A Media Entry – Thoughts on Villainy: Credible Threat

So I was wondering what I could rant about for my next blog entry when I was subjected to numerous viewings of the latest Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailers. This actually sparked two subjects in my mind, but since I was recently thinking about what makes a good villain, I realized I forgot (or need to expound on) one criterion – credible threat.

Actually, this criterion is broader than just the superhero genre. If the obstacle or antagonist standing between the protagonist and his/her goals is not credible, then the drama falls flat. I say “obstacle” because in some stories is no antagonist or the nature of the antagonist isn’t as clear as a villain as such but the principle still applies. A couple of those examples:

Continue reading A Media Entry – Thoughts on Villainy: Credible Threat

A Media Entry – Thoughts on Villainy: Good at Being Bad

There have been a lot of complaints about the MCU‘s lack of really interesting villains. The only one with any real depth is Loki, and that’s because Loki has had the most exposure. Due to the blockbuster convention, nearly all other villains have been summarily terminated. That’s a pity too because with comic book adaptations especially, villains should be allowed to return. There are exceptions, of course, in which the story requires the villain to be terminated (Jessica Jones is one). So, then, what makes for a compelling villain?

First, it is important to remember that a villain and antagonist are not necessarily the same, just as a hero and protagonist are not the same (at least not to me). In most comic book stories that is the case. To me, though, the difference between a protagonist and hero (and antagonist and villain) is that the stakes are between good and evil. Broadly taken, I suppose, that could apply in say, a mystery novel in which the detective is the hero and the murderer is the villain. But in general that is not how I’m using the terms.

I’ve written before on how badly written villains will sink comic book movie adaptations like the Titanic hitting an iceberg. I’ve also written about how a “cartoon villain” isn’t necessarily a badly written villain. So, then, what does make for a good villain?

Continue reading A Media Entry – Thoughts on Villainy: Good at Being Bad

Storytelling Failures – The Fantastic Four

This is actually a four-in-one, which I suppose is a bit of serendipity given the source material. So there have been four (debatably) cinematic attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen. Thus far none of these have been particularly good or successful. Why has it been so hard? In its way, The Incredibles is a great Fantastic Four movie.

Continue reading Storytelling Failures – The Fantastic Four

Fifteen-Minute Movie – The Fantastic Four (2015)

I didn’t pay to see this; I knew it would be very good and I don’t want to support bad movies.

or, “Why is it so hard to make a good Fantastic Four movie?”
or, “An Excellent Argument for Returning the Rights to Marvel.

Continue reading Fifteen-Minute Movie – The Fantastic Four (2015)

A Comic Book Entry – Let’s Look at Fantastic Four #3

Miscellany – this gets posted a day early (or two days late depending on your perspective) because I have scheduled further forays into the on-going foliage fights this weekend and didn’t want to skip out again if I got too tired. Okay, here’s the actual entry:

First, my friend cancelled his Marvel subscription.  They gave him his money back.  And yet this month two comics showed up in his mailbox.  Of course I had to take a look.

Second, I am a critic, but I really want to like these comics.  I do.  I really do.  I don’t want to be a Douchy McNitpick who tears everything apart because I hate the world, or the genre, or because I just don’t want anyone else to have nice things.  I’m willing to overlook some flaws in writing if the overall good outweighs the bad.  But I’m unwilling to overlook flaws if there is a rather glaring flaw that spoils the whole story, or numerous small flaws that add up to an unworkable whole.  Especially when I would usually have to pay $4 for the comic.  That’s too much money to spend for something that is not enjoyable.

And overall, the story is fine, except for one huge problem, which I’ll get to in a moment.  The upshot is that Johnny Storm has lost his powers and of course all hell is breaking loose.  These things happen.  I am quite confused by the endorsement quote Marvel chose to put on the cover, which says, “They are shaking the team to its core.”  Why is this a good thing?  Of all the team books in all the comic book universes, the Fantastic Four has been one of the most consistent in terms of team make-up.  That’s kind of the book’s schtick, if you will, and helps it stand out against team books with revolving line-ups, which is pretty much every other team.  I kind of liked the idea of the Future Foundation that gives the writers some options to change up the team a bit by using Alex Power for stories, for example.  But on the whole, the core of the FF is the FF.  Why change that?  People who read the FF do so to read about Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing, and the Human Torch.  People pick up and drop the Avengers or JLA based on who the writers are focusing on at the time.  Consistency is not necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, my problem with this story is a lack of understanding of both the continuity of the universe and a lack of relatability.  With Marvel, relatability is everything.  So, before I get into the actual problem, I’m going to posit a down to earth analogue.

1) The parents of a precocious fourteen-year old girl have been having arguments with their daughter.  She decides to run away from home and stay with a much older man who gets along very badly with the parents and has tried to cause them hardship in the past.  Granted, now that the daughter has run away, it will be quite difficult to retrieve her.  The correct course of action for the parents is:
a) Do nothing
b) Get their daughter back
I of course would vote with option b) and honestly don’t know anyone, parents or otherwise, who would allow their daughter to run away from home to stay with a non-family member who has an antagonistic relationship with the parents (or even a family member).  But I will concede there could be many dynamics at play and perhaps there might be some good reasons the parents would elect to go with option a), especially if there are some complicated logistics to getting their daughter back.  Fourteen is a willful age, after all.  But I’m still thinking sensible people would go with b).

2) Also, the non-family antagonist has a criminal record and most likely has current warrants out on him right now.  The correct course of action for the parents is:
a) Do nothing
b) Get their daughter back
Again, option b) seems like the only sensible choice here, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any reasons any parents would let their fourteen-year old daughter stay with a wanted criminal.

3) Also, the non-family antagonist tried to kill the daughter on a previous occasion.  The correct course of action for the parents is:
a) Do nothing
b) Get their daughter back!
Yeah, I’ve got no reason why the parents would do nothing even if getting her back was going to be very difficult.

4) Also, the daughter isn’t fourteen, she’s FOUR.  The correct course of action for the parents is:
a) Do nothing
b) Get their daughter back!!!
Why is this even a choice at this point?  There are no sensible reasons for allowing a four-year old to stay with a dangerous, violent criminal, who already tried to murder the child no matter how precocious the child is.

Is everyone with me so far?  In a real world situation, almost every parent in the world would be moving heaven and earth to get their child back.  But in FF #3, two parents are probably can move heaven and earth are doing exactly nothing.  That’s right, little Valeria has run away to Latveria to stay with “Uncle Victor” who has already attempted to kill her.  Because this is the FF and not the real world, I can think of one reason this might be allowed – future Franklin or Valeria told Reed and Sue to do nothing.

So, do I want to read FF #4 and find out if this is the explanation?  No, no I don’t and I’ll tell you why – because I don’t trust Marvel.  I don’t trust the staff at Marvel to have written and edited and approved a story that makes sense.  And frankly, even using the future kids is a bit of a cop-out, although one I would accept.  Not too long ago Doom tried to kill Valeria!  Did the creative team forget that?  Not read up on back issues?  Not know anything about the FF and the fact that Sue would do anything for her children???

Sigh.  Perhaps I lack imagination and just can’t think of another logically consistent reason for Reed and Sue to leave their four-year old daughter in the custody of Dr. Doom.  But empirical evidence suggests with a strong probability that I will only be disappointed.

A Comic Book Entry – Excelsior!

Or, “Of such gossamer things are legends created.”

So, I’m an idiot and I’m not ashamed to admit my ignorance on the internet (that seems to be the national past-time of many a celebrity).  I’m also doubly ashamed because I wrote a whole screed on  not doing research and yet here I am, hanging my head.  For some reason, I thought Iron Man’s origin was that Tony Stark was in an iron lung and turned it into an awesome suit.  About three seconds of Google-fu would have set me straight, but I couldn’t be bothered.  Then a co-worker lent me two books, Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics and Bring on the Bad Guys.  And there, in reprinted color glory, was Iron Man’s true origin, which was pretty much re-created for the movie (different bad guys).  And so I was brought low by my own hubris, and lower when I realized this was on display for the whole virtual world to see.

In a comic book, this would be the beginning of my own origin story, the tale of how I became “Captain Otaku” and took to the internets to rectify all errors concerning comic books so that none would ever feel the shame I do in boldly displaying such easily avoided ignorance.  But this isn’t a comic book, and I am not insane (not superhero insane anyway).

So, then, what is this about?  These two wonderful books (the first was Origins of Marvel Comics, which my co-worker did not have).  The first one came out probably in 1973 or 74 (there I go, not checking the Google), and the second (“Sons”) in 1975 and the third (“Bad Guys”) in 1976.  I have no idea if there are more (again, ignoring my own advice).  But these are just fantastic.  I obviously spend a great deal of time pondering how writers think and where they get their ideas and how stories come together (or completely fail).  These provide exactly that insight.  In case you haven’t heard of them, I think this was a quick way for Marvel to make a buck on re-selling the origins of popular characters before tradebacks were a thing.  Stan Lee wrote all the introductions to all the chapters, which were reprints of the origin comics and occasionally a bonus comic.

These are absolutely eye-opening.  First of all, I really get a kick out of Stan’s writing.  He is over the top and grandiose, and it is totally entertaining.  He even gives some of the credit to the various artists who helped define Marvel’s iconic characters; actually, he praises them pretty highly, but I know by that time Jack Kirby had already left Marvel and there was some bad blood.  Still, he’s got a sense of humor – “…so I could add the little dialogue balloons and captions with which I’ve spent a lifetime cluttering up the illustrations of countless long-suffering artists.”  It’s obvious to me even in the mid-70s as Marvel was continuing to rise that Stan was something of a legend in his own mind (or at least wanted to appear that way).  He also takes a pretty cheap shot at DC when describing the thought process behind Iron Man – “As far as I knew, there had never been a costumed comicbook character who was a wealthy and successful businessman.”  Really, Stan?  Somehow you’ve never heard of Batman?  Or maybe Green Arrow?

Granted, some parts of this writing are painful – concerning the naming of the X-men, “…women’s lib wasn’t an issue in those days, and nobody would fault us for the fact that we were callously ignoring the female member of the team – unintentionally to be sure.”  Um, I am fairly certain in 1963 women’s liberation was in fact an issue, and a growing one, even if it didn’t reach the hallowed halls of Marvel’s boys’ club Bullpen.  I should mention though that Marvel Girl was strong enough to show the boys of the manor what was what in her first appearance.  Still, ouch…  Some parts are tongue-in-cheek honest – “Touched by your entreaties, warmed by your enthusiasm, and spurred on by our own gnawing greed…”  And some parts are really enlightening.  For example, the Silver Surfer was apparently an afterthought by Jack Kirby as he and Stan worked on developing Galactus as a Fantastic Four villain.  Kirby just thought Galactus would have a herald, and Stan ran with it.  Concerning Dr. Doom – “Sometimes you’re lucky.  Sometimes you hit a homer first time at bat.”  Can’t argue with that.

These books also highlight Stan’s alliteration fetish and why so many of his heroes/villains have such obvious names.  He says it’s because he likes a name that instantly conjures up a mental image.  Green Goblin, Silver Surfer, Red Skull… he’s got a point.  People who know nothing about those characters can make a guess.  “Seeking a name that suggested lethal menace, I latched onto the word ‘doom…’  Doom Man didn’t seem to do the trick, and Mister Doom didn’t quite have it.  Professor Doom just left me cold, while even the alliterative Donald Doom fell a little short.  But then, scant seconds before I’d be forced to resort to Doom the Dentist, I had it!  Doctor Doom!”  By the by, this means that in my “Conversations that May Have Happened,” I wasn’t actually too far off of the creative process.  I am both elated and somewhat disturbed by this.

The books also give insight on Marvel’s continuity snarls.  Most of the heroes were introduced in origin story comics, but not so much the villains.  Marvel was churning out comics, so villains were introduced to give the hero something to do, but each appearance of the villain made an origin story more difficult to produce because of further constraints.  On the Green Goblin – “Hence, a new character will suddenly pop up in any given story, all set to challenge a hero, fullblown and itching for a fight, with none of us realizing that we’ll be wishing, in years to come, that we had provided an origin tale at the start, which would make life a zillion times easier for me at a time like this.”  Here Stan means trying to recount origin stories, which in the book results in a first appearance comic followed by the actual origin comic which was written sometime later.  Of course, in the case of Dormamuu, they painted themselves into that corner knowingly.

I also have a new appreciation for the artwork.  It is amazing to me in some of the comics presented the difference just a few years (like four or five) can make.  I like Kirby and Ditko’s work, I do, but Gene Colan’s thinner pencil lines look so much more modern, and the difference between Iron Man’s first appearance and his appearance merely four years later is just astounding.  I also appreciate the difficulty of drawing an abstract idea.  Poor Ditko drew the short straw on how the heck to draw the Dark Dimension, but he produced something quite otherworldly.  No one can draw tech like Kirby could.  His SHIELD helicarrier puts a Protoss carrier to shame.

But mostly I like how Stan thinks about his creation.  He says more than a few times that sometimes his creations got away from him (and his co-creators).  He says they set out to write one story and ended up with something else because it felt right.  Now, I’m not sure I agree that my characters ever get out of hand like that and take a life of their own, but I do agree that sometimes the character does dictate the story.  And I totally agree with his view on villainy – “You’ve probably noticed that we always try to motivate our miscreant as much as we do our hero.  We hate to have a varlet doing evil just for the sake of being naughty.  We try to indicate why he does the things he does, what made him the way he is.  And, wherever possible, we may even let him exhibit some decent, likable traits.  In the magic world of Marvel, not even supervillains need be all bad, just as our superheroes are rarely all good; they usually display some natural human failings.”

Of course, I’m not such a raging fan as to think Stan/Marvel got these lofty goals right all the time.  And these were written a mere fifteen years after Marvel really started, which is enough time for perspective, but hardly to be taken as the definitive history.  The times they are still a’ changing and what was revolutionary back in the ’60s is trite and naïve now.  This, however, explains the foundation of fallible superheroes.  I’m not sure how the Man feels about anti-heroes; I’m not sure where his creative control ended although it’s obvious to me he really loves his cameos in the Marvel movies (my vote for best Stan Lee cameo is in FF2).  I still believe heroes should have human failings (but still be heroes) and villains shouldn’t be evil for the sake of being evil.

Indeed, I am a True Believer, and if you can locate these tomes of timeless wisdom, I can’t recommend enough that you do so.  Excelsior!

A Comic Book Entry – Conversations that May Have Happened, Part 3

Or, “Exactly what it says on the tin.”

I am of course referencing yet another TvTrope.  But when I think of many iconic comic book character names, especially ones named during the Golden and Silver Ages, the names pretty much tell you what they do/are.  Granted, sometimes the name doesn’t exactly call out their power but often the names are pretty darn literal.  So naturally, I started to imagine the kinds of conversations that must have transpired (I do this kind of thing as shown in other blog entries).

So I will start with Batman, because Batman.  His own superhero name is actually one of the least literal when compared to his rogues’ gallery.  He is not actually a man who is a bat (that’s Man-Bat).  He does fight crime with a definite chiropteran theme, but he’s still just a very very rich man with a nocturnal mammal fetish (and I say that will all due affection).  But his villains, oh, goodness…

An Imaginary Meeting at Detective Comics (circa 1930s-50s):
Chief – Wow, this Batman guy is really catching on.  Detective Comics is going through the roof.  So, what’s next up for our favorite Zorro knock-off?  Bill, Bob, uncredited ghost artists?
Ghost artists – Uncredited?  Hey!
Chief – You get paid.
Ghost artists – Fine.
Bob Kane – Can we maybe stop killing off the villains after one issue?  It is really hard thinking up new ones.
Chief – Well, I guess, but you’ll have to make them interesting enough to bring back.
Bill Finger – We can do that.
Chief – So, who have you got in mind?
Bob – The Joker.
Chief – Listen, you’ve gone through so many bad guys so far I don’t remember this one.  Refresh my memory.
Bill – He’s an evil clown that plays deadly practical jokes.
Chief – An evil clown?  Seriously?
Bob – Yes.  An evil clown called the Joker.
Chief – Bit on the nose, isn’t it?
Bill – Um, yes?
Chief – Fine, fine, moving on.  Who’s next in Batman’s rogues’ gallery?
Bob – Well, he needs a femme fatale, so I was thinking of a female cat burglar.
Chief – Okay, that sounds good.  What’s she called?
Bob – The Cat.
Chief – Really?
Bob – Yes, why?
Chief – Next please.
Bill – Well, I have an idea for a villain that is determined to prove he’s smarter than Batman, so he leaves all these riddles at crime scenes and Batman has to solve them to save the day.
Ghost artist – Your idea!  I helped!
Bill – Shut up; most people think Bob’s the only guy running the show anyway.
Chief – Guys!  We are not getting into this right now.  So, what’s this riddling guy called?
Bill – The Riddler.
Chief – You guys are just messing with me.  I mean, so far all these villains are named for what they are!  Next you’re going to tell me you came up with some weirdo that scares people and dresses up like a scarecrow called “the Scarecrow!”
Bob – Um, actually…
Chief – Honestly!  You’re the best in the business and this is as creative as you get for names?  What’s next?  Some waddling short English guy with a bird fetish you call the Penguin?
Bill – Um, actually…
Chief – *headdesk*  Please at least tell me those aren’t their actual real names.
Bill/Bob – Oh, no no, that would be stupid.
Chief – Well, good…
Bill/Bob – We haven’t even thought of their real names yet.
Chief – Um, well, maybe it’s better that way.
Ghost Artist – Bill, you said Riddler would be named “Edward Nigma” so he could be “E. Nigma…”
Chief – What?
Bill – *kicks ghost artist* Nothing, nothing.  So, we good to go?
Chief – Sure!

I can’t leave out Marvel, especially old school Marvel with Stan Lee, who legend says gave all  his character alliterated names to show they were his (this also makes me wonder about the true origin of long-running X-men writer Chris Claremont…).

An imaginary Meeting Prior to the Launch of the Fantastic Four:
Chief – I have a brilliant idea for a new book!  Four people are shot into space and irradiated and develop superpowers and become a team of superheroes!
Jack Kirby – Uh, Stan, won’t radiation just kill them?
Chief – Well, sure but a kid won’t know that.  So yeah, four people.  A brilliant scientist, a big tough guy pilot, a girl because there has to be a girl these days, and her kid brother.
Steve Ditko – Uh, Stan, why would a kid be on a space mission?
Chief – He won’t really be a kid.  He’ll be a teenager.
Steve – That doesn’t change the question.
Chief – Listen, I leave it to you guys to work out these little details.  So anyway, they go into space and get powers.  The scientist gets all stretchy, right?
Jack/Steve – Um, sure.
Chief – And the big guy turns into a rock monster!  Won’t that be swell?
Jack/Steve – Um, sure.
Chief – And the kid brother gets fire powers.
Jack/Steve – Cool!
Chief – So they just need a nemesis…
Jack – What about the girl?
Chief – What girl?
Jack – Um, the girl.  The fourth person?
Chief – I forgot about the girl.  Hey, that gives me an idea!  Make her invisible.  She’ll be the Invisible Girl!
Steve – Is that offensive?
Chief – Probably, but we’re not marketing to girls in the 1960s.  So, yeah, the kid with the fire powers will be the Human Torch and the big guy…
Jack – Wait, there already was a Human Torch.  It was a robot.
Chief – Well, now there are two Human Torches so there.  So the big guy will the Thing!  And the scientist will be Mr. Fantastic.
Steve – If he’s so smart, shouldn’t he have a doctorate?
Chief – Dr. Fantastic sounds stupid.
Jack – … What are their real names?
Chief – Oh, right, real names.  That’s always the hard part.  Um, well, Mr. Fantastic will be Reed Richards.  It’s alliteration, right?  I am totally trademarking that as my thing.
Jack – I’m not sure you can do that…
Chief – Whatever.  And the girl will be Susan something…no, something is a terrible last name.  Something cool.  Something awesome.  Something that makes you think of fire or lightning or really loud noises…  Ooooh, storm!  She’ll be Sue Storm!
Steve – Reed and Sue?  Wow, that’s so 1960s.  Is her little brother named Johnny?
Chief – Sure!
Steve – I was being sarcastic.  Wasn’t I?
Chief – And the big guy is very upset he’s a rock monster.  He’s very grim.  Yes, his last name is Grimm, but with two ‘m’s because I like that better.
Jack – What’s his first name?
Chief – Gus?  No.  Something down to earth.  Ha!
Jack – Ben?
Chief – I like it!  Ben.  Good old Ben.  Ben Grimm.  It has a nice ring to it.  So anyway, they get powers, fight a monster, it’s awesome.  You guys can handle the rest, right?  Okay, laters!

An Imaginary Meeting Shortly After the Launch of the Fantastic Four:
Chief – Guys, guys, I have an idea!
Jack – Oh…good…
Chief – So the Fantastic Four are awesome, right, but they need a totally awesomer villain!  Like a long-term villain they can fight over and over again.
Steve – Fine by me.  It’s hard coming up with a monster every issue.
Jack – Hey, we’ve got the Mole Man.
Chief – Yeah, and this mole guy is just not awesome enough.  So I had an idea, right?  DOOM!
Jack – I’m sorry, what?
Chief – A villain named DOOM!
Steve – That’s not a name; that’s a synonym for disaster.
Chief – I don’t see a problem with it.
Jack – Okay, well, I guess that’s a scary villain name.  What’s this guy’s real name?
Chief – DOOM!
Jack – Seriously, Stan.  And how do you keep doing that thing when you say ‘doom?’
Chief – His actual name is DOOM!  Ooo, ooo, even better.  Since it’s Mr. Fantastic, he’ll be Dr. DOOM!
Steve – Wait, so Reed has a doctorate but is mister?  Does this Doom guy have a doctorate?
Jack – Steve, that’s really beside the point…
Chief – I know, right?  Because Dr. DOOM sounds awesome!
Steve – Seriously, how do you do that thing when you say that word?
Chief – Yep, yep, Dr. DOOM.
Jack – That’s still not even close to a real name.
Chief – Fine, fine, how about “O’DOOM” or “MacDOOM” or, no, wait, I’ve got it!  Von DOOM!
Jack – But Stan…
Chief – Yeah, that’s perfect!  It sounds kind of Romanian or Transylvanian or something.  Like he’s a Soviet tyrant or something.  Ooo, that’s awesome too.  I’ve got it!  Dr. Victor Von DOOM!  I’ve got the double alliteration going!
Jack – Fine, fine, Von Doom.
Chief – And he and Reed should know each other.  Ooo, they’ll be ex-roommates from Empire State University.  Yeah, intellectual rivals from the beginning!
Jack – Doesn’t that seem like an incredible coincidence?
Chief – And your point is?
Jack – Okay, fine.  I just hope this naming villains synonyms for bad things doesn’t catch on.

An Imaginary Meeting Prior to the “Inferno” Storyline of X-men:
Chief – So, Chris, I see you have some exciting ideas for the X-men.  This villain here, wow, I mean, is this one creepy guy.  Who is he?
Chris – Sinister.
Chief – Yeah, yeah, I get that.  I mean, what’s his name?
Chris – Sinister.
Chief – …  Seriously, Chris?
Chris – Um, Mister Sinister?
Chief – …
Chris – That’s not his real name; just his villain name.
Chief – Oh, well, you can go ahead and work with that.  I mean, except for Dr. Doom, who has a real last name like that?
Chris – Hahahahaha!  I know, right?  It’s not like I’m going to need to think of some overly elaborate backstory complete with a meaningful name now…darn it…

I’m not writing comic books, and I certainly wasn’t doing so in the era when many iconic heroes and villains were born.  I’m sure the real conversations were much more serious and that no one thought the names were the least bit silly because after all, who wants to hang a silly name on their flagship character?  Still, there is some snark value to looking back to those early days when readers could see the name of a new hero or villain and know exactly what this new character was all about.

Also, since it is the holidays, please please download any or all of my published works at either Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Sony (oddly Sony only has one book listed), or Apple, or any of the others Smashwords distributes to.  They’re all free and it will really make my day.  Thanks!