I’ve always loved Musketeers stories.
I’m pretty sure I read Alexandre Dumas’ novel of 17th-century Musketeers – the king’s guard – when I was still young and certainly before the 1973 Richard Lester movie version. I really loved Lester’s movie and its made-at-the-same-time sequel, “The Four Musketeers,” which was funny and slapstick and swashbuckling all at the same time. The movies clinched my love of the story and characters, a love that deepened when I saw the very different but equally thrilling 1948 version starring Gene Kelly and Van Heflin.
So I’ve enjoyed getting a double-dose of Musketeers lately with a BBC America series, “The Musketeers,” and a repeat viewing of Lester’s first movie.
“The Musketeers” is a handsome version of the story of young French farm boy d’Artagnan, who goes to Paris on a mission of revenge but soon finds companions in three of the king’s best Musketeers, suave Aramis, tragic Athos and brawling Porthos.
The series has the court intrigue, double-crossings and mysterious motives familiar from the story. The four Musketeers are stalwart but portrayed as men with faults and secrets.
A nice bonus is the presence of Peter Capaldi, who just last night began his tenure as the Doctor in “Doctor Who,” as Cardinal Richelieu, often portrayed as a villain but given some interesting shading here.
The series finishes up tonight, but I’m sure you can catch it streaming or on demand.
As for a recent chance to re-watch Lester’s original “Three Musketeers,” with Michael York, Raquel Welch and the amazing Oliver Reed, I rediscovered my love for the movie again.
And for all the talk about modern-day movies hinting at or previewing future movies in a series, “The Three Musketeers” ends with scenes from its sequel.
It was a practice the producers, the Salkinds, pioneered here and tried to do again with the first two “Superman” movies. In the latter series, the producers threw out much of the footage shot for the sequel. With the “Musketeers” films, some members of the cast sued because they had been paid for only one movie.
Pretty sure Peter Jackson worked out such details with the “Lord of the Rings” cast before the fact.
I forgot how crazy “Night of the Hunter” was.
I saw the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed film, starring Robert Mitchum as a murderous preacher with a series of dead wives in his wake, in my movie-crazy adolescence way more than 30 years ago. It was during a period I was soaking up every movie I could find on TV – this was before the VCR era, even – and reading about everything, from the old Universal horror movies to classics like the Marx Brothers and Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.”
But in the decades since I saw “Night of the Hunter,” my mind had pretty much rendered it to its single-sentence plotline: Woman-killing man of the cloth has murderous intentions for his adopted family.
I forgot how subversive, how darkly funny, how outright odd much of the movie is.
Set in rural West Virginia in the 1930s, the movie starts out with a shock: Children playing in a yard begin a game of hide-and-seek, only to discover the body of a dead woman in the opening to a storm cellar.
We quickly discover she’s the latest victim of Harry Powell, a traveling preacher and serial killer. As he tools along country roads, Powell talks to God about his mission: Kill women and steal their money to fund his religious crusade.
Powell’s travels are interrupted by his arrest for auto theft and he spends a few weeks in jail. While inside, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a family man awaiting execution for murder. After hearing Harper talk in his sleep about the existence of $10,000 in stolen cash – and following Harper’s execution – Powell is released and goes to find and befriend Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and her children, skeptical John (Billy Chapin) and loving Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
Powell talks his way into marriage with Willa – with the help of town busybody Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) – and then sets out to find the $10,000, murdering his new family if he must.
The movie is full of menace and performances that range from subtle (Mitchum, usually) to over-the-top.
“Night of the Hunter” has been cited as an influence on the filmmakers that followed it, but watching Laughton’s movie, it feels like he was influenced by everything from homespun small-town dramas (the town gossip) to horror films (the moody lighting, the lurching figure of Mitchum when he’s chasing the children, images right out of a “Frankenstein” movie). Laughton puts a satirical spin on all this, however. The gossipy neighbor who practically forces the widow into Powell’s arms literally leads the lynch mob after Powell’s head at the end of the movie.
There’s a drinking game to be played watching “Night of the Hunter,” and it involves taking a drink every time Mitchum sings a verse of a hymn or emptying your glass every time he calls out, “Children …. ” in a spine-tingling sing-song tone.
Alternately, “Night of the Hunter” could almost be recut as a 1980s sitcom, with Mitchum as the bumbling dad, forever tripping over things in the basement.
“The Strain” is an odd bird. Even besides the whole “vampires projecting fleshy six-foot-long stingers out of their mouths” thing.
It’s odd because it’s a TV series drawn from a series of three books that began life as a TV project.
Published in 2009, “The Strain” was written by movie director Guillermo del Toro and top-notch crime drama writer Chuck Hogan, who wrote “Prince of Thieves,” the hard-bitten Boston thriller made into the Ben Affleck movie “The Town.”
The two based “The Strain” and its two sequels, “The Fall” and “The Night Eternal,” on a TV series they wanted to develop.
The first book – and this is the plot familiar to viewers of the FX series, which is five episodes into a 13-episode first (?) season – follows the efforts of a small group of people – a couple of Centers for Disease Control scientists, an exterminator and a sword-wielding survivor of a World War II death camp – to convince authorities that New York City is the breeding ground for a deadly type of virus, It’s a disease that turns people into grotesque vampires, spreads rapidly – and has been deliberately released into the population after most of the passengers and crew of an airliner turn up dead on the runway at JFK.
“The Strain” is also odd in that, having read the books, I can’t quite imagine how the show can play out like Hogan and del Toro’s series of novels.
I won’t get into spoilers here, but suffice it to say that it would be an odd series indeed that starts as a medical thriller with supernatural overtones and morphs into … well, something else entirely.
“The Strain” is not what it seems. I’m not sure at what pace the plot will play out – and I’m pretty sure the series will be more faithful to the books than the adaptation of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” has been – but it’ll be very interesting to see what happens by the end of this season. Or next, if there is one.
And those stingers. Sheesh.
So “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo,” the first in a series of beautiful hardcover collections of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday newspaper strips, is essential perusing for anyone who wants to understand the origins of modern space opera.
The first oversized hardback collection curates Raymond’s Sunday strips from Jan. 1, 1934 to April 18, 1937 and features an introduction and appreciation by artist Alex Ross.
What’s fascinating about the collection is how quickly Raymond populated the world of Mongo with bizarre characters and creatures. By the time of the second Sunday strip – the second – Raymond had introduced giant dinosaur lizards for Flash to battle. By the third Sunday, red ape-like creatures are brought out to wrestle a Speedo-sporting Flash.
Lion Men, Hawk Men and other staples of the strip follow one after the other.
Raymond quickly grew more confident in his art. The early strips contain up to 12 panels. They’re colorful and stuffed full of wild figures and story twists but Raymond’s talents are not shown off by the cramped layout.
By the fall of 1934, Raymond had made his panels bigger – sometimes using as few as eight – and telling his story more effectively.
By mid-1935, the panels were as few as four a week. On June 16, 1935, Raymond used just three panels – one taking up much of that week’s strip – to show Hawkmen, spears in hand, buzzing out of the sky on an enemy army on the ground below.
In these first adventures, Flash and his allies war against Emperor Ming, explore undersea kingdoms and are forever being thrown into pits with reptilian beasties.
It’s all fun and, thanks to the propulsive plots and beautiful art of Alex Raymond, a classic.
A lot of people are saying “Guardians of the Galaxy” is this generation’s “Star Wars.” I’m not sure that’s the case, or that anything could be this generation’s “Star Wars.” Some people forget just what a game-changer “Star Wars” and, two years earlier, “Jaws,” were. Those two movies solidified summertime as a time for big-screen escapist fare and proved that people would pay to see it.
Others say that “Guardians” is this generation’s “The Last Starfighter” but I think that’s selling “Guardians” short. As fond as my memories of “Starfighter” are, I think “Guardians” is a better movie.
So what role does “Guardians” fill?
First of all, it’s a really good summer movie. It’s good-natured and funny and full of action.
Secondly, it’s a sure-footed next milestone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although it only slyly references the quest for the Infinity Stones – the sources of power that will, almost certainly lead Thanos to Earth in the third “Avengers” movie, probably in 2018 – it keeps that subplot to the first three phases of Marvel movies in moviegoers’ minds.
Thirdly, it expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s how:
The comics published by Marvel in the past half-century-plus have covered a lot of territory, literally and figuratively speaking.
There’s the street-level superheroes, like Spider-Man and Daredevil, dealing with maniacal villains and street punks alike. The non-Marvel Cinematic Universe “Spider-Man” movies and Marvel’s upcoming Netflix series like “Daredevil” map out this world. (They’re the Marvel counterparts of Batman, for you DC lovers out there.)
There’s the global superheroes, like the Avengers, who have the power to face threats to the entire world. The non-MCU heroes like “Fantastic Four” also fall into this category, as does DC’s Superman and Justice League.
What “Guardians” does is give Marvel Studios a beachhead in the cosmic universe where the comic books have played for a half-century.
There’s always been some crossover among all these Marvel realms, such as when Galactus, devourer of worlds, shows up and is tackled by the FF. Cosmic threat comes to global heroes.
But quite often, the links between the cosmic and Earth-based heroes have been only tenuous. Captain Marvel or the Silver Surfer or Warlock show up and fight and eventually team up with the FF or the Avengers to face a menace like the Kree-Skrull War, but by the end of the story, things are back to a Marvel status quo and the Avengers are dealing with Earth-based villains like Doctor Doom.
“Guardians” plunges us headlong into that cosmic Marvel universe with only occasional looks back at Earth.
I won’t recap the plot I’m sure you’re familiar with by now or even go on and on with my thoughts about “Guardians.” Director James Gunn had made a fun, “Star Wars”-ian adventure pitting an unlikely band of heroes against evil forces. Along the way, the movie introduces, more smoothly than most would have thought possible, fantastic creatures like Rocket Racoon, a small but ferocious animal with a pitiable past and a love of big guns, and Groot, a walking, talking (well, a little) tree creature. Space raccoon and gentle plant-based giant you say? Sure, why not. It’s a testament to Gunn’s handling of the characters and plot of “Guardians” that what the characters are matter less than who they are.
If you remember, Thanos, Marvel’s go-to cosmic bad guy, showed up at the end of “The Avengers” to take credit for pitting an invading alien army against Earth and grin at the thought of courting death.
Thanos wants the Tesseract – the Cosmic Cube in the comics – that the Red Skull wielded in “Captain America” and Loki sought in “The Avengers.” Along with the Aether, the cosmic power from “Thor: The Dark World,” and other Infinity Stones, Thanos can make the Infinity Gauntlet, a weapon of unimaginable power. It’s a certainty that will be the major plot point of the third “Avengers” movie.
One of the most amusing things about “Guardians” is that much of the history and power of the Infinity Stones is laid out midway through the movie … but to the protagonists and antagonists of “Guardians,” who don’t even know as much as Captain America and Iron Man about the importance of the Stones but know a thing to keep away from bad guys when they see one.
So the collected Guardians, led by the effortlessly charming Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, take on Ronan, an upstart ally of Thanos, in an effort to keep a handle on their particular Infinity Stone and keep it away from Thanos.
It’s an effort that will continue for another four years before the contest for the Stones pits Avengers – and likely other allies – against Thanos in the third Avengers movie, which will likely act as capper to the first three phases of big-screen Marvel.
“Guardians” is so much fun, so funny, so charming, that it carries all the responsibility of furthering the over-arching plot of big-screen Marvel as if it were a feather. Despite its many accomplishments, that might be the movie’s handiest achievement.
By the way, I wanted to mention Marvel’s other comic-book universes, besides street-level, global and cosmic playgrounds, because the big-screen Marvel universe will no doubt incorporate them as well.
(I won’t get into a couple of lesser-known Marvel comic book universes here because, frankly, I don’t think we’ll see big-screen versions of Marvel’s romance and western comic worlds anytime soon.)
We’re all but certain to see Marvel’s mystical and horror universes come into play in movies before long, perhaps in a combined venture.
The studio has already named a director for its “Dr. Strange” movie, about a physician who became a master of the mystic arts and fought supernatural creatures. It’ll be interesting to see who the studio picks to play the part because Strange could be as much of an anchor for ongoing Marvel movies as Robert Downey Jr. has been as Tony Stark.
A “Strange” movie would not only introduce the mystical and supernatural Marvel universes to the big screen but could encompass the company’s long history of horror characters, some of whom regularly cross paths with heroes like Spider-Man (I’m looking at you, Moebius the Living Vampire) but operate in a realm that ranges from the dark corners of the Earth to other dimensions. It’s a world of magic – already explained in the “Thor” movies as simply science that humans can’t understand – and wild creatures.
If the idea seems strange to you, consider how strange a space raccoon and a talking tree might have seemed before this record-breaking opening weekend for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Are you ready for some total guesswork?
I’m going to speculate on what we might see next May when “Avengers: Age of Ultron” hits theaters.
I don’t have any inside knowledge (my friend in the movie business doesn’t work on these Marvel movies). I’m speculating based on what I’ve read online recently and on recent re-readings of half-century-old comics that told this story before.
And I’ve already written about Marvel’s long game, the climax – most likely in the third “Avengers” movie – that will pit Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes against Thanos, the god-like destroyer and embracer of death.
Josh Brolin voices Thanos in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and likely in future Marvel movies. From scenes we’ve already seen in the “Thor” sequel and in “Guardians,” we know Thanos is pursuing the Infinity Stones to make his all-powerful weapon, the Infinity Gauntlet. Heck, Brolin took the stage in San Diego wearing a mock-up of an Infinity Gauntlet.
But what happens in the meantime, in “Age of Ultron?”
While the MCU has taken big variations away from the established Marvel comic book shorelines we’ve known for a half-century now, I think “Age of Ultron” will mix elements from a couple of milestone “Avengers” comic books.
We already know Ultron is in the movie, obviously, The murderous robot is invented (in the movies at least) by Tony Stark but, like Skynet, gets his own ideas on how to run the world.
And we know that Vision, a synthetic person created by Ultron to kill the Avengers only to end up joining them, is in “Age of Ultron.” He’s played by Paul Bettany, the voice of Tony Stark butler Jarvis in the “Iron Man” movies and “The Avengers.”
“Age of Ultron” creates Ultron (voiced by James Spader) and sets up the conflict depicted in the original 1960s “Avengers” comics, namely issues 55 through 57, when the Vision is introduced. In the comics, of course, Ultron was created by Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man” but that movie’s not coming out until later in 2015.
So Ultron on a collision course with the Avengers, with Vision changing sides. Check.
But who else changes sides?
For this, we go back a few years in the “Avengers” comics, to issue 16, in which the Avengers experiences the biggest line-up change in its young history.
Although Hulk had come and gone and Cap joined the team in “Avengers” 4, the big change didn’t come until issue 16, when Thor flies off to deal with Asgardian issues, Giant-Man (the former Ant-Man) and Wasp decide to leave and Tony Stark decides to retire his “bodyguard,” Iron Man, from the roster.
Three former criminals/crooks/super villains: Hawkeye, the archer (already on the team in the MCU), Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (who we know are in “Age of Ultron).
While I’d LOVE to see the “Ultron” footage screened at Comic Con, I’m pretty sure the final scene shown – the Avengers lying defeated at Ultron’s hands, Cap’s shield broken – isn’t the end of the movie. Despite the fact I believe it will end up being “The Empire Strikes Back” of the “Avengers” series, “Ultron” won’t end that way. That’s a vision (pun intended) or dream of something plaguing Tony.
No, I think “Ultron” will end with something more dire: The team breaking up. The powerhouses will be gone and Cap will carry on, as he did in the comics, with less powerful teammates like Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Vision.
Which will make it all the more essential that big guns like Thor and Hulk return in 2018, the likely release date of the third “Avengers” movie.
And then there’s this.
For Comic Con, Marvel has been releasing pieces of a giant poster promoting next May’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
The final pieces were released today.
And yes, that’s the Vision, as played by Paul Bettany, up in the corner. And he looks to be the proper green and yellow color.
That’s a whole lot of Ultrons.
Warner Bros. released a pic a while back of Henry Cavill as Superman (wonder if that name will be uttered) and they’ve released a couple of pics of Ben Affleck as Batman from “Batman vs Superman: This Time It’s Personal.”
Today, at San Diego Comic Con, it’s Wonder Woman’s turn.
Above, Gal Gadot as the Amazonian Princess.
When I showed my wife, a Wonder Woman fan from way back, she said: “Very Xena.”
I’m gonna have to think about this for a while.
As Comic-Con begins in San Diego tonight, we’ll see and hear lots of interesting comic-book-movie-related stuff.
Here’s a tidbit from Entertainment Weekly: A poster promoting Marvel’s “Ant-Man.”
You got your Michael Douglas, your Paul Rudd. And you got a very comic-booky-looking Ant-Man.
Something tells me that if Edgar Wright had continued as director of the movie, we’d see something with a different tone.