Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Superhero Media: Astro Boy (2009)

I would describe watching this film as "frustrating". Parts of Astro Boy are really well done and enjoyable, but other sections are frustrating and uninteresting, overall the film feels like a mash of half-measures and studio notes rather than a true adaptation. The core elements of the classic Astro Boy origin are there, Toby is the genius son of Doctor Tenma before he is killed in a tragic accident and Tenma builds a robot to replace him. Horrified by what he did in his grief, Tenma shuns the robot Toby, despite the advice of his friend Doctor Elefun, and "Astro" is forced to fend for himself. The pacing of Astro Boy is a little fast, with everything seeming to happen within a few minutes and little space to breathe; Tenma turns against Astro in a matter of minutes and then there's a chase sequence with police that ends with Astro being knocked off the city. Oh yeah, for some reason the story is set in "Metro City" a floating utopia that cruises over a post-apocalyptic Earth, rather than Tokyo or anywhere "real". 

Like Neo Yokio, the setting of Astro Boy is probably one of the more interesting aspects of the film, especially when any amount of critical thought is applied. If Metro City dump all of their waste on the surface, where do the new robots come from? There has to be conservation of mass somewhere. Also, the people living on the surface can rebuild and program complex robots, but can't manage aircraft that would enable them to get to Metro City? As I said above, the whole thing just fails to come together in any satisfying way. The fight scenes are fun, mostly thanks to the great animation, but the villain comes out of nowhere, using the "Red Core" to become an unsatisfying Kaiju for Astro to batter around for a bit before the fake-out death scene and the end of the film. 

Astro Boy is probably best seen as the version of "The Mighty Atom" to tempt new fans into the franchise. The film doesn't entice to the same level as the 1980s anime which I grew up with or even the 2000s version, which was inferior, but still fun. Astro Boy lacks any of the cleverness of the anime versions, or the more adult themes of segregation, social justice and profiling; seriously, there's an episode of the '80s anime that features a robot genocide, it's pretty full-on. Hopefully, the anime[s] will come to a streaming service sometime soon and I can give them another look-in, until then, this will have to do, some Astro Boy is better than none. Oh, and how come they didn't use the classic theme song, even over the end credits? Seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

MI-13: Part VI

Trapped in a world they never made, our heroes are confronted by a militarised police force demanding their surrender for the crime of being superheroes. Psylocke attempts to point out that they're not really dressed like superheroes, but is countered by Purple Shadow mentioning that two of the party are wearing capes and that one has a British flag shirt on. Seeing that the path behind is blocked, our heroes have no choice but to force their way through the police line. Not wanting to waste time, Purple Shadow runs towards the first squad and fly-kicks the leading officer, using that momentum, she crashes knees-first into the second whilst pushing out her mysterious aura into the remainder. Before she knows it, Purple Shadow has knocked the entire team unconscious. In response to the rapid defeat of their colleges, a second team of police turn and shoot at Purple Shadow, seriously wounding her. 

Inspired by his teammate's actions, Union Jack runs into another squad of police and swings his mighty arms like clubs, felling the fascists one after another, he calls "Behind me, Purple Shadow" over his shoulder as he runs. Seeing that their chances in close quarters are limited, the remaining police open fire at Union Jack, only to watch their bullets drop uselessly to the ground after striking him. Psylocke concentrates her telekinetic might into a blade of pure energy and swings it menacingly, but the police have learned their lesson and are backing off. The Sandman moves to Psylocke's side, having learned previously how fragile she can be in a fight. Union Jack makes short work of another squad whilst Psylocke uses her powers to tip a Tango vending machine onto the police hassling her, with Sandman's help, they mop them up quickly. Sandman has just enough time as the others run ahead to grab a snack from a nearby vending machine. 

Just as the heroes round a corner into what seems like safety, they are caught in the glaring spotlight of a helicopter. A voice over loudspeaker demands surrender and our heroes prepare to fight, until the concrete around them is peppered with rotary cannon fire; as even Union Jack doubts he can withstand such a blast, the plan becomes to flee and hide. Union Jack punches a hole straight through the nearest wall and then just keeps going, bashing his way through buildings until sounds of pursuit die away. As the heroes pause to catch their breath, Sandman notices that they are not alone, someone is watching from the shadows. When the figure is challenged, a gaunt women in tattered in clothing steps forward and asks one question; "Are you Superheroes?" 

The woman is Linda McQuillian, formerly Captain UK, Merlin's champion in this reality and the last remaining superhero. As she is familiar with multiverse theory, Captain UK is not overly shocked by the presence of an alternate MI-13 and tells them the story of how her world became a nightmare. Captain UK talks of the rise of MP Jaspers to the Tory leadership and his election to Prime Minister on an anti-Superhero platform; shortly thereafter, the purges began and the heroes started to disappear. Captain UK was hiding with some of the last heroes alive when it came for them, a cyobite monstrosity known only as The Fury, with a single purpose; it kills superheroes. The combined might of MI-13 was as nothing against The Fury, even Miracle Man was killed with one blast. Captain UK only survived because Tom Rosetta threw her into a teleporter. With the heroes now here, The Fury will come again, hunting and killing every hero until there is none left. 

The building is now surrounded by police demanding that the heroes surrender, but something is different this time, the police are hanging back and there is, another figure with them. The hulking, misshapen form of The Fury is uncanny to witness, with its lumbering, inhuman gait and glowing eyes in an otherwise-featureless face. As soon as it comes into sight, Captain UK begins to scream. Stepping into the light, Union Jack is the first to be targeted by The Fury, a blast of energy lighting up the night. When Union Jack emerges unscathed, The Fury starts to change; the gun one arm terminates in shifting in shape to become something new. Psylocke rams The Fury with a dumpster as Union Jack swings his mighty fist, whilst both strike home, neither seems to harm the cyobite. Captain UK, upon seeing The Fury, screams like a wounded animal, curls up into a ball and soils herself as Purple Shadow tries to comfort her; Sandman decides the best course of action is to hide in the building. 

Trying to clear a path to safety, Psylocke runs the dumpster in her telekinetic grasp into a team of police, knocking several over. Seeking similar refuge, Sandman drifts out of a window in his sand form, getting close to a second group of police before reforming and using his gas gun on them. Hearing Purple Shadow cry out for help from the ruins, Psylocke uses her power to levitate the ineffectual Captain UK out of harm's way whilst she simultaneously wipes out the first team of police with the dumpster. Union Jack and The Fury are locked in single combat, with neither able to gain the upper hand, the hero's mightiest blows failing to do any real damage. However, just when things look hopeless, a boom splits the air and a portal opens up above The Fury, disgorging none other than, The Champions of the Omniverse! 

Seeing a new threat, The Fury turns and opens fire at the Champions, just as Sandman notices Koga pocketing an enigmatic device used to close the Boom Tube. Manzilla grabs Psylocke from the fray and throws her towards safety as Gigawatt yells at MI-13 to get clear; the Champions will handle The Fury. Union Jack is reluctant to leave, breaking a convenient box over The Fury's misshapen head as Purple Shadow runs in to back him up. The Champions of the Omniverse dog-pile onto The Fury keeping it pinned with weight of numbers and off-balance by having Sonic Tsunami ice the ground under its feet. Meanwhile, Sandman has crept up behind Koga and tries to grab the portal device from his wrist, but only gets a painful shock for his trouble. Seeing that MI-13 aren't taking their advice to clear the area, and are attempting to steal the Motherboxx, Firenado blasts Sandman and yells at him to get clear, The Champions have a plan. 

Spider-Strike uses his oft-neglected web-shooters to tie up Purple Shadow before scooping her up and running towards safety. Not trusting Sandman to go along with the plan, Union Jack grabs his teammate and follows Spider-Strike into the cover of the building, as the pair of heroes from different realities run side-by-side, Spider-Strike passes Purple Shadow over to Union Jack and returns to the fight against The Fury. For once, Spider-Strike does something well and his multiple venom-blasts land, bringing The Fury down. Whilst The Fury is temporarily dormant, Koga operates the Motherboxx and a portal opens above the Champions, they depart with The Fury, leaving MI-13, once again, stranded in a hostile world. As the after-battle calm descends, our heroes can hear laughter echoing in the distance... 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Superhero Media: Batman Begins

I've been looking forward to getting to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, as I feel it makes for one of the more fascinating studies of superhero cinema in recent years. That these Batman films are part of a completed cycle, are still considered major cultural touchstones, and are still held up as the pinnacle of genre all make for interesting discussion. First off, I know I'm not going to make any friends with this statement, but I'm not certain Batman Begins is truly a good Batman film. Is Batman Begins a good film? Yes, unequivocally. It is well-directed, competently acted, looks amazing and is passably written. I'll even go so far as to say that everything from the second act onward presents an interesting take on Batman and a Gotham city that truly feels "real". The transformation from Jonathan Crane into Scarecrow does not seem at all supernatural, but rather a decent into criminality and insanity brought about through his own hubris. Finally, it would be remiss to neglect Gary Oldman, probably the best version of Jim Gordon in live action ever; utterly human and compelling, the "man behind the superman" that makes Batman work in the narrative. 

All that said however, just who is Batman in this film and the ensuing franchise? A renegade ninja in a bat costume? I'm usually the first to point out the inherent silliness of superheroes, Batman especially, but doesn't the idea of the "grounded" and "realistic" take on Batman feel more than a little at odds with his training in a secret ninja academy in China, led by a British man? As good a sequence as the League of Shadows training is, it really jars with the tone of the rest of the film. I remember what it felt like watching this film when it first came out; it was exciting, engaging and unlike any superhero film before it. Batman Begins took one of the greatest superheroes of all time and made him accessible and enjoyable to the broader public in a way we'd never seen before. Although the Batman in Batman Begins wasn't precisely the character we, the fans, knew and loved, he seemed to poised to become that icon in subsequent films. As popular as the Nolan Trilogy is, I wonder if it isn't an intensely personal take for Nolan, rather than a true adaptation. Most of the major Nolan tropes are there to be had; a man fighting for a better world despite his own failings, spectacle as storytelling, a protagonist with a dark secret and shockingly few women. 

Yeah, did you ever notice that about Nolan's films? There never seems to be more than two named female characters and at least one of them is in a relationship with the male protagonist at some point. That's not a deal-breaker, plenty of brilliant films can't past the Bechdel test, but isn't one of the iconic things about Batman the huge cast? Rachel Dawes isn't a terrible character by any means, but why don't we see Barbra Gordon, Selina Kyle, Pamela Isley, Harleen Quinzel, Aunt Harriet, Leslie Thompkins, Vicki Vale or Talia Al'Ghul? Yes, some of them turn up in later films, but doesn't it seem just a little odd that none of them even cameo somewhere? Nolan presented a particular concept of Batman that excised a great deal of the world that exists around him in favour of a generic "decaying city". Although filmed in Chicago, the Nolan Trilogy doesn't "feel" like any particular city, even Gotham. There are none of the Art-Deco towers of Batman: The Animated Series, European Gothic of The Batman or even the psychedelic wonder of Batman and Robin. It's a bit of a shame that such a great film fails to deliver an iconic version of anything other than the protagonist, who certainly does not lack other iconic interpretations. As we get to the next films, there will be more to uncover and we'll drift further from a recognisable form of Batman.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Superhero Wargames Armies - 5 Ideas

I don't need to tell regular readers of this blog that I love both superheroes and miniature wargames. I like them both so much that I'm pretty much never content to only keep my superhero miniatures in my Superhero games and am constantly finding ways to force them into everything I play. I actually got started gaming supers when I tried to turn a bunch of Heroclix into an Ultimates/SHIELD army for 4th Edition 40k. You've probably seen my Guardians of the Galaxy in Frostgrave and my Wakandans in both 20mm and 28mm, those on the Lead Adventure Forum may know that my Firefight Plague army has Marvel Zombies characters in it and I have a range of Golden Age supers for Secrets of the Third Reich. I actually have an entire WWWII Latverian army for SOTR that I really need to finish the last touches on and post up here at some point.
Even I have to draw the line somewhere though, as I know that I'll never settle for a "small" army and every option to be accounted for, even army-specific objectives, NPCs and other fun little affectations. Already I'm adding elements to my Annihilation Wave to fill them out for Firefight Veer-Min and the amount of Skrulls I have (see below) grows steadily because I just love them so damn much as villains. To that end, the end of not making every superhero army I think of, that is, here are five ideas I have rattling around my head that I really don't want to make, but probably will at some point. To sweeten the deal, I'll even throw in miniature suggestions to get you started in the right direction and because this is the kind of thing I think about all the damn time! 

The Catholic Church (from Hellsing)

Concept: I find that Hellsing has a couple of problems that routinely make things not enjoyable for me; a character whose power is so overwhelming that they can never be in peril and a focus on a character that is clearly not the protagonist of the narrative. Also, Captain Britain and MI-13 does a vampire invasion of Britain way better than Hellsing. What is really cool though, and stuck in my mind, was the army that the Vatican bring to help rescue/subjugate Britain. The anachronistic image of hooded priests with pikes and muskets is brilliantly contrasted with their deploying in Bell "Huey" helicopters. There is also the "Iscariot" organisation, an elite force of assassins that hunt the enemies of the Church without mercy, even including suicide bombers and specialised vampire and mage hunters. Also their leader is in a perspex "Pope Box" suspended from a helicopter bristling with speakers so that he can proselytise during battle. 

Execution: The visual impact of the army is pretty neat, ranks of hooded infantry, iconic military helicopters, flying pope box and assassins in vestments create a contrasting but unified aesthetic. In army building terms, there is core infantry, transports, elite unit[s] and a centerpiece commander, all the basics one would need to get something playable for SOTR, 40K, Firefight or similar. Should other units be needed down the track to fill out the army, ultramodern (or even anachronistic) Swiss Guard could find a place as well as clergy "armed" with holy relics or even exorcists filling in for "psykers" or marksmen.

Miniatures: There are plenty of cultist miniatures that could form the basis for the infantry here, but with the need to swap arms for muskets and pikes, the Reaper Bones sets look about the best value for money and the limited sculpts won't hurt with the "rank and file" look of the core forces. Similarly, there are more than a few priests, bishops and deacons floating around miniature ranges that the Iscariots are only a couple of weapon-swaps away. There are plenty of Huey models, in plastic and die-cast, that would work fine with the exaggerated scale of Reaper; at the risk of inciting a "scale-debate", I'd be looking at 1/48 examples.

Skrulls (Marvel)

Concept: I could write an essay on the Skrulls; their history, religion, politics, sociology and genetics have all been covered in detail over the decades, creating a rich civilization that is both recognisable and utterly alien. For example, skrulls are born male or female, like humans (yeah, gender is a spectrum, but let's not get into that here), but hard-wired gender forms no part of their sexuality other than reproduction (which, it seems, two "female" skrulls can do happily). Being shape-shifters, there is no physical attraction between skrulls, they use scent to determine desire and then change their form into something their lover finds attractive. After a major cataclysm and collapse of empire, the atheist, rationalist society turns to magic and an ancient, heretical, monotheistic religion as a last resort to stave off extinction. Holy shit that's pretty deep for a comic book "little green man" alien. 

Execution: The great thing about decades worth of continuity is that there is plenty to pick from when building an army. Skrulls have used rayguns, flying saucers, mechs, magic and super-powers over the years, not to mention the variety that their inherent abilities provide, just look above at the winged skrulls or the moment in Drax Reborn where Piabok hides as a squirrel to reconnoiter. All of the Super-Skrulls, Power Skrulls, Skrulltastic Four and the team-mash-up Super Skrulls of Secret Invasion should be more than enough to cover any kind of special unit or character that a game requires. 

Miniatures: Obviously, Heroclix has most of the stuff you'll need, with generic sci-fi mechs and vehicles filling out the armour requirements. However, there are a lot more modelling and conversion opportunities than are immediately apparent. Scouting units can be made up of any old miniatures you have lying around, even animals or enemy soldiers, because they're really Skrulls in disguise. Need something between rank and file Skrulls and Super-Skrulls? Just grab some C and D-list heroes and transplant some Skrull heads on! Skrull infiltrator versions of Spolier, Prowler or Cardiac anyone?

The Universal Church of Truth (Marvel) 

Concept: A galaxy-spanning church that worships the miracle of life itself, corrupted by its own beliefs into a fanatical army of conquest is no new concept for miniature wargames, but the Universal Church of Truth has a few unique elements that make it stand out. What I like most about the UCT is the layers of organisation which exists within its ranks. From the hordes of fanatical faithful, to the cyborg-enhanced Black Knights, to the mighty Cardinals, powered by the faith drained from their followers. The spaceships have a "flying cathedral" aesthetic and there are cool characters like the Magus to build into the army as commanders and special characters. 

Execution: This army kind of works on ratios, say you want 5 of the super-powered Cardinals, then maybe have 10 to 15 of the Black Knights and 20 to 50 of the Faithful. This is really an infantry army, with waves of Faithful soaking up fire then having the Cardinals wade in and butcher whatever is left. This is not a subtle army with tricks and hidden elements, but the kind that rolls into the enemy without much expectation of the cannon-fodder surviving. 

Miniatures: Heroclix do make some of the figures, like the Cardinals and the Magus, but there are other options out there worth considering. Warmachine Menoth Exemplar Cinerators from Privateer Press would make great looking Cardinals whilst Games Workshop Kabalite Warriors and Chaos Cultists would be a good basis for Black Knights and Faithful respectively. The real trick with making the army stand out is filling it with different alien races, like the Church in the comic, when I had a go at the UCT I pulled all the different heads I had out of my bits box and populated the army with a variety of life-forms. That's the real fun of the army, getting the variety of aliens, but keeping the uniform look.

Abomi-Nation (The Venture Bros) 

Concept: Man, I wanted to make this army the instant I saw this episode. A militia or mutants, experiments gone wrong and monsters under the leadership of "Venturestien", trying to carve out a nation for their specific brand of dispossessed. Think Contras or Vietcong but made up of monsters and you're pretty much there. Just look at the picture! Smokey the Bear, McGruff the crime dog, Bebop, Man-Thing, Oompa-Loompas and more! How do you not want to make that army?

Execution: This is essentially a "partisan" army, or guerrillas, if you prefer, so the focus should be small bands of infantry with mismatched equipment, not big squads of regular soldiers. Think more along the lines of Rebs in Deadzone than Imperial Guard. A couple of funky characters and "big guys" could make the army fun and balance out play. Maybe the smaller monsters/mutants are some kind of scouts? Or maybe there's an aquatic unit like Creatures from the Black Lagoon? Perhaps something like the "Crawlers" from The Descent as an assassin unit? Plenty of scope to play with.

Miniatures: So many monster miniatures out there, I don't even want to begin listing manufacturers. Buying bulk Horrorclix off eBay would be a good start, maybe assorted fantasy miniatures with kit from plastic moderns. Studio Miniatures makes plenty of "Hollywood" monster miniatures, and the CMG Star Wars and D&D stuff has a few fun "big guys" to add a little punch to the force. Warlord sells separate sprues of weapons and gear to get everything looking a bit more paramilitary.

Black Lanterns (DC) 

Concept: I honestly didn't like Blackest Night all that much, but mostly from an art perspective, I found the constant barrage of Lantern ring-sling in bright colours distracted from a reasonably interesting story. For those not familiar with Blackest Night, check out Linkara's review on YouTube, it does a good job of covering the story. Basically though, superhero zombies with Lantern rings set on keeping all heroes that die actually dead, rather than constantly popping back to life. Not a brilliant concept like Skrulls or the UCT, but there's a lot of fun to be had here. 

Execution: Much like the Skrulls above, there is as much variety to the Black Lanterns as you feel like building in. Sure, you probably want a Nekron as the army leader and maybe a big Black Lantern Battery objective/HQ piece, but after that it's really up to you and how you're building the army. 

Miniatures: Yes, Heroclix makes several Black Lantern versions of characters already, but there's another way; buy a bulk lot of clix off the internet and a box of plastic zombies, kitbash and be done. There is a Nekron clix, but when I get around to putting him in my Ultimate Alliance games, I'm actually going to look at some of the Warmachine Cryx characters, just to make him stand out a little more, there are a few to choose from. If you need vehicles for the army, think about something like old "abandoned" versions of the Batmobile or the Bug, some rust, weathering and zombie drivers should work fine. If I were to do this army, I'd also find a way to work in the Marvel Zombies characters, because that's the kind of thing I do. 

Hope there's some inspiration there to get you started, any of these would be great to see on a table and may tempt a few people in your local group into painting some supers.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Superhero Media: Superman III

Finally done with this franchise, which I started in the very first "Superhero Media", way back in June 2014 with Superman II. As I said in the Supergirl review, the Superman series is not always the best, but the entire journey is worth taking if you never had. Superman III is the last duck up out of the tail-spin in the series, better than Supergirl and Superman IV, but never reaching for the heights of Superman: The Movie. Whilst I'm on the subject of the Superman film series, I'm sure someone will want to point out that Superman Returns breaks the continuity of the series with the birth of Jason (Superman and Lois's son, because they make love in Superman II), but due to the fact that Lois barely features in Superman III or Superman IV, this isn't a big deal to set right. In my "head canon", Lois and Richard have a messy divorce after he discovers that he's not Jason's father, Richard gets custody because Lois is famously in constant danger and Lois spends the rest of the film series contesting custody and harboring a resentment for Superman because of it. Took me all of five minutes to think that up. 

The big problem with Superman III is the tone, with the departure of Richard Donner, there is a move to a more comedic style to the film, probably most evident with the casting of Richard Pryor as the antagonistic "computer genius". Now, it's a little silly to poke fun at a film from 1983 for having funny ideas about computers, but Richard Pryor, as good a comedian as he is, doesn't really mange to sell the ideas he has to work with. The lack of quality of production in Superman III is disappointing as it really holds back some great ideas. Yes, there are some great ideas in Superman III, like trying (and failing) to synthesize Kryptonite, Superman battling a self-aware computer and the whole section with "jerk" Superman is a lot of fun to watch. Even, probably, the greatest Superman story of all time, All Star Superman, uses the black Kryptonite as a plot point, just because it's so much fun to see Superman being a selfish jerk for a little while. Lana Lang and more time spent in Smallville are also nice touches, fleshing out the setting a bit more. 

Superman III is an odd beast, in many ways it more closely resembles the comics of the time in which it was made than any other Superman film, but it still feels like a let-down after Superman II. The thing is, most comics just don't translate well to the medium of film, though Superman is actually no easier or harder than any other hero. This is why I'm usually happy to watch pretty much any superhero film I can get my hands on, even the bad ones. Yes, it's great to live in a time where Marvel Studios is stamping out brilliant films with almost alarming regularity, but let's not forget where we came from. We need to keep watching the "not-quite-good-enoughs" along with the outright classics, films like Superman III, Batman Forever and Fantastic Four that got the genre to the dizzying heights that we're at now. At least look up the fight between Jerk Superman and Clark Kent in the junkyard on YouTube, it's a great little sequence.