Friday, November 24, 2017

Man-Thing's Many-Handed Revival

Steve Gerber’s run on Man-Thing ended in 1975, and Marvel let the book lay fallow. When I say lay fallow, I mean that the Man-Thing was a guest star in eighteen books, from the Micronauts to Marvel Team-up with Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the Master of Kung-Fu, and Gerber’s own Howard the Duck.

In 1979, Marvel decided that the Man-thing deserved to have its own book again. And so Man-Thing returned, resurrected by Michael Fleischer and later, Chris Claremont. This return lasted for eleven issues.

Neither Claremont not Fleischer were inexperienced writers. Claremont was in the process of writing his monumental X-Men run, one of the longest and most successful writing stints in comics history. Claremont started with a notable Man-Thing appearance in Marvel Team-Up #68, (April, 1978) introducing Man-Thing to Spider-Man, a pairing not as long-term fruitful as Man-Thing’s association with the Hulk, but a close second. This involves a very familiar prison, similar to the one Len Wein put the Swamp Thing in during the “Leviathan Conspiracy” (Swamp Thing # 13, Nov-Dec 1974). The captured swamp monster story hook is something that would be re-used when Swamp Thing was brought to Metropolis to meet Superman in DC Comics Presents # 8 “The Sixty Deaths Of Solomon Grundy” (April, 1979). Are our authors reading each others’ books? I think so. Claremont brings back Jennifer Kale and Dakimh the wizard from Gerber’s stint on the book. It’s a pretty standard superhero story. Dakimh and Jennifer are held hostage by costumes creep named D‘spayre. He can project burning fear on command, but Spider-man’s mental toughness allows him to eventually overcome it. It s a bit of a shock to read after the Gerber’s primarily narration-heavy stories. There’s a lot of supervillain monologing and Spider-man talking to himself to shake himself out of his fear. Man-Thing distracts D’spayre, and Spider-man is able to surprise him, and that’s about all of the story.

More than a year later, Michael Fleischer wrote the first three comics in the new Man-Thing series, in 1979. Man-Thing’s tag line, “Whoever knows fear burns at the touch of the Man-Thing” is now on the cover.

CIA Deputy Director Smathers needs someone to reproduce Ted Sallis’s formula, to he abducts biochemist Dr. Cheimer and gives him a proposal. The CIA needs the supersoldier formula, before the Russians develop their own (always with the Russians, the CIA). Cheimar agrees, and the Man-Thing is trapped. Now, it should be said that at the beginning of the Marvel Team-up with Spider-man, Man-Thing was captured by carnival folk. Now, the government is going to build a hugely expensive trap. Cheimar is working on neural regeneration, and hopes that his work can make the Man-Thing sentient again. Of course, it’s not really the CIA, and SHIELD gets involved. They stage a raid, and Cheimar is killed in the ensuing action.

Next, the Man-Thing is teleported to the Himalayas, and is immediately beset by Himalayan wolves. And later a Himalayan brown bear. Each of these manages as well as do the gators back in Florida. Although out of its element, the Man-Thing manages to acquire some new companions, Russell and his wife Elaine, American mountain climbers in search of the Yeti. The Himalayas, are of course depicted as a series of snow-covered peaks. Where the wolves and the bear get their food, who knows. Muck monster versus bear bears some resemblance to Swamp Thing. There is a slight callback to Swamp Thing #8 (“The Lurker in Tunnel 13” Jan-Feb 1974) in which the Swamp Thing kills a bear in a cave during a snowstorm. The companions are then abducted by actual Yeti, who have accepted Hiram Swenson, an anthropologist, as their leader. After various shenanigans, the Man-Thing escapes the icy mountains by hanging onto the ski of a plane with one arm, and Elaine in the other.

Fleischer did not have the flair for the weird, or the personal, that Steve Gerber did. Man-Thing is not a book that is well-served by its supporting cast, but rather by the sort of stories that can be told about the wordless main character. Gerber’s endless reinvention of the genre of the book, and willingness to break the boundaries between superhero, fantasy, political satire, superheroes, and science fiction. Fleischer seems to be making this an adventure book, with exotic locations, daring escapes, helicopters, and explosions.

With issue four, the writer changed to Chris Claremont. Claremont, who was still writing X-Men at he time. He kicks off with a cross-over with Doctor Strange. Man-Thing and Elaine fall off the helicopter. Man-thing reappears in his swamp, mind-controlled by Baron Mordo. This all leads up to a large sorcerous working by Mordo. He has also kidnapped Jennifer Kale, although Dakimh is nowhere in evidence. Man-Thing and Dr. Strange work together to gum up the works, and succeed. Strange, in gratitude, attempts to turn Man-Thing back into Salis, but cannot. After all, if the Man-Thing became human again, where would the comic go? Better to tease the creature’s return to Ted Salis than to actually do it.

“Who Knows Fear,” issue #5 is a non-supernatural story, with Barbie, a young woman, being betrayed by a McGuire, a real bastard. He’s good-looking, setting up a simple dichotomy between the handsome man who is ugly on the inside, and the Man-Thing, ugly on the outside, but gentle and kind. The next story follows a similar plot, with a morally-bankrupt fraternity doing illegal things in order to capture the Man-Thing. Sheriff Daltry is caught in the middle of it. The plan is to make him the fear-generator that will attract the Man-Thing so the boys can spray him with defoliant. In the end, the good are rewarded, and the selfish frat boys who instigated the plan are dead. There’s more substance to the story: Claremont is a deeper writer than Flescher. He is developing a stronger supporting case, and the dichotomy between the attractive jerks and the good-but-ugly Man-Thing. Barb and Sheriff Daltry now for the new nucleus for the Man-Thing’s side characters. Barbie goes from being a fleeing victim to someone who is willing and able to fight back, which is a nice change.

The next two issues concern Captain Fate and his flying pirate ship. Claremont had clearly been reading Gerber’s work and wanted to expand on it. Fate is once again preying on jets, boarding them as if they were prize ships in the Caribbean. Fate imprisons Daltry and the Man-Thing together, which gives Daltry an opportunity to realize that the muck monster is not actively hostile, but can be approached by someone calm. It’s an important moment in their relationship. But Fate transfers the curse of immortality to Sheriff Daltry.

Issue nine was written by Dickie McKenzie. It’s an interesting variation on Wein’s “Sins of the Fathers” (Giant-Sized Man-Thing #5, as well as Gerber’s “Deathwatch” (Man-Thing #9). A couple run away to have their baby in the swamp, not having checked the water. They die, poisoned by a bad well, leaving the baby alive. Man-Thing receives the baby, and begins carrying it around the swamp. The baby’s gun-toting grandparents show up and attempt to take the baby, but whoever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch. Only one man is left, and the Man-Thing gives the babe to him. It's one of the very small, very personal stories and Gothic that Man-Thing can pull well, with the correct writer.

There’s an additional story by JM DeMattis, who would later write Swamp Thing, Volume 3. The story develops as the experience of a high school student who was seduced by a cult, and then brutally deprogrammed. Having had several drug experiences, Larry doesn’t realize the Man-Thing isn’t a hallucination. Man-Thing shows up and the deprogrammers burn at his touch, and Tommy is reunited with his cult family. It’s a very ambiguous ending; the deprogrammers were brutes, but did they truly represent Tommy’s family’s wishes? The ending is melancholy, with the Man-Thing once again alone in the desert. I get the feeling this was cut down from a longer story: a lot happens in just five pages.

Claremont’s next issue “Swampfire” borrows a little bit from an early Heap story. John Kowalsi is a wandering veteran, who turns out to be the incarnation of Death. The cancellation of the book may have been immanent, and Claremont was clearing up the many loose ends. Barbie is transformed (one entire issue) into a death-dealing superhero.

Issue eleven was Claremont’s last, and he again imitates Gerber’s sign-off, as well as tying up as many of his series threads as possible. Claremont himself is a character, and he walks into Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum, and gets drawn into the book itself. There’s a lot of fighting and revisiting of old characters, including Thog the Nether-Spawn. Ultimately, it feels like the issue is Gerber’s run put through a blender. I nthe end, Death and Dr. Strange reverse everything that has been done in the issue, and Daikh the Enchanter breaks the fourth wall and says farewell to the reader. It’s a a very unsatisfying end to the series, partially because, despite putting his own spin on the story, Claremont is retreading Gerber’s much more original idea.

I suspect that Claremont could have gotten the hang of Man-Thing if he’d had more time on the book. But I expect that he was brought in when Michael Fleischer’s reboot of the book failed to take off. More themes could have been developed, Claremont could have broken free from Gerber’s characters and struck out on his own. But the character just wasn’t enough of a draw for readers to wait until the writer got the feel of the book.

It’s not a brilliant run, and clearly, Claremont and Fleischer lacked the feel for the Gothic combined with the very personal nature of Gerber’s work, which is what made it so popular. Man-Thing is not a superhero and cannot be treated as such. Weird adventures work better, and as McKenzie demonstrated with his fill-in story, non-supernatural stories work as well. But the Man-Thing is and remains a passive character, and cannot drive stories. Nor should it be used as a plot solver, in which it shows up at the end of a story and administers justice until the guilty parties have been beaten senseless. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that no one, aside from Gerber, has truly mastered in the long run. I want to so dome analysis of what was going on, but the run is so short, the stories so scattered that there's very little for me to sink my teeth into. I can say that Claremont likely read old Heap comics, and definitely Gerber's work, but seemed to have difficulty latching onto his own way of making Man-Thing stories.

And it’s a pity. Well-written Man-Thing stories are a pleasure to read. The character’s strange powers and swamp appearance tickle a very specific niche. I think it’s possible that, if given more time to develop themes and ideas, Claremont could have been a good writer of the series, made his mark on the on-going character. Unfortunately, Gerber started the character off on an extremely high note, and no one has yet returned with a clear, strong vision on how to make the character relevant or unique, the way Martin Pasko and Alan Moore did with the Swamp Thing.

Next time, we’re looking at the often-overshadowed Pasko Swamp Thing. It’s better than most people remember.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Nature is Terrifying: Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island is the second installment in Legendary entertainment's Monsterverse franchise. If the films continue to be profitable. With a gross of $566 million, edging out 2014's Godzilla, and definitely trumping Pacific Rim, it seems likely that the franchise will continue. But it's interesting that both the Hollywood Godzilla and Pacific Rim franchises are all from the same production company: Legendary (recently purchased by the Wanda Group). Kong: Skull Island had a lot to carry, both as an introduction of Kong into the new monster universe, to distinguish itself from previous Kong remakes, and to whet the audience's appetite for the next Godzilla film.

This is not, thank the heavens, yet another reboot. This is en entirely new story. Kong never leaves Skull Island, doesn't rampage in New York, doesn't get killed. Which is what the franchise needed: a new human story. This is something that The Host demonstrated. A new human plotline, drawing from other genres. This is the culmination of Shin'ichi Sekizawa's idea that the human stories and the kaiju stories should interact. Before him, the humans simply reacted to the presence of the monster. Sekizawa tried, and succeeded, to the best of the technology available to the films he wrote, to have the stories touch and impact each other. Early examples of this include the extensive use of spy tropes and ideas in films such as Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla and Godzilla vs Biollante. With CG allowing the human characters to seem to touch the giant monsters, new stories and new interaction can be achieved. This even goes as far as the big battle in the end. Weaver lands a flare on the side of Ramarak’s (the big skullcrawler) head, distracting it. When Kong is chained and helpless, the humans fire their very large gun to keep Ramarak from killing him.

Kong, God-King of Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island pulls the majority of its human story from the Vietnam era and Vietnam films, specifically Apocalypse Now. This is, very specifically a war story. The emotional beats, the slow and difficult to predict elimination of the cast. The film rewards those who can think outside of their circumstances. Marlow and Japanese pilot Gunpei fight each other, only to stop when Kong arrives. In the tense confrontation between Colonel Packard and the civilians (Conrad, Weaver, and Marlow), soldier Slivko realizes Marlow is right, and switches sides. This saves him. Packard, Ahab-like in his thirst for vengeance infected by war, refuses to retreat, and is casually killed by Kong.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts borrows from a film I can't quite name...

The film is also a meditation of the effects of war on the individual. Gunpei and Marlow become good friends once they are isolated from the world. On Skull Island, the war of their societies no longer dictates their actions. The film's attitude towards war is best exemplified by the death of Cole. Tired of running from skullcrawlers, Cole decides to sacrifice himself to take down Ramarak, walking towards it with armed grenades. Instead of eating him, it smashes him with its tail, killing him when he impacts a cliff, when his grenades go off. His sacrifice, which he had hoped would save his comrades, is useless.

I'm going to sacrifice myse---oh crap

Kong is, literally a reflection of what people bring with them. He is seen as a god and protector by the people who live near him, the Iwi. Colonel Packard sees him as a threat that must be destroyed, even after Kong’s relative benevolence is explained. But Kong destroyed Packard’s helicopters, and he has to pay for that. The film moves us from being hostile to Kong to being sympathetic to him, and Packard goes from being sympathetic to the enemy. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts hammers that point home with a repeated image: a figure standing against a bright light in the darkness, fists clenched. At the beginning of the film, the figure is Kong. Toward the end, it’s Packard.

Packard reflects Kong's stance two pictures up

This also means that Kong: Skull Island has a very different approach to the military than other kaiju films. Very often, the powerful military commanders are front and center of a kaiju film, as they watch their plans unravel as the kaiju proves difficult to kill. But where Ishiro Honda played the military purely for show, and the 1998 Godzilla played them for expendable chumps, this film shows us the humanity of the soldiers. Chapman is writing letters to his son, and the other soldiers razz him for it. These are very human characters, and their lives are on the line when the kaiju attacks. Or is attacked. Kaiju film characters have previously been military men, for example Ford Brody in 2014 Godzilla, but he didn't spend much screen time with his unit. The relationships, in their complexity, are showcased here. Mills, Cole, Sivko, and Reles support each other, mock each other, and express doubts about Colonel Packard's orders, even as they carry them out. Edit: I had forgotten that this is literally the approach of Monsters: Dark Continent. However, I will say that the character development is significantly better in Kong: Skull Island. The unit in Monsters: Dark Continent are also significantly more on edge. But the cast in Kong: Skull Island us much more interesting.

Kong initially attacks the expedition because the military is doing what they are told: deploying Monarch's seismic explosives, which were intended to bring whatever kaiju lived there to the surface. The helicopters are armed, so the mission is definitely to eliminate it. This is why Kong gets stirred up, and why lives are lost. The military is caught in the middle, obeying orders and taking the consequences and losses for those actions. So there's a fair amount of nuance in the film's approach to the military, which, again, stands in very stark contrast to the way they were treated in the 1998 Godzilla

how to piss off Kong

Some of the baggage Kong: Skull Island rejects is the racist subtext of the previous Kong films, and this sets the film on a much more even keel. Kong is not captivated by a blonde. He is not captured and taken to New York, to be killed by the forces of the establishment. The Skull Island natives, the Iwi, aren't the degenerate troglodytes of the Jackson film, or the stereotypical Africans oddly inhabiting a South Pacific island as in the 1976 and 1933 versions. They are mysterious and complex. They appear peaceful, but have spears to defend themselves. The large wooden wall they have constructed has outward-facing stakes, and those stakes are bloodied. Hank Marlow, who has been living among them for more than twenty years, sort of understands them. But he neither an accepted part of their society, nor running it.

The Iwi

Further, for the first time, a Kong film gives me what I have always wanted: a beautiful Skull Island. Filmed in part in Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, the landscape is beautiful and feels fantastic and at the same time real. It also has a more developed ecosystem. Previous films have portrayed the island as relentlessly hostile, and nothing is introduced that isn't trying to kill the humans of Kong. This Skull Island isn't. There are huge yak-like creatures, deer, birds. Of course, there are hostile critters; the flying knives, the giant bugs, the skull-crawlers, and Kong himself.

Visit lovely Skull Island

Monarch is very different from the branded helicopter-riding group we see in the 2014 Godzilla. They are literally down to two men, begging for funds from a senator who has put them off four times already. Bill Randa is the sole survivor of the USS Lawson which, we see in a picture, was clawed by a gigantic creature. But we don't know which kaiju it was. Perhaps the next film in the series will tell us: Rodan, Godzilla, or King Ghidorah. It seems unlikely to have been Mothra.

Photo of the USS Lawson

I love the design of the skullcrawlers, certainly more than I liked the MUTOs. Clearly taken from the two-legged lizard from the original King Kong, they move very smoothly, and their biology looks interesting. It occurs to me they look like a less-mutated version of gwoemul, which also had that two legs forward ambulation. Whoever decided on their weird-ass tongues should be particularly commended. They are like land-traveling kaiju-scale crocodiles, lizard-like, threatening, and credibly swift. Although the fights with the small ones are easy wins for Kong, they also serve to get the audience familiar with their abilities. This way, we can anticipate the moves in the big fight at the end. Interestingly, none of the kaiju present with supernatural abilities, such as atomic breath or lasers from its back. Flying, fire-breathing turtle Gamera would feel very out of place on Skull Island.

Skullcrawler. Bad news all around

Kong's design is also well thought-out. He looks like a modern, clearer vision of the 1933 Kong. With short legs, long arms, and upright posture, he looks a bit more like a missing link than a gorilla. As a result, he is unpredictable. We know gorillas. But how certain are we about Kong? Even our previous movie experience, which the film Jordan is well aware of, does not tell us everything we need to know about this Kong. He's god of the island, according to Marlow. And the films gives us ample opportunity to see why.

Skullcrawler. Bad news all around

Kong demonstrates Cloverfield-level sneaking, which is to say being quiet by not being in frame, only once, when a gigantic oxen is trapped under a broken helicopter. Kong, to our surprise, lifts the helicopter, freeing the trapped creature. So there is room for compassion in him. Also, he's shown to be smart, and a significant portion of the Kong-Ramarak fight at the end is him learning. He uses tools: a tree stripped of branches, a rock, and the propeller from a wrecked ship. Among other things, this is better movie-making than having scientists tell us how smart Kong is, as in the American version of King Kong vs Godzilla. Kong is also described in a similar fashion to Godzilla in the 2014 film and Shin Godzilla: Not just a king, but a god.

Open-eyed roar

The cherry on top of all this kaiju goodness is the end post-credits scene, in which Conrad and Weaver are inducted into Monarch. Drawing on the Godzilla opening credits, we are shown cave paintings of three opponents from the next Godzilla film:


Open-eyed roar


Open-eyed roar

King Ghodirah

Open-eyed roar

Which means Godzilla: King of Monsters will have at least three kings in it: Godzilla, King of the Monsters, King Ghidorah, and the Monarch organization. And possibly a fourth if there is a cameo by Kong. I'm looking forward to 2019.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Kaiju of Abusive Relationships: Colossal

I'll admit that I came to Colossal with a jaded eye. I've read through the court documents regarding Toho's lawsuit against Voltage Pictures, and it seems very clear that writer-director Nacho Vigalondo intended to use Godzilla in a way that was not lawful. Although the lawsuit was settled, the necessity of it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Further, Vigalondo &ldqo;It’s going to be the cheapest Godzilla movie ever, I promise.” He ended up spending some $15 million dollars, according to wikipedia. That, it turns out, is the equal of the budget of Shin Godzilla, the most expensive Japanese Godzilla film ever made, although much less than the two American Godzilla films. So Vigalondo, who seems ignorant of the law as well as the genre he's aping, seems a poor choice of writer/director for the project.

On viewing, the film had its charms, but there is a lot to unpack about why I ultimately didn't like it. The plot isn't the problem. Gloria lives in the city, is in a rut, can't get a job. She moves back to upstate New York to her empty parents' home. There she runs into an old school friend Oscar, and discovers that if she is in a certain park at a certain time, a kaiju will mimic her actions in Seoul. Oscar turns creepy and stalkery, and discovers that he he is in the same park, he creates a giant robot in Seoul. He uses this as leverage, threatening to destroy as much of Seoul as possible. She retaliates by going to Seoul, reversing the connection, and using her kaiju avatar to grab his tiny self, throws him across Seoul.

It's certainly an unconventional kaiju film, although not as lacking in kaiju as, say Demeking. That said, the trailer makes the film look like a charming romantic comedy, which it definitely is not. Oscar takes a very dark turn with Oscar, and the film really is at its best when viewing Oscar's abusive, controlling relationship with Gloria. He's genuinely creepy, self-serving and clearly deranged. He gaslights her, emotionally blackmails her, and shows remorse just long enough to make Gloria think he's truly contrite. All classic abuser behaviors. We get small glimpses into his life when Gloria visits him in his house that is a hoarder's dream palace. With the exception of that one scene, Oscar, even when drinking, always has his hair perfectly arranged. He's creepy, and with a small nudge to the genre of the film, this could have been any one of several stalker-based horror films.

Gloria, in a recovery from self-destructive behavior staple, goes to where she has caused the most damage: Seoul. Metaphorically, having confronted the badness, she gains power over it. In this case, she reverses the direction and manifests her kaiju form in wherever, New Hampshire. And while it's good for the metaphor, it doesn't work as well if you haven't twigged on to it. Gloria then somehow picks up Oscar (she can't see or hear him, but she seems to have spaced the location out so that she knows where the playground is). She can't hear him beg for mercy or go on his self-destructive rant, but she gives him a Hail Mary toss, and he's gone.

Ultimately, despite the well-written creepiness of the antagonist, the film is about Gloria walking away from self-destructive behavior (magnified by the kaiju) and discovering her inner power (also magnified by the kaiju). Unfortunately, the film really doesn't address the fact that she has caused millions in damage and killed people. She gets her happy ending, walking anonymously through the Seoul she wrecked and then apologized to. There might be a little 2014 Godzilla in that. Godzilla is called the 'savior of the city' despite having done a lot of damage itself. Once she apologizes, the film gives her a pass. She doesn't even bear the burden of Oscar's death. He sails off into the sunset, but we don't see him land, and the only reference to it is a TV crawl about the possible death of the robot.

This is something the film shared with Cloverfield. While the characters are better drawn in Colossal, but there's not much that happens outside the frame. Further, at no time are the police ever called. Even when Oscar is driving off drunk and Gloria needs to stop him. The film is an insulated microcosm, and only when Gloria goes to Seoul do we break out of the very small feel of the film.

The kaiju design is quite interesting. Her monster seems sort of woody, as if it were derived from trees. His is a giant robot. The forms are revealed to come from the toys they are carrying when the strange lightning strikes them and apparently links the location with Seoul. Unfortunately, the majority of the screen time the Gloria kaiju has is screen within screen. We only see it directly a few times. But it's very slender, as opposed to the thickness that has characterized kaiju form when they were men in suits. The feet are unique, especially, with downward-facing toes that might have suckers or expandable toes to make the footstep more steady. That's quite unique. The vast majority of the kaiju footage involves people watching television, which is very modern. However, it leads to a difficulty in the clarity of the images. Only at the end do we get clear looks at her kaiju, but we never get a non-dark, non-rainy look at the robot. And that's likely due to a combination of budgetary savings and the empowerment metaphor.

And although I criticized Vigalondo for his ignorance earlier, he does have enough background in the genre to give us the footprint trope. But so many things fell by the wayside, possibly because of budgetary concerns. Military helicopters attack the kaiju once, but the military otherwise never gets involved. No tanks, no artillery, no fighters or bombers. Apparently the military of South Korea is content to let their major city get stomped on.

The appearance and disappearance of the kaiju and giant robot through a zig-zaggy lightning bears a resemblance to the Breach from Pacific Rim, which led me to briefly wonder if Oscar and Gloria are drift compatible.

But even as we learn the origin of the kaiju and robot forms, we don't know why it happened. There's a metaphoric leap but no reason that the magic happened. Twenty-five years ago, Gloria was bringing her diorama of South Korea to school, when it was blown into a vacant lot. Young Oscar climbs a fence for her, finds it, and stomps on it, like a traditional kaiju does. So there's a link, but we still don't know why these particular people, why this particular time. The script needed another draft, another piece of exposition to at least hint as to why this happened.

This is not helped by the fact that the 'first incident' clearly shows Gloria's kaiju walking, but she doesn't walk in that incident. After she is struck by the magic lightning, the only crouches, stands, and then falls over. No walking. And the film has several of these logic-defying moments which pull me out of the film. Gloria can't really afford food, so how is it she has her passport and can afford not just a flight to Seoul, but the taxi ride to the airport? Why does the house have no furniture and at the same time the electricity is on? These all feed into the metaphorical statement of the film, but it should work as a story as well as a metaphor. Some of the writing is excellent, and the idea is close to brilliant, but it's not supported by a consistent commitment to detail. There's also a dissonance between the dark scripting and the lack of focus on the destruction and death that the kaiju and robot cause. What destruction does happen is only framed in regards to how it affects the distant protagonists, not the people of Seoul. Cloverfield at least created a sense of the world around them. Instead, Gloria and Oscar have their little drama in suburban America, well-insulated from the consequences of their giant avatars' actions.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Bigger, Nastier, More Amazing: Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla famously can mean 'True Godzilla' 'Pure Godzilla' or 'God Godzilla'. Personally, I find the Godzilla concept to be robust and flexible enough that Godzilla can be cast in a wide range of roles and still be satisfying entertainment. Godzilla has been a metaphor for nuclear destruction, protector of mankind, destroyer of hated industrialists, the living embodiment of Japan's war dead, a metaphor for natural disaster, and a walking method of world destruction. This new version, which draws heavily on imagery from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, presents the viewer with a lot of interesting things to think about.

Shin Godzilla, lookin all kinds of unhappy

Structurally, it is closest to the 1954 Godzilla or The Return of Godzilla. But those two films do not have Godzilla fighting a monster. In Shin Godzilla Godzilla is pitted against the lumbering, inhuman monstrosity that is the Japanese government's bureaucracy. And in fact, this is exactly the sort of subtle humor that runs through the film. Despite being a grim depiction of a nation in crisis, there are tiny touches of humor that keep it from being an overwhelmingly dark experience.

Shin Godzilla's primary opponent: bureaucracy

The film is firmly rooted in Godzilla's history, very specifically, the 1954 film. Godzilla attacks twice. First it comes ashore and destroys the Shinagawa district, and then returns to the sea. It attacks again, is met with much stiffer resistance, and only after being attacked does it return fire with its atomic breath. At the same time, directors Hideako Anno and Shinji Higuchi (who directed the special effects for the Shûsuke Kaneko's Gamera films) maintain a very delicate balancing act between the past and the present. There is a lot of homage in the film. It starts with a boat, as did so many Godzilla films, but this time, it's the abandoned boat of a biology professor. And there are little details as to what happened that the film doesn't address: the shoes neatly placed next to each other indicate Professor Goro Maki killed himself. Why or even if he has, is part of the plot that needs unraveling. Many of Ikira Ifukube's cues are used, as well as many of the sound effects, including Godzilla's unique Showa-era roar. There's even a shot of Godzilla destroying the theater it destroyed in the 1954 film. But it's not entirely about the past. The film is relentlessly modern, involving social media, a government that trips over itself addressing a disaster, endless committee meetings, and science that involves genes, complex biological processes, and chemical topology.

Our protagonist is Rando Yaguchi, a modern career politician who suffers a bit from being always right. As a junior member of the Cabinet, he is not listened to, but as someone young, he pays attention to social media. While the rest of the Cabinet discusses what has damaged the Aqua-Line, he proposes it is a giant creature, because of a video he saw on social media. When given the freedom to solve the problem as he wishes, he sets up a flat organization of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy” which does not stand on seniority. This team of mostly young mavericks gets results. Rando is fortunate enough not to take a ride on a doomed helicopter. He isn't insufferably all-knowing, and Hiroki Hasegawa is a good enough actor to make Rando interesting and magnetic. But he represents the wish for a newer, younger Japanese government that doesn't constantly have meetings, where talent is the means to ascent rather than bench time and party loyalty.

Rando Yaguchi, the man with the Script with him

He serves as a counterpoint to the government, which under the old guard, is always wrong. As Godzilla moves into the city, they wonder which governmental department's jurisdiction is comes under. The directors love smash cuts that underline the difference between governmental decree and reality. Literally just as the Prime Minister says that the creature won't be able to move about on land, we see the nascent Godzilla come ashore. As a self-evacuation plan is formulated, and every effort will me made to control traffic. As in 2014's Godzilla, there is another smash cut to utter deadlock on the roads.

The presence of the US is gradually felt more and more, like an oppressive hand bearing down. At first, the US is discussed in terms of backup to military action. Then we learn that they are claiming all the samples Godzilla has left behind. Then, following a telephone conversation with President Ross, the Prime Minister comments “A lot of unilateral requests. Typically Americans.rdquo; This is a more modern update of the political scenes in Return of Godzilla, in which the nuclear powers Russia and America both argue with the Japanese PM about nuking Godzilla. In 2016, we have a similar conflict, with the Russians and Chinese on one side, and the Americans on the other. Unfortunately, the UN agrees that if Japan cannot handle Godzilla, someone gets to drop a nuke on it. Fortunately, Japan has a lot more international swing that was presented in Return. In Shin Godzilla, Kayoko Patterson comes into the picture. Being both American and Japanese, she is more sympathetic to the Japanese government than the average American, and has the connections to release American information to the Rando. But Godzilla is not directly the fault of America, rather the creation of Goro Maki, who was employed by the American DOE, but acted on his own. America is not a fully trustworthy ally, but a large presence that cannot be ignored. However, it can be bargained with. Which is very different from the absolutist political climate in 984. Shin Godzilla feels more nuanced, more realistic, like there is a larger and more complex world outside what we are shown on screen.

In Legendary Godzilla, a Japanese professor working for Monarch (primarily an American organization) brings the name Godzilla from Japan, but doesn't refer to the name's origin. Goro Maki is apparently from Odho Island, the island Godzilla first landed on in the 1954 film, unreferenced in the franchise then. He adapted the name from Odho Island's obscure mythology.

Odho Island. That rings a bell

Godzilla itself, as with the Skullcrawlers in Kong: Skull Island, takes a certain amount of inspiration from Pokémon. Which I suppose is fair, since the main concept of Pokémon is to have Godzilla style monster vs monster fights. Shin Godzilla is self-“evolving,” like a Pokémon. However, the changes are properly referred to as mutation, rather than evolution. This sort of changing creature is well-established in earlier films in the series. Mothra, which has larval and adult forms, Hedorah and Destoroyah all changed forms. It is an important implication that all three of these creatures end up with wings. One of Rando’s scientists hypothesizes that Godzilla could, if given enough time to mutate, develop flight. But Godzilla has always previously kept to a single form. And I like the fact that its initial forms, the lungfish, and its initial upright mutation, all look awkward. It doesn't look like it has fully adapted to the land until its last form, the familiar upright stance with the toothy, dinosaur-like head.

Big, awkward Godzilla

The directors do an excellent job of making their CG critter feel enormous. Mostly, Godzilla is seen in parts, often too large to be contained in the frame. When it is seen as a whole, it’s from far away. This is also the most tortured Godzilla yet put on screen. Godzilla radiates a red hot glow from its interior, as if it were a walking volcano or hot lava field. The skin of the walking form is knobbed, recalling the keloid-like skin of the 1954 original, and also the appearance the pillow lava. Its arms are smaller than ever, and don’t move. The teeth are huge and jagged. Overall, it’s a terrifying new look for the King of Monsters.

Big, bad Godzilla

Of particular note is its tail. It's enormously long. It’s also the first glimpse we see of Godzilla. But more than any other part of Godzilla, the tail changes. When Godzilla first comes ashore, it has a flat tail oddly like King Ghidorah's. It even seems like it's the right color.

Godzilla's Ghidorah-like tail

Later, when Godzilla achieves its upright configuration, the tail looks very different. It’s been speculated that this is some sort of whale skull, but given everything, this seems to be the beginning of a second head. We later find out that even when Godzilla’s back lasers fail, it can use its tail to direct destructive energy to devastating effect.

Tail #2

The final shot of the film is of the tail, which is now developing into smaller, independent, human-like Godzillas. They appear to be human-sized, mostly of human form, but with the maple-leaf spines to diffuse the nuclear fission in them. And they are darn creepy. Was Godzilla stopped in time? Could some of these horrible things have escaped in the confusion?

That terrifying last shot

Godzilla kills. It's a walking, evolving disaster, and anyone in its way is destroyed. This is made quite clear early in the film when Godzilla topples a building, with a couple still packing for their evacuation are in a building when it falls. I don't expect they survived. There’s nothing soft-pedaled about the destructiveness of incarnation.

The other real strength of the re-design is that Godzilla has surprises up its sleeve. Or down its throat. As previously stated, Godzilla’s initial rampage in lungfish and then first erect form are not met with effective military action. But then the Americans drop bombs on Godzilla. And, like he always does, Godzilla responds by unleashing unimaginable fury.

Hurting Godzilla, that's a good idea, right?

Godzilla films have always had the destruction of cities as their centerpiece. The destruction in Shin Godzilla is awe-inspiring, even by Godzilla standards. Godzilla's fiery output is astonishing vomiting forth a massive river of fire. The fiery breath comes hosing out of Godzilla’s mouth, engulfing much of the city. Then, separating its lower jaw, it focuses that torrent down into a laser-like needle of destruction, and proceeds to cut through every building in sight. The destruction is constant and nearly overwhelming. I had a visceral reaction to it when I first saw it in the theater, astonishment at so much destruction.

That terrifying last shot

Like the Legendary Godzilla, as well as Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla and Tokyo S.O.S., there is an anticipatory indication when Godzilla is going to unleash his atomic breath. Godzilla's glow turns purple, giving the audience that delicious ten seconds of anticipation. There are a few new tricks up Godzilla's sleeve. It can concentrate its nuclear fire into a massively destructive beam, cutting through buildings, extending out perhaps two or three kilometers. And, because the film makers know their stuff, they make sure that they destroy the same theater Godzilla did in 1954.

Different breath, lots of destruction

But that’s not all. Attacked from behind, Godzilla develops destructive rays from its back, knocking down the American B-2 Spirit bombers that unleashed the MOP bombs on it. It’s a new trick for Godzilla, surprising and frightening, making an assault on the creature all the more difficult. It can shoot down anything behind it, while its atomic breath is able to carve anything else out of the sky.

That terrifying last shot

Even though this Godzilla levels buildings like the hand of God itself, the film doesn’t spend much time on the dead or dying. No scenes of children who make the radiation detector go nuts, no mother holding her children to her during the fiery holocaust. But it is not shy about showing the distress of people who are displaced because of the attack. We see a lot of people with filter masks, spend time in a food line. Godzilla’s rampage does not happen to no one. It uproots families, destroys homes, and has consequences.

I'm going to step back from what I said in my earlier post. The military is, although more valorized than it was in Ishiro Honda's day, it’s still there for show. It doesn't do anything other than show the scientists how Godzilla works. Godzilla drops a bridge on a tank division, and he smokes two of the three bombers that attack him. It is only with sustained assaults with multiple missiles that we are able to exhaust Godzilla enough to start the process of overheating his internal reactor.

As I have said before: This is a Japanese Godzilla film that knows the history of the franchise. So it solves its plot problem in the Japanese fashion: by sciencing the shit out of it. Against an international coalition that wishes to drop a nuke on Godzilla if Japan cannot solve their problem. Which makes for a good, tense third act. The threat of a nuclear detonation, in no way guaranteed to destroy Godzilla, makes an excellent countdown.

Whoever wrote the subtitles seems to have a wrong impression about what actually happens to stop Godzilla. Godzilla gets pumped full of blood coagulant (an idea first introduced in ). As in Return go Godzilla, Godzilla is a living nuclear reactor. The film’s solution to this is to pump it full of blood coagulant which will force Godzilla to shut down its reactor because it cannot circulate its blood, which serves as a coolant. Thus the reactor will become too hot. The coagulant does not freeze Godzilla. It stops taking the heat away from the central core reactor. Once the internal nuclear reactor is shut off, Godzilla is no longer hot enough to remain mobile. Or maybe the script doesn’t understand nuclear power as well as I hope it would.

Godzilla is then pumped full of anticoagulant. I have a little bit of trouble with this, but only because everyone refers to it as 'freezing' Godzilla. It's an attempt to induce a reactor scram, or shut down. This means actually increasing Godzilla's heat by thickening its blood coolant system until it realizes it's in danger, and its internal reactor shuts down, and it no longer has the energy to supply its own metabolism. So freeze is an inadequate word to describe the process for me. Two, the film uses the imagery of the Fukishima 50, who worked to keep the nuclear disaster under control. The use of the boom pumps is especially striking. But the film doesn't praise the people who get the job done, the boots on the ground. The first wave of boom pumps, and I assume their operators, is annihilated, but the politicians press on. They get the glory, not those who risked themselves.

Sciencing the shit out of Godzilla

It’s interesting to see the difference between the two points of view concerning nuclear weapons so close to each other. After all, we don’t know how close 1954 Godzilla was when it was awakened by nuclear testing, and here, it seems accepted that a nuke will destroy Godzilla. But the Legendary took a nuke to the face and was only slowed down. Maybe it’s that Americans like their nukes more than the Japanese, and therefore American Godzilla needs to be immune to them because we’re likely to drop one on him anyway. Or maybe the Japanese don't think anything will survive a direct hit form a nuke, having a bit more experience with them.

Holy crap that was a lot of buildings

A welcome change to the home video release is the elimination of the titles from the screen. Now everything and everyone that is identified is done so in smaller, discrete supertitles which do not block what’s going on, or crowd the subtitles. Thus, it’s much easier to get the joke that Rando is the “Cabinet Minister of State fort Special Missions Giant Unidentified Creature United Response Task Force HQ Bureau Chief & Deputy Director" as he’s talking about something else with the subtitles separated.

I enjoyed Shin Godzilla, both for its fresh take on Godzilla, and its demonstration that something new can be brought to the franchise. I'm very excited that we will have two Godzilla franchises, both the Legendary, as well as Toho's anime trilogy, beginning with Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, released in November. Shin Godzilla stands as one of my favorite Godzilla films, both for the impressive monster action and the excellent performances from the human actors.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Bog Beast Who Never Really Got His Due

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Weird Tales of the Macabre #2 The 1974 version of Atlas Comics (from Seaboard Publishing) was another attempt to compete with Marvel and DC that did not last long. No comic or magazine they put out lasted more than four issues. As there was apparently some sort of mandatory swamp monster requirement for every seventies comic publisher, they introduced their own. Meet the Bog Beast.

The Bog Beast is very different from other swamp monsters, so much so that I seriously considered not including it in the Muck Man list. But there are similarities. Bog Beast has been sent by an underground civilization to investigate the surface world, emerging from the La Brea tar pits. It looks like an emaciated human, bubbling over with tar. In the color stories, it is red, about as far from the green or brown of most other swamp creatures as possible. It is also an intelligent, self-aware creature. It has not been transformed, there was no fiery explosion that killed an otherwise normal human. It is not a typical member of its species, but as “The Sun-Spawn Walks” shows, it is one of the fittest members of its subterranean civilization. The Bog Beast is not, and never has been dead, nor was it ever human. There was no catalyst for its transformation, because there was no transformation.

On the other hand, it is immune to bullets, and inhumanly strong. And sort of goopy-icky. But the Bog Beast is, similar to many of the muck men, an outsider, who observes humanity from a remove. So it sort of fits, and hey, there are only four stories. So here we go.

Atlas Comics' Weird Tales of the Macabre #2
Bog Beast started off in Weird Tales of the Macabre #2 (Mar, 1975), a black and white magazine reminiscent of Skywald’s mood horror titles. The initial story details an odd mix of a recently-fired Hollywood special effects technician, and a put-upon newspaper photographer. The photographer is assigned to the La Brea tar pits, and witnesses the Bog-Beast climbing out on its mission to explore the surface world. He gets mixed up in a Hollywood production, and of course there are life-threatening problems, which the Bog-beast both causes and then solves. Bog-beast thinks clearly, but it cannot communicate, due to the language barrier.

That said, we've seen this story before. The Bog Beast invades a film shoot, in a manner reminiscent of a Heap story. When the rain machine goes haywire and causes a flood, the Bog Beast rescues a woman from drowning, as in the Glob’s initial appearance.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Tales of Evil #2
The Bog Beast appeared again in Tales of Evil #2 (April, 1975), and 3 (July, 1975), both in color. The first story, “The Fifty Dollar Body” is a crime story in which Bog Beast serves primarily as a passive observer. The Bog Beast runs afoul of two fugitives, a rather slow-thinking man, as well as a viciously unpleasant woman. Bog Beast tries to communicate with them, but fails. The Beast tangles with the cops, and eventually the two fugitives turn on each other. Bog-beast is freed by the fatally-wounded, who then dies himself. Bog-beast, bewildered by the very human cruelty, moves on. The final frame is very familiar, similar to Len and Bernie's famous "If tears could come they would" ending from the original Swamp Thing story.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Weird Tales of the Macabre #3
Bog Beast turned up again in Tales of Evil #3, in an untitled story. While visiting the Mount Palomar observatory, Bog Beast discovers bodies torn to shreds, and a woman still alive. She turns out to be a werewolf, and Bog Beast must fight her. Throwing her off a cliff, he attracts the attention of the police, who then net and capture him.

This is the first fantastic story of the Bog Beast. Everything else has been noir or crime, but here we have our first story with supernatural elements. Swamp Creatures meet with werewolves often. Swamp Thing and both the Hillman and the Skywald incarnations of the Heap did. Likely the ferocity of the werewolf makes for a good opponent for the Swamp Monster: Although the werewolf is usually frenzied, the Swamp Monster is slow and tough. Few of them have been as appealing to male gaze, however.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Fearful Spectres #3
Atlas folded in 1975, and the Tales of Evil 3 was long believed to be the last Bog Beast story, the Internet has shown one that surfaces in an Australian anthology comic Fearful Spectres (1982) from publisher Gredown Comics. As far as I understand it, the story was likely sold since it was complete, and there was no sense it letting something that could bring in money go to waste, even if wasn't published under the Atlas banner. “The Sun-Spawn Walks” initially shows a new power Bog-Beast has not previously displayed. He is able to turn into a goopy, boneless form and flow through bars of a prison. And in a more comic-book story, Bog is attacked by an entity that seems to be made of living flame, and defeats it by turning to liquid form and smothering it.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Fearful Spectres #3

Although it's unlikely have influenced it, this story also has an antecedent to psychic girl "Casey" from the Pasko and Yeates Swamp Thng. Bog meets a woman who is deaf mute from birth, and has therefore developed telepathy. By the end of the story, she has been badly burned, and their psychic link is severed. Thus Bog is alone again.

And that was the end of Bog, and the end of Atlas Comics. Unfortunately, Bog never developed doesn’t have much personality. This might be due to its bouncing around between writers (Gabriel Levy for its first appearance, John Albano for the second outing, Levy again in Tales of Evil and the unknown author of “The Sun-Spawn Walks”). It's tangential to the usual run of Swamp Monsters, but interesting to see the concept stretched, if not to the breaking point.

Next time, I'll be yammering on about the second iteration of Marvel's Man-Thing. See you then.