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Posts Tagged ‘joss whedon’

SDCC 2010: The Vindication of Dr Wertham

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Over half a century ago, psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham warned about the corrupting influence of comics. He drew special attention to the ‘injury-to-the-eye’ motif, a common comic trope showing eyes being threatened by sharp objects. It was Wertham’s belief that such gruesome images were encouraging delinquency in America’s youth. “The injury-to-the-eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books”, wrote Wertham, adding, “it causes a blunting of the general sensibility.”

soti-eyemotif

It took about 55 years, but yesterday, one nerd finally stabbed another nerd in the eye. If only Dr Wertham were alive today to see the promise of his fearmongering realised!

The incident happened at the San Diego Comic-Con, and reports are fuzzy, but it seems that two nerds were fighting over seat-squatting in the big hall where the major movie panels take place. And they weren’t even good seats! The police said it was off to the side of the hall! The good news is, the attacker stabbed the victim in the eye with a pen, so comics can still be tied to a culture of literacy in America’s youth.

It will be tempting for the nerd blogs and forums to read far too much into this incident over the next few days. Questions will be asked about security at SDCC (no more pens at book signings!), about the ethics of seat-squatting, and about whether rooms should be cleared between panels - though those questions are raised every year anyway.

There’s also bound to be some attempt to define and expand upon the phenomenon of ‘nerd rage’, and to link this incident to the sort of frothing, intemperate anger that manifests on online message boards, where fanboys in the comfort of their homes thoughtlessly and senselessly hurl out violently invective at writers and artists whose work they don’t appreciate.

These people are not representative, they’re just loud. There’s an inclination in some professional quarters to dismiss all online criticism because of this vocal but unpopular minority, and that’s a shame. The crazies are easy enough to identify, and their impotent anger should easy enough to dismiss. Let’s remember all the people at San Diego this weekend who have never stabbed anyone in the eye.

godhatesnerdsPhoto source.

This incident is the second brush with real-life news at this year’s Comic-Con. The first occurred on Thursday when the bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church went through with their promise to picket the convention. I’m told they lasted about half an hour, and photos reveal that they were substantially outnumbered and outclassed by the counter-protesters, who revelled in their sin of idolatry with signs boasting, ‘All Glory to the Hypno-Toad’, and, ‘Magnets How The *?*! do they work?!’ Nerd pride!

In terms of actual comics news, I’ve been disappointed by how little of interest seems to have seeped out of the convention. Last year’s big announcement from Marvel was that they had acquired the rights to Marvelman - and what an exciting rollercoaster of Marvelman comic releases we’ve had since then! This year, Marvel was a little more stealthy in hinting that it will be bringing CrossGen books back into print.

CrossGen was a publisher with promise. It boasted of having the money to present a serious challenge to the market dominance of Marvel and DC, and it offered up an interestingly diverse slate of titles. Of course, the money thing turned out to be an exaggeration, and the line folded in 2004. Disney acquired the assets in bankruptcy court, and with Marvel now owned by Disney, there was already some speculation about a CrossGen revival under Marvel.

Hopefully that’s what we’re going to get, and if this means new CrossGen books, that’s great. If it only means reprints, that’s also kind of great, just not as great. One thing that I’d really like to see the major publishers get better at is repackaging and republishing old out-of-print material - both their own and other people’s. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy some more Marvel trades that don’t have ‘Dark Reign’ or ‘Siege’ on the cover?

The big ‘other media’ news yesterday was the formal unveiling of the frighteningly handsome Avengers movie cast.

avengerscast

That’s Robert Downey Jr, that SHIELD agent guy, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and writer/director Joss Whedon. More pertinently, it’s Iron Man, that SHIELD agent guy, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Nick Fury, Hawkeye and the Hulk.

This is a much stronger cast than I think anyone ever expected, for a movie that seemed unlikely to ever get made. It should be manageable, though, as all the characters bar Hawkeye will have been introduced by other movies (and even Hawkeye is likely to cameo somewhere, probably in the Captain America movie). It also seems plausible that the Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo) could be one of the threats in the story, in keeping with Marvel tradition.

Two things jump out at me about this cast. First, there’s no Don Cheadle/War Machine. That actually makes sense; what’s the value of having two Iron Men in an already crowded ensemble? On the other hand, that makes it a very white cast, but it’s fair to say that the Avengers have always tended a little towards the Aryan. As great as it would be to have Black Panther or Luke Cage in there, I’d rather they were introduced in their own movies first.

Second, there’s only one woman. I would hope that they can add at least one more to the roster, and given Joss Whedon’s penchant for nerd madonnas, I’m sure he’ll find the room. Whedon has confirmed that Ant-Man won’t be in the movie, but Wasp still could be, and as Thor already brings magic into this world, it wouldn’t bend the genre to introduce the Scarlet Witch. Ms Marvel could be a lot of fun - I don’t think ladies with the basic Superman power set have been shown on-screen since Supergirl. I assume they’ll save Mockingbird for a Hawkeye spin-off.

I also have a couple of reservations about this movie. It’s going to be released in 3D, but there’s no word on whether it will be shot in 3D or converted. I’ve yet to see a live action 3D conversion that worked, and besides, I’m already bored of 3D movies - I suspect I won’t be the only one by the time this movie comes out in 2012.

I’m also reticent about Whedon as writer/director. Like Avengers comics writer Brian Bendis, Joss Whedon is very talented, but like Bendis, he has a very distinctive voice as a writer, one that tends to overwhelm the voices of the characters. I don’t think Bendis’s idiosyncracies serve an ensemble cast very well, and though Whedon has had better luck with ensembles, he still feels like an awkward fit for the Avengers.

Of course, Bendis’s Avengers books have been a big success for Marvel, and Whedon’s Avengers will likely be a huge hit as well. That’ll be one in the eye for me.

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.

Dollhouse: No Big Hunk Can Steal Her Away From Me

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Two episodes in to Dollhouse, and our hero Echo is once again having sex with men for money. Since she can’t give consent, this makes her TV’s most rapeable action heroine. Fox, if you want to use that in your promos, be my guest. I think it gets across the message you want to sell.

realdollheads

I’m beginning to worry that this show is Joss Whedon’s mid-life crisis. While it does seem plausible that rentable reprogrammable people would be used for sex, let’s bear in mind that Whedon invented this flaky, dubious concept. These rich men hiring hot girls for sex are doing so because that’s what the writers want them to do, and we may be only a few weeks away from an episode in which someone hires two girl dolls to dress up as nurses and wrestle in Jell-O ‘because the plot demanded it’. It’s worth remembering that most mercenaries do not moonlight as hookers. 

I think the show might be a game of chicken that got out of hand. Apparently the concept arose because Eliza Dushku told Joss Whedon over lunch that she was looking for roles that would stretch her as an actor, which tend to be few and far between for women in the business. Whedon came up with the Dollhouse concept to serve that need, but he hasn’t made it work. I suspect he would have scrapped it if it weren’t for Dushku, and that Dushku wouldn’t have done it if Whedon hadn’t written it for her. Whedon can’t write this; Duskhu can’t act it; but they’re both obligated to ride it out because of the other.

Dushku’s acting improves a little this week when she’s playing the girl-in-peril, which is a role that’s well within her range. The problem is that she can’t do the innocent naif part that’s the lynchpin of the character (for want of a better word). When attempting ‘child-like’ she can only manage ‘what’s that smell?’

The plot this week - a Most Dangerous Game ‘tribute’ - was a step-up on last week’s kidnap nonsense, though it did take a quarter of the episode to get to it, and improving on last week is not a challenge. Whedon didn’t write or direct this week’s but there were some Whedonesque lines that may have been him - especially from Xandrew - and they still don’t click. This just isn’t a witty show, and Xandrew is too weaselly to be charming. This week’s choicest dialogue clunker came from Dushku, though, who gave us, “You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them!” That is so true.

What did we learn this week?

  • When dolls die, they die in dainty hide-the-genitalia poses.
  • Harry Lennix’s greatest skill is the ability to pull guns out of his arse.
  • The audience is very stupid and does not know what ‘tabula rasa’ means. We must have it explained to us. Possibly every week.
  • We’re going to have to put up with that “Did I fall asleep” thing every week, and possibly also the elevator scenes where Echo says, “Wait there; I really want to go back to that guy and snuzzle”.
  • The trust-imprinting process requires the recital of dialogue lifted from As The World Turns or General Hospital. I feel they cut that sequence short, as we didn’t get as far as, “You complete me”.
  • The set of the Dollhouse is actually Wolfram and Hart, but they’ve added a zen reflection pool and some beanbags.
  • Plot alert! The naked guy at the end of last week’s episode was Alfa the broken doll, who is obsessed with Echo/Caroline. This is potentially the show’s most interesting thread. This is potentially the show’s only interesting thread.

And now, a little spoileration. If you don’t want to know the results, look away now.

During the production phase of the show there were several actors cast as ‘dolls’, including two dolls named Victor and November. In recent pre-publicity it was revealed that those characters had been dropped from the show, but the actors had been retained and new roles were being written for them. Because, yes, that’s what happens in the caring, nurturing world of television. They just can’t stand to see an actor go without work.

No, unless you’re Ali Larter, this is blatantly not the case. I think Victor and November are still in the show, and still dolls, and they’re the ones Mrs Dr Evil is using to keep an eye on Agent Hotness. We met one of them last week - the Russian mob lackey - and the other this week - the smitten next-door-neighbour. 

And in case you hadn’t already twigged - Alfa, Echo, November, Sierra and Victor are all names taken from the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet. This has me very excited for the possibility of guest appearance by 80s British TV cop Juliet Bravo. It also has me wondering if there are dolls called Golf, Hotel, Kilo, Xray and Uniform. I’m most looking forward to meeting Romeo and Yankee (I’m picturing Rodrigo Santoro and Chris Evans), and wondering if they can get away with Zulu.

Dollhouse: Tear Your Playhouse Down

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

The first episode of Dollhouse, the new series from Buffy creator Joss Whedon, aired last night. Whedon is a messianic figure among nerds, and Dollhouse has been hotly anticipated by his acolytes - so much so, in fact, that campaigns to save the show from cancellation have been underway for months. 

Those fans may want to sharpen their pencils and dig out the addresses of the Fox executives. I suspect this show is not long for this world.

Dollhouse is a tough sell even before you’ve seen the first reel, as the concept is outright bizarre. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, one of several personality-free operatives who can be imprinted with new identities and new skills and hired out to do, well, anything. If you have the money, you can hire a doll to do whatever job you want. So they could be mercenaries. But they could also be prostitutes. It’s the best little dollhouse, in Texas or anywhere.

dush-2

There are two problems here. First of all, it’s creepy. It sounds like a show about sex dolls who fight crime. That’s not nice. Whedon calls himself a feminist, but he’s really more a fetishist, with his particular thing being strong-but-vulnerable babes. He grew up reading Chris Claremont’s X-Men comics, and Claremont’s damsel/dominatrix complex has imprinted itself on Whedon. Like a lot of nerds, I don’t think he treats women as equals, but as something exotic and ‘other’, and a show about controllable superwomen seems like suspect territory for him to head into. (There are male ‘dolls’ as well, in theory; I don’t know how much time the show will spend with them.)

The second problem is that the concept is not very compelling. There are many places you can take a premise like this, but there’s no clear and obvious conflict. A vampire slayer fights vampires. A space cowboy goes up against outlaws and the law. A supernatural detective solves supernatural crimes. There’s no audience hook to ‘kick-ass sex doll’ except Whedon himself.

penikett

There is conflict, of course. The Dollhouse is an illegal operation, and FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is the Van Helsing looking to shut it down. There’s also an internal conflict for Echo, who used to be a troubled girl named Caroline, and is perhaps not entirely done with being Caroline.

This is all rather troubling as well, because most of the characters work for the Dollhouse, and the Dollhouse is essentially a slavery/prostitution racket - verging on child abuse given how innocent the dolls are in their dormant state. At one point Echo is even said to be getting her virginity back, which is just icky. If we’re meant to like the characters at the Dollhouse, the show has problems, and if we’re not meant to like the characters, the show has problems. If characters like Amy Acker’s Dr Saunders and Harry Lennix’s Boyd are meant to be sympathetic, it doesn’t work.

acker

And then there’s the Dushku problem. I like Eliza Dushku, but she is not a versatile actress. This show will require her to play all kinds of different roles and personalities, and in just the first episode she already runs into trouble trying to convince. As a girlfriend-for-hire in the opening scenes, she scrapes by (but the girl cannot dance). As a bespectacled and besuited hostage negotiator, she comes across like a soft core porn secretary waiting for the wah-wah to kick in. 

I’m already more interested in the other ‘doll’ featured in the pilot, new girl Sierra, played by Australian actress Dichen Lachman, and that’s less because of anything she does and more because she looks extraordinary, and therefore interesting. 

sierra

Even in spite of all its flaws, Dollhouse might still have been watchable if it had borne the chief hallmark of Whedon’s writing - wit. Unfortunately, this is a very humourless show, and again that perhaps comes down to the dry, dark concept. There’s not much room for wit in a show like this. The character being dubbed ‘Xandrew’ gets the only jokes, and they’re not funny ones. This leaves Whedon writing dreadful lines like, ”You ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” That’s neither good nor true! Add to this a run-of-the-mill child kidnap plot and there’s nothing here to get very excited about.

That said, I did like about the show was the sunken beds the dolls all slept in. I’d like a sunken bed; it looks like it could be cosy. They totally ripped those sleep-pods off from the Backstreet Boys video for Larger Than Life, though.

dhouse-pods

In the end, Dollhouse’s problems come back to the concept. It didn’t sound good on paper. It doesn’t feel good in execution. It’s too unpleasant, too convoluted, and it doesn’t make much sense. If you have enough money to hire a mercenary or a prostitute, why not just hire a mercenary or a prostitute? The character of Agent Ballard attempts to answer this question in the show, and the best he can come up with is, ”If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect”.

In other words, there is no answer. I was hoping to see how Whedon would make this concept work. He didn’t.