Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Superhero Media: Justice League Unlimited

I know I'll make a lot of Young Justice fans mad with the following statement, but; Justice League Unlimited is the best superhero television programme ever made. Yes, even better than Batman the Animated Series, but only just. Following on from the end of Justice League, the series opens with Green Arrow being forcibly recruited on to a mission with Supergirl and Captain Atom and sent into China against the wishes of the Government of the People's Republic. Although the team initially butts heads, they eventually work together to take down a giant atomic monster that the Chinese were building to defend themselves from the Justice League. The entire first season is given over to a conspiracy plot with Cadmus gunning after the League, which is masterfully done, with elements introduced as early as the first episode. Best of all, Cadmus has legitimate issues with the Justice League and neither side is demonstrably "bad", just two different approaches to defending the world. 

With such a huge cast of heroes, the focus tends to hover around a few for the most part, those being Supergirl, Green Arrow, The Question, Huntress, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl and Green Lantern, though there are plenty of feature episodes so that Hawk and Dove, Star and Stripe, Vigilante, Booster Gold, Batman, Wildcat and Superman all get their moments as well. The villain roster is expanded with the Legion of Doom appearing in the second season, and Lex moving from the post-Crisis evil businessman persona to mad scientist/evil genius over the first few episodes. The writing is actually really sharp for a programme pitched at children, with great speeches by Green Arrow and Black Canary, Flash talking a villain down rather than fighting and Wonder Woman refusing to buy into Batman's moody brooding lifestyle. Even The Question's insane conspiracy ranting is done so well as to be pure entertainment; "The plastic tips at the end of shoelaces are called aglets, their true purpose is sinister."

The one real complaint about I have about Justice League Unlimited, is the episode "Epilogue", which retcons the story of Terry McGuiness, aka Batman Beyond, to fit some weird Cadmus conspiracy, it just never sat well with me. Still, that's one episode out of the entire two seasons that I don't care for, which is a damn good hit rate. I've said it before, but when I think of DC heroes, these are the versions that spring to my mind for the most part; there's a great mix of iconic and revisionist that makes it a joy to watch every time. If you've never seen Justice League Unlimited, do yourself the favour of checking it out, even just to see Superman fighting Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman turned into a pig and probably the best Superman speech ever put to multimedia; "That man won't quit as long as he can still draw a breath, none of my teammates will. Me? I've got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of... cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something. To break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can't you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose, and show you just how powerful I really am." 

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Picth: Gamera

I actually thought of this idea years ago, before I started this blog and before I even thought of "The Pitch" articles. On school holidays, I used to sit up with my father and watch the Wednesday night "Cult Movie" on SBS, here in Australia; which introduced me to Wuxia, Samurai, J-Horror and, of course, Kaiju. I gravitated more towards Gamera than Godzilla, mostly because Gamera is truly a hero, fighting for humanity, rather than just happening to be the "least worst option" that Godzilla is. I think coming across Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion first was probably a contributing factor, as they're easily some of the best Kaiju films ever made. I think, without the language barrier, Kaiju films have the potential to make a real impact in the West, but the translation of themes across the Atlantic never really seems to be great, and the films feel half-formed. Yes, this is probably my most fan-ficcy idea, that I've been sitting on for years, strap yourself in for minutiae and obsession with obscure references. 

When all hope is lost... When your children cry out in terror... He will return.

Gamera: Defender of the Earth 
When Earth is attacked by insect-like alien invaders, the governments of the world find themselves powerless, turning on each other in their panic. Just as the president of the USA is about to launch nuclear weapons in an attempt to "sterilize" infested cities, reports start coming in of something fighting off the aliens, something huge, yet unseen, flying through the sky and hurling balls of fire. A diplomatic mission from the Japanese arrives in the ruins of San Fransisco with a message; Gamera has returned.

Act One, aliens invade, massive destruction across the globe and plenty of buildings falling over. There is a decent look at the smaller aliens (for the Gamera fans, they're The Legion, the last lot Gamera fought were only the scout party) and military hardware, plus we are introduced to most of the major characters. There are hints at Gamera, but no good shots of his entirety. 
Act Two, Gamera is revealed, he fights the Legion whilst our protagonist is brought into the narrative, with people trying to convince them to help out, even though it may cost their life. During a battle with a big Legion monster, Gamera is mortally wounded and/or killed, creating tension for the next act and to introduce mana as a concept. 
Act Three, our protagonist accepts their connection with Gamera and the Worlds' governments agree to fight alongside a giant turtle. Mana helps get Gamera back on his flippers and we're off to the big fight. Assuming the emotional weight has worked in the previous two acts, this part of the film is an extended battle sequence, with jets, explosions, Kaiju fights and stirring musical cues. 
Epilogue, Gamera departs, our protagonist is revealed to be hurt but ok and we tease the sequel. I'm thinking Gyos or Virus. 

Godzilla (2014) and Kong - Skull Island are the framework here. The characters and setting already "work", they just need to be presented in a manner in which a "Western" audience can accept them. There is nothing more ridiculous in mana, Atlantis and a fire-breathing turtle than in Guardians of the Galaxy, it's not an impossible sell. Whilst the situations in this film are utterly silly, the characters within the film will take it utterly seriously, because, to them, it's actually happening.


There are only two major roles that really need to be filled properly, but, luckily, one of them is done already; Ayako Fujitani as Asagi Kusanagi. 

Sometimes, things just work out. Kusanagi was the only non-Gamera character to appear in all of the 1990s Gamera films, becoming an expert on Gamera who is called upon during monster attacks to help. Having a character "legacy" like Kusanagi would tie Gamera to the previous Gamera films without relying too much on continuity or prior knowledge for the audience. Best of all, Fujitani has become a know actor in the West, appearing on The Last Ship, a popular cult series. In this film, Kusanagi's role is to provide exposition on Gamera and to train our protagonist. In an ideal world, she would be our protagonist, but having a 40 year old non-white woman lead a major action film is somehow still verboten in the 2020s. 

Our protagonist needs to be an actor of Japanese descent that can speak English like an American, which is a combination I figured would be easy, what with the largest American population of Japanese extraction living in California. My gods, I had to dig for this one. Turns out she's Australian born, go figure. For our, as yet unnamed, protagonist, I'd pick Shioli Kutsuna; 
You may know Kutsuna as Yukio/Surge from Deadpool 2, but she's been acting in Japan for years and speaks fluent English. In this film, her role will be that of a relative of Asagi Kusanagi, who has inherited the empathic link with Gamera and is needed to work with him in battle. Kind of like piloting a Jager in Pacific Rim, but with a whiff of magic and use of the Iron Ingots from Gamera - Defender of the Universe, Kutsuna must share the pain and triumph with Gamera to help humanise the giant turtle.

It's something that doesn't make it across to Western Kaiju films, but playing the monster is a big deal in Japan and the actors that have done it are famous in their own right. Of course, in the Western films, there is no rubber suit, just CGI. I get that many find the suits silly, and they've never looked convincing, but they're a part of the genre and always feel "missing" when not present. My solution is so simple that I can't believe I'm the only one to have thought of it; motion-capture the rubber suit. Seriously, build a suit, put an actor in it and then layer CGI over it for a better look than either the suit or CGI can achieve alone. Who do you put in the suit? Why, Doug Jones of course; 
Do I even need to justify this one? Who would be more suited to making the movements of a 80-meter turtle engaging enough to carry a 2-hour film? His Silver Surfer was one of the better parts of a profoundly disappointing film.

This really needs to be a co-production. I know that several attempts to have a Hollywood studio adapt Gamera have failed, so get Toho to run a fair chunk of the production, but bring in an effects team and name director from a big Studio. In terms of director, I have a few ideas, but because I like to to highlight more than the obvious Hollywood "nerd" favourites, I'm backing Ang Lee for this one. 

Essentially no one other than myself and my father have ever said anything overly positive about Lee's Hulk, but do you know what Lee does brilliantly in that and many other films? Make the audience care about the surreal and absurd. Hulk has a much stronger emotional through-line than The Incredible Hulk, and Lee's adaptation of The Life of Pi managed to keep the ethereal tone of the novel without alienating audiences. Lee came up through Wuxia films, so I trust him to direct a decent action feature with a strong emotional core woven through. 

Other Stuff 
Despite the fact I doubt Gamera would be a big enough hit to build into a series, the current Hollywood model insists on trying to build a "cinematic universe" with anything faintly nerdy. For this series, which is kind of following on from the 1990s films, Gyos and Iris could work, but a reworking of one of the classic enemies would probably be better and just make a bit more sense. From what I can tell, Legendary Pictures has the Hollywood option on Gamera at the moment, so a having him appear in the WB Godzilla franchise isn't out of the realm of possibility. As I said in the very first "The Pitch" these are never about what I think a film or franchise should look like, merely how I believe it could go together. Hope you enjoyed this one. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Superhero Media: Gamera Vs Barugon (1966)

Given that Kaiju are such a big industry both inside and outside of Japan these days, it can be a little jarring to go back and watch early examples from before the genre really established its own tropes and style. The follow-on from the somewhat-popular Gamera the Giant Monster, Gamera Vs Barugon covers the failure of the Z-plan and Gamera's return to Earth when the rocket fails between Earth and Mars. Keep in mind that Gamera can fly in space, that'll be important in later films. Due to the events of the first film, the United Nations have a better management plan for Gamera and he's not causing a great deal of fuss. Meanwhile, a trio of criminals are planning an expedition to a Pacific island to recover a gigantic opal. The majority of the film is given over to the machinations of the criminals and their infighting, though they are responsible for the release of Barugon, for the opal is actually an egg! 

Barugon is a giant, spiny lizard with a chameleon tongue and freezing breath who shoots deadly rainbows from his back. No, really. I've included a picture below in case you don't believe me. Barugon rampages through Japan, freezing everything and causing mass evacuations. The criminals turn on each other, leaving the pilot alive to aid the military with the help of a beautiful island woman. Most of the second act of the film involves the JSSDF trying to drown Barugon, because Gamera is frozen in the first round. As Barugon is somewhat allergic to water, the JSSDF uses water-bombers to keep it in check and tries a variety of strategies to lure it into a nearby lake. When all else has failed, Gamera breaks free and wrestles Barugon into the lake, saving the day in a satisfying but brief fight scene in the last few minutes of the film. 

Gamera Vs Barugon is not a great example of the genre, as clearly there wasn't enough budget to more than two brief Kaiju fights. The fights that are there are interesting enough, but take up less than a quarter of the entire run time. As usual for the studio, the model production is brilliant, even Barugon looks pretty decent with his light-up horns, though still looks like a crawling man wrapped in rubber when he moves. If you're planning to watch every Gamera film, you'll hit this one, but for those just idly curious, it can be skipped without missing anything major.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Miniatures Finished: SWAT Team

I decided to replace my old SWAT team with something a little more contemporary looking, using Eureka Miniatures' "Zombie Containment Team" to start with. Once time and finance allows, I'll pick up a few Bundeswehr to use as SWAT specialists, like a K9 Handler, radio operator and one to convert to be holding a sledgehammer. Five will do for SS4 games though.

 Sometimes a simple paint scheme works out best. 

Name: SWAT/Revolutionary Guard/Fascist Police Force
BP: 85
Affiliation: None
AP: 6
Strike: 5
Strength: 4
Dodge: 3
Sense: 3
Toughness: 3
Mind: 3
Resolve: 4
Damage: 6/6  
Bodyguard – May become the target of Toughness Damaging attacks targeting friend within 3”
Entangle 5 – 3AP 15” range, Models struck are Immobilised
Scope 2 – Remove 2 bonus Dodge dice due to range for targets of Ranged Attacks
Weapon 2
Ranged Attack 6 (does Knockback)  
Henchmen Team – 5 Members

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Superhero Media: Batman - Ninja

What the fuck did I just watch? Batman - Ninja is an American-Japanese co-production that places the history and iconography of the Dark Knight in the hands of an Anime production house. It's fucking weird. Not even, "Japan is a different culture and sometimes is a bit odd" weird, but "what the hell were they on when they made this and where can I get some?" weird. When an experiment by Gorilla Grodd goes wrong, Batman, his sidekicks, and most of the Arkham inmates are transported back to Feudal Japan. Due to plot convenience, Batman arrives weeks or months after everyone else and discovers that Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Joker and Penguin have usurped the Daimyos and are battling for conquest of Japan. Working with Alfred Pennyworth and Catwoman, Batman tackles the Joker head-on, losing in a battle against Joker's mecha-castle, but escaping with the aid of Red Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood and a clan of bat-themed ninja. No, really. 

And the nonsense just ramps up from there until a samurai mecha is fighting a giant monkey composed of monkeys and a giant Batman composed of bats. Catwoman changes sides every ten minutes, Ivy, Penguin and Two-Face are built up but don't get much screen time, and there's an odd sub-plot with the Joker hypnotizing himself to escape being murdered by Red Hood. All in, I found Batman - Ninja to be a bit of a mess, not really making enough sense, the pacing is all over the place and although it's very Japanese, nothing about the cultural difference truly impacts the take on the Dark Knight. My thinking is that whilst Peter Parker is a student/journalist who got his powers when bitten by a radioactive spider, Japanese Spider-Man is Takyua Yamashiro, a motocross rider given his powers by aliens to battle evil. I guess I was just hoping for a truly Japanese take on Batman, or at least to see Lord Death Man. 

All the above taken into account, Batman - Ninja is still probably at least worth one watch, if only because the design of the characters is really interesting. Sometimes, it's subtle, like Harley using a Kabuki-styled hammer, but others, like Red Hood and Catwoman are simply stunning and I want them as miniatures. Red hood is dressed as a Shinto monk with a reddy-brown wicker helmet and a sword hidden in his robes. Catwoman's mask has a little cat nose and her collar a large, gold bell, reminiscent of a Maneki Neko; also, her whip is tied around her waist, the end trailing as a 'tail', it's a great look for the character. Looking online, it seems that many other fans enjoy Batman - Ninja at lot more than I did, so you'll probably need to take a look for yourself to decide. At least it was a step away from the "grim and gritty" Nolan/Arkham Batman that still pervades the culture. Batman should fight more monkeys in the live action films. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

Playing Power Rangers - Heroes of the Grid

One of the friends I play card games with is a huge Power Rangers fan, and he picked up the "Heroes of the Grid" boardgame, giving me a chance to try it out. As regular readers will know, I'm not much of a fan myself, but appreciate the appeal, such as it is, but a boardgame full of superhero miniatures will always get my attention. Sadly, for some reason the figures in Heroes of the Grid are around the 40mm mark, so probably not of use to many wargamers unless Marvel Crisis Protocol is your go-to. 

This won't be much of an AAR, sorry, as the pictures uploaded in the wrong order and it's a bugger to fix, so I'll just be talking about the game and providing some commentary as I go. 

Heroes of the Grid is cooperative, with an enemy AI mechanic based on this track of cards, the players can choose to "attack" the next card in sequence or a later one that perhaps will have worse effects. The Rangers typically act first, then play alternates, so choosing the best moves is a big part of the strategy. 

I was playing as Zach, from Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, whose abilities enabled him to sacrifice cards to power other attacks. Your deck of cards is also your health, so this play style made Zach risky but powerful. The Dragon Ball Z playmat is what I use for every card game, so has no particular meaning here. 

At a certain point in the game, a "Villain" will arrive, signalling the final turns. We got Rita, who is the most powerful in the core game, so we lost pretty quickly after that. Even with the large size of the figures, the detail is pretty nice and I suspect they'd paint up well. 

The all-important scale shot! Putty and Green Ranger next to a GW Underworlds Skeleton, about all I had to hand at work that wasn't a Space Marine or Reaper Bones. 

Each turn, a number of enemies spawn in each location; if any location becomes too full it is denoted as "Panicked". If all locations become Panicked, the Rangers lose. This isn't too dissimilar from other co-op games like Pandemic, but we lost to a bad flip only a couple of turns into the game and that kind of spoiled it for me. 

I just took this picture because it's a Power Axe, you know, like Warhammer. 

The basic board at the close of the second turn, moments before the random card flip lost it for us. Rangers can travel to different locations, but can recharge Power by going through the Command Centre. 

The start of the game looked pretty intimidating, but the Putties aren't too tough and decent teamwork clears them out nicely. 

Obligatory box shot. There is a huge number of expansions for the game already, which makes sense given the dozens of Power Rangers teams around. 

And being a miniatures gamer, I had to get an action shot, even if this was after we were soundly beaten. 

I'm not big on custom dice for minis games, but for board games I don't mind so much. These would also work nicely for SuperSystem or Super Mission force if you wanted more utility out of the purchase. 

After one game of Heroes of the Grid, I'm not terribly impressed, but mainly due to the random way in which we lost. Yes, I would have liked a resource for a couple of Power Rangers characters in 28mm, but I'll live for a little longer without them. What is there is good, especially if you're a fan, as the depth of characters is astounding for such a young game. From what I understand, the fan community is also pretty active, with lots of homebrew stuff out there and even new ways to play the base set. Unless my friend ropes me into a campaign of the game, I'm unlikely to revisit it here, though. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Superhero Media: Ratchet & Clank - A Crack in Time

Until I sat down to re-play this game, I really didn't care for it at all. I remembered it being too much of a departure from the previous games to really engage me, and a quick look at the fan reaction online confirms that this was the majority opinion. What I found this time was a really interesting game that took a few risks with only a few real flaws. Yes, I now think I prefer A Crack in Time over Tools of Destruction, come at me fanboys. Probably the most distracting issue with A Crack in Time is all the weird little bugs and faults; it's possible to fall to the centre of a moon or get jammed between ferns far more often than it should be for a 'finished' game. The parts that most internet critics tend to focus on, the expanded mythos and new control schemes, I found myself really enjoying. After Clank's sudden disappearance at the end of Tools of Destruction, Ratchet is searing the far reaches of the galaxy for his old friend, and, for some reason, has brought Captain Quark with him. 

I really feel the saturation point for comic relief characters comes in the "Future" games, as well as Quark, there's Cronk, Zephyr and Sigmund, plus most of the characters make jokes anyway. I'm not saying that the Ratchet and Clank series needed more serious dialogue, but there was often overtones of importance or threat to the PS2 games that seem missing from the Future series. Clank wakes up at The Great Clock, a massive machine keeping the universe intact and safe from paradoxes, being pursued by Doctor Nefarious. Both Ratchet and Clank get a more expanded background in this game, with Ratchet being mentored by Alister Azimuth, an exiled Lombax General and Clank's true origins revealed. I know some fans were disappointed that Clank turned out to be a deliberate creation rather than an accidental genius, but having to play very different adventures with each character before they come back together to defeat the villain not only makes for an interesting game, but a compelling story.

What A Crack in Time feels like to play is a transition; like Insomniac were moving from the PS2 era games to something bigger and grander. Flying from planet to planet and undertaking missions for the inhabitants is a lot of fun, but the dialogue options are never as fun as the old cut-scenes. A Crack in Time could have been the "tipping point" for the franchise, from level-based exploration platformer into a grand space opera with a well defined universe and rich cast of characters. Sadly, this wouldn't be, and we were left only with our dreams of what could have been. I still stand by my contention that Up Your Arsenal is the best Ratchet & Clank game, but A Crack in Time is probably my second pick, despite it's flaws. It's really fun to play and easy to get your hands on, especially as a second-hand PS3 is all of $50AUD these days and is also a Blu-ray player. Doing a retrospective on these games only really makes me want to get my hands on some miniatures to at least include the title characters in my Ultimate Alliance games.