Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Four Weddings and A Funeral--the TV/Movie/Comic Edition

There’s been a lot of great geekery going on television lately, and for the most part, it’s been very impressive. Comics have exploded in a way that I don’t think anyone expected. There’s a show on every network, it seems, streaming or otherwise, that you can tie into a comic book in some way.

Not my Joker. Not my Series. Y'all have fun with it.
Fair warning: I’m not going to talk about Gotham, or any of the other shows I’m not currently watching. I tried Gotham for two and a half seasons and came to really, really dislike the show from its premise on down to its writing. That’s clearly not a show for me, and if you like it, good on you. It’s not my jam. And I really don’t feel like dumping on the show, since I know it’s popular for some folks.

Instead, we’re going to talk about what I DO like right now. I know I’ve used the phrase “embarrassment of riches” before, but it’s really true. You have to be old to appreciate it—like, older. Forty or older. You have to be able to remember back to when we were all watching Batman and Robin in the early 1990s and thinking to ourselves, “Well, it was nice while we had it.” Or watching the first episode of M.A.N.T.I.S. on television and thinking, “This really could have been something.” You had to have been bitterly disappointed when The Flash was cancelled from CBS because it was too expensive to make and no one but us was watching it.

You really do need to be in your late forties-to-early fifties, or older, to really get it, as I have talked about at length before. But rather than lecture you kids today, I’m going to talk about what’s positive, mostly, and where I think we may be heading, which may not be positive. 

Hey, look! Vampire Bill got a new job! 
The Gifted
Fox has one card left in their stable: the X-Men Franchise, and boy, are they squeezing blood out of a turnip. I don’t mean this in a necessarily negative way. But let’s face it; the movies all kind of cancel each other out. The best one (X2) is negated by its sequel, (X-Men: The Last Stand) and all the rest have been fair to middling with flashes of greatness here and there. The only thing that tips the “franchise” in the win column is that each successive Wolverine movie got better and better. But I don't want to overlook the phenomenal Legion mini-series that came out last year (and neither should you).

In 2018, we are coming to the end of the Intellectual Property Film Rights Options—I mean, the end of the X-Verse as we know it (because why think like a realist when you can ignore the billions of dollars changing hands as if that in no way influences the creative decisions being made). There are three X-movies on the film schedule. Deadpool 2, which has a spectacular chance to suck, for one reason, and for one reason only—I suspect we’ve seen everything that made the first movie work already. It’s no longer a surprise, and so, my prediction is that the film will disappear up its own asshole. I’d rather it didn’t, but I just don’t think lightning is going to strike twice.

Not when X-Men: Dark Phoenix is on the schedule, as well. Which X-Men will it be? Will Famke Janssen come back from 2003 to reprise her role? Who can say? At this point, who cares? But it COULD be a good thing, if they let it be the send-off that gets us to The New Mutants.

Tonally, this movie looks a lot closer to Legion, which was a total surprise for everyone who watched it (go watch it if you haven’t; it seems to be in the same world—maybe—as Gifted). If Fox is smart, and wants to recoup some of those buckolas they’ve been paying out over on the news side of the media empire, they need to pivot the movies into X-Men TV, because what they are tentatively doing is remaking the X-verse for a multi-series TV empire. 

The Gifted is great. It’s really fun. It seems to be set in a universe that is somewhere past The Days of Future Past story, but not post-apocalyptic. They are playing their cards close to their chest on this (this is studio-speak for “we don’t know if we’re going to get the movie rights back or not”), so every episode reminds us, through familiar mutants like Polaris and Thunder Bird, that “we don’t know what happened to Professor X and the rest of the X-Men! Magneto may be dead for all we know!”

To that, I say, Good, and Good Riddance. All the X-fans ever really wanted was to see their beloved characters on the big screen. They didn’t have to actually do anything, or say anything; they just had to show up, in a movie that didn’t suck. Well, that score card is pretty well punched through. What’s left is the idea, the conceit of the whole comic series: there are these folks born different, with powers and abilities, and they are feared and distrusted and hunted by the government, detained without due process, tortured by their captors, turned to be used against their own kind...are we seeing the metaphors yet?

That’s always been when the X-Men books (and movies) were at their best. Gifted embraces that ideal. It’s fun to watch Polaris have powers like Polaris. It’s fun to watch Thunder Bird track. The new kids, the POV family, have interesting powers that are a deep cut into the X-verse.

Not to be outdone, and weirdly, not to be repeated, either, is Runaways, something of a surprise hit as a comic and now, also, a surprise hit on Hulu as well. The premise is a lot like the X-Men, if you say, “It’s teens on the run from the authorities for their powers and abilities.” But here’s the cool twist: These kids, teenagers all, have been friends for years because their parents know each other. These forced friendships have broken up following the unexpected death of one of the kids. They end up through various plots together during one of their parental get-togethers, and that’s when they discover that their parents are actually (dun-dun-DUUUUNNN!) SUPER VILLIANS. Well, in the Hulu series, they are a cross between Doctor Doom and Scientology. So, villainous-enough, maybe?

It’s not quite that obvious initially in the Hulu series, but all of the beats are there, and in that way that Marvel Media has of surprising me, one of the greatest things about the comic book series is included in the show. I don’t know how often we’re going to see Gertie’s watchdog, but oh, oh, oh, when it showed up initially, I came up out of my chair. Yep. They got the dinosaur right.

Don’t expect it to be a straight one-to-one transfer; that’s not how we do things, anymore. Instead, revel at the characters themselves, how “right” they got them, and how instantly recognizable they are from the comics, and then enjoy a slightly more streamlined storyline and more character development as the teens try to figure out what’s going on and how they can stop it. The Hulu series is just as entertaining as the comic.

The Punisher
I had to slide into this one gradually. I took several days to watch it, and I didn’t grab it the weekend it came out. It just didn’t feel right. I’m glad I waited, though, because this was one of the best Netflix series, and certainly the best Punisher on film, hands down, game over.

This series, of course, takes place after Daredevil Season 2. Frank Castle is dead, according to the whole world, except for a few people who helped him go underground. When he gets found by a man in similar circumstances, he’s not happy about it. But their partnership is what saves the series and makes it eminently watchable, even as there is blood and gunfire and horribleness happening.

The biggest and maybe best surprise was the amount of story space given to veterans suffering from P.T.S.D., which was used as a legal defense by Matt Murdock, and mentioned in the second Captain America movie—never in a negative way, I want to point out. But this series goes deeper and shows what one bad day can do to someone. Even though the story slant is firmly in Castle’s direction, it’s impossible to not sympathize and also empathize with everything he’s been through. Right up until the white skull on the black vest comes out, right, I mean, you can’t solve every problem with a gun. Just THIS particular problem. That’s how the Punisher sees it; it’s his job to finish what he started, and with good reason, considering what happened to his family.

I realize this kind of show is not for everyone, but what Netflix and Jeph Loeb got right is in acknowledging the rather simplistic, nudge-nudge-wink-wink this is really Deathwish in disguise comic book origins, and instead finding interesting ways to personalize the story and make Castle a real person and not a walking, talking, gun-toting cliché (which is why all of the movies failed--we didn't need the Punisher in a world where we already had Charles Bronson and Rambo). I think Jon Bernthal realizes he’s got the part that will define his career and he should be nominated for an Emmy. He's going to be smart in moving this character going forward and I think he’s treating the material with care and respect. This really gets me excited for Daredevil Season 3.

The Berlanti-Verse
I have a love-hate-love relationship with Greg Berlanti and his clutch of DC Comic-based shows. I love that he is consistently sticking it to The Man (Warner Brothers film division) by sneaking in characters that he’s not supposed to have. And I have to commend him for the sheer surface area of what he’s been able to build with four shows.

But sometimes, those shows are not good. Well, okay, your mileage can, will, and does, vary greatly, but I will say it this way: sometimes, the CW-ness of the shows overwhelm me to the point that I am angered and nauseated. And yet, I power through. I went back to re-watch the first season of Arrow because they did a Flash two-parter in season two. And I jumped into The Flash with both feet and was rewarded with Gorilla Grodd. GORILLA GRODD. I was more cautious about Supergirl, mostly because it premiered on CBS, but also because, well, I’m not a 12-year old girl. Over at the CW, the Lesbian quotient has doubled (yay!) and so has the manufactured drama that plagues every single show on that network. The worst show of the bunch is, of course, Legends of Tomorrow. Don’t ask me why, especially if you disagree. One, you’re wrong. And two, to explain everything that series gets wrong would take more time than anyone alive has to waste, so you’ll just have to trust me.

All that said, the team-ups have been fun. First Arrow and The Flash did it (and had the brass balls to call it “The Brave and the Bold,” too), which really highlighted the tonal differences in the shows. After that, people started hopping all over the multiverse (yeah, there’s a multiverse on CW, right now, and it looks a LOT like something from a comic book). My favorite, personally, was the Constantine/Arrow cross-over, just because they could.

Then they tried this big-ass alien invasion cross-over last year that really fell flat. But that was in the middle of a depressing Arrow season, a depressing Flash season, and a completely off-the-rails clusterfuck over at Legends of Tomorrow. That was 22 episodes of the team just showing up and blowing things up, as near as I can recall, with the best villains from the other three shows constantly one step ahead of them.

Thankfully, this year’s stories have righted themelves after a wobbly start. The Flash is more fun (Ralph Dibny? The Elongated Man? COME ON!), Arrow is 35% less tragedy porn, Supergirl seems to have settled into a groove where she is, in fact, the super hero in the how and not Mon-El, or Jimmy Olsen, or anyone else.

And Legends of Tomorrow continues to be a shitshow, with one major change: Rip Hunter has rebuilt his Time Police, and they have, as an organization, come to the conclusion that these buffoons have no business mucking with time travel. A point on which we can all agree. But they insist on cleaning up their messes, which at least acknowledges that yeah, they are bad at this, and they need help.

Then they did the cross-over event: Crisis on Earth-X

Holy Crap.

Congratulations, boys and girls, you got me, and you got me good. The multi-Earth cross-overs were among my favorite JLA comics as a kid, especially when it featured anything having to do with Earth-X, the Earth where the Third Reich won World War II. So, all of the Golden Age characters who were giving the Nazis the what-for back in 1943 were still doing it to this day.

This was our four part cross-over. And it was good. It was really, really good. We got to see some old friends, previously thought to be dead on our Earths, alive and kicking here in Earth-X (I won’t spoil the surprises for you) and we were introduced to one of my favorite Golden Age characters, still fighting on Earth-X. Again, no spoilers, but let me just say, Lou Fine would be proud. Well, maybe not proud, but certainly tickled.

The roster, the sheer amount of heroes, and of course, the splitting off into teams to get things done, was straight out of my early comic reading days. Not a lot of plot complications, either, and only a little carry-over of drama from each series. Mostly, they were all united on kicking Nazi ass and getting back to the proper Earth. And as much as I liked the villainous, Ratzi-Scum counterparts to Green Arrow, Supergirl, and the Flash, I couldn’t help wondering if we are going to see an Injustice League for next year’s cross over. I wouldn’t put it past Berlanti. He beat everyone to the punch with this four part extravaganza.

The Inhumans
I saved the worst for last. I’m going to go ahead and call this the first real failure on Marvel’s part to get their characters onto the screen. Maybe if this was 1994, this would have been killer-diller. But in the wake of all that we have seen—and that includes Iron Fist—this was a disaster from start to finish.

I have heard tell that this particular showrunner didn’t have the same amount of ramp up time for Iron Fist, and had to go straight over to The Inhumans afterward, with no breaks and no downtime. Months instead of years. Okay, we get it. This is a hard job. So, we’re going to lay some of the blame at Jeph Loeb’s feet for trying to turn a marathon into a sprint, and then we’re going to talk about the real villain afterward.

But first, let’s all remember how excited we were when we saw the trailer and Lockjaw dropped Black Bolt off in the middle of a city street. They did it again! Is there nothing Marvel can’t do? Well, actually, yes. They can’t do The Inhumans to save their lives. And they may have screwed up other stuff, in the process.

We get to meet the royal family, living in their city on the dark side of the moon, as per the comics. Gorgon stomps on a rover that took a picture of his hoof, so someone is now convinced there’s life on our moon. Meanwhile, Maximus the mad, powerless as an adult (what?) decides to lead a rebellion. So he cuts off Medusa’s hair, thus saving the special effects budget, and they all end up teleporting to Earth—Hawaii, specifically.

What follows is seven episodes of the Inhumans doing not-very-inhuman things as they have to navigate the morays and weird ways of 21st century Hawaii. Karnak hits his head, so his power doesn’t work right. He can’t see the outcomes anymore—a crying shame, since his power was one of the coolest ones to watch play out visually. Gorgon? He falls in with surfers who are special forces or some shit. Medusa, sans hair for the entire series (and the one time they animated her hair, it looked like shit), ends up with the scientist who has been trying to prove her rover didn’t just crash on the moon.

Meanwhile, Maximus is scheming with the human scientist to send him back through terragenesis to get powers, since he didn’t get them the first time. Oh. And the peasants are revolting. And Crystal finds a nice blonde haired guy who is NOT named Johnny Storm, okay? He’s not. But he knows a vet who can fix up Lockjaw.

You know what’s missing? About two seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where they spent show after show meticulously setting up Inhumans, Terragenesis, the Terragon mist, the whole damn thing. There was a tiny—and I mean, three sentences—attempt to connect one of the big hanging plot threads to this garbled mess. Oh, the questions! Oh, the insufficient answers!

Medusa knows how to get on a public bus, but doesn’t know how an ATM works. No one’s powers really work on the show until they are needed. Two previous cast members—better actors, really, but truthfully, the whole cast—wasted on this Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing show. I kept expecting someone to find a Hatch just off the beach. It would have made more sense than what we got.

I’m just going to pitch something: instead of running into ordinary humans, and having to explain who they are to everyone they meet, how about having them run into Coulson and SHIELD? Now the explanation is three lines of dialogue, and we’re all caught up anyways, because we’ve been expecting this payoff on Agents of SHIELD since the whole fershlugginer Inhumans plotline Started!

Cancelling Agent Carter remains very high on the Stupidest
Things ABC did in the 21st Century List. Unfortunately,
The Inhumans just knocked that decision out of the
top spot. Here's Peggy with the Howling Commandos,
one of my favorite episodes in the series, and a good
excuse to run this picture of Hayley Atwell as Agent
Carter and Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan.
So, now there are questions: how are you guys King and Queen of anything, asks Daisy. Mac says, we’ve found other abandoned bases with these portals. And the Inhumans say, those were our former homes. It was decided, many decades ago, that we needed to leave Earth for our own safety...(cue the flashback) Now it’s SHIELD in the 1980s and we have another excuse to see Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter in her role as SHIELD’s former top agent. Maybe even squeeze in a two-eyed Nick Fury for fun. Or Sam Jackson with a high and tight. Anyway, they decide to use the considerable tech that they are all hiding—maybe even make one last deal with Wakanda before that relationship sours—and send them to the far side of the moon, where they will never be found.

Now we don’t have to explain why they speak the same language we do. We can even show them watching our television. And when Maximus finds out that there was some tech that never got cleaned up (or was intentionally withheld, as per Fury’s instructions), he realizes he’s got a whole new group of Inhumans who will potentially fight for him on the moon where they can be rulers instead of hunted and poked and prodded like freaks.

See, there’s your pitch. And it’s got everything we wanted in it. Only, you know, without the bullshit. Don’t bother with it. I would be very surprised if it wasn’t quietly mulched and buried.

So, The Inhumans becomes the first real Marvel stumble. It’s certainly fixable. It can just be ignored, since it literally touched nothing else to begin with. Or it can be restarted (use my outline or any of the dozens of other great ideas that sprang to mind when you were reading my pitch—for they will ALL be better than what we got). But why was it so bad? Why even go to all of the effort? Why hire a showrunner, why get these great actors (who made the best of a bad situation, I promise), why do all of this stuff?

It comes down to the real enemy here, and you’re not going to like it: Disney. This whole Inhumans push was always intended to be leverage against Fox for the X-Men franchise. As those options ran out, as those extensions were activated, as those movies were made, it was all a countdown to Fox re-negotiating with Marvel (now owned by the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the entire world) to keep on doing X-stuff. It was a dare to see if Fox would blink. Their reply, by the way, was two pretty good X-Men movies, a hellacious Wolverine finale, and a Deadpool movie that surprised everyone except die-hard Deadpool fans, such as they were. Oh, and Legion, and Gifted. So, this idea that Fox is going to meekly hand over one of the few things in their stable of franchises that is putting butts in the seats is ludicrous. And we need to stop talking about re-starting the X-Men at Marvel, or doing an X-Men/Avengers crossover. It’s time we put away childish things and look at what’s really going on here.

Folks, at this point, we’re done with comics. Storylines don’t matter. Characters don’t matter. All of those, “Wouldn’t it be cool if...” and “You know who I’d like to see in a Deadpool movie...” discussions are nice, and fun, and we can still have them, but the people in control of all of this—and I mean all of it—it’s in the hands of accountants and C.E.O.s at very large corporations who consider these characters, created at these small companies for decades and were brought to life with pen and ink and paper and color, who you grew up with and are maybe even still inspired by—these men sitting in board rooms consider The Inhumans, The X-Men, Spider-Man, Deadpool, and all the rest of them, as “product.” Specifically, Intellectual property. And it’s something you’re all going to start learning about, whether or not this Fox deal goes through or not. You’d better hope it’s not. (Note: I am not advocating for the site, but the article is cogent and succinctly outlines the good and the bad from such a deal going through).

See, they don’t care about storylines. They only want profits. I know a lot of you are saying, “no duh, we know that, stupid!” but it bears repeating right now. We’re all loving the Marvel movies, and they are doing great things, and that will keep right on happening as long as the movies continue to make the same, or more, as the last movie. They can dip down a little bit, sure, because hey, they can’t all be The Titanic, now, can they? But if the Marvel train ever loses its momentum, you know who’s stepping in? Disney, with their 2 billion dollar investment. See, they have shareholders to make happy, and they don’t want their stock to go down. That’s why they acquired the Marvel characters to begin with. Also Star Wars and Indiana Jones. That’s strategy, not love.

Just be aware, and stop frequenting all of those websites that offer up fifteen reasons WHY the X-MEN is a GOOD BUY for DISNEY and instead start looking at the financial pages of Variety. Watch the deals being made. Follow the money. That’ll tell you more about what’s really going on than Rotten Tomatoes.

Edited: Fixed a network.

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