Werewolf

Guilty Pleasures: Christmas & the nutty spectacle of 1975's Marvel Two-in-One 8

Marvel Two-in-One 8, cover by Gil Kane. Copyright Marvel ComicsHarken back, True Believers, to a more innocent time... a time when a superhero comic could feature a satanically powered bike rider stumbling across a ethereal recreation of the birth of Jesus Christ -- and nobody freaked out. Spin yourself round, round, baby, right round to 1975: the year that Francisco Franco died (really!), the disposable razor was invented, Born to Run was released, and Marvel Two-in-One #8 hit the stands.

Johnny Blaze, whose pact with the devil had gone awry (don't they always?), had once again transformed into the skull-headed, hellfire-blazin' Ghost Rider. While riding across the Arizona desert on Christmas Eve, he comes upon -- the Three Wise Men?! Meanwhile, in New York City, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four sees in the heavens that night... yep, a new star. The Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing decides to investigate, which is good, since he was the star of this team-up title.

In this recreated Nativity in the desert, Ghost Rider and the Thing discover that all the inhabitants of "Bethlehem" are Native Americans of a nearby tribe, their minds and their lands transformed by an old FF villain, the Miracle Man! (I do not kid.) To sneak inside the village to stop, um, geez, the sci-fi/mystical recreation of Jesus, I guess, our mismatched heroes disguise themselves as two of the three Wise Men. Yes, that's right, I'm talking about the rocky behemoth and the flaming-skull guy. You got a problem with that, Effendi?

After a battle, Ghost Rider and the Thing defeat the Miracle Man, who is then dragged away by the pissed-off spirits of the tribe's ancestors, and everything goes back to normal, just in time for the real Christmas to begin. So let's see... Satanic hero saving Xmas? Check. Subversion of the Christmas myth? Check. Goofy impersonation of Nativity figures? Check. And for extra credit, gratuitous addition of Native American mythology to the tale? Bingo! I love this story! I love '70s comics! And I love the idea that this story would've fueled 24 hours of outrage on Fox News if it had come out this year!

Kudos to the late, great, demented, brilliant Steve Gerber who wrote the tale, plus Scintillating Sal Buscema on art, with the cool, "WTF?" cover by the legendary Gil Kane, shown here. As good as some comics are now, I miss this period. It was innocent, ridiculous, and fun, in a way that is hard to detect these days, in any medium.

Happy Holidays!

Comics: Retrospectively reappraising reboots, Part 2

Thought it’s been a while since the first part of this post (focusing largely on DC’s New 52), the reason for the delay is a simple one: None of the “Marvel NOW!” titles were even close to being released! But now a bunch of them have been. So what’s the early verdict? Are the new Marvel titles a reboot? Are they packaged in a way that’s appealing to the ever-elusive and perhaps fictional “new comics reader”?

Question 1: Reboot? Definitely not. The titles so far released are all part of the current continuity of Earth-616 (for the fellow geeks among you). In fact, several of them directly spin out of the aftermath of the year’s big Marvel “event,” Avengers vs. X-Men – a 12-issue series (not counting a multitude of tie-ins) that was sometimes exciting, occasionally clever, rarely surprising, and at least three issues too long.

First out of the gate is Uncanny Avengers, by Rick Remender and John Cassaday. Back at the beginning of Avengers vs. X-Men, Cyclops cuttingly asks Captain America why the Avengers – hailed as protectors of the planet – haven’t stepped up to protect the world’s mutants from many recent attempts to exterminate them. In Uncanny Avengers #1, Cap concedes that Cyclops had a point: The Avengers should have been there to help. So he recruits Cyclops’ brother, Alex Summers (a.k.a. Havok), to lead a sub-team of new & old Avengers tasked with protecting mutants. If you’ve read Remender’s wild, just-concluded run on Uncanny X-Force (buy the collections!), you know he can come up with crazy, exciting takes on old situations. He’s a mutant hybrid of Warren Ellis and Joe Haldeman. Based on what I’ve seen in Uncanny Avengers, he hasn’t changed, which is a good thing. Case in point: The Red Skull returns, steals something that ‘s, well, GROSS, and now has global powers of propaganda. Woo hoo!

Question 2: Appealing to new readers? In most cases, yes, with the caveat that “new readers” probably means “folks who read comics years ago and recognizes many of the superheroes from the ‘60s or ‘70s.” C’mon, how many of these illusory “new readers” are coming into a comic book store completely ignorant of comics? That said, it doesn’t make the task of appealing to those readers any easier. You have to be able to launch a new chapter in the hero’s life, while including familiar elements AND be entertaining to the regular readers of that title. Marvel’s poster children for doing the OPPOSITE of this have been the X-Men. As described here, X-Men continuity is migraine inducing. Forget about “new readers” attracted by the successful movies – even longtime fans don’t know what the hell is going on!

Another AvX follow-up offers a solution: All-New X-Men, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Stuart Immomen. Regardless of what you think of Bendis’ writing, the concept is cool and is perfect for his style: Hank McCoy, a.k.a. the Beast, greatly disturbed by the events of AvX, goes back in time to retrieve the ORIGINAL X-Men of the Lee/Kirby days in a desperate attempt to alter the timeline and save the mutant race. For the young X-Men, the Marvel Universe of the present is a grim world. I haven’t gotten to this title yet (issue #3 is out as I type), yet the reviews have been positive, e.g. here, here, and here.

One title whose first issue I HAVE read is Indestructible Hulk, by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu. Again, it’s a good launch point for all readers. Want a Hulk and Bruce Banner that’s recognizable to anyone, whether you’re a die-hard comics reader, a fan of the Avengers movie, or someone who remembers only Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno? Here you go. Waid’s brilliant take on this is, essentially, “Hulk, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Bruce Banner finds S.H.I.E.L.D.’s current director, Maria Hill, and tells her that he’s a scientific genius, dammit, right up there with Reed Richards and Tony Stark. However, those two guys routinely get credit for saving the world whereas Banner fears that his tombstone will read “Hulk Smash.” Now, after years of trying to rid himself of the Hulk, Banner has concluded that the Hulk is an “incurable condition” (hence the “Indestructible” in the title) and he offers his big brain to S.H.I.E.L.D. in exchange for assistance in helping him manage that condition. Expecting Director Hill to be skeptical – and she’s downright terrified at times during their quiet conversation in a small-town diner – Banner arranges a test run. I’ll leave it at that.

The first issue is very smart, and the idea is so good that I’m amazed no one ever thought of it before. Damn entertaining. I’m eager to see what Waid and Yu have planned.

Recapping: To boost sales, DC Comics chose another reboot, while Marvel has gone with a massive revamp – complete with new creative teams on almost every title – yet kept the continuity intact. Is one approach better than the other? Rebooting allows for more creative freedom, since you’re not tied to the past, yet repeated rebooting creates its own problems. How can you expect to maintain continuous readership if the “reality” of the universe changes every few years? That’s like looking at your old comic books and thinking, “Oh that’s right – this no longer happened. It doesn’t count.”

It’s a similar situation on network TV, where new dramas with complex storylines have trouble attracting viewers. Why invest time and emotion in a new TV series if there’s a good chance the network will cancel it after a couple of months? (FlashForward, anyone? Alcatraz?) Discuss!

"Iron Man 3" trailer: A ruthless first reaction

Next year's Iron Man 3 will be the first Marvel film since The Avengers made us giddy and took in a gazillion dollars worldwide. It also marks the start of what Marvel refers to as Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fancy schmancy talk? Sure! Has Marvel Studios earned the right to use such fancy schmancy talk? SURE!

So what hints can we glean from the trailer released this week? We can't necessarily glean the film's quality - hey, the trailer for Iron Man 2 made that film look great, remember? - but we can sense the film's tone. In one word: ruthless. If you haven't seen the trailer yet, here you go:



Certainly not the best trailer I've ever seen. Nevertheless, grim stuff, right? Closer in feel to The Dark Knight Rises than The Avengers. And that's probably the right way to go. While I've grumbled about the darker, Batman-ish atmosphere that was in this summer's The Amazing Spider-Man and next year's Superman relaunch, Man of Steel, those two movies are marking the launch/relaunch of potential franchises, where first impressions matter. (Side note: Superman, DARK? Really? He's supposed to represent our innate idealism, a belief in something greater and stronger. He's not Batman! But I digress.)

For Tony Stark, Robert Downey, Jr., and this franchise, it's different. This is Film #3 - or #4 if you count The Avengers. And you should count it. Iron Man 3 certainly counts it. While the action in the trailer isn't particularly exciting, the promise that it holds is exciting. The "ruthless" feeling that it carries rests on the reference to the events in New York City, complete with Hiroshima-like images of victims' shadows burned into buildings. (Granted, an event in Iron Man 3's plot could be responsible for those shadows, yet the trailer's editing clearly wants us to link them to this year's film.) It calls to mind Stark's line to Steve Rogers in The Avengers: "We're not soldiers!" Well, Tony, you sort of are now. And after a gruesome battle and a near-death experience, what comes next? Stark seems to be going through his own version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On top of that, the stakes have been raised. You think the old Military/Industrial Complex was twitchy at the start of Iron Man 2? Hell, now Stark is part of a world-altering force, the Avengers! Those same shadowy people are super-twitchy now. Hence the appearance of "the Iron Patriot" - reportedly a repainted War Machine armor, since Norman Osborn (a.k.a. comics' the Green Goblin and, much later, the Iron Patriot when he replaced Nick Fury as the country's #1 cop) belongs to Sony/Columbia's Spidey franchise and so, alas, don't expect any crossovers.

We also get a good look at two of the other big concepts in the film: the Extremis armor (wow, wonder how much - if any - of Warren Ellis' story will make it here?) and ... Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin! Cool. I like the visual mix of Genghis Khan and Osama bin Laden, as well as how it completes the story kicked off by Stark's imprisonment at the hands of "the Ten Rings" terrorist groups in the first film.

Did the trailer have me jumping up and down? Nope. It's simply a good trailer. Again, a so-so film can easily fool you if its trailer kicks ass. Yet the ruthlessness of Iron Man 3's trailer is surprising - and that's a good thing these days. I'm interested in seeing what Downey and director Shane Black have in mind.

But guys, what the hell is with the armor's red-and-WHITE color scheme? He looks like a can of Coke!

Hammer horror and 1951 Down Place

It's been far too long since I talked about the greatness of Hammer Films, the British studio that resurrected the horror genre. In its heyday from the late 1950s through the early '70s, Hammer treated the world to a zombie-horde of horror, making full use of Technicolor, atmosphere, music, and beautiful women. It also turned Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into international stars. (You young whippersnappers out there may better know Cushing and Lee as, respectively, Star Wars' Grand Moff Tarkin and Lord of the Rings' Saruman. Now get off my lawn!)

Hammer Films sunk its fangs into me when I was just a kid in the late '60s, thanks to Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monster Times magazines. The mark was made permanent when my father took me to see a Hammer movie in an honest-to-Frankenstein theater: Dracula A.D. 1972, at the old Paramount Theater on Staten Island, NY. I had seen Lee (as Dracula) and Cushing (Van Helsing) previously in a couple of films on TV (even when it meant staying up to 2 a.m. in those pre-cable, pre-VCR days), but here, for the first time on the Big Screen?

Christopher Lee and Caroline Munro in 'Dracula A.D. 1972'Wow. I was damn impressed. (Thank you, Dad.) Is it a great film? Nah. It's good, but it has problems, notably a lack of confidence about how to mix Dracula with the swingin' Mod vibe of England in the early Seventies. Yeah, baby! Yet none of that mattered. Cushing was a consummate actor, meticulously using all available props in nearly every scene to illustrate different aspects of his character. Lee was supremely imposing and majestic, and I wasn't surprised to discover many years later that he is descended from Italian royalty, with his ancestry possibly going all the way back to Charlemagne. To my 12-year-old self, though, this biographical info took a back seat to the biological info that ran through me when I beheld Caroline Munro, Dracula's first victim in the film. Again... wow. (Thank you, Caroline!)

Anyway, if you're reading this blog, you likely already know the awesomeness of Hammer, and you may also know that, like the Count, Hammer returned to life recently, producing several new horror films, including Let Me In and the well-received, spooky thriller The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter role.

However, you maynot know about 1951 Down Place, an excellent and relatively new podcast. In each installment, hosts Casey, Derek, and Scott examine one Hammer film in depth, sharing their thoughts and lots of behind-the-scenes trivia. They intend to cover as much of Hammer's catalog as possible, and the podcast isn't limited to the horror films. September's film, for instance, was Hell is a City, a 1959 film noir, believe it or not. If you're a film fan, you should check out the podcast. If you're a Hammer fan, you NEED to subscribe to it on iTunes today. I want to stake myself for not coming across it months ago. ARRRGH! And if you're on Facebook, visit their discussion group (which is different from their Fan page).

See the Hammer tag for a few other posts here, including a salute to Mr. Lee. Lastly, inspired by 1951 Down Place's three hosts, here's my Top 5 list of Favorite Hammer Films:

  1. Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. As I said in the Chris Lee post, while this may not be in the top rank of Hammer's movies, it is the quintessential Hammer film. Everything that made Hammer remarkable is in perfect display here, from the cinematography to the sets to the remarkable Veronica Carlson to Lee himself.
  2. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Worship this crazy, clever movie! Why? Here's why. Better still, watch the whole movie right now on Hammer's YouTube channel. Bonus: The podcast informed me that there's a new novel adaptation out as well!
  3. The Devil Rides Out. Intrepid investigators, led by Lee (in a rare appearance as a good guy), face off against Satanists and black magic in the 1920s. Fun! It has thrilling direction by Terence Fisher and a terrific script by Richard Matheson, even if the ending's deus ex machina is hard to swallow. The film is also a Call of Cthulhu RPG come to life!
  4. Horror of Dracula. Hammer's first Dracula film and the best. Cushing, always great, excels as Van Helsing, whose fight with Lee's Dracula concludes in a dialogue-free, pulse-pounding final two minutes that is among horror cinema's finest moments.
  5. Frankenstein Must Be DestroyedUpdated: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. The night after I wrote this post and placed Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde in the #5 spot, Baron Victor Frankenstein haunted my thoughts, demanding recognition. And he's right. Hammer's superb Frankenstein series focused on the creator, not his creations, and was anchored by the riveting, chilling performance of Peter Cushing as the thoroughly vile baron. In this, the fifth of the series, Cushing gives one of his finest performances. From the kinetic opening to the tragic, nobody-wins ending, Cushing's Baron Frankenstein again shows why he's one of the cruelest, coldest sonuvabitches in film. What he does in this film...! Director Terrence Fisher, who helmed many of Hammer's finest, is back here, and I dare you not to feel the tension during the flower-bed sequence. Yes, you read that correctly.

Honorable Mention: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Yes, "Sister" Hyde! It's certainly one of the most orignal and wildest spins on Stevenson's classic tale! With a good script by Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos and the Avengers TV series) and directed by Hammer staple Roy Ward Baker, the movie overcomes poor pacing and stands out because of its two stars: Ralph Bates as Jekyll and the mesmerizing Martine Beswick as his homicidal better half. Unfortunately, the DVD been out of U.S. circulation for years. C'mon, Hammer, get this baby on Blu-ray!
Survivor

Survivor: Philippines premiere - Mr. Skulpin, drop the machete!

Last night's premiere of Survivor: Phillippines featured surprises, cleverness, and enchantingly bad gameplay -- three things that immediately set this season apart from last season's debacle, a.k.a. Survivor: Nuke the Site from Orbit - It's the Only Way to be Sure.

Before diving into the promising good start, let's deal with the not-so-good setup. As with all recent seasons, this year has returning players: Russell Swan, Michael Skulpin, and Jonathan Penner, all of whom left the game with injuries. Russell nearly died on camera (really), Michael nearly had his hands burned off, and Penner nearly lost his hat. The gimmicky appeal of bringing back old players has faded, although the victory of Boston Rob in Spring 2011 and Coach's redemption last fall were certainly fun to watch. (I rooted for the Dragonslayer! Whodathunkit?) Moreover, the current players have gotten wise to it. Now, when old players pop up, they are targeted almost immediately by the rest. "He had his shot! It's time for someone else." Fair enough. 

However, balancing the ho-humness of this is the new twist: No, not the game-weakening Redemption Island and definitely not the (ugh) Medallion of Power. It's... three tribes! Why is this cool? Because in the last few seasons, we've witness five-person alliances form on the two eight- or nine-member tribes within minutes of arrival, leading to a series of predictable votes when those teams end up in Tribal Council. Besides being boring, these instant alliances are dumb. Why forge "unbreakable" alliances with people before you've watched them play the game? Too often, contestants learn that their new BFF is psychotic, unreliable, unlikeable, or all of the above. (See: Alicia, Troyzan, and ... oh hell, nearly everyone else on Survivor: One World.) Anyway, with three tribes of six members apiece, it should be much harder for one big alliance and dominate the first half of the season.

On to the highlights! SPOILERS commence!
  • The ever-obnoxious Penner gives Jeff Probst a dose of snark in the first few seconds! Excellent.
  • And in the first three minutes, secret ex-baseball player Jeff Kent is nearly crippled as his leg gets stuck as his tribe hurriedly cuts loose their raft. So not only is trying to keep his baseball career a secret, he's trying to keep his near-crippling injury a secret, too. His time on Survivor could be shorter than his career with the Mets. Oh the humanity!
  • Lisa Whelchel of The Facts of Life is a contestant! Get out! Hey, most of the contestants don't know who she is because they were born after that show went off the air in 1988. Depressed yet? NOW get out!
  • Lisa says she's nothing like her character, Blair. That's for sure. Lisa is amazingly passive. Add that to the ongoing (and unfortunate) Survivor trend of twentysomethings ostracizing older players, and her prospects seem dim.
  • Penner isn't the only returning player who continues bad habits. Russell Swan tells the camera that he is certainly NOT going to be the bossy leader guy this time around. No, sir! In fact, Russell says you're a dummy if you immediately make yourself the leader, as that only puts a target on your back. So Russell decides to show everyone that he's not a dummy by... telling folks what to do, being bossy, and not listening to others' opinions. OK, thanks for that, Russell!
  • Match that up with the unintentional comedy of Michael "The Incredible Melting Man" Skulpin, who promptly proceeds to chop himself in the scalp with a machete, cut his hand while chopping bamboo, slice open the bottom of one of his feet, and -- for good measure -- stab himself in the other hand while attempting to use the machete as a paring knife. Who knows, maybe his tumble into the fire during Survivor: The Australian Outback prevented something fatal from happening to him...!  
  • The youngest contestant, Angie (age 20), has shockingly obvious fake boobs. Just had to say it. However....
  • Her enhanced assets and oh-so-innocent face could cause significant problems for my early pick to win it all, Malcolm the Bartender. Oh sure, Malcolm made me feel good about my pick after he quickly sussed out Russell's and Zane's gameplay (more on Zane in a bit), and he proved himself quite adept during the first challenge. BUT it looks like he's making goo-goo eyes at Angie. Bad move! Survivor history shows that any canoodling will make you a target. 
  • Sarah Dawson apparently is following the Cochran model and asking to be called by her last name only. Um, fine. Because that worked out so well for Cochran....
  • I want to like R.C., the shapely investment banker from New York City who is pretending to be an executive assistant because, on the popularity scale, investment bankers are just a step above The Fox Executive Who Cancelled Firefly. Yet, for a New Yorker, she doesn't seem particularly savvy. She makes an alliance immediately with fellow "executive assistant," business student Abi-Maria, about whom she knows nothing. The two of them are SO smitten with each other, in fact, that I thought a Cinemax movie might break out at any second. Their alliance is bound to be a disaster. 
  • R.C. at least realizes that a two-person alliance won't go very far, so she reaches out to both Pete (hunky and silent; won't go far) and Michael, who smartly says to the camera that "you have to go at the pace of the game" to succeed, at least in these early days. Thus, even though he believes the "three-minute alliance" is nuts (and he's right!), he happily consents. And really, what's his option? Say no to R.C. and unnecessarily put a bigger target on his back? 
  • And now we come to Zane, the super-tattooed, young, tire-repair guy from Virginia. Thank you, Zane, for presenting Survivor with -- as I called it -- the most ridiculous "master plan" in YEARS. He even gave us an appetizer before the main course: In a very short time, he made secret "alliances" with all the other members of his tribe, either singly or in pairs. He presented it as brilliant strategy; my man Malcolm shook his head in astonishment after Zane described what he had oh-so-cleverly done, because it automatically marked Zane as unreliable, deceitful, and a bit nuts. Ah, but Zane was just getting warmed up.
  • After the Matsing tribe's spectacular failure at the first Immunity Challenge, Russell admits that he screwed up by slotting the wrong people in different spots of the challenge, ignoring all advice from the others. Yep. Despite Russell's obvious physical prowess, his bossy mistakes look like they're going to get him kicked off. If only something incredibly bizarre could save him.... And here it comes! Zane, who practically passed out during the challenge, says he's done. He doesn't have the strength to carry on. All he'll do is hurt the tribe at the next challenge. “Three days in, brother, and I ain’t built for it. I deserve to go.” Well, okay then!
  • Here's where it jumps to Are-You-Shitting-Me levels of ridiculousness. Zane says to the camera afterward that it's all a ruse! He wants people to think he's quitting, so that they'll have pity on him (?) and plead with him to stay (?!?). Um, no, it's more likely that they'll take you at your word and say "Buh-bye!" Bah! Zane doesn't believe that. "“I’m playing chess the best way I know how." With sippy cups and M&Ms, I'm guessing.
  • Despite the deceptive editing where it looks like the tribe might indeed fall for Zane's master plan and vote out Russell (it certainly wouldn't be the first time a tribe has stupidly voted out its strongest players pre-Merge), Zane and his Chess Set of Doom are sent packing to the Ponderosa. A shame, really. I would have loved to see his next move!

Overall first impressions: a fun start, with a far more likable and (mostly) more intelligent crew than last season's misfits. Keep it going.
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Comics: Retrospectively reappraising reboots, Part 1

DC's New 52: The Justice LeagueWhile I don't regularly read many comics these days, the industry trends are still fun to track. That's particularly true now, with superheroes and other comics properties jumping back and forth between print, film, TV, and digital media, and even stirring the mainstream news feeds. One year ago, DC Comics made an arguably bold move with "The New 52," in which it rebooted its superhero universe, flooding comic-book stores and threatening fans' wallets with 52 new #1 issues (yep, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, etc.) and resetting all those characters' timelines.

Why "arguably bold"? Because rebooting the universe isn't as impressive as it might sound, since DC had rebooted the universe several times before over the past three decades, starting with the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths (1986) and rinsing/repeating with the not-so-classic Zero Hour (1994), Infinite Crisis (2006), and the misnamed Final Crisis just two years later (2008). (OK, yes, its Legion of Three Worlds tie-in series kicked ass.) Rebooting the timeline can be a shrewd business move when you're talking about characters that have -- in DC's case -- been around since the 1930s and '40s. Continuity started becoming a must-have for fans in the late '60s; since then, the attempt to reconcile many characters' histories has turned into a full-time job for editors and a part-time exercise in masochistic joy for some comics geeks.

Here's the main issue for publishers DC and Marvel: For the ever-elusive "New Reader" interested in checking out a comic book after seeing, say, a successful movie based on that comic, those knotty histories can be major turnoffs. (I talked about the modern-day poster children for brain-hurting histories here three years ago. Read the juicy comments, too.) So, if you're DC Comics and your parent company, Warner Brothers, wants you to generate publicity and sales at a time when rival Marvel's heroes are scoring big time on the silver screen, "The New 52" and a refreshed timeline makes a lot of sense. 

How has "The New 52" done? Pretty well. Certainly, sales were dynamite for the first few months. A slew of new #1's will do that, as will the pairing of great creative teams with titles (e.g., Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on Justice League). After a while, though, sales dropped, as fans were financially unable to support ALL those titles and as some of the touted creative teams dropped off -- sometimes surprisingly or loudly -- after the first few issues. See Newsrama's list of the best and the worst of the reboot. (I'll give kudos to Brian Azzarello for his different, interesting, horror/action take on Wonder Woman. I'll add my "Ptui!" to the critical phlegm aimed at Scott Lobdell and the emotional lobotomization of Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws.)

Now it's Marvel's turn. Historically, Marvel hasn't done a widespread reboot. The closest it has come is the creation of the "Ultimate" line of comics -- a separate universe that takes place in a more "reality-based" world than Marvel's main line, featuring younger, updated versions of many of the Marvel heroes. (Life-Imitates-Art note: For the Ultimates comics, of the gruff, cigar-smoking, and definitely white super-spy Nick Fury was reimagined as a bald black man bearing a striking resemblance to actor & comics fan Samuel L. Jackson. The new Fury proved so popular that when the cinematic Fury was introduced in the post-credits scene of 2008's Iron Man, he was portrayed by ... Samuel L. Jackson.) Amusingly, the Ultimate line itself was relaunched just last year.

Granted, there have been individual reboots at Marvel, mostly notably several years ago with Spider-Man. In the controversial "Brand New Day" storyline, Peter Parker's Aunt May was about to die because she took a bullet meant for Peter, who had earlier revealed his secret identity to the world. So what did the stalwart hero do? Make a deal with the Devil. Literally, or at least with Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil. Mephisto agreed to tweak reality so that Peter's identity as Spider-Man would again be secret and his aunt would be saved. The price? Peter's marriage to Mary Jane Watson -- and their love -- would also be wiped away. Marvel made this move because it felt that the tales of happily married Peter Parker were getting, well, dull. It chose to reboot the character so that Spidey would again be the highly agitated and highly single swinging superhero. Regardless of how the tale played out (I was NOT a fan), there's no disputing that the succeeding years have proven to be enormously successful, critically and financially, with now-longtime writer Dan Slott earning praise as the best Spidey scribe since Stan "The Man" Lee. 

Now, Marvel and its corporate boss, Disney, wonder what to do about that ephemeral "New Reader" who -- having been one of the millions to see the blockbuster Avengers film -- is considering buying an Avengers comic book. Is it finally time for a widespread reboot to wipe the chronology slate clean? Marvel's answer: a potentially clever Yes and No.

Next: The proposed "Marvel NOW" titles! The future of comics crossovers! Movies and money money money! Excelsior!
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4e campaign recap: The pungent stench of a PC ... and betrayal!

We continue recapping Rick Maffei’s 4e D&D campaign, set in the world of Áereth (from Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics). As discussed last time, we foiled the expected assassination attempt on the sage Elbarr. He may be the last person alive who can decipher some of the clues we’ve acquired to the location of Captain Longshanks’ treasure – and clearly there are forces that don’t want ANYONE to have that knowledge.

After talking to the grateful Elbarr, we decided to proceed to the mysterious, exotic, dangerous, thief-ridden city of Punjar, and that will require a ship! Here, again and for the first time, is the party lineup:

  • Mike: Tarthon, minotaur barbarian – Have Axe, Will Travel
  • Steve: Grumhorn, a.k.a. "Grue," dwarf invoker – The Immovable Object. Truly.
  • Felix: Manael, tiefling bard – Inventor of the Killing Joke
  • Me: Graaver Stormcry, longtooth shifter druid-fighter – Sees Life as a Series of Punching Bags
  • Willie: Sebastin, githzerai shaman-invoker ranger (the scout build from Essentials) ... and he’s been a githzerai ranger THE WHOLE TIME. We swear!

We did another Talkerapp.com chat to handle the minor but time-consuming details of acquiring much needed magic potions and finding a ship. Behold... the chat log! (Nothing major, but it’s a fun read, and demonstrates how useful chat rooms can be for this type of mostly verbal, character-driven activity.)

After we settle which of our characters will possess which potions, our party greets Captain Lasandra Cross, and we inquire about voyage to Punjar. With the exception of the sage Elbarron (“Elbarr”), we’re all willing to work for passage. After she looks us over, the captain agrees. She says her ship, Lasandra's Wave, is understaffed right now and could do with the extra hands. She’s not kidding: Besides Cross and her first mate, Nathan, there seem to be only five crewmembers. Yikes. All the crew, including Cross and Nathan, are human.

Cross says the voyage will take about three and a half days, with one very brief stop in Carnalloe to pick up a passenger or two. After telling us that Nathan will assign crew rotations, she gets back to making the ship ready to sail. We meet the cabin boy – an inquisitive lad, Nate (Nathan’s son?). We also learn that Elbarr is not the only non-working passenger; a gnome, Dhennier, is said to be a “procurer of special items,” and his cargo in the hold is locked up and off limits.

And soon, we’re off! To the sea! Where men are men, minotaurs are minotaurs, and captains are women! It’s also freakin’ HOT out. Sweat starts glistening on he-manly muscles. Stormcry and Grue join three crewmen on the main deck for a rollicking version of “YMCA” during the first shift, while Sebastin, Tarthon, and Manael help move and secure cargo below, like men male humanoids do! Stormcry starts chatting with a couple of crewmen, Curtis (who’s new) and Hallowell (who has sailed with Captain Cross for years), and Manael talks to Ned below. They all seem friendly enough, and Hallowell says the captain plays fair with the crew. When Stormcry asks about the threat of pirates, Hallowell laments, “I wish!!” He says the highest chance of being attacked will come in a couple of days as we go around “the Wreckers” – a part of the peninsula where jagged rocks under the water can, well, wreck a ship unless you proceed cautiously. Sure, you could navigate farther out from the peninsula, but that would add to the sailing time significantly.

Elbarr stays below decks in his cabin, looking through the oddly encoded history book and Hallowell’s collection of men’s underwear catalogs. The sage is trying to figure out what’s different between it and the “normal” version of the book. There must be something different, else why encode it?

We pick up our passengers in Carnalloe: two very young, adventurer-looking types – guy and gal, possibly half-elven and apparently siblings or even fraternal twins. They have longswords and daggers, and they wear leather. They’re immediately popular with the crew. There’s a third new passenger, too: Obewald, an overweight spice merchant. (Is there any other kind?) All three have paid for their passage, so none of them will be on duty.

That evening, Manael is in the crow’s nest, Grue and Stormcry are back on deck duty, and Tarthon and Sebastin are below, swabbing the lower decks in preparation for the crew’s annual staging of “Mamma Mia.” Tarthon notices that one of the storage doors is ajar, and he can hear animal movement beyond. He says cautiously, “Hallowell, what are you up to...?” but there’s no response. Recalling what they’ve been told about Dhennier’s off-limits “special items,” he decides to not to peek inside. As long as what’s in there STAYS there, that’s fine. Later, we all go to sleep, except Manael who remains in the crow’s nest. Sebastin sleeps on the main deck itself, under the stars.

The following morning, Stormcry and Grue are again on the main deck (sheesh, Nathan, give us a break!) and all is going well ... until Stormcry hears a creaking sound above. He looks up. A mast is falling! The lupine shifter rolls out of the way. Unfortunately, the only roll that Grue knows is the one that’s coated in cinnamon and powdered sugar. The dwarf is pinned by the long shaft. After several crewmen swoon in delight, Stormcry encourages them to free his friend – and Stormcry notices that the mast had been chopped, probably within the past 24 hours. This was no accident. This was sabotage. DUN DUN DUNNNNN!

He quietly informs Nathan, who in turn tells Captain Cross. Naturally, the party members fall under suspicion, with the possible exception of Stormcry. Although we don’t outwardly share the info with the crew or the other passengers, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the ship is missing a mast, and so word and rumor quickly spread. Fortunately, the sabotaged mast was the smallest of the four and can be repaired. In the meantime, it’ll still slow Lasandra’s Wave when we go around the Wreckers, which will happen shortly. We wonder if that was the point. Could someone on the ship be working with the raiders? More precisely, which of them doesn’t want to be raided?

We tighten up the shifts and keep a wary eye on the rest of the crew and the other passengers – just as they’re likely eyeing us, especially under the hot sun. That night, there’s a commotion below decks! Ned charges toward Manael and yells in a frightened voice, “They’re loose! They’re loose!” Two gricks are roaming the lower deck! Within seconds, the rest of the party is alerted. The gnome Dhennier pleads with us, “My cargo! Don’t hurt them! I’ll make it worth your while!” “I’ve heard that promise before,” shrugs Ned, who hides in the forward storage area.

It’s well and good to say “Don’t hurt the gricks,” but gricks don’t exactly make that easy! Still, after plenty of punching (Stormcry), pushing (Grue’s astral wind), sliding (Sebastin’s cool clever shot – and yes, he’s always been a 4e Essentials ranger, dammit!), singing (Manael’s staggering note and a timely majestic word to aid Tarthon), and LOTS of pain-fueled intimidation (Tarthon), the two gricks are forced back into the hold. Manael later tells us that just as he was rolling a barrel in front of the entrance, he noticed that the lock on the gricks’ cage had been opened.

During the bizarre fight, the Wonder Twins watched excitedly and asked if they could help. We didn’t encourage them – not out of meanness, but out of a realization that in the cramped quarters, they really couldn’t help without getting in our way.

After things settle down below, action continues above decks, where Captain Cross is angrily telling the merchant Obewald to calm his ass down. The crew is agitated as well; they blow off steam by organizing a conga line to the tune of Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot.” Clearly, someone onboard is not what he seems. Cross concurs: “I don’t believe in coincidences.” Commence the paranoia! Continue the conga!

In other annoying news, Elbarr tells us that he’s finished his thorough review of the two history books: no differences! Great. And oh yeah, the rest of the trip will take two more days instead of one, and there’s a storm coming. Whee! We ask Nathan if any of the passengers are regulars on the voyage to Punjar. Dhennier has been on once before; the Wonder Twins and Obelard – I mean, Obewald – are first-timers.

The next morning, Stormcry tries to smooth-talk his way into prime suspect Obelwald’s cabin to peek around, but Stormcry clearly needs to ditch his deodorant scent, Eau de Raccoon. Afterward, Hallowell tells Stormcry to forget Obewald and come investigate the animal action in his cabin. Wink wink. Later, on the main deck, Nathan makes a point of taking each crewmember aside for a quick, private conversation. When he gets to Stormcry, he says, “We need to be vigilant. And by Ildavir’s bowels, you smell rancid. We...” WHAMMMM!!!! Something BIG hits the ship!! Most of us keep our feet, but Manael, Tarthon, Scotty, and Uhura go flying across the deck as the ship rocks violently!

From the water rises a very large and very scaly creature with four serpentine heads – a hydra! [Cool! In all my years of playing D&D, I don’t recall ever confronting this iconic beastie before!] The hydra grabs Redshirt Crewman Jonas in one of its razor-toothed jaws and then it flings him screaming into the sea! Roll for initiative!

One hydra head bites into Tarthon deeply! Another one darts toward Sebastin and hits – or does it? The githzerai has the power of the iron mind! Is the defensive boost enough to avoid a hit? It is! [Good call, Willie!] Two hydra heads strike at Stormcry. One hits, and one misses – and then Stormcry is hit again – from behind!

By a thunderous arcane attack. By Manael.

The tiefling bard says coldly, “Xollox has decided your usefulness is at an end!” and whomps Stormcry with staggering note.

WHAT? WHAT?!?

Ohhhhhhh Hohohohohoho. Ohhhhh.

Stormcry ferociously transforms to his standard, lupine beast form. Infuriated to the point of ignoring the MUCH larger hydra, the shifter growls, “What the hell are you doing?!” and tries to bull rush Manael over the rail. The bard sidesteps! Grue, who didn’t quite catch this act of betrayal, tries to hit the hydra with astral wind, which in turn draws an opportunity attack from Manael! OK, now Grue is clued in!

The crew fires crossbow bolts at the hydra, which takes another sizeable chomp out of Tarthon. Quickly, the minotaur has been bloodied. Yay! Here comes the bloodied ferocity! [Note: Actually, not SO much “yay” this time, since a) Mike wasn’t here, b) his kickass minotaur is now bloodied in close combat with a humongous hydra that could rock the ship to pieces, and c) our tiefling bard has betrayed us. Not good!] One of the hydra’s three other heads hits Grue. Then another one takes a bite out of Obewald. [Yaaaay.] Suddenly, in the middle of all this, Stormcry feels a vile presence in his mind – just as in the alleyways of Southwatch. His senses are assaulted with the stench of the grave. The number “3” and the word “triad” flash through his mind… and then it’s gone. Back to blood, fangs, and searing pain!

Manael uses his shout of triumph against his former allies, blasting Tarthon, Stormcry, and Grue and pushing them toward the hydra … and nearly over the railing! Tarthon, who was the closest to the edge, has to make a saving throw to avoid tumbling into the water! Granted, this nasty intra-party squabbling puzzles the ship’s captain and crew, except for Hallowell, who believes it’s a Klingon mating ritual and wants in. And then Manael does something incredibly evil and clever. “Captain!” he calls out. “They’re the ones who summoned the hydra!” His Bluff check vs. her Insight check: She believes him! Oh yeah, Manael has to die.

[Kudos to Felix during this whole session. We players had NO IDEA that he and Rick had planned for Manael to betray the party. We knew that Felix was planning to bring in a new character soon, but THIS? Wow. Double kudos to Felix for also playing it straight after the Big Reveal. As the bard Manael, he was doing his best to kill members of the party. As the player Felix, who is super-knowledgeable of 4e’s classes and powers, he continued to advise the other players and help folks figure out which attacks would come in handy. Believe me, there are less honorable gamers who would’ve blurred that line. Plus, Felix had earlier aided Willie in “retconning” Sebastin as an Essentials ranger – a development that we soon realized was drenched in Awesome Sauce and which came in quite handy as you’ll see. Bravo, Felix.]

Sebastin, who wisely had been staying well away from the ship’s hydra-facing side, ducks behind a longboat and fires an arrow at Manael, but it goes wide. Stormcry, having heard Manael’s comment to the captain, whirls toward her and yells, “He betrayed us!” He points to his bloody torso. “What do you think THESE are? Love bites?!” He follows that up with a charge at Manael, plus an Action Point-enabled second attack, which both miss! Ay caramba! Tarthon quaffs his potion of healing – and is immediately struck again by the hydra. There’s a lot of blood on the deck, practically all of it ours. Things are not going well.

The dwarf Grue strikes Manael successfully (finally, he’s hit!) with spear of the inquisitor. Manael’s betraying blood boils, and the tiefling retaliates with infernal wrath. The hydra then bites Grue. The invoker invokes nothing but unconsciousness as his bloody form falls to the deck. Manael, now acting on his regular turn, hits Stormcry with an encore of staggering note and quaffs a potion of healing for good measure. Sebastin’s next arrow at Manael goes wide.

Stormcry drinks his own healing potion and calls forth the spirit pack. The spectral wolves miss Manael spectacularly, yet they strike the swimming hydra and knock it “prone.” [Rick ruled that the hydra was pushed back ten feet. “You just saved yourself two bites.” Yay!] Tarthon uses his second wind and moves out of the hydra’s lengthy reach and toward Captain Cross, who responds warningly, “No closer.” Still unsure of whom to believe, she points her sword at the minotaur for emphasis.

Elbarr attempts to join the fighting, as do the Wonder Twins. [Hey, we’re desperate, so damn straight we called on the NPCs!] Now a legitimate target, Elbarr is rewarded for his courage with two bites from the hydra’s heads. Ouchie!

Manael tires of being Sebastin’s practice target, so he climbs onto the longboat and tries to hit the githzerai with war song strike. Sebastin again fires a clever shot at the treacherous tiefling – and hits with a natural 20! And since the longboat is hanging adjacent to the ship’s railing, the ranger attempts to use the scout attack to slide Manael over the side! Manael makes his saving throw, so he doesn’t tumble over, but he still goes prone.

And here comes the turning point, kicked off by an Action Point: Sebastin tries the same attack again – and gets a to-hit total of 19. Manael’s AC is 20. ARGH! But wait! Sebastin had previously assumed the stance of the dancing serpent, which provides a +1 bonus to attack and damage. Make that 19 a 20. Hit! Manael rolls another save – and fails. The ranger’s clever shot spins the tiefling around and sends him tumbling over the rail! Phew! So that takes care of... wait, what’s that? Oh, that’s right! When we divvied up potions at the start of the session, Manael took a potion of water breathing. Crap! [Damn your cleverness, Felix!]

Elbarr makes a successful Heal check on Grue, pulls the dwarf out of the hydra’s reach, and pours a potion of healing down his throat. Well done, NPC! Now that Manael and his lying tongue are gone, Tarthon negotiates with Captain Cross and gets her people to focus on the real threat – which is busy striking Stormcry with two vicious attacks, one of which is a crit! Stormcry goes deeply into negative numbers. [If he hadn’t used that healing potion earlier, I’d be rolling up a new character – or, more accurately, choosing one of the many I’ve created. “My name is Ken, and I’m a Character Builder addict.” Everyone: “Hi, Ken.”] Tarthon runs down and drags his dying bash brother out of further danger.

Grue, conscious again, invokes a brilliant beacon of radiant energy. It’s a zone of divine light that, as long as he sustains it, will impose a -2 penalty on the attacks, defenses, and saving throws of anything in its range. [Did this end up being HUGE? You betcha.] Although the beacon’s manifestation doesn’t hurt the hydra greatly, it slices off one of the hydra’s four heads – and two more grow in its place! AHHH!!! [Awesome.]

By now, most people have realized that engaging in melee combat with the hydra is an easy way to get dead, so the crew releases a volley of crossbow bolts. Since the hydra can’t reach anybody at the moment, it decides to start demolishing the ship! Oh, that’s not good. At this point, Captain Cross is done with doubting us! She yells at Tarthon, “Do whatever you can!” Hey, look, it’s the Wonder Twins – and they’re foolishly attacking in melee with their cute longswords. Woo hoo, one of them hits it! The hydra’s teeth open a gash along the woman’s side. Stormcry fails his first dying save; Tarthon grabs his newly purchased potion of cure light wounds, pours it down Stormcry’s throat, and then turns and attacks the hydra with his swift panther rage, but the mighty swing of his greataxe merely grazes the monster’s scales.

Captain Cross, who probably thinks we’re all idiots, throws a cask at the hydra, which is now soaked in oil. Ohhhh, we get it! So does the hydra. Its heads strike Tarthon, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Boy – twice!

Sebastin lets fly with another clever shot, this time against the hydra, and the impact amazingly pushes the massive beast away from the ship. Then he activates the unique ability of his enchanted targeting longbow, allowing all of his allies to roll twice on their next attacks and use the better of the two rolls.

Stormcry, back in action, hits the hydra with a shot from his sling, and Tarthon hurls his flask of alchemist’s fire at the oil-drenched monster. Flame on! The hydra roars in agony! Then another head falls and two more grow in its place. Now there are six heads! Hey, that’s a good thing, right? It means we’re hurting it, right? Right? … Right? … Bueller?

Grue’s avenging light attack should have missed – but due to the hydra’s weakened defenses (thanks to the invoker’s continuance of brilliant beacon), it hits! That’s followed by two more crossbow bolts from the crew and even a hit from Wonder Girl. The hydra goes into a frenzy and savagely attacks the boat again. More structural damage…! Another clever shot from Sebastin briefly pushes it away.

Elbarr, who had been creating a few flaming arrows, takes aim and hits the hydra! Tarthon and Captain Cross prepare to throw more casks of oil, and Grue – who has been on a roll the last few rounds – dares to utter something known to only a few living creatures and the lich Rupert Murdoch: the Word of Ruin! The hydra is dazed and stunned by the power of the ancient word, and even Grue himself reels from its use. Now the hydra has seven heads!

Sebastin hits again with clever shot, and Stormcry (sling bullets) also strikes true. The hydra loses another head – yet this time no head grows back! We’re weakening it … well, aside from the fact that it can still attack with six heads….

Tarthon and Cross hurl their casks. Tarthon misses, and Cross would have missed – if not for the still-active brilliant beacon, which dulls the hydra’s reactions just enough so that the cask breaks open on the hydra’s scaly hide. Grue, even dazed, is able to muster enough concentration to keep the brilliant beacon alight. Now the hydra is down to five heads. Elbarr lets loose another flaming arrow --- WHOOSH! The arrow reignites a scorching wave of flame across the monster’s skin. Three heads fall off, and the moaning, screeching hydra sinks below the rail… and then two massive, clawed hands reach up and clutch the railing, and the beast begins to pull itself up! Lasandra’s Wave and everyone on her teeter dangerously… and the hydra falls back into the ocean. Dead. [Rick told us afterward that the hydra would indeed have climbed onto the deck had it lived!]

Phew! Well, then… that was fun! We got to face an iconic D&D monster (granted, one whittled down a bit from the 4e Monster Manual hydra – thank Odin!), and we may have a new, recurring (?) foe in the traitorous tiefling bard, Manael. But why did Manael betray us? [Felix isn’t telling!]

Who the blazes is this “Xollox” he mentioned? A crime lord? A psionic mastermind? A new kitchen cleaner? And what is the creepy, malign presence that Stormcry has sensed on two occasions? Could THAT be Xollox, and if so, was he/she/it trying to control Stormcry’s mind … as perhaps it did Manael’s? And will any of the players retcon their characters again? These questions and others may be addressed when we meet again later this month, but first – we’ve all reached 5th level, baby! LEVEL UP!

P.S. Just now, while formatting the log of the several-days-prior chat, I re-read this comment from creepy, prognosticating potion maker Mother Kalthess: “Ah, but you, Manael, are running so very fast, so very sure. Be confident in your future then. Regardless, your friends will remember you.”

Ohhhhhhh Hohohohohoho. Ohhhhh. Sneaky bastids.

Hitchcock

The Avengers review, now 98 percent spoiler-free!

The AvengersWhen Samuel L. Jackson stepped from the shadows as Nick Fury in the post-credits end of May 2008’s Iron Man and told Tony Stark about “the Avengers Initiative,” the words seemed to be teasing the impossible. At best, it could be only a no-harm-done throwaway line. After all, for the then-new Marvel Studios, Iron Man itself was a risky project: a film about a second-tier superhero by an actor turned director, with a troubled yet brilliant star who had more baggage than JFK Airport. Even in the unlikely event Iron Man became a hit, Marvel Studios’ head, Kevin Feige, had to be insane to believe his new studio could produce a series of crowd-pleasing superhero films and then unite all those actors for a spectacular, high-budget, team-up movie? Yep, insane.

Four years later, welcome to the madhouse. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is an excellent, thrilling, exhilarating triumph. To call it the best comic-book movie ever made is an understatement and possibly even a disservice to it and the films that cleared the path.* There wasn’t much doubt that Whedon could put together a witty, high-stakes story with these characters. After all, he did exactly that during the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But in the movies? With these high expectations? Not only does he pull it off, he makes it seem effortless.

There are no major spoilers below, just a couple of plot points. If you would rather not know anything about the movie, stop right here.

The film begins by pulling together threads from last year’s Thor and Captain America. (You don’t need to have seen those films or the other Marvel movies to enjoy The Avengers, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially since you'll get to see more of Tom Hiddleston’s first-rate, layered performance as Loki, Thor’s deceitful and now-exiled brother.) Here, Loki arrives on Earth and seizes control of the Asgardian “Tesseract” (a.k.a. the Cosmic Cube) from SHIELD. Using the Tesseract’s limitless energy, he plans to subjugate mankind with the help of an alien army. Nick Fury is left with one choice: Revive SHIELD’s abandoned-between-films Avengers Initiative.

It takes about 30 minutes for all the pieces to be, ahem, assembled. Once that’s done, the action really gets underway – as the bickering heroes attack each other. The Avengers works largely because Whedon doesn’t shy away from the characters’ darker sides. Each character gets a moment to shine – and, more importantly, a moment in the shadows. While Bruce Banner’s anger-management problem may be the most visible (to put it mildly), all of our supposed heroes are messed up. There is little reason for them to like each other, let alone trust each other, even when the entire planet is at risk. And speaking of Banner’s problem, he offers some insight into his inner conflict that will make your jaw drop.

When the tragic aftermath of a surprise attack forces the heroes to overcome their flaws, the shift is smooth, satisfying, and natural, without any sudden “kumbaya” moment. It sets the stage for the final battle in midtown Manhattan – a 45-minute sequence that caused the audience (yes, me too) to applaud, laugh, or shout with delight many times, especially at the Hulk’s bombastic first punch, Tony Stark dramatic field-test of the Mark VII armor (one of the film’s most exciting scenes), Hawkeye’s explosive surprise, and a great slapstick moment in Grand Central Station that’s worthy of Chuck Jones. The movie has plenty of subtler treats, too: Captain America taking charge. Hawkeye giving tactical advice to the non-tactical Iron Man. “He’s adopted.” The Black Widow interrogating Loki.

Not surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. gets a meaty chunk of the film’s cleverest lines, and it’s a pleasure to watch Stark slowly evolve into a team player. Chris Hemsworth continues to do good work as Thor, portraying a Thunder God who's a little humbler after the events in his movie. Chris Evans said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that, contrary to most folks’ opinion, Steve Rogers isn’t idealistic; he’s likely the most cynical of the group because of the future’s failed promises. That comes across strongly in his performance as Captain America. Cap wants to be idealistic – it’s just that no one in 2012 has given him a good reason. Yet. Jeremy Renner conveys Hawkeye perfectly, even though his character is, ah, not quite himself in the first half. And Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow gets dealt a much better hand here than in Iron Man 2.

But the standout performance – well, both of them – belongs to Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk effects team. You can see Bruce Banner’s emotional unrest in almost every scene, and the banter between Banner and Stark is a highlight of the film. Whedon wisely limits the Hulk’s appearances, which helps to heighten the excitement when he DOES appear. If the audience reaction to the Hulk in the final half-hour is any indication, the Hulk film franchise just got a gamma-irradiated boost.

Bottom line: Insanity has won. Believe the hype. The Avengers rocks. And you must not leave until the credits are over. No, no, I mean until ALL the credits are over. You’ll be glad you did.

Note to parents: The movie is violent and tense, even if there isn’t much blood. And the realistic attack on New York City may upset some children. If you’re not sure whether your kid can handle it, watch one of the other Marvel movies at home with him or her. If you’re still not sure, wait for the DVD or do what my wife and I did: Get a babysitter and go see it!

P.S. My updated ranking of the best superhero movies, 1 to 5: The Avengers, Spider-Man 2, Captain America, X-Men 2, Batman Begins. Comment!

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*Without Stephen Norrington’s Blade, Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (each of which was surpassed by its sequel), and Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins, this movie doesn’t happen. Those earlier movies proved that, in the right hands, a comic-book character could jump to the Big Screen in a serious, honest fashion that pleased audiences, critics, and Hollywood accountants. Seriously, think back to the late ‘90s and imagine the level of guts Singer showed by setting an opening scene of a perceived “kids’ movie” at the gates of a World War II concentration camp. Wow. Some film critics protested, but audiences took note.
Survivor

Survivor: One World and the refreshing of my Karma Pool

Though tempted, I'll take no credit for the ignominious (but OH so satisfying) departure of Colton Crumbie from Survivor: One World right after my last Survivor post. All the credit for that goes to Madame Karma! For that vicious, spoiled, arrogant brat to be taken off for medical reasons right after openly rooting to Christina to get injured and be carted off was the most delicious serving of karma I've witnessed in some time. Special Bonus: Colton's top ally, the equally vicious and whiny Alicia, complains that Colton chose to keep his Immunity Idol as a souvenir instead of giving it to her. Hey, Colton's whole game was all about "ME! ME! ME!" so why should Alicia be surprised that he was consistently selfish right to the end? My Shadowrun karma pool just refreshed! Yes!

Now let's jump to the current proceedings. Colton’s crumble (you see what I did there?) precipitated a slightly premature merge of the two tribes. But which alliances would hold together: the original gender-based ones or the post-swap ones? Kim, who is by far the smartest player this season (granted, the bar is LOW), successfully and stealthily keeps both options open at first. She wants to see which way the wind was blowing. Unfortunately for the men, the wind is blowing right past Tarzan's poop-stained blue Speedo. It’s evident that the men are still a disjointed, easily manipulated mess. Remember, these are the same people who unanimously voted to throw away their Tribal Immunity and their numbers advantage.

On Survivor: One World, Kim is the quadruped in a three-legged raceSo Kim bluntly lies to Troyzan, who is the closest we have to a thinker among the men, which is akin to calling an earthworm a speed demon among rocks. She tells him that Mike is planning to vote him out. Troyzan doesn't like that! But does he confront Mike, even after Jay worries that the women might be pulling a scam? Nooooo! Result: Bye-bye, Mike! You were another boring player with no sense of strategy.

That brings us to last week's ep, where the roles have flipped: It's now Troyzan who wonders if the gals are ganging up on them, while male model Jay preaches the "It's all hunky dory, man" mantra. Even Tarzan tells Troyzan he believes that the women are planning to eliminate them. Well, Tarzan should know, since he consistently votes to eliminate the men! (Tangent: Next to Colton’s wonderful appendix-exit, my favorite moment of the season involves Tarzan, who - like "special agent" Philip Sheppard last year - raises lack of self-awareness to an art form. Dismissing the idea that Chelsea or anyone could dislike him because of his surliness, unreliability, or potent ass-stink, plastic surgeon Tarzan tells Chelsea he realizes she dislikes him because – obviously – she must hate the work that her own plastic surgeon did. On her breasts. High comedy!)

Jay continues to believe that his post-swap alliance with Kim and Chelsea is intact, despite all the women's body language to the contrary. Meanwhile, Kim quietly targets Troyzan, identifying him as the one pineapple among the coconuts. Next, she lies bluntly to Jay's face, vowing that they're tight. She's good. Chelsea, who had been hoping to keep Jay in her warm alliance (nudge nudge wink wink), stands there and nods – and then tries to convince herself on camera that by staying silent, she didn't really betray Jay. Uh huh. Good luck with that.

Kim is so convincing that when Troyzan foolishly tells Jay that he's going to vote for Kim and play his hidden Immunity Idol, Jay immediately warns Kim because he doesn't want to risk seeing his "ally" get voted off because of Troyzan's paranoia. Ay yi yi! Commence the frantic pre-Tribal Council scramble for votes! The end result: Troyzan played his Idol, but the ladies – and friggin' Tarzan! – cleverly voted for Jay instead! So one more guy is gone, and Troyzan's Idol is flushed out. Win-Win, ladies!

So what's left for tonight and the following episodes? The ladies are clearly in control. Wait, I'll revise that: Kim is in control, followed in descending order by Chelsea, Sabrina, Kat, and Alicia. Christina is in the mix, too, but like Leif and Tarzan, she has not made one strategic move so far. Like Jonas, she's a bystander, which raises the question: What are you mooks doing on Survivor? Don't you watch the show?

Troyzan is the only person right now with enough smarts to challenge Kim, but it seems too late to make a move. Who could he pick up? Leif, Tarzan, and Christina? That's still only four to Kim's five – and that's assuming Tarzan remembers who to vote for. With that, I predict a Final Five of Kim, Chelsea, Sabrina, Kat, and Alicia, with Alicia going out should Christina win that day's Immunity Challenge. And if I'm Kim, I'd want to bring Kat and Alicia/Christina with me to the Final Three so I'd get the most Jury votes. She might not get Chelsea's and Sabrina's votes – or Jay's – but to the rest, she'll probably succeed in making the case that she used smarts and charisma to get to the top.

Tonight's season (series?) finale of "Ringer"

Sarah Michelle Gellar in RingerI haven't said much about CW's thriller Ringer -- a surprising lack of comments from a Buffy-phile! That's probably because while the Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle has been enjoyable as a guilty pleasure, it's never lit the "OH MY GOD, I MUST BLOG ABOUT THIS!" fire. Oh yeah, there have been moments where I've rubbed my hands in glee at the end of an episode (e.g., squeaky-clean Andrew's admission to Bridget-as-Siobhan that HE created his firm's Ponzi scheme). However, there have been just as many palm-to-face moments, usually involving Malcolm, the Plot Device That Walks Like a Man, or Henry, who may have surpassed Bill Pullman's character from Ruthless People as the Stupidest Man Alive.

Overall, though? It's been fun! The plot in a nutshell: Wrong-Side-of-Tracks twin (Bridget) meets secretly with Wealthy-and-Happy twin (Siobhan) to escape a goofily named drug lord. Reality: Siobhan is a Grade-A beyotch who's hated by everyone and makes Alexis Carrington look like Sister Bertrille. Siobhan fakes her death, knowing that panicky Bridget will seize her identity. Siobhan's Foolproof Plan: Bridget will get killed by the Mysterious Assasssin who's after Siobhan, while the real Siobhan lounges against a backdrop of Paris with lots of moolah and a new identity, and no one's the wiser. Problem: Everything goes wrong! Not only does tough-as-nails Bridget kill the assassin, but she ends up being a better Siobhan than Siobhan ever was! Now toss in the following: multiple assassins, Andrew's ex-wife, ex-addict/ex-lover/Walking Plot Device Malcolm, Siobhan's pregnancy, a subplot straight out of Wild Things, lost millions, a Ponzi scheme, murder, Lost's Richard Albert and his eternal eyeliner, cooly evil Brits, and cooly evil Brit lesbians. You notice that I haven't yet mentioned the pilot's Green Screen of Death moment, right? OH DAMN, there it is!

You may wonder, "How in the world was this intended as an ongoing series?" And you would not be alone! I've never understood how the series -- which hinges on Bridget never realizing that Siobhan is still alive -- could fill up one season, let alone go on to a second one, but I figured I'd hop that chasm of disbelief if the series ever made it that far.

And here it is! In a few hours, Ringer airs its season finale, and rumors and ratings suggest it has a 50/50 shot of coming back. I've been hoping that it does return, even though last week's disappointing episode was brimming with "We've got to wrap everything up!" desperation. (See: Gratuitous TV Elements, subsections "Family Held Hostage" and "Spontaneous Lesbianism.") Mostly, though, I'd like a second season of Ringer so that we can:

  • Watch Ioan Gruffudd continue to put distance between himself and the Fantastic Four movies.
  • Get the satisfaction of seeing Siobhan utterly defeated.
  • See Andrew come to grip with the reality that his wife has been another woman for the past eight months ... and he's never once suspected. D'OH!
  • See Henry either wise up or sell his body for parts, since there is clearly no pilot in the brain case.
  • See goofily named drug lord Bodaway Macawi (!?!) go away so that I can stop thinking that he looks like BSG's Gaius Baltar.
  • NOT see the return of Malcolm Ward, the Plot Device That Walks Like a Man. Sheesh. He served a purpose in the first three or four eps, but after that...?
  • See lots and LOTS more of Sarah Michelle Gellar on series TV. Her performance has been terrific, and she has deftly handled the many emotions and machinations in her dual role. (No, my mind is not clouded! Who do you think she is, The Shadow?)
  • And lastly, hope for the possibility that -- just once! -- Bridget will do a Buffyesque kip-up. Would that be so bad?