Monday, May 16, 2011

Superheroes of Stage, Screen and Television

[SPOILER ALERT: The following discusses "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." "Thor" and the season finale of "Smallville."]

It was a busy few nights for me as far as seeing superheroes outside the comic book pages -- in the movies, on the Broadway stage, and on television.

I have always felt that Thor was an odd fit in the Marvel universe. Where virtually every other Marvel superhero is based on some form of pseudo-science, only the god of thunder comes with powers and history firmly rooted in mythology. As long as he was having adventures on Earth, he fit with the rest of the Avengers. His hammer was no more fantastic than Tony Stark's Iron Man suit or Hank Pym's ability to change size. It is where the rest of the Marvel universe intersects with Asgard that things go awry. For me, the mythic/magic and pseudo-science don't mix.

That said, "Thor" works quite well as a stand-alone movie. I'll buy into every bit of the mythology as it is presented in the film, and Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge, et al, are every bit as majestic as they should be. Chris Hemsworth does a fine job playing Thor as a brash and boastful young man being given his comeuppance by his father. It's easy to see why Natalie Portman, as Jane Foster, falls for the hunky guy, though perhaps less understandable why Thor seems so smitten. Jane seems no more feisty and bold than Lady Sif, who has been battling by Thor's side for quite some time.

The rest of the characters, particularly the Warriors Three, are quite close to the way I remember them in the comics of the 60s and 70s. Loki is perhaps a bit more an evil villain than a trickster, but that, too, works. And the overlap from the rest of the Marvel universe, part of the setup for next year's Avengers movie, was not so intrusive as to bother me.

All in all, the movie was worth paying full price to see it. It was even worth the extra few bucks for the 3-D glasses. I well remember the early 3-D movies, where the primary use of the gimmick was to have things seem to be flying out of the still-flat screen at the viewer -- spears, rattlesnakes, cannonballs -- all designed to make you duck out of the way and say "Wow! I could almost touch it!" The 3-D is much more subtle in "Thor," giving everything a rounded, realistic look but not distracting attention from the story.


Two nights after seeing "Thor," we got discount tickets for a preview of the newly-revamped "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."

Before the show began, a pair of the show's execs -- can't say who they were because they never told us their names -- came out and welcomed us and assured us they had done a lot of work to improve the show. Based on what I've read, there was nowhere for them to go but up!

I haven't read a Spider-Man comic in the past couple of decades and, as with Thor, it is the 60s-70s interpretation of the character that I base my opinions on. The basics of the first act -- with Peter Parker as a nerd being picked on at school, living with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, gaining his powers after being bitten by a "special" spider, and even first using those powers in the wrestling ring to win prize money -- all come from the webslinger's origin. Unfortunately, one element is missing in the death of Uncle Ben, who is shot by a burglar while Peter is off winning his wrestling match. In the original story, said burglar is seen being chased by a policeman and Peter can not be bothered to stop him as he counts his prize money. This, frankly, is one of the keys to the character: Spider-Man will always fight criminals because he feels responsible for Uncle Ben's death.

Much of the first act is devoted to setting things up -- from Peter's relationship with Mary Jane Watson to Norman Osborne's obsession with genetically altering mankind to deal with the future and his transformation into the Green Goblin -- without much payoff. (Laurie told me that if I hadn't been with her, she would have left at the intermission.) One other element in the first act, Peter's fascination with Arachne, the woman turned into a spider by Athena, really slowed the play down. Perhaps this is something that has been introduced in retelling of the origin in the comics, but regardless, it does nothing for this story.

The second act is far better than the first. The mixture of aerial tricks over the audience, video on a screen that fills the entire stage, and some incredibly well- designed sets is the spectacle that I suspect audiences will come looking for. If there is anything that drags, it is the dream sequence featuring the reappearance of Arachne. She apparently had a much larger role in the original version and they wanted to get their money's worth so they left her in. Better they should have devoted the time to developing a bit more chemistry between Peter and Mary Jane.

Finally, where the set design is spectacular, the music is far from it. There is not a tune in the entire show that is memorable. (Much of it, frankly, did not even sound like music.) "Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can..." Pretty sad when the theme to the 60s cartoon show is catchier than anything in the play... and I haven't heard it in forty years.

So, worth it for $40 discount tickets...but I wouldn't be happy paying full price.


Wrapping up this trio of reviews is the series finale of "Smallville."

I must admit that I have been following the show through its ten seasons, mostly because it has drawn a lot of its tone from the Superboy stories I grew up reading (and, to some extent, the ones I wrote). Clark having to learn to use his powers, the rivalry with Lex Luthor, the romance with Lana Lang, the introduction of the Legion of Super-Heroes and young Green Arrow and Aquaman -- all these things happened in the comics edited by Mort Weisinger, though Clark was already wearing the costume and known as Superboy. It was its appeal to my fanboy side that made me overlook some of the more ridiculous and/or overdone elements of the series. (I still don't quite get the connection between the Kryptonians, the Native Americans and that cave.)

Some of the characters -- Tess Mercer being perhaps the best/worst example -- seemed to change personalities and motives with each episode, as if the different writers were unaware of what anyone else was doing. And the pacing of each episode became predictable; no matter how dire the situation, it would be resolved at the 48-minute commercial break.

Such was the case in the finale...twice! In the first hour, Oliver Queen, a victim of Darkseid's omega power, is mind-controlled into giving Lois a gold kryptonite ring to put on Clark's finger during their wedding. (Gold K, for those not versed in Super-lore, would remove his super-powers forever.) Good thing Chloe figured out what it was just in time! And, after a fight, Clark was able to free Ollie from Darkseid's clutches by making him find his good side again...or something like that.

In the second hour, with the volcanic planet Apokolips about to crash into Earth, Clark is able to destroy Darkseid and then send the planet spinning off into space... apparently because he is "the light" sent to earth by Jor-El to defeat the darkness. He does all this in about a minute and a half of the episode. And then everyone else who was taken over by Darkseid's omega power is also cured.

You know, the more I write about this, the lamer it sounds! If I had turned in a script like this to Julie Schwartz, he would have told me to throw it out and try again. Actually, with Julie, it would never even make it to script stage; he would have tossed it out during the plotting!

Okay, so if I rated "Thor" and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"by what I would pay to see them, how would I rate "Smallville" since it's free? Well, I wouldn't pay for the DVD set to watch it again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

First Dunk 2011

With chilly weather hanging on longer than usual this year, we were in no great rush to open the pool for the season. Longtime readers of this blog may remember that it has been opened in April in the past two years, but it was not until May 3rd that we finally got the cover off.

As a result, First Dunk, my initial swim of the season, was also delayed into the merry month of May. Yesterday afternoon, four of the five members of our "temperature team" -- the floating thermometers Ducky, Swanee, Snorkleduck and Polar Bear Pete -- agreed on a water temp of 69-70 degrees, with the ever-recalcitrant Tommy Turtle stubbornly stuck at 50 degrees. Though the sunshine was intermittent and the air temp was only a couple of degrees higher than the water, I decided it was time for First Dunk.

One of our neighbors used to say that he knew it was almost summer the first day he saw me outside in shorts. (That happened a couple of years in late March!) I'd have to say that First Dunk is a better indicator. I may be the only one in Farmingdale crazy enough to be in the pool this early, but you can take my word for it: The warm weather is on its way.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Truth, Justice and...

There was quite a bit of hubbub in the media last week because, in Action Comics #900, Superman renounces his American citizenship. The story got coverage everywhere - from The New York Times to Fox News - and the internet is awash in comments of support, shock, and derision.

For those of you who might not be sure, let me point out that Superman is not real. He does not exist. He is a fictional character.

Back in the early 1990s, when the DC editorial team decided to kill the Man of Steel in a monumenmtal battle with Doomsday, the media got hold of the story on a particularly slow news day and it sparked even greater outrage. Protesters picketed outside the Time-Warner headquarters in New York City (which was not the building where DC Comics had its offices), media pundits and everyday folks alike condemned the move, and the creative team received death threats.

At the time, I was approached by a casual acquaintance who knew that I had something to do with Superman and presumed I was the one behind his death. She was outraged at what was happening and wanted to know how we could do such a thing. I replied that I was not the writer of the particular story, though I was pretty sure I had killed Supes in one I'd written some years earlier, and also pointed out that "Superman is not real. He does not exist. He is a fictional character."

Superman was dead, but he got better. This was not because of the protests, the media pressure, or the death threats to the staff. This was because it had been the plan all along. DC killed the Man of Steel to sell comic books... because that is what they are in the business to do. All the free publicity the story generated enabled them to sell millions of copies, making everyone involved quite happy.

In the years since Superman's demise, the media has jumped on other comic book "events" in a similar frenzy. The publishers love this because it means they sell more copies and that translates to more money in their pockets. If Superman renouncing his citizenship results in more sales of the $5.99-priced issue, you can be sure the folks at DC will be smiling.

But to those people who are debating this -- on TV, in print, and online -- you need to be reminded of something: Superman is not real. He does not exist. He is a fictional character.