Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

27 February 2007

Ghost Rider: Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The advance of special effects technology is the worst thing that could happen to the Ghost Rider movie.

You see, if there weren’t any special effects — or if the special effects were more difficult or expensive — then director and screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson would have had to come up with some sort of plot. Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t have to: Ghost Rider is merely a collection of effects, sets, and very brief fights. The motorcycle-riding protagonist zooms from one to another withouth having to slow down much for plot points, characterization, or making a whole hell of a lot of sense.

The story, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name, stars Nick Cage as Johnny Blaze, motorcycle stunt rider who sold his soul as a teenager to save his father from cancer. The devil (Mephistopheles, actually, played by Peter Fonda) gypped Johnny, as Satanic beings are wont to do, so Johnny tries to master the terror of knowing ol’ Scratch might call for him at any moment . For this reason, he casts away his teenage love, Roxanne, played as an adult by Eva Mendez. For his part, the life of Mephistopheles isn’t all pleasant blazes and exciting deals; his son, Blackheart, has gathered a trio of villains to find a mystical contract hidden away from Mephistopheles that gives him title to a thousand souls. To stop his son, Mephistopheles transforms Johnny into the demonic-looking Ghost Rider, Mephistopheles’s bounty hunter and general errand boy, during the night.

Ghost Rider poster And that’s where the movie falls down, really. There’s a good movie in there, with Johnny battling with the devil — and himself — for his soul. You or I could probably find an interesting story, perhaps with Mephistopheles tempting Johnny with a chance to regain his lost love. Instead, it’s a race to find some hidden infernal McGuffin that does ... something. I’m not sure what, or why a contract for 1,000 souls equates to personal power. If you’re stockpiling souls, well, then you want that contract. But otherwise ... and for the ostensible Lord of Lawyers, Mephistopheles has a shaky grasp of contract law; for some reason, the contract is a bearer object, giving power to whomever has it, rather than just specifying Mephistopheles gets the souls.

How bad is this movie? More than bad enough. The FX Ghost Rider is stiff and delivers the most hackneyed lines in comics history — little more than dressed up catch phrases that aren’t catchy. Blackheart looks like Hal Sparks in clown white, and while that’s unsettling, it’s hardly my idea of supernatural evil. His henchmen look cool, but it takes Ghost Rider only a minute or so to dispatch the three demons, putting them at the level of video-game level bosses. When a hood stabs Ghost Rider, Johnny needs stitches, but Johnny suffers no ill effects when one of the demon hits Ghost Rider with a semi or when the SWAT team decides to use Ghost Rider as the object of a live ammunition test. Johnny’s attempts to control his demonic power are boiled down to a general sentence in a book and five seconds of concentration. Mephistopheles’s law follies continue when he considers Johnny to have signed a demonic contract when Johnny accidentally bleeds on the paper, but when he wants Johnny to pursue Blackheart, he offers to let Johnny out of the contract if he defeats Blackheart. Why have a contract if you’re going to bargain with your employees’ every time you want them to do anything? And why does the previous Ghost Rider, a cowboy from the 19th century, ride across the desert with the Blaze Ghost Rider to his final confrontation with Blackheart, then give him a shotgun and leave? Couldn’t he have done something in the final fight?

It’s very frustrating, and those complaints are just the beginning. I mean, this is a movie that doesn’t realize how far it is from one goalpost on a football field to the other; the movie keeps insisting it’s 300 feet (not yards, in which a football field is usually measured, but feet). It’s actually 360 feet — the goalposts are 10 yards behind the goal lines.

Cage is the most enjoyable part of the movie. He does his level best, making the good scenes work as well as could be expected and trying to rise above the worst of the writing. There are times when his acting seems more risible than respectable — while he transforms into Ghost Rider the first time, he seems to be suffering an epileptic seizure while his joints freeze — but his dedication to the project shows. Unfortunately, Mendes isn’t given much to do as Roxy Simpson, Johnny’s once and future love. Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles is a neat idea, especially since the motorcycle Mephistopheles gives to his new Ghost Rider is very similar to the one Fonda rode in Easy Rider. Fonda plays the Tempter with a quiet reserve, which is quite a change from the vicious scenery chomping of Wes Bentley (Blackheart). Unfortunately, the role doesn’t give Fonda much room to work with, and the script doesn’t really show how evil Mephistopheles is — compared to Blackheart, he’s practically a white hat.

This is part of Johnson’s blind spot: he doesn’t know how to show the evil and menace of his antagonists. He thinks quick flashes of the character’s faces, glimpses of their skeletal structure, and cranking up the reverb on their voices makes a character frightening; actually, it makes them freakish. Blackheart kills repeatedly, which does show he’s evil, and his resistance to Ghost Rider’s powers shows he’s soulless. But there’s no nuance and no craft there — he just kills everything in his way, which is boring, and his fight with Ghost Rider isn’t all that interesting anyway. Mephistopheles just speaks softly and asks Johnny to kill the evil demon, which makes him slightly sympathetic. (Yeah, I know he damned 1,000 souls a century ago in San Venganzas, but we don’t see any of that, and hey, maybe they weren’t very nice people to begin with.)

All the blame must lie at the feet of Johnson, who wrote and directed this roadburn of a picture. (He also wrote and directed Daredevil and managed to get someone to agree to let him write some part of Elektra.) There’s a good visual here, and the actors involved aren’t hopelss. But what arrived on the screen is impossible to take seriously on any level and possible to enjoy only as a farce.

Rating: 1 of 5

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Astonishing X-Men, v. 3: Torn

Collects: Astonishing X-Men #13-8 (2006)

Released: January 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 0785117598

Torn is the third volume of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men series, and by this point, I just wish they’d get on with things.

The events in Torn spin out of the dull second volume, Danger, in which Emma Frost appears to be on the path to betraying the X-Men with elements of the former Hellfire Club. Torn is six issues of that group trying to mentally and physically destroy the X-Men. Unfortunately, that seems like two or three issues too many, as much of the plot seems to be marking time so that the storyline can reach a total of six issues. There is, I think, only one or two fights leading into the final issue of the TPB. There’s some conflict, yes, but it goes nowhere.

Astonishing X-Men, v. 3: Torn cover Whedon is drawing heavily on two previous X-Men stories: the Grant Morrison New X-Men plot that had Cassandra Nova turning the X-Men inside out and the classic Dark Phoenix saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Cassandra Nova is not a concept that I particularly felt needed revisiting, especially since she and her Morrison overtones clash horribly with the classic Hellfire Club / Phoenix era aesthetic Whedon is trying to draw on here. But Whedon’s the main plot requires the use mind control on the main characters, and if you’re going to use a psychic villain, Cassandra Nova’s going to be near the top of the list.

There’s no doubt Whedon’s having a lot of fun using mind control on certain characters; Wolverine as a Victorian nancy boy is funny, for instance, and Scott’s insecurities are interesting. Whedon certainly knows how to write dialogue — if more comic book writers could do that, we’d all be happier. But it serves to pad out the book. I can’t help thinking Whedon would be served better by a more assertive and discriminating editor, but who knows? Maybe editor Mike Marts is the man best suited for the job.

In Torn, Whedon lets his love for Kitty Pryde shine through. The Mohs scale does not go high enough to measure the hardon Whedon has for Kitty Pryde. Kitty Pryde is happy! Kitty Pryde is having sex! (Really good, intangibility inducing sex! Even if it is with Colossus!) Kitty Pryde gets to graduate to the Wolverine role in the original Hellfire Club storyline (and in a way fulfill the Phoenix role too).

Cassaday does his usual excellent job on the art, with his somewhat retro designs of some of the characters going quite well with the Dark Phoenix undertones. Cassaday knows what he’s doing; it’s easy to phone in some aspects of mind control stories, but when one of the characters’ mind is mucked about with, Cassaday changes his look as well. Other than Scott and Peter looking a little too similar (and not particularly caring for the design of Danger, the previous arc’s villain), I’m very happy with Cassaday.

The less said of the subplots left over from previous volumes of Astonishing X-Men, the better. Whedon seems to have little facility at creating characters, as none of the villains or heroes he’s created have evinced the slightest interest from me.

Whedon and Cassaday’s tenure on this title — and perhaps the title itself — will probably end after the next volume. Although I feel little reason for optimism, I’ll probably stick it out and read that one as well, both to wrap up my investment in the story and to see Whedon and Cassaday’s strengths again.

Rating: Half X-Men symbol (2.5 of 5)

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23 February 2007

From comic to movie

Compare how the the Ghost Rider movie compares to the comic book.

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20 February 2007

Champions Classic, v. 2

Collects: Champions #12-7, Iron Man Annual #4, Avengers #163, Super-Villain Team-Up #14, Spectacular Spider-Man #17-8 (1977-8)

Released: January 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 214 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 078512098X

My wife will often point out that many titles in Marvel’s Essential line are not, by any means of the imagination, essential. Essential Ghost Rider, v. 1, is her prime example, at least until she sees me reading v. 2.

Another line of Marvel TPBs that generates the occasional misnomer is the Classics line, which reprints older Marvel titles in full color. While some might argue the forthcoming Alpha Flight Classic is a prime example of misleading advertising, I must protest on two counts: one, that Alpha Flight is a prime example of Marvel being the shizzle in the ‘80s, and two, the worst example of “Classic” is clearly the Champions (Classic). Which is, surprisingly, on its second volume.

Champions Classic v. 2 cover The first volume of Champions (Classic!) ended with the Stilt-Man fighting Black Goliath. Where I’m from, that spells awesome, but unfortunately, the Stilt-Man can’t even last one issue in the second volume. He’s barely even a distraction, and the Champions can’t even be bothered to take him out — he’s beaten up by third-stringer Black Goliath. (Such is Stilt-Man’s lot in life.)

The Champions aren’t that impressive a team. Sure, they have Hercules and Ghost Rider, but they have a pair of castoff X-Men (Iceman and Angel) and are led by the non-powered Black Widow. Yes, I know there are some Avengers teams these guys could have taken, but once the villain has tricked Hercules, there’s not much opposition there. Plus there’s little reason for them to stay together; what do the five of them have in common? They are as far away from the common man they are supposed to protect as Hercules is from sobriety or Iceman is from being interesting. (If you think I’m being harsh, let me remind you Iceman’s an accountant when he isn’t a hero.)

Although the first volume of Champions (Classic?) was plagued by the original run’s tendency to switch creators, the second has at least half the problem solved. The underrated Bill Mantlo is the writer for most of v. 2, even writing the crossover issues (except for Avengers #163, which was written by Jim Shooter). The art gets off to a roaring start as well, with John Byrne drawing #12-15. This won’t work won’t be featured in his obituary, but it’s solid enough, drawn back when Byrne was working second-string titles like Champions and Iron Fist and turning in work far exceeding the title’s worth. There’s something about his Darkstar that seems to epitomize this — she’s a minor character marked indelibly with his style, which elevates her just a little.

The rest of the art is provided by industry stalwarts: George Tuska pencils the Iron Man Annual and Avengers as well as the final issue of the Champions, Bob Hall does the Supervillain Team-Up / Champions crossover, and one of my favorites, Sal Buscema finishes the team off in a two parter in Spectacular Spider-Man.

Yet despite some very solid talent, this book never clicks. You can’t blame the crossovers because of the continuity of the creators. I hate to blame Mantlo, but you look at the book, and all the bad ink seems to lead back to him. The two-part story against Swarm, the sentient communal bee colony merged with a Nazi war criminal, is the only effective story in the book. The Iron Man Annual is a bland battle against faceless thugs, despite the presence of MODOK. (If you can’t make MODOK creepy and / or memorable, you’re doing something wrong.) The Dr. Doom / Magneto battle in Supervillain Team-Up and Champions #16 is fondly remembered in some quarters, but it is superceded by the better Emperor Doom graphic novel, and in any event, the ending doesn’t make sense. (Not to mention it has very little to do with the Champions, who are mind controlled while they’re in the story.)

The rest of the stories are forgettable. Not bad … just forgettable. The team doesn’t even get a decent sendoff; they disband off-panel after Champions #17, so Angel has to tell Peter Parker how it happens in Spectacular Spider-Man. Was cancellation a surprise? It certainly seems that way, but you’d think the writing would be on the wall. On the other hand, there was certainly a lot of guest appearances late in the title’s run, so maybe the creative team hoped that would float the title along a little farther.

Maybe it isn’t really Mantlo’s fault. Maybe it’s just time catching up with a very bad idea.

The Champions were anything but classic. The stories in Champions (Classic*) are anything but memorable.

Rating: (2 of 5)

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