Friday, March 30, 2007

Missing In Action

Between "Narbonic" and "Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls", I don't have much time to keep up the usual posts. Catch-ups to follow as soon as I kill that *&!@#& Shinryu and find out what Future Dave meant about refilling the swimming pool...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Heroes Retrospective: Nothing To Hide

1. This isn't one of the more engaging episodes, as it deals almost entirely with subplots that aren't going anywhere. The lead in the Sylar mystery fizzles, as does Matt's newly-found marital bliss; DL spends all his screen time spouting platitudes at Micah, whose view of the situation is shockingly simplistic (isn't he supposed to be a supergenius?); Niki and Tina have some more meaningless psychobabble, at the end of which Jessica emerges and chases Tina away (forever?). There's a lot of padding here.

2. It's unfortunate that Simone was killed off, not so much for her sake but because it always seemed like there was more to Charles Deveaux than we saw, and she was in the perfect position to investigate that. It would've given her something to do other than recite some awful dialogue about saving the world. But that road's pretty much closed now.

3. This is the first time we've seen the extended Petrelli family dynamic, and it's just as deliciously twisted as I'd expected. These people are constantly manipulating and betraying each other, each of them secure in the belief that they're doing the right thing. But Nathan... hoo boy. It occurs to me that at some fairly recent point, the writers suddenly realized Nathan was becoming really unlikeable, so suddenly everyone from his mother to Hiro (a perfect stranger, really) recognizes Nathan's enormous depth of feeling and caring just by looking at him. And... no. Disowning your brother because he might embarrass you in front of a reporter isn't the sort of thing that connotes emotion, at least not the kind you want an approved character expressing.

4. Hiro and Ando meet DL and Micah. It's not an especially interesting team-up, because it lacks a crucial element in these meetings: recognition. When Peter and Isaac met, it was with the explicit revelation that they were both "different". Here, the meeting is almost absurdly contrived (they all just happen to be on the same road out of Vegas), both Hiro and DL use their powers, and yet they all walk away none the wiser. In which case, what's the point?

5. Matt playing Ghost Whisperer for Ted and Karen is a perfect example of what's wrong with his character: his basic function is reading thoughts and repeating them aloud. But we as viewers are usually privy to those thoughts anyway, thanks to the magic of voiceover technology. So most of the time he's just reciting what we already know for the benefit of other characters. Telepathy, here, is interpreted as a thoroughly passive ability, and that comes into play in terms of how his subplot is handled: all this domestic melodrama with Janice that goes on and on stems in part from Matt having a passive power, and therefore needing to cope with situations in a way that allows for passivity. It's just not very interesting.

6. Micah is, I believe, the first child of two Heroes who exhibits abilities of his own. As we'll see later, he's not alone, but at the time it was a nice (if somewhat predictable) twist. I also love that he's shown as knowing a lot more than we might have given him credit for, but if that's the case, why was he being such a silly twit before, when he called his father a "bad guy" and insisted on saving his mother like he's the goddamned Batman?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Passing Sentences: March 25

Rome, Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus: The penultimate episode takes another leap ahead, but as kazekage points out, the narrative flow somehow remains intact despite the considerable jumps and hiccups in time, even though we're never very sure when we are, so to speak. Anyway, the Octavian/Livia sex scene was fascinating because it's another example of a Roman woman turning the tables on a powerful man - Livia has managed to exploit Octavian's S&M fetish without him laying a finger on her. The fact that the actress bears an unsettling resemblence to Christina Ricci helps a lot. As for the body count, it's just Gaia this time, and apparently Memmio wasn't dead after all (nice reveal there), and I like that we fast-forwarded through the entire Gaia/Pullo relationship just to put her in the same position Eirene was in, because it brings up all sorts of comparisons - not least of which that Gaia is essentially guilty of the same thing Pullo did to get Eirene in the first place. The only difference is that she at least cops to what she did, and accepts the punishment that follows. I have to admit, I didn't expect to sympathize with her... but I did, in the end. Some more quick observations: the decadence of Cleopatra's court was well-portrayed, it was nice to see Niobe again for a few moments, and I love that Atia has been transformed into Servilia, using her son to crush her unfaithful lover and those aligned with him (the difference being that, as history tells us, Atia will succeed where Servilia failed).

Supernatural, Heart: Yikes. Seeing Jared Padalecki shirtless was a lot scarier than it was last year, as he seems to have acquired a set of vein-streaked bulging muscles that wouldn't look out of place on a professional wrestler. Poor boy looks like he's on steroids or something. Anyway, this one was a little too transparent for my tastes - Madison (guest star Emanuelle Vaugier) was obviously a "shake and bake" character, in the sense that she only existed for the purpose of sharing an instant attraction with Sam. In fact, I don't know that we can rightly call her a character, since she's just a bunch of stereotypes and cliches that are preconfigured to work off Sam's established personality traits. All in all, it comes off like Jared Padalecki had a sex scene quota to fill and they just tossed in whoever was on call at the time.

Beauty and the Beast, Once Upon A Time: My pal Tink recommended this late '80s romance series, an urban take on the popular fairy tale. I've only been able to acquire the pilot so far, but I like what I see: it's charmingly antiquated, both in the '80s sense (oh God I'd forgotten about the shoulder pads) and in the use of classic tropes like the spiral staircase, the romanticism of poverty and the underworld, a damsel in distress rescued by a gallant but cursed stranger... but, of course, the damsel is Linda Hamilton so you just know a can of whoop-ass is going to get opened sooner or later, and Ron Perlman (as Vincent, the Beast) plays his part on the down-low rather than ham it up. It really works, and I'm looking forward to more.

Warcraft: The Last Guardian: At some recent point in its development, the backstory and lore of "Warcraft" became a horribly complicated thing. Villains were retconned as pawns of other villains, who were themselves corrupted by an even greater evil... oh, and they have spaceships now. On some level, this was inevitable once the franchise moved into the MMORPG field, where everything is always fluid and open to revision. So in that context, Jeff Grubb's novel "The Last Guardian" is a real treat, as it goes back to much simpler times, exploring events that are set in the pre-narrative world. It's the story of Khadgar (who would later appear in the "Beyond The Dark Portal" expansion), set shortly before the First War, as he begins his apprenticeship to the not-yet-infamous Medivh. Grubb successfully brings this part of Warcraft's history to life, going back to its medieval, swords-and-sorcery roots; if you've played the games, you'll know the answers to the big mysteries (where the Orcs come from, who brought them to Azeroth, what's really wrong with Medivh), but Grubb's dramatization of events that were only ever referenced in the games is a major hook - one chapter, for example, has Khadgar experiencing a vision of Magna Aegwynn's war with Sargeras and the Burning Legion, and it's a very impressive sequence. I recommend "The Last Guardian" to anyone looking for a fun flashback to when things weren't so damned bizarre in the Warcraftverse.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Heroes Retrospective Double-Shot: Hiros, Better Halves

The latter half of this week has been utter hell, so it's two episodes for the price of one today. :) "Passing Sentences" (hopefully) to follow tomorrow morning.


1. One of the glitches that has plagued "Heroes" from the start is inconsistencies between cliffhanger endings and the episode prologues the following week. Here, for example, Peter's first words to Future Hiro are very different from what he says at the end of "Collision". And in this case, it's a pretty significant difference, because here he makes the connection that a person might have stopped time whereas in the previous episode, he's more concerned about how time could have stopped in the first place.

2. Okay, let's talk about "Save The Cheerleader, Save The World". Part of the cliche with time travel is that any message from the future will be sufficiently garbled that you don't instantly know what's going to happen, even though it's in the future's best interest that swift and decisive action be taken. Here, though, there may actually be a reason for the enigmatic nature of Future Hiro's message... if we're willing to play a bit of future-reconstruction.

So assume, for the moment, that Peter never went back to Isaac. He doesn't find out about Claire, doesn't go to Texas to save her, and therefore Sylar kills her and steals her power, making him virtually unstoppable. No one but Isaac would know, and he'd be in no position to do anything about it. So it's very likely Future Hiro isn't being deliberately vague - they (meaning Hiro and whoever else survives in the future) never found out who the girl in the paintings was to begin with.

What's less clear (at this point, anyway) is how Claire factors into the greater problem of New York's destruction. But we'll have to look at that again after the season's over.

3. Another example of being a little too subtle - Peter's encounter with Future Hiro allows him to copy Hiro's chronokinesis, but we won't see any evidence of this for a good long while. In fact, this is something that hasn't been stressed enough: Peter's mimicking is unconscious. He doesn't necessarily know when he's doing it, or even when there's another superpowered person in the room.

4. Nathan's in excellent form this episode. First we have his little demonstration of power, which was just "Okay, he's tensing up, what's he gonna HOLY JESUS OH MY GOD AWESOME!!!" Extra points for shirtlessness. Then he meets Hiro in a collision of extremes - the latter has completely embraced his powers and his heroic "destiny", while the former is in denial and just wants to pretend everything's normal. It's hard to gauge whether Nathan's humoring Hiro or accepting the man's claims at face value (also a possibility, given his own experience). And finally, Pasdar pulls out this slimy, sleazy grin when he turns the tables on Linderman's henchwoman... wow. Very much a politician's smile.

5. Obligatory "Aww, Hiro's So Cute!" moment - the waffles. :)

6. It's unfortunate that the "Heroes" version of telepathy is a passive power, since it's really limited Matt's storyline; there's something not kosher about using his wife's thoughts to "fix" his marriage, but then again, he's only trying to make her happy. Now, if he'd been manipulating her thoughts, that'd be a whole different shade of grey. But Matt's function doesn't seem to extend beyond "hearing thoughts", and it's just not very kinetic as the axis of his storyline, especially when you consider this episode ends the way the last one did, with Matt passing out on a dirty floor.

7. Another bit you can only appreciate in hindsight: Peter's right when he says that Isaac's paintings are like panels in a comic book, telling a sequential narrative... but he's arranged them in the incorrect order. This will become clearer when the events actually take place.

8. This is the first time Peter consciously calls on someone else's power, and really, it says a lot about how completely this show hooked me that when I first saw his eyes go white, I was in pure geek-out mode.


Better Halves

1. Did I mention that I'm ignoring Mohinder's opening/closing monologues? Because I am. Yawn. Really.

2. This episode is almost completely Niki-centric, and introduces DL to the cast. Unfortunately, it's full of the same muddled writing: where's the terror Niki felt last episode when the police told her DL was in the vicinity? Is this tame, loving figure the person everyone except Micah was terrified of? If DL escaped from prison, as he said, that means there was a trial and conviction, but there was no money and no witnesses. How could he have lost? Why doesn't Niki remember anything Jessica does while Jessica is aware, at all times, of what's going on? Why does Jessica hate DL? Why is Jessica the only Hero to wear the Godsend mark on her shoulder? None of these questions are answered, and not because of delaying tactics - rather, it's pretty obvious Loeb and the other writers working on Niki just didn't consider those questions to begin with.

3. Only Claire and Hiro have subplots in this episode, but I don't have much to say about them. I suppose I could be charitable and say this is one instance where Niki does affect another protagonist: Jessica's actions form the first crack in Hiro's self-confidence, and that will come into play later with Charlie. But it's a little too indirect for my tastes.

4. Oh, and Eden works for Mr. Bennet. Big shock - I was half-expecting her to be Sylar. Here's something I never figured out: while on the phone with Eden, Mr. Bennet picks up a pair of cracked glasses. Whose are they? Chandra Suresh's?

5. I'm not clear on the significance of Sandra's revelation at the end of the episode, and what Claire might have learned from it. That her healing factor was active since she was a baby? That the people she just met couldn't have been her birth parents because... well, what? Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I've never hated my computer so much

I've been trying to use Windows Movie Maker to create a special tribute to "Rome": thirty seconds of the Newsreader set to Madonna's "Vogue". And I would've gotten away with it too, if the fucking program didn't keep crashing over and over again. >:(

Monday, March 19, 2007

Heroes Retrospective #4: Collision

1. Another point of criticism with regards to Niki is that her storyline doesn't really intersect with any others. This episode's encounter with Nathan nonwithstanding, the Hawkins-Sanders family is off in their own world, with no tangible involvement in or contribution to the major plotlines (Sylar, the destruction of New York). If Niki, Micah and DL were to be suddenly erased, nothing would change.

Now, self-contained subplots are perfectly legitimate in an ongoing narrative... unless you make a point of stressing that everyone's connected. And with the exception of these three, everyone we've seen so far is connected in one way or another. It's like a game: Link Peter and Ted? Peter was Simone's lover, Simone's ex-boyfriend is Isaac, Isaac works for the Company, and they had acquired Ted at some point in the past. Link Candice and Hiro? Hiro's mission was to save Claire, a figure of great interest to the Haitian, whose replacement in the Company is Candice. Niki and her family just aren't part of that tapestry.

2. It's funny how re-viewing older episodes can suddenly provide a context with which to understand later plot twists that I might not have interpreted correctly the first time around. Mohinder's abrupt change of heart and subsequent retreat to India had, at the time, annoyed me greatly because it seemed he was just being shunted aside for lack of any appealing direction for his character. And yet, "Collision" establishes (fairly early in the series) that Mohinder can't maintain his convictions in his father's theories without proof, and he's not getting any at this point. On top of that, his decision to just drop everything and leave comes on the heels of one emotional blow after another - being dismissed as a madman by Nathan, frustrated with Peter and the unresponsive Isaac, and, of course, being confronted (for the first time) with the reality of his father's demise. One possible downside to the cliffhanger endings is that time gets a bit wonky, because the next episode picks up from the same moment the last one left off, while a week has passed in real time. Four episodes in, Chandra Suresh has only been dead for a few days, a week at most. In that light, Mohinder's confusion is perfectly understandable.

(It's interesting to note, though, that his father had the exact same methodology: as we'll see later on, Chandra discards the timid Gabriel Gray when he doesn't get immediate results, despite the fact that he's actually found what he's looking for.)

Still keeping with this theme, we have Hiro and Ando. At the time, I felt that Hiro ditching Ando was a bit contrived (especially with that "Partners Are No Good" guy monologuing about it). And here we are, months earlier, watching Ando scheme and whine and manipulate Hiro into one pointless diversion after another, getting them both in a lot of trouble. If Ando hadn't been around, Hiro would have made much more progress. Of course, if Ando hadn't been around, Hiro would have ultimately failed to get the Magic Sword, so Ando isn't a strictly negative character.

3. No matter how many times I see white eyes as a sign of oracular vision, it never fails to creep me out.

4. I'm sorry, but switching cards at a poker table after your opponent has already seen his hand is sheer idiocy. What, you couldn't stop time before the hand was dealt?

5. Back to Nathan again: he admits to Niki that he's happily married, and then he cheats on his wife. It's that same sort of dissonance we see in his relationship with Peter: there's a significant chasm between what Nathan says (and, ostensibly, feels) and what he does. I wonder, at times, if we're not meant to see him as a villainous figure despite his positive attributes.

6. That said, the seduction scene? Sizzling.

7. And here's the payoff to the rape storyline, as Claire - initially content to keep quiet so as not to draw attention to herself - takes action to prevent Brody from forcing himself on another girl (after finding out that she's not his only victim). What does she do? She tricks him into giving her a ride and drives his car into a wall at a hundred miles per hour.

You know, I've read stories where women avenge themselves on their rapists; I've read stories where women forgive their rapists as a way of healing themselves; I don't think I've ever seen a scenario where a woman sacrifices herself to kill her rapist. It's not as clear-cut as that, since we know Claire can recover, but all the same, it's an extension of self-destructive tendencies that result in a positively chilling moment.

This is what I meant by the rape being justified, as it has led to this wonderfully ambivalent scene; on the one hand, Claire isn't doing this for her own sake, she's trying to protect someone else; on the other hand, she's 17 and has basically just attempted murder. Not only that, but she's utterly calm as she springs her trap, even as Brody tells her she can't do anything to stop him. Her casual reply - "I can do this" - sent chills up my spine.

8. This episode concludes the first arc of "Heroes", leading in to the infamous "Save The Cheerleader, Save The World". I'll discuss pacing at a later date, but it's probably important to note that this show's meticulous structure is not unlike that of today's comics and their modular format of story arc followed by story arc.

Funniest thing I've seen this week

Batman as written by Chuck Palahniuk, and Punisher as written by Lemony Snicket.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Heroes Retrospective #3

One Small Leap

1. Part of the reason Niki's subplot is so unpopular is because it's a bit muddled from the very beginning. In this episode, for example, we're supposed to believe UberMom Niki let her son sleep in the backseat of a car that contained two corpses, which she then buried in the middle of the desert where her son could wake up at any moment. We also have a later scene where Niki brings Micah over to DL's mother, has a spat with her over DL's guilt or innocence, and Niki concludes this discussion by saying she wants Paulette out of Micah's life. Er... then why bring him to Grandma's house in the first place? Oh yeah, you can totally tell Jeph Loeb's the mastermind behind this character.

2. For all that "Heroes" had its shit together at a relatively early stage, Sylar was clearly a work in progress. The actor playing Sylar here - while heavily shadowed - has a visible white beard; he was clearly meant to be much older. The "Forgive Me I Have Sinned" bit is also a bit inconsistent with Sylar's characterization later, when he sees himself as evolution in action and therefore has no remorse.

3. Oh look, it's Janice. *beat* Bye, Janice. Whatever.

4. The rape scene. We have to talk about the rape scene. First off, it's pretty unsettling that Hayden Panettiere was 17 when this scene was filmed. Also, she's Kairi, which is a whole new level of brr. But beyond that, I want to evaluate this scene in terms of necessity, because there's no shortage of women in superhero fiction being sexually assaulted and/or brutalized for cheap drama or titillation, and that's not the sort of thing that's easily forgiven. I mean, I'd like to give "Heroes" the benefit of the doubt when it comes to feminist concerns, but since the writers have openly stated that they killed Simone because they didn't know what to do with her (evidently the options were "get her pregnant" or "turn her evil", while poor Tawny Cypress was telling everyone that she saw her character as the Lois Lane of the Heroverse), you have to wonder.

So was it necessary? With some reservations, I have to say yes. The dominant aspect of Claire's personality at this point in the series is her self-destructive inclinations - she throws herself into hazardous situations in the mistaken belief that she can't be hurt. And that's only half-true: she can recover from physical injuries, but her emotional traumas aren't so easily healed. That's a distinction few writers ever think about, because Wolverine or Deadpool can bounce back from pretty much anything and emerge just as he was before. What Brody does to Claire here changes her, just as future incidents will change her, long after the physical testaments to those incidents are erased. It's still rape, and I'm not completely okay with it, but at least it wasn't gratuitous.

5. Let's move on to lighter areas of discourse: damn, Milo cleans up good. The press conference is also significant because I think it's really the first time we get a sense of how twisted Nathan's perspective is. It's partly Adrian Pasdar's charisma coming through, but what makes Nathan so intriguing is that he doesn't seem to be aware of the distinction between loving and hurting someone (ie: if you choose one, you have to at least try to avoid the other). He loves Peter, but does that stop him from using his little brother as political capital just because it's convenient? Hell no. He's not even sorry. He doesn't even understand that he did a Very Bad Thing. And he'll betray Peter repeatedly, never once even pausing to consider that their relationship might change as a result. It's a pattern we'll see again with Heidi and Meredith, but we'll get to them later. Either Nathan's so adept at denial and repression that he can't comprehend the simple truth of "actions have consequences", or he's totally amoral and thinks he can both have and eat his cake.

6. One area where "Heroes" has absolutely excelled is the use of cliffhangers; every episode tops the one before it. I mean, "Don't Look Back" ended with New York going boom, this episode has Claire waking up in mid-autopsy. It's a shocking, disturbing moment that leaves you on the edge of your seat.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Passing Sentences: March 16

Hellboy - Sword of Storms: So close. This animated movie did almost everything right: it appropriated Japanese demonology fairly well, presented accurate characterizations of the main cast (for better or worse - I found Liz Sherman to be as irritating as she is in the comics, which counts as a mark of accuracy, I guess), and had some great action scenes... it also has one of the most abrupt and unsatisfying endings I've ever seen in comic adaptations. Horribly anticlimactic, to the point where it really ruins the film.

Invincible Iron Man: Another kinda-sorta-okay cartoon flick. Again, the technical quality is very good, a near-seamless blend of conventional animation and CGI, and the voice acting's strong - somehow, it seems completely appropriate for Tony to have a phone sex operator voice, even if this movie's supposedly PG. But anyway, it's a surprisingly old-school interpretation of Iron Man as the rich, sex-addled playboy who just happens to whip up Iron Man suits in his spare time. The Mandarin revamp was nice too. But once again I can't help but feel a little disappointed with the end result - not so much because there's anything wrong with the film's climax and conclusion, but because everything more or less plays out the way you'd expect it. I don't know if being formulaic is a bad thing, given that this is supposed to be an introductory vehicle for the character to the mainstream audience (even though this version of Iron Man no longer exists in the wake of "Civil War"), but it just wasn't exciting or unpredictable for me at any point. Well, okay, except for that scene where Pepper Potts walks in on Tony in the shower, casually opens the door and delivers her report without once looking south. Realistic? No. But impressive nonetheless. :)

Rome, Death Mask: Last week's episode, which I missed. Anyway, it's a very apt title - we have two marriages, lots of sex, at least one pregnancy, but death hangs over everything, very much like a mask. The cast is whittled down a little more, and losing Servilia (and Eleni) was a major shock not just because I didn't see it coming, but because she doesn't achieve anything in death. I don't think I ever felt much sympathy towards her, given that - in this version of history - she caused three civil wars and countless deaths because her sekrit MARRIED boyfriend dumped her ass. But she loses everything as a result of her own pettiness, to the point where she can't even muster the strength to deliver a last blow more substantial than ineffectual curses (I mean, last time she put the Evil Whammy on Caesar, he defeated Pompey and won the Egyptian campaign). So it's kind of sad on that level.

Rome, A Necessary Fiction: Another two recurring characters meet their end, and unlike the previous episode, I was happy to see both of them go. Memmio's scum, so no big loss there. Eirene, though... I always had a problem with Eirene, and not because she was cockblocking Vorenus and Pullo. It's more that she never had much of a personality, or any kind of character arc, that made her more than a piece of furniture. I mean, if you compare her to Niobe, it's not just that Indira Varma was a better actress, it's that she had a function that went beyond just being her husband's anchor. She had a whole seasonal arc about her secret, and her attempts to enter Roman high society, and her reconciliation with Vorenus after their long separation. Eirene never did anything, despite the fact that she had motive - from the moment she agreed to marry Pullo, I was sure she was plotting to get revenge on him for turning her last boyfriend's head into coleslaw. Not only did that not happen, but the summation of her life on-screen was Slave, Wife, Pregnant, Dead. The only effect her death had was showing us that Vorenus is much less a friend to Pullo than Pullo was to him (compare Pullo's grieving process and Vorenus' participation to the reverse when Niobe died), and, well, that's hardly something that'd make me remember Eirene fondly. So long, doormat.

Veronica Mars, Papa's Cabin: I'd completely overlooked this episode when it aired, which probably says more than I'm comfortable saying about where "Veronica Mars" is located on my list of priorities. This is the first mystery that ends with Veronica having the upper hand throughout, and she knows it, and her enemy knows it, and there is no physical violence of any kind. And you know what? It worked for me. The Landry/Mindy/Batando axis got a bit too convoluted towards the end, but it wrapped up nicely and I thought that last scene - with Keith glibly realizing there's no point in trying to shield Veronica from the world's uglier moments - would have been perfect as a series finale. Of course, I later discovered that the series is in danger of cancellation yet again, and if it does survive this time it'll undergo a paradigm shift even greater than the ones that came before it... although now that I think about it, there's something appealing about skipping down the timeline, ditching most of the cast and tightening up the focus on Veronica herself. It just might work if it's given the chance.

Supernatural, Roadkill: Eh. Nice twist with Molly's true nature, but this is going back to "Houses of the Holy" in terms of tasteless filler.

Marvel - Ultimate Alliance: Magnificent game, but when held up to its predecessor "X-Men Legends 2", it loses just a bit. I'll admit that the graphics are outstanding, the plot's better, and there's a significantly greater variety in terms of settings, gameplay sequences (ie: the reflex/puzzle-oriented boss battles, the minigames, the optional quests, etc.) and character selection, which means the replayability factor is much higher than XML2... but at the same time, the auto-target is very unreliable (especially problematic for someone like Storm, whose primary offensive powers aren't line-of-sight), using powers can be sluggish, inventory has been downsized so every character can only equip one item (and there's not a single item that's really worth seeking out), and your inability to set your characters' stats pretty much forces you to pick and choose your team members based on attributes you can't control or change.

As with XML2, Simulator missions ensure you get a chance to control every hero (except for the secret ones, obviously), so you can get a clear fix on which heroes work best for you. Unlike XML2, skins (costumes) actually have a function here, each with their own bonuses, but they can only be gained by killing lots and lots of enemies (or, for the most powerful skin, by completing the character's personalized Simulator challenge). Both powers and skins can be upgraded with obscene amounts of money, but since money has no real value anywhere else in the game, you might as well spend that million on another skill point. There also doesn't seem to be any set pattern to powering up: sometimes gaining just one level is enough to advance an ability, sometimes you need two skill points, sometimes three or four.

Still, even with its flaws, "Ultimate Alliance" is a must-play game for any Marvel fan (and even moreso for lapsed Marvel fans, as this game really recaptures some of the MU's best attributes). I started out with Storm, Spider-Woman, Deadpool and Ms. Marvel, and slowly cycled in hidden characters until I had Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Daredevil and Iron Man. Much fun was had by all. :)

Dragonsphere: Despite the antiquated graphics and atrocious voice-acting, "Dragonsphere" has real substance. It's pretty short, as fantasy/adventure games go, but it manages to create a world that is at once familiar via the usual Tolkienesque tropes and new, strange, unknown. It also helps that the game is very forgiving: while you can make mistakes that will get you killed, you will immediately resume from the point prior to the fatal error, allowing you to learn from your missteps without interrupting the story flow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Heroes Retrospective #2

Don't Look Back

Not much to say about this one...

1. Matt and Eden join the cast. There's something about Greg Grunberg that makes him instantly accessible and sympathetic no matter what role he's playing; Nora Zehetner, by contrast, telegraphs Eden's duplicity a mile away. I get the feeling Zehetner might not have been totally comfortable in the role at first, though she certainly grew into it later.

2. Lots of surprising guest-stars this episode: I liked Clea DuVall in "Girl, Interrupted", but the real surprise of the evening was Stacy Haiduk, who I'd last seen as Lana Lang in the toxic "Adventures of Superboy" live-action series from the '80s. In fairness to Haiduk, she's hardly the blandest Lana to ever darken our screen - that honor belongs to current mannequin-on-the-move Kristin Kreuk, whose upper lip moves only slightly more frequently than the western coast of the United States. It also took me a few minutes to peg where I'd seen Matt Lanter (Brody) before: he was a participant in "Manhunt", the male version of "America's Next Top Model" (which was astonishingly even more vapid and ridiculous than its template).

3. One Degree of Separation: Cristine Rose (Angela Petrelli) played Prue Halliwell's boss in "Charmed", where Zachary Quinto (Sylar) guest-starred as a warlock out to kill the Halliwell cat (yes, you can tell that was a later-season episode, can't you?).

4. There's such a thing as being too subtle: Peter's stick-figure drawing was meant to be the big red alert that he'd just used Isaac's powers (while hopped up on morphine, natch), but it's such an understated moment that when he references it in a later episode, I had completely forgotten about it.

5. Angela's visit with Peter is a bit odd, for two reasons. First, this is one of the very few times we hear anything about the Petrelli patriarch, a character who to this day remains shrouded in mystery; second, the implication is that Peter might be suffering from an inherited mental illness (which could be an interesting turn for a primary character), but this plot point is never raised again.

6. Claire is the only one who asks what happened to the man she saved from the fire last episode. It's little touches like that which made her stand out to begin with, and certainly helped shape her into an admirable heroine as time went by.

7. Adrian Pasdar and Milo Ventimiglia have amazing chemistry together - I've seen actual brothers who were less convincing on-screen.

8. Hiro's trip to the future, and what he sees there, is the first seasonal subplot to be introduced. One question the show hasn't really dealt with yet is the issue of free will vs. predestination - is the future set in stone or can it be changed? Everything Isaac painted (and will paint) comes true, which seems to suggest his death is inevitable (as others pointed out, the gun Hiro finds is the same gun Isaac will eventually use to shoot Simone). But "Save The Cheerleader, Save The World" implies that Claire wasn't saved the first time around.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Heroes Retrospective

To pass the time until April 23 (scrunching up my face really hard didn't work), I'll be re-watching "Heroes" from the top every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and making some observations along the way. Today: Genesis. Since this was the pilot, I'm going to be a little more forgiving of inconsistencies.

1. Okay, the very first scene sets up a plot hole that hasn't been resolved yet: how did Peter acquire his prophetic dreams? They're obviously not an extension of his natural ability - so far, every Hero has had just one power, even if they can use that power to achieve multiple effects (ie: Hiro, the Haitian). But as we learn here (and will see again in episode 10), Peter was having these dreams long before he could have copied them from Isaac, Charles Deveaux, or anyone else we've seen on-screen. My guess is he picked it up from his father, but there's no real evidence to support that.

2. Mohinder's accent was much thicker in this episode - Sendhil Ramamurthy was clearly making an effort to sound Indian, but that's pretty much gone now. Too stereotypical?

3. The first appearance of Mr. Bennet shows how Tim Kring and company approached the issue of generic expectations - given the context of his two scenes here, one might be forgiven for dismissing Mr. Bennet as yet another "shadowy malefactor" in the vein of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Malcolm Janus and so on. And those expectations were subverted: he's only a pawn, and not an evil pawn at that, and he had nothing to do with Chandra Suresh's murder - had no desire to see the Professor dead at all, in fact.

4. While "Heroes" may suffer the occasional glitch, Niki's first scene serves as an excellent example of how well-coordinated and well-planned this series is. In hindsight, I realize that this scene actually introduces us to Jessica, not Niki. Jessica's the one doing the stripping - it's only after she walks past the mirror that Niki emerges. It's a very subtle moment, because you have no reason to suspect anything's wrong; Ali Larter plays the personality shift as befits a woman who just ran a stint of online porn and now must take her young son to school. In fact, if you review this episode knowing about the Niki/Jessica schism, it becomes a lot more complex in terms of who's doing what: which of them, for example, threatened Micah's principal? Which of them loaned money from Linderman?

5. Claire's growth as a character is astonishing; power-related angst aside, she's pretty much the typical self-absorbed cheerleader here, who thinks talking to an outcast in front of people is an appropriate reward for loyalty. I do wish, though, that we could've learned more about how she ended up confiding in Zach to begin with; it doesn't seem like something she'd think up on her own.

6. "Yoguruto?" Hee. :)

7. And here's another unanswered question: did Nathan know he could fly before he saved Peter at the end of the episode? If he didn't, the discovery doesn't seem to freak him out much; if he did, he would've reacted more strongly to Peter's claim that he could fly. Of course, there's a measure of artifice here because the interaction between Nathan and Peter was part of the reversal Kring used to mislead the audience - we expect Peter (the dreamer) to be right and Nathan (the skeptic) to be wrong, and that's not exactly what happens. But it serves as a very effective climax to the episode.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Like, Whatever: Postscript

And here's a thought that occurred to me today: Quesada, Millar and many of the current inhabitants of Marvel's talent (cess)pool grew up at a time when "Bastards Are Cool" was the dominant philosophy in superhero comics.

Is it any wonder, then, that when these kids came to power, they effectively forced the Marvel Universe into a position where The Bastards win?

(The irony, of course, being that by the time they got to act out their adolescent fantasies, we'd all moved on - The Bastard is nothing more than a cliche now.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Like, Whatever (SPOILERS)

Actual conversation today:

LCS Guy: Di, you're not going to believe what they just did - Captain America is dead.

Me: Really? Huh. Well, when's he coming back?

Yeah, that's pretty much the sum total of my investment in this particular plot twist. Don't get me wrong, I trust Brubaker knows what he's doing, I'm just not inclined to play along as if I didn't remember Foggy Nelson and how Marvel swore up and down that he was dead too, "for reals".

Here's food for thought, though: by killing the one character who represents idealism and heroism for Marvel, the current regime has finally proven - once and for all - how far off-course they've gone, how skewed their perception is, and how they're utterly determined to make the Marvel Universe a place that's just not fun to visit anymore.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Morrison's Magneto: Success or Failure?

While randomly trawling the Internet, I stumbled onto a blogger who's been analyzing Grant Morrison's run on "New X-Men". I can't seem to find the link now, but what got my attention at the time was a side remark he made during a review of one of the earlier issues: he considers Morrison's Magneto to be the great failure of the run, for obvious reasons (out of character, raving lunatic, and so on).

It got me thinking about "New X-Men". I like that after all this time I'm still thinking about "New X-Men", I still feel like there's more to say about it. But anyway, Magneto. It's no secret that "Planet X" depicted the X-Men's nemesis in a very unflattering light - in later interviews, Morrison was quite candid about the fact that Magneto, in his eyes, was a "mad old twat". So one can certainly make the claim that this was just Morrison showing contempt for what he considered to be an archaic staple of the sub-genre.

And yet... I think part of the problem with reading (and understanding) "New X-Men" today is that Morrison based his entire approach on a paradox. On the one hand, his run implicitly asks the reader to sweep aside continuity and the gaudy superheroics of the past - the very first line of issue 114 is "Wolverine, you can probably stop doing that now." But at the same time, if you take everything Morrison did and look at it within the wider context of X-Men history... well, let's have a look.

Cyclops' affair with Emma Frost makes a certain amount of sense on Morrison's merits alone: he's having marital difficulties, he's coping with mental trauma, and Emma offers him a chance to escape and have a little fun. We might not agree with what he does, but we can at least understand why he does it. Of course, it doesn't hurt Morrison's case that Scott Summers has a history of infidelity: he dated Colleen Wing when Jean was presumed dead (Claremont), took off with Lee Forrester when Jean really was dead (Claremont again), married Madelyne (still Claremont) only to leave her for Jean (Simonson?), cheated on Jean with Psylocke (Lobdell/Nicieza), married Jean, and then he took off with his boyfriend Achmed (likeadeuce ;)). So Morrison, intentionally or not, is falling into step with many writers before him who all agree that Cyclops can't seem to keep it in his pants.

Which brings me to Magneto. Let's put aside the destruction of Genosha for a moment, and the fact that he's partly to blame for that (he gathered those mutants and offered them safety, only to get himself crippled by provoking the X-Men). If we take "Planet X" into the larger context of Magneto's history, here is a man who survived the Holocaust, who watched his firstborn daughter burn alive, whose other children despise him, whose grandchildren (real or Wandaspawned) don't even know he exists, who's alienated from his best friend and possibly the only person alive who understands him, whose students betray him (first the New Mutants, then Fabian Cortez, then Exodus).

You take that, and you add the deaths of sixteen million people who put their faith in him, and yes, that's a man on the brink of insanity. That is certainly the portrait of a man who will take power-boosting drugs and become dependent on them, who will leave himself open to Sublime's manipulation, and who will make a last, desperate bid to rule the world because he thinks this is mutantkind's last chance. And the terrible irony is that he's wrong - it's been his last chance all along, his time that was running out, and anything he does at this point is too little, too late; as Ernst tells him, "Nobody likes what you're doing ... it's boring and old-fashioned."

This has been Magneto's fatal flaw since Uncanny X-Men #150: he's so obsessed with his grand plans for world conquest and the utopia that will surely follow that he can never see past it, to ask what comes next. And Morrison capitalizes on that: Magneto wastes so much time infiltrating the Institute and playing the usual mind games with Xavier and the X-Men that, when he finally makes his move, he finds himself faced with a new generation of mutants that asserted itself in the interrim, and they only ever said "Magneto Was Right" when he was dead.

So no, I don't believe Morrison's Magneto was a failure at all. I think it's an image of a broken man, desperately clinging to the only thing that's keeping him going, the thing he wants to hear Xavier say - "you were right and I was wrong". And when he realizes he can never have that, death is the only alternative.

And, in retrospect, I think I prefer that to coming back to life, losing his powers, and blowing up on a SHIELD helicopter as an afterthought. Seems more... fitting, I suppose.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Game Review: "Elvira II - The Jaws of Cerberus"

This ancient contribution from HorrorSoft makes for an interesting - if deeply flawed - experience.

You play an anonymous hero-type summoned by horror hostess Elvira to her movie studios. The demon Cerberus has kidnapped our Mistress of the Dark, converting her three film sets into real nests of supernatural activity. You must search all three studios (a haunted house, underground catacombs, and an insect maze) for the captive Elvira, slaying Cerberus' minions along the way, and then gather the magical artifacts needed to banish the demon back to Hell.

"The Jaws of Cerberus" belongs to a particularly unforgiving sub-genre of adventure/RPG, the type where it's very easy to make a mistake (ie: drop or use an item at the wrong time) resulting in an unwinnable game, only there's no mechanism to let you know that you're stuck. You can just go on for hours, never realizing you can't proceed beyond a certain point. It's the sort of thing that makes playing without a walkthrough far too great a chore to be enjoyable.

Even with a walkthrough, gameplay leaves much to be desired; combat is pretty much randomly clicking on the enemy, and either you hit it or you don't. Spells are useful, but there's no way to recharge your MP aside from standing around for hours at a time - and unfortunately, the game will most likely force you into this position at least twice. Magic is also problematized by the enormous amount of dead weight, ie: a lot of spells and spell ingredients are just plain useless to you in the course of the game.

Fortunately, "The Jaws of Cerberus" excels at visual presentation, and that's enough of an incentive to at least give the game a casual run-through - there's plenty of gore (exploding eyeballs, blood, mutilation, giant insects, maggoty corpses), but more in the vein of how the '80s classics used it (to enhance frightening scenes) than the more gratuitous methods used in modern films like "Saw". The set designs are surprisingly detailed given the technology that was available when the game was made.

As a throwback, then, it's the sort of game you wouldn't mind watching as a film or television series, but actually playing it requires a great deal of patience - more, perhaps, than is warranted.

Passing Sentences #5

Heroes, Company Man: I'm a bit conflicted about this one. On the one hand, I liked how the flashbacks were worked in, and there were plenty of interesting revelations and strong character moments both in the past and in the present. But I'm not sure this episode actually answered any questions I brought to the table: What is Mr. Bennet's first name and why is it such a big deal? How did he get involved with the organization? If they don't have Suresh's list, how are they finding the Heroes? What exactly are they doing to the Heroes? (Bennet says tagging and releasing, but they're clearly responsible for powering up Matt, Ted and Isaac, and Claude mentions vivisections...) And where the hell did present-day Eric Roberts come from? A bit uneven, then, but very effective in terms of changing our perception of a character (possibly two, I doubt I'll be feeling any sympathy for Ted in the near future).

Brick: Oy, what a misfire. I'm sorry, I get it's supposed to be noir-meets-high-school, but hearing Joseph Gordon Levitt talk about taking the heat and shaking the trees and ratting out the finks just veers into comical territory for me. Like "Sin City" before it, there's something inherently ridiculous about the way "Brick" slavishly follows its chosen genre; for starters, we're not living in the pulp era anymore, so injecting archaic dialogue into a modern-day setting only serves to point out how silly noir can be in any other context (insert random Frank Miller parody here). Also, these films follow the pre-established generic patterns so closely that there's no real surprise - yes, the black-clad mystery girl will be a femme fatale, and she's probably the real mastermind behind the story, and drugs will be involved, and the crimelord's top thug has his own dirty secret, etc. On some level, "Brick" is just regurgitating the old tropes via new faces, and I imagine it'd be terminally boring to anyone who's experienced the genre before, in any capacity.

Runaways, Live Fast / Doctor Strange: The Oath: In which Marvel says goodbye to Brian Vaughan, and is all the more creatively barren for it. There was something suitably low-key about "Live Fast" as the coda to Vaughan's run; nobody died, no grand revelation changed everything we knew forever, but at the same time there's an air of finality even before Iron Man bursts in to remind everyone that there's this thing called "Civil War" and maybe you'd like to read it (the "death" of a unique book via invasion of a mega-crossover: meta-text? Surely not). But anyway, I'm definitely going to miss Vaughan on this series - with the news that Whedon's run is in fact limited to six issues, this feels much more like an ending than it should, with only an epilogue to look forward to.

Meanwhile, Joe Quesada and I have our differences, but one of the very, very few things we agree on is the problematic status of Doctor Strange. Specifically, the Sorcerer Supreme has always been a tempting figure for lazy writers to use as a deus ex machina - just wheel him in to do some hocus-pocus and the day is saved. Brian Bendis ever-so-helpfully demonstrated this during "Avengers Disassembled" and "House of M" (and God only knows what "New Avengers" will look like), and Quesada has a point when he claims that Marvel's amorphous definition of magic basically puts Strange in a quasi-omnipotent position. Vaughan offers the simplest solution: rather than try to redefine magic (a task apparently assigned to the upcoming "Mystic Arcana" miniseries), all that's required is to put Doctor Strange's enemies on his level and make the story a mystery that requires unraveling, rather than a solution that can be instantly achieved with some arcane alliteration. That way, Strange can't just wave a magic wand and set things right. In the process, Vaughan unsurprisingly delivers excellent characterization of Strange, Wong and the Night Nurse, so much so that I desperately wanted this to be the first arc of an ongoing series.

With "Y: The Last Man" going bimonthly as it enters its final arc, and only a four-issue run on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the immediate future, I can't help feeling like the industry is losing one of its brightest, most talented stars. And for sodding Lost, of all things. Let's hope Vertigo snatches him up for another 60-issue series, eh?