Monday, March 25, 2013

Barsoom and/or bust

So, in 2012, Disney released John Carter, the first big-budget movie treatment of the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Barsoom" series - coincidentally one hundred years after the first appearance of the character in A Princess of Mars. The film was met with negative reviews, didn't really earn a profit until it was paired with The Avengers in drive-in theaters, and led to the resignation of the Disney studio chief, so great was the failure perceived. Needless to say, the planned trilogy was scuttled.

I loved the movie. Since I also loved the first Fantastic Four movie, perhaps it should be no surprise that so much of the rest of the movie-going public (or at least the movie-reviewing public) had a different assessment than mine, but my wife loved it, too, so there's that. I can't really see the reason that the movie was not better received: the special effects, the performances, and  the story were all wonderful, and the potential to launch an ongoing series was excellent - in fact, I'd say it compares favorably to The Avengers in all those respects and beats Avatar (the film to which it is most often compared) in everything but the effects. Why did those potboilers receive acclaim from the critics and the hipsters but John Carter get no respect?

In some of Carter apologia I have read recently, the lack of irony or cynicism in the movie comes up as the cause of its failure. The film is an unapologetic swashbuckler of the old school, lighthearted without being campy, earnest in its adventuring and sincere in its values. Maybe that appeal is now a special interest, reserved for those few of us who still remember Bronze Age comics fondly and don't want a steady diet of grim 'n' gritty dark antiheroes. Even my few friends who did respond favorably to the movie called it "cheesy" and liked it in spite of itself and not for itself.

Perhaps an associated cause of the unpopularity was just being damned with faint praise. Not all the critics hated the film; just not enough of them loved it. For most, it inspired a resounding "meh," and for a $250 million film, I guess a meh is as good as a miss. Here are the ten most expensive movies, according to Wikipedia, and their Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings:

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (44%)                       
  • Tangled (90%)          
  • Spider-Man 3 (63%)       
  • John Carter (51%)          
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (84%)        
  • Avatar (83%)          
  • The Dark Knight Rises  (87%)         
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (67%)          
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (54%)          
  • The Avengers (92%)          
The list brings to mind Babe Ruth at bat: either homeruns or strikeouts, but not really any base hits. Maybe that's the curse of a really expensive film: that it is an all-or-nothing proposition, and even if you have made a decent, entertaining film, unless it goes over the moon, it is considered a failure.

Which is too bad, at least in the case of John Carter. It really is worth seeing.


On the other hand, sometimes movies really are just bad. Case in point: the other Barsoom movie, the 2009 Princess of Mars, re-released as John Carter of Mars, not at all with any intent of confusing Netflix audiences looking for the Disney flick, I am sure. This low-low budget version of the same story (I love the public domain!) has as its sole virtue that whoever wrote is seemed to have read the book and captured the basic through-line of the story. 

On the other hand, the film "stars" Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Traci Lords, the former porn star, and seems to have been made for about thirty bucks. There are about eight people total in the movie - backgrounds are mostly totally unpopulated, even on crashing airships, where you'd expect to see a crew scurrying about.  Four-armed Tharks have two arms (and rubber tusks); eight-legged thoats have two legs. As these cheap CGI bird-mounts tread clumsily across a landscape, we cut to a tight, backgroundless closeup on actors, clearly seated on camp chairs or stools or something and not even rocking with movement, to capture the dialogue as they "ride." Not that the dialogue is really worth listening to, as most of the acting is as wooden as the stunts are awkward.

And yet, now and again, there are flashes of actors really trying to sell the story, and for a moment or two, the viewer can actually believe in Barsoom, even in this mess. Thanks, ERB.

Last note: Lynn Collins, who played Dejah Thoris in John Carter, kicked ass.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

$3 Diorama: Skirmish in the Sand

On the back rack of the thrift store I frequent are plastic bags of random toys thrown together as set for (usually) $2.99. As an art project, I plan to pick up a bag now and again and try to incorporate all the contents into one meaningful diorama. 

Blade and an FBI agent, with the support of Army Rangers, 
engage with well-armed skeletal aliens

Friday, March 15, 2013

Ka mea nona ka moʻolelo

Just about seven years ago, I was vacationing in Hawai'i and made this blog post back on what I believe was then still called The Last Shortbox. My more recent trip to Maui got me once again thinking about Hawai'ian superheroes - or more precisely, mainstream superheroes in Hawai'i.

Through Google, I found a PSA that appeared in DC Comics right after statehood (see here) but this is the earliest image I could find that has a major costumed character in the Aloha State - the Batplane flying across the islands. Unfortunately, I don't have anything more than the image: the panel appears on the DC Wikia page and in several aviation-oriented galleries of Batplanes, but I have no idea what Batman and Robin were doing in Hawaii. (They must have brought the Batplane over on a boat or in a bigger plane, right?)

Speaking of Wikia, both the DC and Marvel crowdsource databases have entries on Hawai'i - and neither one is very informative. The Marvel page has some details about WW2 era adventures around Pearl Harbor and name-checks Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and Nick Fury; the only other reference is a note that the Black Widow spend some time in a hospital on an unspecified island.

The DC page doesn't have much more to offer. There are some almanac facts and a lot of references to people and places from the Superboy series. It doesn't explain or even mention that Batman visited there. The links page, though - "Appearances of Hawaii" - contains some promise. The first link, Detective #29 seems a little too early for the Batplane story have appeared there, and the summary doesn't help clarify at all. Wonder Woman #15 from 2008 is listed, and counts Hawai'i among the locations of the story, as does Aquaman #5 from 1995. There are a couple of issues of Wildcats and Green Arrow in the mix, and even a Comedian from the new 'Before Watchmen' series. It does seem that a lot of DC characters have made trips to Hawai'i.

My search did turn up one great Hawai'i sequence with a well-known DC Character: from Swanderful, a tumblr dedicated to the art of Curt Swan (and the tumblrator's perceived homoerotic content therein), comes this episode of Superman himself intercepting a space whatsis that is heading toward Honolulu. My guess is that this page is emblematic of most such visits to Hawai'i: some background images and few local geographic references layered over whatever crisis or combat comes next in the plot. Although to be fair, I guess that's not an uncommon treatment of any real-world locale in the DC Universe, or in the Marvel Universe outside of New York.

The main island hero, of course, remains Superboy, who was based in Hawai'i for issues 1 through 48 of his series, from 1994 to 1998. I tried searching the awful, awful DC Comics site to see if this series had been collected in a TPB; as far as I know, it hasn't. I'd like to give these issues a look-see, but I am torn: the Hawai'i connection intrigues me and it would be interesting to find out how this new Superboy (about whom I know next-to-nothing) went from the faux-punk, leather-jacket, earringed, little wiry dude from the Death of Superman to the squared-away, tight-tee-shirt, buff-bro Teen Titan he appears to have evolved into. However, from what I read on Wikipedia and such, his continuity seems way too confusing for a poor ol' Bronze Ager like myself to follow.

Anyway,  the Superboy series apparently did showcase what sounds like some predictable Hawai'i/DCU features: KONA Broadcasting, S.T.A.R. Labs Honolulu, Kulani Prison (to provide escaping super-villains, naturally), and the Silicon Dragon gang in the (real) Mamala Bay neighborhood. And readers did get to meet some Hawai'ian supporting characters - or at least characters who were from Hawai'i - Tana Moon, a KONA reporter, and Sam Makoa, a federal agent.

Superboy also got his own Hawai'ian nemesis: Silversword, the superpowered identity of Arnold Kaua, a museum curator who accidentally bonded with some "animetal" that gave him silvery shape-shifting super powers. I find this character (the bit that I know of him without seeing the comics themselves) a bit problematic, especially as he is apparently presented as an overzealous defender of Hawai'ian culture (a lot of DC villains are overzealous would-be good guys, aren't they?). First of all, a silversword is indeed a rare Hawai'ian plant, but its name is a Western construct. To native Hawai'ians, it is āhinahina or "very gray" - neither silver nor swords having any place in traditional Hawai'ian culture. So while the character design for Silversword is meant to call to mind King Kamehameha, his very silveriness and the fact that uses his animetal powers to create European-style weaponry instead of spears or shark-tooth clubs weaken the character concept for me. I might have gone with some living koa super-wood instead of alien animetal for Kaua to bond with.

Man, I do hope there is actually a TPB of this Superboy series so I can fill in all my imaginings. I'd even struggle through the tangled continuity.

Wandering away from mainstream superheroes for just a little bit, it seems that lots of comic folks do like to vacation in Hawai'i, usually creating the opportunity for a cover that features aloha shirts, bathing suits, or both.

Of course, we should look at homegrown Hawai'ian characters as well - and there are some. But that's a post for another time. Aloha.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Re-search: the Eastern Western

Chambara or chanbara describes a genre of Japanese cinema: specifically, what most of us would likely call "Samurai movies." The name literally refers to "sword-fighting" movies; someone saying that they like chambara would be in many ways like an American saying they liked Westerns.

I didn't know this term until I stumbled across this delightful re-envisioning of the Justice League by illustrator Alex Mitchell:

(Here's the original deviantart page and full-meal-deal on Project Rooftop)

Like other good cross-genre interpretations, the designs seek to find the key, core elements of each character and manifest them through different tropes. "A child of dragons, raised by peasants" is perhaps the most economical re-imagining of Superman to 17th century Japan: it captures his alienness, his power, and his grounding in the common man. I'll let you explore the materials yourself, and you really should; both the concepts and executions are consistently wonderful.

One illustration in particular caught my eye: that of the chambara Wonder Woman. There was some dim echo in my brain as I looked at the image, and I couldn't let it go. My google-fu was strong enough to eventually track down the source of the tickle:

I don't know where I would have run into the image on the right: 19th century Japanese woodblock artists are not usually on my radar, and this is Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the "47 loyal ronin," an 1848 print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the series Seichi Gishin Den. (Thanks, wikipedia.) The resemblance is certainly striking.

I don't know that Mitchell used this image a reference; it's likely that he did, since Ishi-jo was an onna-bugeisha, a sort-of female samurai from the upper class, a description which certainly fits the character of Lady Incredible. Whether or not this particular image was the source, Mitchell's re-creation of its sensibility, or rather his blending of that sensibility with a Western comic-book aesthetic, is extraordinary.

I just love this whole work, exquisitely detailed in idea and image, and it deserves a wide audience.