Remember way back in September, when Marvel’s first modern-era TV production, “Agents of SHIELD,” seemed so exciting?
Sure we were all worried about how Marvel and show creator Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Avengers”) would be able to translate the excitement of the big-screen world onto ABC’s small screen. That ABC was showing it at 8 p.m. Tuesdays was also a concern. Nobody expected tough-and-gritty stories and atmosphere anyway, although we might see that with “Daredevil” and the other shows Marvel is doing for Netflix. An 8 p.m. timeslot all but guaranteed a fairly family-friendly aura.
But we were genuinely excited at the thought of everything that might happen. “SHIELD” would be a weekly dose of the greater Marvel universe, filled with characters we love, characters that have never been portrayed in live action before. Luke Cage! Moon Knight!
At first, “Agents of SHIELD” seemed like a sure-fire hit. The pilot got very good ratings.
But as the first nine episodes continued to air, audience numbers dropped – and so did our expectations of and faith in the show.
Too many episodes, although they seem “thisclose” to really taking off, somehow fail to. The core team of SHIELD operatives isn’t that interesting. Too much time has been spent teasing the audience about what happened to Phil Coulson after Loki “killed” him. And the roster of comic book characters that have been allowed to make an appearance is lackluster. Graviton? Really?
So here’s what the producers of “Agents of SHIELD” need to do before it’s too late. If it isn’t already too late.
Give us some well-known characters. When Whedon said a while back that “Agents of SHIELD” gave him a few dozen opportunities to make “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” a little less special when it came out in 2015, he wasn’t joking. Obviously nobody at Marvel or Disney or ABC wants to sate the audience’s interest in Marvel heroes before the movie comes out. And obviously Marvel wants to save some characters for big-screen movies, which is why you won’t see Dr. Strange, I’m guessing. But stop with the one-and-done, wannabes and third-raters. There ware many, many Marvel characters the show could introduce.
Retool the cast. Each of the supporting characters is fine, really, but they’re the type of characters that Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson was in the Marvel movies. In other words, just that: Supporting. I loved episodes of “Buffy” that revolved around that show’s “supporting” cast. Remember “The Zeppo” and Xander as below-the-radar hero? “Agents of SHIELD” hasn’t, so far, been able to do that kind of thing with Fitz or Simmons or May or Skye.
Resolve Phil Coulson’s status now. Or at least take it to the next level. Remember in the final season of “Buffy” when Buffy would make a different version of the “this is gonna be a tough battle” speech what seemed like every week? Jeez, that got old. It seemed like the series was treading water. “SHIELD” seems to have fallen into the same trap with its near-weekly reminder that something is different with Agent Coulson. A while back I suggested they needed to let Coulson – who is blocked from viewing his own medical records – find out he’s a clone or Life Model Decoy or whatever, break ranks with SHIELD and go at least a little rogue. “The good guys versus SHIELD” angle appears to be at least part of the plot of next April’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” so it wouldn’t be totally out of character for the Marvel universe.
Bring on the bad guys. SHIELD’s adversaries in the show so far have been weak to only mildly intriguing. I’m not sure I care a whit about Centipede unless it morphs into HYDRA. How about AIM? Advanced Idea Mechanics was referenced in “Iron Man 3.” In the comics, they were guys in crazy yellow hazmat/beekkeeper outfits. I’m sure the show could come up with an updated uniform.
Give us some star power. Samuel L. Jackson’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in an early episode was fine. But we want more meat. Remember Mark Ruffalo’s appearance at the end of “Iron Man 3?” We want that in “SHIELD,” magnified.
Maybe “Agents of SHIELD” will resolve its problems quickly and, by February, be the kick-ass Marvel TV experience we all want. A couple of upcoming episodes hold promise.
But if not, it’s hard to imagine many of us sticking around.
When the adventures of the 1930s pulp magazine hero The Avenger were reprinted in paperback in the early 1970s, they were right up my alley. I had already become a fan of the Doc Savage paperback reprints and the Avenger books were labeled as being by Kenneth Robeson, creator of Doc Savage.
I later found out that the stories – which originally appeared in Street and Smith pulp magazines from 1939 to 1942 – had actually been written, all those decades earlier, by Paul Ernst. Robeson was a Street and Smith “house name” that several action hero writers used. The Doc Savage books had been written by Lester Dent, to a great extent.
But the stories of The Avenger were so cool and so dire that it didn’t matter.
Like Doc Savage, the Avenger – originally a normal guy (if you call a wealthy world-traveler and adventurer normal) named Richard Henry Benson – fought crime with the help of a band of comrades and a healthy bank account.
But Benson/The Avenger drew his crime-fighting inspiration from the same dark well as Batman. Benson’s wife and daughter were brutally killed by gangsters.
Benson didn’t just take up the mantle of crimefighter. The shock of his family’s slaying was literally a shock to Benson’s system. His hair turned white. His eyes – somehow – turned pale. And Benson’s face froze. No longer could he voluntarily change his expression. His bleached face was described as like something out of a graveyard.
But Benson could suddenly mold his face, moving his jaw and nose and cheekbones and brow to resemble other people. With the help of makeup, colored contact lenses and wigs, Benson could now go undercover, infiltrating crime rings and mobs.
Armed with his ghoulish visage and high-tech weapons – including a streamlined gun and knife set he called “Mike and Ike” – Benson brought criminals to justice.
I was fascinated by all this. By the time i was reading the Avenger stories in the early 70s I was familiar with Batman’s tragic backstory, of course. Richard Henry Benson’s was perhaps even stranger and more tragic in that it also left him disfigured … but he turned the handicap into a crimefighting tool.
The Avenger had a couple of changes at revival after the paperback stories were published. DC Comics – which in the early 1970s had revived another great pulp hero, The Shadow – published an Avenger comic book in 1975. No doubt because DC competitor Marvel had been publishing “The Avengers” for more than a decade, DC called its Avenger book “Justice Inc. featuring The Avenger.”
Jack Kirby even did some work on the comic.
Besides the nostalgia factor, I’m noting all this now because of the recent news that producers are developing, for The CW network, a new TV series version of The Avenger, with several changes, of course. Instead of Richard Henry Benson, the heroine is Alice Benson. The new Avenger has the same malleable features and the same undercover missions as she investigates the deaths of her parents (rather than spouse and child).
I’m guessing in light of Marvel’s big-screen “The Avengers” movie, the TV series will be called something else.
It’ll be interesting to see if the new series can capture the same feeling of an adventurer – an avenger – with nothing left to lose in a hell-bent pursuit of evildoers.
The comic book Golden Age was a simpler time and – as befits the name – a truly golden period of straightforward storytelling, plots and art.
Al Plastino, who passed away Nov. 25 at age 91, was responsible for some of the most golden Golden Age art, particularly in DC Comics and particularly with the Superman family of books and characters.
In 1959, in Action Comics 252, Plastino co-created with Otto Binder the character of Supergirl, Superman’s cousin who also survived the destruction of Krypton.
The debut of Kara, the Supergirl from Krypton, was on the charming cover above.
Believe it or not, I’d never heard of “Superbeast” before I saw it among the free movies on the On Demand menu on my cable.
Okay, maybe that’s not all that hard to believe.
The movie was filmed in the Philippines as part of a subset of the movie industry I’ve always been interested in: Cheap exploitation movies filmed – or at least partially filmed – there for release to the US drive-in circuit. For a while there, note some biographies of legendary exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman, exploitation movies and especially exploitation movie trailers included prodigious amounts of Filipino footage of jungles and helicopters and girls firing machine guns. It’s all a little like the footage of chicks shooting machines guns in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.”
“Superbeast” was released in 1972 on a double-bill with “Daughters of Satan,” a thriller that starred future TV icon Tom Selleck. Selleck went on to greater things, but the same can’t be said for the male lead here, Craig Littler, who did have a stint in the Saturday morning kid’s show “Jason of Star Command.”
Considering the exotic locales in “Superbeast,” there’s a lot of travelogue material here, including trips down rivers with hippos and the like lying alongshore. All this footage serves to fill out the running time of the movie, which has a rather thin storyline.
“Superbeast” is another variation on a couple of well-remembered and much-exploited stories: “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and “The Most Dangerous Game.”
A doctor, played by Antoinette Bower, investigates mysterious goings-on in the jungle and finds lab experiments that turn men into half-men/half-animals.
But there’s really not a whole lot going on for the first half of the movie, except for the doctor waking up to the sounds of screams and gunshots. The doc finds out that the mutated results of these jungle experiments become targets for the mastermind behind it all, a hunter played by Harry Lauter.
Even this description makes “Superbeast” seem more action-packed and coherent than it is. It’s marked by the lazy lack of cleverness that is the ruin of many low-budget movies – and makes clever low-budget films seem even better by comparison. Rather than writing and shooting meaningful plot points, the filmmakers include lots of footage of people just wandering in and out of scenes.
“Superbeast” tries to create shocks by including some real-life gore. There’s an autopsy scene using real footage and another with real organs in a jar. And “Superbeast” might be one of the few movies with exposition delivered via slide show. The movie has a real WTF moment when the female doctor dreams about having sex with one of the mutated natives.
After meandering through the plot for nearly 90 minutes, Litter goes all manimal and shows up in an immobile apeman mask. A struggle ensues and well, that’s pretty much it.
The movie even ends with a “huh?” freeze frame, as if to emphasize the futility of trying to find a coherent plot here.
“Superbeast” didn’t have a life much beyond those 1972 drive-in theaters, and that’s just as well.
This weekend was a celebration of all things Doctor Who for the 50th anniversary of the venerable British sci-fi series.
I really enjoyed “Day of the Doctor,” yesterday’s anniversary episode.
But if you haven’t seen it, I’ll urge you to watch “The Five(ish) Doctors,” a 30-minute film by Peter Davison, who played the fifth doctor.
In the clever and cameo-filled movie, Davison is joined by two other Doctor actors, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, who scheme and plot to get into the anniversary episode.
These three actors display enormous good humor as they plot and bicker and connive to get into the historic episode.
It’s a funny Who-centric short film that’s also a great commentary on show biz.
Here’s the film.
Somebody said that “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second in the series of four movies adapting author Suzanne Collins’ three books, is like “The Empire Strikes Back” for this series and in a way, they’re right.
I wouldn’t call the ending a cliff-hanger, actually. Like “Empire,” there is a resolution.
But “Catching Fire,” like Collins’ book, leaves some pretty big plot threads hanging. And they make us eagerly anticipate the resolution of the story even more.
I’ve noted before that that Collins’ clever and compulsively readable series starts off like a “Survivor”-style battle that demonstrates the cruelty of a totalitarian government but very quickly turns into a war story. By the time “Catching Fire” comes around the Hunger Games event itself is almost secondary to the growing protest by the oppressed citizens of Panem, the future USA, and the heavy-handed crackdown by President Snow and the government.
For 74 years, the government has enforced its rule and beaten down the citizenry – who dared try to overthrow the government three quarters of a century before – by taking two young people from each of the country’s 12 remaining districts and making them slaughter each other in a life-or-certain-death competition, called “The Hunger Games” because the name emphasizes the rewards for winning: A nice house back in your hometown and enough food to sustain your family. Not gold or glory. Just survival.
The way the games are portrayed, at least early in the books, is that they are a “gift” from the government, a not-so-gentle reminder of the price of revolt and “showcase” for the country’s best and bravest young people. It’s an ingenious plot point by Collins, as gifted a writer as any writing today.
The events of “The Hunger Games,” in which young District 12 contestants Katniss and Peeta not only survive but become an inspiration – much to the frustration of Snow – turn long-standing resentment of the government into a burgeoning revolt by the time of “Catching Fire.”
In the second novel and new movie, Katniss and Peeta are chosen, along with other previous Hunger Games victors, to participate in a special, 75th anniversary games – the Quarter Quell – pitting past champions against each other.
It’s an insidious plan. Katniss can either die or be molded into an unsympathetic competitor, willing to sacrifice her fellow champions, victors worshipped in their own districts.
The competition doesn’t come until half-way through “Catching Fire,” and it’s not portrayed with as much detail as the competition was in the first movie. That’s probably a wise move, since even if you haven’t read the book you’ll guess there’s something else afoot here. The new competitors, like Finnick and Johanna, have something up their spandex sleeves.
In some ways, I think “Catching Fire” is a better movie than “The Hunger Games,” which had the disadvantage of setting a lot of plot into motion but did have a shiny new world to show off. “Catching Fire” takes its time telling its story but doesn’t drag. It nicely expands on the storylines and characters and introduces new ones. And even though its ending – heck, maybe it is a cliffhanger – leaves you wanting more, it also leaves you feeling satisfied.
Once again, Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss. She’s roiling on the inside but calm on the outside through most of the movie, but the final shot – as she realizes the implications of everything that’s happened and a look of controlled fury appears on her face – is enough to boost audience expectations for “Mockingjay,” which will apparently be a two-movie adaptation of the final book.
Surely you know this by now, but “The Hunger Games” – although ostensibly a “young adult” book and movie series – is dark. Dark. Dark. And the story only gets darker in “Mockingjay.” It’s vivid, brutal and thrilling war fiction but war fiction nonetheless.
If I hadn’t seen it in theaters in 1986 – and numerous times on stone-age VHS tapes in the years that followed – I might think that “Night of the Creeps” was a modern-day spoof of low-budget 1980s horror/sci-fil flicks.
That’s because director Fred Dekker’s movie is so sarcastic, so canny, so knowing that it feels like a modern-day retro pastiche of cliches from movies of the time.
“Night of the Creeps” is very much an “everything plus the kitchen sink” kind of movie. The opening sequence, set in the 1950s, shows both a meteor landing and a homicidal maniac on Lover’s Lane. In black and white, yet.
Of course, the two calamities coincide and slug-like aliens from the meteor infect a body that is cryogenically preserved until it’s accidentally thawed out in 1986.
Before you can say “Nightmare on Frat House Row,” the alien slugs are turning people into zombies.
“Night of the Creeps” has even more than zombies and alien parasites. There are exploding heads, flame throwers, college nerds suddenly turned marksmen, topless coeds … even future Oscar bait David Paymer in a brief role as a morgue attendant who ends up slug infested. Yes, David Paymer.
There are so many funny moments in the movie, but maybe the first LOL moment – 20-some years before anybody knew what LOL meant – is when a young lover in the 1950s hears the beginning of a report on his car radio about an escape from the local institution for the criminally insane .. and clicks off the radio before the germane information.
Tommy Atkins, well-remembered for his roles in classic John Carpenter films like “The Fog” and “Escape from New York,” is great here. As student zombies head for the sorority house, Atkins – as a tough cop whose “thrill me” catchphrase is a wee bit overused – turns to the girls and says, “The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is … they’re dead.”
Dekker pays tribute – and provides Easter eggs for fans – in the names of his movie’s main characters, who bear the last names of such directors as David Cronenberg and George Romero. Heck, the university where all the creepy hijinks ensue is names after Roger Corman.
“Night of the Creeps” is a funny, clever horror spoof that’s got just the right amount of spoofery and just the right amount of horror.
It was 1976, so it was hardly my childhood. Images of my adolescence, maybe.
1976 was the year of the bicentennial, the year I first tried my hand at writing fiction.
And the year this poster, of Farrah Fawcett, graced my bedroom wall.
The Farrah poster legendarily sold about 20 million copies – at five or six bucks each – for Pro Arts.
And helped Farrah’s push toward TV stardom, which got an added kick the same year when the pilot for “Charlie’s Angels” aired.