Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Cancer: Pear-Shaped Day

Between pictures, the photographer told us to just
"Be Ourselves" for a minute. This is what we did.

I’ve been mindful of my new agency in Cathy’s life as not only a caregiver but also as a cheerleader, emotional coach, court jester, and intellectual backup. It’s not that those things haven’t been part of the deal in the implicit marriage contract to begin with, but now they are up front, twenty-four seven. And I’ve also been reminded, encouraged, and flat-out told that I have to take care of myself, as well. I’m no good to Cathy if I’m short circuiting, myself.

And yet, we still have shit to do. A business to run. Day-to-day activities to attend to. I recently turned to bullet journaling, with better results than I anticipated. It’s helping me keep up with the day-to-day so that I can handle the unexpected things that crop up. Or so I thought.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Cancer: Hair

The other night, I used clippers to cut my wife’s hair.

Hair! What a crappy movie.
Like so many women past, present, and future, Cathy places a lot of encoded meaning on her appearance. She’s not traditional in the sense of always needing to wear make-up and a pressed frock to do the chores, but she takes rigorous care of her skin, is very particular about what kinds of make-ups and soaps she uses, and so forth. This includes her shampoo. She’s got a delicate ecosystem going on, and is a lifetime user of moisturizer and other similar salves and unguents, all of which has managed to delay her aging process by five to ten years. Of course, she’s colored her hair for as long as I’ve known her.

Now it’s falling out, and she’s really upset about it. She’s intellectually aware that this is a temporary thing and for the past few weeks, she’s been gradually working up to the idea that at some point, her hair was going to fall out. With that would be the need to either cut it or shave it down to the scalp, and of course, what to do about covering it, because society can’t stand the idea of a bald-headed woman for any reason whatsoever.

We discussed wigs briefly. The actress side of Cathy toyed with the idea of getting several, one for each mood she might be in. But the economic impracticality soon shot that idea down. She hasn’t entirely given up on the idea that she might want a purple wig. You know, just ‘cause. But she settled pretty quickly on the idea of various hats and scarves and turbans. I told her, if she wanted to, we could go full-on Eryka Badu. She hasn’t said no to that idea, either.

Badu's turban-fu is extraordinary. 
I am certainly sympathetic; as someone who had thinning hair so bad that, by the time I
was twenty-three, I was clipping my hair in what Bruce Willis called “the nineties combover,” I know how that feels. I also know this, intellectually and otherwise: it grows back. In the case of chemotherapy, the prevailing wisdom is that her hair will grow back thicker and fuller and maybe even curly. I’m sure there’s reasons for this, but I don’t feel like googling them at the moment.

Cathy understands all of that. But it did not lessen the impact of her running her hand over her hair to get it out of her eyes and catching a tuft in her fingers. It’s scary; one more reminder that her body, the thing she’s tried so hard to take care of all these years, is in open revolt, and the medicine she’s taking is designed to kill part of it off. That’s terrifying if you let it bounce around in your head like pachinko balls. And Cathy is a champion and playing pachinko.

She told me she wanted me to shave her head three days ago, but she said it in passing, like how you’d have someone put eggs and milk on the grocery list. She asked me about the plastic blade guards that go on clippers to make the hair a uniform length. She asked me if shaving my head hurt. She went and found my bag of clipper accessories and asked me which one was the shortest one. She sidled up to the idea gradually, until I could see it was freaking her out to keep talking about it.

“Get a towel,” I said. “We’re doing this.”

She seemed relieved that I made the call. I told her what I was going to do. I even showed her on my own hair. I was very gentle and checked in on her often to make sure she was okay. As soon as it was done, she hopped up and went to the mirror. She opted for really short instead of stubbly. She couldn’t go that far, and my suggestion to match her in a gesture of solidarity did not amuse as intended.

Little Steven, of the E Street Band.
I tried my best to be as gentle and upbeat as I could be while pushing down the idea that I never thought in a million years I’d be doing this for my wife.

As soon as I was finished, she jumped up and ran for the mirror. “It feels so much better,” she said. She spent the rest of the night trying on her various wraps and scarves and turbans. I was proud of how brave she was being. It bothered her to have it cut, but it bothered her more to have it falling out. This way, she kept a little control over her appearance, even if it’s temporary.

Now she’s digging the turban/scarf combos. A couple of them make her look like Lawrence of Arabia. Or Little Steven Van Zandt. I’m still holding out that she’ll want a big-ass purple turban or something.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Cancer: Overwhelmed

Running the theater is hard enough, when we have to deal with the vagaries of the market, seasonal fluctuations, the indifference of our consumer base, and keeping the lights on in a depressed economy. Then you add a debilitating illness on top of it, the treatment for which is to make the person sicker and more debilitated, and suddenly, things look grimmer and grimmer.

Every August for the past eleven years, we’ve watched as everyone in Vernon turns out for the big weekend car cruising event, Summer’s Last Blast. Cookouts abound, as do adult beverages, and fleets of classic and muscle cars and trucks (and a few oddballs) cruise up and down the main thoroughfare. Vernon, for one weekend, returns to its former glory and the scene is like something out of American Graffiti, which is exactly the point.

On the following Monday, football practice starts. Two-a-Days. The next weekend, it’s tax free weekend, and people drive one to three hours out of town to save 8.25% on clothes for the kids. It’s a zero-sum event when you factor in gas, food, and travel time, but that’s irrelevant because it’s a good excuse for folks to leave town. The week after that, band practice starts. And the last week in August is the final stretch as everyone hunkers down for school. It’s a busy time for everyone, except us. Our attendance drops 75-85%. We don’t just hit the brakes. We hit the embankment and jackknife.

In the past, this is the time of year where people see a lot of just me and Cathy, because we can’t afford to pay anyone else. These last few years, it’s been all Cathy, as I drive to Dallas to moonlight at Heritage Auctions. This has kept us afloat for the past few years. Until this year. I can’t leave Cathy alone, especially during the days following her chemo treatments; namely the weekdays. Never mind the surgery that will follow in October or November.

I’ve gotten offers from a lot of people who have volunteered to work for us during this time. And it’s appreciated, but frankly, I don’t know where to begin or how to even start bringing folks in. Everyone has said to me, “I can pop popcorn. I can make drinks.” And that’s because that is all that they see. There’s obviously more to it than that, and it’s the hours of work beforehand that make those two hours we’re open, selling tickets and concessions, look so easy by comparison. Most adults have jobs and are busy during the weekdays with their own lives. The last thing anyone wants to do is come clean this place for two hours and then hang for another two to three with four in the audience watching two movies, as is so often the case in August and September.

What makes it worse is that I can’t even really talk about it in town. They will turn it into “Mark hates high school football! He said so!” About seven years ago at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, I brought up the idea that not every business benefits from Summer’s Last Blast—us, for instance, and it would be great if we could get some actual data on the economic impact of the event. All anyone heard at that meeting was, “Summer’s Last Blast is bad for Vernon.” The guys at the car club still don’t talk to me, to this very day. It’s not enough to simply mishear a statement; you’ve also got to mishear it in the most horrible and negative way possible.

Every year, since we’ve been open, at least three times in a calendar year, someone will come up to me in public and say, “I heard a rumor that y’all were closing.” I always ask, “Who did you hear that from?” They never can tell me, or won’t. I think it’s probably just one person (the same person every time) who doesn’t like us because I told them to hang up their cell phone during Spider-Man 3 ten years ago.

It’s sure not the vibe we’re putting out. I always tell people, “we’re hanging in there.” I don’t want folks to think we’re going out of business, but I don’t want them to think we’re doing spectacularly, either. Vernon hates winners almost as much as Vernon hates losers. I have tried to indicate, through my verbal inferences over the years, that we really need the community’s help if we’re going to be successful. This is both 100% true, and also designed to keep the gawkers from playing a game of telephone with any statements I may make that end up ballooning into, “Someone told me that y’all was going to turn the theater into school for the gifted and such.”

“No, what I said was, ‘We’re showing the new X-Men movie next week.’”

They look puzzled. “That’s not what they told me at all.”

Well, who’s right? Some guy you were talking to at the Wal-Mart who works in Bait and Tackle, or the person who actually owns the movie theater?

During the Summer and Winter, I shrug it all off. Everyone’s out of school, in a good mood, and the movies are big and flashy and dumb and bright and make you feel good. During the Fall and Spring, Cathy and I have learned over the years not to take it personally. Football is stronger than the Baptist church in Texas, and especially here.

It was easier when there was two of us. We could, at least, weather high school football together. I have no idea what we’re going to do this year.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Cancer: Bedside Manner

We saw two oncologists, a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and seven or eight nurses of various levels of competency since the diagnosis. Not counting the local doc and his nurse who first put us on this path.

House and Wilson. Whatever you do, DO NOT
Google their fanfic. Trust me on this. 
We have also watched 8 seasons of House, starring Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard as Gregory House and his oncologist colleague, James Wilson. Here’s what our take-away is: the pretend doctors, even the made-up, grouchy-pants ones that are written so as to be assholes, still have better bedside manners than most real doctors.

There’s a reason for this: in fiction (or more specifically in this case, in TV shows and movies), it’s necessary for the audience to understand what the plucky schoolteacher or the recently widowed father of a really bright little girl is going to have to face in fighting this terrible disease. So the pretend doctor outlines in very simple language what’s going to happen in act two (and maybe act three or act four, depending on the narrative structure). This is also done to introduce conflict and tension into the story, which will be ratcheted up, stair-step style, as the story progresses. We get the blow by blow from one or more of the supporting characters; “She’s having a seizure! That can only mean... it’s spread to her brain!”

We get all of this to draw us into the story, and by the end of it, when House or whomever gives the patient, now wrapped like a mummy and suspended from wires to keep from bursting into flame, jams a hypodermic into their arm and injects them with Plot Device Cure #23, and the symptoms immediately go away, and the young teacher opens her eyes and asks if her students passed the midterm test, we all breathe a sigh of relief and then we change the channel.

Yeah, none of that happens in real life.

I always feel like I'm doing it wrong. Thankfully, we
haven't run into Nurse Ratchet...yet...
Someone walks into the room, usually a nurse, and starts speaking in media res, “ you’re going to want to wear gloves and socks with grips on the bottom, since you’re going to be so woozy. You may lose your balance. Also: do you have band-aids?”

Excuse me? Do you have the right room? We tell her we don’t know what she’s talking about. The nurse looks confused. “Haven’t they gone over the protocol with you?”

“No. We just found out it’s some sort of cancer in the ladybusiness.”

The nurse scowls. “They were supposed to go over this with you. Have you been scheduled for chemo yet?”

“No, again, we just found out today. Like, fifteen minutes ago. The doctor is making phone calls.”

Now the doctor comes in and tells the nurse in the room to make the calls he was going to make when he left. He turns to us and says, “Okay, so we’re going to do 9 to 12 weeks of chemo, followed by surgery, and then more chemo as a follow up. Sound good?”

What? Do we have a choice? And why are you speaking as if we’ve been having this conversation for weeks?

I am only exaggerating a little. Mostly. I’m not unsympathetic to their side of things. After all, we are just one patient among the ten thousand they have to deal with. And cancer treatment is so documented, so regimented, so “by the numbers” now that it’s like stepping on a conveyor belt. So, when you want to get off of the belt and ask where the machine is taking us, they get confused, and a little put-out. After all, they’ve done this a ba-jillion times before. I joked with more than one nurse, “Please forgive us if we are asking a lot of questions. It’s our first cancer.”

They don’t laugh. They never laugh.

This admittedly impressive and exceedingly professional machine needs one extra cog in the mix: someone to sit us down in a room and say, “Okay, what do you want to know?” Our final doctor, the gyno-oncologist, did that, but everyone else has acted like Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction. And I felt a lot like Vincent Vega (do I even have to say this is NSFW?):

Time is of the essence, and the sooner the better. But we needed thirty minutes to an hour to just sit with this and think about questions and ask for timelines and basically get our heads around our lives now being centered on these weekly treatments. Oh, and paying for all of it, too. This isn’t cheap. The first part of this three-step plan has blown through our deductible, but we’re on the hook for a few grand. All before the surgery. You’d think they would want us calm and collected when they hand this dump truck of information over.

I wonder if it’s too late to ask for Dr. House and Dr. Wilson?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Cancer: The Fog of War

Chemo-Head is not the name of a super hero, either intentionally- or ironically-named. It’s the condition one develops from having your body go from a regimen of no pharmaceutical drugs in your body to weekly bags of poison designed to target and kill aberrant cells in your body, chased with a handful of daily drugs to keep you from throwing up the poison, and ending with drugs to offset those drugs. That shit messes with your head, and renders you largely insensible. This is made all the worse if your default setting was “Slighty Goofy” to begin with.

I am one of those people that, if you tell me your nose itches, I’ll scratch mine. When I live with you, we sync up. And if I’m married to you, well, your problems become my problems. They tell cancer patients to avoid driving and operating heavy machinery, but what about the spouses?

I am walking around like a corn-fed moron, trying to figure out what happened to my pants and my shoes, and Cathy’s in the bedroom going, “She’s not in the Marines, but she may have been in the Navy,” and that cuts right across my bow, because (A) I didn’t know I was having a conversation with Cathy, and (B) I have no idea what my role in the conversation is.

So I say, from the other room, “What’s that? Do you need help?”

And she replies, “Noooo.”

I say, “Then who’s in the Navy?”


“Who’s in the Navy? ‘She’s not in the marines?’”

Cathy comes tottering out of the bedroom. “What are you saying to me?”

I stop looking for my shoes. “I thought you were talking to me?”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

I throw up my hands. “Then who were you talking to? The dog?”

Cathy hears the tone in my voice and is now on the defensive. “I might have been.”

“About joining the Navy?” I’m not even attempting to be understanding. I just want to get out of this conversation.

“Well, I don’t know. If she wants to join, we’re not going to hold her back!” Cathy snaps.

I throw up my hands in surrender. “Okay, never mind, I’m sorry. She can sign up if she wants to.”

“And do what? Sniff bombs? Why would you send our precious baby off to war?” Cathy asks, and then she stops and looks me up and down and says, “Do you need help finding your pants? We’ve got to go or we’ll be late.”

This is who we are, now. Two confused, shambling people that meander around the house. She’s groaning with each third step and I walk into every room and ask myself, “Okay, what did I come in here for?” We have conversations with ourselves because we don’t understand what the other person is saying.

Ten Weeks to go. This part of the treatment can’t be over soon enough.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Cancer: A Slight Hiccup

Cathy started chemo last week, and it was as weird and off-putting and uncomfortable as everyone said it would be. It would appear that the number one concern for our clutch of Doctors and Nurses is the fear that Cathy might become nauseous.

We grew up with stories of people undergoing chemotherapy and throwing up and being sick all the time. It was part of the drill that came with fighting cancer. But apparently in the last decade or so a side industry has emerged to attempt to pharmacologically deal with every symptom you might experience while in the midst of chemotherapy.

They gave her four medicines and a regimen for dealing with chemo: one pill in the morning, two at night. In between, if she has any nausea for any reason—if she even thinks about throwing up—here’s a third pill to take. It will give you a headache, sure, but it beats throwing up. Only, if the headache persists, let them know. They have a pill for that. Okay, so, after taking the third pill, it should kick in within fifteen minutes and be good for six hours. After that, if the nausea comes back, you can take it again, but if it ever doesn’t work---if you take it and still want to throw up, then there is a fourth pill you can take. It’ll make you sleepy, but it’ll work for 8 hours. If THAT pill doesn’t work, call them. They have a fifth pill they can give her.

Any other symptoms? Let them know. They have a pill for that. I think if I called the Nurse and said, “Cathy’s head just fell off, and is rolling around on the floor like a spaghetti squash,” the Nurse would say to me, “Okay, that’s a really rare side effect, but we do have a pill for that. I’ll write you a prescription.”

So far, we’ve only had to enact the DefCon 4 Protocol as a precaution; it's shaking, but holding. Cathy’s taking enough pills to make Elvis jealous, but she has not thrown up. I was a little worried when she started hiccupping, though.

Okay, worried is the wrong word. I think I was more delighted. Overjoyed. See, Cathy hiccups in a sequence of three. The first hiccup is a normal “whiccu” sound, like anyone would make. It’s almost a burp, but it’s more musical. You know what I mean.

The second in the sequence is the silent speed bump, always in the middle of whatever sentence Cathy’s desperately trying to get out before the next hiccup happens. She sounds exactly like Foster Brooks. I try so hard not to laugh, but it takes me right back to every single Foster Brooks moment stored in my brain. This is when she looks at me and plaintively cries, “It’s not funny! I have the hiccups!”

I will start to apologize and that’s when phase three hits: a powerful, full-volume eructation that’s part honk, part yelp. It sounds an awful lot like one of our dog’s squeaker toys when you step on it. This third one always makes the dog look up and cock her head at Cathy, as if to say, “Are you chewing on my toy?” At this point, I have to be helped back into my chair, as I have fallen out of it. Then the cycle starts over again.

It started on Monday night, after the first treatment. When it carried over into Tuesday, my pop culture-addled cranium instantly sprang to one of the funniest things I ever saw on The Simpsons, made funnier by my friends’ ability to leverage it into real-life situations.  My explanation of this joke, weirdly, did not help Cathy to feel any better about herself or her plight. We agreed to disagree.

Eventually, in an unrelated call, Cathy asked the Nurse about her hiccups and was told, “Oh, that’s a side effect. We have a pill for that. I’ll write you a prescription.”

On the one hand, I’m grateful that Cathy’s discomfort has been alleviated. On the other hand, what the hell, Big Pharma? Part of the fun of hiccups is watching people do the Stupid Human Tricks like drinking water with a spoon in their mouth or scaring the shit out of them as they come out of the bathroom. That’s how you deal with hiccups. Not with a pill. You stand on your head and hold your breath and recite the alphabet backwards, as God intended. We have truly become a nation of snowflakes.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Cancer: Platitudes

As much as I am a social creature, I have a love-hate relationship with platitudes. Most people don’t realize that the question “How are you doing today?” isn’t really a question so much as it’s an acknowledgement; i.e. “I see you and recognize your presence. Let us now conduct our transaction.”

George Carlin used to riff on the word “fine” and out people would sort of bleat it out when they say it, suggesting they are anything but. Now, I know Carlin was doing a bit and it was funny, but those platitudes “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks,” are actually a kind of social armor, as well. It’s that verbal handshake that keeps you from really getting an earful: “Oh, let me tell you, my corns are killing me,” or “It’s so hot I’ve got jock itch,” or “my wife has cancer, you bastard, stop smiling at me!”

Monday, July 23, 2018

Cancer: Dark Thoughts

At the hospital, waiting to be called. It was 5:30 AM.
We were both drunk on no-sleep and fear.

I used to think I had a dark sense of humor. But there is nothing in the world like a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis to send you rocketing into the basement of your brain, in the darkness, where you think you’re at your most grim, and then a firepole opens up underneath you and sends you into the earth’s core and you realize you’ve not been all that dark, after all.

It was a month between us being told “We’re pretty sure it’s cancer,” and being told definitively “It’s cancer, ovarian. Stage 3.” I wouldn’t wish that month on anyone else in the world. There may be nothing worse than being told you might have something that will kill you, but before we can tell you that, you gotta go jump through these hoops and make these calls and drive to these appointments, and then, only then, four weeks later, will we let the other shoe drop.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

...In Sickness and in Health...

Us, about four weeks ago, trying not to think
about what was going on. I almost managed.
I apologize for the seemingly distant and impersonal announcement, but I honestly don't know of another way to do this without a freak out or a melt down. Sometimes distance is better. So, here we go.

About four weeks ago, Cathy went to the doctor complaining of abdominal pains. They took some scans and promptly freaked out. They took more scans and then sent them to a specialist in Wichita Falls. To make a long story short, they quickly determined that she had cancer. It was somewhere in the reproductive system and it was big enough to send us to an oncologist. We spent a month imagining the worst, but we finally have a diagnosis: ovarian cancer, stage 3.

This is both good news and bad news. Ovarian cancer is one of the silent killers, in that it's not detected until it's stage 4 and metastasized. Sometimes it's caught at stage 1, and the doctors perform a hysterectomy and that's it. They either literally nip it in the bud, or they tell you to make a bucket list. In our case, we lucked out, in that stage 3 ovarian cancer is treatable, if we hurry. But the treatment will have to be extensive, involving chemotherapy, and then surgery, and then follow up chemotherapy. And here's the best part: even after all of that, there's still a 40-50% chance it will come back.

We are, understandably, in shock. And because the cancer is where it is and is where it's at, the doctors have been moving fast and talking even faster, which is freaking us out even more. We finally got a gyno-oncologist that could calmly give us the info we needed. Not that it helped, not really. We're still looking at each other and wondering what the rest of the year is going to look like. What next year is going to look like. We don't know much of anything right now. It's all day-to-day appointments and stuff to deal with. These last four weeks have been rough. One minute we're laughing at some really dark, black humor and the next minute we're sobbing in each other's arms. It's emotional whiplash.

Backstage at the Backdoor
Theatre, during the run of
Sexy Laundry. We played
a married couple. It was
a stretch.
I'll tell you what it's going to look like. The next three months is going to look like a donnybrook as we knuckle up and gird our respective loins to fight this. And we will fight it, but it means that, among other things, the rest of my life is going to take a backseat to Cathy's--and by extension, my--health. I may be out of pocket, or completely unavailable, for days at a time. I'm going to try to keep the people that want to stay informed as up-to-date on things as possible. I'm also going to want to take a break from cancer and talk about movies and comics and goofy stuff.  This blog is going to get really weird for a while. Fair warning.

I will attempt to mark future entries with a notation in the title, for those of you would like to skip the cancer bulletins, or for those of you who'd like to read them, whichever. I urge you to subscribe if you want to keep up, as I may not be making Facebook posts about what's going on personally. I also completely understand if you want to step away for a while. You do you.

I want to talk about this. I need a place to put my dark and off-kilter thoughts. I can't give that energy to Cathy. She needs love and peace and laughter and good vibrations and all of that stuff. If you're friends with her on Facebook, feel free to send good thoughts and funny cards and messages of encouragement to her.

As for me, I will be okay. I am in a pretty good place, mentally speaking, and I'm ready to support her in whatever she needs. I've been doing some work, getting healthier both mentally and physically. It's still a work in progress, but it is progress and you can see it. Now we're going to put it to the test. Oh, yes we are.

October will be our fifteenth wedding anniversary. You know, when you say those vows, there are a few of them that you mouth out of tradition, not imagining in a million years that one day, that check will come due and you've got to reach for your wallet. With some care, and a little luck, and a lot of drive, we will come out of this stronger. We've got to. She's just got to.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Remembering Harlan (1934-2018)

It's appropriate that people don't have any words to eulogize Harlan Ellison's passing. How do you sum up a life so marbled and striated and so deeply influential in a few sentences? And as someone else already pointed out, he used up all of the good words long before us.

Nevertheless, I hope you'll indulge me as I try to bring some understanding for myself on the death of one of my literary inspirations. I can't call him a mentor, because it wasn't an active relationship--or otherwise, he was a mentor to all of us--but he did teach me a few things, even if he never knew it.

It was my old friend Billy Haney who turned me on to Ellison at the age of seventeen. I'm not going to say "It's Billy's fault," because that is a hoary cliche and moreover, I don't blame him for it. We were both writers, and he was the first person I could talk craft with and not get a deer in the headlights look. Instead, I'll say Thank You, Billy, because reading Ellison as an angry young man absolutely changed my life. It got me through high school. I am not kidding about that.

At the time, me and my friends all had front row seats for the giant falling out between Ellison and Gary Groth over remarks he'd made in a lengthy interview about Michael Fleischer in The Comics Journal, which was our New Yorker at the time. The incident turned into a lawsuit that cost everyone a chunk of cash and turned their friendship into an acrimonious sideshow that lasted, presumably, to the end of his life. Billy was the one who articulated to me why this was a big deal, and that alone sent me scouring after his books.

The first Ellison book I got was Strange Wine, a collection that sold me right away on who this Ellison cat is and why he's called a writer. I'd watched his Star Trek episode, like any good nerd, but I was fascinated to know that they changed his script and he flipped out and walked out when they did. But I'd never read Ellison in his pure, uncut form before. I opened the book up to Ellison's introduction, Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself, and that was it for me. This cat had some fire. And I got a little obsessive looking for Ellison books after that.

It was probably six months after reading Strange Wine that this guy walked into the comic and book store where I was working and--my hand to God--he brought a sack of books to sell. Along with some of the usual used fantasy and science fiction titles (did everyone read Stephen Donaldson in the 1980's?) was a cache of twelve Ellison paperbacks. I will explain to you Internet users why that's a big deal.

Before everything from pistachios to porn was three mouse clicks away, if you wanted to read a book, you had to go actually find that book. You had to drive to a used bookstore (because there was no Ellison in print at that time--he sold out quickly) and you had to scour their stock, and then, sheepishly, or in desperation, you had to walk up to the register monkey and ask, "Do you have any Ellison?" and then you had to take it when they gave you a sympathetic shake of their head or worse, a derisive sneer, and they almost always said the same thing. "He sells when we get him." Yeah, no shit he sells. I can't find his stuff anywhere.

That's what it used to be like, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Victoria Vetri was the queen of us all. Collecting books took years. Finding authors whose work you enjoyed was akin to archeology. You bragged to your friends about what you found on your trips.

So, when twelve Ellison books showed up, in my store, in front of me, I bought them. I paid the guy half of what I was going to buy them for, and he left happy. I never saw him again. But I stared at those twelve books: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Deathbird Stories, The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the WorldDangerous Visions, Ellison Wonderland, Spider Kiss, and the rest, and I felt like the book-nerd version of Indiana Jones staring at the Ark of the Covenant.

I read those books, nearly straight through, for the next two or three years. Here is a short list of just some of the things I pulled from the pile of books, aside from a mass of thoughtful and intelligent prose, sometimes poetic and sometimes distractingly baroque and dated:

It was in The Glass Teat that I read Ellison talking--as a TV and cultural critic--about the effect that television was having on the American public. Of particular interest to Ellison was the cognitive distortions he witnessed that were occurring to us as a people. An alarmist screed, 90% of which either came true or is still relevant to this day.

It was in Deathbird Stories that I first read"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," a story Ellison wrote in a blind anger about the murder of Kitty Genovese, was one of those watershed moments for me as a fledgling writer.

It was in Spider Kiss that I realized you could write about someone or something very real without using their name, i.e. Elvis. Ellison had some things to say about the seduction of celebrity and he wanted to use Elvis as a metaphor for that, even as Elvis was still very much alive at the time the novel was written. After reading Spider Kiss, and decoding it as an allegory, I started seeing it everywhere.

Reading the Ellison-edited anthology Dangerous Visions was the first time I'd encountered the work of Carol Emshwiller ("Sex and/or Mr. Morrison), whom I'd never heard of, Samuel Delany ("Aye, and Gomorrah"), who I had heard of, but never read before, and Theodore Sturgeon ("If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"), who I realized I'd been reading for years in other anthologies and loved him.

In The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, I first read "Along the Scenic Route," about a man on the highway, his car armed to the teeth, that decides to fight back against his unnamed tormentor with a fusillade of machine gun fire. The short story was one of the inspirations for the game Car Wars and probably also Deathrace 2000. My first car, a 1971 Volkswagon Beetle, had a toggle switch on the dash that was labeled "Missile Launcher."

 There are more, but you get the idea. Ellison shaped my tastes and influenced my writing, so early, and so much, that it's difficult to say where, exactly, but I can point to one thing that jump-started what eventually became my "voice": Anger.

Ellison was angry, a lot. Many of his best stories and essays have the white-hot intensity of someone who is righteously indignant about something, and in Ellison's case, it could be anything: creative theft, social injustice, gross stupidity, corporate greed, professional greed, personal greed, pride, avarice, lust, war--pretty much any combination of the seven deadly sins of man--betrayal, mediocrity, and a horde of enemies, a legion of lickspittles and toadies that all conspired to bring us as a people down into the muck, a backslide into barbarism. Ellison hated all of that shit, and he punched back as often and as hard as he could, for as long as he could.

His anger made it all right for me to be angry, and moreover to express my anger. Venting my spleen was good for me. It let me articulate, sometimes better, and sometime worse, what bothered me. It made me choose my words carefully. It sharpened my wit, if not my wits.  It honed my voice. He made me a better writer by his example. I've been thinking about my anger a lot for the past six months and I've spent years strangling it off, bit by bit. I'm not going to do that anymore. I don't know if I'll ever be as pissed off as I was in my twenties, but I've stopped censoring myself. Anything less would be a betrayal of me as a writer, and that's something I took straight from Harlan Ellison's own playbook.

I got to meet him, twice, and the meetings where, thankfully, free of drama. By the end of the 20th century, he'd become something akin to the barker at his own sideshow. He'd been "the angry guy" for so long that people expected it. And many people goaded him, like it was a party trick, to blow up and do his little song and dance. I saw that in action at a San Diego, where a fan in front of me asked, grinning like an idiot, "I wonder if you'd seen the latest editorial that Gary Groth wrote in The Comics Journal where he mentioned you by name?"

By the mid-90s, Ellison and Groth hadn't spoken in years. The lawsuits had poisoned their relationship and they were not in contact. Anyone else would have slapped a smile on their face and said, "No, I haven't. We don't communicate anymore." Or something to that effect. But Ellison woke up like the chicken at the state fair that plays Tic-Tac-Toe and said, "Gary Groth?! Don't ever mention his name to me again or I'll drive to your house and kill your mother!" He vented for another fifteen seconds, and the fan basked in it, like it was a refreshing shower. He walked off. He'd gotten his Ellison story. "Harlan blew up at me for mentioning Gary Groth in a conversation." It was bullshit, and I felt sorry that Ellison felt like he had to play along.

The second time I met him was at an AggieCon in 2000, along with the other members of Clockwork Storybook. We were selling chapbooks and we gave one of each to Ellison. He made a point of looking through them and complimenting us on our attention to detail in the creation of the books. Later, he actually called Chris Roberson to talk to him about things he'd written--and at the time, I was glad he hadn't called me, because Ellison could be just as effusive with his scorn as his praise. Now I wish he had. I would have taken Ellison's abuse and thanked him for it.

I wish I'd thanked him earlier.

Rest in Peace, Harlan. If anyone earned it, it's you.
It's difficult to measure his influence on speculative fiction, a term he used to describe fantasy and science fiction because he thought the genres needed elevating. I certainly took more from him regarding my non-fiction writing, and also a lot of how to conduct business as a writer. He walked away from a lot of jobs, and picked fights and even lawsuits with many others, over the treatment of himself and his work. He made it clear that writers--all artists--have value and should be treated fairly and with dignity. Also, he made it clear that writers were under no obligation to write happy stories. He said it best himself:

I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water.

In the next few days, I'm sure that there will be a slew of counter-eulogies, describing what a misogynist prick Ellison was, or how he was an asshole and shouldn't be lionized. They will all be within their rights to offer up such a course of action. And they will be wrong. Now about him being an asshole, but over his canonization. Whatever problems Old Ellison had in the digital age, Young, Fresh, Blood-in-his-eyes Ellison set the pace for generations of writers and artists. He deserves his place at the table, and don't think for a minute he doesn't.

Polemic. Irascible. Curmudgeonly. Alarmist. Controversial. Brilliant. Born out of time and indelibly of his time. There will never be another Harlan Ellison. How could there be?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Intellectual Property Homesick Blues, Part 3: You Kids Get Your Banthas Off My Lawn

Now this tag line is actually
truthful. It was forever ago.
Part One is Here: Rocky and Bullwinkle
Part Two is Here: Solo

Solo came out last week, and it landed like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl as the intelligencia—ahem, excuse me—I mean fandom—savaged the movie for not being necessary, and also not being what they wanted it to be, a state of being that can only exist in the intellectual miasma of the Internet. I’m speaking, of course, about the vocal minority, out in force, clutching their lightsabers and calling for the resignation of Kathleen Kennedy for “ruining Star Wars.”

Mind you, I’m not talking about people with legitimate problems with the movie. If you don’t like the lack of tension, the uneven pacing, the need to self-reference other movies in ham-fisted ways, I’ve got no problem with that, because while I just don’t particularly care about those concerns, I freely acknowledge that they are there and you are right.

No, I’m talking about these guys here, the Poisonous Minority that seems to be infecting all levels and areas of popular culture these days.  I find this unfathomable in the extreme, and if you’re one of the people who have been arguing for this, sit back, because you need to hear what I have to say. Everyone comfortable? Got your fingers poised over the keys, ready to ragequit? Okay, here it goes:

You’re now officially too old for Star Wars. There. I said it.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Intellectual Property Homesick Blues, Part 2: Solo

I will be the first one to admit that I was one of the people who wondered, aloud, why we were getting a Young Han Solo movie, wherein we see how in one five-minute train ride sequence he picked up all of his quirks, habits, and signature moves, and then he goes and rescues his father from the Nazis.

Then I watched Solo and when it was revealed that they were going to rob a train, I laughed out loud. There is nothing more epochal, more character building, apparently, than running along the top of a moving train. Who knew?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Intellectual Property Homesick Blues, Part 1: Rocky and Bullwinkle

In a quiet moment of intersectionality, I watched the re-imagining of the legendary Rocky and Bullwinkle series on Amazon Prime just prior to the opening of Solo. And I realized something about not just the venerable Star Wars franchise, but also the even more venerable Rocky and Bullwinkle franchise; in a world where intellectual property is, essentially, immortal, it’s completely unrealistic to expect that these properties would remain timeless (as opposed to timely). By extension, there are a lot of people complaining about the movie (or the TV show) that they didn’t get and wondering implicitly (and explicitly) why things can’t be like they always have been.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 5: Avengers: Infinity War Does Not Owe You a Hug

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here.

With a full week of cash, insane press junkets, and stunned golf claps under its belt, Avengers: Infinity War has shattered box office records and fan's expectations alike. Most people, including the critics, have correctly focused on the sheer logistics of pulling off a movie that runs two-and-a-half hours and feels like half that time. From a technical standpoint, as well as the deep level of satisfaction (and a lot of other emotions) that this movie generated, it deserves everything it gets.

Along with that came the click bait stories, the bottom feeding websites, and the cascade of fan theories. Oh, God, give me strength. The obligatory Easter Eggs lists have swollen like poisonous mushrooms in slime, and proliferate in much the same way. Some of these digital remoras have a really loose definition of what constitutes an Easter Egg. Many of these guys are just listing things in the hopes that you notice how much they know about comic books. It's embarrassing.

The fan theories on how this is all going to be resolved are worse, much worse. By my estimate, there are at least six possible loopholes and handholds that COULD be used, if one were so inclined, in the next movie. But let me be clear about this: no one is under any obligation to use anything I noticed as an audience member. In fact, there is a really good chance that the plot points on which the next movie rests will have little or nothing to do with how the gang gets out of this mess.

This is a real problem in our New Digital Age; we are all so interested in "calling it," to prove how media-savvy we are, and since we're all just one screenplay away from immortality anyway, why not be continually auditioning for the job with every word we write or speak? Here's why not.

1. It's annoying as hell. We get it. You're very clever. Now shut up. No one likes the person that guesses the mystery before anyone else. Even professional writers like to turn their brain off whenever they can. Be like them.

2. Why are you spending so much time trying to figure this out? It's a movie. You're not Jack Bauer. There is no life or death struggle going on, here. Not everything has to be a battle of wits. Especially this.

3. When you're wrong, you tend to get a little...what's the word? Unhinged. Don't look at me like that. You know what I'm talking about. *Cough*StarWars*Cough*LastJedi*Cough* Lots of people have lost their mind lately because some movies didn't meet their expectations, and by that I mean, they didn't conform to any extant fan-theories about who so-and-so was or what so-and-so would do. As a result of all the pissing and moaning, you poisoned the experience for a lot of people. And it comes off as being extremely entitled.

In short, don't be that person, okay? I know you care. We all care. We care deeply. But this is entertainment, and it's supposed to be fun. Idle speculation is great, but when you lock in your answers and start trying to prove your thesis with video clips and badly formed leaps in logic, then let me suggest that you've gone too far.

I can hear some of you starting in with, "But Mark, you don't get to tell me how to interact with media! That's my fandom!" Pfft, whatever. I disagree that being a public nuisance constitutes "fan activity," but okay, let me offer you a compromise, one that you can still put on YouTube or your personal platform, that will get you just as many clicks, and seem even more impressive when you pull it off. If you're committed to pre-ruining the movie for yourself and others by hammering down whatever whackadoo theories you might have that will wind up as plot points in Untitled Avengers Movie 4, then do it this way: start your camera rolling and talk briefly about your intention to Kreskin the movie. Write your predictions down on a piece of paper, fold it and seal it in an envelope. Then mail that envelope to yourself so that there is a legible day and date in the cancellation. Leave the envelope sealed until next May. Then you can open the letter up on camera and read or show your predictions to an amazed audience, who will praise you for your clearly brilliant thinking, and then someone in the audience will offer you a scriptwriting job at Marvel Studios. Because everyone knows, that's how it works.

Mind you, I'm not saying to be uncritical of a movie just because it's got super heroes in it. After 19 great Marvel films and, well, a handful of pretty good DC movies, and with all of that baggage in the rear view mirror, the bar has certainly been raised. These resolutions have to make sense within their created worlds. If the resolution to the massive cliffhanger isn't sufficiently satisfying, by all means, have a go at it. But if any of your sentences are some variation of, "Well, I didn't like it because X solution would have been better," then that's not valid criticism.

It's time for everyone to take a deep breath and a step back and realize that these movies, designed to entertain, aren't created for one person. They are created for a wide audience, and sometimes, your personal pet peeves may be triggered because the Russo Brothers don't know what bothers you, and I suspect, don't care, either. Their yardstick for success is not your yardstick of quality. Your only obligation to any media presented is whether or not to watch it and evaluate it fairly. Pro-tip: comparing it to the movie in your head is not a fair comparison.

So if you're going to be unfair and biased, say that right up front. Don't presume to speak for anyone other than yourself. And if you intend to say something more interesting about the movie than, "I liked the special effects," then you have to leave statements like "What they SHOULD have done" out of the discussion. If you're really so media-savvy, prove it by not having a nuclear meltdown next year because "they got something wrong."

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 4: A Spoilers-Laden Look at Avengers: Infinity War

Just in case the title didn't clue you in, this review contains massive honking spoilers and should not be read until you've seen Avenger: Infinity War. Or, unless Jeff from the office blabbed everything on social media and you've thrown up your hands in disgust. This, by the way, is why you don't get invited to Trivia Night, Jeff. You've got no filter. You can't keep your mouth shut. Why do you do that, Jeff? Why?

Okay, given the large amounts of words spent last week on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seemed weird to not discuss part one of its ten-year culmination. I outlined my thesis in Part 1, talked about what I liked about the MCU in Part 2, and threw some non-critical caveats around in Part 3. How does it all stack up against this movie?

Spoilers ahead!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 3: How to Get Along with Your New Step-Dad

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

So, here we are, on the eve of Avenger: Infinity War. The culmination of the entire MCU to date. Except, it really isn’t it. It’s the first half of the culmination, right? The movie is a two-parter, with a minimum of two guaranteed cliffhangers in the middle, and potentially two or three more. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) online with any kind of media presence or any kind of click-bait site is wildly speculating about who is going to live, and who is going to die, and what it all means, and will they, and won’t they, or what they have already gotten wrong, or what they likely will get wrong, and blah blah blah blah blah. It's tempting to start clicking and reading, but please don't. Not until you hear me out. I don't know much, but I know these things to be true, and they will help you with your tossing and turning at night. Here’s what you all need to know before you get your knickers in a twist: 

The deal with Fox isn’t done, yet. They have a lot to work out and it may not all go through. It may be only partially go through. But we don’t really know (and won’t know) until 2019 when the courts decide how much of Fox’s Intellectual Property Disney gets to acquire. That will affect a lot of things, such as how much more money they can dangle in front of Downey, Jr., Evans, and Hemsworth to stay on for one more movie. Everyone has a boat payment to make. Everyone is for sale.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. With apologies to Yogi Berra, this movie is only the first half of the film. We have to wait a whole year to really see the entire 5-hour megamovie. And while I’m very excited to see what they came up with, I also know it’s going to end just when things are at their most bleak. So, there’s no way I’m pinning all of my hopes and dreams on this movie—and neither should you.

The Infinity Gauntlet Reshapes Reality. In other words, not only does this first movie not really matter (because whatever gets done can get undone later), but whoever puts on the gauntlet gets to reset the clock and dial it all back to zero. Or not. Or somewhere in-between. We won’t know how the MCU shakes out until 2019. A year away. Why do you think they’ve been so tight-lipped about what movies come next? It’s because they don’t know.

Until the suits sit down in a boardroom with a bunch of lawyers, and all of the contracts are negotiated, there is zero point in speculating about what comes next, who lives, who dies, and how it all ends up. Anything can happen. But it’ll happen legally first, and then get handed down by the studio: “This is what you have to work with. Make it work.” And I’m sure Feige will do what he did the first time around. He’ll make lemonade out of lemons if he has to. At best, I’m betting he’s got a few contingency plans mapped out. But they don’t get to pick them until the courts sign off on Disney’s acquisition. Fan-Nattering online is just that. Just say no to the clickbait speculation sites. 

This isn’t about comics anymore. When you kvetch, write a letter, or even tweet your displeasure, you’re not talking to an editor and a creative team. You’re talking to a cavalcade of accountants and lawyers in suits, all of whom do not care about this material in the slightest beyond what its earning potential is for the company. Always remember that, and you’ll see how meaningless the online chatter really is.

As much as no one is talking about it, this franchise does not exist creatively any more. It exists as intellectual property belonging to a megalithic corporation specializing in global entertainment, brand name recognition, and the most savvy and targeted marketing strategies in the world. That’s Disney. That’s who they are. And what comes later in Phase 4 and Phase 5 and on down the road will be negotiated by lawyers in suits, with contracts, and licensing. It’s just how it is, now. I don’t want to think about it, but the best part of the MCU may well be over and done with. I hope not, but I’m not na├»ve, and you shouldn't be, either.

I’m going to watch Avengers: Infinity War for the spectacle it surely will be. I’m going to appreciate all these great actors in roles I’ve come to love interacting and bouncing off of one another. That’s going to be a lot of fun. And I’m bracing myself for when the movie goes dark, because that’s surely coming, too.

Remember: There's always
Ant-Man and the Wasp!
We cannot judge the movie on its own merits because it’s like turning Casablanca off in the middle of the film and surmising how it’s all going to end. “Oh, looks like Rick and Elsa get back together again! Awesome!” You wouldn’t do that, and you can’t do that. Certainly not to Casablanca, but also to any story. And I don’t think it’ll be possible to evaluate this film until 2019, when we can see it all together in one giant five-hour butt-numbing binge.

Going into the weekend, please take all of this into consideration. Don’t click on every negative review you read. In fact, you can skip the gushing ones, too. You can’t possibly be on the fence about the movie. You’re either going to watch it, or you’re not. Just temper your own expectations down and you’ll be fine. It’ll be worth the price of admission just to see if they can pull off something of this logistical complexity. Given Marvel’s track record, my feeling is that they will.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 2: My Rambling Thoughts on the MCU

Part 1 of this essay is here.

I don’t want to rank these movies for you. What’s the point? You’re just going to incredulously point out that Guardians of the Galaxy should be higher or derisively sneer that Iron Man 3 should be lower. Make your own damn list. Instead, I’m going to talk about my impressions and insights (such as they are) regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies up until now.

In very broad strokes, I liked all of them, and moreso than any of the previous Marvel movies, with a few exceptions, as you’ll see below. This giant-ass list of entertainment media contains only one genuine false start and one really sour note, both of which were recent TV properties. Everything else has been overall quite pleasurable to watch, and as a fan with an understanding of the different storytelling mediums and how they might dictate the way a story is presented, it has been fascinating to watch the MCU origami-fold 35, 50, even 75 years’ worth of stories into the essential beats and elements for a film series. Some things get added, some things get taken away, and many things get re-purposed or streamlined. But the ends have justified the means in nearly every instance.

More to the point, let me say that, judging movie for movie, the MCU movies that I liked the least--out of all of them--I liked way better than I liked Spider-Man 3. Or X-Men: The Last Stand. Or Elektra. Or Daredevil (the Affleck version). Or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Or all three Fantastic Four movies. So, if you need a barometer by which I'm grading these things on, let the above movies stand as your negative integers. I talked about this clear line of demarcation earlier in the year as part of a long diatribe on Super Hero Fatigue.

The other thing that these movies have done is to create a sub-genre unto themselves: “The Marvel Super Hero Movie.” I know it seems like a thin distinction, but perhaps the best thing that the studio did was to figure out how to translate the Marvel Comics style of storytelling into movies. That now-famous quote from Feige comes to mind about how Captain America: Winter Soldier isn’t a super hero movie; it’s a Cold War spy thriller that just happens to have super heroes in it. That aesthetic going forward, especially in Phase 2 and Phase 3, really set them apart from the Distinguished Competition, who have been trying, with limited success, to replicate their previous successes with Batman and Superman. I say this genuinely and without any acrimony whatsoever, because I love those characters, but Marvel has simply beaten Warner Brothers to the punch in nearly every way—with notable exceptions, like 2017’s fantastic and long overdue Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s movies have forged complex relationships with one another, fueled by secondary and tertiary plotlines that eventually converge into Avengers movies. We get to see these heroes at their best, and also at their worst, and sometimes, they are more on point in their civilian guises than they are saving the world in their battle suits. Such as always been a key ingredient to the Marvel storytelling formula. Heroes with problems. Relatable, undate-able, and debatable—these guys aren’t always right. They make mistakes, bad calls. Tony Stark in particular has to carry the weight of several Silver Age scientists who screwed up, but Marvel Studio has deftly given Stark an ego the size of Avengers Mansion so he can handle it when he has a mega-setback (like, say, Ultron, for instance). They are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and they are also wonderfully broken in the ways that make them fascinating characters to watch. Some of the best scenes in all of the Marvel movies happen with no high-flying punching, just people sitting around a table, talking, or better yet, standing up and arguing.

Finally, this is not necessarily part of their plan, but because of their aggressive schedule it’s worked out in their favor. Having three movies a year gives Marvel a tighter turning radius than other studios and super hero properties. It allows them to make corrections on the fly—relatively speaking—regarding inclusion and representation. I think Marvel has done an excellent job of folding these concerns into the movies and letting them stand on their own merits, rather than asking to be noticed with press releases. More studios could take a page from this practice. Show, don’t tell. Make Shuri from Black Panther a cool character and more people will want to see Shuri again. Because she’s cool, see? It’s not hard to do in a universe where people have lasers coming out of their faces. Make cool characters, and then tell good stories. That’s certainly the Silver Age and Bronze Age ethic from which most of these films are derived.

Here are my talking points and take-aways from the MCU projects, all of which I’ve watched at least twice, and some as many as ten times. Skip over any shows or movies you haven't seen, because I cavalierly discuss plot points that you may not want to know. Spoiler alert. 

Phase 1
We didn’t even know there was a “Phase One” until they started talking about “Phase Two.” Looking back on these early movies, you can readily see that they had an idea in place, even if it look a while longer to get up to speed.

Iron Man
Still very watchable for a number of reasons, most of them related to Robert Downey, Jr.’s brilliant performance of Tony Stark. He carries the movie—he really has to—and comes out of it both better and worse in the end. The suit tech has this veneer of believability to it, like using the repulsors in his gloves to stabilize his flight. And the updating of his origin—while sticking really close to it—was just the thing to bring the fans in. Bonus for the Stan Lee mis-cameo as “Hef.” By 2008, Stan had been in all of the Marvel films from other studios, and so it was a bit overplayed, but Tony mistaking him for Hugh Hefner was very funny.

And it was very cool (at the time, really forward thinking) to use Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" for the closing credits. Stark playing AC/DC and wearing old metal band shirts is another reminder that he's really one of us, the kids from the 1980s, much as the actor himself wasn't much other than we were in those teen comedies he played in.

The Incredible Hulk
I wish this had been Ang Lee’s Hulk movie. What a pleasure it was to not have to sit through the Hulk’s origin (using a montage in the opening credits, borrowed from the TV show of the same name). Let’s just cut to the chase, literally, as Banner’s hiding out in South America and looking for a cure. They threw a lot of stuff into this movie, but the biggest puzzle piece they re-arranged was the idea that Banner was looking for the Super Soldier serum. It was a nice shortcut that served as a dog whistle for comic book fans in the audience—all 40,000 of them—to signify that this was, in fact, the Marvel Universe, just different. A lot of people thought this movie was mindless, but frankly, a lot of Hulk comics were slugfests, too. The movie ends with a teaser about The Leader, but I don’t think we’ll ever see that particular villain until Hulk’s rights gen unentangled from Universal.

And as much as I love Ed Norton, watching Mark Rufalo take over for the Hulk, physically, has been great. His involvement in the character’s arc has been a positive all the way, and I think it’s because he got to play both sides of the character.

Iron Man 2
People frequently list this at the bottom of their Marvel rankings, but it holds up much better the second time around, and in hindsight with what’s gone on since. At the time, a Russian ex-convict being a brilliant computer hacker was stretching the bounds of credulity; but in 2018, it now makes perfect sense. Whiplash was always one of the many B-Grade villains from the Justin Hammer stories, and it was nice to see him re-imagined as a blunt instrument/ex-Soviet terrorist who actually gives Iron Man some trouble.

The best thing about this movie is the introduction of Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson took a cheesecake role and leaned into it, playing the seductress and the ass-kicker with the same aplomb. Later she would get to do more than just pole-swing around a bunch of stuntmen, and this is when her character really takes off. Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes was another inspired choice, and he’s a much better foil for Downey, Jr. to play off of, and their chemistry is noticeable. Another quick shout-out to Stan Lee being mistaken for Larry King this time around. 

Probably the best decision Marvel made in this period was to make use of good directors with an affinity for the source material. Kenneth Branagh is the unsung hero of the first Thor movie, putting the emphasis on the High Court Drama and inter-family squabbling that is such a rich part of Shakespeare’s plays; his work with the Bard’s body of work is largely what made Branagh’s reputation as a director and an actor. The other best decision, geekily speaking, was giving us a glimpse of Hawkeye, character I never dreamed would be realized in a film.

This movie, I think, is probably the closest to a standard "super hero" movie, a structural hold-over from what had come before. There’s an economy of scale here that drops Thor into a small town in the desert, stripped of his powers, and so of course, the appearance of the Destroyer would seem epic by comparison, only it's not, really, is it. The final scenes felt a little cheap, almost rinky-dink. That’s not to say it’s not a fun movie, mostly because of Hemsworth, but subsequent uses of Thor had the spectacle that was missing from the inaugural outing.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Director Joe Johnston, on the other hand, knocked it out of the park. This is one of my favorite Marvel movies, despite a weak third act, and for one simple reason: this was the only way to do Cap, and it was the first time since the comics themselves in 60+ years that they got it right. Cap starts out scrawny Steve Rogers and takes the Super Soldier serum and bathes in Vita-Rays and out comes Captain America. Dr. Erskine is killed by Nazi saboteurs and Rogers goes on tour as Captain America. But what gets him into the war is the word that Bucky’s unit is captured. So he breaks them free and joins their unit, the Howlin’ Commandos. What’s not to love? It’s a great simplification of the story, and it’s really satisfying to watch Cap kicking Hydra ass with Dum-Dum Dugan. Talk about something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Chris Evans is pitch perfect in the role, easily one of my favorite MCU characters, because he is instantly recognizable as his comic book counterpart.

The Avengers
I love this movie, from start to finish. It starts small, gets weird, and then blows up at the end. We go from seeing one-on-one fights and petty bickering—straight out of the Marvel Comics Standard Playbook—to an epic, city-wide battle with civilians scrambling and Avengers as a team, coming together to save the city, and this incredible tableau of fantastic violence that is part of any good Avengers comic.

Joss Whedan knows what makes a good Marvel comic, having written and read a ton of them himself, and easily the best thing he did with the characters was beef up the role of Black Widow. She’s almost like Batman in this first Avengers, solving problems, providing tactical support for the big guns, and in general proving over and over again why she is on the team. Mostly, the movie was proof of concept that not only could super hero movies work, but that they would be accepted by a larger audience. Not just Spider-Man and the X-Men, but a movie with Black Widow and Hawkeye on the team. That idea moved the whole thing forward in a way that Elektra and The Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer never could.

Phase 2
These movies represent a lot of mid-points in various character’s journeys, and while they are perhaps the most uneven of the lot, they still hold up solidly under repeated viewings. Most of the playing pieces were on the table at this point, fueling rampant speculation about Thanos and it was around this time that the concept of “Super Hero Fatigue” first set in. Also, here in Phase 2 is when the Grey Beards in comic book fandom began to speculate that, despite the success of the first set of Marvel movies, they were sure to be upended, hoisted on their own petard, and otherwise in danger of screwing the pooch for bringing “Fill in the blank upcoming movie” onto the big screen.

The one I’m talking about that had everyone doubting the power of Marvel was, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy. Honestly, I thought this would be the one. They’d pushed it too far. Thankfully, I was proven wrong and those characters have become among the most popular in the whole MCU. I was happy to shut my mouth after that, but the Grey Beards, looking for a failure so they could cackle online and say, “See!? I was right all along!” because we are our own worst enemies, they next fixated on Ant-Man and were again proven wrong.

Iron Man 3
I like this movie more than I should, mostly because of director Shane Black. For all of the off-putting weirdness and the misfires of the fake and real villain, Black working with Downey, Jr. is movie gold and this was no exception. Black is not afraid to go cynical, hate on children, and bludgeon Christmas to death as an ironic counterpoint to the horrible things happening in his movies.  Together, they brought Tony’s arc-reactor (see what I did, there?) to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but left him wide open for future psychic trauma, as we will see. The misuse of the Mandarin was well-handled, meaning, as much as I would have liked to see the guy with ten rings on his fingers that each did something cool, building him as a political propaganda puppet (and explained just so) in the movie was a bold choice, and I think one that worked far better than if they'd grafted an actual Asian into what has since become a highly problematic character. I may be the only Iron Man fan that thinks that way, but let me ask all'a y'all this: would you rather the Unicorn? Remember, Iron Man has some of the dorkiest villains ever committed to pen and ink. Not a lot of primo choices, there.

Thor: The Dark World
I found this the weakest of the three Thor movies, but there are a lot of people who would disagree with me based on a number of reasons that boil down to personal preferences. Regardless, the epic scope of the movie was sufficiently beefed up after The Avengers, and Thor’s mass battle scenes were a lot more satisfying. Leaving most of Asgard on the table and concentrating on Thor and Loki’s relationship was a great choice, and one of the things that saved the movie.

It's not a stretch to suggest that Loki is the most interesting, most well-developed, and most popular villain in the MCU, and easily one of the most popular characters overall in the MCU. Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth are going to go down as one of the best acting duos in the first three phases. There’s a real rock star quality to the character even as he’s shown failing at more than one scheme. But his role never devolves into comic relief. Loki is too proud for that. This movie was the peak of Loki-mania, and I think this is what saved the movie.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
More than once I have referred to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as “the Silmarillion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” It’s not necessary to consume it to enjoy the main story, but for those who like deep dives into obscure background material, this is that show. What they initially sold as a spy drama with super heroes dropping in quickly pivoted away from that model and became the place to lay out real estate and concepts that they could pick up later in other projects; things like the Kree and the Inhumans. The Darkhold. Ghost Rider (a GOOD Ghost Rider, not a Nick Cage Ghost Rider). All sorts of great things have played out in five seasons. It’s one of my favorite shows on television, but I realize it’s insider baseball for comic book nerds like myself.

Captain America: Winter Soldier
One of the best movies in the MCU, period. The Russo brothers perfectly balanced the Cold War Spy elements with the absurdities of super heroes and shadow organizations. And hey, best of all, we got The Falcon, another one of my favorite Marvel characters. He made a great partner for Cap in the comics and they are able to bond instantly as fellow veterans in the MCU. So simple, so well-done. A great part for Anthony Mackie, one he really seems to enjoy.

Also, Black Widow is all over this movie in a great way, using her Cold War spy stuff to get the upper hand more than once. Oh, and hey—Batroc the Leaper? Are you kidding me? What a cool way to use that iconic and also very stupid character. But I think Robert Redford as the spymaster was the best casting, clearly a more than passing acknowledgement of the Three Days of the Condor elements and another great use of these cool actors. The MCU is for American character actors what the Harry Potter movies were for British character actors.

Guardians of the Galaxy
As I stated earlier, I thought this would be the one that tanked. Mostly because of Rocket Raccoon. But I was wrong, and quite happy to be so. That said, as enjoyable as it is, it’s a little too silly for me at times and I think the humor doesn’t always work. I liked it. But I didn’t love it like how some folks do. Pratt and Saldana are awesome together, and I was glad to see their chemistry build in the second movie.

Still, I feel like this whole movie was Gunn’s audition tape and sizzle reel for making a Howard the Duck movie. That will be great, if they let him do it. Big if. Colossal if. Because Howard the Duck needs almost an R-rated sensibility to do the right way. Otherwise, why make it? 

I suppose part of the popularity of this movie lies in the fact that it’s a one-off. I mean, there’s nothing to connect it to the plots on Earth, save the mutual threat of Thanos. As such, GotG is actually a weird on-ramp to joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in media res, as it were. Granted, there’s probably only a dozen people in America who made this movie their first MCU film, but I’ll allow it could happen. There are some people, though, who aren’t big into comics and super heroes, but love space-pirate-based Science Fiction, and this movie is certainly SF of the “Pew, Pew” variety. It just happens to have a couple of super heroes (barely functional, but still) in the space pirate movie. If there was ever a need for proof of concept regarding the MCU, it’s this movie, right here.

This was also the first of the Marvel movies to trade on the 1980s nostalgia, another hand-waving sign that Generation X is helming and lensing these movies for the 45-55 year olds in the audience. That’s not to say that 1980s music (really, it’s 1970s music in the movie, but we were listening to it back then, too) isn’t for everyone, but...okay, you know what? It’s not for everyone. But in this case, the songs were a nice counterpoint to the action on the screen, if a touch overdone and in a couple of cases, repurposed.

Marvel’s Agent Carter
This was one of their best projects and the reason for its cancellation has never been fully explained nor was the half-assed explanation satisfying in the least. Peggy Carter kicked ass for two full seasons, and even got to re-unite with The Howling Commandos. It’s available to stream. If you loved the first Captain America movie and you somehow didn’t catch this series, go fix that right now.

I wish this series had found a wider audience. It had everything that people praised Wonder Woman for in 1017, and it did it in an 8-part series that was much sharper in its commentary. Probably the best part of the show is the Howling Commandos episode where Peggy re-joins them as not only an active member of the squad, but as team leader, something she hadn’t been able to do until that point. It was glorious, watching her finally get the acknowledgement in the show that we’d been giving her since the first episode. Also, we get to see the Soviet program that trained the Black Widow agents (but only super nerds would know that). 

Avengers: Age of Ultron
I think this movie suffers from two things: it didn’t meet the unspoken expectations of its audience, who all seemed to say, “We don’t know what we were expecting, but we weren’t expecting that,” and also you can see the stress cracks from Joss Whedon dealing with his new Mouse-Eared Overlords.

All that aside, it’s a pretty worthy sequel to the first Avengers, made all the more interesting by the choice of James Spader to play Ultron. He’s never not James Spader, and so it’s alot like putting Joker make-up on Jack Nicholson. He’s still terrifying, even as he’s reading to audience members completely as Spader and not the homicidal Vibranium-enhanced AI Android from Marvel comics that we all know and love to hate. Instead, he's playing the James Spader villain we love to hate. Am I splitting hairs? Yeah, so did the movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron pays a lot of things forward, introducing Klaw and Wakanda in one fell swoop, right alongside Vision, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch. Lots going on. I went back and paid close attention to the Black Widow trying to start a relationship with Bruce Banner and I really think a lot of people had a knee jerk negative reaction to the idea of Natasha having any kind of romantic entanglement. Unfortunately for the Internet, that was her character from the very first page in her origin story; a seductive Soviet super-spy who uses any means necessary to achieve her goals. Eh, to each her own, I guess. The George Perez-inspired slow-motion capture shots at the beginning and the end of the movie kept me more than somewhat entertained.

The second film in the “Will ‘Movie X’ be the film that kills the Marvel Franchise” litany of “Well, I don’t know...I mean, it’s Ant-Man...” nonsense. Especially with an outlier like The Guardians of the Galaxy doing so well previously. I think people were nervous about the attempts to work with writers and directors and actors known for comedic work. After all, comics aren’t funny, right? Oh yeah, smart guy? Then why do they call them “funny books?” Boom. Done.

Where was I? Oh, right. This heist-caper flick starring former thief Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd. I know I sound like a broken record, but I love this character so much. I always liked the one-off heroes with really specific gimmicks. The Falcon. Hawkeye. Black Panther. Ant-Man. It’s like The Marvel Cinematic Universe was made for me.

This movie was no exception. Rudd does an incredible job as Lang, the former Do-Gooder thief who is just trying to make things right with his daughter, his ex-wife, and her new husband, who just happens to be a cop. I don’t normally like Michael Douglas, but he was great as former bad-ass Hank Pym, now that he’s finally playing characters his age and not being creepy as a sex object.

The only problem that some people had with the movie was the sameness of the hero/villain set-up from Iron Man. That couldn’t be helped. Tony Stark and Hank Pym were both scientists. They both made cool suits. They both fought their mirror images, armed with tech they created, and often. I think Ant-Man was different enough that it didn’t bother me any. But, then again, I’m the hardcore fan.

I had no idea what to expect, other than the guy that was the showrunner also did the first two seasons of Spartacus on Starz, and that went over pretty well, so what the heck. I was not disappointed in the slightest. De Knight spent a long time—hours of it—introducing Wilson Fisk and making us actually care about him. Then, when he finally meets Daredevil, and says, “Take your shot!” and Fisk beats him nearly to death in an inconsolable rage, we are reminded that “oh, yeah, right, the Kingpin is a sociopath.” This first season, from its hallway fight tracking shot in episode 2 to the long, slow burn to simply line up all the pieces in a thoughtful manner, it really altered the tenor and scope of what could be done with narrative TV and super hero stories. Bonus points for actually letting us see Murdock and Nelson doing lawyer stuff.

Jessica Jones
If there was any doubt as to how “dark” the Marvel Knights line on Netflix was going to be, Jessica Jones answered it and spiked the ball: charcoal. Kristen Ritter has found her calling as the exceptionally capable and exceptionally damaged private investigator and former super hero. Jones was a more recent addition to Marvel Comics, but writer Brian Bendis wasted no time in stitching her into the fabric of the world. Specifically, she hooks up with Luke Cage. Now, in the comics, they end up together and having a baby. I don’t think we are quite there yet. But when Luke Cage showed up in Jessica Jones, the Internet exploded.

Phase 3
By the time this was announced, everyone knew that there was an endgame movie and it would feature the inevitable dust-up with Thanos. But as the schedule got longer and longer, thanks to real interest in a Spider-Man movie and an Ant-Man sequel, the timeline didn’t so much as lengthen as the number of hurdles before we got to Avengers: Infinity War have increased. I see this as a feature rather than a bug, since we had a great many things to distract us while we waited for Thanos and the Guardians of the Galaxy to come crashing down to Earth.

Captain America: Civil War
Why are the Captain America movies so good across the board? I don’t know, but this one ticks all of the boxes. You’d think with twelve heroes onscreen, squaring off against one another, plus the introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther, that the movie would feel crowded. Instead, it moves with alacrity toward the inevitable conclusion and teases a couple of great instances; namely, Cap breaking everyone out of jail, and the Wakandans working on Bucky to get the Winter Soldier program out of his head. Both events obviously (we presume) happened between movies, but that we know exactly how these things played out is a testament to the quality of the writing where Chris Evans and Captain America are both concerned. Some of the credit has to go to comic book writer Ed Brubaker, whose excellent stories were the source material for Cap’s (and Bucky’s) character arcs.

That super hero throw-down at the airport is, again, a classic Marvel trope, expertly rendered, full of great surprises, like Ant-Man’s embiggening, and of course, everything that came out of Spider-Man’s mouth. Sony’s past attempts have done a good job of capturing one or two aspects of Spider-Man’s character and pathos, but they never really got it all in one place. With two scenes, inside of the Captain America movie (and a bonus scene at the end), Marvel showed how Spider-Man could and should be done.

Doctor Strange
I’m on record as not being a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan, mostly because I’m not a woman, but also because he has an oddly-shaped head that I find distracting, but when he was cast as Doctor Strange, I had to admit that at least from the point of view of his gargantuan cranium, it was a good fit. Kudos, too, for taking the source material as created by Steve Ditko and making movie-sense of it. Ditko frequently drew Doctor Strange off-kilter, and in fact, many of his more strange and unusual characters (like Odd Man, a one-shot deal from DC comics) used spatial distortions to frighten and confuse enemies. Yes, Yes, Poindexter, they did the same thing in Inception. We get it. You spotted it. You’re very clever. Now go sit down. Having Inception do the heavy lifting of establishing the architecture of dreamscapes in such a way made it instantly recognizable and something they didn’t really have to spend any time dwelling on. It was a smart choice.

Points, too, for getting Dormammu into the movie and making his head be a giant ethereal ball of flame. Take that, shitty Galactus from the second Fantastic Four movie! I can’t wait for more Doctor Strange, and honestly, I’d love a cameo from him in everything in Phase 4.

I wonder, since Doctor Strange is so removed from the rest of the MCU, if this isn’t another weird on-ramp to the Marvel Universe, alongside GotG. I’d like to think there’s a gaggle of very confused Cumberbatch fans who came staggering out of the movie on opening night, stunned, and said, “Well, I guess we’ve got to watch Thor, now.”

Luke Cage
Sweet Christmas! Another of my favorites, done right, and really done with the kind of agency and also gravitas that really helps his origin rise out of the “black hero” trope that Marvel and DC both employed during the seventies, when they tried the first time to be more diverse and inclusive. In Marvel’s case, they copied the language of Blackploitation films. Only, see, Luke Cage, hero for hire, couldn’t swear in the 1970’s. So, “Sweet Jesus” became “Sweet Christmas.” You can guess what “flamin’” was a stand-in for. Most of the “mature characters” in Marvel comics in the 1970s have their own version of Cockney Rhyming Slang that is just hilarious in hindsight.

But we’re talking about Luke Cage, expertly and deftly written to knowingly nod at the Blacksploitational elements in his comic stories, but not imitate them. Update, yes, but with the kind of verve and swagger that’s more New Jack City by way of Do The Right Thing than, say, Super Fly. Mike Colter plays the part like he’s born to it, and his supporting cast is terrific all around. Also, the music is practically its own character, and easily the strongest soundtrack the MCU has produced, hands down, no takebacks.

It’s a small thing, tiny really, but there is one scene in the show where Cage appears, wearing blue jeans, the headpiece he wore during the experiment that gave him his powers, and a yellow blouse that he found on a clothesline. He takes a look at himself—the spitting image of Power Man in the 1970s, and says, “I look like a damn fool.” I haven’t laughed that hard at an in-joke since Cyclops glanced at Wolverine, back in 2000, and said, “Would you prefer yellow Spandex?”

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
I don’t know if this movie was a home run, but it was certainly an off-the-wall triple. Director James Gunn doubled down on everything that worked in the first movie, and while the experience was different, it was also kinda the same, too. The only character that got any growth was Star-Lord, and it was forced upon him by the realization that his father, Ego, the Living Planet, was actually a rampaging asshole. Go figure. With a name like Ego, the Living Planet. I can't make this stuff up, folks.

I really think that the combined soundtracks are part of the appeal of these movies. This deliberate attempt to tap into the broader tapestry of pop culture (dig the Ramones album cover-inspired poster on the left) and the judicious application of certain songs in both the trailer and the movie should get partial credit for this particular franchise's continued success. I'm not going out on any limbs here when I say that was the best use of "Fox on the Run" ever in a movie. Sweet gets no love these days. 

Also, massive Kudos to Gunn for giving us Ego, the Living Planet (take that, shitty Galactus from the second Fantastic Four movie!) as well as all of the original (and really damn goofy) Guardians of the Galaxy, like Charlie-27 (that's really his name) and Martinex, in a more recognizable form.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
This was one of the mid-stream-announced Marvel movies that I was most looking forward to. I pinned my fanboy hopes on this movie not sucking and I was not disappointed. Not just in the setup and execution of the film, but in all of my fears being allayed by them doing everything the way I thought they should do it. That doesn’t happen very often, but in this particular case, I was so relieved.

 Here’s what they got right: 1. They didn’t even bother to re-tell the origin. More room for a better story; 2. They scaled down the scope of the movie to something resembling the kind of things Spidey dealt with in his first 20 issues. They Lee and Ditko stuff. It wasn’t epic stuff, Wagnerian opera-type things. It was Peter standing up his homecoming date. In high school, that is epic enough. And it played that way in the movie; 3. Tom Holland is the youngest guy to play a teen-age Spidey, and it shows. Spider-Man should be a teenager, not a senior-nearly-a-freshman-in-college, nor a thirty-year old glandular case in hipster clothes. The teen angle is what made all of his choices—the “Great Responsibility” parts—have that extra oomph; and 4. No Green Goblin/Gwen Stacy iteration anywhere in sight. Thank you Marvel. And the Ramones in the soundtrack made me extra happy. ‘Cause they’re from Queens, too, ya mook, and not just from Queens, but Forest Hills, which is Peter Parker’s old neighborhood. Is that a deep cut, or what? I know, right!?

Thor: Ragnarok
I loved this movie, but it’s a hybrid. Tonally speaking, it’s about two-thirds Guardians of the Galaxy and one third Thor: The Dark World. But the part that is a Thor movie at least focused squarely on the Loki-Thor-Odin triangle. Thor and Loki manage to patch up their differences, to both escape the garbage planet and reclaim Asgard, and then they don’t really, because Loki will always be Loki. The Hulk, as he has been written in the comics for fifty years, finally makes an appearance as the guttural-speaking brute who can keep himself transformed so long as he keeps simmering. We finally get a Valkerie (if not the Valkerie), which is nice. Idris Elba finally has something to do as Heimdall. And Kate Blanchett crushes it as Hela. Oh, brother, does she crush it. 

Ironically, there’s more Kirby-inspired design in this movie than the other two Thor films, though they did take a stab at it in the first movie. And while Jack Kirby got his due credit, it would have been nice to see a little bit more of his work represented. The Doctor Strange cameo sorta makes up for it. 

But I mentioned before how Thor should have an epic scale. This one has that scale, and as bookends to the movie, no less. If you didn’t get a vicarious thrill out of the Mjolnir-Cam at the beginning of the movie, then you’re dead inside and probably not the target audience for these movies. Moreover, if the inspired use of Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” as fight scene music didn’t move you, then I suspect you never played Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager, which begs the question: how did we meet, again, exactly? Finally, Jane Foster was completely written out of the story. This made me way happier than it should have. That story was going nowhere, and their romance felt weirdly shoehorned in to the second movie, anyway. I like Natalie Portman, but not in this role. Don't worry about her. She's got Star Wars money. She'll be fine.

Iron Fist
From the first announcement that Luke Cage and Iron Fist would be in the Netflix shows, I had two parallel thoughts: well, martial arts are easy to do these days; they can’t possibly screw this up—and—holy crap! We’re going to get a Power Man/Iron Fist team-up!

Well, I was wrong. At least, about one thing. They could mess up Iron Fist, and did. It’s not that it’s bad—but it’s certainly the weakest of the four Netflix series. Allegedly the show got the shortest amount of lead-in time (this same showrunner also worked on The Inhumans—see below) and it actually feels like a first draft script with a lot of weird redundancies that a couple more passes would have expertly eliminated. It’s a shame, too, because I loved both Power Man and Iron Fist as a kid, and when they teamed up, my head exploded. I wanted this to be great, especially since I was the target audience for this show. And I wanted to like it, and I tried to like it. There are certainly pieces of it that aren't bad, and I think the criticism was so vitriolic because the other three shows were so good. It just felt like a major step down in quality and tone. 

Thankfully, Jeph Loeb has been listening to the massive feedback. Iron Fist Season 2 is now at the back of the schedule, and they are clearly driving for a Heroes for Hire team up. But Danny needs fixing, first. He’s got a better showrunner and more lead-in time to get it right. If Into the Badlands can have a third season, there is no reason on Earth why Iron Fist can't be fixed so as to not suck.

The Inhumans
Well, here it is: the first real failure from Marvel since 2008. And it’s a total failure, too, from the casting on down to execution. It’s a failure made all the more baffling because it didn’t have to be. This could have been handled by the same team working on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and really should have been) but for some reason, they wanted a mini-series and gave this thing literally 3 months of prep time (as opposed to all of the Netflix shows, which got 9-12 months lead-in time or more). Not only do the stitches and seams show where they jammed this Frankenstein together, but the two greatest sins it commits are (a) it didn’t even bother to link up with the detailed groundwork laid out by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over three seasons, and (b) from tone to execution, this feels like it was made in the mid-1990s, back when producers would say, “Okay, we get it, she’s got telekinetic hair, but that’s going to inflate the budget, so how about we cut her hair off in the second episode?” and “hey, I get it, this is based on one of those, whaddayacallit, graphic novels, or some shit, but no one is going to care if we switch some of this stuff around. For example, do you know how cheap it is to film in Hawaii?”

Skip this show. I’m serious. You gain nothing by seeing it, and you lose nothing by omitting it. And if anyone tells you, "Oh, it's not that bad," you punch them in the throat and unfriend them on Facebook. Because they are wrong, so very wrong. 

The Defenders
It’s not fair to cast this mini-series as “the Avengers of the Netflix MCU series” but that’s kinda what it was, only not really. Sorta. Kinda. I don’t know. The biggest problem with the show is that the timing of the series didn’t quite match up regarding villain development. The Hand, an ancient criminal organization that fought both Daredevil and Iron Fist, was the engine driving the storyline, which is about extracting dragon bones from under the bedrock of New York City. The process would have caused the city so suffer massive seismic distress that would have brought it tumbling down, but the Hand doesn’t care, since it would have the dragon bones it needed. Not bad, but as a story goes, it’s both too epic and not quite epic enough. It could have used a lot more Vincent D’Onofrio and a lot less Sigourney Weaver, a statement I never thought I’d make in print.

As a story point, people are going to look back on The Defenders with fondness, since it presents connective tissue into everyone’s second and third seasons, and also manages to get some key players into the room together. I’m looking at you, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. For my money, I’d take Knight Wing Investigations right alongside Heroes For Hire, if both are on the table, and why wouldn’t they be? The Defenders goes into conspicuous contortions to get those two in the same room together. There’s no other reason other than to have them team up.

All that aside, it's okay. It's not awesome. There are parts of the series that are great. Scenes in every episode that are just awesome. But it doesn't hang together as well as it should. Those great scenes feel like padding, which isn't fair, because among other things, they establish these characters getting to know one another despite vast differences (Danny and Luke, for example). 

The Punisher
This Netflix series was an add-on after Jon Bernthal tested so well as the Punisher in season 2 of Daredevil that they sort of had to make a spin-off. Now, I am not a big fan of this character. Written well, he can be entertaining in small doses, but he’s very rarely written well. The reason for this lies in the Punisher’s origins. Not his character origins, but how we got to him in 1974, shooting Spider-Man with a gun on the cover of the comic book.

Marvel was floundering in the 1970s. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Silver Age was over and they were really trying to keep up with the rapid changes in the world. So, they took a lot of cues from movies. Shang Chi and Iron Fist were attempts to slipstream behind the martial arts movie craze. Luke Cage was the attempt to borrow some cool from Blacksploitation. Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk and Spider-Woman were trying to emulate Wonder Woman’s success as a feminist symbol for the Women’s Lib movement. And The Punisher? Well, he’s straight up a costumed reworking of Charles Bronson from Death Wish. He hunts the people who killed his family. With a gun. Back in 1974, this was very radical stuff. Heroes didn’t use guns and they didn’t kill. Not back then.

The Punisher changed all of that. He appeared in a vacuum, the literal “good guy with a gun,” although that’s not quite right, either. For years, he was written as an antagonist, right up into the early 1980s. But he became insanely popular, thanks to Frank Miller using him in Daredevil (which is why he showed up in that Netflix series, of course). And it was inevitable that The Punisher would get his own movie. How hard could it be, right? I mean, he’s got no super powers. He just shoots people with guns. Easy peasy, right?

Google the Punisher movies. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yeah, they all suck green donkeys. The reason is simple: what’s unique and special by omission in comics is woefully commonplace in the movies. He shoots criminal with guns? Get in line, Frank Castle. Everyone shoots everyone in the movies. You can’t feed beef back to the cow. That’s how you get Mad Cow’s disease. Or, if you prefer, shitty Punisher movies.

So, I told you that to tell you this: Netflix finally got it right. This series isn’t about him killing people. It’s about how he got so messed up—and now that we know more about PTSD, unfortunately, in modern combat veterans, this story bristles with meaning and nuance, something that was always lacking in every other movie version of the character. You won’t believe how good it is. You may still not like it for its subject matter, but you will not-like-it way less than any of the other Punishers that you totally hated. That sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’m really not. There’s a great story in there, but it starts in Daredevil, Season 2 and you need that before you watch the series. Not a chore, I promise.

Black Panther
It’s easy to like this movie; it’s got everything going for it. A likeable and engaging cast, from the heroes to the villains (Andy Serkis retuning as Klaw is awesome), some cool spy-drama throwbacks that are half Captain America: Winter Soldier and half Luke Cage, and the coolness of Wakanda, in all its splendor (I’m totally including Man-Ape when I say this). This is also a more intricate back story than the set-up we got in Captain America: Civil War—which, it turns out, did some of the heavy lifting for this movie by giving us the short-hand origin story. I can’t think of another movie franchise which is able to chain-link its heroes in such a way as to introduce them in a couple of scenes in one movie and then spin them off into an entire film all their own the following year. That kind of thing has never been done before, but they did it with two different characters in the same damn movie, both times with great end results. No small accomplishment.

Oh, and for the record, I want an armored war rhinoceros. I think that would effectively end them being poached if we gave them armor and taught them to charge their attackers. That whole scene felt like an outtake from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I say that in the nicest possible way.

Part 3 coming Tomorrow.