Purging the stereotype of 1990’s comics

I watched this video about Marvel’s pretty dismal reboot of some of their titles back in the 90’s, and on the whole its fine but uses the lazy stereotype of 90’s comics being all bulging Liefeldesque characters and really, not very good.

It seems to be the view of Millennial commentators that the 90’s were crap but the truth is the 90’s were probably the decade where one could still be surprised by what the mainstream would do with even Marvel producing quality work at the end of a decade where the majority of their output was instantly forgettable

Say the 90’s to a certain age and type of fan and they’ll think of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Spawn, Jim Lee’s X Men or Image work, but many will think instantly of this piece by Rob Liefeld .

There’s nothing defensible about that piece. In every way it is awful It represents a small part of 90’s comics. It doesn’t represent say, Preacher, Sandman, The Invisibles, Grendel, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Concrete, Nexus, Yummy Fur, From Hell, Bone and Hate plus many, many other titles showed a real diversity when one walked into a comic shop.Even mainstream superhero titles weren’t all bad with Marvels, Kingdom Come and enjoyable runs on Batman stood out in a decade where you could still get a variety in terms of comics.

But of course there were piles and piles of trash much of which still live in dealers 50p boxes but as a decade, the 90’s were more diverse and adventurous than most of your YouTube generation critics give it credit for. Indeed one could make the argument that it was a golden decade for comics and personally, I like to think it was as the number of great comics that came from that decade after the Cold War and before the War on Terror.

What happens is though, that there’s an assumption for history from people that look only at it from one point of view which is often the view of the lazy consensus. As is often the case the truth is more revealing, not to mention interesting than the commonly accepted view of it.

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What I thought of ‘Outlaw King’

The first thing to get over in David MacKenzie’s Outlaw King is that it’s a de facto Braveheart sequel. It’ll never admit to being so officially and while director and cast alike do refer to Mel Gibson’s film there’s nothing official to say it is, except for the fact that you need to have the knowledge of the story of William Wallace before entering this film.

What the film does do is tell the story of Robert the Bruce who fought the invading English army in the First War of Scottish Independence and in particular the story of the Bruce. Indeed for the first half hour or so it strives for historical accuracy as much as possible, barring a obviously telegraphed Chekov’s gun (well, more of a swordfight) in the first reel that pays off in the end. The first half hour is also tediously slow and dull with some of the only fun being when Chris Pine’s accent (which on the whole is fine) slips into his own, or some hybrid accent with a tough of William Shatner thrown in.

Then about half an hour in, Outlaw King kicks into gear, forgets about being a historical drama and decides to become a gore-soaked exploitation film as Pine’s Bruce starts his bloody war against the English, who also become less nuanced and more like the slaughtering, raping baddies the story needs them to be because we don’t want nuance, just leering baddies who we cheer being sliced graphically in half by a sword. In fact the best way Outlaw King works are the scenes where Robert’s forces are fighting superior numbers and winning because the film isn’t about history, but telling the myth.

Outlaw King also looks astonishing on a reasonably big telly, so it’ll look even better on a cinema screen. It uses the landscape of Scotland so well that it becomes it’s own character as it supports Robert on his struggle which ends here not at Bannockburn as those aware of their history may expect, but at the battle of Louden Hill (I assume just in case there’s enough demand for a sequel) is presented here as a muddy, bloody swamp of death and the aforementioned Chekov’s Sword is brought into play.

Overall Outlaw King isn’t the film it couldn’t have been. It tries hard not to do a Braveheart, but dips liberally from that film, and when it tries to be political (at several times it’s quite clearly speaking to the audience in a 21st century post 2014 context) it doesn’t have that clarity of vision Gibson’s film did which may have been simplistic, but was also effective. What the legacy of Outlaw King may be I don’t know as it’s too early, but as an effective action/adventure/exploitation film flying the Netflix banner it’s a flawed, sometimes dreary bit of entertainment that doesn’t fly til it shrugs loose it’s chains and then it repays your faith in the film in steel and blood.

What I thought of Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

An awful lot was riding on this episode. First female Doctor. New showrunner in the shape of Chris Chibnall who has a patchy at best record on Who, and with things like the scene below on his C.V, we were right to be worried.

On top of this there’s a vocal group online ready to lead boycotts for a series which worldwide is one of the BBC’s top three money-earners, but here in the UK the audience has declined during the Stephen Moffat years. And there’s a point; the first Moffat series is excellent but he quickly falls into a convoluted mess of plotlines and character arcs which means that if you’ve not seen Doctor Who at any point over the last half century, or have been away for a while you’d often turn on a Moffat episode and be lost from the first scene. Then there was the fact many of the scripts being commissioned were just dreadful which made it feel that actors of the calibre of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi were often wasted.

In short the programme was in a similar state to where it was in the Colin Baker to early Sylvester McCoy years where it was falling in on itself from the weight of continuity and the urge to follow it ahead of story and character. Basically Moffatt changed the programme from a mass audience one to one for fans, which works to a limit but certainly the programme had basically fell up it’s own arse.

So The Woman Who Fell to Earth is the programme rebooting itself for the age of mass audience programming with works like Broadchurch and The Bodyguard, proving that loads of people will tune in at the same time if there’s something they want to see. The revamped Doctor Who is now 13 years old and frankly, wasn’t going to keep an audience where it was going, so in come Chibnall fresh from the success of Broadchurch,  to essentially take the programme back to 2005. All you need to know going into this is there’s a character called the Doctor, who has just regenerated because they’re an alien, and they fight evil on and off Earth throughout time with their companion/s. Chibnall has also promised no old recurring baddies for this series which is good, and I hope finally lets the new series build up its own mythology.

Which brings us back to everything riding on this episode. The BBC have spent what must be millions in sending Whittaker around the world to publicise the relaunch (which the BBC never admitted it was) and it has to be said, she did her job brilliantly showing an enthusiasm and love for the show that belies the fact she wasn’t a hardcore fan when first cast. The first episode itself has a pretty old-school Who B-plot with an alien landing in Sheffield (the programme uses its Sheffield locations, and the fact we’re not used to seeing programming set outwith of London very well) killing people seemingly randomly. It frankly is only there to push along the A-plot which is who is this woman who crashed from the skies and how come she knows how to fight an alien menace? There’s also the start of three character arcs in the shape of the companions ( Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and a surprisingly good Bradley Walsh) so there’s a lot going on in a busy opener.

On the whole it works. A major death is telegraphed from the minute the character is introduced which detracts from the tension, also the alien menace looks great and not a monster out to destroy the universe but is dispatched with a finality which suggests it won’t return which is a shame.  The companions, sorry, ‘friends’ are all fine and good though I’m still worried there may be too many of them, but it’s Jodie Whitaker that the new relaunch hinges on and she carries the entire thing off so well that you forgive the odd cliche, or clunker of a line.Added to the fact there’s a real effort in upping direction (though Moffat should be praised for letting people like Ben Wheatley loose on Who) and cinematography (Sheffield has never looked so good)that things do feel exciting and fresh.

In fact by halfway through the episode you forget all the fuss about a woman Doctor and just accept that this is The Doctor, it’s a regeneration episode and I can’t wait to see where Whitaker goes from here to develop the character though you can spot influences, especially when she’s bumbling around trying to build a new sonic screwdriver there’s a touch of Troughton, Tennant and Smith there, then a touch of Tom Baker and Eccleston during the climatic scenes. There’s even a few scenes where she carries herself as Capaldi would to show shes not fully regenerated yet. Is it perfect? No though as introductory episodes it is up there is the show’s 55 year history (Spearhead From Space remains my favourite) but it had a number of jobs to perform which it did well.

We now have a new Doctor. There are complaints about how the ‘agenda’ is spoiling it from mainly sad wankers, then there’s Americans complaining about the Sheffield accents which is so sad it’s funny but the response so far has been good, though the tough work really starts now. Will Whitaker keep people coming back or, like Smith and Capaldi, will she be let down by scripts? There’s still the Tardis to re-indtroduce too

We’ll see but for now there’s an almost blank slate to play with and Doctor Who feels fresh and exciting. For that a well done to all involved is deserved. Bring on next week!

The strange sexless word of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The other night I was watching Avengers: Infinity War on Blu Ray and totally enjoying it as much as I did at the cinema. As is always the case I watched the deleted scenes and a wee thing stood out. Firstly watch the scene of Vision and the Scarlet Witch fighting Thanos’s Black Order in Edinburgh.

That line from the Vision about staying in bed and the Scarlet Witch’s smile is a cheeky little reference as to what Wanda and the Vision have been doing in Edinburgh apart from drinking in every pub in Rose Street and eating kebabs. Here’s the deleted scene; spot the incredibly small difference…

It’s only a few frames and it’s a longer shot on Wanda’s smile after VIsion’s ‘we should have stayed in bed’ comment, but those few frames change Elizabeth Olsen’s smile from a knowing one to a bit of a dirty ‘phwoar, I’ve got a super-powered sexbot’  kind of smile. It then dawned on me that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a chaste universe where people smile at each other or make jokes, but nobody, well, actually fucks. Hell, there’s barely any kissing let alone anything that might make Thor’s hammer twitch.

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in Iron Man in 2008, Tony Stark is shagging anything with a pulse, to the point where it’s hinted that he’s doing the deed with his pole-dancing staff.

There’s an attempt to set up a romance in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, but it isn’t helped by the lead pair of Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman having zero chemistry togehter onscreen, and Branagh concentrating on the more Shakespearean/Kirbyesque aspects of the story, while Captain America being the eternal virgin was a nicely hinted part of the characters sacrifice in WW2. ”He never came home for the girl” was loaded with meaning.

Through to Iron Man 3 there’s still a feeling that the people inhabiting the MCU live like normal people with the same urges but then once Disney have bought Marvel, the films become more celibate, sure there’s a longing glance between Bruce Banner and the Black Widow but it doesn’t go anywhere. Captain America might get a snog but he’s going to get nothing more than that. Sexual relationships don’t exist in the MCU (unlike the Marvel television shows, especially on Netflix, where characters are at it all the time) and have been replaced by this 1940’s style of interactive human relations where there might be a glance, or an odd cheeky line but no pants are ever dropped. It’s a very Disney, very bland vision. The one part of the MCU that stands out is the Guardians of the Galaxy, and this video from Lindsay Ellis explains some of the complexities going on in these films.

Two films where the expectation of Quill getting the girl has been dangled in front of us, and it’s never happened thanks to some very clever writing from James Gunn. Sadly much of this is wasted in Infinity War for the sake of the plot, but it shows there’s still room for emotional complexity in a series of films aimed for a family audience that’s action orientated.

I understand why the MCU films are like this. Marvel are now owned by Disney  and they need to reach as large an audience as possible but in creating a formula (and the MCU films as entertaining and fun as they are, follow a strict formula) they’ve created a strange sexless world that can be as violent as they can get away with for a 12A certificate but human relationships are limited to side-glances and marriage plans.I’m not saying the MCU should become like the Netflix shows, but perhaps rounding out the characters may make them a bit less 2-dimensional and a bit less Disneyfied because right now Disney is in danger of homogenising our entertainment and that isn’t a good thing.

Losing Harlan Ellison

I have a Harlan Ellison story. Lots and lots of people who’ve been in, or are fans of, comics, SF, fantasy or just fans of his writing have a story. I’ve told mine before but here it is again. In 1985 at a SF convention in Glasgow, Ellison was guest of honour and was having great fun pissing off and entertaining all the right people because even as a young lad somewhat awestruck at being even in the same city as one of his heroes, I could see that Ellison danced the line between genius and arsehole easily. One minute he’s be amiable and chatty, the next he’d be annoyed and angry but he’d never compromise himself. His comments about writers getting paid show this.

So back to the story. I was working a dealers table selling comics and Ellison came in to have a shufty at our stuff. He picked a few things up and much to everyone’s surprise knew more about British comics than I’d have suspected. I was wearing a Marvelman badge, and spinning off the conversation from Warrior, Ellison asked if we had any for sale which we didn’t. He then asked if he could have mine. I eventually gave him it because this was my hero and I didn’t want to disappoint.

Ellison later came over to me in the bar, offered to get a drink and we ended up chatting about how great Dreamscape was. Indeed, it still is.

Ellison then had to move on with his small entourage but I was a happy lad as he’d signed a copy of The Glass Teat which is one of the greatest books of criticism ever published.  That book is something that influenced why I started this blog, and in fact it wasn’t until Ellison’s death I realised how much he’d shaped me growing up.

See, that wee story I have is something I’ve pulled out often over the years because it is a great wee story. The part of the story I usually miss out is when Ellison talked about not compromising which is something I don’t think Ellison did once in his life which led him to do great things, not to mention some awful things.

But that idea that someone can’t compromise because once you do it then becomes a game as to how far you’ll go without fully compromising yourself. I can’t remember when I did start compromising and although my life was better in some ways, a wee part of me was dead.

I’ll miss Ellison not being around. I’ll miss not being able to see if there’s a new soundbite  that I can use to help me sum up current events, and with current events being horrible I think we’ve lost a guide at a bad time.We’ll still have his mountain of work but we’ve lost a voice who could be good or bad, arrogant and uncompromising but always had something worthwhile to say. There will never be another like him.

Goodbye and thanks for whatever small lessons you’ve given me. I’m going to watch Dreamscape later and wallow in the memories of 1985.

Watching Grindhouse in 2018 is a very different experience than intended

The other night I stuck on my Grindhouse blu-ray. Remember Grindhouse? The 2007 film directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino which set to recreate the old double bills of a certain generations youth?

I love Grindhouse. It isn’t a completely accurate recreation of a 70’s or 80’s double bill, but it tries so hard to recreate it that I can’t help but admire the fact that Rodriguez and Tarantino essentially spent millions of dollars on a niche project which only a handful of people would fully appreciate. Basically it’s an art film with gore, tits and violence and enormous fun.

However throughout the film are reminders this is a Harvey Weinstein film and not only is it horrendously distracting, it’s also a thing that ensures the full 3 hours plus version will remain a niche work. What is odd is looking at the film with the power of hindsight. Rose McGowan should have been a huge name after this but she wasn’t and now we know the reason she never appeared in all the films she was rumoured to appear in after this.

That side, Grindhouse really does stand up brilliantly as a work but watching it today is a different experience to a decade ago when we were a bit less informed…

 

What I thought of Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War in just a few days has made more money in it’s opening weekend than any other film ever. It hasn’t even opened in China yet and that’s the biggest market for films on the planet, so it’ll be a safe bet to say this is probably going to be the biggest film of all time and indeed, everything about this film is gargantuan. Just look at the cast and count the number of genuine A List stars who could open a film on their name alone. Do it, because the number is around the 20 mark plus (even including folk like Idris Elba who is in it for just a few minutes) you’ve got all the rapidly rising stars like Tom Holland, Karen Gillan and Chadwick Boseman so real the end figure is around 30 A List stars.

It could have been like a classic film like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World with stars popping up to show their face before vanishing but the Russo brothers hold it all together to the extent where as a film it works as a narrative not to mention a massive cultural event so that even if you’ve not seen a Marvel film at the cinema, you’re aware of the characters through osmosis or having seen Iron Man or The Avengers on any of their multiple TV broadcasts.

So what about the film? I’ve done a few brief points but after the banner there be spoilers so you’ve been warned.

Infinity War is all about Thanos getting the infinity stones ASAP before anyone can mobilise against him. Once in possession of the stones he;ll then kill half the population of the universe in order to create a cosmic balance so there’s enough resources for the surviving population, who of course, will be in thrall to Thanos. In his wake the assembled heroes of the Marvel Universe try to stop him. There’s the plot. It isn’t complex and there’s a reason for that; the scale of the film is so huge that having anything more complex would break the back of the film so nice and simple.

This does not make Infinity War simplistic. Far from it, as at one point there’s so many plot threads (Thanos hunting down the gems, Iron Man, Dr Strange and Spider Man, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Groot and Rocket Raccoon, Captain America’s Secret Avengers who draws in the rest of the US based Avengers and Wakanda where most of the characters converge for the film’s final battle)  that making things complicated isn’t needed. We get the sense of urgency in the first ten minutes where Thanos and his Black Order have massacred the Asgardians left over from the events of Thor: Ragnarok, and this includes Idris Elba’s Heimdall, and more shockingly Loki as played by Tom Hiddleston in a way more brutally vicious than I expected from a 12A. Add to this Thanos torturing Thor as well as beating the living shite out of the Hulk. The film does not fuck around so you’re quickly caught up in a sense of urgency as well as understanding just how powerful, not to mention evil, Thanos is.

From there we’re whisked to New York with quick introductions for Iron Man, Dr. Strange and Spider Man who with a Bruce Banner who can’t change to the Hulk because the Hulk is too scared to face Thanos, this group is thrown into space before ending up on Titan where they eventually meet with the Guardians of the Galaxy to fight Thanos. Meanwhile Thor and his group are off to find a weapon which will kill Thanos, and Cap’s group is in Edinburgh (where there’s a glorious visual gag which the audience I watched it with found hilarious. Then again, most of Scotland seems to appreciate it too) to rescue the Vision and Scarlet Witch, before scooping up even more characters to head to Wakanda where the final scenes take place.

Of course things suffer. The visual effects and CGI are astonishingly good bar one horrible bit of compositing at the end featuring Mark Ruffalo in the Hulkbuster suit that is simply dreadful. The Thor sub-plot drags on a bit, while Captain America and Black Widow does very little indeed as it seems their scenes where the ones trimmed to bring down the running time. I could have done with a bit more from them as was indeed teased in the trailers, but here’s the thing, the trailers have lied to you. The marketing for this film has been exceptional. Throughout all of it, there’s no suggestion that Thanos picks up all the stones, but as we know now, he does and as he cuts through our heroes collecting stones for the Infinity Gauntlet. By the time the third act kicks in and Thanos is punching the fuckity out of Iron Man leaving Tony Stark bleeding, and dying, it becomes clear that what the Russo brothers have done is make Thanos not just the protagonist, but an anti-hero of sorts on a quest. Essentially they subvert a summer blockbuster theme (hero on a quest) so that somewhere deep down you’re actually wanting Thanos to win to see if he does carry out his threat to commit genocide on a universal scale.

And as he rips the last Infinity Gem from the skull of the Vision to complete his quest, we think at the last minute Thor has saved the day, but nope, with a click of his fingers Thanos wins as half the universe is killed including Spider Man, Black Panther and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  The film ends with Thanos victorious and our heroes beaten.

The End.

Except that won’t last. The post-credits scene that teases Captain Marvel and the fact there’s a fourth Avengers film in May 2019 tells us that Thanos will lose, not to mention a large chunk of the deaths in Infinity War will be reversed. It’s an ending which shouldn’t work but it is really a testament to the Russo’s that they’ve given us a superhero film with a grim, depressing end that nobody expected that works wonderfully. It’s also an ending that will get more bums on seats through word of mouth. People will come to see this film to see if the stories are true, and they’ll come next May in droves to see how the Avengers and their allies beat Thanos. It terms of driving the sausage machine that are these films the entire strategy and level of planning has to be admired because at the core is a great superhero film.

Now I’ve said this draws from Crisis on Infinite Earths, as that was the first really big crossover event in the modern age of superhero comics as we know it. It worked so well because it managed to give all the characters in it a moment, and when it ripped everything down we knew it’d end with the heroes winning the day. As a template it’s the best out there which makes Ant Man and the Wasp, and Captain Marvel the films we need to see to complete the crossover. Of course the boost it’ll give two films that were going to do ok to well comes into it as well.

The fact is what Marvel/Disney have done is carve their characters into the modern culture of the planet in a decade and sure, things may well decline when Robert Downey Jnr (who has played Iron Man in a film virtually each year of the last decade) and some of the others leave and new heroes replace them. But this is here for the duration in some shape or form and with the Marvel characters Fox owns coming back into the fold there’s a real chance of me sitting here in a decade talking about how Marvel have ruled the pop culture landscape for 20 years.

Which brings me to the point. Infinity War is a massively entertaining film with a bleak ending that does things summer blockbusters aren’t supposed to, and it should make Jim Starlin (the creator of Thanos not to mention the main plotlines) a few swimming pools worth of money, but it’s also a cultural event of the type we only really see on this scale once or twice a decade. It is impossible to split the film off from the culture and vice versa as they feed off each other but this is only half the job.It was obvious all the original Avengers survived Infinity War (along with a new new heroes) for a reason which I’m assuming is to give them a send-off and to pass the torch onto the likes of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, etc. If Marvel can square the circle by delivering not just one, but two massive cinematic and cultural events in a year then their only problem is where do they go from there, and indeed, where do the fans go because how do you top it?

That’ll be answered in May 2019. Til then do go see Infinity War. It is huge in every scale and you’ll leave the cinema entertained even though you’ve watched a film where a genocidal maniac wins. Yes it is manipulative, even cynical but it is massively entertaining and a reminder that cinema can be about the biggest spectacle that can be squeezed on the screen.

Till then time to stick 25% on all my comics featuring Thanos…