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Comics’ Night of the Long Boxes

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

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This past weekend at HeroesCon saw the announcement (but not the launch) of Longbox, a digital distribution system for comics that formula dictates I must compare to iTunes. It’s going to be like iTunes.

I’m excited about this. I’m an out-and-proud comics nerd, but my credentials are dented by one small but crucial detail; I rarely buy comics. After twenty years amassing thousands of the damn things, I was forced by financial necessity to go cold turkey some years back. When I found myself sufficiently solvent to go back to reading comics, I realised that the addiction had passed. I’d broken the habit. I no longer bought indiscriminately.

At one point I was spending around £20 a week on comics that gave me all of a couple of hours’ of entertainment, even while ranting on about the rising cost of cinema tickets. Comics are terrible, terrible value for money. God knows how anyone who both reads comics and smokes cigarettes can afford money for beer. So money was definitely a key factor in dropping the habit, but not the only one.

Comics are also inconvenient - you can only buy them from specialist shops, via a monopoly distributor. For too many people, comics are a weekly appointment they feel obligated to keep. Comics also produce clutter. They accrue in every available nook and cranny like tribbles or wet gremlins. No-one can own both an extensive comic collection and a nice house.

Oh, plus, they’re shit. That’s a generalisation, of course, but 90% of anything is shit, except comics, where the number rises to about 97%. That’s because comics are a Cinderella medium that rarely benefits from best efforts or high standards, and because the major publishers often hold their own audience in contempt, and anyway the audience mostly deserves the shit they get shovelled; it’s not like they’re exercising critical judgement.

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I’ve been hoping someone will come along with something like Longbox for a while now, becasue it solves most of the medium’s problems. Digital distribution brings the price point down to within the realms of ‘value’. It bypasses the comic shop distribution monopoly and the need to go to a specialist store. It completely eliminates the need for actual physical longboxes, and that’s no small deal - I’m quite certain that the clutter factor is a major reason why many people give up comics as they get older, even as they keep playing video games and watching sci-fi - it has nothing to do with ‘outgrowing’ it. I’m at the point in my life where I no longer want to live like a student. I no longer have shelves full of CDs or DVDs - everything is tidied away or digitised - so spending money on clutter goes against the grain, and disposing of comics seems like a hassle. Better to just not buy them in the first place.

Longbox might even help with the ‘quality’ problem. That’s not to say that digital distribution will get rid of bad comics; but it should increase the number of good ones, because independent creators will be able to increase their reach while simultaneously reducing their costs. That should change the landscape of the industry significantly.

Digital distribution also benefits the big publishers, who have real problems launching new titles, and instead are forced to stretch their known brands ever thinner. By the time critical buzz has grown on a title like Captain Britain And MI:13, the only way I could sample it is to buy a twenty dollar trade paperback. Frankly, even four dollars seems too big a punt to risk on something I may not like. And this is why that book got cancelled, despite strong reviews and good word-of-mouth. Yet if I can buy an issue for a dollar - or the first six issues for, say, four dollars - I’m much more likely to suck it and see. (Note: sucking on digital comics is dangerous and should not be tried without proper supervision.)

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Marvel and DC have come up with some really inane solutions to the challenge of comics’ dwindling marketplace - apparently ending Spider-Man’s marriage was going to save the whole industry - but digital distribution has always been the sensible option that they were too big and too creaky to properly pursue, which is why it takes a fresh-faced third party like Longbox to get the revolution started.

I haven’t forgotten that Marvel has its own digital comics offering. It isn’t good. It only allows you to buy the right to access the comics on the site, and what’s on the site is not up-to-date. The ‘newest comics’ section currently boasts Son of Hulk #2 (first published just under a year ago) Annihilation: Nova #2 (from 2006) and Psi-Force #7 (from 1986). It’s a pathetic offering, because it’s completely dissociated from the publisher’s current output. If I wanted to find out what the fuss about Captain America #600 was all about, the most recent issue I’d be able to read is from two years ago. This is not an alternative distribution channel. This is a supplement for the ever-decreasing number of people with the will and the time to go to a comic shop.

If Marvel or DC is worried that putting their current comics online will increase the risks of piracy, someone needs to tell them that this particular horse-faced space-god has already bolted. Music, movies, books and TV are all digital now, and the digital releases go on sale the same day as the store releases. The time when a publisher might have claimed they were being innovative by adopting a synchronous digital distribution strategy has long passed. Now it’s merely ‘the least they should be doing’ - and still they’re not doing it. I’d try to second guess the reasons for their laggardly approach, but I can’t get into the mindset. It’s like trying to see through the eyes of a dodo.

It is better, though, for comics as a whole that Marvel be part of a shared system - like iTunes! - rather than a proprietary one, so in that sense I should be glad that Marvel’s efforts have been dismal. On the other hand, it suggests that they might not sign up to be part of Longbox, and that’s a shame. Where Longbox might once have seemed bold, now it seems necessary, and Marvel and DC - and Dark Horse, Image, Oni, IDW, Devil’s Due and the rest - need to recognise this necessity for their own good, as well as for the good of Longbox. Currently the only publishers signed up for the service are Boom Studios (Irredeemable, Farscape, Warhammer 40,000) and Top Cow (Super-Boob Lady, Gothic-Boob Lady, Unfinished J Michael Straczynski Project), and Longbox needs more and stronger publishers if it’s going to be a viable concern.

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Longbox also needs a sensible pricing strategy. The suggested price point is $0.99 per issue, and that’s reasonable. People talk about how cheap comics used to be on the newsstand - Action Comics was 10c in 1938, and Amazing Fantasy #15 was 12c in 1962. Adjusted for inflation, those comics ought to be $1.50 and $1.00 today, so 99c and down for a comic with low overheads seems like the right ballpark.

There’s also talk of subscription and bulk models, and that’s far more interesting to me, because a regular subscription would presumably reduce the price point further, and encourage users to sample more comics. The digital model also makes free samples more plausible - a huge, huge promotional benefit. In fact, a savvy big publisher would make the first issue of every new ongoing series available free online.

What does digital distrubution mean for comic retailers? It need not be the end for them. I think stores relying on weekly single issue sales could be in trouble, but comic book shops could do well, because digital comics will not entirely replace the desire to own a physical book, and I’m sure digital comics will actually drive people to want to buy collections of their favourite reads. I’ve long argued that digital comics with a voucher for the trade could be a successful strategy. Apparently the guys at Longbox have been listening in on my loud and boorish pub conversations, as that seems to be part of the plan.

But if the Longbox model takes off - and I hope it does, and that others follow suit (because the industry does not need another distribution monopoly) - it will mean the end for a lot of retailers. And, sad as it is for the people who’ll have to find other jobs, that’s as it should be. There won’t be any bailouts for redundant businesses in the comic industry.

What’s more important is that Longbox could be good for the medium as a whole, dragging comics away from the fringe to a place where everyone can access them, without prohibitive costs or geekish mess. If the mainstay publishers don’t want to embrace that, then it’s probably time to say goodbye to the mainstay publishers.

Voodoos & Don’ts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

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Brother Voodoo is back!

This may not be the most exciting news you’ve heard today, but it is a little exciting for me. Brother Voodoo, AKA Jericho Drumm, is a magical Haitian superhero in the Marvel universe. He debuted back in 1973 in the pages of Strange Tales, just a few months after the voodoo-themed Bond movie Live And Let Die. He is kind of awesome, and very much underappreciated. It appears he’s now taken over from Doctor Strange as Marvel’s Sorceror Supreme, which could see the character propelled into playing a much bigger role.

However, his return has raised a few eyebrows. Even though he only appeared fleetingly in a recent issue of Avengers (I forget which flavour; Uncanny or War Zone or Caramel Ripple), and only said a scant few words, those words were enough to merit a double-take. The words were; “My name is Jericho Drumm. They call me Brudder Voodoo. What da hell is wrong wit you people?”

Given that Brother Voodoo is a physician educated in the United States, this broad regional accent seems a little peculiar - and outdated. Writer Brian Michael Bendis observed on his Twitter; “the accent is established. Nothing I can do about that”. But that’s not true.

First of all, one of Bendis’s favourite characters is Luke Cage, another black 70s superhero who used to speak jive. He doesn’t anymore, because it would be ridiculous. Bendis is not averse to making changes to his characters. Furthermore, Bendis is notable for imposing a certain consistency of rhythm on his characters’ speech patterns. Sometimes works very well, but it has also lead him to write the third worst Doctor Doom in comics (after Mark Millar, whose Doom calls another man ‘master’, and J Michael Straczynski, whose Doom likes to have a bit of a weep).

Second; it’s not established. On the contrary, in Brother Voodoo’s first appearance, everyone else in Haiti spoke that way:

brovoodoo1

But Brother Voodoo did not. The panels below show his first uttered lines, and there’s not a ‘dis’ or a ‘dey’ a or a ‘brudder’ among them - and that’s true throughout all of his original appearances. However broad the stereotypes that Brother Voodoo encountered, however cringe-inducing the caricatures, he himself never called anyone ‘mon’.

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We’ve gone from, “I am called Brother Voodoo” in his first appearance to, “They call me Brudder Voodoo” in his latest. I’m sure there must be a precedent for Brother Voodoo talking this way, but it’s not the case that this is how he always speaks.

Now, Marvel traditionally responds to online criticism by attacking the critic, because Marvel hates people who read their comics, so I suspect their comeback here would be to call me a racist for suggesting that an educated person can’t have a heavy regional accent. Obviously that’s not what I’m suggesting, nor do I think this portrayal of Brother Voodoo is the product of racist attitudes on their part.

I just think it’s dumb, and perhaps thoughtless, to write the character this way. Even if it were how he was originally written, dialogue spelled out in a regional dialect tends to look and read badly. Chris Claremont loves doing it, but at least he largely limits himself to Scots and Southerners. When you get into accents that are associated with racial stereotypes, where those regional tics have historically been used in the media to present a group of people as stupid, or savage, or comical, then you’re entering choppy waters. In just a few lines of dialogue, this version of Brother Voodoo skirts uncomfortably close to evoking a Sambo caricature. It would be like having an Asian superhero mixing up his Ls and Rs.

I’m open to the possibility that I’m being too sensitive. I’m aware that, one panel in, I’m quick to jump to conclusions. I’m also quite sure Bendis didn’t mean to stir up any unfortunate associations. He’s a nice guy and an intelligent writer, and I’m sure he means well. All that said, I know I’m not alone in having looked at that panel and thought, “oh dear”. If we were living in a post-racial world, it ought to be just as fine to write a Haitian character with a thick Haitian accent as to write a Scottish character with a thick Scottish accent (which is to say, it ought be equally awful either way). Even then, though, I think Brother Voodoo earliest appearances suggest that he’s not that guy.

Tremendously Thor

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

This is Thor. He is a god of Thunder.

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He is also a Marvel superhero, and one of a handful of such heroes set to star in their own big screen blockbusters in the next couple of years - this one to be directed by Kenneth Branagh. The other really big hero on the slate is Captain America, and casting rumours have been rife on who would be cast in each of these roles. For a long time, it seemed the most sensible choice for Thor was this fella:

askars

This is Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan Skarsgård, and one of the stars of both Generation Kill and True Blood. Not only is he tall, handsome, muscular and blond; he’s also Scandinavian! It was pretty much dream casting. Thus I was very disappointed when Skarsgård recently said that he was out of the running for the part. At that point I was resolved to hate whoever they eventually did cast.

Then came today’s scoop from Deadline Hollywood Daily that Branagh has his Thor, and it’s this guy:

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You may know him as Kim Hyde on Home & Away. More likely, you know him as Captain Kirk. Senior, that is. He played the rather dishy George Kirk in the new Star Trek movie.

He’s not as tall as Skarsgård (an inch shorter at 6′ 3″), and he’s not as Scandinavian (he’s Australian), but he is tall, handsome, muscular and blond, so as second choices go, he looks pretty good to me - and he’s about seven years younger than Skarsgård, so he has better mileage for a franchise. Given that the producers were considering Charlie Hunnam (a good looking lad, but an atrocious actor), I’m actually rather relieved.

This still leaves the question of who should play that other tall, handsome, muscular blond, Captain America.

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The names being thrown in the hat by Cap fans include Tahmoh Penikett, Travis Fimmel, Chris Egan, Jensen Ackles, Kellan Lutz, Mark Valley, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith.

I’m fairly sure they won’t cast someone who isn’t actually American (it would be a scandal), so Penikett, Fimmel and Egan are out. I also don’t think they’re going to cast a black actor - there was a black Captain America, but 1940s America was not going to choose a black man to be its symbol of hope. They won’t cast Kellan Lutz because, let’s be honest, he looks kinda metrosexual.

Because the character is meant to have gravitas, there’s a temptation to cast someone a bit older in the role, but Cap would have been in his early 20s when he started out, and not yet 30 when he was frozen in 1945, and the movie is expected to cover that period, so the likes of McConaughey, Damon and, especially, Valley should be too old.

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My personal favourite for the role is Scott Porter of Friday Night Lights (above). He was perfect as an iconic blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed hero in Speed Racer, playing big brother Rex. He definitely has the all-American thing going on, and he doesn’t look too lightweight. Of course, if the Marvel movie makers do not follow my excellent advice, their casting on Thor has proved that they can sometimes make a good decision without my help.

Battle of the Blockbuster Boys

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

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This year’s two big early summer blockbusters do not have a lot in common. Sure, they’re both based on nerd franchises, but one is a reboot of a cult TV show about a crew of spacefaring ambassador-adventurers, and the other is a comic book spin-off starring an ageless and mysterious loner with pointy claws. One is about preppy kids in space band-camp; the other is about an angry emo jock. One is bright and breezy; the other is grim ‘n’ gritty. One has side-partings; the other has buzz cuts. One is good; the other is not.

Yet there is one odd feature that unites Star Trek and Wolverine. Man-candy. Both movies feature a surprising number of healthy young turks with thrusting chests and Pepsodent smiles.

We all know Trek beats Wolverine when it comes to things like story, tension, effects and character, and Wolverine currently has the edge when it comes to box office, but which movie comes out ahead when you look at the most important factor of all - the totty? Don’t worry; I have the answers.

(By the way, I think that my version of Photoshop is broken. There was lens flare all over my Star Trek images, and it looked terrible. I’ve done what I can to minimise it.)

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The Nemesis: Eric Bana vs Liev Schreiber

I have a friend who thinks Liev Schreiber is just a low-rent Russell Crowe, which I think is absolutely shocking. I think Liev Scheiber is a rent-controlled Vincent D’Onofrio in a bad neighbourhood. His face is a cross between a sticklebrick and a billboard. Mussing him up and giving him stubble does not render him magically sexy.

Eric Bana, on the other hand, is so handsome that it’s impossible to ugly him up. Cover him in crazy prosthetics and tribal tattoos, and he still looks like a prettier version of Lincoln Burrows from Prison Break. He could play Aileen Wournos and she’d still be gorgeous.

Advantage: Trek

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The Clown: Simon Pegg vs Dominic Monaghan

I used to have a mild thing for Simon Pegg back in the Spaced days, but I got over it pretty quickly. I’ve never had a thing for Dominic Monaghan, despite his claim to fame as being the least punchable of the Hobbits. (For the record, in order of punchability from least to most, it goes Monaghan, Boyd, Wood, Astin.)

That said, Monaghan’s rough-looking circus outcast loser freak looks like he’d be better in the sack than Pegg’s slightly misplaced bag-hat-wearing loopy Scotsman.

Advantage: Wolverine

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The Korean: John Cho vs Daniel Henney

Look everyone! Asians! Asians in our action movies! And they’re not there to do karate! One of these chaps does fancy gun-fu, the other has a flashing blade. It’s a revolution!

Now, John Cho is a handsome and funny guy, and I’d definitely court Harold over Kumar; but Daniel Henney is quite a discovery; the prettiest Korean to shoot at a good guy since Rick Yune in Die Another Day. Not that this propelled Rick Yune to super-stardom, mind you. Hopefully Henney will break out bigger.

Advantage: Wolverine

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The Wiseguy: Karl Urban vs Ryan Reynolds

On first impressions, this is an easy one to call. Ryan Reynolds is stupidly lovely. He’s handsome in a generic Ben Affleck way, and he has an amazing Men’s Health magazine cover body, and he’s funny and goofy and charming. Karl Urban, on the other hand, tends to look a lot better onscreen than off, and has a face a bit like a pissed-off chihuahua. He was at his best playing a Zoolander pretty-boy assassin in The Bourne Supremacy.

Until now, that is. As Dr McCoy, Urban takes on a lip-jutting matinee idol raffishness. While Scotty got the gags and Kirk got the pratfalls, McCoy delivered most of the best lines. Wit and a pair of delightfully full lips will take you a long way in the Federation. Reynolds failed to achieve his usual potential on Wolverine; Urban emerged as one of the nicest surprises in Trek.

Advantage: Trek

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The Father Figure: Chris Hemsworth / Bruce Greenwood
vs Danny Huston / Aaron Jeffrey / Peter O’Brien

The heroes in both movies have both real and surrogate daddies. Actually, James Logan has three dads; real, adoptive, and evil. James Kirk only has two; dead and fake. Wolverine’s dead dads are both played by good-looking Antipodean soap actors, but both are only fleetingly seen. The more substantial father figure is Danny Huston’s William Stryker. Had the part been played by Dexter star Michael C Hall, as originally planned, the character might have had a little more magnetism.

Kirk’s dad is also played by a good-looking Antipodean soap actor, Chris Hemsworth of Home & Away. Kirk’s surrogate dad is Captain Pike, played by Bruce Greenwood. The original Captain Pike was played by Jeffrey Hunter, one of the most beautiful man who ever lived, so it’s natural that they didn’t try to replicate that. In the five-way battle of the daddies, the Abercrombie good looks of Captain Kirk père put him way out ahead.

Advantage: Trek

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The Girl: Zoe Saldana vs Lynn Collins

Or ‘funny-shaped lads’, as I like to think of them. Saldana is a very beautiful woman, but she could stand to eat a few fried Tribbles. Poor dear is wasting away. Collins is likewise attractive, if you can get past the fact that she looks like she smells of hemp and quinoa. The simple truth of the matter, though, is that they’re girls, and you don’t get any points for putting girls in my boy movies. Silly filmmakers!

Advantage: None

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The Sidekick: Zachary Quinto vs Taylor Kitsch

This is where it gets really tough. Quinto is a very handsome man, who made being a brain-eating psychopath seem sexy (and, yes, Sylar eats brains, no matter what he says). However, his bowl-haired Spock is not anywhere like as appealing as either Sylar or Quinto himself. Even with the lengths the movie goes to in order to sex Spock up, fancying Spock is something not everyone is mentally equipped to do. Besides, Quinto is at his best with a bit of stubble. Bring on the Mirror Universe!

In contrast, Taylor Kitsch gets to have fun playing omnisexual flirt and acrobatic hustler Gambit, and his few short scenes are some of the best moments in an otherwise clunky movie. Kitsch convinced me that I’d much sooner watch a Gambit movie than Wolverine 2, Deadpool or Magneto. His hair may be foofy, but it’s still better than Spock’s.

Advantage: Wolverine

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The Hero: Chris Pine vs Hugh Jackman

With scores tied, it all comes down to the leading men. If you’ve seen Jackman strutting about all muscular and shirtless in Wolverine, you’d be forgiven for thinking this a no-brainer. Jackman got himself into amazing shape, and he’s a hugely charismatic actor who can easily carry a big action movie. And he can sing, and he can dance, and he can even raise the ratings for the Academy Awards! He’s a fricking miracle worker!

Then there’s the new boy. Chris Pine is pretty. Chris Pine is flawlessly pretty. He’s as close as any human could come to being a Ken doll. In fact, he was born in LA, the son of two actors; he might as plausibly have been custom-made by Paramount. Consider this; he was born in late August 1980, which means he could have been ‘conceived’ on the very day that Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit cinemas in early December 1979. He’s not a human being! He’s a back-up plan!

The worst you can say about Chris Pine is that he’s too handsome. I don’t believe in ‘too handsome’. As the young, insolent, swaggering Cadet Kirk, pouty-lipped, big eyed Pine is a new icon of cinema sexy, in the grand tradition of Russell Crowe’s Maximus and Daniel Craig’s Bond. Sorry, Wolverine; you’ve finally been out-hunked.

Advantage: Trek
Winner: Trek

Wolverine: What He Does Ain’t Pretty

Monday, May 4th, 2009

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Despite leaking all over the internet and being widely panned by critics and internet scuttlebutt, the new Wolverine movie was a box office hit this past weekend. This is not at all surprising. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is a big draw; people don’t really care if the movie is good or not, just so long as they can watch Wolverine growling and slashing and saying ‘bub’. I suspect the leak had next to bugger all impact. The few thousand people who bothered to dowload an unfinished copy of the movie were exactly the sort of people who would go and see the movie anyway.

The reviews weren’t wrong. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a bad movie. It’s not X-Men: The Last Stand bad, but it is bad. Blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the writers, whose attempt to reverse-engineer an origin for the franchise’s most popular hero involves a skimpy un-plot strung together with a golden classics compendium of dialogue clichés.

Jackman is still good, of course. He can growl and chomp cigars and say “bub” like he was born to it. Ryan Reynolds is predictably entertaining as Wade Wilson, and Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit is so spot on that I want to see that Gambit movie now, please. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s hot, but if he weren’t hot, he wouldn’t be Gambit.) Daniel Henney’s role as the cool and beautiful Agent Zero will hopefully be the start of a long and wonderful career in silly action movies.

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Beyond the pretty boys’ brigade, the performances are less convincing. As an actor, Will.I.Am makes a terrible rapper, while Liev Schreiber’s saucer face seems hopelessly ill-suited to the part of Sabertooth, and making him do those silly cat leaps was a mistake. I came to regard him as a supervillain version of Nermal, the World’s Cutest Kitten. Danny Huston is a dependable rogue, of course, but the man deserved a meatier part to get his teeth into.

It’s also rather important, in a big special effects blockbuster, to get the special effects right. Maybe the people who saw the leaked version without effects were lucky; they were spared the sight of claws that looked like cardboard covered in tin foil, and a de-aged plastic Xavier who looked like the water creature from The Abyss.

Now for the fanboy stuff. (This is where it gets spoilery.) The filmmakers threw some geek-chum into the waters to please the loyal base - guest appearances by the likes of Toad, Quicksilver and Storm. Unfortunately, they ballsed up most of the things that fans are actually likely to care about. Emma Frost as a funny-looking girl in a tanktop? Heather Hudson reimagined as Ma Kent from Superman? Cyclops using his eye beams to set things on fire? And they used the origin from Origins, which I personally think is disastrously stupid. Making Wolverine’s origin that of Little Lord Fauntleclaws feels like a fundamental misreading of the character.

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The biggest crime, though - apart from having Wolverine spending centuries fighting for the US military when he should have been fighting for Canada - was what they did to Deadpool. Ever since Blade: Trinity, Ryan Reynolds has been considered dream casting for that role - so of course they squandered it, turning the merc with the mouth into a mute goon who shoots fricking laser beams out of his face. Fans don’t like it when you pretend you’re going to give them what they want, then whip it away from them.

I’ve seen a lot of people complaining that the film got Deadpool so badly wrong that they cannot possibly do a spin-off. And, you know, they cut off his head. The fact is, Wolverine had the third most successful opening weekend of any Fox picture. Spin-offs are going to happen, and a little decapitation isn’t going to stop that. A sociopathic Deadpool with blades, teleportation and a healing factor is pretty consistent with the comics version (even if the blades do now come out of his arms). I just pray that they drop the laser beams.

The Gambit spin-off and the long promised Magneto spin-off have to be good bets as well, but apparently the most likely direction for the next movie (apart from X-Men Origins: Wolverine II: Wolverine in Japan) is X-Men: First Class, following the first class of Xavier’s students (probably Scott, Jean, Hank and some others, since Bobby and Warren won’t be available in this continuity). Mind you, if that means more of Xavier’s Oil of Olay face, I can probably live without it.

The Pink Side of the Force

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Homosexual! Gay! Lesbian!

“[T]hese are terms that do not exist in Star Wars”, according to Sean Dahlberg, message board moderator for the Star Wars game The Old Republic. These words were banned from the message boards, and conversations about characters’ sexuality were closed.

Cue kerfuffle.

And cue backtracking by the game’s publisher, BioWare. The closed threads have apparently been reopened and the offending words have been unbanned.

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Now, I sort of understand where Mr Dahlberg was coming from here. Homosexuality is a modern concept. Same-sex relationships aren’t, but framing it specifically as ‘homosexuality’ is anachronistic, and after all, Star Wars did happen a very long time ago. (Or not at all, depending on your grip on reality.)

It is not unreasonable to suggest that people in the Star Wars universe had no concept of homosexuality, even though it’s been demonstrated in a couple of Star Wars licensed properties (including BioWare games) that same-sex relationships do exist in that universe. (Not in George Lucas’s own work, of course; he only has camp comedy characters.)

That said, there are other concepts that don’t exist in the Star Wars universe that seem perfectly acceptable to talk about on the same message boards. Like, for example, Star Wars. Or XBox. I suspect that, even within the game, people can probably get away with mentioning these things.

The question is, should players be able to identify themselves within the game as gay when gay people don’t exist in that setting? And the answer is; it’s a game, for God’s sake. It’s just a game. If someone wants to identify themselves as gay - or Asian, or Jewish - in a game that doesn’t recognise those concepts, it is not going to unravel the essential verité of an artificial world where people fight each other with lightsabers while communicating via keyboards and headsets.

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One suspects that “these are terms that do not exist in Star Wars” was a bit of a figleaf explanation. Discomfort with homosexuality seems unusually prevalent in geek culture.

Back in 2006, games maker Blizzard booted a gay player group from World of Warcraft, leading to a similar outcry. They backtracked too. XBox Live recently caused problems by banning users who identified as gay, claiming that this was “sexual innuendo”. They later adjusted their position to say that they were trying to ban people who were using words like ‘gay’ perjoratively. Even that is a figleaf; a blanket ban that destroys the visibility of the group you’re claiming to protect is clearly not a sensible solution.

Sensitivity to gay issues in the gaming world may be some distance behind that of other entertainment media. In gaming, there may still be a widespread misconception of sexuality as a depravity, rather than as a valid part of a person’s identity that might form the basis of a sense of community.

Among the comments from gamers on one message board discussing the Old Republic incident were these gems:

“There will be children playing as well do you intend to flaunt your sexual preference in front of them?”

“I don’t mind the fact that someone’s gay, but whining about it every single time something doesn’t recognize gay people is just ridiculous.”

“Does homosexuality seriously have to infiltrate every facet of life until they force it in your face and make you accept it? And if you don’t really care for it, you’re called homophobic and a bigot. It’s REALLY getting annoying.”

Uh-huh. I can only imagine how annoyed you are, you poor dear.

That Was The Geek That Was

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Idol is a day later this week, so in the meantime, some thoughts on the past few days’ geek TV highlights. Spoilers follow for Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes.

doll-house

Dollhouse: It has been pre-ordained that episode six was ‘the good one’. The Dollhouse press tour has been assuring us, “We know this is a programme only a blinkered Browncoat could love, but we promise we’ll give you legitimate cause to like it if we last until episode six”.

It’s a weaselly strategy to rely on the indiscrimate dedication of die-hards to excuse a show’s creative failure. It’s also a doomed strategy, especially when your ‘game changer’ episode goes up against the Battlestar Galactica finale.

Inevitably all the people who were saying that Dollhouse was awesome from the get-go are now shifting their positions slightly to say that Dollhouse is awesome as of now. But did episode six really push Dollhouse from ‘joyless vanity project’ to ‘entertaining genre show’?

Honestly? Not yet, no. But there were two elements that helped elevate episode six. First of all, it was an ‘arc’ episode, dedicated to giving some much-needed context to the show’s unpalatable sex-puppet premise. Second, it balanced out Eliza Dushku’s glossily varnished wood with a few more interesting textures. Most of the characters are still so loathsome that the show remains a tough taste to acquire, and it’s a bad sign when the comic relief character with all the Joss Whedon dialogue is the creepiest rapist at Rape-o-tech, but it was good for the show to spend a little more time filling in the colours of the supporting cast.

The trouble is, I suspect that next week we’ll be right back to another rapetastic woman-in-peril plot with Dushku at its centre. Not that we got away without a woman-in-peril story this week - in fact there were two women in peril; one raped, the other merely forced to perform sex acts as part of her programming, and then threatened with rape. Rape is drama, you know? Delicious, exploitative drama.

toasterBattlestar Galactica: There has been plenty of eye-rolling about the BSG finale. I only came to the show in the last few months, and I have to admit that I thought the ending was… consistent. I’m surprised that people were expecting anything more from it, but then BSG has been a rather brilliantly executed shell game from the start, and the secret of a good shell game is that the audience always believes it’s not going to get ripped off. Now there are articles arguing that BSG is one of the greatest TV shows ever made - some people still don’t know their watch is missing.

For months I’ve seen people discussing who or what the Cylon god was going to be, as if they thought the show was going to offer them a sci-fi explanation, to which my response was, “why can’t it just be God”? Guess what? Turns out it’s just God. So I wasn’t disappointed with the BSG finale, but I also wasn’t invested in the idea that the episode would be a codex to unravel all the mysteries. BSG was a show that made everything up on the fly. Its philosophical trappings were never more than brightly coloured bunting, and there was never a consistent ideology informing the whole thing. It was a dumb show that convinced a lot of people that it was smart.

The great nerd hope ended with a whimper. No thrilling space battle, no satisfying answers, and no impressive death count. The villains found a few interesting ways to kill themselves, and the heroes went running through the long grass. As for Kara Thrace, the undead tomboy and much-vaunted harbinger of death; it turned out she was aaaaall a dreeeam.

heroes-tins

Heroes: Like Dollhouse, this was a pre-ordained turning point for the series - producer Bryan Fuller’s first chance to re-impose himself on the series since he left at the end of season one. I may be falling into the same hopeless blinkered trap as the Whedonistas, but I have to admit, I enjoyed it. It’s the first episode of Heroes in a long, long time that I’ve watched without having to roll my eyes or feel insulted.

Here’s why it worked:

  • For the first time in a story called ‘Fugitives’, there was solid pacing and a sense of tension arising from the characters being, ooh, fugitives.
  • No Sylar; no Claire. Not that I dislike either character, but they both get far too much attention, especially Sylar, who ought to be kept in a glass case marked ‘in case of lull’. The show has a stupidly big cast. It needs to strike a better balance. This episode did that.
  • Speaking of which; they culled the cast. Tracy Strauss made the big pointless sacrifice - two Ali Larters down, one to go - and Daphne got a touching send-off. Along the way, both characters remembered their personalities and their previously established relationships - as, in fact, did everyone in the story! Oh, context, how we have missed you!
  • They also brought back some of the cast, but in a good way. We all knew Rebel would turn out to be Micah, but seeing him and Janice back in the show gives us a sense of a rounded universe. Consequences, there you are! Were you off larking about with context?
  • The baby Parkman story could have been a disaster - the comedy misadventures of Hiro and Ando tend to wear a little thin - but this time around there was actual humour. I smiled! And Hiro got one of his powers back, which is good and proper. No powers is dull. Too much power is dull. A little power is just right.
  • The biggest surprise of the episode, though, was that Peter got to be heroic. In a show called Heroes, someone got to be the hero - without doing anything dumb or inexplicable. Somehow this felt like a watershed moment.

Remember when you used to like watching Heroes? We may have just travelled in time. Look out for exploding cities.

Uncanny Likeness?

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

movie-gambit

USA Today has some ‘exclusive’ fan-pandering pics of the Wolverine movie cast, including Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool and Taylor Kitsch (above) as Gambit - surely the one character X-Men die-hards have most been clamouring to see hit the screen, being the big wet predictable fanboys that we all are. (If you don’t know Friday Night Lights, then Kitsch may be best known to you as ‘guy with great abs who dies having sex in the toilets in Snakes on a Plane’.)

Says Hugh Jackman of Gambit’s interactions with Wolverine; “He starts off as a pest, but their relationship is a little gray”.

Yes, ‘gray’. I’m putting that down to a transcription error.

Come On Barbie, Let’s Boldly Go Party

Friday, February 27th, 2009

 This year marks both Barbie’s 50th anniversary and the flashy 90210 reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise, and what better way to celebrate these two awesome moments in our cultural development than a Barbie Girl/Star Trekkin’ mash-up?

But sadly no-one has done that (as far as I know - I’m too frightened to actually check), so instead we’ll have to settle for the new Star Trek Barbie dolls, out this April. These have been made in the likeness of the movie’s stars, so check out this awesome likeness of Zachary Quinto as Spocklar:

trek-barbie-spock

Impressive, isn’t it? The resemblance is striking. Or it would be, if they had cast Anne Hathaway as Spock. Maybe this is Barbie as Zachary Quinto as Sylar as Spock? (As a bonus, it’s worth noting that the shirts all double as ShamWows.)

The sculptors have better luck with Chris Pine as the Captain Ken T Kirk Doll:

trek-barbie-kirk

Of course, it helps that Chris Pine already looks like a Ken doll. This is an unavoidable side-effect of being made out of vacuum-molded plastic. (But admittedly Chris Pine is made out of very pretty vacuum-molded plastic. I’m actually all in favour of making our movie stars in molds. The only danger there is that they wouldn’t be naturally biodegradable, but judging by Sofia Loren, this is not a new problem.)

It wouldn’t be much of a Barbie range if they didn’t have a Barbie, of course. There has been a Star Trek Barbie before - a perky blonde in a Starfleet tunic - but in keeping with the fact that they’re basing the Barbies on the movie actors, and based on the fact that there’s really only one woman in space in the future (because someone has to answer the phones - ah, the future), Mattel had to do something it doesn’t normally do. Black Barbie.

trek-barbie-uhura

As a likeness of actress Zoe Saldana, this is actually not too terrible. In fact, compared to the other two dolls, this one looks like a runaway success, but then I suppose the people at Barbie probably are better at making Barbies than Kens.

I’m being a little unfair on the black Barbie front - there have been a few Barbies of colour over the years, including ‘Colored Francie’ and ‘Oreo Fun Barbie’ (I wish I was making this up). Some of them have even been called Barbie, rather than Christie, DeeDee or Simone, which is such a generous concession. There was even an African-American Barbie friend called Nichelle! (I’d like to stress that I have had to look these things up. These are not things that I already know.)

So there you have it, the new Star Trek Barbies. No word yet on whether or not they’ll follow it up with Wolverine Barbies, but I’m first in line if they do.