Return to Krypton

So popular are super hero properties these days that they are actually making TV shows that don’t include any actual superheroes.  The long running Gotham concluded its series run this spring by finally showing Batman in its series finale, after 5 seasons.  Under development on the DC Universe streaming platform is Metropolis, a TV show set in Superman’s city without Superman.  And getting ready for its second season premiere, once again without any Superman, is Krypton.

But even among a group of odd takes on super hero locales sans actual super heroes, Krypton is different.  Taking place 200 years before the planet explodes the series revolves around the adventures of Superman’s grandfather, Seg-El. But rather than just being a Gotham-esque deep dive into DC history, the series has current Earth character Adam Strange (no relation to the Marvel sorcerer) somehow time traveling and space traveling to this pre-destruction era on Krypton.  Strange has a mission to save the timeline and Superman in the “present” by keeping the destruction of Krypton on course.

As a premise, this is messed up.  In the first season Strange and Seg-El team up, with Seg-El only half buying Strange’s story about being from another planet in the future, their team up is contingent on Seg-El not knowing that Strange is really rooting for Krypton’s destruction.  But then how would Seg-El ever find that out?  Enter General Zod (as in “kneel before…”- that guy), another time traveler, who most definitely wants to alter the planet’s fate.  If Superman is never born in the process; so much the better.

So putting yourself in the place of an average Kryptonian, or just a person in general, which is the more moral position? To allow or cause for an entire planet to blow up, killing billions, to make sure one man (Superman) is born or to prevent an entire planet from blowing up, saving billions, even at the cost of one man (Superman)?  The answer seems rather self-evident, placing the villain Zod as the guy with the moral high ground, while Earthman Adam, who just wants to save Superman, as someone trying to ensure genocide happens on schedule.

There are plenty of gaps in the basic premise big enough to drive the entire Fortress of Solitude through.

How did Adam, a scrappy kid from Detroit, get hooked up with the alien Sardath?  Why would Sardath pick Adam, of all people, to go back in time?  How did Sardath even know the timeline, and Superman, were in danger?  What exactly was the cause of that danger (never explained)?  Why did Adam assume that Kryptonians would care about Superman more than their own world’s destruction?  How did Zod end up going back in time and why?

And for season two, with the timeline changed, Krypton saved, no Superman, and Brainiac conquering Earth, why would any Kryptonian help Adam reset the timeline ( in other words, destroying Krypton)?  The entire series seems as if it went to production long before the basic premise was worked out with major gaps missing from the set up.  It’s a tribute to the production that I actually found the show very watchable in spite of the gaps in the premise.  Or, these guys are geniuses and all will be revealed, in a way that makes sense, over time.

Who knows?  But I’m interested enough to stick around for another season and find out.


Quickie Fall Reviews: Gotham


Like any serious professional middle aged man, I’m a big fan of Batman, but I was skeptical about Fox’s new show Gotham. A Batman show without Batman, set in a crime riddled, corrupt city.  It sounds like New York City in the 1970’s.  In fact, the show sounds like Serpico, minus the villain origin stories.  Anyone expecting superhero antics might be disappointed, at least based on the pilot episode that I watched.

However, knowing all of that going in, I was not disappointed.  Anyone familiar with Batman can guess the broad outlines of the pilot.  New Detective James Gordon finds himself investigating the murders of noted city philanthropists and multimillionaires Thomas and Martha Wayne.  The crime, an armed robbery gone wrong (or was it?) leaves behind an orphaned Bruce who witnesses the murder of his parents.  Hmm, that can’t affect the mental health and psyche of a small child can it?  Future history says yes, but this show isn’t concerned about the future.  Set in the ever present now, it’s dealing with the gritty life in the big city; Law & Order: Gotham.

The Wayne murder case seems to wrap up fairly easily; yep you guessed it, too easy.  There is clearly more going on than a simple street crime, and the show not only sets up the murder as the gateway to an even larger mystery, but lays out several different plot paths to be explored, such as the relationship between Gordon’s fiancée Barbara and Detective Montoya. Of course again, like any serious professional person, I have a pretty good guess what the secret is that Barbara and Montoya are keeping, but no point in dropping spoilers.

So not Batman, but James Gordon, played by earnest looking Ben McKenzie, makes for a pretty good heroic cop.  With a crooked partner in tow, we’ll see what sort of price Gordon may have to pay for being the lone honest cop.  Maybe I ought to re-watch Serpico.

If Christopher Nolan Did Green Arrow…

…you might get something very similar to the CW’s new Arrow.  It’s not surprising that the new show should take a similar path.  Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman was hugely successful, both critically, and financially.  Batman, the Frank Miller inspired version; the obsessed, little-bit psychotic vigilante, fighting his own demons as much as bad guys, translated well onto the screen.  So if you were looking for another DC superhero property to give the same treatment to, there probably isn’t a better choice than the Green Arrow.

The show looks good on the screen, although the foyer of the Queen mansion looks suspiciously like the one in Lex Luthor’s transplanted castle in Smallville.  As much as I enjoy the miracle of CGI and its ability to bring anything that you can imagine to the screen, there is nothing like good old fashioned stunts.  The pilot has lead actor Stephen Amell demonstrating some fairly impressive parkour skills and in fact Amell did train in parkour to prepare for this role, although many of the stunts are done by stunt doubles.  It’s a smooth enough transition that I can’t tell the difference though.  I was watching and it looked like Amell did all of the parkour stunts.

As originally portrayed in the comics, Oliver Queen was a millionaire playboy who also dabbled in crime fighting as the Green Arrow.  He was an expert archer, acquiring those skills while stranded on an island.  His stock in trade was trick arrows that could perform assorted functions.  He was Batman, without the compelling reason to be a Batman.  Eventually the comics provided a reason, having Queen lose his fortune and discovering the living is a lot harder without lots of money to fall back on.  Green Arrow becomes a crusader for social justice as well as the old fashioned kind.

In Arrow, the CW takes those basics and tries to re-imagine a much grittier, edgier version; a Green Arrow to match the edgier Dark Knight version of Batman.  As the pilot episode opens, Oliver Queen is rescued from his island prison after being missing and presumed dead for 5 years.  However this Oliver has a specific agenda, that’s partially revealed in flashbacks to the sinking of his yacht and the death of his father.  If you’ve not seen pilot, I won’t spoil it other than to say the death of his father gives him a very specific list of wrongs to be righted.

This Oliver Queen is rather morally ambiguous.  Is he a good guy?  It’s not so clear cut, and it looks like the show intends to draw that out.  The outing he was on when his yacht sank has him bringing along his then current girlfriend’s sister for a little cheat-o-rama. That girlfriend, Laurel Lance, despises him for her sister’s death although their futures may be linked since careful comic book readers will note that Laurel Lance is the future Black Canary, Green Arrow’s long time girlfriend in the comics.  But cheating on a girlfriend isn’t that edgy or gritty; killing a kidnapper who is helpless is.

In most superhero sagas, guns are never used and killing is strictly forbidden.  However for this show, we have a superhero that does kill, not in self defense, but to protect his secrets.  That ups the ante in the gritty and edgy department.  Without the normal limitations of the superhero genre, who knows where this show will go?

Weaved into the plot is more potential “drama” than you can shake a stick at.  His kid sister is using drugs, there is a new stepfather, and mommy dearest isn’t exactly the June Cleaver type; she has secrets of her own.  Not to mention the local police detective is the father of both Laurel Lance and the sister who died when the Queen yacht sank.  Guess who he blames for his daughter’s death?

And for that, I’m enthusiastic about this take on the Green Arrow story.  Yes, I realize there is the potential to go too far; turning this version of Green Arrow from less like an edgy Batman and more like a rich Dexter.  That would be a mistake, and hopefully the producers will put the brakes on any mass murder spree by a DC superhero.

Still, I like what I see so far and am willing to give this show some long rope to see where it goes.

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John Carter of the Big Screen

In some ways, I’ve waited my entire life for this movie.  I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs in my teens and probably read everything that he wrote that was available in print (with a major exception). So I was well familiar with the John Carter series, my favorite of ERB’s works.  Everyone knows Tarzan of course. Tarzan is probably one of the most successful characters in movie history.  A slightly smaller, but still considerable number may be familiar with his Land That Time Forgot Trilogy, which also spawned movies.  The familiarity of John Carter may be well below that.  Science fiction fans of a certain age may be familiar with the Confederate Captain who went out to Arizona after the war and ended up on the red planet, but how many people, even science fiction fans under age 30 would have even heard of ERB’s Mars series?

But there was a time when Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the biggest things going in science fiction, long before it was even called science fiction.  Even Ronald Reagan counted himself a fan.  Burroughs almost singlehandedly created the planetary romance genre of science fiction.  Sure it was formulaic; add one dashing Earthborn hero, a beautiful princess, super science, swords, and exotic planetary local, and presto, a rollicking good read.

But, who reads Burroughs anymore?  Frankly, who reads anymore?  The natural initial entry into reading Burroughs or science fiction in general is the teenage years, but how much reading is getting done by teenagers these days?  Teenage boys play video games, lots of them.  From their point of view, the enjoyment from reading a book or a story about a space adventure has a more limited payoff than playing a video game where you can almost become the character.  Although my son can play Star Wars Old Republic for hours on end, I doubt he would get the same entertainment value from reading an Old Republic book.

There were no video games above the pong level when I was a teenager, so I read books.

But people my age don’t determine what a Hollywood blockbuster is and what isn’t.  Young people that go to the movies do, and who is John Carter to them?  That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see an article like this:

Hollywood is in a tizzy over the early tracking which just came online this morning for Walt Disney Studios’   John Carter opening March 9th. “Not good. 2 unaided, 53 aware, 27 definitely interested, 3 first choice,” a senior exec at a rival studio emails me. Another writes me,”It just came out. Women of all ages have flat out rejected the film. The tracking for John Carter is shocking for a film that cost over $250 million. This could be the biggest write off of all time.” I’m hearing figures in the neighborhood of $100 million. And the studio isn’t even trying to spin reports of the 3D pic’s bloated budget any more.

The average person may know who Batman is, and would be pulled in to see a movie just on that sort of character name recognition, but few people are going to place the generic name John Carter, to a hero from the pulp era.  In fact that was one of the issues I had with the trailers.  If you didn’t already know the story, how would you figure out from the trailers what the movie was even about?

The studio didn’t help things by changing the original name, John Carter of Mars, to just… John Carter.  At least the “of Mars” part of the title gives you an idea of where the action was taking place, but given the history of Mars movies being bombs I can see how they were lead in that direction.

But there is another problem with having Mars in the title.  Who would take a movie like that seriously these days? There is suspension of belief problem with the ERB version of Mars.  Even when I was reading Burroughs for the first time, we knew Mars was a dead world.  The Mariner Missions showed no breathable atmosphere and no canals.  By the time of the Viking landing, we knew not to expect dead seas filled with ochre vegetation, lost cities, or green men.  We didn’t even find microbes.  In the 21st Century, would anyone really be interested in a movie about a Mars that never was or potentially could be?  I was worried that we knew too much about Mars to buy into Burroughs’s version.

So with Disney trying to scrub Mars from any coverage of the movie, or even being clear that this was set in the 19th century, someone watching the trailers on TV with no prior knowledge of Burroughs’s work might confuse this with yet another remake of Conan the Barbarian.  Considering how badly last year’s remake bombed at the box office, that wasn’t a good sign.

So going to the theater I was actually more worried about the box office being disappointing than I was worried about the movie being disappointing.  But how would I know if the movie would even be understandable to someone not familiar with the Mars that ERB wrote about?  So when a friend and I, another Burroughs aficionado, went to the movies to see this film, I brought along my son as a control.  I threw in the bribes of 3D tickets and lunch to interest him.

So at the end of the movie, while the credits rolled, my friend began to offer a comment, “You know I…”  I immediately shushed him, putting my finger to my lips.  For a crazy moment, I thought of putting my finger to his lips and saying something like, “Don’t talk.”  Or “Don’t spoil this moment.”  It’s one of those things that I think would have been hilarious, but no one else might find it particularly funny at the time.  Or ever.  I really didn’t need either my son or my friend questioning my sexuality at that moment.  I had bigger business.

I wanted my son’s impression.  I wanted to know what a teen who was unfamiliar with Burroughs or his Mars story would think of this, uncontaminated by other opinions.

“It was pretty awesome.”

Which is exactly what I was thinking!  The Disney accountants may have a right to be worried about making money on this film.  The theater we were in was pretty bare.  There were probably only a dozen or so other people in theater for this showing.  That’s not encouraging for an opening weekend.  But if the movie bombs, it won’t be because it’s a bad movie.  That movie was fantastic!  The special effects were top notch of course, but now days that’s pretty much a given.  But what was great was the story itself.  This wasn’t merely an adaption of A Princess of Mars, but it is definitely Burroughs’s Barsoom.  The changes made make sense, and in some ways, it’s a better story because of it.  Unlike the movie promotion, the actual movie makes clear that Carter is on Mars.  And in a way, Carter is sort of the Superman of Mars.  He comes from a high gravity planet to a low gravity one, giving him freakish strength and the ability to jump incredibly high.  His phenomenal strength puts him in the position to be this world’s savior.  All he needs is a red cape.  But the story of how Captain John Carter makes the journey to wanting to help this world is the crux of the story.  The actual romance of this planetary romance proceeds along the traditional lines of the genre, but hey, who can resist a woman who gives you a hard time, and can really wear a fighting harness?

The main actors, Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, were well suited for their roles.  I admit at the beginning I was a little unsure that Lynn Collins could pull off the role, but once her character was introduced in the film, I totally bought it.  She is Dejah Thoris.

No matter how this film does in the box office, it’s still a great film.  It would be a shame if this movie isn’t a blockbuster because it deserves to be.

Oh, the “major exception’ that I never got into?

Tarzan.  Never cared for it.

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