Super Movie Monday – Starship Invasions


Yep, for the first time in almost three years, it’s time for another Super Movie Monday! Take a moment to tip your waitress and thank the coronavirus.

And since the entertainment world has been almost entirely taken over by superheroes in the time since I stopped contributing new items to this blog, I figured I would talk about an obscure movie that has been mostly forgotten, and yet, is rather significant in its own way. I got the idea to cover this movie from a YouTube video I watched about movies trying to piggyback on the success of “Star Wars,” including one I’ve talked about here before, “Starcrash.”

This movie was not on their list, but it was, in fact, the first major release I can remember that tried to cash in on the success of “Star Wars.” It was a low-budget Canadian sci-fi film titled “Starship Invasions.”

The film was released in 1977 by Hal Roach Studios, the company behind a long roster of silent and early sound comedies like Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy, though by this time, they had shut down production in Hollywood and sold off the rights to their name and library to a Canadian company. It was written and directed by a guy named Ed Hunt, who has a brief resume on IMDB of mostly low-budget exploitation fare like “The Freudian Thing” and “Corrupted” and for some reason, one episode of the TV series Greatest Heroes of the Bible.

Even the title has a tortured history showing the outsized influence of the year it was released. Originally titled “War of the Aliens,” the title was changed before release to avoid lawsuits from Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. So they changed it to “Alien Encounter,” which they then had to change again because Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was due to release shortly after this film.

The film opens with a farmer in his field, who spots a UFO. One of the interesting things about this film are all the deep cuts of UFO lore it references without calling attention to them. For instance, the UFO bears a very strong resemblance to some classic UFO photographs from the 50’s.

By Paul Trent – https://archive.org/details/TrentHighResScans, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69337780

The UFO lands and a couple of dudes come out in black leotards. They mind-control the farmer and take him onboard their spaceship, where they press a metallic cylinder against his head to reprogram his brain maybe. Oh, and also, they send in a beautiful naked woman to have sex with him.

The farmer describes his experience to the sheriff later, who laughs him off. So he goes to visit a UFO expert played by Robert Vaughn who earnestly tells him, “You not crazy.” Remember that, because it’s significant later.

Next up, we meet the leader of the aliens, played by Christopher Lee.

Get ready for more UFO lore. Lee’s character is named Captain Rameses, which subtly provides a link between the movie’s aliens and the ancient astronauts theories that were so popular in the 1970’s. Adding to the ancient astronauts vibe is the winged serpent insignia the aliens wear, inspired by the 1967 abduction story of Herbert Schirmer, but also a reference to the Mayan deity Quetzalcoatl. The connection between Quetzalcoatl and ancient aliens had recently been explored in an episode of the Star Trek animated series in 1974.

Rameses commands that they now locate a human female. So the UFO stops a car with a family traveling down a deserted highway. They mentally command the humans into the spaceship and conduct an examination of the female, complete with a large needle probe inserted into her navel (a detail inspired by the 1961 abduction story of Betty and Barney Hill). The woman claims that she knows the aliens are going to kill all humans and asks why, but they shut her up with that metal cylinder they used on the farmer. Then the family are left back in their car on the deserted road.

And now we get the big exposition scene. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that the aliens all communicate by telepathy, so all scenes with alien dialogue show a person staring close-mouthed with all the dialogue in voice-over. While this certainly matches a lot of UFO lore, it also has the added advantage of saving money on a sound crew during shooting. It’s unfortunately also deadly dull just staring at someone’s unmoving face for minutes at a time.

Rameses informs his crew that their sun is due to go supernova at virtually any time, so they must conquer Earth to relocate. He’s wearing a wrist gauge that will show when their sun has exploded, which he checks constantly throughout the film just to make sure he conveys the urgency. DNA tests on the farmer’s sperm indicates that the aliens are the descendants of ancient humans who were transplanted to the alien world, which seems like an inversion of most alien lore, which would indicate humans were the ones who were brought here. Anyway, it gives Rameses the chance to say that for the aliens to survive, they must kill their own parents.

Speaking of the farmer, remember when Robert Vaughn said he wasn’t crazy? Well, Vaughn apparently didn’t know about that metal cylinder thingy, because the farmer shoots himself in the head, and immediately after, the kidnapped family is also found dead.

The next step in the plan is to stop interference from the Intergalactic League of Races, so the bad guys fly their ship down into the ocean, where they enter an underwater pyramid base. I don’t think the movie ever states this outright, but for anyone with a passing familiarity with UFO lore of the day, that base could only be located in the Bermuda Triangle. You can tell that the League are the good guys, because their ships are softly rounded, as opposed to the angular look of Rameses’ ship.

Rameses is welcomed into the base, because they don’t know he’s a bad guy apparently. There are robot servants that resemble the aliens from an alleged abduction in 1973 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and the main aliens are the closest thing we get to the classic “grays,” with bald, bulbous heads. And of course, they are all also telepathic.

Rameses is warned not to make contact with Earthlings because of some League treaty, and then he is taken to a “relaxation lounge” that looks like it might be a brothel, because it’s full of hot human women in skimpy outfits. The base scenes themselves look like they might have been filmed in a kids’ science museum or something; the walls are all black with day-glo geometric murals.

Anyway, Rameses hooks up with a prostitute(?) named Gazeth (sounds like she says Gazelle the one time we hear her name). We never see them have sex, but in the next scene, she’s wearing different clothes as she takes him into the aliens’ communications center. Robert Vaughn is on TV talking about the suicidal farmer and claiming his testimony would be accepted as evidence in any court of law. Rameses freaks out a bit at the story and returns to his ship (I guess because he’s afraid the League will realize he’s broken the treaty? It’s never explained). He instructs his hot girl second-in-command (with the incredibly un-hot name of Sag-nac) to sabotage one of the good guy UFO’s.

The UFO leaves and immediately flies past Robert Vaughn’s car, but it makes no contact. It feels like there’s a lot that got left out of the script or cut for time. Like, did they just happen to fly past Robert Vaughn’s car or were they investigating the story from TV? But if so, why didn’t they do anything to, you know, investigate?

Anyway, when the UFO passes, Robert Vaughn and his wife and daughter are on their way to visit friends for a dinner party or something. The husband is a computer programmer with a pipe clamped in his mouth, who greets Vaughn with a true confessions magazine with a cover story titled “Seduced By Aliens.” This is his subtle way of telling Vaughn his UFO obsession is threatening to destroy his career.

Meanwhile, the UFO is buzzing an Air Force facility. The guy flying the UFO has this chubby, smiling Buddha face, which the alien make-up just enhances. As they’re buzzing the place for kicks, knowing that the Air Force has picked them up on radar, the humans launch a surface-to-air missile. The aliens realize a little too late that the hot girl alien sabotaged their force shield, leaving them defenseless, and they are blown out of the sky.

When the aliens realize that there’s something wrong with their recon ship, they send out another patrol. Captain Rameses uses this opportunity to take over the pyramid. He sends his soldiers to kill the technicians while he personally kills all the prostitutes, except Gazeth, the one that helped him. The aliens are armed with ray guns that slip over the ends of their fingers. They’re literally finger-guns, y’all.

While the Air Force (which is now the Army for some reason—maybe it’s different in Canada) investigates the UFO wreckage, they are buzzed by a second UFO. Meanwhile, Gazeth, the surviving prostitute, takes a weapon off a dead alien and begins fighting her way through the base. It’s “Die Hard in an Alien Pyramid,” only John McClane’s a hot chick in a bikini. Except when she sends out her emergency call for help, they don’t send an obese desk jockey to check things out. Oh, and she gets killed by Rameses right after that, so I guess it’s not like “Die Hard” after all.

Rameses sends out hot second-in-command chick to intercept the returning ship. There’s a brief flying saucer chase, then the good guys destroy the bad guys with one shot, which is good because one shot is all they get before their computer shorts out from the stress of firing their laser one time. Aliens: Great at Designing Starship Engines, Shit at Designing Weapons. The aliens decide to hit up Robert Vaughn for help making repairs or something. I don’t remember the plot being this hard to follow when I was 14.

Captain Rameses calls in his fleet of invading alien ships hiding behind the moon and tasks one to orbit the Earth, broadcasting a signal from a souped-up metal cylinder thing which causes people to flip out and start killing each other and themselves. This goofy UFO abduction movie has suddenly turned dark.

Robert Vaughn is at home doing some light reading about cattle mutilations when his wife (played by Helen Shaver) comes in, complaining about his obsession with UFO’s and how it doesn’t seem like he loves her as much as he does the aliens. So he suggests a little adult playtime, but just then the aliens show up and mind-control him into their ship. Next month’s true confessions headline: “Cock-blocked By Aliens!”

Turns out, the aliens don’t actually need him. They really just need a computer expert to help fix their ship. They came to him because he’s the only Earthling they figured would be willing to help, but with their mind-control abilities, I wouldn’t think that would be a problem. Anyway, their next stop is kidnapping Pipe Guy, who it turns out is a computer expert.

The military has a very serious, very ridiculous high-level briefing where they mention that the alien ship has been in orbit for a week. The general stresses the need to keep the wave of suicides secret, otherwise the resulting panic could destroy the human race, which seems like a bit of potaytoh, potahtoh to me. Not sure panic over alien-mind-controlled violence is worse than the actual alien-mind-controlled violence, but I’m not the general. And really, it’s not like this sub-plot goes anywhere.

The good guy alien ship pulls into downtown Toronto, where Robert Vaughn and Pipe Guy pick up the very latest in advanced 1970’s computer technology.

But as they are escaping, they are attacked by one of Rameses ships. There is a brief fight, and the bad guys crash into what is probably not the Nakatomi Building, blowing up the top floors. Hey, this really is “Die Hard.”

Well, if “Die Hard” had an extended sequence of aliens and humans silently repairing computers as the TV plays interviews of witnesses to the UFO abductions. There is a quiet moment where we learn about the aliens having built the Great Pyramid, and that when humanity understands it, we will learn about anti-gravity and morality. Man, this movie just refuses to build up any momentum.

The good guy aliens decide to leave Earth and link up with their own fleet in space, but the temporary computer fix that we just spent so much time on burns out almost instantly, so we get a thrilling sequence of Robert Vaughn staring into an alien viewscreen (which is just a clear slab of plexiglass), “remembering” the masses of the planets in the solar system, while Pipe Guy uses his pocket calculator to do the math necessary to navigate past them. A couple of bad guy saucers are chasing them, but that never really comes into play.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Robert Vaughn’s wife forces their daughter to go out grocery shopping with her and immediately regrets it when they keep passing dead bodies on the way. While they’re in the store, the daughter is possessed by the alien weapon and… stomps a tomato, making a mess in the store. The store owner is upset by the mess, but is distracted by a woman in another aisle who killed herself with a big knife she brought with her to the store for some reason. It’s Canada, who knows how grocery stores work there? Maybe they make you butcher your own meat or something.

Back to the Space Chase, where Pipe Guy has a heart attack from his strenuous calculating, so the aliens put a little pyramid on his forehead and use some sort of first aid gun to heal him. For a moment, it looks as if there might be some tension as the enemy ships draw closer. But no, turns out the fleet is right there, just beyond Saturn, so the bad guys run away to join their own fleet back at Earth.

Captain Ramses gets in a ship to lead his fleet against the League, setting up our big battle in space finale.

There’s funny bit where a long line of saucers curves through space toward us, and it’s obvious that they’ve just repeated the same two ships over and over, because there’s a glitch in the flight path that happens at the exact same place every time. It’s like there’s a speed bump in space.

The battle doesn’t go well for the good guys. Captain Rameses is using the computer at the base to calculate superior firing probabilities or coordinated flight patterns or something. Bad guys are winning, is the point, now that Pipe Guy can no longer bring the power of Texas Instruments to bear.

Robert Vaughn’s daughter is watching news reports about the rash of suicides, but instead of making her turn it off, Mom sneaks into the kitchen to slice some tomatoes and her wrists.

The good guy aliens are in a bad spot, but then, one of their robots in the base turns out to be only mostly dead. He repairs himself and walks up to the base control room to kill the bad guy there. Then he causes the suicide weapon ship to self-destruct and begins programming the bad guy ships to crash into each other.

A word about the special effects: they’re pretty good by the standards of most science-fiction films released before 1977, which means that the film came out about 6 months too late to look anything but wretched next to “Star Wars,” which really redefined movie special effects. When the good guy ships are being zapped by lasers, they just disappear in little blobs of light. But once the bad guy ships start crashing into one another, there’s some impressive-looking pyro. I’m wondering if they got some extra money to spice up the effects after “Star Wars” came out, because the contrast is striking.

Finally, there’s just Ramses’ ship left, but when he sees that his supernova watch is at Explode O’Clock, he realizes he’s too late. He deliberately crashes his ship into the moon and dies. The good guys get Robert Vaughn back to Earth just in time to heal his wife with the first-aid gun. Pipe Guy and his wife share some very awkward kisses, because let’s face it, Pipe Guy is a schlub and his wife is way out of his league. The aliens fly away without a word of thanks or warning, and everybody’s happy. The end.

As I said before, “Starship Invasions” was the first film I know of to try to cash in on the monster success of “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” came out in May of 1977, followed by “Starship Invasions” in October, followed the next month by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

It followed on the heels of “Star Wars” so closely that I figure that the movie was already in production before “Star Wars” came out, and I’m wondering if some of the space battle stuff was hastily added in just to make it look more like “Star Wars.” There is certainly a weird disconnect between the flying saucers flitting around to the beeping and booping of the synthesized soundtrack and the sub-plot of a wave of urban violence and suicides that seems more influenced by David Cronenberg than George Lucas. And then there’s all the weird sexual stuff, the alien probing and the room full of maybe-prostitutes that would look more at home in “Logan’s Run” than “Star Wars.”

It all adds up to a strange movie that doesn’t quite hold up, but actually plays a little better now that it’s out from under the looming shadow of “Star Wars” which was all anybody could think of when the movie first came out.

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New Video: DC’s First Dark Age

Not the best video I’ve done, but a lot of work went into it, and it covers a subject I’ve wanted to visit for a long time: that period between 1968 and 1973 when DC went socially conscious and decided to de-super several of their heroes. Enjoy DC’s First Dark Age.

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New Video: Pet Peeves

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve updated anything here, but I thought I might as well drop a note that there is a new video up on my youtube channel, a discussion of two pet peeves of mine concerning Professor X of the X-Men and Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. Hope you enjoy it.

I’m currently working on an idea I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time about DC Comics in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, titled “DC’s First Dark Age.” Look for it probably early next month.

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New Video: Batman/Joker: Same Guy?

I have completely let this blog fall to the wayside, but I keep it open as a repository for my old articles and novel chapters. However, I have a new video up which talks about my theory that Batman and the Joker were inspired by the same fictional character.

It’s an expanded and improved version of something I discussed on this blog way back in 2011 in my discussion of the 1926 silent film, The Bat. Wow, I hadn’t realized how long I’ve had this blog.

Anyway, although the point of the piece is to claim the two characters might share a common inspiration, the real headline here is the evidence I show concerning one inspiration for the Joker. It’s something I’ve never seen anyone else mention, although surely I’m not the only person who noticed the parallels.

Maybe no one talks about it because there’s no way to confirm it with the actual creators, since they’re all dead. But I think the similarities are too overwhelming to be purely coincidental. Watch the video. I’ll show you evidence, and you decide.

And if you like it, please share it with a friend. More than any of my other videos, I really want this one to be seen.

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New Video Up on YouTube: Wizards of New York

So I have a new video up on YouTube titled Wizards of New York, about that OTHER SF/F movie released by 20th Century Fox in 1977 and how it was influenced by the city where it was made. There’s a section that features a retrospective about depictions of New York in the mid- to late-1970’s that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and I think it turned out pretty well. I apologize for the wind noise during the live shots. I did my best to filter some of it out, but it was just too strong.

Also, I have started a Patreon to help with the making of the videos. I think I do pretty well for having a budget of essentially zero, but with a little extra income, I could do much better, I think.

You can look at my Patreon page and throw in your support here.

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Super Movie Monday: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Part 3

Here it is, the final chapter of our recap of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, just in time for the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming this Friday. Going into this final chapter, I want to repeat that I don’t reject the entire Andrew Garfield reboot out of hand. I think they did some interesting things with the character and the franchise this time around, but as far as the sequel goes, yeah, it’s really bad, and it’s the kind of bad that just gets worse the more times you watch it.

When we left off, Peter Parker had just discovered his father’s secret genetics lab hidden in FDR’s secret subway station and found out just how deep the corruption in Oscorp went.

Meanwhile, Harry Osborn, on a quest to get his father’s company back, somehow talks his way into Ravencroft, sneaks into the unit where Max is being held prisoner and pleads with him to help Harry regain control of his company and kill Spider-Man in exchange for his freedom. Guards arrive and drag Harry out, but not before Harry zaps Max with just enough electricity to enable him to disintegrate. Oops.

But then all the guards get zapped to death and Electro reforms like Dr. Manhattan.

Electro agrees to help Harry catch Spider-Man.

As Peter is leaving the subway, he gets a voicemail from Gwen. She got into Oxford, and she’s on the way to the airport right at that moment. Heartbreak!

Meanwhile, Harry and Electro show up back at Oscorp, and Electro is now wearing a special custom-made jumpsuit with lightning bolts on it.

No idea where he got it, especially since it seems like they came straight here from Ravencroft. But I guess cool trumps making a lick of fucking sense.

Harry heads down to Special Projects with the Head Douche, where he gets himself injected with spider venom (there’s also a brief glimpse of a set of Doctor Octopus-style metal tentacles). The spider venom causes a painful transformation, but Harry manages to get himself into a special metal battlesuit that includes a healing function, so he’s fine now, I guess.

Gwen is stuck in traffic when the cabbie spots Spider-Man and Gwen sees that he has spelled out “I LOVE YOU” in webbing on a neighboring bridge.

Um, Peter, you might not have gotten the memo, but Oscorp destroyed all the spiders. You might want to ration that webbing, is all I’m saying.

So Peter offers to go to England with Gwen because he loves her so much, and they share a romantic kiss at sunset, when the entire city goes black. Max is absorbing all the power from the grid. Somebody’s got to do something about that.

Gwen helps Peter magnetize his webshooters to protect them from electricity or something, then he webs her to a car and goes off to fight Electro. There’s a scene where Electro is teleporting from place to place as a lightning bolt that feels a lot like that “ride the lightning” scene in Ang Lee’s Hulk, while at the same time, the music sounds a lot like Escape from New York.

Spidey follows Electro to a power station where he tries that water trick again, but it doesn’t work this time. They fight, and though he fights valiantly, eventually Spider-Man is helpless against Electro’s power. Until Gwen hits Electro with a cop car she’s stolen.

So they make a plan for Gwen to bring the electrical grid back up so that the excess power will blow Electro up, which, I thought he had been absorbing the power all this time, but maybe not? Anyway, there’s lots of leaping and dodging and speed-ramping, and then Electro explodes and everybody’s happy.

Until Harry shows up as the Green Goblin and spoils everything.

They don’t even try to put Harry in the classic Goblin mask. Instead, Harry’s medical condition and the spider-venom “cure” have combined to make his skin green and his teeth pointed. It’s not a bad look, but it seems weirdly late in the game to introduce a new villain. Until he showed up at this moment, it really felt like they were setting Harry up for the sequel. But suddenly, here he is, all villained up for the second climax.

Seeing Spider-Man with Gwen, Harry realizes that Spidey is Peter. So to take revenge for Peter refusing to help him, Harry decides to kill Gwen. There’s a big fight in a clock tower that ends up with the Goblin knocked out, Gwen falling and Spider-Man catching her with his webs, just a moment too late.

Gwen hits the ground hard, stopping the clock at 1:21 (the comic book where Gwen died was Amazing Spider-Man issue #121). She doesn’t even get to wake up and have a dramatic death speech like Harry did in Spider-Man 3. Andrew Garfield really nails Peter’s panic and grief in this scene, but it’s all so suddenly arbitrary after the second climax, it feels almost like an afterthought.

Peter is so devastated by Gwen’s loss that he stays by her graveside for literally a year (to judge by the changing seasons in the graveyard montage, although the film later says it’s only five months). And at Ravencroft, where he is now an inmate, Harry gets a mysterious visitor. There’s a plan afoot to use the stuff in Oscorp’s Special Projects to do, I don’t know, something bad now that Spider-Man has disappeared. We see the Doc Ock tentacles again, along with Vulture wings and a Rhino exo-skeleton. They decide that their first member of the team will be the Russian plutonium hijacker from way back at the beginning.

Aunt May tries to give Peter a pep talk about putting things aside when their time is past. Peter cleans up the stuff left over from his dad, and finds a thumb drive labeled “Gwen’s Speech.” He watches the graduation speech he missed, where Gwen talks about maintaining hope through hard times.

So when the Rhino rampages through Manhattan, opposed by a little kid in a Spider-Man costume (someone Spidey earlier saved from bullies), the real Spider-Man shows up finally to fight once again.

Credits.

So overall, it’s a movie with a couple of good qualities, but several major problems. The pacing is sometimes slack in the scenes with Garfield and Stone, while the editing of the action sequences can be frantic and confusing. There is the entire issue of Peter’s father, which not only unnecessarily retcons parts of the first film, but contains major story logic issues.

But I think the film’s biggest problems are with the villains. Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn has this dank, sweaty vibe that makes him off-putting, yes, but it’s hard to buy him as the major villain behind the villain. He’s icky, but not scary, until the moment when he suddenly has complete mastery of his strength and armored technology within minutes of being introduced to it.

Jamie Foxx is better as Electro, except for the fact that, as others have noted, his starstruck-loser-whose-technology-is-stolen-by-evil-corporation-then-turns-evil-after-an-accident-with-that-same-tech schtick is essentially the same as Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever, which is not a movie anyone would want to draw comparisons with. He has nothing in common with the original comics’ Electro–who was basically just a common thug who could shoot electricity–but that kind of villain would be too slight to carry a feature anyway. However, it’s hard to square the sweaty loser he starts out as with the growling, ultra-powerful Dr. Manhattan wanna-be he becomes.

Often in the case of films that are almost universally despised, I kind of cut against the grain in finding much to like, but not in this case. It’s certainly not a Superman IV: The Quest For Peace type of disaster, but it is a movie that fails on most every level, so no, really not recommended.

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Super Movie Monday: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Part 2

Continuing with the second part of our look at the second movie of the second iteration of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise. One problem that sequels have is what to do with the first act. In a normal story, the first act is all about scene-setting: here’s the world, here’s the time period, here’s the hero and the villain and what they each want and why they’re in conflict (though it’s true that the villain’s true identity or motives are often held back for mystery or suspense, we usually get something: “He calls himself The Phantom and he’s been stealing common coal, though we don’t know why”). We spend some time getting to know everyone and learning the rules and the stakes.

People forget that it’s almost 30 minutes into Die Hard, for instance, before the first shot is fired. We spend a lot of time getting to know John McClane and the dismal state of his marriage and learning the geography of the Nakatomi Building before we ever see a single terrorist.

But in a sequel, we often know a lot of that stuff already, so sequels are presented with the problem of what to do in that first act. It’s tempting to think that, with the problems of introductions already finished, you can just jump straight into the action in the sequel, except that presents several problems. What about people who didn’t see the previous film? What crucial facts might people have in the interim that they might need to be reminded of? How have things changed in the interim between the first and second story? If not handled correctly, the first act of a sequel might feel as if its rushing ahead too quickly, leaving its audience behind, or conversely, that it’s spending a lot of time throat-clearing while waiting for something interesting to happen.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 manages to have both of these problems, throwing lots of complications into what should have been a fun opening action scene and then spinning its wheels for a long time after, introducing its new villains and manufacturing new problems for Peter Parker’s personal life.

We were left last time with Peter agonizing over his break-up with Gwen, Harry Osborn dealing with his father’s death and the revelation that he has inherited his father’s fatal medical condition, and electrical engineer Max Dillon having a workplace accident, falling into a vat of electric eels that then shock him to death.

So Harry Osborn is having a come-to-Jesus meeting with his board of directors over his inheriting the company, and taking his father’s pretty female assistant Felicia as his own (and I’m guessing she’s supposed to be Felicia Hardy, also known as the Black Cat in the comics, aka Sequel Bait). A servant comes in and says that Peter Parker is there to see Harry.

There’s this really awkward scene where Peter meets Harry for the first time in what we learn is eight years, It’s not just strange because we never heard about their friendship in all the Oscorp-related doings of the first film, but because of the inconvenient timing. Harry just inherited this huge fortune and out of nowhere, here comes an “old friend” to make sure he’s all right. But after some initial hesitancy, Harry opens up to Peter and they go out walking around the city to catch up, watched by nefarious agents of Oscorp.

Meanwhile, Max’s body is lying in a morgue someplace, when he comes back to life, glowing from within. Lights overload, electrical appliances turn on in his presence, and he is able to zap away a saw that would have dropped on him.

Peter gets a call from Gwen and goes to meet her, and instead of the angsty stuff of their last break-up meeting, they’re all flirty and funny again, at least until Peter reveals that he’s been stalking Gwen and Gwen tells him that she might be moving to England for a scholarship. I like the chemistry between Garfield and Stone here, but I don’t like the scene much. There’s a whole “ground rules for being just friends” bit that goes on way too long, and the whole “Going to England” thing feels weird.

Meanwhile, Max is stumbling through the streets making car alarms go off by his mere presence. He absorbs the power from a car battery and is drawn to Times Square, full of lights. He opens a grate in the street and begins to draw power from the electrical cables there, gaining the attention of the police and triggering Peter’s Spidey-sense.

So the cops arrive AMAZINGLY quickly, and we finally get our first really good look at Max’s transformation.

It’s an impressive effect, but I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be. He was zapped by eels, but he looks like a jellyfish maybe, so… I don’t know. It’s kind of cool, I guess, but I’m not sure what they were going for here.

The cops aim weapons and shout a bunch of orders, so Max gets pissed off and blasts the cars away from him. One cop looks done for, but suddenly, Spider-Man appears and catches the car, which may be a callback to the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #306, which was itself an homage to Action Comics #1.

Spider-Man tries to talk Max down, and Max keeps saying it’s his birthday (because this is all still the same day? It felt like Max was in the morgue for a while, but he may not know that), but a police sniper decides to screw with that plan, which causes Max to lash out. There’s a fight which is weirdly unbalanced, combining some action almost too fast to perceive with a drawn-out bullet-timey spider-sense moment that takes way too long to play out.

Spider-Man ends up using a firehose to short out Max’s powers, but not before Max manages to destroy a lot of Times Square. Funny that water would be his undoing, since he got his powers from electric eels and looks like a jellyfish, but what do I know?

So Peter goes home and to distract himself from thinking about Gwen going to England, he starts investigating the stuff from his father’s briefcase again. I would have thought that he already investigated it pretty thoroughly in the first film, but somehow there’s now suddenly a new set of clues that jump out at him, in the form of a note about “Roosevelt” and a subway token. He makes one of those big investigation collages on his wall, but doesn’t receive any new insights.

Unlike Harry Osborn, who accidentally drops a plastic cube his father gave him onto his desk, activating a surface computer. At Oscorp, they have seen the future, and it is a big-ass table.

Several Easter eggs in the listings here, including shout-outs to Ravencroft, Venom, and Morbius. Harry checks out some of the files and sees a video of Norman Osborn and Richard Parker, talking about how special hybrid spider-blood might be able to cure diseases. So Harry calls Peter, who has been spending all night trying to figure out how to use his webbing to absorb electricity or something. It involved a lot of zapping, anyway.

Harry has figured out that Spider-Man got his powers from the special hybrid spiders his company bred, so he asks Peter to tell him how to find Spider-Man so he can get a blood transfusion to cure his disease. Peter says he’ll “try.”

Meanwhile, Gwen is getting into trouble because she searches for Max on the company computers (and they have seriously the shittiest search algorithm ever). Gwen flees security and ends up running into Peter. They hide in a security closet and make out while discussing about three different topics simultaneously. Then Peter distracts security while Gwen escapes in the elevator, only to run into Harry, who emphasizes to Gwen that she needs to help Peter make the right decisions.

At Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane, a crazy doctor named Kafka tortures and interrogates Max, who names himself Electro.

Peter comes home to find that Aunt May has discovered his wall of crazy. Peter asks her what she’s hiding from him about his father, and Sally Field gets a nice moment where she gets angry that Peter is so concerned about the father who was never there for him when she is the one who has raised him all these years. It’s not as good as the scene in the first film where Peter expresses his own hidden rage, but it’s the same type of thing.

Peter visits Harry as Spider-Man to tell him he won’t give his blood because of possible side-effects or something, then interrupts Gwen as she’s arriving for her Oxford interview to give a rambling speech about how everything is messed up. It feels like Garfield and Stone do a lot of improvising in their scenes together, which makes for some cute chemistry, but also means they meander a lot.

Frustrated, Peter goes home and rips down his wall of crazy and smashes his father’s scientific calculator, revealing lots more subway tokens. So he researches “subway” and “Roosevelt” and discovers that there was a secret subway station built for FDR (which was apparently a real thing).

At Oscorp, Harry talks to Felicia and mentions the spiders all being destroyed, apparently in response to lawsuits following the Lizard’s attack in the first film. So that means no more biocable? What will Spidey do when he runs out of webs? Harry learns of something called “Special Projects” and sees video of the torture of Max Dillon. Then like Gwen, his user access is revoked and the slimiest board member comes in to tell him he’s being forced out of the company due to falsified evidence of misdeeds.

Peter explores the subway and finds the hidden Roosevelt station. He uses one of the special tokens on a turnstile, and suddenly, the track opens up, and a special subway train rises from the ground with a super-secret genetics lab inside.

No.

No.

Even if you grant that the station–no.

Simply no.

I mean, I can sort of see how–but no.

How the hell was Richard Parker supposed to have built all this? The answer is “no.”

Peter watches the”I’m a monster” video we saw being recorded way back at the beginning, an hour-and-a-half ago (among this movie’s many sins is that it’s way too damned long), where he says how much he loves his son, but he has to keep his work from being misused by Oscorp, and it’s supposed to be a cathartic moment, but this subway bullshit has just body-slammed my suspension of disbelief like the Undertaker doing a Tombstone Piledriver, so fuck you, movie. Go back to blowing things up, please.

Which is what it will do in a big way (but not necessarily a good way) in the final part of our recap, coming next week.

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Super Movie Monday: Amazing Spider-Man 2

So yeah, I am way behind the curve on getting back to the blog, because I’ve spent six months trying to figure out what I want to do for my next big project, and guess what? Still not there yet. But I’ve had this sitting around for a few months waiting for the time I was ready to start up again, and I figured, what the hell? Let’s finish off the Spider-Man stuff before Spider-Man: Homecoming comes out.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in 2014, two years after Sony rebooted the Spider-Man series with Amazing Spider-Man. Marc Webb returned to direct, with Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner providing the screenplay this time. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone also returned as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. There seems to be a general consensus that Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the worst of the Spider-Man films, even worse than Spider-Man 3. So let’s see what I think upon re-viewing.

The film opens with gears in a watch. Not sure why that’s relevant right now, but we see Peter’s dad deleting files from a computer, killing a bunch of spiders in glass jars, and being trapped in the lab when his card doesn’t work. So he puts on his coat and leaves by a different way (which means that maybe he wasn’t trying to get out before, but if the film can’t tell the story clearly in the FIRST MINUTE, we may have a problem).

Next, we see him recording a video message about how he might be regarded as a monster in the future or whatever, when he is interrupted by Peter calling from upstairs, which takes us back to the opening of the first film, where he walks into his home office and finds it ransacked. Except that if you remember the other end of this story from the previous film, Peter and his dad were playing hide-and-seek. So Dad’s in the middle of a rainy afternoon game of hide-and-seek with his son and figures, “What the hell? I’ve got a few minutes. Why not record a video about what a monster I am?” Am I getting this right?

Mom and Dad drop Peter off with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, then we see them on a private jet, where Richard is uploading the files from his laptop to someone called “Roosevelt,” and hey, Richard Parker’s using a Sony Vaio (thanks for the synergy, Sony Pictures). There’s a bit of violent business with a flight attendant who’s actually a hitman, which ends with everybody dead and the plane crashing, but the files got uploaded, thank goodness (I guess).

Cut to present day, where Spider-Man appears to be skydiving, but is apparently just doing his normal webslinging with a bit of poetic license thrown in. We hear a radio transmission that plutonium has been stolen, so Spidey swings into action. There’s a gigantic tow truck pulling an armored car with about a million cop cars in pursuit.

Spidey jokes around with the driver, a crazy Russian played by Paul Giamatti, when he sees a pedestrian in danger. So before stopping the Russian, Spidey saves Max (Jamie Foxx) from being run over, and when Max protests that he is a nobody, Spidey gives him a harmless little pep talk. “You’re not a nobody. You’re a somebody!”

Thus are the seeds of a Shakespearean tragedy planted.

So there’s a lot of crashing, and some comedic business with Spidey trying to catch a bunch of bouncing plutonium vials, and it’s funny, but also happening so quickly, with so much else going on, that the joke doesn’t really land the way it should, and then he’s hit by a truck and has to take a phone call from Gwen who sez oh by the way, he’s late to graduation, lol, AND he’s being haunted by the ghost of Captain Stacy and oh my god I’m tired of this movie already. Seriously, take a breath, movie.

So Spidey stops the truck and catches the bad guy (and leaves him webbed up with his pants pulled down, because he’s wacky like that) and let me get one compliment out of the way early on by saying that this is probably the most perfect Spider-Man costume (in terms of being true to the comics) to appear on film yet.

Meanwhile, at the graduation, they’re getting close to announcing Peter’s name, and both Aunt May and this guy are getting nervous.

After the first film’s brilliant Stan Lee cameo, this one is kind of a let-down.

So after graduation, Peter’s supposed to meet with Gwen’s family, but he’s feeling such guilt over his promise to Captain Stacy that he can’t bear to go in. So he and Gwen have an angsty argument about Peter being unable to bear Gwen getting hurt because of him, and my God, with that yellow trenchcoat, she looks so much like classic comic book Gwen that it hurts.

Oh, and she breaks up with him, with a little nod to the Seinfeld Pez Dispenser episode. “I break up with you.”

Spidey montage! Peter throwing himself whole-heartedly into web-slinging now that there are no more icky girls in the way, as we hear radio commentary about whether Spider-Man is a hero or menace. And who should be one of the callers but our old friend Max, who says that Spider-Man is now one of his best friends. Could that be true?

Or could Max be a little bit crazy? We see that Max has built a crazy-ass shrine to Spider-Man in his apartment, where he pretends to have conversations with him (doing both voices, of course).

And hey, it’s Max’s birthday! He’s just getting ready to light the candles on the little cake that Spider-Man didn’t bake for him when the power goes out. Look, Max, the whole city is celebrating, waiting for you to light those candles!

Max heads to work, where he is an electrical engineer working on the new Oscorp power grid (which he claims to have designed and which Oscorp apparently stole from him). And he has violent fantasies. And he meets Gwen, so of course, that’s bound to be a thing.

And while we’re waiting for it to become a thing, let’s meet Harry Osborn, son of Norman. Harry comes home to visit his father’s deathbed.

If you remember from the first film, Curt Connors’s research was intended to find a cure for Norman Osborn’s unspecified illness (it is here retroactively given a name, “retroviral hyperplasia”). Now with that research gone bust, Osborn is dying. And so is Harry. It’s genetic, you see, and it seems to not only be killing Osborn, but to have turned his skin slightly green and given him claws. This isn’t “foreshadowing,” it’s more like “fore-brick-to-the-head-ing.”

Time for some quick plotty things. Peter sees a news report about Norman Osborn dying and Harry having returned to inherit the empire, and hey, Peter knows that guy! Funny he never mentioned being Harry’s former best friend in all the Oscorp related goings-on last movie. Gwen gets a call from an Oxford scholarship program, and Max is told to work late on his birthday, because there’s a problem with the new electrical grid that Oscorp has installed (apparently related to that blackout in his apartment earlier).

So Max goes to the electrical lab, where we learn that the new grid is not fueled by coal or natural gas, not by wind or solar or nuclear fission or fusion, but by vats of huge electric eels. Oh, what the HELL, movie?

Max finds a sparking cable that has come loose, stands on a handrail in a patently unsafe, non-OSHA-approved manner, connects the cable without shutting down the power first, which of course shocks him (this is the brilliant electrical engineer who designed the whole thing, remember, and not some random janitor) and knocks him into a vat of eels, which attack him with more electrical shocks until the entire thing explodes. And all the while, he’s been singing “Happy Birthday,” because symbolism.

This can’t be good.

And that’s where I’m going to stop for now. Part 2 next week.

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Superman vs. the Underpants Gnomes

You hear a fair share of knocks against Superman as a character nowadays—that he’s boring because he’s too powerful or because he’s a Boy Scout without meaningful character flaws, that his movies aren’t as good as Batman’s or as the Marvel ones. But my personal pet peeve, the thing that gets my goat, the recurring criticism made by people who have no idea what they’re talking about, is that Superman wears his underwear on the outside.

It’s not just that it’s lame and unoriginal, a decades-old standby of mediocre stand-up comedians everywhere. It’s that it’s so patently wrong, which would be obvious to anyone who gave it five minutes of thought instead of mindlessly parroting the snark.

There are lots of articles referring to Superman’s “underwear” on-line, moreso in recent years as DC has gone through multiple redesigns of the costume in order to lose the much-ridiculed “underpants.” Some articles defending the trunks do so from a design perspective. Many others will give a half-hearted nod to the costume’s original inspiration from circus strongmen, obvious not only from the trunks but also from the original design of Superman’s footwear as gladiator-style sandals rather than boots.



But those same articles still continue to refer to the trunks as “underwear” when they are clearly not, any more than any other athletic short.

Maybe it can be put into more perspective by talking about another act that used to travel with carnivals back in the 19th and early parts of the 20th Centuries: professional wrestling. Here’s early professional wrestler Frank Gotch.

Look at these wrestlers from the Tim Burton film Ed Wood and you’ll see clearly the uniform I’m talking about:


Trunks over tights, and clearly athletic wear, not underwear. When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I wore the same type of trunks/tights combo in my junior wrestling league (I was terrible, BTW).

And the weird thing is, only Superman gets this particular complaint. Batman, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men: all shared the same design element in their original costumes, but only Superman gets grief for it.

And if it’s just the fact that the pants are short that prompts the remark, well, then we have to dismiss a huge percentage of athletic endeavors.


These guys ? Running around in their underwear.

These guys, too.

Mike Tyson? Underwear model with a bad temper.

The NBA? A bunch of guys running back and forth in boxers and wifebeaters.


I mean, sure, there are some people who dismiss sports completely. There are plenty of nerds and hipsters who think such pursuits are below them and wear their ignorance as a badge of pride.

But if you think being ignorant of something you don’t like somehow makes you appear smarter, you’re wrong. And being kind of a douche.

Which brings me finally to the point of this essay. Thinking that Superman’s outfit is is dated and needs changing is a valid opinion. But thinking that it’s stupid without understanding why it is the way it is, or worse, merely echoing the idea that it’s stupid without thinking it through for yourself, that’s less valid.

Superman’s outfit has a history, a lineage that connects it to the time and place where it was conceived, and history is important. If you care about Superman, then knowing that history can only help enrich your appreciation of the character. If you don’t care about Superman, then you don’t need to know the history. But mocking things you don’t understand–especially when you’re just lazily parroting decades-old jokes like you just thought of them–doesn’t help anybody, least of all you.

Which is why I’m thinking of starting a Patreon that will explore the intersection of popular culture with history, especially fantasy, science fiction and superheroes, relating the works to the historical circumstances that shaped them.

And I’m not talking about dry names-and-dates stuff. I’m talking about topics like “Why didn’t Robin’s original costume have anything to do with birds?” or “How were Batman and the Joker inspired by the same character?”. History related through what I hope will be interesting topics—topics you’ve rarely (or maybe never) seen addressed before, at least like this—never losing sight of the fact that these characters were created by real people like you and me at a specific place and time, with their own unique experiences and concerns.

 

If you want to know more about the approach I plan to take, check out this video I did on Youtube last year.

I’m putting together a new video now that should make the approach even more obvious. Leave me a comment if this interests you enough to throw some money at it. I don’t need much. My lifestyle is pretty simple right now.

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Scary Movie Monday – Cloverfield

ScaryMovieMonday

cloverfieldtitle

No theme to the Halloween coverage this year. I’ll be lucky just to get through it. Also, there won’t be many screencaps in this one, because the shaky-cam nature of the film makes good frames really hard to come by.

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made a ton of money with a super-low-budget film they’d made titled The Blair Witch Project. It made so much money thanks to two gimmicks that worked in synergy to propel audience interest.

  1. They used the concept of “found footage,” using a gimmick from horror stories dating back to “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe, making it seem as if the story had really happened.
  2. They created a promotional campaign centered on a website that described the backstory of the movie, again as if it had really happened. It was one of the first really successful viral marketing campaigns and built huge, fervent anticipation for the film.

Audience reactions on seeing the final film were decidedly mixed, some saying it was an exercise in absolute terror, others saying it was a mediocre low-budget indie in which nothing much happened with the added gimmick of inducing motion sickness in the audience.

Whether people loved or hated it, one thing was indisputable: it made a ton of profit, therefore guaranteeing that other films would follow in its wake. One of those attempts to imitate the Blair Witch formula was Cloverfield, a 2008 film that took the basic elements of the earlier film’s success–found footage technique combined with viral internet marketing–and combined them with a HUGE budget, incredible production values, and state-of-the-art visual effects. And motion sickness.

Directed by Matt Reeves from a script by Drew Goddard and produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot, Cloverfield begins at a going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who has landed a job in Japan. The found footage gimmick in this case is that one of the partygoers, Hud (T.J. Miller), has been tasked with “documenting the night”  and recording people’s good luck wishes to Rob. One brilliant bit of scripting here is that Hud is not too bright, so when he is tasked with documenting the night, he takes it really seriously and keeps recording things long after the party has been forgotten.

The important things to note here are that Rob is having girl problems–he has recently slept with best friend Beth (Odette Yustman), then broke things off because he didn’t want to deal with a long-distance relationship while he was in Japan–and Hud has a huge crush on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who barely acknowledges his existence. And things are tense between Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) who organized the party.

But in the middle of all the celebration and break-up drama, there’s an earthquake… or something. Everyone rushes to the roof to see something explode out toward the ocean. They run panicked down to the street, where Hud films something huge moving in the distance. Something flies at them and smashes to a stop in the street.

It’s the mangled head of the Statue of Liberty.

cloverfieldphone

One of the most brilliant moments in the film right here, as the jaded New Yorkers immediately forget the terror and danger just long enough to mill around the head and take pictures with their phones.

Rob, Hud, Marlena, Jason, and Lily decide to get out of Manhattan immediately, and of course, many things go wrong, not least among them when Beth calls Rob to say that she’s trapped in her apartment and begs him to come save her. Of course, along the way, our heroes die one by one and in the process manage to have several close encounters with the kaiju that’s terrorizing Manhattan.

cloverfieldmonster

Between the shaky cam and the smoke and debris, we never see the creature quite as clearly as we’d like, but it is huge and alien and terrifying.

One interesting bit is that we never get any explanation of what the creature is. The viral marketing campaign hinted at a connection between the creature and Slusho!, a popular drink made from a secret ingredient called Seabed’s Nectar, which is obliquely referenced in the film when Hud mentions that the creature may have risen from deep beneath the sea. The Slusho! material also references a satellite falling from orbit (which can be briefly glimpsed in a flashback shot at the end of the film), and someone briefly mentions that the creature may come from space.

And of course, the most disgusting bit is the fact that every time the monster appears, people mention slime that seems to have come off it, which doesn’t mean much by itself, except that the viral material makes it seem apparent that the creature’s first appearance was to destroy an oil rig run by Slusho’s parent company, Tagruato. The wreckage of the oil rig was covered by oil and Seabed’s Nectar. In other words, that secret drink ingredient may have been slime they were harvesting off the creature itself as it slumbered under the ocean.

But none of this is in the movie itself. The movie quite admirably, but also frustratingly, sticks to the limited perspectives of its somewhat shallow and not very bright characters as they try to save Beth then escape intact. Of course, the fact that the footage is identified in the very beginning as having been found in the area formerly known as Central Park lets you know that things aren’t going to go well for our heroes. The movie is pretty ruthless in dispatching characters one by one, although there are some moments that make oyu roll your eyes.

There are also some bits that strain suspension of disbelief and might drop you out of the movie momentarily, like the way Hud is able to use the light on the camera for apparently hours of hiking through subway tunnels without running down the battery, or the fact that the footage is identified in the beginning as having come off a SD memory card, when the movie itself keeps referring to (and acting like) a video tape.

And of course, although the filmmakers apparently used a special kind of camera rig to minimize the shaking and keep the experience viewable, I still got a monster headache from watching this movie in the theater.

Still, I do recommend the movie if you’re a fan of giant monster movies, but to get the entire experience, you should also visit the tie-in websites which are surprisingly still active.

Tagruato Corp.

Slusho!

Now I want to hunt down 10 Cloverfield Lane and see what it’s about.

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