Friday, July 27, 2012
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 does...in a very brief cameo during the credits.
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!
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.