Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Thinking Out Loud: Super Smash Prescience

If you're the kind of person to keep up with the Smash Bros Ultimate news, like I am, you'll know that expansion characters two and three are The Hero (from Dragonquest) and Banjo Kazooie. Now, I'm not going to rant too hard about another JRPG sword character joining the roster (but, like, really? Another one?), but I am naturally ecstatic to see Banjo and Kazooie coming down the pipeline, Banjo Tooie being one of my favourite games from the Nintendo 64. As always, there was outcry from fans that their personal pick didn't make the cut, especially the Waluigi set, but here's the thing kids; Waluigi is coming, I guarantee it. Much like Ridley and King K Rool, fans have been clamoring for Waluigi to join the Smash Bros roster since the Melee days, so of course he'll be appearing soon; if I had to guess, he'll be number five. Now, I'm not keen on Waluigi, I find him off-putting and simply don't get why he has such a following, plus there's already too many Mario characters in Smash, but I get that he will have his place soon enough and I'll deal with it. As it stands, I'm very much aware that I prefer the "mascot" characters to the more human ones, because that, to me, is part of the charm of the Smash Bros series. 

Where one draws the line between the mascots and the "realistic" humans is completely arbitrary, of course, I let Captain Falcon slide (and dive, punch and kick) despite never having owned an F-Zero game, because his cartoony behaviour charmed me in an instant. In contrast, the only Fire Emblem character I ever cared anything for was Roy, because he had a fun set of moves in Melee. Although I play neither, I really like that Sonic and Mega Man joined the roster over the years, because, to me, as someone who grew up with a SNES and a N64, that's what video games looked like, and Smash Bros was the crossover I had always wanted. The days of the "Mascot Platformer" dominating the market are long gone, but still I find myself more interested in characters like Rayman, Dixie Kong, Mouser and Daroach joining the game, probably because I'd much rather throw stars and/or bananas than swing a sword in a slightly different way to how at least nine other characters already swing a sword. See also; I'd much rather a Booster Gold film than another take on Batman. 

So, ok, let's talk about Goku again, because that's still a thing apparently. Personally, I'm a little disappointed that Jump Stars isn't coming to Switch anytime soon, but will live with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, and doesn't that game just make more sense as a crossover vehicle with Goku in it? I could totally see Goku as DLC in any of the many anime crossover fighting games, but the only anime ascetic in Smash Bros is leftover art style from JRPGs, with most of the classic mascot characters having more in common with the art styles of Disney and Hanna Barbera than anything else. If Smash Bros continues into the future far enough, I'd happily see it expand to include Anime, Film and Television, but to my eye, there's so much more scope for video game characters before that kind of branching out happens. Not just some of the classics I would enjoy like Lara Croft, Bomberman and Starfy, but also some of the newer icons along the lines of Shovel Knight, Cuphead and Sands. I understand the reality that I have absolutely zero influence over who will join the roster in the future, but I hope to see more Banjo Kazooies and fewer "The Hero"s. Dragon Quest is cool and all, but why not let me play as a Metal Slime? C'mon. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Superhero Media: Batman Return of the Caped Crusaders

Holy Caravaggio Batman! What a masterpiece! For the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Batman television programme, Warner Animation put together possibly the greatest Batman film of all time. Ok, that's a bit much, but how are Lego Batman and Return of the Caped Crusaders way better than every live-action Batman since The Dark Knight? You have a problem DC. When a Gotham prime-time variety show is interrupted by Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman, the dynamic duo leap into action and a chase across the city begins, just like the classic programme. Before you know it, there are death traps, colourful gas, hokey fights and dodgy props, everything you could remember from the original, but there's so much more. 

Return of the Caped Crusaders is definitely made for fans of the classic Batman, but there's so much in there for anyone with a decent knowledge of the character. I'm struggling to think of a major Batman comic or film that doesn't get at least a throwaway line; Adam West dropping "this is the operating table, and I'm the surgeon" is fantastic. It's actually Robin who gets the best lines though, "Holy Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!", "Holy unholy alliance!" and, said in response to Catwoman suggesting that she and Batman run away to Europe ala The Dark Knight Rises, "Holy unsatisfying ending!". The scene with three Catwomen is a brilliant nod to the history of the character, remember when, in the 1960s, no one got on the internet and made racist complaints about an established African-American actor playing Catwoman? Crazy times, those sixties.

What else can I say? This is genius. A loving tribute to the classic '60s Batman, a fun film in its own right and a good Batman adventure. Yes, it's silly, but as I've said countless times, the silliness of the genre should be embraced, not shunned. How many "super serious" Batman films have actually been good? Two out of five? Yet Return of the Caped Crusaders is entertaining the whole way through, funny where it needs to be and exciting when the action ramps up. Once again, I don't get why DC and WB are so intent on segmenting their talent when the Warner Premiere/Warner Animation department is able to turn out gems like this on little budget but the live action productions are bloated, dull and overly expensive. As soon as cash allows, I'm picking up Batman Vs Two-Face to bask in more awesomeness.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

MI-13: Part VIII

The halls of MI-13 are buzzing with activity after the declaration of war from Dracula. Almost the entire agency has crammed into the briefing room, with Pete Wisdom up the front gesturing to a screen displaying pictures from the Jaspers Murder. 
"Ok, first things first, vampires are real and pretty much always have been. British intelligence services first became aware of the threat in 1875, when Vladimir Tepes Dracula arrived on our shores and began a brief reign of terror. The incident was hushed-up and fictionalised, but the version you know from popular culture is close to the truth. 
The next major incident came when Dracula joined the Axis powers in the Second World War, supplying Nazi High Command with several Vampiric operatives, the most infamous being Baron Blood, son of the original Union Jack. What Dracula never let on to Hitler was that he maintains mental control of all vampires, no matter how far away they are from his presence, even lasting when he sleeps for decades. When it became apparent that the Axis were going to lose the war, the Vampires withdrew and weren't heard of again for quite a while. 
Since the 1980s, worldwide Vampire activity has been at an all-time low, but now it seems Dracula has been planning an invasion of Great Britain, presumably for that entire time. Why here? We don't know, but what we do know is that Dracula is the leading military strategist of our time. Trained from birth. Centuries of experience. We are in a game of chess against him. Everything from here on out is keeping pace with an immortal genius, any questions?"

A silence falls over the room, spawned mostly by disbelief, when someone finds his voice, Union Jack asks if something so absurd could possibly be real. Wisdom points out that less than 48 hours ago, Union Jack himself was trapped in an alternate universe battling a killer robot. Questions abound of how good a strategist Dracula can really be if he announces his attacks and murders public figures, leading Wisdom to attempt to explain that they are not facing a man, but an immortal monster with unlimited power and abilities beyond imagination. As there is currently no expert in Vampires at MI-13, the first mission is to recruit a man called Quincey Harker, Britain's leading Vampire expert and the descendant of Jonathan and Mina Harker. As Purple Shadow and Psylocke are currently on a mission, and Sandman is undergoing chemotherapy, Wisdom elects to take Union Jack and new recruit, the Medic, with him as bodyguards. 

Landing the MI-13 helicopter on top of a multi-level car park, the trio of heroes walk through the shadows, not knowing what could by waiting out there in the darkness. With a shriek and flaps of loose clothing, a creature leaps out of the shadows, hurling itself at the Medic, only for Union Jack to step between them, absorbing the damage from raking claws. Using his powers to transfer strength and health between people, the Medic 'steals' some muscle mass from the attacking vampire and 'loans' it to Union Jack and Pete Wisdom. Ahead of the team, a squadron of paramilitary-attired figures suddenly transforms into a pall of mist and drifts towards them, leading the Medic to cry out in panic and demand if anyone knew that Vampires could do that. Not wanting to get boxed in, Union Jack charges towards the nearest Vampire, fining Pete Wisdom right alongside him. 

With his strength increased by the Medic's powers, Union Jack quickly pummels the first vampire into submission. Using the mystical knives that are his trademark, Pete Wisdom slashes at the cloud of mist that was a squad of Vampire soldiers, but even the magical energies that he wields seem to have no effect. The final Vampire charges into Pete Wisdom, baring its fangs, but the intelligence officer is surprisingly spry and dodges the flashing canines. As the Vampire Soldiers circle Wisdom, the Medic drains strength from them until a couple collapse, meanwhile Union Jack rips off the boom arm at the front of the parking garage, swinging it with enough force to bisect the last Vampire. Together, the team make quick work of the remaining Vampire Soldiers and quickly make their way to their rendezvous with Quincey Harker. 

The aged and wizened Quincey Harker is spending his twilight years in a rest home, but despite the wheelchair and blanket over his knees, a keen intelligence burns in his eyes. When Harker comes face-to-face with Wisdom, the elderly Vampire hunter is ready with his question; 
"He's back, isn't he?" 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Superhero Media: Max Steel (2016)

I found this on Netflix a little while back and decided to give it a go on a quiet night, even though I've never seen a single episode of the animated programme. Max returns with his mother to the small country town where his father died over a decade before in a mysterious explosion. Before you can say "Spider-Man, anyone?", Max has stumbled upon an alien computer called Steel and the pair start to work together to fight an oncoming invasion. Unique, Max Steel is not, but it does have a great deal of charm and excellent production values; the scenes in which Max discovers the energy his body produces have some gorgeous CGI, far better than most major release films. The costuming is also excellent, with the "Max Steel" reveal being really neat and the forgettable villain also looking like a refugee from Tron: Legacy, but in a good way. 

There's not a great deal more I can say directly about Max Steel, as the story is pretty basic and the charm that is there comes from the design, rather than the basic script. The world-building that happens is subtle enough to ignore, but the names of the aliens are so forgettable that I haven't even been bothered to look them up for this article. There are shades of Image Comics' Tech Jacket here, as well as the relationship between Max and Steel being reminiscent of Bootser Gold and Skeets. This isn't criticism, this kind of bricolage of existing tropes and ideas is my kind of thing, being a postmodernist, comics like Invincible and Hawkeye - Kate Bishob do this really well. Yes, Max Steel is a combination of Tech Jacket, Spider-Man and Booster Gold, but that doesn't mean that he's not interesting in his own right. It's a good lesson for creating your own supers for gaming. 

I'm not rushing out to give the Max Steel animated progamme a go, but if there were more films, I'd happily watch them. In the same vein, don't expect to see a Max Steel joining my Ultimate Alliance project any time soon. What I really should do is read some more Booster Gold. I really hope we get a good Booster Gold film some day, but until then, Max Steel is enjoyable enough and certainly more fun to watch than a few things I've seen.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Pitch: Mandrake

When I started "The Pitch" this was what I really wanted to do, a Defenders of the Earth "Expanded Universe" film franchise. I kept pushing it back because it felt like a big commitment, so Atomic Robo hit first, then I felt there was more time-pressure on Thunderbolts and Batman. Let's face it, I'm not so much committing to one "Pitch" here, rather four; Mandrake, Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Defenders of the Earth, that's a lot of work to do, so don't expect them all done promptly. 
Why start with Mandrake, as opposed to Flash or the Phantom? Well, for much the same reason Marvel Studios started with Iron Man; the character is pretty new to most audiences, not having had a film release since the 1950s, reducing any fatigue that may erupt from a "reboot" of Flash or the Ghost Who Walks. Also, again like Iron Man, if the film bombs, that's it, we're done, wait a few years and try again with Prince Valiant or something. 

Leon Mandrake is veteran stage magician with a devoted following and worldwide fame, blending traditional illusions with modern technology and a little something... "extra". Known only to Mandrake and his technician, Lothar, Mandrake can use mystical powers developed training in Asia, mostly his "fast hypnotism", enabling him to create elaborate illusions in seconds. When his assistant, Narda, is revealed to be European nobility on the run from the Singh Brotherhood, an international criminal cartel, Mandrake is forced to use his abilities to fight crime and discovers a new purpose in his life.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel on this one, we have Iron Man, Batman Begins and The Prestige to work from and give us the bare bones. Mandrake starts out as a celebrity cad with some extraordinary abilities, selfish, but good deep down. Crisis forces Mandrake to confront who he is and how he lives his life, eventually he makes the right choice and saves the day. 
I'd like to stay away from the "love interest kidnapping as inciting incident" trope, so this will come down to more of a chase narrative, with plenty of globetrotting and exotic locations, Mandrake is a celebrity after all. It all builds to a big showdown somewhere really cool looking, like Monaco, where Mandrake, Lothar and Narda concoct an elaborate illusion to trap the Singh leader and escape before the authorities and media arrive.

See above, Iron Man meets Ocean's Eleven with a bit of The Prestige mixed in. Fun, breezy and mostly light, no one needs to see a Frank Miller-esque take on Mandrake of all things. The next few films in the series will have increasing stakes, so this one gets to be pretty straightforward. We're introducing the characters, the world and a recurring antagonist in the Singh Brotherhood, so no need to bog the audience down with heavy-handed plot. Light is good. 

This is always trickier than most people think it is; it's not just a matter of picking actors I like, or look like the character. For a franchise especially, it needs to be someone with a solid career but not so much in demand that they can't commit to a series of films. Think about RDJ as Iron Man, that was a good cast, decent actor, not much on his plate at the time, same deal here, after all, we're hoping for at least four films in this series. 

Mandrake: After thinking about this for a while, I just couldn't go past my original pick for Doctor Strange, Guy Pearce: 
A seasoned actor with a great filmography who's demonstrated that he can say patently ridiculous things with a straight face, I can't think of anyone better. Pearce is getting "old" in Hollywood leading man terms (he's only 50), but Mandrake doesn't need to punch a lot of people or strut around with his shirt off. Pearce has the charisma and chops to play the defacto "leader" of the Defenders of the Earth for a handful of films, letting the younger guys take over later, just like in the cartoon. 

Lothar: Let's face it, Lothar needs to change, the "jungle savage" was racist, the buff engineer was a bit camp, how about a Jonathan Creek-esque magical technician? Played by none other than Richard Ayoade: 
These days, technicians for illusionists are highly-competent engineers and designers, not teamsters, so a big, buff, Lothar would look a little silly. Think of the version in this film as like Oracle to Batman or Micro to the Punisher, the "guy in the chair", making gadgets, watching cameras and planning tactics. Plus there's always room for a couple of fun Moss/Mighty Boosh references. 

Narda: If things go well with this franchise, we'll need actors to step up into the hero roles and become the new Defenders of the Earth, so our Narda needs to be a bit younger than Mandrake, but still an accomplished actor, someone like Olivia Wilde: 
Wilde has had a couple of meaty roles, but has never really seemed to be able to "breakout", something like Mandrake could be her chance. Popular genre, franchise opportunity and being able to play opposite a veteran talent have made more than one career in the past. I get the feeling Wilde is better than she's had the chance to be yet.

Singh Boss: I've got this thing about hiring any Asian actor to play any nationality, probably due to having had Asian family members since childhood. Thankfully, I'm also a fan of Asian cinema and always happy to do a bit of research. The antagonist for this film would be played by Byung-hun Lee: 
Lee has already broken through to Hollywood thanks to GI-Joe Retaliation and The Magnificent Seven (2016), but for this film, we're basically asking him to replay his character from The Good The Bad The Weird. A crazed gang boss with big aspirations and an absolute ruthlessness, the "Singh Boss" will probably carry across a couple of films, so having someone fun and memorable is a real must; think of him as the DOE Loki if that helps. 

This is a little tricky because of the balance that needs to be struck, but I think Edgar Wright needs another shot at a superhero title. Ideally, Mandrake would be slick, polished and funny, which Wright has shown himself adept and filming before, just think more Baby Driver than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

What next? 
So Mandrake ends with our hero triumphant, most of the Singh in gaol and everything tied up nicely, but let's not forget the post-credits sting! 

Mandrake is walking through a stately office building talking to "Mr Walker" about the problem represented by the Singh Brotherhood. They discuss the need to deal with the Brotherhood, but how they lack the manpower. Mr Walker suggests another recruit and a young woman walks in introduced as his daughter, Jedda Walker. 

That's right, the next film is The Phantom, both to save the crazy space stuff for the third film and to continue the through-line of the Singh Brotherhood as antagonists. Probably a while before I get to that one sorry, but it is coming!