Friday, July 27, 2012

Clone Saga Revisited, Part Ten

I was just about certain this tenth volume of the Clone Saga would be the last, but I've finished it and the storyline remains unresolved. The pieces seem to be in place, but the storyline keeps spinning its wheels. Like many of the past volumnes, there's a lot of filler here but that's not the chief reason. I suspect that Marvel made the decision to end the Clone Saga in No Adjective Spider-Man #75, which is still a few months off from the comics in this installment.

The stories are less tightly connected than they have been, with only subplots tying the various comics together. In the early issues of this collection, Ben as Spider-Man fights a handful of old-timey villains like Dragon Man, the Will O'The Wisp and Dr. Jonas Harrow. He's also in the middle of an ongoing gang war between Hammerhead, the mysterious Fortunato, The Rose and the wacky Delilah, an assassin who speaks in large, multi-colored letters. It's weird. But what of Peter Parker, who collapsed at the end of the last volume and suffers from a mysterious ailment? He's rushed to the hospital and the doctors aren't sure what to do about his deteriorating physical state. Even Dr. Curt Connors flies in from Florida to lend a hand, but he's just as stumped.

One of these issues actually ends with Peter Parker flat-lining and apparently dead. This was brutal. Fans at the time thought, "it finally happened. Peter Parker is dead. Now Ben is Spider-Man and that's the end of it." A comic released one week later revealed that wasn't the case at all. Parker springs back to life almost immediately, and he has his Spidey powers back. So they weren't trying to get rid of Peter...they were undoing the revelation at the end of Spider-Man: The Final Adventure (mere months afterwards, by the way). Not long after that, The Lizard is sighted on a nearby rooftop. No surprise, right? After all, Dr. Connors was in town. But wait, Peter is talking with Dr. Connors at the same time Ben is battling with The Lizard outside! How is that possible?

It's a genuinely gripping cliffhanger, but it will be some time before it's resolved in this collection. There's a massive filler story where Spider-Man fights The Scorption with the help of Nick Cage and Iron Fist. Then there's a god-awful team-up with Spider-Man and the Avengers that involves a lot of time travel chicanery. It's very confusing and very dull. After that is a fun story pitting Spider-Man against The Looter, an egomaniac who has stolen equipment from various B-list villains like The Shocker, The Ringer and The Trapster, and made his own armor suit that uses all of them.

After that, the entire Clone Saga is derailed by the massive "Onslaught" event that was going on in all the Marvel comics at that time. Spidey was only on the periphery of this gimmick, but there are still a few issues featuring him battling Sentinels, the giant robots that usually menace the X-Men. It makes very little sense out of the context of the entire storyline, but seeing Ben in an underdog battle against such fearsome enemies is pretty damn epic.

At the end of Onslaught, The Avengers and The Fantasic Four were all presumed dead. There's an issue devoted mostly to Spider-Man coming to terms with their deaths, but given that they were all resurrected not long after this, the whole thing rings a little hollow. The event also woke up a mass of evil bees named Swarm that Ben has to deal with for a couple of issues. Yeah, I don't know. Don't ask. Honestly, the Peter Parker subplots are far more interesting at this point. The Daily Bugle has a round of layoffs, meaning that Peter is demoted from his full-time position back to freelance. Not good when a baby's on the way. What follows is a beautiful scene where Mary Jane reveals she wants to name the baby May, after Peter's aunt. She also has a nice zinger - "This is the 90s. Job security is as dead as disco." You haven't seen ANYTHING yet, Parkers. What if I were to tell them that these days the 90s are regarded as a time of prosperity? Yeah, our standards have come down a bit.

So, remember that plotline about The Lizard? Next, we finally get back to it. The story shifts to the point of view of Dr. Connors, and we learn that this new Lizard was created during a botched attempt to cure the good doctor of this tendency to become evil and scaly every so often. The creature follows him all the way back to his home in Florida. To save his family, Connors willingly allows his lizard personality to regain control. Spidey arrives just in time to see the original Lizard curb stomb the new one. After an intense battle, Connors regains control. This story is flat-out excellent and a highlight of this particular volume.

In the midst of these somewhat standalone tales, we've seen glimpses of some of the most important players of the Clone Saga, such as Scrier, Judas Traveler (oy vey) and the mysterious Gaunt. Should be wrapping up soon, but this volume ends with an odd distraction - a tale set in Spider-Man's past featuring a lot of characters who are now dead - George and Gwen Stacy, Norman and Harry Osborn, Aunt May and Kraven the Hunter. The high point is the art, which was done in part by John Romita, Sr, who may be the definitive Spider-Man artist. Still, in a collection full of odd detours, this is the most random. Perhaps we'll get our resolution next time?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

To The Moon

For anyone who was involved in the RPG Maker community in the mid to late 2000s, there was a strong sense of "hometown boy done good" (a unique online version at least) when Kan Gao (aka Reives) moved up to the commerical game scene with To The Moon. It was a very exciting demonstration of what this longtime hobby could lead to with enough dedication and hard work. The whole "indie" game world barely existed in 2005 when Mark (ArtBane) and I started Master of the Wind, but by the time we were done in Similar to what's happening in the books industry, an entire infrastructure is rising up to meet the needs of people who have artistic ambitions with their games and want an avenue to get into the game world that doesn't include toiling away on some money-grubbing Facebook app. I had planned to play the game as soon as I could after its debut, but it got a little lost in the constant flood of movies, games and books I spend my time with (first world problems, yo) and I didn't get to it until recently.

Years ago, I got introduced to Reives's work with Quintessence: The Blighted Venom, an episodic project that was even more brazen than MotW in terms of heavy story content. However, it was the highly impressive mood and atmosphere of Quintessence that made it stand out. His command of lighting, great music (which he composed himself) and various cinematic effects were miles ahead of most of the other projects on that forum. He also had a knack for maintaining interest in the game by doling out little production tidbits and fanart regularly. This was something I never really mastered during MotW's long periods of inactivity...or perhaps I just didn't want to, since self-promotion has always made me a little nervous. I was highly impressed by how visually polished the game was, although the story's heavy reliance on well-worn anime tropes was evident and my response to the narrative wasn't hugely positive. However, that was probably just growing pains because the next Reives project was a tiny 15-minute piece of surreal genius called The Mirror Lied.

So now we've got To The Moon, which has enhanced the strong elements of the creator's previous work and noticeably beefed up the elements which may have been weaker. I played all four hours of this in one sitting. A synopsis - In the not so distant future, two doctors from a memory-altering agency are called in to tweak the life story of a dying old man named Johnny. Before slipping into a coma, he told his caretakers he wished he had gone to the moon...although he can't quite remember why. While playing it, I thought of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, Millennium Actress and Pixar's Up. In terms of looking for potential inspiration, it's hard to beat that top-notch list of movies.

The two doctors, Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, spend an awful lot of time bickering and insulting one another. Sometimes this is amusing, other times it gets old and it's especially unwelcome in some of the more intense scenes from Johnny's life story. The constant sardonic commentary sometimes risks taking an otherwise beautiful scene and reducing it to an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, the fact that this bothered me reflects well on the rest of the story. To go into too much detail could compromise the sense of discovery, but suffice it to say that the story of Johnny and his wife River is full of surprising turns and has a moving, down-to-Earth sensibility while at the same time creates some beautifully poetic moments. The resonant ending left me with conflicting feelings about how the characters ultimately resolved their work and will likely leave many players pondering the weighty matters of life.

Clearly story plays an important role, but what of the gameplay? Well, there isn't all that much. You wander around scenes in Johnny's past looking for items that will unlock the next memory. These sequences typically end with a sleek little tile puzzle that's good fun. It gets toned down even further as the game goes on and sometimes you can partially unlock memories just by walking around. It didn't bother me at all, in fact it was what I expected! I wasn't sure how other gamers unfamiliar with Reives's past work would take it, but the overall positive reception of To The Moon suggests that most players were appreciative of the tight focus on narrative. And why not? It's not like there's a shortage of games where you can shoot things, battle monsters to get your levels up, or stalk conspirators in Renaissance-era Italy with a concealed knife at the ready. This is a unique, highly personal vision and this sort of thing is what the video game world needs if there are any hopes of the medium being considered art.

It almost goes without saying that the game's aesthetic elements are beautifully presented. It's also impossible to overstate the importance of the music, composed by Reives with an assist from Plants vs. Zombies composer Laura Shigihara, another longtime RPG Maker friend. The score goes a long way towards sustaining the melancholy mood that made this so memorable. From my point of view, the work coming out of Freebird Games has improved so steadily with each release that it is a huge inspiration. I'll be looking forward to whatever comes next.

The game is here and I highly suggest The Mirror Lied as a warm-up.

Friday, July 6, 2012

New Decade, New Spider-Man

Spidey, what am I going to do with you? (Spoiler Warning for both the movies and the comics)

When The Amazing Spider-Man was first announced, it felt like a new milestone in Hollywood shamelessness. Another movie five years after Spider-Man 3 and only ten years after that trilogy first hit theaters? The idea brought exasperation, not excitement. Superheroes are supposed to have a long time out when their films ran out of gas, not just come right back with a different cast and crew. Disappointing me must be met with consequences! So why did they reboot the series so soon? Well, there's a fairly simple explanation for that. The rights for the character were set to revert back to Marvel Studios in 2013 unless Sony made another Spidey film. Just think, ole Webhead would probably be joining the Avengers and Sony would be missing out on beautiful money!

The scenario actually presents a tough question to film critics - should a movie's annoying real-life origin influence the assessment of its content? All the bad reviews I've read don't make any secret that they intend to punish this one for jumping the gun. But is that really fair? Is it fair to the new director, Mark Webb? (Yeah, that's his name. Hopefully that wasn't the only reason he got picked!) How would I have felt about this movie if it were the one that came out in 2002? Let's face it, the timing of this compared to the Raimi trilogy will matter less the more time passes, and this movie turned out to be a lot better than you would expect from a premature reboot.

But let's talk about those other movies first. Sam Raimi is a devoted fan of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics of the 1960s and he brought that old-school cheesy sincerity to the material. That first movie was unapologetically corny and less than a year after the horrors of 9/11, that was just the kind of comfort people were looking for. Spider-Man 2 was even better and perfectly captured the pathos at the heart of the source material (this new film clearly wants that too, but it's not there yet). What's interesting is that while I feel it's the better film (not exactly a controversial stance, there goes precious hipster cred), I've seen it much less times than the first film despite owning both on DVD. I think the reason for that is that the anguish Peter Parker goes through in that movie is just too powerful, too raw. I've always felt a lot of empathy towards the character and parts of Spider-Man 2 are just painful. An odd compliment, but it is one.

Then came Spider-Man 3, one of those movie disappointments that is so crushing that it doesn't sink in right away. You're trying to convince yourself "no, it wasn't THAT bad" because the thought of your wasted anticipation is too awful...but it was that bad and it's not hard to figure out why things went so wrong. There was just too much STUFF and too many conflicting agendas. The Green Goblin/Osborn dynasty story arc was in full swing and Harry Osborn needed to cause trouble with his dad's goblin gear. Raimi wanted The Sandman, another classic Lee-Ditko adversary. The studio wanted Venom, Spider-Man's black-suited doppelganger who helped sell a lot of comics back in the 1990s. So rather than save one for a fourth movie (Venom would have been perfect for that), they tried to get them all in at once. Only Sandman emerged with anything closely resembling dignity and that was mostly because of Thomas Haden Church's solid performance. Harry Osborn's storyline was truncated and unsastifying. Venom was completely butchered. Topher Grace was completely miscast as Eddie Brock (seriously, that's almost as bad as Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil. It's just that incomprehensible). And given Venom's origin, the movie also had to play out the famous "alien black costume" storyline. Raimi obviously had little regard for this arc and decided to just mess around instead - the scene where Parker adopts an emo combover, buys some cheap suits and proceeds to thrust his crotch at innocent bystanders is already infamous. Despite how much money that third film made, it was clear that the storytelling had hit a brick wall.

At this point, even people who have never read the comics are probably sick of Spider-Man's origin story. The new film is determined to do it justice and the results are hit or miss. One thing I like is the addition of Peter Parker's missing parents to the storyline. In the comic, they were Cold War-era spies whose plane was shot down over enemy territory. That's obviously too dated for a contemporary movie, so The Amazing Spider-Man has them involved in some sort of high-risk scientific research. It isn't fully explained, so I'm thinking it will also play a role in the sequel (based on early box office reports, that seems very likely).

One of the movie's strengths is the casting. It's easy to buy the lanky Andrew Garfield as a shy, bookish teen. Martin Sheen is awesome as Uncle Ben, so it's a shame that his actual demise is rushed and somewhat sloppy. It's nowhere near as wrenching as when Cliff Robertson bit the bullet. As for Aunt May, this time she's played by Sally Field, who does well with the little material she has. Parker's freelance photography gig at the Daily Bugle is completely excised, probably cause everyone knew nobody could top J.K. Simmons, who had audiences howling with laughter in Raimi's films with his performances as publisher J. Jonah Jameson.

The Stacy family is also given key roles this time around (okay, Gwen showed up in Spider-Man 3 but that might as well not have counted because it was a total waste). Emma Stone plays Gwen this time and brings her natural charm to the part. Denis Leary plays her father, police captain George Stacy. Mary Jane and Harry Osborn simply don't appear. However, Norman Osborn a very brief cameo during the credits.

This suggests that this new series has paid close attention to how Christopher Nolan's Batman series handled that character's return to the screen. In your first movie, you start with villains who haven't yet gotten the proper screen treatment. For Batman Begins, that was The Scarecrow and Ra's Al Ghul. For The Amazing Spider-Man, it's The Lizard. He and his alter ego, Dr. Curt Connors, are played by Rhys Ivans. He's fine, but all I could think about was how badly Dylan Baker got screwed. He played Dr. Connors in the last two Spider-Man movies and had to have been told at some point he would get to be The Lizard. Owch.

I didn't love the movie's treatment of the character. His plight should have been compelling and something was just missing. I think it was his family. In the comics, Martha and Billy Connors had to live in fear of Curt becoming The Lizard again even though he thought the evil reptilian personality was repressed. The family became quite close with Spider-Man over the years, despite never learning who he really was. But that's the kind of rewarding continuity you just can't get when the movies keep starting themselves over.

Dedicated fans of the comic know that both George and Gwen Stacy are eventually killed. At the end of this film, George meets his heroic end at the hands of The Lizard (in the comics, it was Dr. Octopus). Those who are just getting introduced to Gwen Stacy in this movie are in for a brutal surprise in the sequel if the producers decide to go for it. Hopefully, Spidey-fans will behave as well as Game of Thrones viewers who have read the books and know about the shocking character deaths ahead on the TV series. They have shown remarkable restraint out of a selfless desire for the viewers to have the optimal experience. So...they'll have to be much more careful than I just was...but hey, there was a spoiler warning!

According to the Nolan formula, once the franchise is established the second film brings back the arch-enemy. But as important to the Spider-Man lore as he is, the Green Goblin is just not as compelling as The Joker. Not even close. But here are some predictions. The second film will be called either "The Spectacular Spider-Man" or "The Sensational Spider-Man." Some kind of twist will added to Norman Osborn's supervillain debut. Perhaps he'll adopt the identity of The Hobgoblin instead. Another villain may be added to spice things up more. Ben Kingsley as The Vulture? Bruce Campbell as Mysterio? (You know that would be awesome). The third film may even take another shot at Venom, the same way The Dark Knight Rises seems poised to make up for Bane's laughable last appearance in Batman and Robin.

But here's the thing...I had an important realization. With Batman, the "definitive" version of the character to me is the one in Batman: The Animated Series. Kevin Conroy's voice and Bruce Timm's design always comes to mind first when I imagine the character. So Christian Bale's silly growling in otherwise great movies isn't something worth getting too worked up over...I can watch those cartoons any time I want. With Spider-Man, the definitive version isn't Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, or even Christopher Daniel Barnes's voice from the 90s cartoon. It's John Romita's drawing of Peter Parker. With that in mind, it probably doesn't matter what the movies do. And in this case, it's clear the people who helped create this new film did care about doing it well regardless of the money-grubbing Sony execs. I suppose that's about all you can ask for.