Saturday, February 27, 2010

Out of the Vault - Hard Boiled

Part of me feels as if I should really be covering Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But I foolishly sold off my first editions of that comic years ago, so all I have is the square-bound trade paperback, and it's really hard to scan. So I'm going to put that off a while longer and talk about another Frank Miller joint, Hard Boiled.

By the late 80's, Frank Miller could do anything he wanted in comics. His run on Daredevil had made it one of Marvel's best-selling and most-imitated comics, and his Wolverine mini-series with Chris Claremont had been a huge success. His Ronin mini-series had wandered a bit, but was solid and exciting. His Batman: The Dark Knight Returns had not only redefined the character for an entire generation of fans, but also (along with Alan Moore's work on Swamp Thing) changed literally the entire business of comics in America.

Frank Miller was the man. Everything he did was golden. There could never be enough Frank.

Or so he must have thought in 1986 when he decided to stop drawing comics and concentrate solely on writing them for other artists. It was a mistake.

It started out well enough. His Daredevil graphic novel, Love and War, was a quality piece of work with brilliant, quirky art by Bill Sienkeiwicz. And the Batman: Year One storyline with art by David Mazzuchelli was an excellent companion piece to his previous graphic novel, providing plenty of material for future filmmakers to steal use for inspiration.

But then things took a wrong turn. One problem was that Miller had never really been that great a writer; he did some action tropes very well, and he was good at finding an interesting angle on a character. His work was a level above some of the old guard of the 70's, the Roy Thomases and Elliot S! Magginses and Bill Mantlos. But it lacked the subtlety of the best of his peers.

What had made his previous comics great was that he had also drawn them. Which is not to say he was a great artist, either. His figures were clunky, and his work lacked grace and detail. But what Miller did in the early to mid-80's, better than any other comics artist of his day, was to take the influences of manga and movies and translate them to the page for a visceral impact that no one else could match. While most everybody else was busy imitating Kirby's abstract bombast or Neal Adams's sketchy realism, Frank Miller was drawing movie storyboards that were blowing the older styles out of the water.

Miller's work was daring and fresh. Sometimes he would skillfully layer in dialogue and captions as a counterpoint to the action. Sometimes he would just forego words altogether and spend pages in silent action, which was such a relief after years of Spidey's lame wisecracks. There were better artists and better writers, but there were damn few other comics that competed with Miller's as a complete package. So it was really ironic that when Miller teamed up with better artists, the quality of the overall work went downhill.

Another part of the problem was that around 1989 or so, Miller somehow decided he wanted to write comedy. It seems to have started with the "Robocop 2" screenplay that he wrote (later rewritten by Walon Green). The problem is that Miller's just not funny. His sense of humor (at least judging from his comics) is very black and satirical, and it just doesn't come across very well. You can watch "Robocop 2" or read Hard Boiled and recognize that, "yes, this was meant to be funny, I see that," but it's never executed well enough to actually make you, you know, laugh.

Which leads me (finally) to Hard Boiled, written by Miller and drawn by Geof Darrow, first published in 1990 by Dark Horse Comics. The story: A psychotic android named Nixon (at least, that's what he sometimes thinks his name is--his owners, Willeford Home Appliances, just call him Unit Four) goes on a rampage, killing hundreds of people. The Willeford corporation whisks him back to headquarters, fixes him up, and sends him to his home in the suburbs as Harry Seltz (or maybe Burns), all fixed up. Until the next day, when everything blows up again and Nixon-Seltz-Burns-Four learns that he may be fated to save all androidkind. After killing a very large percentage of humankind.

Or something.

It's a little hard to follow, just because the entire story is so hallunicatory. Not only can Nixon not keep his identity straight, but the entire world has this ugly, dreamlike weirdness that keeps the plot from ever actually registering in the brain.

Guards with pistols strapped to every available inch of their bodies. A hugely fat blob of a man who lounges like Baron Harkonnen in a huge vat while his body is scrubbed and massaged by a legion of nude robot fairies. Talking dogs who shoot lasers out of their eyes. Nixon's creepy children, who cuss like adults and watch their dad-bot having sex with their mom, and may be robots themselves. Enormous public orgies and a supermarket full of oddly oversized products. And of course, surgical equipment powered by candy bars and fetuses.

(I'm sorry for the blurry scans, but I'm too lazy to redo them) If you look closely at the surgical robot apparatus here, you can see some resemblance to Darrow's later work on the Matrix movies. Like his later work on The Big Guy and Rusty, the Boy Robot, Darrow's obsessive attention to detail is both a plus and a minus. On the positive side, his work is unique and arresting, and a lot of the tiny details are truly funny and creative. On the other hand, the wealth of detail can cause pages to blur into a mush of tiny precise scribbles, like this double-page spread of Nixon facing off against a car armed with some wicked miniguns (click the images for larger versions--I normally scale the pics way down, but with Darrow's work, I've left them pretty big so you can appreciate the level of detail).

The level of detail is amazing, but it's so busy that it lacks dramatic impact. And it's not helped by Claude Legris's airbrushed colors, which just make everything even more muddy and indistinct.

Oh, and speaking of double-page spreads, one other really unusual thing about Hard Boiled is just how much it relies on full-page and double-page splash pages. Fully half the first issue is made up of full-page and double-page images, and the other issues feature almost as much. Sometimes it works really well, such as this dramatic moment when we see just how much damage Nixon has taken from his latest mishap (a devastating head-on collision).

Yes, the page is still full of detail, with some nicely goofy touches like the car keys embedded in Nixon's head. But the detail doesn't detract from the composition, unlike the spread above.

It's hard to tell how much of the goofiness is Miller's and how much is just a matter of Darrow going wild. But some parts, like the talking dogs and the creepy kids (echoing the creepy drug dealer kid from "Robocop 2"), are definitely Miller's doing. And then there's this:

What's funny about this is that it's Miller parodying his own work, having his nutball character narrate himself in terse first-person present just like Batman's inner dialogue in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, only Nixon's actually speaking out loud. What's funnier is that Miller then went back to playing it straight in Sin City. What's not so funny is that Miller tried to go back to the self-parody well again in "The Spirit," having Denny Colt narrate himself to different characters (and a cat). It didn't work any better there than it does here.

And of course, there was the final indignity, which was that the first and second issues were published in September and December of 1990, after which we had to wait over a year for the third and final issue in March 1992 (American/Canadian exchange rates apparently changed drastically in the intervening time - the U.S. prices for issues 2 and 3 are the same, but the Canadian price for issue 3 was two dollars higher than issue 2). It helped that the (incredibly gory) cover did apologize for the delay, but not much. Especially given the weirdly anti-climactic and depressing ending. The whole thing just felt like a misfire from start to finish. A competently written, very well-drawn misfire, but still...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Begins, 2005, Part 2

Lots of pics in this one, but I'll try to include some material of interest.

Last week, we looked at the expectations for "Batman Begins," and the way it confounded those expectations by focusing on Bruce Wayne rather than the villains. After the 45-minute opening sequence, Bruce Wayne finally returns to Gotham to begin his mission to clean up the crime and corruption plaguing the city.

Once he's home, the pieces start coming together. Bruce needs weapons; luckily, he owns a mega-corporation that has developed lots of abandoned, but cutting-edge, military tech, watched over by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).

Bruce needs intel and allies; luckily, his best friend from childhood, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), is an assistant district attorney.

Bruce needs a secret headquarters and a frightening symbol; luckily, there's a huge secret cave underneath his house, with a handy secret elevator built right in, entered through a secret door behind the bookcase.

As a bonus, the cave houses those same bats that terrified him as a child and inspire his costume.

Bruce's first target is Carmine Falcone, the mob boss who mocked him years before (and parenthetically, a character from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One storyline) . Falcone is shipping drugs into Gotham and paying off corrupt cop Flass (another Batman: Year One character) to look the other way. Bruce enlists Gotham's last honest cop, Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), to his cause.

Finally, all the pieces are in place and Batman makes his debut appearance on the docks...

Which results in the arrest of Falcone and the invention of the Bat-signal.

But it turns out that Falcone's drug shipment is tied to a larger plot by a mysterious mastermind and his henchman, Dr. Jonathan Crane, better known as the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).

It all climaxes with Batman's desperate battle to save Gotham from the Scarecrow's toxic fear gas, which the evil mastermind plans to release into the entire city, combined with the escape of all the homicidal inmates of Arkham Asylum.

In several ways, "Batman Begins" is an extension of the previous movie depictions of Batman. Like the Schumacher films, it's full of shout-outs to the comics, references which are familiar to fans but obscure to the public at large. Unlike the Schumacher films, though, it doesn't waste those shout-outs for pointless sub-plots or excuses for cheap campy jokes. Relatively minor figures from the comics, like Victor Zsaz or Joe Chill, actually advance the plot. Bonus: there's no retcon of who killed Thomas Wayne (although at one point Ra's al Ghul does mention that his group set up the economic conditions that drove Chill to crime, so Ra's is sort of responsible).

Like the Tim Burton films, Batman uses a wide array of gadgets--super-vehicle, special grapples and winches. Unlike the Burton films, however, Batman doesn't depend on these gadgets. He's dangerous with or without them.

Another idea taken from the Burton films is the idea that the Bat-suit is actually a suit of protective armor (an idea originally inspired by, what else, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), but the Schumacher nipples are gone. In fact, the entire suit has been redesigned to look more like something a SWAT team member would wear, protective plates over mesh rather than sculpted rubber.

I love the suit, though I don't like the cape or mask as much. The velvety flocked cape looks flimsy compared to the leathery capes from the previous movies, and the cowl has this weird neck-shape that distorts Bale's face. It's actually a cool idea that helps explain why no one suspects Wayne of being the Batman, but it looks odd.

And then, of course, for fans of the 60's series, there's this.

You know they couldn't drop that.

I love what the movie does with Alfred. Alfred had always been a wasted character in the movies and comics--beloved and dependable, but not really seeming to be a person in his own right. As played by Michael Caine, Alfred actually has a personality and a brain. He doesn't just remind Bruce when the Bat-signal is on and bring him soup, but is actually central to the Batman's creation, advising Bruce on how to purchase materials and supplies without their being traced and how to pose as a playboy to deflect suspicion.

Bale is excellent as Bruce Wayne. He is able, somehow, to make us believe in Bruce Wayne both as the guy beating up six thugs in the mud of a Chinese prison, yet also believe in him as this guy...

A master of theatricality and deception who poses as a rich dilettante while simultaneously being a ruthless businessman and a hooded avenger of the night. The lisp is sometimes distracting (Bale apparently contracted it when he got his teeth capped for "American Psycho"), but the performance overall is good.

Nolan's Gotham City looks mostly like Chicago, where the film did its location shooting (ironic that a Batman film by a Brit director starring mostly Brits in American roles would shoot in an American city, while the first big Batman film, with an American director and cast, shot its Gotham scenes on soundstages in England). The city has a more modern, realistic feel than the previous films' gothic extravangance...

While the scenes in The Narrows feel more stagey. Also weird, because the slums almost feel Asian, like the movie has suddenly moved to Bangkok or something.

Overall, though, the movie was a revelation for both fans and studio execs. You really could do Batman straight, without camp, and make a quality film that fans would pay money to see, without having to betray the core concepts of the character. That is an amazingly difficult trick to pull off, and Nolan made it look easy.

Yet, even though it was over two hours long and featured an overblown bombastic finale, it felt somehow slight. Although I like the way everything in Batman's repertoire is explained and fits together logically (there were no moments where I rolled my eyes as Batman suddenly pulled out some magical gadget that happened to be specifically designed for just this moment, a problem I had with all the previous films), maybe it brought Batman too far down-to-earth. In showing how Batman became a legend, in the end, it made him just another man.

With that said, though, "Batman Begins" was by far the best Batman film to date.

And as a bonus, we found out that it was really cold on the day they were shooting the next-to-last scene.

Katie Holmes was so good in that movie. I wish they'd brought her back for the next one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yeah, Another Hiatus, What of It?

I know, this is getting to be a regular thing, but due to issues beyond my control, I'm going to have to put the blog on a temporary hiatus. That means no Vault tomorrow, and no Big Game Wednesday. Movie Monday is already in the can, so you'll see one more of those, and with any luck, I'll have my issues resolved by the time teh next Monday rolls around. I've got a big "Dark Knight" summary I'm raring to write.

Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - 100% Imitation

So as I said last week, I got tired of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and started looking for another game to play. But I think I started looking even before I got very tired of D&D.

Part of it, I think, was just wanting to try being the Game Master myself. And part of it was wanting to try out some of the other possibilities that might exist beyond the TSR universe. I had heard of other games put out by TSR, like Boot Hill (role-playing in the Old West) and Gamma World (role-playing in a post-apocalyptic wasteland), but for some reason they didn't appeal to me. TSR seemed like like a pretty stodgy company (although that may have just been due to Gygax's pedantic writing style), and I wanted something fresher. Besides, the people in my gaming group had already played those games, and I wanted to introduce to them to something they'd never seen before.

The first non-D&D game I ended up picking up was Starships and Spacemen, designed by Capt. Leonard H. Kanterman of the U.S. Army Medical Corps and published in 1978 by Fantasy Games Unlimited. FGU was the company that put out Chivalry and Sorcery, as well as a Flash Gordon game that it described as "Schematic role-play." I still have no idea what that means. They also put out the legendary Bunnies and Burrows.

You may have noticed a running theme here. FGU liked to publish games with names that consisted of Noun & Alliterative-Other-Noun, a trend they would continue with Villains and Vigilantes. And eventually I learned a lesson from FGU's products:

Role-Playing Rule #5: If they can't be bothered to come up with an interesting, original name, there probably won't be much of anything original or interesting in the rules either.

Starships and Spacemen was a perfect example. It was basically Star Trek crossed with Dungeons & Dragons (Kanterman explicitly says this in a section on the inspiration for the game). The basic game mechanics were the same: random stat rolls on three 6-sided dice, non-human races with bonuses for certain stats, military branches substituting for character class, level-based advancement, one-minute combat rounds with attack rolls on 20-sided dice.

I was sorely disappointed with the game and never actually tried to run it. It just tried to cram too much stuff into too few pages, and a lot of it was lame. There were rules for setting up a space sector full of traps like dust clouds and space mirrors. And there was an entire page of sci-fi diseases PC's could catch, like Psionic Fever, Space Malaria and Lover's Lunacy. There were tables for wildlife encounters with alien creatures like Psionic Porcupines, Power Pumas and Space Skunks.

And then there were the spaceship rules, accompanied by highly technical ship drawings like this:

The back of the book contained several scenarios that were basically bare outline mission briefings setting up situations that the Game Master (in S&S parlance, the "Starmaster" or SM) would have to flesh out. For instance, one sample mission involves the crew of the Bunker Hill (named Janis T. Jerk, Christopher Carp, Montgomery Ward, Mister Schlock, Cerulean Blue and Red-Nek) delivering a dangerous prisoner named "Bloody Dick" Caveat to a penal colony in a sector of space where several other ships have recently disappeared.

That's it. No stats, no explanation. Just a bunch of stupid names and a warning that the area is dangerous and the prisoner is dangerous.

To say I was disappointed with the game is an understatement. In point of fact, the thought of running the game embarrassed me so much that I don't think I ever even showed the book to any of my friends. Later, I would find games that I did want to run and embarrass myself even more. But I'll tell those stories another time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Begins, 2005, Part 1

Once again, the image above combines the written title screen (on black) with a graphic image from the film's opening.

As we noted in our previous installments examining the Batman series of films, Warner Brothers had run into a dilemma with the tone of the series. The conventional wisdom, which had (let's face it) been borne out by experience, was that the idea of a man dressing up in a bat-cape to fight criminals was inherently silly, so you had to camp it up if you were going to appeal to any audience beyond the PPWGALs (Pocket-Protector-Wearing Get-A-Lifers--HT: Cecil Adams) that constituted his hard-core fans.

The flip side was that camp wore out its welcome very quickly. The 60's TV series that had made Batman into such a national sensation had burned out in less than three seasons, and the 1997 film starring George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger had been such a stinkeroo that it seemed as if the well had been poisoned forever.

Then again, the fans hadn't actually abandoned Batman on the screen; they had just shifted their allegiance to the small-screen animated version, who was played as a straight adventure hero without huge doses of camp comedy. Online, fans were saying that Warner Brothers should hand the entire Batman franchise, including live-action, to Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, since they were the only ones who actually got it. Let them write a new Batman feature, with Mark Hamill (the voice of the animated Joker) playing the Joker for real (if you saw Hamill's portrayal of the Trickster on The Flash, you know that was maybe not the best idea in the world--Hamill voiced an awesome Joker, but he couldn't really pull off the menace in person).

And then we heard that there was a new Batman film coming down the pike, directed by Christopher Nolan, who had made the awesome "Memento." Suddenly, there was reason to hope again. And when we saw the trailer with the new Batmobile, a black tank called the Tumbler, introduced in the trailer by Morgan Freeman playing Lucius Fox (!), that hope turned into fan-lust.

And then in 2005, "Batman Begins" came out, and it was better than any of us who had been burned time and time again by Hollywood had any right to expect. Not perfect, but excellent all the same.

It's strange to realize that every single adaptation of Batman for the screen, big or small, had started with Batman as an established persona. If it dealt with Batman's origins at all, it was done in flashback, and then only the part where young Bruce's parents were killed. There was this huge gap in between--where Bruce nursed his anger, trained himself physically and mentally, somehow acquired a cave full of advanced technology and an array of incredibly expensive vehicles and gadgets, and decided for some reason to dress as a bat--that had never been addressed and which formed the core of the character's ridiculosity.

That gap, that evolution from tortured Bruce Wayne to vengeful Batman, was what Nolan confronted head-on. Without camp, without winking, without resorting to a host of fantasy gadgets and goofy puns and catchphrases. And it worked, although there was a flaw to the approach which I'll bring up next week.

The opening sequence, once again inspired by Frank Miller's young Bruce sequence in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, shows a young Bruce Wayne falling down a well and being traumatized by a flurry of bats which erupt from a dark tunnel (to what will be the Batcave).

Directly following that, we see a grown Bruce (Christian Bale) as an inmate in a Chinese prison, brutally fighting six thugs in the mud, and we realize that this is going to be unlike any other Batman we've seen before.

This movie is not about a rich guy with a cape and a belt full of fancy gadgets. This is a movie about a dangerous man, with or without his mask. A man named Ducard (played by Liam Neeson) offers Bruce the chance to learn how to focus his anger and make a difference in the world. Bruce ends up in a temple at the top of the world, where he meets Ra's Al Ghul.

It's almost like we've stumbled into the wrong movie. Where the hell is Alec Baldwin?

Bruce studies the arts of the ninja under Ducard, learning how to use deception and theatricality to strike fear into opponents. Oh, and also how to fight with special bladed bracers that bear a striking resemblance to a certain set of gauntlets.

Meanwhile, we see flashbacks of Bruce growing up--his relationship with his father, the death of his parents, his failed attempt to assassinate his parents' killer (Joe Chill, finally), and his introduction to the seamy underbelly of Gotham City crime.

Bruce's father, Thomas Wayne, is depicted as the perfect white liberal saint. He's super-rich, thanks to inheriting the family mega-corporation, but he works as a doctor, curing the sick while he uses the resources of his company to build a low-cost public transportation system. The movie is cunningly constructed to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum by showing the liberal in the greatest possible light (caring, self-sacrificing, in favor of public transportation), while also showing the futility of his idealism (Thomas is murdered by a criminal, and the elevated train he built ends up almost destroying the city).

Young Bruce is told by crime boss Carmine Falcone...

that he'll always be afraid of criminals, because he doesn't understand them, which lets us understand how he ended up in prison; he decided to confront his fears head-on. But when Ducard finds him, he has lost his focus.

Bruce is finally ready to graduate from ninja class and is ordered to kill a thief as his final exam.

He refuses, and there's a huge battle in which Ra's is killed and the temple is destroyed. Bruce rescues an unconscious Ducard and leaves him in the nearest village before returning to Gotham. It's 45 minutes into the film, and we haven't seen a hint of Batman yet, though we've seen lots of intriguing teases. And by now it's obvious how this Batman film is different from all the others: because its focus is squarely on Bruce Wayne. Not Batman and not the villains, but the man underneath the mask and why he does what he does.

What a revelation.

To be continued next week.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Out of the Vault- Batman: Year One

At some point, I'm going to have to do an in-depth examination of Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, since I keep referring to it as a seminal moment in comics history and seem to compare it to almost every comic I feature from the 80's. But in honor of Movie Monday finally reaching Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins," I figured first I'd cover the "Batman: Year One" storyline, published in Batman #404-#407 in 1987.

"Batman: Year One," written by Miller and drawn by David Mazzucchelli, was a brilliant prequel by Miller that fit into the continuity of his non-canon Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, while also being generic enough to serve as a canon post-Crisis reboot of Batman in the same way that John Byrne had rebooted Superman.

The story begins with honest cop James Gordon transferring to Gotham PD, while millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after several years' absence. Gordon is trying to overcome a reputation as a snitch for testifying against crooked cops in Chicago, while Bruce is on a mysterious mission. Gordon is met at the airport by his new partner, Flass.

Yeah, Flass is crooked, all right. But he fits in just perfectly with the rest of Gotham's elite, including Police Commissioner Loeb.

Basically, Gordon plans to clean up the streets by working within the law, while Wayne plans to clean up the streets by working outside the law. At one point in the first issue, Wayne adopts the disguise of a war vet and ends up getting in a fight with a pimp and some prostitutes, including dominatrix Selina Kyle...

A moment that was loosely referenced in "Batman Begins."

Wayne decides that he needs to find a way to make people too frightened to fight back and adopts his trademark bat costume, while Gordon is attacked by Flass and a bunch of other crooked cops. Gordon then takes his revenge in a moment of kick-ass that is really cool, and yet feels more like Marv from Sin City than Commissioner Gordon from Batman.

There follows a really interesting moral dilemma for Gordon, as he pursues the Batman, who breaks the law while pursuing justice, while Gordon tries to stop Batman in the name of law, not justice. Mazzucchelli draws a great early Batman, looking tough, yet vulnerable in his tights, without the full utility belt of the later crimefighter.

This scene was also referenced in "Batman Begins," in the scene where Batman uses a gimmick in his boot heel to summon a horde of bats.

And at the same time, Gordon is working closely with a pretty female detective named Sarah Essen, while neglecting his pregnant wife Barbara. Which brings a whole new perspective to the older Gordon in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, who is married to and deeply in love with wife Sarah.

Miller pulls off a great trick here, bringing depth and maturity to Gordon while making the early Batman feel real and vulnerable. It's an amazing piece of work, made all the more amazing when you see the utter shit he did later in his career, like "The Spirit."

Next week, it's another Miller-fest, with a twist--you choose the book. Should it be Batman: The Dark Night Returns, or Hard Boiled, or DK2? You name it, I'll play it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Smells Like Foul Spirit

"So, I got 'The Spirit' from Netflix," said Sargon the Terrible. "I keep hearing how awful it is. Want to come over and see for yourself?"

"Sure," I said. "I'm not afraid."

I probably should have been at least a little afraid. After a mishap with some Papa John's garlic butter dumping into my lap, we watched the movie. And on one level, it's worse, much worse, than you could possibly imagine. Senseless and stupid, with crap-ass dialogue, ponderous narration, and an incomprehensible plot.

But on another level, it's exactly what you expect from Frank Miller, who wrote and directed. It has all of Miller's touchstones--heavily stylized visuals, brutal fisticuffs, half-clad babes (equal parts slut and killer) in Nazi outfits, lots of first-person present-tense narration, rotund imbecilic henchmen. And there are actually a few nice moments here and there, like the scene where the Spirit, having found a photocopy of a villainess's ass, goes around to all the hotels, showing the ass to doormen to see if they can identify it.

But something about the movie kept bugging me. The narration and dialogue were mostly awful, striking exactly the wrong note, and yet something seemed familiar, like there was just one element missing that would bring all these elements together and make sense of them. And about halfway through, I figured it out.

Music. When the Spirit's narrating his way through the story, striking dramatic poses and telling you about his emotional landscape, he should be singing. In many ways, "The Spirit" plays like a musical, with the characters singing and dancing their ways through the story rather than moving and speaking like normal people. If you took the Spirit's monologues and set them to music, they'd still be bad, but I'm pretty sure they'd make more sense to the audience in a way they just don't now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Montrosities and PITAs

As much as I loved playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons when I first started, eventually it started getting on my nerves. Because the game had evolved from miniatures wargaming rather than being designed from the start as a role-playing game (understandable, since the category didn't really exist before D&D), there was a lot of abstraction built in for game balance purposes that didn't make a damn bit of sense from a roleplaying standpoint. At the same time, its reliance on detailed charts and special rules for different types of actions made it incredibly specific in weird places.

For instance, the rule for characters knowing skills (other than the central skills for their character class) consisted of one table in the Dungeon Masters Guide accompanied by one paragraph that basically said, "Just use your judgement on whether the skills apply to any situation and how." The entire section took up less than half a page.

On the other hand, the rules for contracting diseases (which the DM Guide suggested be consulted for every month of game time) were very detailed and took up a page-and-a-half. I don't know anyone who used those tables as written, because they were PITA rules--Pains In The Ass, for both the characters and GM.

Role-Playing Rule #4: PITA rules serve no purpose. They'll either be ignored or drive players to a different game.

Or there was the entire central concept of character classes and levels. The idea that your profession would determine what kind of clothing you could wear, or what weapons you could wield, was silly. Just as silly was the idea that you could only get better at, say, lock-picking or learning spells by killing monsters and taking their treasure (because monsters and money were the only things that gave you experience points). And then your character would suddenly get better at everything, all at once. Yes, there was a section in the Dungeon Master's Guide that said you actually had to travel to your mentor and take a month off in game time to train, but nobody really gamed that out cause it was another PITA rule. In practice, the process was compressed to a house rule that said "you can't level until you leave the dungeon."

So we would go in, clear two or three rooms, get wounded in combat and leave to heal up and get more spells (more about that later). Go back in, clear another two or three rooms, leave to level. Rinse and repeat until dungeon is clear. It might take you over a year of game time to clear one really big dungeon.

And then there was combat. Holy crap, where do I start on combat? Well, as I said last week, combat and movement took place on a grid of one-inch squares, with each square equalling 10 feet per side. Only one character could fit per square; the rationalization for this was that you needed all that room to swing a sword. But that meant if your party of six characters ran into a group of, say, six orcs, you'd need to be in a room that was 1200 square feet to accommodate the battle. That's almost as big as my house.

But, you say, you'd really need that much room for 12 guys fighting with swords. Fair enough. But that sort of scale meant that you'd routinely encounter dungeons with 20 foot wide corridors to allow the characters to walk two abreast. For mapping purposes, corridors and rooms were huge, never cramped or claustrophobic as you'd expect in a subterranean chamber. And the scale tripled, from feet to yards, when you went outside. Each character occupied a 30-foot by 30-foot square outside.

If you picture it on a football field, it looks pretty ridiculous--one guy with a sword standing on the 35-yard line, let's say, swinging a sword at an orc on the 45- yard line. You could say they were actually toe-to-toe on the 40, but say the fighter was also being attacked by orcs on either side; the closest they could approach would be 15 feet away.

This is explained away in the rules by saying that, since combat rounds are one minute long, each round actually contains a flurry of effort on both sides accompanied by lots of moving back and forth and such. That's right. You could only take one attack per minute. If you were to game out a boxing match in AD&D, each fighter would only be able to roll three punches per round of the fight.

It just seemed as if, the longer I played AD&D, the more it seemed completely made up of arbitrary rules and ridiculosities and complex tables that nobody ever used.

Armor didn't make you resistant to damage, but harder to hit.

Stats ranged from 3 to 18. Why? Because that was the range for three 6-sided dice. If you were a fighter, you could have exceptional strength over 18. But you couldn't have a strength of 19, oh no. You had to roll percentile dice to come up with a strength between 18/01 and 18/100. WTF?

A 10th level character could take roughly ten times the damage a 1st level character could. Once again, it was abstractly described as your being so experienced in combat that you could avoid attacks that would have killed you previously or something like that. And it certainly seemed in keeping with the fantasy genre, where heroes in battle were invariably described as "bleeding from a dozen minor wounds." But it just seemed silly, especially since there were no penalties for being wounded. You could have 176 hit points, like Marshall (my high-level bald bard from Paul's Rainbow Road campaign), take 175 points worth of damage and still operate at full-capacity indefinitely on that one remaining hit point.

Then there was all the bookkeeping. Reading through the Players Handbook and the DM Guide, it's clear that Gygax saw the game largely as one of resource management. You had to buy food and supplies and pay upkeep on your castle or whatever. Spells required material components to cast, and if your DM wanted to be a dick, he could require you to hunt down or purchase every single component and keep a record of every one you were carrying and mark them off when consumed.

So say your party is in a dungeon and along comes a wandering party of ogres that you have no chance of beating. So the magic-user casts a Dancing Lights spell down the hall to create the illusion of a bunch of torches as a distraction. In order to cast that spell, he'd have to look at his character sheet to confirm he actually was in possession of a bit of phosphorus, or wytchwood, or a live glow worm, cast the spell and mark it off.

Except that that would never, ever happen. In my years of playing AD&D, I don't think anyone ever cast a single Dancing Lights spell. As far as I know, no one in the entire history of AD&D ever used the spell. Why not?

Because of the stupidest stupid rule of all, the rule that stated spell-casters had to select their spells before the adventure and could only cast the selected spell once. The rules explained that each spell had to be memorized before use and would be forgotten once the spell was cast. A third-level magic-user, say, can only memorize 2 first level and one second level spells. That's it. That's your entire wad. That plus the puny dagger which is just about the only weapon your character's class allows you to use. There's no way you're going to waste a slot on fucking Dancing Lights, especially since you have the option of memorizing a good spell more than once, which makes even less sense than the rest.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that it wasn't long until I was looking around for a different game, just for a change of pace.

More about that next week.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman and Robin, 1997, Part 2

So last week, we examined the first 20 minutes or so of 1997's "Batman and Robin in some detail. I won't torture you with the blow-by-blow for the rest of the film, but here is an overview just to show you how overcomplicated the whole thing was.

Mister Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) needs big diamonds to build a giant freeze ray so he can hold Gotham for ransom, to obtain the billions of dollars he needs to find a cure for his dying wife (whom he keeps in a big vat). Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), meanwhile, wants to destroy human civilization and allow the plants and animals to resume their rightful places atop the natural order.

The two villains meet at a charity fundraiser for the Gotham Botanical Gardens, which Bruce has set up to lure Freeze out of hiding. But Ivy gets there first, and suddenly, it's a musical...

Her theme song is, of course, an instrumental version of the Coasters' "Poison Ivy" (I don't know who the chick is lip-syncing badly to the song in the video, but it was the only version of the original recording that I could find). And note the loin-cloth wearing "native" dancers, because if there's one thing that improves a little family-friendly homoeroticism, it's a dash of racism. Also, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy appears in the crowd as an extra, don't ask me why.

Ivy has a special pheromone dust that she uses to make both Batman and Robin fall in love with her, in an attempt to make them fight each other. There's already tension between the two, because Batman is a dick. Mister Freeze crashes the party and steals the final diamond he needs for his freeze ray, but Batman captures him and sends him back to Arkham.

Meanwhile, Alfred, our calm, solid anchor for three films now, is sick, apparently with Emoter's Syndrome.

Oh, Michael Gough. It took four films, but they finally dragged you under, too. At least he gets a decent death scene (but not really). And as if they don't have enough characters and subplots crammed into this damn movie, Alfred's niece comes a-calling.

That's Alicia Silverstone as Barbara, soon to be Batgirl. We never learn her last name, because they couldn't use Gordon and Akiva Goldsman apparently couldn't spare the extra brain cell to think of a new one. Later in the film, Silverstone will kick Thurman's ass in a fistfight, while simultaneously battling for the title of "Worst Performance in the Movie" with the line, "Read a book, sister." Thurman wins that battle, but barely.

Silverstone's character is bad on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. Well, there is the fact that she's British Alfred's niece and has supposedly been attending a British boarding school for girls, yet has absolutely no trace of a British accent. Then there's the fact that this British boarding school computer genius is also a motorcycle racing wild child who just happens to know kung fu. And even though she keeps the knowledge of her wild side secret from Alfred, he just happens to design her a sculpted-rubber Batgirl costume (actually, at least two Batgirl costumes, with her own unique logo, plus custom weapons plus motorcycle) in his spare time, on the off-chance she decides to become a crimefighter.

And this is all revealed through a virtual Alfred, a Max Headroom-type construct that appears after the real Alfred has succumbed to his disease. Because if there's one thing that will endear you to fans, it's turning the one solid, lovable character in the franchise into a rip-off of a ten-year-old TV character-turned-Coca-Cola pitchman.

But at least we get a close-up of Silverstone's tits (assuming they didn't just use a body double for the girding-up montage--oh, who cares, tits are still tits).

So Ivy busts Freeze out of Arkham and lures Robin away while Freeze sets up his super-weapon in Gotham Observatory. Ivy gives Robin her poisonous kiss of death, which Robin foils through the use of rubber lips (a gimmick he stole from Gilligan's Island--seriously, this movie is so bad that it steals ideas from Gilligan's Island!)

And there's a big climactic fight with Freeze, yada-yada-yada, Freeze is beaten and has a final change of heart when he gives Batman the cure to Alfred's disease.

That's right: the movie tries shamelessly to tug our heartstrings for an hour-and-a-half by killing off Alfred, and then brings him back, completely cured, in the final scenes. And as much as I liked Michael Gough's Alfred, I have to call bullshit on that move.

Oh, I almost forgot: there's yet another sub-plot in the movie involving Bruce Wayne's girlfriend Julie Madison, played by Elle Macpherson (Julie was Bruce's fiancee in the Mad Monk story I featured on Halloween).

So this is yet another obscure comics shout-out that goes nowhere in a dramatic sense. The plotline is dealt with in about three scenelets over the course of the movie (apparently there was more to the sub-plot which was cut out of the film). But at least Clooney looks good in the Bruce Wayne suit. And when people talk about Clooney in the role, the general consensus is that he was pretty good.

Which isn't really true. Clooney gives a really lazy performance in this one. Kilmer and Keaton at least put some thought and effort into their performances. Clooney just does Clooney. Every line is delivered with a sort of palsied head-wag, and when called upon to emote, Clooney does his patented head down-eyes up.

The performance only looks good because every other performance in the movie, from Schwarzenegger to Thurman to Silverstone to Glover to Gough to Hingle, is so bad. Clooney only comes off well by comparison.

Probably the best performance in the movie is Chris O'Donnell as Robin, and even it's not very good. O'Donnell is generally dismissed as irrelevant by the fan community, but let's face it, that's because Robin is always irrelevant. Robin may have been a valuable sidekick in the comics and cartoons, but in live-action, Robin has never been impressive.

So what's good about the movie? Barbara Ling's production design is wilder than ever and brought to very-expensive life. Gotham's buildings are taller.

Arkham Asylum is back, and fucking huge!

The statues are even bigger.

The first one is the Gotham Observatory where the climactic battle takes place, and the second is so big that the Batmobile drives up one of the fingers (it's the middle finger, which may have been a subliminal message from Schumacher to the fans).

Speaking of the Batmobile, it has been redesigned yet again, but I don't like this one much (you can see it in the Batcave pic in last week's installment). It's too lit up. There's not enough bat in this Batmobile.

Robin also has his own custom motorcycle in the early scenes...

And for the climactic confrontation with Freeze, there's a trio of new vehicles especially designed for use on snow and ice.

The entire trio also get special winterized costumes just to make the movie even more toyetic.

One other element that went unmentioned in the "Batman Forever" review also makes an unwanted return. In "Batman Forever," Dick Grayson steals the Batmobile and winds up facing off against a street gang painted up in Day-Glo colors that glowed under blacklights. The look was striking, but incredibly stupid. In this movie, we run into yet another gang of glowy thugs, led by this guy.

Recognize him? N0? Let's have a look under the paint, Lost fans.

Yep, it's Horace Goodspeed. Apparently after he fled Gotham, he washed his face and joined up with Dharma before going off to build that infamous cabin in the woods. And now you know the rest of the story.

The movie was a big-budget critical and financial disaster. Warner Brothers killed a fifth film in development, thank God, and let the franchise die. After all, you couldn't do dark (as the complaints from "Batman Returns" had proven), and now you also couldn't do campy. The whole Batman concept was spoiled forever. Best to just let him run off into the night in that final iconic shot that just screamed "Another sequel is coming."

But then some exec at Warner's got his head bashed in and developed a condition where he couldn't retain memories. How else to explain the green-lighting of a new Batman film, starring that kid from "Empire of the Sun" and the chick from Dawson's Creek facing off against Qui-Gon Jinn? Oh yeah, and Alfie as the butler.

Next week...