and push to seek the truth yields great dramatic results and ultimately makes them great partners (and friends!)
But what could bring Batman to Metropolis and who could maneuver Batman against Superman?
Well, there’s this bald guy…
My good friend -and film aficionado- Andrew Kelly presented a useful scenario: both Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne are giants of industry; people who would likely be instrumental in the rebuilding of a city…say one that has just been decimated by General Zod.
Also, since the relaunch in the New 52 (and indeed many of the Batman comics leading up to it, notably The Gates of Gotham and The Return of Bruce Wayne) Bruce Wayne has been focusing his non-crime fighting hours on building a better Gotham; like Luthor, he is now a viable business man to compete for or assist in the rebuilding of Metropolis. This leads me to think we’ll need a more competent Bruce Wayne than Bale’s, who despite some entertaining moments seemed a bit like an afterthought. In this, Affleck makes a lot of sense; the aging playboy with natural charm, though a bit rough around the edges. Maybe Gotham is in New England?
As to Luthor and Batman: Luthor makes perfect sense in any mythology as a business man, but he is also is particularly well suited to the ‘alien paranoia’ argument presented throughout Man of Steel. Luthor is always at his best when his overwhelming frustration at observing a being that is beyond human perfection drives him to commit evil acts: Luthor considers himself close to human perfection, but he cannot be Superman, an alien who is essentially cheating with powers to be the best. This ‘us-vs-them’ mentality fits the Kryptonians showed up and tried to commit planet-wide genocide events of Man of Steel and thus opens us an interesting angle for Batman as well: Luthor can likely bring the ‘there’s a super powered alien playing judge, jury, and executioner running around Metorpolis…how do you feel about that?’ argument, which is awesome. In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ incredible Kingdom Come, Luthor forms a Human Rights League to band together and defeat the meta-humans, even convincing Bruce Wayne to join (albeit, as a feint), which again presents a very Man of Steel friendly scenario.
Also, Luthor is probably going to be Bryan Cranston. Awesome. Maybe Batman will come to Metropolis to break up Luthor’s meth operation?
This brings us around to another major point of contention we have now (and really, only in this mythology): Superman is now, very publicly, a killer. If there’s one thing Batman can’t abide, it’s killing.
In Kingdom Come, there is a beautiful argument between Superman and Batman, with Superman trying to convince Batman to aid him in putting a stop to the out-of-control younger generation of meta humans, who are killing wantonly.
“We aren’t killers, that’s why…” Etc etc
In fact, in the comics, Wonder Woman is the part of the DC ‘Trinity’ who crossed the line in the Infinite Crisis, killing a villain to huge debate from the League (this is a key point in Kingdom Come as well). As an Amazonian warrior, the ‘war’ with super villains takes a different tone that both Batman and Superman actively oppose. But now Superman is the killer, in a war scenario, but a killer nonetheless. This above statement (one that sums up many fans’ frustrations with Man of Steel), is not valid in this new mythology: how our new Batman reacts to this will be instructive.
In a recent statement, a DC exec said we’ll be seeing a ‘QUOTE’, which seems to support the arguments above. It dodges the pitfall of having to rehash an origin we’ve all seen one too many times (how awesome would more ‘super hero in progress’ movies be? Here’s a hint: unless it has Nazi-hunter Magneto, pretty damn awesome) and allows us to explore a jaded, but established Batman in opposition to the newly minted Superman of Man of Steel. Affleck’s role in The Town, which was well played though ultimately forgettable (partially because I liked the movie more when it was called Heat), was quite similar to this and he was great in it. He’s an actor who has seen a lot, hit the bottom careerwise, and earned his way back with great roles, great direction, and greater humility. We will not be seeing Daredevil era Affleck; we’re getting an actor we know has charm and presence, but has also seen some rough times. He’s at a perfect place in his career (now out of the woods) to be able to use those hard times to inform a long-fighting Batman who is already kind of tired when a super powered being arrives on the scene. I suspect we’ll be seeing a greater emphasis on Bruce Wayne and Affleck seems like a good fit; his slightly weary bearing is a great counterpoint for the steely optimism of Henry Cavill’s Superman. It is also instructive that Josh Brolin was also up for the role-he would make a great world-weary Bruce Wayne, but I have a harder time thinking of him in the cowl. From Daredevil, we already know Affleck can carry that (and to be fair, the cast -aside from Colin Farrell- was not the problem with Daredevil…the script and pacing were horrendous, but Affleck and Clark Michael Duncan were solid).
Ultimately, I don’t envy the casting directors who have to pick a new Batman. It’s a delicate balancing act, let alone all the concerns of a new script and reboot, and you’re casting for a decade, not a film (don’t be surprised if Wonder Woman shows up at the end of the film…maybe played by Samuel L Jackson). Superman/Batman is the next step toward Justice League (which was kicked further down the field by the absolute failure of Green Lantern, which was trying pretty hard to be a Marvel movie and was meant to be the start of the shared DC universe). Affleck obviously has big boots to fill, but he’s filling them as part of a team and ensemble, not alone. A lot of the pressure will be mitigated by having the focus shared between Superman and Batman hopefully offering him a chance to make a Batman all his own.
There is, of course, a chance that he will be terrible. Or merely okay, which could be worse, but there was a time when the world was pretty upset that that kid from A Knight’s Tale was going to be playing the Joker.
Whether Affleck succeeds or fails remains to be seen, but it’s a mistake to assume he’ll be playing the same character as Christian Bale: we’re getting a new Batman.
And I’m pretty damn sure it’ll be better than Constantine.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN…
There’s also a neat script floating around the Internet about the failed Superman/Batman film from a few years ago, which involves Bruce Wayne’s wife dying, Lex Luthor unleashing a clone Joker, and ends with Batman suggesting they get a beer and Superman asking to go for soda instead. It’s a really strange buddy cop film with superheroes. Read all about it over at Geek Tyrant.
Film: Resident Evil Retribution
Games: Resident Evil 1, 2, 4, 6…sort of.
Resident Evil Retribution opens with one of my favourite Simpsons tropes of all time:
“Well it’s come to this: a Resident Evil plot clip show.”
We get the longest “My name is Alice” spiel ever, as Milla Jovovich troopers through the entire twisted Resident Evil film continuity to-date. For a continuity nerd like me, this is appreciated but needless, however it did highlight something kinda important about this series: The original Resident Evil film debuted eleven years ago, in 2002. It’s a testament both the Milla Jovovich’s charisma, the zombie genre, and Japan’s continued interest in the franchise that these films are still being made.
Yep, there are more movies in this franchise than in Indiana Jones. Look on my works ye mighty and despair.
And thus, a clip show is entirely necessary for bringing us up to speed before launching into the penultimate (and fifth) film in the series…while the film is certainly leagues better than Resident Evil Afterlife (not a terribly high benchmark…), the question remains: how does it link-up to the abysmal Resident Evil 6?
Well, that’s the weird part: 11 years in, the film’s focus has turned its eyes away from the games and inward toward itself; a zombie snake eating its own tale (or an ouroboros, for those supernerds in the house). Much like with Resident Evil Extinction, this is actually a good thing, as the films have created their own mythology over the years which is just as complex and absurd as the games that inspired them. By focusing inward, we get a better movie more consistent with the film universe and thus more rewarding as a viewing audience.
Now, we aren’t entirely free of video game insertions. Not by a long shot. But ever since Resident Evil Apocalypse, the games and movies have had a tenuous relationship at best, often just shoe-horning in name characters for the sake of ‘the fans,’ leading to the horrendously non-nonsensical Resident Evil Afterlife. This is still present in Retribution (adding Leon S. Kennedy, Ada Wong, and Barry Burton into the mix), but their introduction is plot based-ish rather than “Hey, we have Chris Redfield in a jail cell for some reason. Look, a 3D effect!” Also, we don’t get the weird antagonistic ‘our characters are better!’ attitude of Resident Evil Apocalypse, instead we get game characters in the place of random commandos, which works just fine.
Now, given that likely few-to-none of you saw the film (I didn’t) let’s take a quick look at what this damn movie is about:
Retribution opens with a stylish backward action sequence (which is one of the first interesting visual ideas presented in the series in some time), picking up immediately after the ending of Afterlife with the entirely unmotivated assault on the remainsof humanity by Umbrella because sure-why-not. It’s a quick palette cleanser to kill off Chris and Claire and all the other people we don’t want to pay anymore before we’re off to a neat little sequence in a house, which highlights a key problem in a 5-film continuous zombie franchise: if you declare Earth extinct and overrun in the third film, you’re going to have a bad time.
Had to. It’s like internet law now.
So, we jump back to pre-infection, with Alice married to Carlos and yet another kid-to-protect-for-a-film daughter (who is deaf! Instant character depth!). Naturally: zombies happen. And we get a brief pre-infection sequence, which reads a lot like the flash-sideways sequences late in LOST, where we see familiar figures from throughout the franchise exhibiting strange behavior.
She never stays dead.
Well, it quickly ends in death and sadness, before we get our obligatory ‘Alice in skimpy medical scrubs in giant Umbrella room’ sequence, where brainwashed via “Resident Evil 5 chest scarab” Jill Valentine delivers lines like a speak-and-spell. We discover we’re in an Umbrella facility full of clones and simulations (hence that weird ‘Japan outbreak’ at the beginning of Extinction) that Umbrella has been using to build weapons. Okay, so to recap: clones. Every fucking character we’ve ever liked who worked for Umbrella had tonnes of clones around. We’re talking ‘that door room from Monsters, Inc‘ numbers of clones.
Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas‘ handiwork, no doubt.
Alice and Ada (who is a generic super soldiery type) have to fight their way through various locations around the world (in the underground facility) to meet up with an extraction team (of familiar movie and game characters). Along the way, they end up fighting all our favourites: Michelle Rodriguez (back from the dead, just like Fast and the Furious 6!), the captain from the first one who got laser walled (the excellent and highly underrated Colin Salmon), and of course Carlos ‘That Guy From the Mummy!’ Alvarez (we’re missing Lane Pryce and Jorah Mormont…but what’re you gonna do…) It’s actually a really fun conceit and all the video game characters actually make sense in this one (and act like themselves). We also get our first on-screen kill of a video game character (sorry Barry.)
He was infuriatingly close to saying ‘Jill sandwich’ but didn’t. FAIL!
Gamewise, the added characters of Leon (Resident Evil 2, 4, 6) and Ada (2, 4, 6) are two of the 7 main characters of RE6 (you read that right. 7.) so we have our obligatory connection, we get a locational similarity (RE6 was very globe-trotty, the tagline of Retribution was ‘Evil goes global’) and frankly, that’s all we want. I never wanted to see Las Plagus (explained as a mutation. Sure.) or the nail-headed guy (explained as a bioweapon. Sure, I guess.) but seeing a couple of familiar faces instead of randoms? Cool. Other than that, we’ve got a movie about the movies and a game about the games (sort of).
And this makes me very happy.
As I stated above, the inclusion of video game storylines like Nemesis has been consistently frustrating, but here the most references we get are to the earlier films and it’s a lot of fun having them back. The main enemy is the Licker, the Red Queen computer has decided to KILL ALL HUMANS, Michelle Rodriquez is back being awesome. And most importantly, it honours the fans of it’s own series, not the games that spawned it.
Yet again, the film succeeds by giving us the ‘twist ending’ of Alice arriving in Washington (Wesker is still alive for some reason) and learns that former ‘KILL ALL HUMANS’ Wesker now wants to save all humans, makes Alice magic again, and ends with a Helms Deep-esque seige of the White House.
Fuck it, why not.
Word to the wise: don’t get the elven master archer to shoot the bomb guy. Despite that shield-surfing thing a few minutes ago, he will totally fail now that it matters.
It’s not a great film by any stretch, but it evokes my favorite elements of many of the previous ones (especially the first) and has pointed to an actual series ending, which we need after 11 years.
So, yet again, the quest continues. By the next film, Resident Evil 7 will be upon us and we can put this article to bed once and for all. But in the meantime, I’m happy to say the films have finally come into their own (again) and the film franchise might get the ending its fans deserve.
And after 11 years, they deserve one hell of one.
It’ll probably have a laser hallway.
So, much, much delayed, here is the continuation of the Resident Evil Movie/Game comparison; after finishing this piece next week with ‘Retribution,’ I shall be back to more regular material! See you then? *He said hopefully, with tears in his eyes*
Resident Evil Extinction and Resident Evil Afterlife are strange beasts, by comparison to their predecessors, mostly because after declaring global extinction in Extinction, they violently shift the plot away from anything resembling the games’ timeline (where outbreaks are frequent, but never global in scale). As a result, I’m going to give each one a truncated look before moving on to the latest to see just how our little experiment in video game movie adventuring has turned out.
FILM: Resident Evil: Extinction
GAMES: Resident Evil 1, 2
I actually was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed this one. After Apocalypse I was pretty much ready to give up on this whole affair, but lo and behold, here’s a film that operates on its own and is better for it. The three plots follow Alice-in-exile learning to lift rocks with her unpredictable Jedi powers and fighting random evil redneck racists (as seems to happen to every good apocalypse survivor), Carlos and our pimp friend from the previous film have teamed up with a convoy of survivors in Mad Max style vehicles, and Dr. Jorah Mormont who is working hard to impress Resident Evil mainstay Albert Wesker (the perennial villain of the series, portrayed by the guy from Terra Nova in this one) by developing a new Alice and domesticating zombies so the evil corporate retreat underground doesn’t become a permanent home. All these elements work well together and for the first time in a while, Umbrella’s motives start to make sense again: they accidentally wiped out most of the human race, but they want to rebuild, to ‘return to the surface’ as it were.
There’s some fun business about recreating Alice by putting clones through a simulation of the first film that is all kinds of neat, as it allows set pieces (laser Cube room!) to get more play, as well as allowing for a great climax in the laser room. It evokes the best film of the franchise and reminds us why these movies matter at all as a distinct entity.
In game terms, the convoy is run by Claire Redfield, hero of the second game and Resident Evil: Code Veronica
What’s neat about this is that the film Claire is entirely her own film character. She shares the ‘strong, inventive, leader’ qualities of the game character, but the similarities end there. Unlike Jill, they just wrote a character, slapped a familiar name on her and then actually wrote a character. A welcome change.
The story plays out like a mix of The Walking Dead (ragtag band of survivors on-the-move) and serves almost as a sequel to Romero’s Land of the Dead (with highly organized people dealing with a complete wasteland). Alice finds a random book that implies safety in Alaska…
So that’s where the convoy endeavors to go. Along the way we get classic zombie tropes (our friendly neighborhood pimp gets bitten and-in a kind of awesome and rare choice for an established zombie universe-just doesn’t tell anyone. This leads to Carlos getting bitten by his friend, which is a nice little moment.) as well as a couple neat last-stand type of events, first against crows (see below) and then a good ol’ fashioned zombie throw-down in sand-sunk Las Vegas. It’s a fun film with really good action sequences; Alice is likable again, there’s no jerky cam…all is as right with the world as this franchise can make it!
The two major game inclusions in this one come in the form of the Tyrant (the original boss of the first game and a nice inclusion as what Jorah evolves into)
And crows. The central villains of this film are crows, weirdly enough; but if you’ve played one of the original Resident Evil games, you know just how awful these beaked motherfuckers are.
They were, in a lot of ways, the original Nemesis monster, breaking through windows randomly and hard to hit because they were constantly in motion. Given how limited your ammo (and ability to aim) was, this proved to be legitimately difficult to contend with. For the film, they make the biggest damn murder of crows you can think of and have the bastards swarm the convoy. It’s a neat scene, much different than what’s been done previously and leads to a truly stunning visual moment where Alice uses her newfound Jedi powers to set the sky on fire. Badass.
As always, the film can’t just end, so we get a denouement of Alice unplugging her army of clones and declaring war on Umbrella. Nifty.
The film does, of course, have its share of problems: remember that little girl they spent all that time saving in the second film? Neither do they. (Although according to Wikipedia, the novelization details how Umbrella mind controlled Alice into killing her. Neat! Now THAT’S how you open a film! …also, they made an novelization. Tee hee.) Jill is also mysteriously absent (though she does come back in Afterlife) And then there’s Ashanti (yep, that Ashanti) who is inexplicably present as the badass medic. Then she dies. Yep.
But all-in-all, a much better film and a step in the right direction.
So naturally, the only way to follow that up is to take a massive leap backwards into crappytown.
Which brings us to Afterlife.
FILM: Resident Evil: Afterlife
GAMES: Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5
This film just straight up sucks. It’s a mess of boring ideas, awkward slow motion sequences, odd video game inclusions, unlikable/meaningless characters, and useless 3D moments (look! I’m throwing shit at the camera! Be impressed! SO IMPRESSED!)
WOW! A DAGGER CAME RIGHT OUT OF THE SCREEN AT ME! I hope the wonders of 1952 impress just as much!
The film’s plot is tweetable and empty. Allow me:
“Alice goes Matrix, clones die, can’t find friends, then finds one, then goes to a prison, then fights super Wesker on a ship IN 3D #boourns”
So, yeah. All those clones? Dead in one big Matrix shoot-out. Kinda neat, but suffers from the usual clone problems (like Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) where when clones watch other clones die…they just don’t care. No big deal. Despite the fact that they are all independent and individual…they understand we don’t need to care about them, so they don’t care about themselves. Jolly decent of them.
Then big bad Wesker de-powers Alice with a Bag of Spilling maneuver, because, whoops…now she’s too powerful. Awful. She’s still a super ninja, but no more super powers. Ummm…what?
We’ve been told for three movies how she’s super special and magical, but turns out, one good injection…not so much anymore! Bet Dr. Mormont wishes he’d known that.
The prison is the bulk of the film and is filled with cardboard characters that might as well be wearing red shirts on Star Trek. They all have exactly one detail about them and die almost as quickly as you can forget said detail. The main joy of the ‘prison’ is a) No Lori and Carl *winks knowingly at Walking Dead fans* and b) that it is Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, both inside and out. (And if you’ve spent any time in there, you know it’s damn near a prison. I think they actually had to make the interior MORE cheery for the film…)
From the games, we get a bunch of random shit, none of which fits what is actually going on…
For example: in Resident Evil 4 (and later 5), the standard zombie enemy is replaced by a parasite based creature that means when the enemies get up close, the parasite comes out of the mouth and eats your face. Awful. In Afterlife (which came out around RE5), the zombies now arbitrarily do this to tie the film and current game together…but this makes no sense in context of the universe they’ve created. Nothing has happened to change the zombies, they are just able to do this now, magically. Even the zombie dogs can do this now. Just because.
They also included the executioner character who already makes little sense in the game and even less in-film. Why is there a seven foot tall executioner wandering the streets of LA with his death metal axe? Who is he? Why is he here?
The simple answer: he was in the game. As one of the most visually identifiable enemies of the new game, can understand the inclusion, but as is the case with the parasites it doesn’t fit the reality of the film (overblown zombie-tastic reality that it is…)
Then there are the ‘mind control scarabs,’ used in Resident Evil 5 to provide a shootable target for the player to hit while fighting mind-controlled Jill Valentine (as seen at the end of this film). In a game, having something that looks so silly is fine because we understand it has to be hit-able from a gameplay perspective…but in a film it looks horrendously out of place. It’s like when Bubastus shows up in the last few minutes of the Watchmen film. There was a collective “Wtf?” from the audience, who were suddenly faced a creature that one guy yelled out “looks like Snagglepuss.” Comics readers recognized it, but in the world of the film, it came out of nowhere. Same with the weird mind control scarab.
And finally we have Wesker and Chris, long standing characters from the games, who are plunked down into this film because they featured heavily in Resident Evil 5. They even include all Wesker’s Matrix style moves from the game (recreated perfectly) and a weird moment where Wesker throws his sunglasses and Chris catches them.
The attempt to make Wesker the central villain whose goal is using Umbrella to capture survivors to experiment on them is all kinds of ridiculous. In the previous film, Umbrella was just trying to return to the surface. Fine, that all makes sense. Now they’re capturing survivors to…do more tests? What the hell? The world ended and they’re still carrying out pointless, evil experiments? Ugh. Awful. Wesker tries to claim he needs new DNA, but they were already capturing people before he took the T-Virus…soooo….?
The film ends with an army of helicopters attacking our heroes, because apparently Umbrella still has nothing better to do than be the most evil all the time forever.
It’s a complete fumble, incredibly incoherent and generally boring. I don’t really know if the series can redeem itself; but I suppose I’ll find out with Retribution…
Gamers who love consistent storytelling and continuity: we are a dangerous breed.
RESIDENT EVIL APOCALYPSE
FILM: Resident Evil: Apocalypse
GAMES: Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil: Code Veronica
The first Resident Evil movie is a fantastic example of how to take a pre-existing mythology and re-purpose it for film. It took the important elements of the game and transposed them into a strange hybrid action/horror film, filled with scenes that could live just as easily in Final Destination or Saw. It was its own product while still tapping into the series that spawned it.
And then the sequel came out.
The big problem (and it is a big fucking problem) comes with the success of ‘being your own product’: sometimes you begin to think your product is better than the original. That your characters, scenarios, and ideas about the original are superior and should be presented as such. For the most part, this is a big mistake.
See also: X3: The Last Stand, Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2 & 3, Batman and Robin or pretty much anything else that takes characters and stories you like and throws them under a bus to promote their own weird agenda.
And that’s what we get with Resident Evil Apocalypse: a film that decides a) to directly plug into the game continuity and include popular game characters and b) make the film characters much, much cooler and more important than the game characters. This should immediately raise some red flags: much like a film adaptation of a favorite book, why should I be more excited because you’re putting something I already know and like on film? Now, for a lot of fans on Twitter (I follow Milla Jovoitch), the mere close, physical approximation of the video game character is, for some reason, super exciting and the bestest ever. Maybe I’m not the target audience (though as a die-hard Resident Evil fan I could have sworn I was…)
If you’re lucky enough not to have seen this movie, here’s the breakdown:
The film is based primarily on Resident Evil 3: Nemesis while borrowing liberally from cut scenes in Resident Evil: Code Veronica
Following the first film, the T-Virus has gotten loose in Raccoon City and has turned the populace into zombies. Alice, our hero from the first film, has been woken up by Umbrella to test her newly augmented abilities (turns out, they injected her with the virus and made her into a super hero because sure-why-not). Presumably after consulting their ‘Do The Most Evil Thing All The Time Forever’ corporate mandate plaque, Umbrella decides to pit super hero Alice against slow and lumbering Nemesis. Meanwhile, Mad Men‘s Lane Pryce is trying to save his daughter, who is stuck in the city before Umbrella nukes the place.
Alice teams up with video game character and hero of the first and third games Jill Valentine, and Carlos Rivera: hero of the third game and ancestral protector of Hamunaptra.
And a fast talking pimp who, by an incredibly strange twist of fate, ends up being the most likable character in the film. He also played “Black Jim” in The Hangover
This rag-tag group of wacky characters attempt to save Lane Pryce’s daughter (played by the little girl who played the Red Queen computer in the first film; well played, movie.) and try and escape the city.
The plot itself works just fine, with Lane (playing Dr. Ashford, a nod to the most important name in Resident Evil lore as the founder of Umbrella) offering escape in exchange for his daughter’s safety. And frankly, the first ten minutes are all kinds of awesome.
Things go pear-shaped pretty fast though.
I distinctly remember the moment in the theatre when I realized that something had gone horribly awry: zombies are taking over the city (awesome!) and then they mob an alleyway…and the director slaps on a weird, jerky-cam that was, I suspect, meant to dial up the horror of the zombies…but instead reads as a relic of older films that has been rightly ditched because it looks like shit. It takes any horror at impending zombie apocalypse and instead makes you go, “Oh, not to worry. I’m watching an 80’s music video.” It doesn’t affect the plot in the slightest, but stands as a herald of bad things to come.
Despite some awesome zombie scenes (intercut with the occasional jerky-cam fiasco), the undead quickly disappear from the film. You know that film you’re watching about zombies? Neither does the director. In an interview about the film, I recall the writer and director talking about how this was a ‘super hero film’.
NO, IT ISN’T.
These are super hero movies.
And here’s my second major problem: super hero Alice. Now in the first film, we had a kick ass heroine, who pulled off some top-shelf action hero stuff (running up a wall and kicking a zombie dog mid-air, for instance) while still being a vulnerable, likable character. Alice had great empathy for the people and events around her, which made us fear for her (and cheer for her) amongst characters that we really couldn’t care less about.
But then we get slapped with “badass action hero syndrome” where, in order to make the hero seem cooler, Alice becomes an unlikable jerkass. We’re talking ‘Emo Spider-Man’ unlikable. We’re expected to take this as ‘Alice has become hardened by her experiences in the first film’ but instead we get a stoic jackass who insults everyone and their genuine concern about being stuck in a zombie infested city because, fuck them. We get eventual warmth when the little girl shows up (and when they start building the Carlos/Alice relationship a bit, which is nice), but not before any goodwill we had toward red dress wearing, often naked Alice of the first film has burned away. Unto itself, not a tremendous problem, but when coupled with my third major complaint it becomes damn near unpalatable: now that Alice is an unlikable, stoic action hero (with some good ol’ fashioned emo hatred of everything that’s happening forever) all the glib dismissive lines she spews at the beloved video game characters are very hard to stomach.
This is primarily in reference to Jill Valentine, who Resident Evil fans identify very closely with as one of the main characters of the first game (you are offered the choice to play as her or Chris ‘Apparently I was on Prison Break‘ Redfield) as well as the hero of the third game (wearing her hilarious ‘casual outfit’ that she gets stuck in while trying to escape the city). In this film, she is a weird, proxy Alice; embodying all the warm but heroic characteristics of her in the first film, while everyone (herself included) comments on how much less useful she is than Alice. The main culprit line after Alice kills three lickers while nary batting an eyelash:
Jill: I’m good, but I’m not THAT good.
Translation: Hey movie character, you sure are more awesome than I am. Video games suck.
This would be like making a movie set in the Mario universe, introducing a bunch of characters (like Super Carlo, the plumber hero! He wears magenta or something) who reference the fact that they are in the Mario world, then saying “Hey, we should bring in Mario! This is a series set in the Mario world, after all.”
So in comes Mario, but all he wants to talk about is how much more awesome Super Carlo is. WHY BOTHER? Why would you want to bring in a fan favorite character, to appease the fans, and then slag them? Terrible.
Nemesis falls into this camp too. In the games, this guy was fucking terrifying. He would stalk you mercilessly, appearing in random locations and growling “S.T.A.R.S.” (which still sends a shiver down the spine of many an RE player). And then mid-way through the game, because being an unkillable monster that punches your face off repeatedly isn’t scary enough, they give him a fucking rocket launcher.
Here’s my favorite encounter: there’s a safe room, where you can save and manage your supplies that will never have monsters in it. Great. It’s a place of comfort and love, like Joe’s happy place in Fight Club, but with less penguins and more ammo chests. I exited (as I had several times before) into a tight, confined alleyway…and, SURPRISE! There’s my ol’ pal Nemesis standing directly outside the door. He yelled “S.T.A.R.S!” and proceeded to instantly murder me, by lifting my character up and impaling her face with a horrific wrist spike.
It was traumatic. It was an awesome, random, unscripted moment and punished me for thinking I was ever safe anywhere. Lesson learned, Resident Evil.
His story in the game is that Nemesis is a more advanced version of the Tyrant monsters that we’ve been fighting since game one, but where these things have been final bosses or limited to certain areas before, he’s just going to be everywhere. And he’s been sent to kill all witnesses to the events of the first game (namely: you) and thus is hunting you and the S.T.A.R.S team. Makes sense, I suppose. It worked just fine within the game logic and was all kinds of awesome.
The movie, on the other hand, decides this isn’t cool enough, as S.T.A.R.S have never been a part of the series. Fine. Their solution is to turn Nemesis into a Terminator style creature that is controlled by computers and has ‘computer vision’ that gives him threat analysis for some reason. He gets to say “S.T.A.R.S!” because Umbrella decides to test him against them (without explanation as their existence) as they are holed up in a restaurant and they straight-up pirate the Terminator 2 moment where Arnie shoots everything but cops (except Nemesis shoots everything but pimps). This effectively turns this awesome and relentless monster into a glorified RC car. The scheme is that they want to pit Alice (fast and agile) against Nemesis (slow and heavy) against each other to figure out what the best new weapon is.
To recap: the fast, agile, (and painfully stoic) lady with free will versus the slow, lumbering, computer controlled goon. Gee, whoever will win? Also, if we have the power to control organics like computers, why aren’t we controlling Alice like that too, rather than letting her run amok of the town fighting us and such?
So, Nemesis follows orders (until he doesn’t) and takes voice commands instead of computer inputs (sure-why-not) and gets his ass kicked by the faster Alice. Then they remember zombies should be in the movie, so they show up at the end. Yay.
They completely robbed Jill of her villain, robbed Nemesis of his teeth, and all because they wanted to further glorify Alice. Boo-urns.
This is the movie they promised me at the end of the previous film and it was a good one. Instead, Alice immediately finds a gunshop and gets dressed up in this:
And immediately begins riding motorcycles into churches FOR NO REASON!
It’s a shame we lost a chance to follow an interesting character try and navigate Zombietown, USA (aka Toronto) and it’s particularly strange that they advertised it that way.
The ending of the film does bring some hope, as Alice dies in a helicopter accident only to be revived (naked again, as is Umbrella’s way) by the head evil scientist Jorah Mormont!
Leading to a great ending sequence where super-powered telekenetic Alice murders people by looking at them. The ending to this film essentially primes us for super-powered Alice in the next film, the way the first film primed us for ‘human against the world’ Alice. It all works until Carlos, Jill, and “Black Jim” the Pimp show up in Umbrella uniforms and save her from the CNE. (It makes NO SENSE. I particularly enjoy the little girl popping up from the back seat. Standard issue little girl for Umbrella vehicles? That security checkpoint sure does seem to think so!) And then, in a nifty final moment, Dr. Jorah Mormont activates Alice making her pupils go Umbrella logo. What does it mean??? Excitement!
Of particular note to Torontonians is this little gem (at 7:34 in the video): make sure to imagine that Rob Ford is working late at night for this…
You cut Transit City, Transit City cuts you.
And so ends the saga of the horrific hybrid child of Resident Evil: Nemesis and the film franchise. Never again shall we see so much video game weirdness forced into one film, instead seeing various elements and characters bleed in. But this? This is a special kind of disaster.
Call the Umbrella clean-up crew…we need another nuke down here.
PART ONE: Resident Evil-The First Movie, The First Game, and When the Series Worked
The first time I played Resident Evil 1 on PlayStation, I was still squimish about blood in video games. I didn’t like it. I didn’t watch horror movies (I actually fled the theatre in fear when I saw Ernest Scared Stupid as a kid. …but actually.) And the limitations that the game forced on you as a player scared the hell out of me. These limitations were half technological, half by design: every room you walked into was pre-designed, so no matter where you entered from, the camera angle was pre-determined and “forward” (up) meant “forward” everywhere. If your character was facing toward the camera, away from the camera, WAS the camera (okay, that never happened) up meant forward, down meant back, and fuck you for trying to move in general, because Resident Evil wants you to die. Your character moved like a tank. But, for the way they designed the game, it made a twisted kind of sense (at the time they couldn’t render 3D in realtime, so instead they pre-built a nice looking level and let you tank around it). And there were limited save games (based on typewriter ink ribbons.) meaning you could actually run out of your ability to save your progress, if you weren’t frugal. And there was also a permanent limit on ammo in the game, which is (still) horrifying. If you stood in a corner firing bullets, you could actually ruin the entire game for yourself. Awesome, yes. Terrifying…hells yes.
But one day, I was on an airplane back from summer in Vancouver and was reading a walkthrough for Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and suddenly I understood. I had a Virgil to my Dante in the realm of Resident Evil (Literary high five, English students!) and so I rented Resident Evil 3: Nemesis…and I got hooked. I played it on Easy Mode (unlimited saves, an assault rifle at the start of the game, zombies who only look at you funny…no, seriously, it was about that lame). It was awesome. A good friend of mine and I fell permanently in love with the series then, and with the help of walkthroughs, I played through the first two games. I also got into Evil Dead and Romero, and suddenly understood the B-Movie Charm of the whole damn series.
And then, suddenly, they were making a movie.
The first description of the movie I heard was that it featured ‘Alice the Zombie Killer’ fighting an evil computer, followed by a sufficient amount of ‘video game magazine covering movie’ eye rolling. (I followed suit…this had nothing to do with the game…)
I would have watched it, and judged it, but I was barred by my parents (because they heard that you saw Milla Jovovitch’s vagina in it…you do, it’s glorious.) from seeing it, until the aforementioned friend and I illicitly rented it (heh, remember when that was a thing?) and watched it.
And actually, that first film was pretty damn good.
Resident Evil actually stands the test of time as one of the best video game to film adaptations of all time…sadly not so for its sequels…but below, I offer for the approval of the Midnight Society (and, you know, Wha Happen readers…we get a lot of overlap)…
RESIDENT EVIL: The How the Movie and Games (Occasionally, only sorta, or in the worst way possible) Line Up.
FILM: Resident Evil
GAMES: Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
First up, we’ve got the best of the bunch. Despite having a plotline entirely separate from the games, this is the only film that attempts to inhabit the same world as the games, which as a fan means a whole helluva lot more to me than: “Oh, there’s my favorite character from the games!…played by the guy from Prison Break…and in the movie for two minutes…and…why?”* *See Resident Evil Afterlife.
I’m here because…uh…Prison Tattoo?
For the uninitiated, the main points are:
1)There is an evil uber corporation called Umbrella that makes pharmaceuticals publicly, but secretly develops weapons for ‘the government or something’ in the form of biological weapons. ZOMBIES! (Amongst other monsters). For me, this was my first ‘science zombie’ plotline and made a hell of a lot of sense to me, particularly because it was spelled out charmingly in absurdly over-detailed Memos that evil scientists left everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Would that life were so easy…
As the stories go along, Umbrella’s power grows radically (think every possible evil corporation trope in a blender and you have the right idea. Evil CEOs, evil commandos, evil scientists…seriously, it’s like an entire company of Bernie Madoffs.
2) There are zombies and various monsters made for…you know, evil sake. There’s a virus (The T-Virus!) that turns things into zombies, or monsters, etc. It means there are a variety of wacky monsters to fight to spice things up (and make you waste your precious, precious items). In the later games, these tend to become more and more humanoid (like the guy with the bizarre super axe…)
“So we made this virus to turn people into zombies and such.”
“Cool. Why does he have that giant, chain-wrapped, axe thing?”
“I saw it on the cover of a metal album.”
3) Everything has an overly complicated puzzle to open things. This can range from passcoded doors everywhere, to regular keys, to Indiana Jones-level-of-wacky key items (you need to find the upper wings, lower wings, and golden dragon fly body, combine them, then put them in a door to open THE LAB. WHY?! WHAT SCIENTIST CARRIES AROUND A MULTI-PART DRAGONFLY KEY TO OPEN HIS WORKPLACE???)
COMPLICATED PUZZLE OF SCIENCE! Science! science! science!
Impressively, the first film brings in all these elements in clever and appropriate ways. The first game follows the S.T.A.R.S. Team (Special Tactics And Rescue Squad) that just so happens to work for the local police department is sent in to investigate a series of murders (and a missing S.T.A.R.S team) in an Umbrella owned mansion. The mansion turns out to be a front for the super evil lab beneath, there are betrayals aplenty, many zombies, and eventually everything gets blown up. Awesome. It’s campy as hell, and opens with the greatest cinematic ever committed to video game disc (jump ahead to the 1:00 mark, that’s where the magic begins…):
Academy Award Winner: Most Batshit Crazy Video, 1998.
It also had such unbelievably awesome lines as:
(Having just escaped a classic ‘walls are closing in’ trap, a la Trash Compactor on the Death Star): “You almost became a Jill Sandwich!”
“…Yes, I almost died. It was horrifically traumatic. Fuck you.”
And one character being declared (unironically) “The MASTER of unlocking!”
I always get Paul W.S. Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson confused…
The film follows another mansion in the outskirts of Raccoon City that covers an exterior entrance to the main lab (different from the game lab…there are a lot of labs. Umbrella’s like that.) guarded by Milla and the guy who played Marc Anthony in Rome. When someone attempts to steal the virus, the facility’s AI locks down the labs and mansion, causing everyone trapped inside to become zombies. Weeeeee!
Tonally, the movie begins with a narration that could be straight out of the games, detailing the vast powers of Umbrella, brands everything in sight with the distinctive logo (also a trope from the game…when we see a bullet-casing with the logo on it, it’s both chuckle-worthy AND accurate to the game, where every last inch of everything, including ammo boxes, in some games, are covered in branding.)
Like Nike, but with less sweatshops. More zombies, but less sweatshops.
We get a gun cabinet with a numeric code, a zoom in on a tiny hand cuff key (you find about a hundred of these damn things), and all the important monsters are there: zombies (though in the games they don’t carry weapons), zombie doberman (dobermen?) known as Cerberus in the game, and the Licker. The Licker is a monster from the second game (and a horrible one at that) that skitters past windows and haunts your dreams…until you murder it’s face off with a shotgun.
Or, you know, punch it in the brain. That could work too.
They jack the Licker up to final-monster status (fine by me), but even go so far as to recreate the above, classic frame from the game. Awesome.
But what makes this first film all the better, is that it plays out as a solid (albeit not terribly original) zombie/horror film. The initial lockdown of the facility features a classic ‘elevator decapitation’ which would be right at home in a slasher film, or Final Destination; we get that awesome laser cutter scene from Cube again…pretty much verbatim but still awesome. We get all the usual fun ‘I’ve been bitten’ stuff and it’s the first time that chick from Zoolander (as I then knew Milla) kicks a tonne of ass. When her character Alice runs up a wall and jump kicks a zombie dog, game fans likely had the same response I did: a resounding “FINALLY!” Because seriously, all I’ve ever wanted to do in a game that requires strict ammo management is to PUNCH AND KICK THE SLOW MOVING UNDEAD! If I don’t have bullets, I still have THE GUNS!
The Goon has it right. Also, read The Goon. And check out this Kickstarter.
And the moment, that got me and my aforementioned Resident Evil friend and I to our feet in amazed shock and awe(someness) was the final line: as they escape, the male hero (having been wounded by the Licker) is mutating and is ordered put in the Nemesis program. This is a reference to the main enemy of the third game and one of my favorite video game enemies of all time (much, much more on him to come next week). It was a beautiful way to link the movies into the game universe, while not stomping on the toes of us game fans. It was a fun, awesome nod to the people who actually CARED about the franchise and I loved them for it. What could be better?
Oh, this could be.
Then the movie ended by setting up an even BETTER movie: nearly-naked Milla (our kick-ass final girl) escapes an abandoned hospital, only to find the city infected, picks up a shotgun, and is ready to take on the world. This was a precursor both to 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead and was just a fucking incredible way to end a film. (After the first game, the virus gets loose in Raccoon City, leading to the second and third game, and a setting they never topped.) The final shot is just amazing in this film. No wonder Anderson won the Oscar for There Will Be Blood.
So, the verdict:
The first film was actually a fine supplement to the series that spawned it: this is the first and only time there had been a game movie that was canonically accurate enough to fit into the pre-existing world…quite a feat. Also, it’s an entertaining film in it’s own right. VERY very loud and silly in a distinctly early 2000’s way. Also, it has one of the holy duo of actors who always die:
And guess what kind of character she plays??
All of the above.
See Cracked.com for a great article about this!
So, the verdict?
It’s great. It doesn’t try to be the game, but it does try to be friends with the games and wins.
Unfortunately…it’s the last one that does so…
COMING UP NEXT WEEK!!!
Resident Evil Apocalypse: repeatedly slaps in the face and demands I like it! (I do not). But it DOES imply the death of Rob Ford, so that’s okay…
Resident Evil Extinction: is it’s own man and that makes it good! It’s forgettable, but enjoyably unoffensive compared to…
Resident Evil Afterlife: What happens when a game that digresses from the zombie plot of video game series gets shoe-horned into a movie series that never did. The result is horrific.
Resident Evil Retribution: I haven’t seen this one yet. But apparently it is the most like the games…weird. We’ll see.
And you will too.
I’m glad to be back.
Thanks for checking back in, too.
The local comic book store for me growing up, was an almost literal hole-in-the-wall called Altered States and was too far away for me to get to by myself. This severely limited my comic book reading, as I would seldom be able to obtain the next issue in a story arc and thus would be left hanging indefinitely. I therefore stopped reading comics, having read too many interesting (or plain confusing) middle-of-an-arc issues that never got resolved.
One of these stories has haunted me since reading it; it fully captured my imagination, excited me, and left me with such a lasting impression that even now, seventeen years later, I want to know. I guess to a certain extent, I need to know-to have closure to a story and narrative that has lurked in the back of my memory since childhood. I imagined all manner of ways the story could end, but resolved myself to not knowing.
Today, I am going to re-read this story and its finale and finally see how the story ends.
But first, I’m going to write a primer from memory, to describe the scenes that grabbed me and what I remember of the plot and action of the story; to commit to digital paper the bits and pieces of the story that are still lurking in the corners of my mind. We’ll see how they shape up.
So: Spider-Man: Planet of the Symbiotes.
In the beginning, there was Venom.
This one eats brains…instead of trying to win a date with Tad Hamilton.
As a kid, Venom was one of my favourite characters. The idea of an inky alien creature that granted all the powers of Spider-Man but fueled by aggression and violence, that knew Peter Parker’s identity and that sought to destroy him personally as well as in battle was incredibly engaging. The two characters interact wonderfully, with Venom testing and challenging Spidey in ways he normally isn’t, and Spidey proving time and time again that ingenuity and superior intelligence trump brute strength and pettiness every time. Venom is the more powerful super hero, but Eddie Brock (the hard luck reporter who merged with Venom) is weaker than Peter Parker. When done right, it’s a fantastic dynamic (one explored very well by the cartoon, but also in the game Maximum Carnage, which granted a longstanding childhood dream of getting to play as Venom.)
As a result, I was always excited to stumble upon a comic book that dealt with these two characters and so in 1995, one of my very infrequent trips to the comic book store (it was too far away to reach except by bumming a ride from my Mom, until I got better at biking, but by then I was going there for Magic the Gathering instead) yielded this story: Planet of the Symbiotes, starring Spider-Man, Venom, and (sigh) The Scarlet Spider.
Wasssssssuppppp??!! He’s about as relevant as that catchphrase, now.
This was during the that bizarre time when Marvel’s editors decided that the Clone Saga ought to be more than just a story about Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly; instead, they wanted to swap Ben in as Spidey and transition Peter out. They knew they couldn’t rush this, so they gave the Scarlet Spider his own series for a bit, building him up as a hero in his own right before letting him take on the mantle. The reasoning for this, I’d imagine, was similar to the train wreck of One More Day: to clear the slate on Spider-Man, ditching a lot of the messy backstory and baggage, such as marriage to pave the way for new direction and new relationships, etc. Even though I hated the idea of swapping in a new (albeit kinda the same, since he’s a clone) Spider-Man at the time, it still makes more sense to me than the bizarre “deal with the devil” retconning of One More Day. In any case, at this point, Scarlet Spider was just another neat Marvel character running around and (god forgive me) I thought he was really cool. The costume was striking, particularly the external web shooters. I was even okay with the blue, sleeveless hoodie (I repeat, blue, sleeveless, hoodie.) because it was the 90’s and fashion was legally dead.
More important to me, however, was the Spider-Man and Venom team-up as well as a further exploration into the nature of the Symbiotes. To this point, the most we’d gotten was Carnage, Venom’s twisted offspring, which was a wicked cool character visually and (though he became a bit of a joke) allowed us insight into Venom itself, but not its race. The promise of a full invasion was hella exciting. Like the first time someone suggested that there could be multiple Mandalorians and mocked up a video of an army of Boba Fetts: one Venom, awesome. Lots of Venoms, even more awesome. Here’s what I remember of the story:
I picked up mid-stream (at issue 4 of 5), with the invasion having already begun. There is a frame from this that I obsessed over as a kid, because I didn’t quite understand what was happening in it, wherein a newscaster delivers the fact that Symbiotes have taken over heroes across the country, including SYMBIOTE CAPTAIN AMERICA and, I think, symbiote Wolverine (though that may be my memory combining later images of symbiote Wolverine from the Web of Darkness video game). The image of Captain America as a symbiote was awesome and I remember getting really excited about the potential for seeing lots of Symbioted up heroes and how awesome they could be as enemies. Then the Symbiotes invaded the studio and there’s this frame of the newscaster being infected and his toupee is flying off his head (in one of the stranger tropes of the 90’s that essentially dictated that every reporter has a hairpiece.) I understood the toupee thing, but I had no conception of toupee glue and as such was fascinated by the small square of glue stretching up to the rug as it flies off his head. I was fixated in the way only the young and the curious can be and still vividly remember that one frame, because of the time my young mind spent working through it. It is one of maybe two images from a comic that I retain from youth. (The other was an awesome issue of GI Joe wherein Snake-Eyes infiltrated a Cobra facility and thought he heard enemies hiding beneath the floor and thus stabbed his sword through the ground into an enemy ninja’s hand. The concept of a sword piercing one’s hand stuck with me.) The irony of this, of course, is that this one frame in one of the more minor moments in the book, but one that obviously had a major effect. I hope I get a chance to tell the illustrator someday that his one random panel struck such an odd chord with me.
The city is in a zombie-film-esque state of emergency, with destruction and empty streets; the Scarlet Spider has lost his hoodie (which perhaps is the source of his power, like Mr. Butlertron’s magical soothing red cardigan?)
…I would still watch this. Wesley.
And so, refusing to be hoodie-less Scarlet steals a hoodie, tears off the sleeves, and uses a sharpie to add his spider logo to it. This was my first real exposure to the Scarlet Spider and I still can’t look at his costume without my brain quietly reshaping the logo to be hand drawn with a sharpie (I also, at one point, considered buying a blue hoodie and drawing the logo on it. I was cool like that.) From there, he meets up with Spidey and Venom, who realize they need to shut down a Stargate-esque thing that is allowing the Symbiotes to invade Earth. I don’t remember much beyond that aside from the final frame, where the heroes arrive to find an army of Symbiotes guarding the portal (also, the Symbiotes without hosts look silly.). “Oh, damn!” I thought, “This is going to be crazy!”
It would basically be like turning off Kill Bill Vol. 1 right here.
…and that’s all I got. I re-read that issue several times and imagined a few possible finales but eventually moved on. Pre-Internet, it was hard to keep tabs on characters; I got most of my understanding of the direction Spidey, Scarlet, and Venom were going through Wizard Magazine (about comics) and ToyFare which was my mainline infusion of the history of comics, cartoons, super heroes, and cult films and to which I can attribute the majority of my understanding of all of the above (it was one of the wittiest, best researched magazines I’ve ever read, for a long time. The key writers went on to create Robot Chicken. It was my first point of contact for Evil Dead, Battlestar Galactica, and most of the Marvel Universe beyond the X-Men and Spider-Man. I still re-read back issues whenever I’m home and still find myself laughing out loud). Through Wizard, I learned of the weird direction Venom took (they kinda forgot who Eddie Brock was, had him defending an underground city for a while, then he died…now he’s a whole different story). I saw bits and pieces of the transition of Scarlet Spider into Spider-Man (I read a couple issues of it…Peter, believing himself to be the clone, retired but still present in the book) and even managed to catch the death of Ben Reilly (when flagging sales reminded Marvel that their clone thing was dumb) which allowed the ‘he was a clone all along!’ moment that signaled Peter’s return to his own damn series.
“Wow, that was crazy. I sure hope nothing like this ever happens again. Especially not a deal with the Devil that erases countless years’ worth of character development!”
Now it’s much easier to pull up a wiki or a review to find out what’s going on with a favourite character; the information is available and out there and as such it’s harder to have a hanging question like how these heroes beat the Symbiotes…which is kind of a shame, to some extent. Without the limited access I had as a kid, wouldn’t have this neat connection to this one random story. Which catches us up to today.
A little while ago, I was in a used bookstore and found the complete Clone Epic (as they dubbed it) across five thick volumes. I didn’t want the whole story, but it occurred to me I might be able to find the Planet of the Symbiotes story in one of them, and sure enough, flipping through one I found my newscaster with his glue-tab. It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since and I’ve been waiting for time to read it and write this.
So now, without further ado, on to Planet of the Symbiotes!
Glue-tabs and all.
PLANET OF THE SYMBIOTES:
Okay, so here’s the main issue with the five part story: much like Knightfall it is played out over several series. The difference here is that the same writer is on all of them, so there’s some continuity there, but there is also some flat-out awful illustration as the 90’s was often so good at. Also, because the story boils down to a character study in Venom, we get the same “I must protect innocent bystanders, but at what cost?!” speech about ten times. It wears thin quickly.
As it turns out, I ended up with the best issue of the bunch in my young hands; the illustration is solid, the story makes sense, and there are a number of awesome moments. It feels very much like Dawn of the Dead, which is of course a huge win. At one point (where Scarlet gets his new hoodie) they are exploring an abandoned mall, everyone having barricaded themselves into their homes and the mood is actually very creepy. It’s a lot of fun and includes some great panels, such as one where a symbiote is quietly sneaking onto a mannequin in the background. They don’t make a big deal out of it, but it feels like a great little homage to zombie films of the like.
Also, the ending is far more epic than I remember; the Stargate (Actually called a Stargate, lol) is arrived at, but the symbiotes aren’t the biggest problem: Carnage has escaped and begun eating symbiotes and thus arrives, 40 feet tall and attacks our heroes. Epic.
No wonder the ending haunted me this long. As a kid, Carnage was also one of my favourite enemies; he was scary (a serial killer whose symbiote merged with his blood, so he could only summon it by bleeding) and could turn his hands into weapons. Awesome. This ending was right up my alley back then even though the moment itself escaped my later memory.
So, my issue was as much campy fun as I’d hoped. The problem lay in the other issues; while this one pulls off a nice, Romero-esque alien invasion of Earth thing, the others wildly careen from Venom breaking up with his suit after fighting (I kid you not) “Neo-Luddites” who are using technology to destroy technology. Seriously. There’s an entire issues about this. Spidey talks about Luddites every few lines, “We’ve got to stop the Luddites!” Awful. And then Venom breaks up with his suit, after almost eating an evil Luddite’s brain, he asks, “Wait, is what we do my idea or your idea??” The suit (which looks ridiculous when not on Brock under this writer’s pen) goes out into the woods (presumably while the Charlie Brown theme plays) and cries.
In case you missed it, the bad-ass alien symbiote that almost killed Peter Parker and became a brain-eating super villain was lonely so it went and cried. Ugh.
So, emo symbiote summons other aliens to it by crying and they invade en masse. The next issue deals with Scarlet, Spidey, and a sonic gun wielding Eddie Brock (whose long, luscious hair is now short cropped and appropriate again) battle symbiotes at the Stargate only to get pulled into it themselves. Annnnnd here comes the awful.
They end up on a symbiote controlled planet, where the symbiotes are draining the native species of their life force (it should be noted that the aliens look exactly like the Aliens from the classic sci fi film franchise Aliens versus Predator…you know, before James Cameron and Ridley Scott fucked it up with those awful Alien films with that chick from Ghostbusters. Hacks.) So, they fight a bunch, the Venom symbiote has a weird “we need to talk” moment with Eddie Brock where they decide to team up for a bit in the Symbiote equivalent of “friends with benefits.” The symbiote then explains how its species are a) addicted to strong emotions in their hosts and b) drains them til they’re dead then moves on. BUT our very sensitive new friend wanted a forever friend (awwwwww…) so it merged with Peter Parker and then moved on to Eddie Brock. The other symbiotes made fun of it for this, so it was super happy to have new friends. But then they both broke up with it and it became sad. Seriously, it’s like George Lucas wrote this origin for Venom. Awful.
Right, so they get back to Earth and run around Romero style in the issue I read as a kid, ending with them ready to fight Carnage.
Then the artist shifts again (weak) and the fight with Carnage boils down to throwing a propane truck at him and running away. Venom realizes if he can make the symbiote cry enough and amplify it, they can cause all the symbiotes to go comatose. They do that (by merging on a molecular level, painful and ”””’permanent”””””* *until no longer necessary, like when Eddie SELLS THE VENOM SUIT in recent comic history), but it actually kills them all. It’s a lackluster issue, but there is a genuinely badass quality to the fact that Venom wiped out its entire species to save Earth. And then there’s a throwaway line from Mary Jane akin to, “Eh, everything’s back to normal!” Sigh.
So, all-in-all, the story that’s been haunting me did turn out to be a lot of fun still (which was a pleasant surprise, given how terrible the first three issues were) and I’m glad to be reminded of the 40 foot Carnage; so I’m left with kind of a strange experience. I fully expected my story to be kinda terrible and have a ‘that would have been so cool as a kid…’ moment, but instead I still found it a lot of fun. It reads like a cross between Terminator 2 (all the symbiotes in this one are sneaky and T-1000 esque) and Dawn of the Dead. With Spider-Man. Awesome. But the other stories are genuinely awful. They over-complicate and weaken the character of Venom immensely and while they certainly help move along the “he’s a hero now!” agenda, they weaken his time as a villain quite considerably. Like the Star Wars prequels, there’s stuff we just don’t want or need packed into those issues. There’s also the wildly inconsistant art, a lot of which is just generally awkward and ugly. There are He-Man action figure proportions to some scenes and the suit on its own looks kinda like a wacky-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man. And chiselled butts. Man, they like drawing Venom and Scarlet’s chiselled butts.
Nevertheless, I’m happy to have taken this little trip down memory lane; I had mis-remembered the Symbiote Wolverine (though Cap was still cool) and who knows, maybe in another 17 years I’ll re-read it again and see what’s what.
Incidentally, while reading an unrelated io9 article, I was reminded what Eric wore all season in True Blood…
You heard it here first. Eric Northman is a clone of Peter Parker.
Clone High: Mr. Butlertron is a robotic butler on the incredible cartoon Clone High. The episode being referenced involves Mr. B lending villainous Principal Scudworth his “soothing red cardigan” that helps him get closer to the students. It turns out to be magical. Like the show. I’ll be doing a post on this show in future, but I can almost guarantee it’s better than anything else you could be watching right now. Ever.
“If there was a Toys R Us closer than Etobicoke, we’d all have light sabers right now.”
-Alex Kerr, on our enjoyment of The Phantom Menace 3D
“So I saw the new Star Wars trailer last night and at the end, Darth Maul shows up and he strikes this pose,” he took the famous double lightsaber pose, “And then ignited TWO blades. So we’re going to practice our Darth Maul poses.” That sensei was awesome. I’m sure he went on to become Chuck Norris.
The trailer aired before Wing Commander, the atrocious Freddie Prinze Jr/Matthew Lillard space film based on the epic video game which ironically starred Mark Hamill.
But the trailer was incredible. Holy hell was this trailer incredible. The invasion force, the hover tanks, the promise of a two-on-one light saber fight. I didn’t know (or like) this Qui Gon Jinn idea (Obi Wan clearly states Yoda trained him…which is re-explained post-Phantom Menace in books as meaning that Yoda trains all the kids, then at Padawan level other Jedi take over, re-confirmed in Attack of the Clones) and all this talk of a Trade Federation seemed a farcry from the menace of the Empire. Also, my magazine had informed me that the first episode was to be about the Clone Wars, with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting clones. But wait, why was Anakin a child? Didn’t Obi Wan say that “he was the greatest star fighter pilot in the galaxy” when they met? Oh well, everything will be fine.
I was spending a lot of time at this point telling my friends about the prequel outlines I’d read in Star Wars Insider, about the Clone Wars and all the expanded universe knowledge I was bringing to the table, all the stories written, hints given in the films…I was stirring up a teenage nerd firestorm.
Despite how terrible Wing Commander was (and it was so very terrible), when I caught wind of it playing at the Colossus Theatre in IMAX (at that point, one of the biggest screens in Canada), I grabbed my friend Tomo and convinced him we needed to go see it. We were both pumped to see the trailer on the giant screen; it was exhilarating and well worth the 45 minute drive…until the film started without any trailers. We then got to watch IMAX-sized mediocrity and I had to apologize profusely for subjecting my friend to it (incidentally, this was one of the last times he and I hung out together; we had a great time despite the film but drifted apart soon thereafter. He passed away last year; he was a good friend and I miss him.)
When the preview toy, a Battle Droid on a STAP (those stand-up speeders from the invasion, Qui Gon “A-lot-more-fun-if-you-imagine-he’s-Liam-Neeson-from-Taken” Jinn wrecks a few at the start of the film) came out, I bought it immediately and my imagination ignited with all the possibilities of this awesome looking robot on a flying gun platform. This film was going to be amazing.
They released the toys a week before the film: I bought one of each, everyone from Jar Jar Binks (there was a time when I was excited for Jar Jar-was he going to be like Chewie?) to Darth Maul (the most sought after figure) to Ric Olie. Remember Ric Olie?
Of course you don’t, nor should you. He’s the random pilot who tells Anakin how to fly a ship and then is our generic pilot point-of-contact for the space battle. I assumed he was going to be Han Solo. Surely there would be a kick-ass pilot, right? All the action figures came with bases that had voice clips; you had to buy a big reader for them (built to look like a Jedi communicator) which in turn led to an encyclopedic knowledge of random lines.
The graphic novel came out three days before the film; it took every ounce of nerd willpower to NOT read it cover-to-cover before the film. I wanted to wait. And then it opened.
Anyone who’s seen the film knows the problems that followed. The endless exposition, the stilted dialogue, the uneven pacing, the casual racism, the forgettable supporting characters, the vague story, the gut-wrenchingly terrible performance by a horrendously mischaracterized Anakin Skywalker (featuring Jake Lloyd somehow making bad lines worse.), and to a Star Wars fan, flagrant disregard for the established mythology (the aforementioned issues about Obi Wan not choosing to train Anakin, previously established as an act of hubris, now established as fulfilling the wishes of his dying master…vastly different things) and a tonal shift that was quite jarring (although Return of the Jedi was kid friendly, Phantom Menace‘s lazy humour -Jar Jar stepped in poo! A creature farted!- made the Ewoks look like Scarface.). As a kid, A New Hope captured my imagination because it was dark and serious (though still fun and adventurous). This represented (to my audience mind) a fundamental misunderstanding by Lucas of what kids wanted to see and a blatant disregard for the fans.
Leaving the theatre, I was riding high from the Darth Maul fight, which was (and is) the realization of everything I wanted and imagined it would be (due in large part to John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” theme, which pretty much justifies the entire new trilogy) And I remember declaring, “That was the greatest movie I’ve ever seen!” But then I started to process it and it all started falling apart. I was passionately arguing to people that Palpatine and Darth Sideous couldn’t be the same person, that it was too obvious. I had a great idea that Palpatine was Sideous’ clone (think about it, AWESOME). My aunt bet me he was Sideous. I still owe her a book for losing the bet.
Hmm…you know, when I cover the top of his face, he kinda looks like that evil guy with the great hood disguise…
I had far more faith in Lucas than was warranted, in large part because I had grown used to the much deeper and better written universe that existed beyond his movies. Having fully immersed myself in the books (particularly the incredible Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn…which introduced Coruscant to the Star Wars universe, incidentally.) I was expecting more of the story than Lucas was willing to give and this bothered me to no end.
It’s taken me a long time to come back to The Phantom Menace but watching it the other night, I really and truly enjoyed it. I didn’t mean to, but there I was. It was fun, funny, exciting, and surprisingly deep all of a sudden…part of this was nostalgia, but there was more than that: what I realized, watching the film was that in the time since that first viewing, I had engaged personally with the world it created beyond the film: I read the novelization, played the video games, played with the action figures-had created my own stories, my own worlds. And all these memories, stories, and adventures in turn folded back into the film. I never realized how deeply I’d engaged with the universe presented, but here I was knowing every line (and the delivery, thanks to the crappy voice toy) and feeling the Battle of Naboo and the pod race more intensely because of the games I’d played.
The 3D doesn’t add a whole hell of a lot to this film, but during the Podrace, I felt like I was playing the game again, which I have done with friends all over the country and enjoyed so thoroughly. I recognized every racer, every pod, how the damage and heating systems worked, and when it was in the cockpit, I actually felt exhilarated. The 3D brought me back to all those great times and though the film hasn’t improved my feelings about it have changed vehemently.
Same goes for the space fight; it’s short and lazy and Anakin presses the wrong button (explained in the book as a subtle suggestion by the Force. Boo-urns) and isn’t fantastic. But there was a great PS2 game called Starfighter set in this period which culminated in chasing the final boss through the droid control ship as it was exploding. It was a fantastic level, very exciting, and appropriately epic. Watching the film, that is what my mind went to and I was flooded with memories of how exciting that level was; in a sense that was the scene I experienced as the lazy film version toddled along.
This experience was repeated throughout, having wandered around a variety of planets in Old Republic I felt like i was visiting a familiar place and enjoyed it. On Naboo, I remembered playing a number of fantastic scenes in Battlefront 2 (an incredible war game set in the Star Wars universe) shooting droids and Gungans with equal glee. I was reminded of my first Dungeons and Dragons game, from the Star Wars RPG starter kit, set during the invasion of Naboo with my cousin and I trying to figure out how the hell the dice rolling system worked. All these were part of my film experience, though they were no where on the screen.
And finally, Jar Jar Binks, that awful, awful creature; when I told my Dad about this experience, he reminded me that the only way he knew the character was from an action figure movie series I shot one Christmas called Han and Jar Jar at the Movies where I used my Han Solo and Jar Jar action figures to act out a variety of film parodies (only children at Christmas away from home…it’s how we roll). The floppy eared mistrial has become a part of my legacy and visa versa (at least for my Dad). The character is no less annoying or offensive, but somehow now I can “claim this creature of darkness as mine own”. (That’s rife with post-Colonial importance too…look it up.)
And in addition to all these things running through my head, I was with good company and that, too, made all the difference. We’re all twenty-something guys raised on Star Wars and we engaged in the film like it was a pantomime. It was more like watching a cult B-Movie than a theatrical re-release. We knew all the lines, we laughed at the terrible bits, cheered the good bits (lightsaber fights, the Podrace, Samuel L. Jackson, our mutual love of Natalie Portman…also, note to Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan in 3D…we’ll buy a million tickets.) and groaned frequently at awful things. It was closer to a screening of Rocky Horror or The Room (Jake Lloyd and Tommy Wiseau might be related, they deliver lines the same way) than Star Wars, but that made it great. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Star Trek: The Original Series‘ cheesiest moments (the double punch, the Gorn captain, Clint Howard, that horrific Shore Leave episode) in that it seems like a less refined, sillier version of the original Star Wars movies (original Trek is, of course, much deeper and better than Phantom Menace, but there are still those laugh-out-loud LOL moments of wackiness and bad performances or lines; Phantom Menace is like if you cut all those scenes together into a film). This is, of course, ironic since Phantom Menace was made so long after the original trilogy that it should, in theory, have benefited the way Next Generation did, but instead it’s best to view these newer films as the campy counterparts to the classics. If taken like the Adam West Batman, it can be quite enjoyable, whereas my original viewing had me expecting Christopher Nolan Batman.
So, my advice if you’re a Star Wars fan or a campy B-Movie/Sci-fi fan, grab some buddies and go see the film. Be vocal, relax and revel in the terrible writing. Let yourself have fun. The big learning that my 1999-era self taught me was that the film itself will not bring a great experience; but if we bring our fun to the film, if we engage with it and merge our experiences with it’s presentation, we can have a great time experiencing The Phantom Menace.
You need to engage the film, not watch it.
*Quick note: This week marks the launch of a new feature here on Wha Happen? Trek-A-Day, where I endeavor to watch an episode of Star Trek a day from the first episode to the last, commenting along the way! Here are the first two posts! “e1: The Man Trap” “e2 Charlie X“
I am hella excited about the Avengers movie: not because of the trailer, or the cast (both of which are superb) and in spite of the fears raised by the lackluster Iron Man 2 and Thor and my general apprehension about super hero team-ups; but because The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Brian Hitch proved how awesome The Avengers can be, when treated properly. Regardless of how the film plays out, Millar made a true believer outta me and I’m here to bring his word to you.
And that word, is Horny Hulk.
But before we get to that, let’s unpack the super team a bit and why I generally have a bias against them.
I was always of the school of thought that super hero team-ups suck. The occasional cameo from another hero in the same universe? Cool, but an actual team always left me feeling like I was getting watered-down versions of my favorite characters. Justice League? Batman’s douchey-ness gets dialed way up, Superman becomes a one-sided leader voice box (this happens to Cyclops frequently as well), Wonder Woman is mysteriously super important though being generally ignored otherwise…flip the universe and you get the same in Marvel: Captain America is the boy scout, Iron Man is the lovable rogue/loner, and suddenly Thor, the god of thunder, has nothing better to do than be on-hand to fight whatever random threat could probably be dealt with by a regional team like the Fantastic Four or The X-Men? Bullshit.
So why am I so damn excited about the Avengers movie other than that the cast rocks and it’s directed by Joss “I-Can-Do-No-Wrong” Whedon?
(These are Nathan Fillion of Castle and Firefly and Felicia Day from The Guild, Buffy, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and my dreams.)
Well, much like many of my childhood assumptions and prejudices about comics, lately there have been a slew of great books that have completely shattered my bias like The Hulk smashes puny humans. In this case: Mark Millar and Brian Hitch’s The Ultimates which basically curb stomped by hatred of super teams by brining each character a voice and story worth listening to and some of the most outrageously awesome moments I’ve ever read in a super hero comic. I read it last year and was grinning like a kid through most of it the same way I did the first time I got to play as Venom in Maximum Carnage on SNES.
Between this and the soundtrack by Green Jelly, I was sold.
The Ultimates is a part of the alternate Marvel Ultimate Universe, which was launched as a way to create a fresh, new, accessible world not weighed down by the 40+ years of storytelling that proceeded it. Neat. While the Ultimate Universe eventually fell into old habits (to the point they had Magneto kill off most of it) when it launched, it brought some awesome new ideas, one of which was: let’s figure out what Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and lesser known Ant Man and Wasp (the former apparently getting film treatment from Edgar “Hot Shaun Pilgrim of the Dead Fuzz” Wright…awesome.) look like in this new universe. A key factor of this universe is that it is all being created together, with all franchises aligned from the start (rather than getting mashed together later in their runs) so for instance: 1) An attack by Magneto is the first super villain attack in this universe EVER. 2) Mutants: hated and feared, the way they started out. 3) Heroes like Nick Fury weren’t running around in World War II and still looking like they did in the 40’s (instead, he’s Samuel L. Jackson.)
Also, none of these characters have ongoing comics to contend with; they only exist and are introduced in The Ultimates. I think this is the single best feature of this series as it dodges the awkward “But wait a sec; Batman is lost in a subterranean labyrinth this week in his book, but in Justice League he’s on a space station and everything is fine? WTF?!” This allows for one, epic, introductory mega-story with one voice, one vision, and the result is a cinematic level of precision. The Avengers film is mostly in the clear here too, as Marvel has been moving their entire film franchise toward it since Iron Man, meaning the film won’t appear out of thin air (amazing how much groundwork you can lay in two minute scenes after the credits). This is a good sign.
The two story lines of the first volume are both awesome showcases of how the team works together (or against each other, as the case may be): the first involves the much bullied Bruce Banner taking his Hulk serum to avenge his wounded pride and finally get to bone Betty Ross (Millar infuses the ego-only idea into the super hero equivalent of Mr. Hyde leading to some of the best Hulk lines of all time, featured below; Hulk is particularly angry that Betty is on a date with Freddie Prinze Jr.)
Something Hulk and Sarah Michelle Gellar have in common.
This dynamic is a lot of fun and reminiscent of the good old’ “Occasionally you have to fight the Hulk” days of comics and is hinted at in the trailer; looks like Stark is going to be a dick to Banner a lot…could the heroes have to fight the Hulk? Awesome.
The secondary plot is a good contender for the film and a favourite of Marvel: alien infiltrators. The Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters have been villains in a lot of Marvel arcs, and in this case stage an Independence Day (or ID4 as we super hip kids of the ’90s called it) style super invasion. Big set pieces, lots of action, and a finale which involves unleashing the Hulk and hilariously telling him that the aliens insulted him, leading to a good old’ fashioned alien smack down and ending with the almost unkillable former Nazi (they were headed up by Skrulls looking to weaken the planet for invasion) with the single most epic Captain American panel ever (including the lead up page):
Now granted, you need to take this with a shot of Apple Pie and Freedom Fries, but this was just after 9/11 and there was still a pre-Iraq War need to feel good about being American again and what better way is there to do that, then punching a Nazi alien in the face while insulting the French?
Between these epic stories, we get the emotionally charged ‘man out of time plot’ for Captain America (see below) and the heartbreaking and sickening domestic abuse of Ant Man (also below) to create a super hero epic in the truest sense of the word.
Because of its isolation from ongoing series, The Ultimates runs a lot like a film: the plot arcs link up, the characters are introduced and given moments to shine or be scummy, there’s wit, adventure, and genuinely awesome action sequences. It’s a team book that makes sense, rather than just a reason to have all these characters do things together. It’s The Fellowship of the Ring rather than ‘Elf, dwarf, and human fight fantasy things’ (starring Jeremy Irons, here). It’s given me hope for a team-up movie, particularly since it’s being handled by Whedon who knows damn well how to tell a multi-character story:
And you’ve got at least four actors who perfectly embody their characters (Chris Evans as The Human Torch-I mean, Captain America; Robert Downey “I am actually Tony Stark in Real Life” Jr; Chris “No longer just Captain Kirk’s Dad” Hemsworth as Thor, and Samuel L. Jackson, rocking out as himself, oddly having his name mispronounced as “Nick Fury” throughout the film.) and some awesome supporting hold overs (Jeremy “I’m every action hero” Renner, Stellan “Eric from True Blood‘s father” Skarsgaard, and that guy who plays Loki!) and Scarlett “…” Johansson, who still has yet to prove herself as the Black Widow (Unless her arc involves falling in love with Bill Murray in Japan, in which case she fits the role perfectly).
So, The Ultimates:
This version of Captain America is pretty much the Cap we see in the film, a little more bad ass than I’m used to seeing, but in a great way.
Proving Boot beats Science every time.
Millar begins the story with an epic war scene and we get a good, healthy dose of Captain America the super soldier rather than super hero. It evokes the tone and flavour of Marvels in all the right ways, making him feel like a cameo in Band of Brothers rather than a brightly coloured super hero punching Hitler every few pages. Like his film counterpart, he’s got a little more edge, Millar also gives him a bit more of a bad ass action hero feel.
This is all layered nicely with some genuinely touching ‘man out of time’ moments, like when his sweetheart from the war (now elderly and married to his best friend) won’t meet him because he still looks the same, whereas she is ashamed of her age. It’s a heartbreaking scene and cuts a nice contrast to the action.
Pretty much the Tony Stark of the films. He’s Downey Jr, through and through-which is particularly entertaining given the Downy Jr. jab featured below:
The sense of humour and swagger are well entrenched and Millar also set the groundwork for the playboy millionaire elements of Stark used in the first film; this includes everything from Stark proudly declaring that if he wasn’t drunk for the big final fight he might have called in sick, to him being AWOL at one point, because he had flown Shannon Elizabeth to the International Space Station for her birthday. It’s a really fun Tony Stark and one that Downey Jr has been able to carry so damn well in the films.
Guess Tony Stark saw American Pie as well…
The Son of Odin represents the 99%. Occupy Asgard was a rousing success.
This is all kinds of awesome. Free of having to work in the whole Asgard angle, this Thor is an environmentalist who claims he can control the weather. No further explanation is given in The Ultimates and Thor staunchly refuses to help the team until his environmental agenda is met by the US government. Awesome. He’s a wacky, rogue-ish figure who gives about as much of a shit about stuff as Han Solo in A New Hope. And yes, he still wields epic thunder.
Also known as Giant Man, Hank Pym is a longstanding (heyoooo, …cuz he’s giant) member of the Avengers, but Millar epically catapults him from second string hero to show stealing super asshole. Pym is mostly responsible for bullying Banner into trying the Hulk serum and also emotionally and physically abuses his wife, Janet (who in this mythology is a mutant who is hiding in plain sight because Pym covers for her, saying a serum of his gave her powers). This is one of the most shocking and emotionally raw moments I’ve seen in a book: after slapping her around the room, Janet turns into her Wasp size and flees under a dresser. Pym’s horrific response is to unleash an army of ants on her, which are seen gruesomely swarming her as giant Hank coldly utters:
The death of Gwen Stacy shows a super hero failing to save the girl, this shows the super hero becoming a real world villain, like William Stryker of God Loves, Man Kills, this is far scarier and poignant than any ‘take over the world scheme’ typically associated with comic villains. And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.
Side note: Janet does survive, and Captain America royally wrecks Pym’s shit in an epic super hero beatdown with higher stakes than any of these weird ‘wouldn’t it be cool if this hero fought that hero?’ fights Marvel keeps throwing together (this year: The Avengers vs The X-Men. Whoop-dee-dee. Sure hope no one dies; I would hate to have to wait three whole issues for them to come back to life…)
Here’s my favourite. When Stan Lee came up with the idea of the Incredible Hulk, he wanted to flip the idea of Jekyl and Hyde or Frankestein’s monster by saying, “What if this guy were on our side?” Neat. But after 40 years, done. (Case in point, in the mainstream universe Bruce Banner and the Hulk are two separate entities during it out.) So instead, Millar brings us back to the glory days, when pretty much everyone had to fight the Hulk at some point because he was unstoppable and had a hard-on for smashing things. But instead of heroic, tortured Bruce Banner, we get sniveling, bullied Bruce Banner; full of pathos, but also an angry, bitter character (who, incidentally, reminds me a lot of Harold Lauder from Stephen King’s The Stand). Banner has science envy against Pym and is generally teased and bullied by the other Ultimates, including this brilliant scene which sums it up:
When he eventually Hulks out, the Hulk is single mindedly hunting Betty, starting out with one of the best lines of all time:
Horny Hulk. Priceless.
To an increasingly desperate Hulk begging her not to leave Banner; it’s the ego at it’s rawest, all insecurity and desire but personified by the Incredible freaking Hulk. He is also pretty well determined to eat people; the final effect is a wildly scary monster made of a character we’ve known for a long time. Here’s hoping he shows up in the film.
Hawkeye and Black Widow:
Are introduced as the black ops agents of The Ultimates, their opening scene a loving homage to The Matrix where they show up like ballets in black trench coats and sunglasses and kill a tonne of aliens in an office building.
We’ve already had a taste of these characterizations in Iron Man 2 and Thor, which is another big hint as to the tone of the Avengers film in relation to The Ultimates. Renner has proven he’s naturally awesome (hence taking over the Bourne franchise from Matt Damon and being groomed to take over the Mission Impossible franchise from Tom Cruise) and Johannson, who has disappointed in past, is the only female lead in a Joss Whedon film, which should mean she’s incredibly well written and given lots of opprotunity to be awesome: the real test will be if ScarJo can rise to the occasion. We’ll see.
Despite how many signs there are that The Ultimates will be the primary influence on the Avengers, there are a few other things at work in the current Avengers mythology that may well impact the film; epitomizing Marvel’s love of hero vs hero scenarios was Civil War, an ideologically fascinating scenario weighed down by too many tie-ins and writers, which lead to a messy, bloated affair. However, the core conflict is worth a look:
The government decides that super heroes need to be registered, secret identities made transparent along with powers, gear, etc so they can better be policed and controlled. Tony Stark, long having been an ‘out’ super hero is fully supportive of this act, whereas Captain America (also very publicly Steve Rogers) determines that this is an infringement of super hero’s rights to privacy and thus goes rogue…and Marvel’s super heroes go to war with each other. This includes family divides amongst the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man revealing his identity (don’t worry, it gets written out in One More Day) and siding with Iron Man (for a bit) and all sorts of other hijinx. The issues range from writers favoring their own character (Depending on the writer, Tony Stark is an arrogant fascist or Captain America is a simple minded douchebag) and plot holes (in his main series, Daredevil was in jail…one of the other series writers included him in a fight in their book…whoops?) and a whole jumbled mess of ridiculous, culminating in the arrest of Captain America and his subsequent assassination (by a brainwashed Black Widow, no less…) The only real lasting consequence of this has been a shift in the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man; since his resurrection Cap and Iron Man have sorted their shit out a bit, but the basic ideological difference has become a permanent facet of their relationship and will doubtless be present in the film (whether this leads to blows is anyone’s guess). Whedon has always had a flair for opposing viewpoints (Buffy and Faith, for example) so it should be a solid dynamic. Again, we’ll have to see.
So ULTIMATELY (see what I did there?!? lolololol!) I’m excited for the Avengers film because frankly, I’ve already read a fantastic one. The Ultimates is a popcorn action flick, interspersed with some incredibly quiet and nuanced character moments (such as Captain America meeting his aged sweetheart and Hank Pym’s remarkably scary domestic abuse); it’s a team-up where every character makes sense and brings a genuinely unique power set to the fight. They all get moments of brilliance (even cameo characters like Quicksilver, who proudly declares that if you slow down the footage of the final fight against the aliens, you’ll see that he was actually the key factor in victory, met with a collective rolling of eyes by his teammates) and to my mind that’s what a good team needs. Weirdly, The Expendables managed this really well, giving each character a moment to shine, while still keeping the focus on the main two personalities (in this case Iron Man and Captain America).
Whedon is also one of my favourite writers and directors, and while he certainly isn’t being given complete freedom (Downey Jr is insisting he’s going to improve the script through ad libbing) and he’s working for the Disney-owned Marvel Films, he’s the right guy to try and pull all these factors together. Whether or not he succeeds, I feel confident that a failure by him would be a noble one, rather than an insulting mess (like X3 or Blade Trinity).
It’s a super hero team up that I think can work…I sure hope Whedon and team prove child me wrong, the Millar and Hitchens did.
It can be done, it has been done…let’s just hope it can be done on film.
Recommendation: Essential. It’s just a damn good time and a great, fresh take on the characters.
The Ultimates 2: I haven’t read this yet! Same creative team playing with a much more established Ultimate Universe. Follow-up to come.
The Ultimates 3: Who Killed the Scarlet Witch?: Avoid at all costs. After the Ultimate Universe fell into old habits and sales started dropping off, Marvel tried this as a lead up to Magneto destroying most of the world. It ranks amongst people’s worst of the worst…look forward to a review of the one at some point too.
Civil War: A friend of mine read each an every issue over the span of a week once and was left very frustrated; there’s some great stuff going on in this arc, but the aforementioned inconsistencies and problems hold back all of the good stuff and leave the reader with very little to be happy about. Boo-urns.
The Expendables: This is an old school, over-the-top ridiculous action film…but knows it, which is awfully refreshing. Remember when everyone in an action film was kinda awesome (see: Argyle, the limo driver who helps save the day in Die Hard); Stallone, who to be fair knows action films, does a great job of juggling the characters, he gives them each some time to shine without diluting the story by doing so. It reminds me of films like Predator where we got a good taste of who each mercenary was before they started getting killed. To my mind, it’s a fine example of how to make each hero matter, if only for a few minutes. (Tarentino does this well in Inglorious Bastards as well, but sadly doesn’t give us enough time with each…they’re all deeper than The Expendables and often worthy of their own films.)
Toy Story: This speaks volumes of Whedon’s ability to write minor characters; I can tell you a little bit about every single character in this film. They’re memorable and fully of personality, so even a minor moment such as Hockey Puck’s little shrug tells an engaging story. So damn good.
Spider-Man, as a character, is no stranger to tragedy. From the first, famous moment where his Uncle Ben is killed by a criminal Peter Parker could have stopped, Spider-Man has always been defined by his failures rather than his successes.
In large part, these large scale failures are one of the reasons Spider-Man has always appealed to us nerdy folk, in particular while growing up, because Spidey loses. He does his best, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out and this humanizes a super hero and brings them down to earth, to our level. This is as true of the small scale (brilliantly summed up by Peter failing to deliver a pizza on time because he was saving the day in Sam Raimi’s incredible Spider-Man 2) as the large scale. It’s the human fallibility that really resonates and Peter’s reaction to his failures that makes him truly heroic. He inspires us to work past our failings (be they nerd related, growing up, or just being) and to continue to strive for the best.
While this all originates with Uncle Ben’s death, this theme echoes throughout the Spider-Man mythology, with Peter constantly struggling with the danger to those closest to him because of his super hero status (I distinctly remember this being a running theme in the awesome 90’s cartoon). Many of these failings come from Spidey’s tragic flaw, which in this case is hubris; now for those of you lucky enough not to be saddled with a classics degree (calm down, ladies, I’ve only got a minor) hubris is roughly the Ancient Greek term for pride, most often associated with coming before the fall.
Spider-Man’s hubris is, in fact, the constant flaw that defines the character; ironic given his awkward teenage insecurities. But before we get too deep into all that, here’s a quick primer on Spider-Man. For those unfamiliar with Spidey’s history, when nerdy Peter Parker (aka The Reader, just like everyone wants to be Bella in Twilight, or Harry in Harry Potter-until Neville becomes cool) gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains heightened strength (spiders are strong), the ability to crawl up walls (cuz spiders can do that), spider-sense (um, sure!), and builds web shooter arm bands (see the earlier nerd comment. Except he’s a bankably smart nerd). Then he fights crime, right?
Instead Peter becomes a wrestler!
One day, after wrestling the hell out of some people, Peter stands by and watches as his employer (a shady promoter who had just stiffed him on his winnings) get robbed. While Peter could easily have stopped the thief, instead he shrugs and mutters “Not my problem.” Much to the chagrin of the promoter (Oooooh, I hate come-uppance!)
Later that night, Peter finds that said criminal has killed his Uncle Ben (in another robbery, this guy was basically Dillinger) and Peter could have stopped him. Now happily, his Uncle had a prophetic saying that he repeated enough that Peter (along with just about every comic book fan of all time) remembered it and made it his mantra:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Kinda makes you wish this was posted somewhere on Wall Street, doesn’t it?
Which brings us up to speed, pretty much. Spidey vows to use his powers for good and proceeds to save the day 90% of the time.
But it’s the 10% we’re after today.
Spider-Man, as an alter ego of Peter Parker is, in a sense, Peter perfected. Like how Morpheus describes your avatar in The Matrix, Spider-Man is the witty, confident, capable avatar of Peter’s hopes and dreams. He nabs the bad guy, gets the girl, and action is his reward. Look out, here comes the Spider-Man. But here’s the rub; because Spider-Man is so confident and quick with the one-liners, his failures are magnified by his actions leading up to them. In a lot of ways, Spidey’s failings are like Romeo and Juliet: it’s a comedy until people start dying.
Julie Taymor presents: Spider-Man Romeo and Juliet. Losing millions of dollars at a theatre near you this summer!
There have been a bunch of deaths in Spider-Man’s run, but they all pale by comparison to the death of a character named Gwen Stacy. If you’re a product of the 90’s like me (and once viewed ‘rad,’ as a perfectly good way to describe something tubular. How whack was that noise?) you probably only know Gwen as ‘that random blonde girl who TOTALLY moved in on Spidey’ in Spider-Man 3 (unless you’re one of the lucky few who managed to block that travesty from memory, in which case I hope you’re having fun at memory-blocking-Disneyland!)
But in truth, Gwen was Spidey’s first girlfriend, not Mary Jane Watson, whom kids of the 90’s will remember from the cartoon, and movie goers will remember from the films. Gwen and MJ were around at the same time and originally created a bit of a Betty/Veronica style love triangle for Peter, with Gwen (the smart, responsible, daughter of the Chief of Police) juxtaposed against MJ (the hip, fun, artsy party girl, who is secretly a bit damaged). Now, keep in mind, a lot of this was during the 70’s, where the lingering desire to be hip made MJ the much more attractive persona. Gwen was sweet, MJ was fun. Stan Lee and his writers team threw the reader a curve ball by introducing MJ (seeming to set her up as Peter’s love interest) and then having him get together with Gwen. This was not to last (Gerry Conway, the writer of this incredible story, admits that he found MJ a fully fleshed-out, deep female character in a comic world of dully, sweet, pretty girls) and her death defined the Spider-Man mythology forever. In a world of ret-cons and remarkably short-sighted character revivals and abuse (Gwen was sadly not saved the indignity of a ‘secretly this was happening!’ storyline), stories that actually define a character and permanently change their trajectory are few and far between, but The Death of Gwen Stacey does just that: it’s a Greek tragedy starring Spider-Man and his hubris facing off against his greatest foe, The Green Goblin, and facing the greatest failure of his career. It’s also one of the best written stories I’ve ever read, combining an understanding of character, story, and writercraft that rivals any in the field.
Like many comic collections, The Death of Gwen Stacy has some weird hold overs from the issues prior: Spidey has just got back from fighting the Hulk in Montreal…
And consequently Spidey has caught a cold “because (he) isn’t used to those below zero temperatures” in Canada (I kid you not) and thus is feeling a bit under the weather, when he finds out that his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco from the movie) has taken LSD again and is dying (there’s a hard line anti-drug message running throughout that reminds us of the concerns of the day. Future readers will likely say the same of our obsession with terrorism and national security). Harry’s father is the villain Norman Osborn, aka The Green Goblin (Willem “Boondocks Saints” Dafoe) who has forgotten he is The Green Goblin due to suspense building amnesia (the best kind!). Now this all collides when the stress of his son’s condition and the collapse of his evil business causes Norman to…(drumroll) magically remember he’s the Green Goblin! Which is a big problem for Peter since Green Goblin is the only person who knows Spidey’s secret identity.
This is a showdown readers had been waiting for, but the teased death on the cover of the issue suggests that either Norman, Harry, or maybe even Spidey’s Aunt May will be the one to bite it…instead, the Goblin goes looking for Peter and finds Gwen. Here’s where things get good.
Spidey quickly realizes where Goblin has Gwen (the George Washington Bridge) and goes to save her. Even though he’s sick and a little off his game, he’s very nonchalant about the whole thing; it’s super hero business as usual, to the point that he basically has a checklist he’s following:
Finding Gwen alive is a good start, Spidey trades a couple blows and quips with the Goblin (though he can feel he’s weakened), but then Goblin does a fly-by and knocks Gwen off the bridge, as she falls, Spidey fires off his web and catches her long before she hits the ground. Below are the pages in question, I would absolutely recommend taking a moment to read them:
These are to my mind, the perfect Spider-Man pages. Spidey does everything he can to save her and acts like he did, right up until the moment he realizes she’s dead. And even then, the small, sad “I saved you…” is one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a comic. A huge part of Greek tragedy is the anagnorisis, or moment of realization, where the character’s flaw (in Spidey, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Achilles, hubris) is laid bare and the hero is forced to confront themselves. What really gets me about this is that Spidey is joking about being charming and talented right up until this revelation; this is how death works, I think. There’s that moment, particularly amongst us comedian folk, where we’ve been going about our lives, making jokes etc, unaware of the phone call that’s coming with news that someone has died. They are already gone, but we are unaware, and when word reaches us, immediately we regret our jovial actions committed in ignorance. It was impossible for us to know, but we feel that regret nevertheless. That moment, for me, is captured in this scene. It’s as beautiful, relatable, and human a moment as I’ve ever seen or read and frankly, makes me forget for a moment that the purveyor of said moment is a man in red and blue tights dressed like a spider.
And then there’s the snap.
This is one of the most hotly debated frames of comic history, because the interpretation of this simple, four letter word changes everything.
Spoiler alert, time travelling comic book readers of the 1970’s!!!
Here’s the question (not ‘to be, or not to be,’ contrary to popular opinion):
Was Gwen still alive when Spidey caught her? (The Goblin claims the shock of the fall killed her) Or, did Spider-Man snap her neck by stopping her momentum so abruptly? Ultimately, the result is the same: Gwen wouldn’t have survived the fall and Spidey couldn’t have reached her any other way, but the question is an important one for Peter.
Happily, it is never resolved.
Even the writers can’t remember who added it or why, nor their intention. The result has created its own mythology and their (self admittedly fallible) memory matters less than the result. This is one of the great debatably vague moments in comics, that isn’t infuriatingly ambiguous (like the lack of promised answers about the Island in LOST, or a certain Battlestar Galactica character ‘resolution’ that basically amounted to the writers shrugging, taking their ball, and going home) as it doesn’t affect the outcome; instead it lets us engage the work with interpretation. Like a great work of literature. (Since we are in the comic realm, there have been multiple re-hashes of the moment and various explanation; but like all good mythology, none holds a candle to the original story).
Peter’s response is appropriate to an epic hero as he gives in to his anger and vows to slowly and deliberately kill Norman Osborn in retribution for killing “the only woman (he’ll) ever love” (don’t tell MJ). Once again, charming, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man vows to murder his enemy for revenge. Awesome. This is like watching Superman lose it and start punching heads off, or if Batman started carrying a gun. This is an interesting new take on the Great Power, Great Responsibility mantra, as it becomes a righteous fury rather than a call to mend and defend.
All kinds of epic.
The resulting fight is essentially Spider-Man wrecking the Goblin, ending in Osborn’s death by his own Goblin Glider (just like Dafoe in the film) and a grieving Peter being comforted by MJ. This first embrace of darkness will lead Spidey to all sorts of interesting places, most significantly the symbiote costume and Venom (most beloved super villain of my childhood -assuming Darth Vader is not a super villain). It marked the maturation of the character from comic clown to epic hero. This is a major turning point for the character and altered the tone and direction of the franchise to this day; the entire ending battle of Spider-Man is a Hollywood-ized version of this, with MJ standing in for Gwen and Spidey managing to save her. And the ghost of Gwen still lingers, particularly in the minds of people, like Sam Raimi, who grew up with her as Spidey’s girlfriend (hence her unnecessary presence in Spider-Man 3) and may well be the next generation of Spidey fan’s default love interest as she is going to be in The Amazing Spider-Man film reboot played by the incredible Emma Stone (who would actually make a pretty kick-ass Peter Parker, if you think about it).
But nothing Gwen has done, or will do, will ever matter as much as her death. It shocked readers, changed the direction of one of the most beloved and important super heroes of all time, and opened the door for other huge deaths at Marvel comics, most significantly Jean Grey in the Dark Phoenix Saga. Without it, we likely wouldn’t have our tone shift in Batman, or our nifty new movies. But most importantly, her death allowed the Spider-Man myth to perfectly align; by presenting us (and Peter) with the inherent hubris of his character, the cost of being a hero, and by reminding us that failure is not the end, merely an obstacle or a lesson. Spidey keeps going. Usually he saves the day, sometimes he fails; but he’s a hero, and that’s what heroes do.
And that’s what we should do.
Essential reading. There are a small number of works that elevate the form to literature (though increasingly more so, thanks to writers like this) and this is one of them. The art is powerful, the script incredible (a favourite example smacks of Dickens: “Like a man ridden by some demon hag, he races from his son’s room–runs out into a night moist with the hint of tomorrow’s rain.”) and the significance, as explored above, is legendary. Not to mention, it’s an awesome super hero story. It also has one of the best uses of comic convention I’ve ever seen, by withholding the title until the final panel and commenting on it: Opening page: “There are quite a few things we could say about this issue–but we won’t…As for its title: that’s something we’d like to conceal for a while. But we promise you this, pilgrim–it’s not a title you’ll soon forget!” Final page:
The Death of Captain Stacy: Talk about a one-two punch. Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy (played for a second and a half in Spider-Man 3 by James “Farmer Hoggett” Cromwell) was the equivalent of Comissioner Gordon in early Spider-Man stories. He disapproved of Spidey, which led Peter to consider hanging up the costume to be with Gwen. Then, Stacy dies a hero, helping Spidey save a bunch of people and in his dying breath tells Spidey he knows he’s Peter and tells him to take care of his daughter. This death rocked the Spidey universe and helped Gwen mature as a character, but also served as an incredible red herring when the decision to kill Gwen was made. Surely they wouldn’t kill both of them, right?
Marvels: Only a brief note on this, as I’ll be covering it in a future post: this is the first graphic novel I ever read and hands down one of the best. Each page is painted by the legendary Alex Ross and tells the story of a regular guy trying to cope with the arrival of super heroes into the world. It runs from the Golden Age heroes of WWII right through to the current age and features Gwen heavily in it’s climax. It is one of the best takes on the mythology I’ve ever seen and the only Gwen story since her death that is worth your time.
The further adventures of Gwen Stacy: I mentioned indignities earlier. At one point, Spider-Man finds Gwen running around New York, which throws him for a loop, but hen he finds out that she’s a clone…90’s Spider-Man was allllllll about the clones. Remember this asshole?
That’s right: sleeveless spider-hoodie.
And then they really screwed the pooch.
See it turns out that Gwen had an affair with Norman Osborn, in complete violation of, and in opposition to, everything we ever knew about the character ever and had secret kids with him that grew at a super rate because of Goblin DNA and….ARRRGGGGHHH! This is the worst kind of cash-in and sadly all too common in modern comics. Best ignored forever (even the writer has expressed many regrets that it ever went to press and had essentially been told by his editors that he could scrub it out of continuity when they rebooted the series, but was then denied.). In the Ultimate Marvel Universe she also dies, but then her clone becomes Carnage. Nifty!
Hubris: A quick note on the other hubristic folk mentioned in the post: King Oedipus (or Oedipus Rex, dig?) declared boldly that he would save Thebes from plague by finding the murderer of the previous king, an unsolved crime identified as the root of the affliction. Oedipus does this without any knowledge of the murderer’s identity, but is convinced he can do it, because he already defeated the legendary scourge of Thebes the Sphinx by answering its riddle (“What’s the tricksy hobbiteses have in its pocketsies, eh, Precious?” pretty sure that was it.) He also killed an old man on the road once…oh, damn! That was the old king! And his father! Balls! When all is laid bare, Oedipus (who was warned this would happen) realizes his pride led him to a horrific discovery and thus takes out his eyes, while his Wife/Mom kills herself. Yeeeehaw.
Agamemnon, meanwhile, was the brother-in-law of Helen of Troy and led the assault on Troy. However, in order to launch said assault, he had to sacrifice his daughter to a pissed off god. Needless to say, his wife was less than pleased. Upon his triumphant return, Agamemnon ignored all the telltale warnings, convinced of his victory and safe homecoming…and then his wife and arch enemy dropped a net on him and hacked him to death with an axe. Fail.
And finally Achilles, whose pride led him to war (he was offered a long, anonymous life or a short glorious one…we don’t get the term ‘Achilles heel’ because he survived.) and caused his best friend/lover to get himself killed because Achilles was sulking over wounded pride. Double fail.
…and knowing is half the battle.
Spider-Man 2: One of my favourite films, Raimi’s first two Spidey films hit me just right. They spoke to where I was at the time and featured classic storytelling and Bruce Campbell as the snooty usher who is ultimately the only villain to defeat Spider-Man. Raimi had me somehow doubting that Peter would get the girl, had an incredibly sympathetic and interesting take on Doctor Octopus, and packed it with great scenes. Great stuff.
Spider-Man 3: Annnnnnnd here’s the trainwreck that followed. Partially Raimi’s fault for trying to inject too many old school characters (why were the Stacys even there?) while being forced by the studio to add Venom inexplicably played by Topher Grace. Raimi has admitted loathing Venom a number of times and it shows, the character going from being the uber awesome monster of the cartoon and comic to a kinda weak pseudo-Spider-Man. There’s also a huge dose of emo angst (the other films were angst too, but this one was angst on speed) including the ‘now I’m evil’ hair Peter adopts during his dance number. Also, it takes an awful lot for me to dislike a Bruce Campbell cameo, but they found a way. Boo-urns.
Spider-Man the Animated Series. There have been a lot of these, but the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the 90’s one. Complex, deep, and encompassing many comic plots (including a version of the death of Gwen Stacey featuring MJ being thrown off a bridge into a vortex where she (and subsequently the Green Goblin) get lost in space and time. It was really well done, for the time. The show can be terrible (like all things 90’s!) But also kinda magical. Also, this theme song is all kinds of wacky.