Miss Myst Mysteries — The Case of the Naughty Nightingale

Hi again. Sorry I haven’t written in so long. Life stuff.

Not to sound like some old fogey, but seriously, fans today don’t know how great they have it. I spent last evening watching my daughter watch a fan-made video extensively deconstructing a two-part “My Little Pony” storyline. When I was her age, there was a lot less information available about your favorite novels and shows, and what you could get was often sandwiched into random articles in fanzines that covered a wide range of stuff–comics, movies, tv, pulp novels. You took what you could get back then.

Even those were often hard to come by, unless you were a dedicated fan who lived on correspondence. You were pretty much limited to what you could find locally. For instance, there was a particular convenience store we visited a few times that was the only place I ever found Castle of Frankenstein magazine on the racks. When I was a kid, I would save my spare change in a Pringles can, and then dump it out and sell it to my mom to have thirty bucks or so to take to the one convention that would roll through in the summer.

And because I wasn’t a dedicated collector, but a kid who didn’t really know what I liked yet, I would often come home with a weird assortment of fanzines I’d never heard of or what cheap “collector’s items” I could discover in the dealers’ bins, like an animation cel of Captain America from the Marvel Super Heroes TV series, or the one and only issue of Simon and Kirby’s Captain 3-D, which plummeted in value when someone discovered a crate of mint condition issues in a warehouse in the late 70′s.

And then there was Titillating Suspense Stories. I had read about the pulps’ influence on comics in Jim Steranko’s History of Comics Volume I, and wanted to get a copy of my very own. So when I went to a convention in Oklahoma City in 1975 or 1976 (called MultiCon, I think), I looked for pulps in the dealer’s room. But they were all way out of my price range, until one dealer pulled out a box from under his table that had some ragged copies of off-brand titles. The one he was willing to sell me for practically nothing didn’t even have a cover anymore, just a contents page so yellowed it was almost brown and a strong acidic smell that made your eyes water if you inhaled too deeply while holding it.

I took it home and gamely tried reading it, but it didn’t do anything for me. The first story was a novel called Desert Gambit, a plodding tale about Major Tom Kidd fighting an Arab slave ring in the Middle East. I never finished it and never read any of the other stories. And so I missed an amazing discovery.

I ran across it again a few months ago when I got some boxes of stuff out of Dad’s vault (long-time readers will remember that the Out of the Vault feature on both this site and the Frazier’s Brain blog referred to an actual vault where my dad stored my comics for several years while I was away in the Army). And having a renewed interest in pulps, I decided to give it another go.

The stories were no better than I remembered, dreadfully written. But one in particular, a mystery featuring a character called Miss Myst, was astounding. Which sounds like a total exaggeration, but stick with me.

The Case of the Naughty Nightingale, by Irv Killeen, is a pretty pedestrian mystery about a nightclub singer who gets caught up with gangsters. She’s on the run, accused of stealing a ledger which can provide evidence to put a mob boss in jail, and turns to Miss Myst for help.

Miss Myst is Susan Hellman, a female private detective with a special gimmick: a perfume atomizer containing a special formula. She spritzes herself with it and turns invisible, which comes in handy in her line of work. The formula was invented by her boyfriend, Dick Reeves, a chemist who is described as “a tall, lanky scarecrow of a man.” Killeen is really bad about repeating the physical descriptions of his characters. That “lanky scarecrow” thing gets repeated a lot, as well as constant mentions of Susan’s “icy blue eyes.” Susan is helped in her investigations by Dick and by her little brother Johnny, a freckle-faced red-headed fourteen-year-old who idolizes Dick and also studies chemistry, although his interests run more to explosives.

But then, about halfway through the book, comes the scene that changes everything. Miss Myst, chased by gangsters, decides to call on a friend for help, a mysterious ex-mobster who apparently owes her a lifetime of favors. Although I’ve never seen another Miss Myst novel, I got the idea that this was a recurring character, a large, ugly brute of surprising intelligence and compassion, at least where “Suzy” is concerned. His name? Mister Grimm.

And suddenly, everything else in the novel began to seem oddly familiar. A woman named Susan who turns invisible. Her little brother Johnny, who’s constantly playing with matches. Her tall, skinny scientist boyfriend, Richard Reeves, whom Johnny refers to as “Stretch.”

This was the Fantastic Four, twenty years before there was a Fantastic Four. And though I can’t prove that this was in any way the inspiration for the comic, we do know that Stan Lee read pulps, because he cites the Spider, Master of Men, as one of his inspirations for Spider-Man.

But the really fascinating thing here is that if this was the inspiration, even unconsciously, for the Fantastic Four, it was a Fantastic Four in which the woman was the lead character. How different would the comic have been if it had stuck to that?

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A Serendipitous Discovery

I have not been on here in a while, because I’m taking a break and deciding what I want to do next. Also because my attention has been diverted to a role-playing game I’m developing for some local friends using the Fate system. The game takes place in the 30′s, so I’ve been collecting a lot of images for inspiration, including this image of Times Square in 1935 (I think).

TimesSquareAtNight

So I have this photo, which nicely shows the hustle and bustle of New York, and also shows lots of period stores and movies and products and what have you, and I even put it up as my desktop wallpaper, just to soak it in. And then I realize something.

This bit off to the left of the photo…

TimesSquareAnim

Is the Automat where the opening scene of Death Wave takes place. I knew there was one there when I wrote the book, but I’d never seen a photo of the outside, so I didn’t really know where it fit in the panoply of Times Square. Now I do.

Oh, and as a special bonus, here’s a photo of the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the book’s final confrontation takes place.

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If you haven’t read Death Wave, I suggest you click the link above and buy a copy as soon as possible.

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The Halloween That Didn’t Quite Happen

So my apologies. Every year, no matter what else has gone wrong in my personal life, I have made special efforts to celebrate my favorite holiday here on the blog with extensive Halloween-themed comic and movie features, as well as original fiction and an annual original audio drama. I dropped that ball this year.

I planned some elements of this year’s Halloween farther out than I ever had before, settling on a theme for the audio drama as well as some of the comics I would feature. But it has been a hard year, with a lot of stressful events: job changes and power loss and financial problems. As well, this website as a showcase for my fiction never found its audience the way I hoped it would, a fact compounded by technical problems with the commercial WordPress template I purchased to refurbish the site. The template was just using too much bandwidth, leading to access problems for people trying to visit the site. Meanwhile, I was trying to force myself to put out more work faster than I had before, and the quality was suffering. It all started feeling not only futile, but counterproductive.

But Halloween has always been a special time for me, so I tried to come back. Having gotten out of the rhythm of the site, though, it was hard to get back into the swing. I did feature one comic and two movies, but other movies I was prepping to post didn’t get done, and I ended up taking not one, not two, but three swings at the audio drama script before it became clear that even if I finished the scripts, there would not be enough time to do the production any justice.

So that’s that. Halloween 2013 was a big bust, but on the bright side, I have a hell of a head start on Halloween 2014, at least on the audio drama scripting side.

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Scary Movie Monday: The X From Outer Space

ScaryMovieMonday

XOuterSpaceTitle

Like last week’s film, this one is available via the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus. The X From Outer Space is an oddball Japanese film from 1967, produced by Japanese studio Shochiku. Shochiku is a very old studio that actually got its start in the 19th century as a kabuki production company. Here in the States, it’s not as well known as Toho, or Toei, or even Daiei.

Like The Blob, The X From Outer Space opens with a peppy song over the opening credits. It then moves on to set up the basic situation: Earth is preparing a manned mission to Mars. To that end, they have constructed a super new atomic-powered spaceship, the AAB Gamma, also known as the Astro-Boat (I’m guessing AAB stands for something like Atomic Astro-Boat). We meet the four-person crew in the opening scenes.

XOuterSpaceCrew

They’re a pretty standard collection of types. There’s stalwart lady-magnet Captain Sano, studious Doctor Shioda (who also does double duty as the crazy one, later), comedy relief Signal Officer Miyamoto, and hot blonde space biologist Lisa (who has a crush on the captain). Peggy Neal, who played Lisa, had a brief career in Japan during the mid-1960′s playing exotic blondes. She has no credits outside of Japan.

The crew is warned that every expedition that has been sent to Mars so far has been stopped by mysterious UFO’s. Their mission seems to be not so much to get to Mars as to figure out the nature of the UFO’s when they hit the inevitable resistance.

Countdown and liftoff. The space scenes are pretty typical of Japanese films of the 60′s, lots of shots of miniatures being lofted on wires through space backdrops. The colors in this one are really rich, though. In the early scenes, especially, the space travel looks pretty cool.

XOuterSpceAABGamma

Trouble arises before they have even reached the moon, though (which in movie-space seems to be equidistant between Earth and Mars). First, they encounter a glowing blob-shaped UFO, and then Doctor Shioda loses control, prompting the AAB Gamma to make an emergency stop on the moon.

While there, they spend some time frolicking in low gravity, taking baths, and having a cocktail party before they depart with a new ship’s doctor, Dr. Stein. They also meet Michiko, who also has a huge crush on the captain. Her jealousy is tempered, though, by the fact that she and Lisa seem to be best friends. Besides, the captain exhibits no romantic interest in either one of them.

XOuterSpaceParty

Before long, they’re back in space, on their way to Mars, when they suddenly encounter the UFO again, which passes close by their ship. Not long after, their atomic reactor begins losing power. Lisa notices some odd glowing nodules attached the engine housings. She and Captain Sano go EVA to clean them off, and she collects one for further study. The mission to Mars is scrapped, and the crew must wait for Michiko to bring them more nuclear rocket fuel before they can limp back home to Earth.

They place the nodule in a special sealed chamber for study, and everyone goes out to get drunk and celebrate their safe return. But the party is interrupted by word that the strange nodule has disappeared. A hole has been broken in the containment vessel, leaving nothing but a few scraps of the nodule’s outer coating, and there’s a big footprint in the metal floor that looks like the claw of a giant chicken.

And soon, that’s exactly what they’re dealing with: a giant space chicken, which they name Guilala.

XOuterSpaceGuilala

Seriously, a giant space chicken, with all the powers of Godzilla. Suddenly, the UFO’s, the mission to Mars, and the mysterious connection between the two are forgotten. The movie becomes a fairly standard kaiju story, with the scientists analyzing the scraps of the shell to create an energy-absorbing foam that reduces Guilala back to an egg again. It becomes pretty obvious that the UFO’s are adult versions of Guilala, although it’s never stated outright, and we never do learn where they come from or why they keep harassing Earth ships.

Also mostly forgotten is the romantic triangle between Michiko, Lisa and Captain Sano, at least until the final scene, where Sano finally goes crazy and takes Michiko’s hand. The last thing we see is the rocket bearing Guilala’s egg back into space as we hear a song about how small two people are compared to the universe.

It’s a weirdly disjointed movie, which on the one hand has a slick look and some gorgeous colors, but on the other has a story which goes in too many directions, shifts gears abruptly in the middle, and never really answers the central mystery it set up in the beginning.

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Out of the Vault – Ripley’s Believe It or Not #14

RipleysCoverSince we’re approaching Halloween, I’m reviving Out of the Vault for some monstery goodness. First up: Ripley’s Believe It or Not #14, which bears the subtitle on the cover “True Demons and Monsters.” The issue is dated June 1969, and it’s not only heavily spine rolled, but several of the middle pages have torn away from the staples.

But here’s the thing that surprises me. I had always felt growing up that Gold Key comics and the like were quite simply inferior products to the Big Two comics publishers. Looking back at this issue, though, the art compares quite favorably with what the majors published in most of their issues. I mean, there is nothing here that has the flair of a Neal Adams or a Berni Wrightson, or the energy of a Kirby or Ditko monster story, but compared to the general run of artists who usually worked the horror books (which due to Comics Code restrictions were never all that scary), this issue of Ripley’s stacks up well. And that cover painting is awesome.

The first story in the issue is the cover story, “The Demon of Beachy Head.” Seven-year-old me was very disappointed that we didn’t get the giant demon rising out of the surf as promised on the cover, but the story is pretty good nevertheless. It tells the tale of a nobleman, Sir Robert, who betrays the monks from a local monastery who are being hunted down by Henry VIII. The abbot curses Sir Robert as he is being led away in chains.

Not long afterward, due to a series of misfortunes befalling the town, the locals declare that Sir Robert is the source of the evil and hurl him over the cliff at Beachy Head. Sir Robert’s spirit rises as a vengeful demon, luring people to their doom on the rocks, until 1952, when spirit medium Ray De Vekey conducts an exorcism. The art during this sequence is really dramatic, splashed with blacks, giving an ominous cast to the action.

RipleyBeachyHead

The next story is “The Horror of Lincoln’s Inn,” about a bird-like phantom that kills a man and terrorizes two newspaper editors sent to cover the story.

After that is “The Foxes of Doom,” about a nobleman, Viscount Gormanston, who cruelly kills a vixen and its kits on a fox hunt. Later, the Viscount’s servants find his body in a field, apparently dead from a fall off his horse. But his body is surrounded by hunderds of foxes. From then on, hordes of foxes congregate at Gormanston Castle to presage the death of each generation of Gormanston.

The final story in the volume is “The Monster of Croglin Grange,” about a young woman who is attacked in the night by a monstrous manlike creature. Her brothers drive the creature away, after which the family goes abroad to get over the shock. They return several months later and live in peace until it happens again. This time, the brothers wound the beast and follow the trail of blood to a cemetery, where they find an open coffin with a shriveled body inside–a shriveled body with a broken thigh bone, just where the brothers shot the fleeing beast.

It was a nicely creepy coda to the issue, with once again, some pretty decent artwork, although I must admit, I found this story a lot more interesting in my early teens.

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Notice the coloring in this story, with large swaths covered with a single color. Gold Key did this a lot. I think it might have been a time-saving measure, but it also works with the mood of this story really well.

But here’s the really interesting part that I hadn’t known at the time. See, even though the title of the comic is Ripley’s Believe It or Not, I just took these stories as the same type of horror fluff that you saw in any other horror book from the other comics companies. But now, with the help of the Internet, I could check to see if any of these were supposedly true, and what do you know?

Ray De Vekey did conduct an exorcism at Beachy Head in 1952, although he said the spirit he struggled with was dressed in monk’s robes, not a nobleman cursed by monks. And it didn’t seem to change anything, since lots of people still kill themselves by jumping from the cliffs there.

The Lincoln’s Inn story matches this account of the “phantom bird” almost verbatim.

The Gormanston foxes were a real thing, although this page describes them as paying their respects to the family, perhaps because of an act of mercy by the Viscount or his wife, rather than vengeful omens.

And the many accounts of the Croglin Grange story that I could find plainly depict the creature as a vampire, not the werewolf pictured in the story. Here’s a very readable one.

Believe it or not.

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Scary Movie Monday – The Blob (1958)

ScaryMovieMonday

BlobTitle

So here we go, trying this once again. In 1958, movie audiences were treated to a new kind of movie monster. Instead of a werewolf or vampire or creature made from pieces of dead men, The Blob featured a giant glob of alien goo.

The movie begins with a peppy, preppy song about a blob that “creeps and leaps and glides and slides.” The music for the title tune was composed by Burt Bacharach, and it makes you think you’re in for a tongue-in-cheek spoof, which is not at all the tone of the movie that follows.

Then we meet young teenage lovers (or perhaps at this point, they’re just “likers”) Steve Andrews and Jane Martin, played by Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut. At the time the movie was made, McQueen was a starving actor who did the feature for just $3000. But the year it was released, McQueen became a household name when he landed the lead in his own TV series, the Western Wanted: Dead or Alive.

BlobMcQueen

Steve and Jane see a meteor crash to Earth not far away and go to investigate. But they are beaten to the punch by some old dude who lives in a cabin in the woods. He investigates the mysterious meteor, which breaks open, revealing a mysterious goo inside.

BlobTiny

The stuff envelops the man’s hand, causing instant agony. He stumbles out to the road, where he runs into Steve and Jane (almost literally). They rush the guy out to the doctor’s office. While Steve and Jane and a few other teenage delinquents head out to the woods to try to find the origin of the mysterious goo, the doctor calls in his nurse to assist him in amputating the old man’s arm, because the stuff has resisted any attempt to remove it and it is growing.

By the time the nurse gets there, however, the old man is gone and in his place is this: a giant blob that can move of its own volition and seeks out living people to absorb.

BlobAcid

For a low-budget movie made in the 50′s, the effects are well done. The odd yellow discoloration in the screengrab above is from acid that the nurse has thrown on the thing, which is quickly absorbed. As the blob continues to devour people, it grows larger and redder. And there is no way to escape it. The doctor locks himself in his office after the thing eats his nurse, only to have it squeeze through the crack under the door and envelop him in front of a horrified Steve (who has returned just in time to see the doctor’s demise through the window).

The rest of the movie features Steve and Jane trying (and mostly failing) to convince people of the danger the blob represents as it moves from building to building, quietly devouring everyone in its path. In many ways, the script is typical of 50′s teen exploitation movies, especially frustrating for Steve’s complete lack of communication skills whenever he tries to tell people what’s happening. You just want to reach through the screen, grab him by the lapels and shake him while shouting, “Use your words, Steve!”

But there are some nice touches to writing as well. There is real subtlety and tension in the way the script depicts the growing danger through off-hand mentions of bars and mechanic shops that are mysteriously deserted. The script is also surprisingly good at giving dimension to the characters. The young delinquents who hassle Steve in the beginning turn to be surprisingly civic-minded once the danger presents itself, while the strict by-the-book cop who hassles them all and dismisses Steve’s concerns turns out to be a war hero who’s still dealing with the horrors he experienced over there.

Finally, the monster emerges into pubic view in, of all places, a movie theater (which is “healthfully air conditioned”).

BlobTheater

Steve and Jane end up trapped in a diner that has been enveloped by the blob as the rest of the town rallies to freeze the thing with CO2 fire extinguishers, apparently heedless of the ecological disaster they bringing down upon all our heads. Once the thing is frozen, they have the military airlift it to the Arctic Circle, where it will hopefully stay frozen forever, or you know, eat the few polar bears left alive after that fire extinguisher debacle.

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Super Movie Monday – Spider-Man Part 3

Spider-ManTitle

Moving into the finale of Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man. Watching the movie this closely, I realize just how many scenes in this movie make me cringe. I think I’ve said before that being a genre fan in my lifetime often meant managing your expectations. Genre films were always having to be graded on a curve, judged not as good or bad, but how much much better or worse than you expected. I loved Spider-Man when it came out because it  did things no other film had done up to that time. Unlike the Batman/Superman films, it didn’t camp up or mock the characters it portrayed. And unlike Bryan Singer’s X-Men, it didn’t feel the need to vastly redefine the characters and their relationships (webshooters aside). While it had differences from the comic, it preserved the essence of the character and the cast faithfully, powers, costume and all.

But man, looking back now, there’s a lot of weak tea in this movie, just a lot of scenes that make me cringe.

We left off with the Green Goblin vowing to either win Spider-Man’s support or destroy him. Next thing you know, Peter’s getting chewed out by J. Jonah Jameson for not getting good pictures of Spider-Man’s fight with the Goblin in Times Square. As Peter is leaving the office, the Green Goblin attacks, looking for the photographer who takes the pictures of Spider-Man. To his credit, Jonah refuses to give Peter up, even though he’s standing right there. But moments later, Spider-Man appears. The Goblin knocks him out with sleep gas and carries him to a rooftop, where he makes an offer. Join forces with the Goblin, or play the hero and die.

While I can intellectually appreciate what screenwriter David Koepp was trying to do with this scene, it doesn’t work for me on a number of levels. I understand that this is a way to escalate the conflict between Spider-Man and the Goblin without having to resort to a repetitive fight scene, and I get how this appeal from the Goblin mirrors Norman Osborn’s attempts to mentor Peter Parker. But I don’t get why he thinks Spider-Man would join him right after they just fought. Nor why, if the Goblin’s sleep gas is so effective at putting Spider-Man out of commission, he doesn’t use it again in later confrontations. Nor why he leaves Spider-Man to contemplate his choice, rather than demanding a choice right then while Spider-Man is at his mercy.

Oh well… Meanwhile, back in the “all about the girl” plot, Peter tracks down Mary Jane and invites her out to dinner. She refuses, saying she has a date with Harry, but she flirts with him, obviously aware of his crush on her. It’s hard to tell if she’s honestly interested in Peter, or just trolling him for the attention that Harry’s not giving her. When she leaves, Peter sees a group of unsavory individuals following her, and it’s Spider-Man to the rescue! He beats up the thugs as a hard rain starts to fall.

Mary Jane and her pointy, rain-soaked nipples now start flirting with Spider-Man. She doesn’t seem to suspect that Spider-Man is Peter, even though they both use the same cheesy “I was in the neighborhood” line. She gives him a kiss that manages to be pretty hot, even though it was apparently torture to film, and holy crap, look at the veins standing out on Tobey Maguire’s neck (not so visible in this pic, but in the movie, wow)!

Spider-ManInvertedKiss

Spider-Man zips away and we move from rain to fire. Some time later, an apartment building is burning, and there’s a baby trapped inside. Spider-Man saves the kid, but then a cop tries to arrest him for no apparent reason. They’re interrupted by a scream from inside the building; someone else is trapped. Spider-Man says he’s going back in to rescue whoever, and the cop relents.

But the old lady Spidey tries to save turns out to be the Green Goblin, who apparently started the fire as an excuse to follow up on that joining-forces thing. There’s a brief fight where Spider-Man has to avoid flying blades with his agility and spider-sense.

Spider-ManFireFight

Unfortunately, he’s not fast enough to avoid everything, and his arm gets cut. Spider-Man realizes the fight is futile and escapes.

Next thing you know, Norman Osborn is showing up at Pete and Harry’s apartment for Thanksgiving dinner with Aunt May and Mary Jane. Peter shows up with a cut on his forearm and… wait a second, you mean the Green Goblin set that building on fire on Thanksgiving? What an ass! Anyway, Norman sees the still-bleeding cut and realizes that Peter is Spider-Man. He leaves, but not before being an even bigger douche by telling Harry to dump Mary Jane, the gold-digging tramp (actually, he advises Harry to screw her and then dump her, keeping the class in class differences). Mary Jane, offended at Harry’s less-than-vigorous defense of her virtues, leaves as well. Peter and Harry are going to have a LOT of leftover turkey.

So the Goblin decides that, rather than simply kill Spider-Man, he will first destroy his will to fight by attacking those he loves. To that end, he blows a hole in Aunt May’s house while she’s praying and then badgers her into wailing “deliver us… FROM EEEEEEEEE-VILLLLL!” Cringe. In the hospital, Peter realizes the Goblin is on to him.

Mary Jane comes later and mentions that she and Harry are on the outs. She says that she is now in love with Spider-Man, which prompts Peter to give the most awkwardly worded declaration of love ever, under the guise of what he told Spider-Man when asked about her. Cringe again. But Mary Jane is required by the script to be touched by Peter’s words. She takes his hand and gazes lovingly into his eyes.

Which is when Harry walks in and sees them together. He runs home to Daddy to tell him that Peter and Mary Jane are now an item. Norman promises that Daddy will make everything all right.

Meanwhile, Aunt May and Peter have a conversation about his love for Mary Jane (she was pretending to be asleep when they had their awkward love moment). Aunt May talks about the first time Peter saw Mary Jane; he asked if she was an angel. CRINGE! Not only is this something no actual kid would ask, ever, but it just happens to be exactly the first thing young Anakin Skywalker said to Padme in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and no good can ever come from cribbing character beats from the prequel trilogy. Ever. Anyway, the entire point of this nearly unbearable conversation is that Aunt May tells Peter that everyone knows he loves Mary Jane, which makes him realize she could be in danger. He calls her up to check on her, and the Goblin answers. Jeopardy!

Cut to the Queensborough Bridge, where the Green Goblin offers Peter a similar dilemma to the one that the Riddler offered Batman in Batman Forever: save the woman he loves, or save a cable car full of kids.

Spider-ManRiddlerDilemma

Wait, first you crib dialogue from The Phantom Menace and now you crib plot from Batman Forever? Seriously, Movie? Could you not find anything worth stealing from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace?

Peter of course manages to save them both, with a little help from a bunch of angry New Yorkers on the bridge (echoing the angry New Yorkers–I’m sorry, Metropolitans–who confront General Zod in Superman II when they think Superman has been killed, so yeah, the movie does crib from the Superman series as well). Once they’re safe, the Goblin drags Peter to a picturesquely decrepit building where they have their final showdown.

The final fight shifts tone rather severely, with Peter’s costume shredded by Goblin bombs, after which he takes a really brutal beatdown. It looks cool, but it feels like we’ve suddenly entered a different movie.

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Peter tries to fight back, but the Goblin completely dominates him. But just as it becomes apparent that Spider-Man is beaten, the Goblin has to go and gloat about how he’s going to make sure Mary Jane dies slowly. And suddenly, not only does Peter find renewed strength, but the Goblin suddenly forgets how to fight, flailing around helplessly while Peter punches him repeatedly in the metal helmet for some reason. And suddenly, the Goblin cries for mercy and tears off his helmet to reveal the face of Norman Osborn. He tells Peter that he was in the grip of temporary insanity, but somehow Peter’s fists have brought him back to himself. He thanks Peter for beating him back to consciousness or something.

Of course, it’s all a ruse while he surreptitiously summons his Goblin Glider to stab Peter in the back. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know about Peter’s spider-sense, which warns him of the coming danger in time to dodge out of the way, just as in the comic book. The Goblin is hoist with his own petard.

Spider-ManGoblinDies

With his dying breath, Norman says, “Don’t tell Harry.” So for some reason, Peter strips Norman out of his Goblin armor and carries him back to his townhouse. Harry walks into his father’s bedroom to find his father dead in his bed, with Spider-Man standing over the body.

And aaaggghhh! I want to love this climax, I really do. There’s a lot of cool stuff here, and I like the fact that the fight revolves around emotional beats rather than just being a bunch of punches. But between the plot elements distractingly stolen from other movies, and the surprising brutality of the final fight, and Raimi’s inability to restrain himself from inserting a final joke at the moment of the Goblin’s defeat (Norman tonelessly mumbles “oh” just before the glider impales him, which is another joke I think he stole from somewhere, but I can’t think of the movie right now), and the sequel-required silliness of Peter granting Norman’s final wish, I just cringe as I’m applauding. But at least it’s all over, right? No more cringing.

At Osborn’s funeral, Harry swears vengeance on Spider-Man, and oh crap, Mary Jane is now proclaiming her love for Peter in a scene that’s not only badly written, but also badly acted. And Peter, who has dreamed of this moment since he was six years old or something, decides he has to dump her in order to keep her safe. And I know I’m supposed to find this tragic, but I’m too busy cringing, which YOU WERE NOT SUPPOSED TO MAKE ME DO AGAIN THIS CLOSE TO THE END, MOVIE!!!

Screw it, let’s just finish with some random web-slinging to get this nasty taste out of my mouth. Dykstra’s computer animation crew really outdid themselves with all the iconic Spider-Man poses they managed to get him into in the last 90 seconds before the credits, and how pathetic is it that this is enough to make me forgive this emotionally abusive movie and come back for a sequel?

Spider-ManSpiderPose

Don’t answer that. Just join us next time when we return with Spider-Man 2, although I can’t promise that it will be coming next week. I’m working overtime for at least the next two weeks, so updates may drag. Sorry.

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Out of the Vault – The Amazing Spider-Man #122

Spider-Man122CoverSorry for the late entry. Since we’re about the hit the climactic final portion of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, I figured I would take a look back at one of the comics which provided the movie’s inspiration: The Amazing Spider-Man #122. The issue, cover-dated July 1973, was written by Gerry Conway, who was only 20 years old at the time. Twenty years old, and he was writing two of Marvel’s flagship titles: Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. So jealous. Pencils were by Gil Kane, inked by John Romita and Tony Mortellaro.

The previous issue was one of the most famous single issues in Spider-Man’s history: the death of Gwen Stacy. Spidey’s arch-foe the Green Goblin, who knew Spider-Man’s secret identity, had kidnapped true love Gwen in order to lure Spider-Man into a fatal confrontation atop the Brooklyn Bridge. When the Green Goblin flung Gwen off the bridge, Spider-Man stopped her fall with his web-shooter. However, the sudden stop caused her neck to snap, and she died.

As issue #122 opens, Spider-Man cradles Gwen’s dead body and swears vengeance on a gloating Goblin. Spider-Man uses his agility to dodge the Goblin’s attacks, then leaps upon his enemy’s back to deliver a righteous beatdown.

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The Goblin manages to shake Spidey off and flees. Spider-Man then sees emergency personnel approaching Gwen’s body and leaps down to stop them. He furiously demands they leave her in peace. We then get a couple of large Gil Kane flashback-montage panels: one depicting Peter Parker’s history with Gwen and the other showing Spider-Man as the force keeping them apart.

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When the ambulance arrives, Spider-Man says that she’s already dead, “and Spider-Man killed her.” The cops, not having seen the montage panels, take this as a confession of guilt, but Spider-Man shakes them off and escapes. He changes to his civilian clothes and heads to Norman Osborn’s townhouse for a final confrontation, but Osborn is not there. Instead, Peter finds best friend Harry Osborn tripping on LSD. It’s not a good trip. A terrified Harry begs Peter to stay with him, but Peter’s set on revenge and decides Harry is “no use to me at all.” Even in his shocked state, Peter realizes he’s being a dick, but decides that helping a friend vs. revenge is “not much of a contest” and leaves Harry alone. Damn, that’s cold.

Peter’s next move is to change back to Spider-Man and get Robbie Robertson, city editor of the Daily Bugle, to help him track Norman Osborn down. Before Spidey can leave to complete his revenge, J. Jonah Jameson bursts in to denounce him, leading to a moment that was adapted into the movie, albeit in a different context.

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Spider-Man heads off to a warehouse recently purchased by Norman Osborn, where he is ambushed by the Green Goblin. Spider-Man fights with a rage and ruthlessness that he has never shown before, stomping the Goblin’s glider to disable it before pounding the Goblin to a pulp. He comes to his senses before killing him, however, and decides to turn the Goblin over to the police instead. However, the Goblin, sensing an opening, activates a remote control which flies his damaged glider directly at Spider-Man’s unprotected back.

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This is a very common trope: the villain who dies by his own misadventure when the hero refuses to kill him. Story logic dictates that the villain must die, having committed acts too heinous to forgive. However, that same logic demands that our hero not be the one to kill him, since the hero’s hands need to stay clean. The one really unique and courageous thing that happens here is that, instead of the villain plunging to his doom out of sight (possibly to survive and return), here we actually see the villain’s body and so have proof of death. The Green Goblin would return in a little over a year, but this time, it would be mentally unbalanced son Harry Osborn wearing the costume.

Having achieved his revenge on one of his greatest foes, Spider-Man reflects that he doesn’t feel any better. He heads home, where he finds Mary Jane Watson waiting for him. In his sorrow, he treats her like a total dick.

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Mary Jane had until this time been Veronica to Gwen Stacy’s Betty, the bad girl tempting Peter away from the good. Peter had ultimately chosen Gwen, while Mary Jane dated Harry Osborn off and on. But starting right here, Mary Jane took the first step of becoming the central woman in Peter Parker’s life, ultimately marrying him. By the time that Raimi’s film went into production, she was such a central character that they decided to simply write her in as the girl Peter had always loved.

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Metatronic Chapter Ten – Mission Briefing

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CHAPTER TEN

MISSION BRIEFING

 

 

Okay, first off,” said Lionel Van Treece to open the daily briefing the next day, “I’d like to officially welcome Mr. Barron to Cris’s group. But seeing as how he has experience across a variety of disciplines, I’ve asked him to sit in on our department head briefings. As we head into the final stretch of the final launch, it’s more vital than ever that we maintain a fresh perspective and keep our eyes on our objective, and I trust that he’ll be a great help in that department.

To that end, we’ve got a task. Julie?”

Julie Anselmo clasped her hands and stared down at the slate panel on the tabletop in front of her. “We’ve noted a spike in traffic on electronic messaging boards frequented by radical environmental groups that have been associated with Gentle’s movement in the past. We think a strike is imminent.”

Period or exclamation point?” Isobel asked.

Periods for the last couple of days,” Savage answered. “Exclamation point today.”

What?” Barron asked.

The pattern we’ve noticed is that when an operation is approaching, they’ll enter a single period that’s hyperlinked to a peer-to-peer file sharing system that contains the actual message,” Savage said. “When the operation is imminent, within 24 hours, that period will usually be replaced by an exclamation point.”

What do the files say?” Barron asked.

We don’t know,” Savage answered. “They’ve got some good guys working with them. Really good. It’s hard enough tracking down their phantom boards and getting in to monitor traffic. The files themselves are encrypted with something I haven’t been able to break. PGP-HD, probably.”

Wait, I know what PGP is, but HD?” Barron said. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

Don’t get me started,” Anselmo muttered, staring at the tabletop.

It’s not even related to PGP, as far as I can tell,” Savage explained. “It’s a completely new encryption program put together by some hacker. Singapore, probably. That’s where the slang of using ‘HD’ to mean ‘advanced anything’ originated. It’s most common across Southeast Asia, although you’ll hear it used as far north as Japan and Korea. But odds are, he’s from Singapore.

The point is, without the right encryption key, the only way to break it is to brute force it with a distributed bot-net. I’ve got one set up; our subscribers think they’re actually analyzing radio telescope data for extraterrestrial transmissions. But even with that, it can take up to six days to crack a message, and we don’t have nearly that much time.”

We don’t need to read the massage to know what it’s about,” Anselmo said. “Now that Metatron’s in final assembly, they’re going to hit the factory.”

Let ‘em try,” Quesada, the tac team leader, said.

And you know this how?” Barron asked.

Anselmo looked up and met his eyes for perhaps the first time since he’d met her. “Because it’s what I do. I know my job, and I’ve been on this guy’s case way longer than you have.”

Now, Julie,” Van Treece said. “We all need to be on the same page with this. So let’s make the case once again and make sure we haven’t missed anything.”

Like what?” Anselmo asked.

Like why now?” Barron asked. “Why not before, why not later? On an op like this, you choose the time and place to exploit a vulnerability. What’s the exposure here?”

It’s the first time all the pieces are in the same place,” Savage said. “They’ve been manufacturing subcomponents in various places all over the world. Now they’re finally putting it all together.”

And keep in mind, we’ve already stopped multiple attempts to sabotage various components,” Van Treece said.

The assembly’s being done at the Crystron Dynamics plant right here in Austin,” Anselmo said, calling up a diagram and aerial photo of the plant on a high-definition screen on the wall behind her. “It will take them about a week before they’re ready to transport to the launch facility.”

Are they taking it to Canaveral?” Barron asked.

UNOPCO has a private launch facility in south Texas, just north of Brownsville where they’re assembling the launch vehicle,” Van Treece said. “They’ll transport the satellite there by convoy once it’s assembled.”

Well, that’s where they’ll hit it, then,” Barron said. “Why bother hitting a heavily guarded factory when you can just ambush a convoy? That’s when it’s most vulnerable. That’s when you hit it.”

The others at the table exchanged looks, and then Quesada said, “No.”

What do you mean?” Barron asked. “Why wouldn’t they?”

Because they know my team will be riding along,” Quesada said.

How many on your team?”

Five.”

And you’re saying they’re afraid to mount an assault on five guys,” Barron said skeptically.

Not five guys,” Quesada said. “Five skins.”

I have got to see these skins you’re talking about,” Barron said.

You can watch them on TV tonight. We’ll be deploying them at the plant to intercept the attack,” Anselmo said, looking down at the table once more. She smiled. “Though you won’t see much.”

You’re really sure they’re going to hit tonight?” Barron asked.

Yes.”

Why?” Barron asked, then held up a hand at the angry expression that flashed across Anselmo’s face. “Just bullet points, to make sure we’ve got all the angles.”

Anselmo sighed and ticked off the points on her fingers. “Okay, once more for the slow children. Number one, the satellite’s pieces are all gathered in one place, making it a juicy target. Number two, we’re still over two weeks out from launch, so security isn’t on its highest alert yet. Number three, they know what the skins are capable of and will want to hit before they’re deployed. Number four, hitting early still leaves them the option of attacking again later if something goes wrong. Gentle likes keeping his options open. Number five, and this is the big one, exclamation… point! Got it?”

Yeah,” Barron said.

Anselmo sighed again. “Finally. God.”

What about the booster?” Barron asked.

Anselmo bit off a curse and turned away as Quesada slapped the table and muttered something in Spanish. Savage just laughed. “Are you kidding me?” Anselmo asked.

No,” Barron said. “If they want to stop the launch, there are two pieces to that puzzle: the satellite and the launch vehicle. What if their target is the rocket?”

It’s not,” Anselmo said.

How do you know?”

Because,” Isobel said calmly, trying to cool things down before Anselmo could reply, “it’s easily replaced. If they destroy the booster, there are enough components to put another one together in a matter of days. Even if they blow up the entire factory and all the back stock, we can get another booster shipped in from Georgia or another location in time to make the launch, and at no more than a third of the cost of the satellite itself. Destroying the satellite will set us back at least six months and hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s the obvious target.”

Exactly,” Barron said. “Which means we ought to at least keep an eye on the booster, too, just in case.”

I’m not splitting my team on this nonsense,” Quesada said.

Not asking you to,” Barron said. “I’ll go, since I’m not really vital here.”

I’ll say,” Anselmo muttered, and Quesada gave a quiet snort.

I’ll go with you,” Isobel said. “We’ll take a few of my guys, just in case.”

Waste of time and money,” Anselmo said.

Barron looked at Van Treece. “UNOPCO’s footing the bill, right? I mean, they hired you to be thorough, didn’t they?”

Van Treece smiled. “That they did. I have no qualms about charging them the extra hours. Get your teams ready. I want you on site by sunset.”

 

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Super Movie Monday – Spider-Man, Part 2

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Continuing our look back at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Raimi was always an interesting filmmaker. His early films showed incredible youthful energy that translated into a restlessly exaggerated visual style, often at the expense of the story he was telling. The Evil Dead trilogy is a lot of fun, but no one pretends that they’re good stories on any level, neither well-written nor well-acted. They are memorable for their manic energy, and for Raimi’s boldness, not afraid to veer from George Romero to Tex Avery and back again within seconds. With Darkman, Raimi showed that he could channel that manic energy into a more coherent story to create a superhero worthy of the big screen. And with Spider-Man, he finally got to do the same thing, only now with an iconic hero and a major studio budget for a tentpole action picture.

But it’s still a Raimi film, with all of his strengths and all of his weaknesses. His energy and inventive visual style are present, but he is still sometimes careless about performances, intercutting takes of wildly different tones in order to force in a joke or a specific beat  he wants.

We left off last week with Peter discovering his spider-powers and deciding to use them to make money so he can buy a car to date girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson. Cue the training montage, with Peter training with his webs, covering his room in sticky white stuff while Aunt May knocks on the door and wonders why he’s suddenly spending so much time locked in there. I know that people have long equated superheroes with adolescent power fantasies, but thanks for making that masturbation link super-explicit, movie. Oh, and in a nicely subtle bit, Peter’s wallpaper has a vaguely spider-web-like pattern.

So anyway, Peter heads out for his big wrestling debut, but Uncle Ben volunteers to drive him as a pretext for grilling him about what’s going on. And for those who don’t know, Uncle Ben’s huge car, an Olds Delta 88, is a Sam Raimi trademark; the same car had appeared in every Raimi film to that point (including, if Raimi is to be believed, his Western The Quick and the Dead). Ben comes out with the “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but Peter gets defensive and argues with him.

Wrestling time! The gig is to spend three minutes in the ring with the dreaded Bonesaw McGraw, who is crippling people right and left. When Peter’s turn comes, he tells the emcee that his name is The Human Spider, but the emcee says that sucks and introduces him as the Amaaaaaaaaaaaaaazing Spider-Man. And oh, by the way, the emcee is Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell.

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And now we get to see Peter’s thrown-together costume as he fights Bonesaw while locked inside a giant steel cage.

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I love the cheapness and home-made look of this costume, although the very realism of it makes the super-slick later costume a little harder to buy into. Peter takes a while to get used to his strength and agility (and his ability to take a pounding), but soon enough, he knocks Bonesaw flat out cold. And although the emcee announces Peter as the “new champion,” I don’t get the idea that he ends up taking on all comers for the rest of night. Instead, we just see the promoter toss Peter a hundred dollars and tell him to take off. Peter argues that he is owed $3,000, but the promoter says the $3,000 was explicitly for a three-minute fight, and Peter won in two. So no car for Pete.

And as we’re all hating that guy for being crooked, along comes an agent of justice to punish him. Or, that is, a crook to rob him of the money he refused to share. Peter’s waiting at the elevator and purposely lets the guy get clean away.

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When the promoter complains, Peter tosses the guy’s words back at him with a smirk. And if this were a snobs-vs-slobs comedy, seeing that guy get his comeuppance would be our happy ending. But we’re telling a very different story here. When Peter gets back to where Uncle Ben dropped him off, he finds his uncle dying from a gunshot wound. Cliff Robertson plays the death as if Ben has had a stroke, which nicely conveys the horror of the moment.

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Peter hears the cops say they found the guy, so Peter decides to claim his own personal justice. He throws his costume back on and leaps up the walls. He learns how to websling and after some initial awkwardness, quickly catches the car, causing it to crash into an abandoned factory. The digital stunt double works much more convincingly when he’s in costume and assuming characteristic poses from the comic book, as opposed to the jerky running and jumping of the digital civilian Peter. The darkness doesn’t hurt either.

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Inside the factory, Peter stalks the bad guy, leading to some glimpses of very familiar poses for fans of the comics. When he confronts the man, there’s a brief fight. It’s not bad, but the staging is off, like there’s a bit missing. From one shot to the next, a gun magically appears in the carjacker’s hand, and moments later, he goes from terrified to laughing and triumphant. Oh, and he’s totally the guy that Peter just let rob the wrestling promoter. Irony! Or am I pulling a Morissette here?

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Peter freezes in horror, but luckily, the crook is a moron and trips out the window, killing himself before he can shoot Peter.

Meanwhile, a mysterious laughing green figure flying what is obviously the stolen OsCorp glider destroys an exoskeleton undergoing a field test at Quest Aerospace (named for Jonny Quest, perhaps?). The general who decided to kill OsCorp’s performance enhancer project (wish they had a catchier name for that) is himself killed. Now that’s got to be irony, right? Or is it just a pun?

Anyway, because this is a Sam Raimi film, we get a flashy transition as the debris turns to flying hats at graduation. Peter is so busy being chatted up by Norman Osborne (who uses the term “commencement” to let us know they’re starting a new story now; this is going to be a long movie) that he doesn’t notice Mary Jane breaking up with Flash Thompson. But Harry notices.

Later, Aunt May tells Peter he was meant for great things. Peter looks at the costume drawings  that inspired his wrestling get-up, and next thing you know, a mysterious figure is foiling robberies all over town, while wearing a familiar-looking costume.

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Scenes of Spider-Man webslinging and grabbing criminals  are intercut with newspaper articles and man-on-the-street interviews, including a brief bit from Lucy Lawless, who starred as Xena: Warrior Princess in the Raimi-produced syndicated TV series.

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In a revealing bit that can only be detected via freeze-frame, the news articles shown on screen repeats bits of text between and even inside the articles, but unlike some films, the text actually does talk about the actual events of the film. Oh, and speaking of newspapers, meet Daily Bugle editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson.

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I love J.K. Simmons in this role. The writing is sharp, and Simmons really sells JJJ’s gruff persona while making him smarter, funnier and more appealing than the cartoonish blowhard he too often was in the comics. Jameson wants a front page picture and offers a reward for it. An off-hand reference by city editor Robbie Robertson to “Eddie” failing to get a picture is an Easter Egg for fans, referring to Eddie Brock, about whom we’ll learn more in Spider-Man 3. Also, just for hte sake of thoroughness, Raimi’s brother Ted plays an assistant editor here as well.

Peter meets Mary Jane in the street by coincidence. She moved to the city to be an actress, but is working as a waitress. She asks Peter not to tell Harry, whom she has been dating for a while now (which comes as a surprise to Peter). Back at the apartment Peter and Harry share, Harry tries to deflect questions about his mystery girlfriend by getting Norman to offer Peter a job. Harry is hoping to look like a benefactor to Peter, but it backfires when Peter refuses, prompting Norman to express his respect and goosing Harry’s jealousy. Peter decides to try selling photos of Spider-Man.

Peter photographs himself in costume foiling a robbery, and we finally see all the elements of the Spider-Man we love–the acrobatic fighting style, the wisecracks, the webs–come together.

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Jonah calls the pictures crap, then runs one on the front page. Peter meets Betty Brant (though she isn’t explicitly introduced as such), played with charm by Elizabeth Banks. She was a major character in the comics, but she’s pretty much wasted here.

Back at OsCorp, Norman gives a glowing progress report to his board of directors, so they fire him, because business executives are naturally evil and stupid or something. Seriously, this scene makes no damn sense, but like the earlier scene introducing Uncle Ben, we’re just supposed to accept the villainy of business-types on faith. Norman vows revenge.

Cut to a festival in Times Square. I don’t really like this scene, mainly because this huge set-piece was never set up earlier. We’re just suddenly in the middle of billboards (the subject of controversy when the movie was released, because Sony apparently digitally replaced the actual billboards in Times Square with virtual ads they sold themselves), big balloons that look cribbed from Tim Burton’s Batman, and a crowd that appears  excited to hear Macy Gray sing. Sorry, I can only suspend disbelief so far.

In the international spirit of the festival, Mary Jane is wearing this really hot red satin Chinese-themed dress, and speaking of the limits of my suspension of disbelief, Harry complains about it. Seriously, Mary Jane as written is not a very interesting character, nor does Kirsten Dunst imbue her with much charm, but she is absolutely a knockout in this dress, and shame on Harry for making her feel bad. And shame on the board of directors for not telling Harry beforehand that, since his father was ousted as CEO, the Osbornes aren’t really welcome at this VIP party. But look out, there’s a crasher.

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I don’t hate this interpretation of the Green Goblin, although I don’t love it, either. I know that movies love to convert silly super-costumes into functional armor, but the very functionality of it makes that grinning helmet look superfluous. Also, the mesh in the mouth that allows you to see Osborne’s actual mouth speaking inside is kind of distracting. The Goblin kills the board of directors with a well-placed pumpkin bomb, leading to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Stan Lee.

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Finally, we get our first real confrontation between hero and villain as Peter arrives to save the day. The Goblin is tough, but Spider-Man’s quick thinking allows him to disable the glider and send the Goblin packing. Spider-Man then saves Mary Jane, and romantic sparks fly, which makes Harry nervous when he hears about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Osborne mansion, Norman is in his study, full of creepy tribal masks and a weird painting of bug-headed people (a neat background detail that creepily illustrates his inner state) when his evil self speaks to him from the mirror. He says that if Spider-Man won’t be turned, then he must be destroyed, except he gets it all backwards for copyright reasons or something. Oh, and Willem Dafoe can really do a creepy Green Goblin grin, which makes me like the helmet even less for covering it up.

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See you next week for the conclusion.

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