Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Much Superheroes is Too Much Superheroes?

Are you tired of superheroes yet? Well tough rocks – the spandex gang are bigger than ever, and have recently targeted the medium of television as their next conquest. Netflix is preparing to unleash no fewer than four new shows based on Marvel Comics characters.

The fine folks at Marvel Studios have been laying siege to the box office for a few years now. Riding the wave of popularity, the show Arrow has become an underground sensation, and will be used to launch no less than two other superhero shows in the next year (Hourman and The Flash… for now). On a more major network, Marvel has crossed over by sending their background characters the Agents of SHIELD to their own ongoing weekly.

The news has come out that Marvel and Netflix are seeking to recreate the magic of the Avengers on the small screen with a bevy of second-tier characters. These are folks who the average non-geek won’t recognize at all, but have unique and interesting enough stories to build a solid series around. 

The plan is to launch 4 (count ‘em FOUR) different shows on Netflix, that will all culminate in one larger cross-over mini-series. On paper, it’s a great concept. The characters they picked all show great promise. And so far, it seems that Netflix is headhunting good creative talent to make each show.

In short, everything looks really good so far… so why is an avowed comics nerd like myself still a little hesitant to jump on board this idea?

Because too much superheroes, that’s why.

Listen, it’s hard enough to make one great show. But to try and execute FOUR great shows at once? All set in the same place (Hell’s Kitchen) at the same time (now-ish, I’d assume) in the same genre? The truth is, even if all four shows are insanely good, it still might be too much.

The market is flooding, so let’s flood the market the most!

It’s a gamble, no doubt, but Marvel has rigged it so the odds are ever in their favor. If any of the four shows are successful, then BAM they have a new cash cow which they can parlay into more seasons of the show, or even their own movie. If any or all of the shows are not successful, then they are just abandoned: it doesn’t cost Marvel a lot of money or credibility, because no one really knew that character to begin with.
So who are the new heroes on the block?

Luke Cage
Also known as Power Man, Mr. Cage has a long history in the comics as a tough guy with a heart of gold. Originally, he was sort of like John Shaft with powers – bullets bounced off his ironhide skin and he could bench press an armored car filled with jive turkeys. Cage is the type of hero we haven’t seen on screen before. Also, he’s black, and a major African-American superhero is something that is long overdue. Unless you count Hancock. Which I do not.

Iron Fist
Back in the day, this super-kung-fu master was teamed up with Luke Cage – as Heroes for Hire, they were the premier salt-and-pepper duo in all of comics. The angle of a hero with the power of Super Fu is unique, and could play well as a balls-out action show. But will they be able to overcome Fist’s real handicap… his lack of a cool character to go with his cool abilities?

Shut up about Ben Affleck’s Daredevil. Yes, the movie was terrible, but that was neither the fault of Affleck or Daredevil himself. The Man Without Fear has always been a dark and gritty version of Spider Man, and in the comics he has proven that he is only as good as his writer. With a powerful story, Daredevil could be the best show of the bunch. But if they rely too much on the (admittedly lame) gimmicks like the blindness or the super-lawyering, it will end up on the junk pile.

Jessica Jones
Who the hell is Jessica Jones? You may be asking. She doesn’t even have a super name! That said, her story will translate to episodic TV the most easily, and give viewers a completely original take on the genre. In a nutshell, Jones is a disgraced and forgotten former costumed hero, who now works as a private investigator taking cases in the world of supers. It was a unique comic, and could be the dark horse of this whole bunch.

Four shows, four heroes, four – to be honest – interesting concepts. And if it all plays out well, it could lead to one hell of an epic mini-series bringing them all together. So my inner fanboy is cautiously optimistic. But on the other hand, even as a fanboy the prospect of keeping up with 4 super shows at once makes me feel burned out before I’ve even watched one episode.

There is, of course, one sure fire way to get me hooked. They need a good villain, an established Marvel comics character who can make each and every show better simply by showing up. He has the background and mainstream recognition to raise the profile of the shows, and the great unpredictable character to make all the storylines electric.

I’m talking, of course, about the Punisher. He of the 3 failed movies, he with the power of super-violence, he who sees himself as a hero while the heroes see him as a villain.

Note to Netflix – get Big Pun in the mix, and I’m on board.

So, what’s your take on all this? Are you psyched about the new batch of Marvel heroes taking over your streaming service, or could you not care less?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Let's Get Weird, with Upstream and John Dies

“What the hell did I just watch?” Said incredulously.

Have you ever muttered that when the final credits roll? Not in the bad way, like with Wolverine Origins or Lords of Salem, but in the good way, because you are stunned into quietude by witnessing something you are still trying to process.

David Lynch set the baseline for these kind of movies; they oft left me dazed and confused, with the distinct feeling there was a larger story at play, and I just hadn’t figured it out quite yet. I could go back and piece through the film again and again, look for clues, and try to understand it all.

Admittedly, these movies aren’t for everyone. But for those of us who dig this kind of challenge, it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present that turns out to be the Lament Configuration filled with hipster Cenobites.

Upstream Color may be the deepest, darkest, most intriguing and perplexing movie this side of Lynch. Writer/director Shane Carruth has wowed audiences with a twisty-turny narrative before, in his debut film Primer, but with his second film he’s operating on a level all his own. He claims that Upstream Color is “un-spoil-able” and he’s right. I could sit here and tell you everything that happens in the movie, and yet the movie would still surprise you.

Impossible, right?

The truly impossible thing would be to explain the film to you without you having seen it. It’s the type of movie that demands – nay, COMMANDS – long discussions about themes, motives, and what the hell actually happened.

A woman is dosed with a drug made from a strange worm with mind expanding qualities. While under the influence, the woman is in a hypnotic state, and a strange man directs her to empty her bank accounts, go into debt, and in all ways ruin her life. Then he leaves, and she has no memory of what happened or why. She meets a man who seems to have gone through the same experience.

They are also both mentally linked to pigs on a remote farm, tended to by a composer who makes music with people’s emotions and memories.

I could go on, but the point is these are details that outside of the context of this beautiful, bizarre, utterly unique film, make no sense. Inside the film, they seem to make sense, but Carruth leaves it to you the viewer to fit the pieces together and look at the big picture. 

If you love puzzle-box movies, Upstream Color is can’t miss. It makes Memento seem as simplistic as the Berenstein Bears.

John Dies at the End is an entirely different kettle of weird fish. Director Don Cosscarelli has created a beast that can’t be fit into any box – it blends elements of horror, science fiction, action, and comedy with a heavy dose of philosophy and a healthy disregard for conventional plot structure. This is a movie the likes of which has never been seen, and likely will never be seen again.

Dave and John are low-rent ghost hunters. They drink beer, hang out, and occasionally do battle with demons made out of meat. After a party one night, John tries a drug called Soy Sauce. The Sauce gets you high, but side effects include hallucinations, heightened senses, time displacement, and possible infestation from an inter-dimensional demonic force.

To say any more would take away from the fun of exploring undiscovered country. The film is utterly unpredictable, with fresh onsets of clear-minded lunacy emerging every few minutes to constantly keep you off kilter. The biggest surprise is that the second time through, John Dies seems a lot more linear and easy to understand. But the first time through, you will hardly be able to keep up with it.

Special recognition goes to the cast, who create such endearing characters they manage to make the story feel engaging no matter how crazy it gets. Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Glynn Turman are all wonderful in their supporting roles, but the movie really works because Chase Williamson (Dave) and Rob Mayes (John) make you care about them.

Weird, bloody, violent, esoteric… John Dies at the End is one of a kind, in the best possible way.

Weird isn’t always good, of course. Take Rubber, for example. On paper it sounds delightfully weird – a malevolent car tire with mental powers terrorizes a small town – but out on the road it’s nothing but a flat.

Just being weird isn’t good enough, you see. Anyone can be weird. Just look at basically anything on Youtube for confirmation of this. What makes films by creators like Coscarelli, Carruth, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch so mind-bending is the weirdness acting in concert with a good story, and good story-telling.

Rubber plays more like “say, wouldn’t this be weird and cool?” instead of using the medium to make a unique and original film.

With Upstream Color, you may not “get” it, but you can feel you are watching something deep and profound. With John Dies at the End, you’re just trying to keep up with the barrage of the bizarre, but the characters are alive and the script is sharp. But with Rubber, you’re just watching a bunch of weird shit that doesn’t matter. Big difference.

Huge difference.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Perils of Binge Watching

Binging on food is bad. Binging on booze is bad (allegedly). Binging on credit card shopping sprees is bad. Basically, anything you can do that can be described with the word “binge” is frowned upon. Except for watching TV and movies, in which case binging is considered a selling point.

I prefer to watch TV shows after they run on TV. This way you get to skip the blasted commercials, watch at your own pace, and basically take control of your own entertainment schedule. This works for me.

But what doesn’t work for me is binge-watching. Maybe it’s a young man’s game, or maybe I broke my binge-bone, but in any event I have come to the realization that binging out on TV is no bueno.

You Don’t Chug Champagne

Remember those wonderful nights in your youth where you and your pals would just chug Boone’s Farm wine straight from the bottle? More than likely in a parking lot of some kind? Even though it’s a fond memory, you still know better than to try the same thing with a magnum of fine bubbly.

Champagne needs to be savored. You sip it, you admire the taste on your tongue, the way the fizz tickles your throat, and the way it gets your light headed with surprising quickness. Guzzling out of a beer bong would only detract from the experience.

And how, pray tell, is Breaking Bad any different?

It’s a textured show, with intricate plot lines, unpredictable stories, and mind-blowing acting (don’t take 
my word for it, ask Sir Anthony Hopkins; if he were any more of a Breaking fanboy he’d be wearing Aaron Paul’s face as a mask). Why on earth would anyone not want to savor its excellence?

Sure it’s great, and sure you can watch an entire season in one sitting… but Snickers bars are great too, and
common sense tells you not to eat 12 of them in one sitting.

What happens if you do? You stop enjoying them, and start forcing them down your gluttonous maw mechanically, with no more joy.

And that, my friends, leads to the death of loving something great.

It’s Great and I Just Don’t Care

Netflix has two very, very good original shows that I have yet to finish watching. Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards. I won’t give plot summaries for them, because I assume you do not live under a rock. But you know the ones I mean.

Both shows were met with a wave of critical success, and a tsunami of binge-watching. Caught up in the swell, I grabbed onto the bandwagon and climbed aboard.

Both experiences were uncannily similar – on the first exposure to these excellent shows, I binged. I watched 3 episodes of House of Cards in one sitting. When the credits rolled, on instinct I hit NEXT to start the following episode.

About five minutes into it, I paused it. That was three weeks ago, and I haven’t gone back yet. It’s not that I didn’t like the show – in fact I’d be hard pressed to give a negative assessment of any of what I saw – it was just too much of the same thing.

Soon after, I sampled Orange. What a treat that pilot was; smart and funny, yet still well conceived and dramatic. I immediately plowed into the second episode, and the third…

I was chugging the champagne, and it gave me an Orange headache. As I finished that third episode, I said “maybe from here on out I’ll just watch one a week.”

Just because you live in America, and are used to over-indulging, doesn’t mean that you should. And while there are many good reasons to avoid binge-watching tv shows, ultimately there is only one that really matters:

What’s the damn hurry?

Unlike champagne, and unlike Snickers bars, truly great tv shows are not in infinite supply. There are not dozens of warehouses filled with pallets of great stories. They are actually pretty rare.

They are so rare that even shows which are merely “decent” or “pretty good” will get lumped in with
the great ones, simply to shore up the numbers. There are 100 episodes of Fringe, and there won’t be any more. Breaking Bad and Dexter, Twin Peaks and Sopranos,  are all finished and finite.

If you chug them now, you’ll be left with nothing good to drink for a while. So why not slow down the pace, savor every episode, and enjoy them while you can.

And when you run out of champagne, then go back to chugging the Boone’s.  Or in this case, Revolution.