Friday, August 23, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #8

"Prisoners of the Puppet Master!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(November 1962)

For the last few issues, we've dealt with Doctor Doom, Namor, and the alien threat of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X. The Puppet Master at first doesn't seem in the same league as those kinds of menaces, but Stan and Jack up the ante by portraying this new villain as dangerously unhinged and maniacally ambitious.

The Puppet Master aspires to no less than total mastery of the world, imagining himself as king of all nations with the Fantastic Four as his personal slaves. And he intends to get the whole thing done with puppets. He makes puppets of the people he wants to control, and because the puppets are made from a lump of radioactive clay (which he just "discovered" somewhere), he can become their masters... so... I don't know, it's kind of easier here to just say it's magic with a science word papered over it.

What's especially important in terms of future continuity is that the Puppet Master has a stepdaughter: Alicia Masters. She's blind, and is immediately fascinated with Ben Grimm when she feels his face, saying "This man--his face feels strong and powerful! And yet, I can sense a gentleness to him--there is something tragic--something sensitive!" There is so much to love about the way Alicia relates to Ben. She's not scared by his rocky exterior, because she can't see it. Without the visual cues, she is able to accept him instantly for what he is, and she finds a reservoir of emotion that she's not only attracted to, but that she feels safe with. It's just a beautiful thing that Stan and Jack have pulled off here. She doesn't feel sorry for him because of his accident or because of the way he looks, the very things that have made Ben feel trapped inside of himself this whole time. She sees who he is inside and falls in love with him.

In fact, much of this issue's character dynamics are influenced by Reed's attempt to create a formula to cure the Thing of his mutation. And it works, though only briefly. Alicia (who has been disguised as the Invisible Girl by the Puppet Master) is actually scared by the transformation!

It's touching and tragic and beautiful and amazing. There's a genuine complexity of emotions going on there. Speaking as a guy who always felt outcast because of his looks and weight, this touches me deeply.

(Also, Kirby killing me again with another Sad Ben panel. Hadn't had one for a few issues.)

The Puppet Master's plan involves a prison break and a giant robot, unfortunately not at the same time. It's  not much of a plan, either, since both are thwarted by the Fantastic Four and don't really even attempt to accomplish anything other than buying the Puppet Master some time. There's a nice ending, though, where the Puppet Master simply trips and falls out the window, and then we pan down and see the puppet he's made of himself (in a crown and royal robe) has fallen to the floor. In the end, as with so many grand villains, he's defeated by his own hubris.

The Puppet Master really does appear to die at the end of this story, but he comes back later, so I guess not. If he'd died, would we have missed out?

Other notes:

:: In keeping up with the way the previous issue made me change my opinion of Reed Richards, I love that in this issue he's so driven to try and "cure" Ben. It really took me the first seven issues to get the sense that Reed not only really cares about how unhappy Ben is, but blames himself for that unhappiness, and is willing to drive himself to fix what he's done. At the very beginning of the issue, Ben thinks that Reed just doesn't want him around at all anymore. But it turns out that he didn't want to tell Ben about it in case it didn't work. He didn't want to disappoint his friend again.

:: I like that there's a lot of focus on Sue in this issue. Unfortunately, she does still get captured, but at least it's in an interesting way. This is the time when they started getting letters from readers accusing Sue of being useless, so Stan and Jack do seem to make a point of proving those readers wrong.

:: Nice demonstrations of powers in this issue. Mr. Fantastic can absorb bullets and then snap them back like a rubber band; the Human Torch can burn so hot that he can tunnel through stone. (The Invisible Girl is largely useless during the prison break, which is kind of sad. Stan and Jack do even sort of call attention to that fact.)

:: There's also a neat page with the Human Torch describing to you, dear reader, how some of his powers work. It includes another explanation that his clothes and all of his furniture are chemically-treated every single day to be burn resistant, which... I mean, he has to have cancer, right? Like, a lot of cancer.

:: Someone in the letters page suggests a Fantastic Four movie starring Gregory Peck, Tuesday Weld, and Troy Donahue, with Steve Reeves in makeup as the Thing. Someone else in the letters page shares my annoyance with team members calling Ben "Thing" all the time.

But my favorite letter this issue:

Some encouragement from Stan. It makes a nice antidote to the bizarre number of comics writers who have been pushing the "Fake Geek Girl" meme this year.

So, Fantastic Four #8 isn't really a classic tale, but there's a lot of great character development, particularly regarding Ben, that really stands out as something different in the nascent Marvel Universe. None of the other characters right now are this rich and varied, with the possible exception of Rick Jones. Speaking of Rick...

Next time: the Hulk becomes Bruce Banner again and fights an alien menace!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #36

"The Challenge of Comrade X!" by Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(October 1962)

Everyone has to fight communist agents in an early story, so here's one for the Ant-Man. It's actually a pretty simple tale of Ant-Man tracking down someone who needs his help, tangling with the legendary double agent Comrade X, and then saving the day. That's pretty much it entirely.

Rather than dissect what little story there is, I'm just going to go right into the observations, because I can't really make this whole thing hang together as a Marvels entry.

:: There is a lot of room in this story to explain how Ant-Man's powers work, which I enjoy. There's a neat little scene, for example, of Ant-Man unlocking a bank vault by shrinking, going into it, and moving the tumblers into place with his proportionate human strength. That's pretty handy.

:: Another neat Kirby diagram explaining a hero's headquarters.

But here's something that's going to bother me through issues to come.

See, the way Ant-Man learns he's needed is that ants across the city will catch something suspicious and send out their radio signals, which Ant-Man's computer intercepts. When he puts on the helmet, he can decipher the message. Then he gets in costume, shrinks, and catapults away, always sending out a signal for the ants to form in a big pile and break his landing. (Which, when you think about it, must be a horrific, eldritch thing to see when you're just walking down the street.)

Anyway, Henry always says something like "Just like landing on a cloud." Is it? Because all I can picture is this loud crunching sound. It goes one of two ways: either Henry's body breaks when hitting those hard exoskeletons at high velocity, or his proportionate human strength just squishes those ants into goo and antennae remnants. I feel like the science on this one is off somewhere. Can we get Neil deGrasse Tyson's opinion on this one, too? Seriously, can Tyson just take a few months and write a fun book about the science of Marvel Comics?

:: Also: Henry Pym needs a special machine to decipher the language of the ants, but they understand English enough to (a) assess when someone needs Ant-Man's help, and (b) give him coordinates and/or addresses.

:: Once again, it really looks like relying on ants to save you and help you fight crime is a painstakingly slow process. Comrade X has the obvious idea of just catching Ant-Man under a clear box and putting a weight on top of it. Seriously, if you can be defeated the same way as a mouse that gets into the basement, you're just not that cool a superhero. And then, instead of just enlarging to human size and thereby simply knocking over the box he's trapped in, he calls the ants to him. He's on a boat, and they have to figure out how to get out to the boat and then slowly drift towards it on pieces of wood and then eventually make their way to him just to help him knock it over. How many minutes do you think that took?

And it's not like he's only got the enlarging gas and then he can't reduce in size again, because he does it on the next page when he enlarges himself to radio the shore and then becomes ant-sized again so that he and his ants can fight Comrade X again.

:: While we're on this subject, how much time does he waste catapulting everywhere just to ride to the crime scene on an ant? How fast do Stan Lee and his brother Larry think ants actually are? How much crime happens while he's just slowly making his way across town on antback? Wouldn't it be faster to just drive everywhere and then shrink to ant-size? He could probably do it in a public restroom or something, right? Why not just drive to the docks and then become Ant-Man?

:: The depiction of the girl who needs Ant-Man's help against Comrade X is just dumb. First, her character never even gets named. Second, she's an American who fell in love with a man who turned out to be Comrade X, and sells out his location to Ant-Man because she wants revenge for him jilting her in favor of another woman, because what else would motivate a woman, it's not like they're patriotic or anything, right? And then, the woman turns out to have actually been Comrade X all the time, setting Ant-Man up for capture by the Soviet Union.

So, clearly she's one of the greatest spies of all time, because no one knew that the big, hairy Comrade X was a woman all along, right? Nope. Ant-Man says "I knew it all along" because he saw something in her pocketbook and somehow deduced it meant she was a spy. Sure you did, Henry. Sure you did.

:: It is kind of cute to see Ant-Man loping off on antback like a cowboy. Not as impressive when you realize he's riding an ant and that it will take him a long, long time to get out of sight. Also, you're on a boat, where are you even going?

:: Marvel communists are always smoking or eating ridiculous things, like mutton joints or an entire turkey. This panel makes me smile:

Mainly because I just hear Hank Hill irritably asking "Why are you holding your cigarette like some European Nazi in a movie?"

So far, being the Ant-Man just seems more like an inconvenience than anything else. To hear Marvel tell it, you'd think ants moved at blinding speed, but they just don't really seem that conducive to crimefighting. Larry Lieber's dull stories don't really help matters, either.

Next time: the Fantastic Four face the Puppet Master!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

80s Revisited: Tango & Cash

Tango & Cash (1989)
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and Albert Magnoli; written by Randy Feldman; produced by Peter MacDonald and Peter Guber & Jon Peters.

Sometimes you see a movie in high school that you think is so bad that you decide you never want to see it again. And then sometimes your wife asks you to TiVo that movie because it's going to be on and she's never seen it. What do you do in that situation?

Well, they say marriage is compromise.

And hey, 80's Revisited is always there.

So... win-win, I guess.

I last saw Tango & Cash when I was about 14, during one of the dozen or so times my sister watched it on cable. My memory was of a movie so excessive, so remarkably lame, that I just couldn't bring myself to ever watch it on my own. And I like Kurt Russell. Hell, I like Stallone, too. I like Stallone maybe more than a person who likes good movies should. I like stupid action flicks. But I just didn't like this one. I just... didn't. So, I thought, I force Becca to sit through enough movies she doesn't end up liking, I'll take the hit and see if time has changed my opinion on this picture's ridiculousness. Maybe I'd end up digging it this time as something of a fun, silly movie.

Nope.

It's pretty damn stupid.

It pretty much fails at even being a movie in the first place. I know there are people out there--including my wife, now--who love this thing the way some people love a big, stupid, slobbery puppy that gets so excited it accidentally walks into walls and falls down a lot. But I am not one of those people. I'm not going to get in deep on this one, because there's just nothing to talk about. It's an assembly line product that is almost--almost--likable just because of how weirdly confident it is that it's the funniest, coolest, most awesome thing that's ever existed.

But I'll try and find... let's say five things I liked about it.

1. I enjoy that the villains are played by Jack Palance, Marc Alaimo, James Hong, Robert Z'Dar and Brion James, even though Brion James is using the most insane accent and Palance seems to be having a stroke the whole time.

2. Teri Hatcher is very hot in this movie.

3. I appreciate Stallone's attempt at being witty by assuring a fellow cop that "Rambo is a pussy." Even though it falls flat on its face--particularly after ripping off yet another scene from a Jackie Chan movie, which Stallone was doing a lot those days--I do like attempts at fourth wall humor. You tried, Sly. You tried.

4. Any chance to see Michael Jeter is pretty good.

5. My wife was a good sport about a lot of my comments about how dumb the movie is. She couldn't really defend it. But she did love it, so, if she's happy, I'm happy.

But I'm never watching this again.

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

WHAT ON EARTH! (1966)
Great short animation from the National Film Board of Canada, a mockumentary from the viewpoint of Martians who have mistaken the automobile as Earth's dominant species. A clever skewering of car culture with a great design aesthetic. It was nominated for an Oscar, which it lost to Fred Wolf's The Box. ****

BAD EAR DAY (2013)
Funny short where Mickey Mouse loses his ears, which go on the run without him. Surreal and bizarre; it had a potential to be a little creepy, but some of the neat tricks they do with the sound editing really made it. I don't know if it's official, but I'm going to say that's Clara Cluck at the end, because the possibility of that makes me smile. ****

TOP HAT (1935)
Well... it's just not for me. I found it a bit tedious in that way of 1930s movies about rich people and rich things that tend to just not do it for me. Fred Astaire is a marvelous dancer, and the scenes of he and Ginger Rogers dancing are wonderful. Some of the production design is just gorgeous, particularly an elaborate Venice set that you could just get lost in. And, of course, the great Irving Berlin music. But it's just not my kind of picture, dance movie, or comedy. I'm glad to have finally seen it, and I see why it's so well-regarded, but except for the dancing, I just couldn't hook into it. **1/2

Dueling Banjos


Monday, August 19, 2013

The Shrieking Madness

For most of the day today, Becca and I have been watching the first season of Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated. This series is kind of amazing; it seems mainly aimed at adults who were fans of Scooby-Doo as kids. It's chock full of references to pulp fiction, sci-fi shows and horror flicks.

Right smack in the center of the season is an episode called "The Shrieking Madness," and it is wonderful. The Mystery Inc. gang are visiting Darrow University just as a Cthulhu type creature starts menacing the campus. It's based on one of the Old Ones from the books of one of Darrow's professors, HP Hatecraft, played with relish by Jeffrey Combs.

In the midst of all this is Harlan Ellison, my favorite author, on a lecture tour with his new book, My Fiction Is Better. Ellison, naturally, plays himself.

It's just... brilliant. It's like someone somehow created a Scooby-Doo episode exactly for me.

This show is amazing.

Kristen Bell Mondays

There's a blast from the past.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Song of the Week: "This Guy's in Love with You"

For my wife, who loves this song. Herb Alpert, 1968.

More of EW's Great Films

The last bit of this. The films in the top 10 genre lists that didn't make EW's 100 Greatest master list. (As always, via Roger.)

Horror Flicks

8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Bleak, but one of the greatest horror films ever made. I can stand a slasher flick when it has an interesting social point to make and isn't just belaboring the visuals for the sake of dulling cruelty. (Like the odious remake.)

9. Carrie (1976)
I just caught the last 20 minutes of this on TV the other day. Great film. The little coda at the end always scares me, even when I know it's coming. It's like it happens just a second too early to prepare for it. Great filmmaking. I'm looking forward, kind of, to the remake, because I think you can really use bullying as a hook to make it relevant to today, but the trailers keep making it look like a retread. I hope it's not just a retread. That would be a waste of Julianne Moore and of Chloe Moretz. (Though lots of movies are a waste of Chloe Moretz, if I'm being honest.)

10. Alien (1979)
As I said previously, a masterpiece. Nice to see it in the horror list, honestly.

Action Films

9. Die Hard (1988)
I know it sounds kind of silly to say, but I think it's an action masterpiece. So over the top in its day, but understated in a post-Michael Bay world. I don't like any of the other ones, but this one, to me, is a milestone. It's about a character pushed to desperation; it's like Hitchcock with all the excess of 80s action flicks, but somehow it's timeless.

10. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
My Dad got Becca the Blu-Rays of parts one and two for Christmas; seeing the movies again, I'm more sure than ever that Tarantino should never have cut the film in half. It should just be one four-hour movie. Of course everyone likes the first one better, it's 90% action. All of the exposition and talky bits are in the second movie, and I feel like both suffer without the other. It's really one film.

Roger says he will not see this. I wonder why? Is the violence a turn-off? I'm just curious.

Family Movies

I kind of hate the idea of "family movies" as a genre, honestly.

6. The Little Mermaid (1989)
I think it's a tad overvalued, but it's a nice movie. Taking the same filmmakers, I think Hercules was a better movie.

7. The Red Balloon (1956)
I immediately think of all the Red Balloon references on The Critic. Critics were precious about this movie for a long time. Maybe they still are, who knows? Since Roger Ebert died I don't take film criticism all that seriously. I remember seeing this dozens of times as a kid. We watched in school, we watched it in the library, we watched it at Sunday school, it would just randomly show up on Nickelodeon. Maybe they showed it on Sesame Street, who knows? Probably they just aired it on PBS. This film somehow became THE symbol for all time of children's innocence and imagination.

Now, all that said, I did actually see the film within the last year on TCM. I hadn't seen it since childhood. And it actually is quite a wonderful movie. Overrated still, but very nice.

8. Shrek (2001)
I liked it, but I still think it's overrated. They play it a lot in the children's area of the waiting room at the office where I go for therapy, so I still can't escape this thing. But to its credit, and unlike the other films in this series, at least it couches its preoccupation with grown-up issues behind cleverness and genuine emotion. It does really work on two levels, the way the other films don't. (The other films are, like too many animated films in America, about what 58 year-olds think kids find hilarious. Like midlife crises and worrying about whether you'll be a good father. Fun!)

9. National Velvet (1944)
This is just a really, really nice movie.

10. Spirited Away (2001)
Frankly, this category could just be 10 Hayao Miyazaki movies. This is his best one, to me, and one of the great films of the 21st century.

Documentaries

4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
To this day, I've never seen Hoop Dreams. It's really because this came out the year I started at community college, and the whole video production department (we didn't have a film department) was high on this movie and knew the people who had made it and just would not stop talking about how this was the most important film ever made by human hands. So I just haven't seen it.

5. Nanook of the North (1922)
"Documentary" is kind of a loose term with this film (and a lot of films), but I love it. It's one of my favorite films. It's all staged, but it's really fascinating. They made us watch this in high school, too.

6. Crumb (1995)
I loved it. And his brother still kind of haunts me.

7. Gimme Shelter (1970)
Roger's right, this is a depressing movie. Did you know George Lucas was one of the cameramen? None of his footage is in the movie; his camera jammed.

8. Titicut Follies (1967)
I've always wanted to see it, but never come across it.

9. Don't Look Back (1967)
I've never seen this one, either. I hear it doesn't put Bob Dylan in the best possible light, but.... well, Dylan was brilliant, but he was an asshole.

10. The Up Series (1964-present)
I was surprised how engrossed I became in this series. And I see now that 56 Up just became available on Netflix, so I've got a new one to get to!