Saturday, July 04, 2015

Congressional Muppets

For the Fourth of July, a seldom-seen Muppet sketch. This aired in 1982 on the I Love Liberty special. Developed by Norman Lear for his People for the American Way non-profit to celebrate the 250th birthday of George Washington, this segment sees Big Bird and Martin Sheen (before he was president, natch) discussing turmoil, leading to a pre-taped sketch featuring the Muppets as the Continental Congress.

UPDATE 10:18 AM: Apparently there's a new video for this year!

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Marvels: Avengers #6

"The Mighty Avengers Meet the Masters of Evil!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Chic Stone
(July 1964)

This issue introduces another major villain to the Marvel Universe: Baron Zemo. Although he's first appearing here, he's given an origin that ties him into Captain America's story. The idea is that Zemo was Hitler's greatest scientist, but he kept a hood over his head so that no one could ever identify him. He was working on a powerful adhesive--called, appropriately, Adhesive-X--when Captain America raided his lab and the adhesive got all over Zemo, permanently bonding the hood to his face. Baron Zemo was able to escape and get his revenge, by launching the very drone plane that killed Bucky and, so he's thought for nearly 20 years, Captain America.

Zemo isn't happy, then, to read that Captain America is back in action.

He's living in a remote South American jungle, where he's ruling a small village of natives. A pilot brings him supplies, including the newspaper, which is how Zemo learns of Captain America's reappearance. He vows to finish the job this time.

But Captain America is in the mood for revenge, too. Still missing Bucky, he swears "on my oath as an Avenger" to punish the man responsible for Bucky's death.

It's Zemo who strikes first, gathering a force he calls the Masters of Evil. I'll be honest: he's not exactly picking from the A-list of supervillains available. The Black Knight is a neat villain, but the Melter? The only good thing about the Melter is that he melted that old golden suit that Iron Man used to wear, forcing him into a much neater set of armor. And the friggin' Radioactive Man? Talk about lame. Also, didn't Thor destroy Radioactive Man by literally throwing him into China, where he blew up like a nuclear bomb? I mean, he did, but I guess we're not counting it? Okay. Okay.

Anyway, Zemo's plan is to terrorize New York by spraying Adhesive-X everywhere and then having his "Masters" of Evil fight the heroes that already defeated them before, so great plan. The Black Knight fights Giant-Man and the Wasp, the Melter fights Iron Man, and Radioactive Man fights Thor, and as is becoming the formula in The Avengers, the team gets their asses handed to them. They retreat and try to come up with a way to dissolve Adhesive-X.

Now... okay, I consider Baron Zemo to be a big player in the Marvel Universe, but are we sure he's some kind of genius? Was he truly Hitler's greatest scientist? I only ask because when he shows up and the Masters of Evil have let the Avengers slip through their fingers, Radioactive Man wonders aloud if the Avengers can find a solution to Adhesive-X, and Baron Zemo, who has spent two decades with this stuff all over his face, immediately thinks "A solution for Adhesive-X!! I never thought of that!" I mean... this is a guy who was keeping up with scientific journals in the hopes that someone, somewhere would come up with some kind of super-solvent, and he never took this possibility into consideration?

If he was really that smart, he would've just staged some kind of lab accident that spilled Adhesive-X everywhere and then let the Avengers handle that, and then steal some of the solvent from them and then just walked around the streets of Miami like all of the other escaped Nazis.

And by the way, the Avengers don't even have to experiment with the stuff. They just make a call to a prison and hey, what do you know, someone did create a powerful enough solvent to dilute Adhesive-X, and it was mother-scratchin' Paste-Pot Pete. Seriously. Paste-Pot Pete. And he tells them where it is in return for shaving some time off his prison sentence. That's all it took.

I feel like if your superweapon can be dismantled by a villain as exceedingly lame as Paste-Pot Pete, it's not really that great a weapon. Seriously. Guy dresses like a Flemish house painter in the 1580s. Sorry, Hitler's Greatest Scientist, Jan Brueghel the Elder just stumbled upon the flaw in your superglue. Zemo even does the whole "This will make me the most powerful man on Earth!" shtick that's already so cliche in the Marvel Universe. I'm starting to think Zemo's just a one-trick pony in fancy dress.

To add insult to injury, the Teen Brigade gets one over on this guy; Rick Jones and his pals replace the tanks of Adhesive-X with the solvent, so that when the Black Knight flies over New York to give it a second coat, he instead frees everyone who's been stuck. Then the Avengers simply trade villains, so Thor easily defeats the Black Knight, Giant-Man and Iron Man put the Radioactive Man out of action, and... well, actually Iron Man also beats the Melter just by maneuvering him so that he melts a fire hydrant that disables the melting beam.

The stage is cleared for the best part of the issue: hand-to-hand combat between Captain America and Baron Zemo.

I think World War II vets Stan & Jack were pretty happy to reintroduce Captain America into a new generation of comic books. And here it's interesting to see Cap get passionate about his ideals without coming across too much like a mouthpiece. It plays great in context. We'll see how that goes in the future.

(Great art in the fight scene, too; Jack Kirby draws clear action with strong poses, but you can feel every inch of exertion and anger just from the expressions of the characters and Chic Stone's details as inker. Fantastic team.)

In the end, Baron Zemo is able to escape, but his container of solvent has been replaced by a container of tear gas, and his escape copter goes down. It seems to be a given that the authorities will just scoop up Zemo from his crash site, but he'll be menacing the Avengers again next issue.

Stray observations:

:: "Caution!" the opening blurb warns. "Don't tear this magazine or wrinkle the pages or get food stains on it! We have a hunch you'll want to save it as a collector's item for a long, long time!" Good advice; the current value of this issue is around $1,400.

:: This issue upgrades Captain America's shield: Tony Stark has made Cap a wrist gauntlet with magnets in it so that his shield--now containing some kind of transistorized doo-whacky--will return to Cap after he throws it. They did something like this in the recent Age of Ultron movie, too.

:: Cap and Giant-Man get stuck to the ground when Adhesive-X is in play; Iron Man's solution is to back up a tow truck, have the two heroes hold onto the tow chains, and drive off with them like they're water-skiing. I love it when old comics are earnestly cheesy.

:: Overworked Stan accidentally calls Rick Jones "Rick Brown" in this issue.

:: Iron Man defeats Radioactive Man with lead foil and a balloon.

Master of Evil.

:: "Giant-Man! Where did you come from??" "The stork brought me!"

:: In the Special Announcements section, Stan announces that The Avengers is now a monthly title. I have mixed feelings about that, honestly. I liked it as a bi-monthly, where the Avengers were facing truly powerful threats like the Hulk and Namor and the Lava Men. It seems like if you're going to have a team mainly comprised of characters who are the lead in their own books, you have to give them threats large enough to justify the team-up. This is why The Avengers has never really been one of my favorite comics, and why revisiting the first five issues was so much fun. The stories were momentous, and I wonder if now we're going to have a bunch of filler villains just so these guys can all hang out together in a clubhouse.

This issue just barely skirted that. I know I made fun of the lame villain team-up and Baron Zemo's silly plan, but I did enjoy this issue overall. Captain America is clearly the real star of the book now, and his fight with Zemo made it all worth it. But how soon are they going to notice that Cap is the real lead and the other heroes aren't quite as interesting as him and are basically just the supporting cast now. (When does the new team come in? The second year? I can't remember.)

I'll be patient, of course, but I hope this book doesn't become as tired as X-Men is right now.

Speaking of...

Next Marvels: X-Men vs. the Fantastic Four!

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Happy Liv Tyler Day

Happy 38th birthday to my first massive celebrity crush of the Internet Age. We're the same age for the next two and a half weeks. That means nothing in the grand scheme but what they hey.

Film Week

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

GET ON UP (2014)
Involving biopic about James Brown, starring Chadwick Boseman in the title role. Boseman is very good, and I like the format; rather than following chronologically, we jump around in the man's life, with Boseman sometimes addressing the audience directly as he tells his story. Although I've listened to Brown's music, I didn't really know much about his personal life, and the movie paints an impressionistic portrait rather than a full one. Much of it hangs together on Boseman's excellent performance. I also thought Nelsan Ellis was very good as Bobby Byrd, and Brandon Smith has an small but memorable appearance as Little Richard. Great soundtrack, of course, but the film is a little shapeless at times. Apparently this project was Mick Jagger's baby. ***

JOHN WICK (2014)
Surprisingly enjoyable gun fu revenge flick. Keanu Reeves plays the title role, a retired hitman whose wife dies. Before she dies, she has a dog delivered to him as a way to reconnect him with his emotions so that he doesn't drown in grief. This movie... they really get you to care about that dog, and then when the dog dies in a robbery, and Wick starts down the path of vengeance, you don't waver from it the whole time. It plays a lot like a combination between old-fashioned revenge movies like Point Blank combined with an 80s Michael Mann sensibility and crossed with early 90s John Woo flicks. It's like if The Killer starred Lee Marvin or Steve McQueen, and Keanu Reeves has really become perfect for this kind of role. This is the kind of movie I think that, after Drive, many of us were hoping Only God Forgives was going to be. ***1/2

A gripping, at times scary movie that documents Edward Snowden's release of information about the NSA's surveillance program as it's happening. That was a surprise; this wasn't an analysis or a reconstruction of how it happened, but instead the real-time process of it and the impact it had. This is one of the best films I've ever seen when it comes to showing information as the weapon it can be, and that it's all real just makes it that much more chilling. ****

Monday, June 29, 2015

Muppet Monday

Here's a very neat treat someone's come across: a video made by the crew of the first season of The Muppet Show. It appears to be a thank you video for Jim Henson, David Lazer, Jerry Juhl, Jack Burns, and the other writers and performers of the Muppets, made by the British crew at ATV Studios. It's a little in-joke heavy, but no less touching and definitely filled with that Muppet spirit. What a find!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Song of the Week: "Coming Around Again"

Carly Simon had a birthday this week, and Roger posted a list of favorite Carly Simon songs. I like Carly Simon, and it got me to thinking of the first song of hers that I remember hearing. This one was new in 1986, from the Jack Nicholson movie Heartburn, and I remember seeing this video several times on MTV. Like you do when you're a kid, I figured she was someone new. The song was nice and catchy, and I wonder if I was unconsciously responding to the way it has a sampling of "Itsy Bitsy Spider," a song I (at 10) had heard and would've made this sound comfortingly familiar to me. Simon also did that live concert in '87 at Martha's Vineyard which they used to show often on HBO.

Apparently my Dad was really into Carly Simon, particularly when he was a teenager, and of course I'm not referring to her music. So my Mom just kind of rolled her eyes that her son was suddenly enjoying a song of hers with no prompting from Dad.