The superheroes of spring 2012

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again, but here’s the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to catch up on what I’ve been up to as spring slides into summer. Now that the genre television season has wound down, let’s look back at some shows that I liked.

As I’ve mentioned before, there has been a lot of good animation to enjoy this past year. Avatar: the Legend of Korra is my favorite of the recent batch of cartoons. Nickelodeon’s sequel to its successful Avatar: the Last Airbender continues that show’s Asian-style artwork, inspiring world-building, and escalating intrigues. (Note: some of the enclosed links have “spoilers.”)

Korra wallpaper
Nickelodeon's new Avatar TV series

As fellow blogger Thomas K.Y. has noted, Korra‘s adolescent characters are a bit harder to sympathize with than Avatar‘s wandering children. However, the setting and story more than make up for that to me. Republic City resembles a dieselpunk/fantasy China of the early 20th century, and the conflict between people who can “bend” or control the elements (air, earth, wind, and fire) and those who can’t has led to some tense moments.

I’ve also been impressed with the first episode of Disney’s Tron: Uprising, which may join the Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: Clone Wars in using computer animation to flesh out a cinematic sequel that initially underwhelmed critics. In contrast, Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Transformers: Prime, and G.I. Joe: Renegades are entertaining, but they’re not as memorable as additions to their respective franchises.

Cartoon’s Green Lantern: the Animated Series started out slowly with simplistic designs based on Bruce Timm’s, but it has steadily incorporated elements of recent comic book storylines, including the proliferation of cosmic factions based on different colors and emotions. How to Train Your Dragon: the Series will joining a competitive field.

In more traditional animation, the Cartoon Networks’ Thundercats revival has also mixed retro nostalgia with more modern animation and world-building to good effect. It’s friendlier to younger audiences than Korra or Tron, but I’ve enjoyed the reboot so far. I hope that the next Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles can do the same.

I wasn’t sure about the five-year jump within the Cartoon Network’s Young Justice, but seeing the pre-“52” reboot “Batman family” and returning favorites such as Beast Boy and Wonder Girl has won me over. On a related note, I enjoyed the direct-to-video Justice League: Doom, which had favorite voice actors and lots of fights between superheroes and supervillains, if not a plot accessible to non-fans. Superman vs. the Elite comes out next week, to be followed by the long-awaited Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. I also look forward to next year’s Beware the Batman.

Disney XD’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes has also incorporated bits and pieces of classic and recent plots, from Loki’s treachery (also seen in the live-action Avengers movie, which is still doing well with critics, fans, and the box office) to the infiltration by the shapeshifting Skrulls (“Secret Invasion”). The animation and writing aren’t quite as tight as for Young Justice.

Avengers‘ companion, Ultimate Spider-Man, has several snarky nods to the movie continuity, but I still miss the four-color Spectacular Spider-Man and am not thrilled by the silly humor or de-aging of characters such as the Heroes for Hire.

Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” animation block of programming on Saturday mornings — Green Lantern and Young Justice (followed by Korra on Nickelodeon) — includes very funny shorts with “Super Best Friends Forever” and Aardman stop motion, as well as glimpses of past favorites such as the Teen Titans Go!

Disney Channel’s “Marvel Universe” block on Sundays (Avengers and Spidey) does give some nice glimpses into the art and characters of its shows, plus how real-world athletes can approach comic book moves. I don’t particularly like the “Marvel Mash-ups,” which dub modern jokes over weakly animated scenes from the 1960s through early 1980s. I may be in the minority of people who prefer the gags of The Looney Tunes Show or Metalocalypse on weeknights to most of Fox’s Sunday night programs.

Coming soon: Police procedurals, supernatural series, and movie reviews!

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Getting our bearings and animation roundup

The Secret World of Arrietty
Image from The Secret World of Arrietty

Janice and I were busy last week with work and more unpacking in our new apartment. We did take some breaks, checking out the Wilson Farm, the Outer Limits, and other shops and restaurants in our area.

On Saturday, 10 March 2012, we screened The Secret World of Arrietty, which is loosely based on the children’s book The Borrowers. The latest Studio Ghibli movie featured the animation style and gentle pace familiar to fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, decent voice acting, and a plot that was somewhat more faithful than other adaptations, such as Howl’s Moving Castle or Tales of Earthsea.

The Secret World of Arrietty follows a 14-year-old girl who is a member of a diminutive family of “Borrowers” living beneath the country home of modern humans. Arrietty’s adventures are both charming and perilous, as she has bittersweet interactions with a human boy named Sean.

The U.S. English voice cast includes Amy Pohler and Carol Burnett, but the celebrity casting isn’t distracting. The movie may not be as action-packed or high-concept as other Miyazaki films, but it’s still entertaining and a nice antidote to the recent overload of loud, computer-animated flicks. Overall, I’d give The Secret World of Arrietty, which is rated G, 7.5 or 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and a B+/A-.

In other animation, Janice and I recently watched our DVD of Azur and Asmar: the Princes’ Quest, which follows two boys from their childhood in medieval France to the deserts in search of a fairy princess. Like Sita Sings the Blues, my first impression of the flat computer animation was that it was crude, but the detail and style grew on me as the characters and story developed.

I thought the movie did a nice job of depicting the conflict and synergy of European, North African, Arabian, and Persian styles and folklore. I’d give Azur and Asmar an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and an A-.

I have yet to watch Justice League: Doom, and Cartoon Network’s “DC Nationblock has just started on Saturday mornings, with a mix of Young Justice, Green Lantern, and humorous shorts aimed at younger audiences. It’s a little disjointed so far, but I like the shorts. Disney XD will be starting its own Marvel Universe programming on Sunday mornings, including The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-Man.

And that’s not even including upcoming animation such as Star Wars: Clone Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar: the Legend of Korra, How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, and Pixar’s Brave! I’ve given up for now on trying to keep up with the latest TV iterations of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Kung-Fu Panda, although they all seem decent. In comedy, I find myself more interested in The Looney Tunes Show, Metalocalypse, or Archer than in The Simpsons or Fox’s Sunday night animation block.

One final item (for now) of news: Sadly, Jean Giraud, also known as Moebius — borrowed from the mathematician — died last week. I discovered his art years ago in Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine. As with the recently deceased Robert McCall and Ralph McQuarrie, Moebius shaped generations of science fiction and fantasy creators and fans. Examples of Moebius’ influence include the distinctive looks of Alien, Blade Runner, Dune, The Fifth Element, Heavy Metal, Tron, and Willow. All of these artists will be missed, but their visions live on!

Ode to Gatchaman

Gatchaman
Gatchaman by Alex Ross

I was recently asked about classic animation, and my favorite old-school anime is Gatchaman, also known as G-Force or Battle of the Planets on U.S. television. It came before Voltron, Transformers, and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers but influenced them all.

The 1970s “science ninja team” was partly inspired by western superheroes and featured the first “super sentai” group, establishing the archetypes of the fearless leader, annoying kid, big guy techie, spunky girl, and reckless loner. Their costumes, acrobatic maneuvers, and individual vehicles have been copied many times since then.

Gatchaman‘s “god bird Phoenix” was one of the first fictional spacecraft to allow its crew to pilot separately and then come together to transform. Plus, viewers of the bastardized American version may not be aware of the franchise‘s darker themes, including teenagers who have been genetically modified, cross-dressing villains, and a future where humanity faces self-destruction and alien invasion.

I have action figures, DVDs, reference books, and a rare die-cast Phoenix model imported from Japan! A computer-animated movie was in the works, but the studio unfortunately went under after the poor box-office returns of Astro Boy and TMNT. I still hope that Gatchaman will be revived and updated someday! (I’m also a Macross/Robotech fan.)

Swashbuckling cinema

The late Bob Anderson
Sword master Bob Anderson

Over the holidays, I caught up a bit on movies on DVD, in theaters, and on cable television. While spending Christmas with my in-laws, I saw the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel and 2011’s Cars 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean [4]: On Stranger Tides.

I’ve seen other adaptations of the Orczy stories, but the black-and-white Scarlet Pimpernel is noteworthy because of its reflection of Anglo-American concerns about dictatorship and war in Europe and as a forerunner to characters such as Zorro and Batman. Speaking of swashbuckling, fellow fans of everything from Errol Flynn’s films to Star Wars, Highlander, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings should note the passing of sword master Bob Anderson.

Cars 2 was reasonably entertaining, with nicely rendered international backgrounds (not unlike Kung-Fu Panda 2) and an espionage-flavored plot. The character development and pathos weren’t at Pixar’s usual level, but I’d still give the computer-animated flick a B+, three stars, or a 7.5 out of 10. My favorite animated movies of the past year or so include The Illusionist, Rango, and Winnie the Pooh, and I look forward to The Secret World of Arrietty, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Pixar’s next, Brave, in 2012.

Pirates 4 was better than its muddled predecessor At World’s End, with a more linear plot involving the Fountain of Youth, less pointless backstabbing and visual effects, and somewhat less mugging by star Johnny Depp. The romantic subplots were still extraneous but less annoying, and Penelope Cruz as pirate Angelica and Ian McShane as the notorious Blackbeard were worthy foils to Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Capt. Barbossa. Not surprisingly, Disney’s On Stranger Tides leaves the door open for yet more sequels. I’d give it a B, 7 out of 10, or three stars.

I have yet to watch other recent swashbucklers, including Sinbad: the Fifth Voyage, the reboot of Conan the Barbarian, and the latest Three Musketeers. On TV, I enjoyed the latest Star Wars marathon and rewatching David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune for the umpteenth time. As David I.S. and I have noted, it’s OK for fans to turn to the visual equivalent of “comfort food” from time to time.

As previously mentioned, Janice and I also screened The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn at the Showcase Cinemas de Lux at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, and we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Beruk A. for The Artist at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

I’m somewhat familiar with the young hero of Belgian artist Herge’s comic books, and Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s adaptation is fairly faithful. I liked Tintin‘s globe-trotting, 1930s adventures (similar to those of Indiana Jones), and the “uncanny valley” of realistically animated humans didn’t bother me as it does with Zemeckis’ works, partly because they were slightly caricaturized. I’d give Secret of the Unicorn a solid B, three stars, or 7.5 out of 10.

The apparent theme of many of the movies I’ve mentioned here is that retro films, especially swashbucklers, never truly go out of style. The Artist is no exception, both following and paying homage to the tropes of the silent era. The French film is set in Hollywood of the late 1920s and early 1930s and follows the charismatic George Valentin (Jean Dujardin as an analogue for Rudoph Valentino) and young actress Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo) as their industry deals with changing technology and audience tastes. Valentin’s dog steals the show. I definitely recommend The Artist, which I’d give an A-, or four out of five stars, or 8.5 out of 10.

What were your favorite movies of the past year? I didn’t get to theaters quite as often as in previous years. In addition to those mentioned above, I liked The Mighty Thor, Captain America: the First Avenger, The Muppets, and Sherlock Holmes [2]: A Game of Shadows. In the next few months, I hope to catch Hugo (another retro film that Janice saw), the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the actioner Haywire.

Looking further ahead, there’s planetary romance John Carter, superheroes Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, dueling fairy tales Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, James Bond in Skyfall, and of course, The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey!

Snow on the scarecrow

 

This just doesn't seem right
Happy Halloween 2011!

After an optometrist appointment on Saturday, 29 October 2011, I drove to the spacious apartment of Josh C. & Sara F. in Abington, Massachusetts, for Josh’s one-shot of Fortune’s Fool. I enjoyed the alternate history/fantasy game, in which I role-played “Giuseppe de Cellini,” an Italian Halfling gentleman rogue and swashbuckler.

I was joined by Bruce K. and Rich C.G., who are in one of my FATE 3e “Vortex” space opera teams, as well as Josh & Sara’s friends Rob & Ginger and Robyn, whom I had met at a cookout. The scenario involved our Player Characters looking for demon summoners around fourteenth century Paris. Despite a slow start, we enjoyed the Fortune’s Fool session, Josh’s punch spiked with mist-making dry ice, and the Chinese food that we ordered. Janice had also baked brownies for the potluck.

We did find Fortune’s Fool‘s rules, which use Tarot cards rather than polyhedral dice for conflict resolution, to be overly specific for combat (reminiscent of D20). They were also a bit “swingy,” granting only about a 50% chance of success for anything, given our average skill levels.

History buffs like Jason E.R. and I also had some questions about why a Renaissance would even be necessary in a world whose demihumans had long lifespans and memories of classical culture and technology, but such details would be more of a concern in a long-term campaign. I’ve tried to blend fantasy and alternate history in my own GURPS Steampunk/D20 Etherscope: “Gaslight Grimoire” adventures.

Bruce, Rich, and I left around dinnertime, before Josh & Sara’s Halloween party, to avoid the worst of an early Nor’easter. Boston’s inner suburbs got only a few inches of wet, heavy snow, but areas north and west of us got as much as a foot. Most of our autumn leaves haven’t even fallen yet, but raking will have to wait until after the snow melts.

Janice and I lost power briefly on Sunday night, but our Verizon FIOS (telephone, Internet, and cable television) was disrupted. Fortunately, we have more than enough to read and watch on DVD in the meantime. For instance, we watched some more 1940s Superman serials, Batman: Year One, and a few episodes of the anime Case Closed.

I thought that Year One was very faithful to the influential Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli graphic novel, which depicts Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and Selina Kyle at the start of their crime-fighting careers. I also look forward to the all-star voice cast (similar to that of the videogame Batman: Arkham City) for the upcoming direct-to-video release of Justice League: Doom.

Without connectivity or quorum, my Pathfinder/Skype: “the Vanished Landstelecom fantasy game again didn’t meet last night, and the “Vortex” group is skipping a week because of the holiday. I look forward to greeting trick-or-treaters tonight. Have a Happy Halloween!

P.S.: Verizon will be sending a technician out this coming Thursday, so I won’t have land-line phone, Web, or TV until then. Still, my situation is better than those of the many people still without power. Stay warm!