Summer Classes – The Final: Firefly and “Serenity”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we finish “Firefly” and check out the feature film finale, “Serenity.”

The fans were wrong. FOX was right. Even as a fan of the show, we don’t need more episodes of “Firefly.”

We need a sequel to “Serenity.”

I guess I should probably justify this. After running through the entire series in about 10 days, I was a little underwhelmed by the series’ final few episodes. “Heart of Gold” was the kind of episode that technically worked but isn’t anything overly memorable. It explores the relationship between Inara and Mal in a way that is both trite and overemotional and it goes back to the tradition of Mal just being a goofy killer. “Objects in Space” is a considerably better episode and one that shows a little of what Whedon clearly wanted to explore in the future of the show.

Serenity,” on the other hand, is a whole different piece of work. It manages to have all the style, scope and characterization that Whedon struggled to give his characters in the show and masterfully colors the crew with shades of morality and wonderful care. Even the show’s trademark style, a fusion of anime, spaghetti westerns and space opera, is handled considerably better and helps to create a more full and complete vision of the universe. Its certainly among the better, more complete sci-fi action films.

Its enough to make one wish it could be a standalone film and its obvious that Whedon made some concessions to try to pull in new viewers. The opening is a twisting and well done introduction to the universe and the war between the Alliance and the Independents, all while showing how River and Simon escaped from the Academy. The opening, with its dream, that twists into a torture session, that becomes the escape, that becomes a security footage being studied by The Operative is a fantastic way to set up the Universe’s backstory as well as make it engaging and exciting.

Its even clear that Whedon is hitting the tone that he wanted to in the show. Mal is a brutal, take no prisoners leader. He’s determined to believe that he would do anything to survive and save his crew but he’s proven again and again by The Operative, that he’s still a man, maybe not a man that’s willing to cruelly take a life. That being said, he’s never appeared scarier and more unhinged. He kicks a fleeing kid off of the hover craft, shoots the unarmed Operative in the chest and draws a brutal line in the sand as he attempts to bring the Serenity to Miranda. Whedon draws his star character as the Han Solo who shot first, a brutal and unforgiving guy who thinks he’s got all the answers.

Despite a plot that focuses mostly on River, Mal does remain the star, which lets Whedon ape “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” as hard as possible. The Operative is constantly a few steps ahead of the captain, using Inara as bait, killing the fast talking robot fetishist, Mr. Universe, and engaging Mal in a series of deadly fights. He’s a great, engaging villain, one that believes what he’s doing is for the greater good, despite the fact that he doesn’t have all the facts.

As I stated in the earlier reviews, my biggest problem with “Firefly” was always Whedon’s refusal to make many of the characters little more than archetypes. He still hasn’t done much better. Shepherd is still little more than a preacher with a past and Inara might as well be the epitome of the hooker with a heart of gold archetype but under the constraints of a film that has so much to say in two hours, its not a big problem and its one you almost have to expect. I don’t have a problem with Whedon refusing to giver deep, rich and compelling back stories to characters when he’s got a would-be blockbuster to make.

Instead of just ignoring archetypes and quick and dirty characterization, Whedon embraces it in “Serenity.” Kaylee, the smitten ship’s engineer who spent 14 episodes swooning over Simon, is brought to a character defined by that relationship. The fleeting glances, the smiles and the final embrace, give a great romantic arc to both of the characters and its one that could only be done this satisfyingly in a feature film.

Not everything is perfect, with the film really not being able to stand alone without the show, the reveal of River’s secrets being not particularly satisfying and an ending that is dangerously close to a zombie film. The emotional payoff, the characterization and the style are all great but by no means is it a perfect film.

Overall, I was satisfied, just satisfied with this excursion into the Joss Whedon oeuvre. “Firefly” was definitely a show that was messed with by FOX but by no means was it a perfect show that was destroyed. It was an intriguing and promising first season that was cut off before it was able to grow into something interesting. “Serenity” definitively proves that Whedon would have been able to make something of the show but it took a big budget and time restrictions in order to refine that idea down to something that was artistically accomplished as well as crowd pleasing.

Next Class: I explore one of my biggest pop culture blind spots by listening to The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.”

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London’s Burning: Alan Moore concludes the League’s adventures in a memorable fashion

After nearly 150 years of adventure, saving England and battling the greatest threats the world has ever known, Alan Moore had the unenviable task of giving the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a fitting tribute. The problem, of course, was that these characters either hated each other, had disappeared or had gone insane. In Moore’s twisted version of 2009, the breakdown of culture had left a nation that was both eerily similar and incredibly different than the world the League originally intended to save.

After Mina failed to defeat the Antichrist at the end of 1969, forcing it to possess the body of Tom Riddle (yes, of “Harry Potter” fame), she was taken to a psychiatric hospital, abandoning the immortal Orlando and the constantly on the edge Allan Quatermain to their own devices. Orlando returns to his life of meaningless sex and eternal war and Alan goes back on the needle and of course, that’s when the Apocalypse really begins to kick in.

The comic does wonders with Orlando’s character. Usually regulated to the background of stories, he’s brought to the forefront here where he’s finally forced to deal with the madness of being an immortal. He goes insane while fighting President Bartlett’s war, breaks down when he begins to change back into a woman and has his period in the shower and ends up giving the secret of immortality to Emma Peel. He’s desperate and vulnerable and even picking up Excalibur doesn’t bring back his old swagger.

The rest of the surviving members of the league aren’t doing much better. Allan’s time back addicted to heroin has reduced him to a hollow shell of the adventurer he once was. As a beggar on the street, he flees Orlando and refuses to help rescue his lover from the insane asylum. Mina’s not doing great there either, with the British government getting dangerously close to figuring out that she’s been alive for near 150 years.

Its too Moore’s credit that he manages to balance all of this personal and environmental darkness with moments of gloriously goofy, surreal humor. Malcom, the shit-talking advisor from the gloriously obscene satire “In the Loop,” shows up to explain the nation’s plans for war against Nemo’s grandson, Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor appears in a panel, an allusion to Tracey Jordan’s “Who Dat Ninja” and series of both obscure and overt references to the Harry Potter series.

Yes, the Harry Potter references were the most controversial inclusion to fans before the issue was released but it ends up working. Moore isn’t using the boy wizard as some sort of critical punching bag but rather as an indicator of the way in which the franchise managed to move beyond fiction. As the mutated Potter screams, “my name is in the bible,” it is both a threat and a satirical stab at the way the character became a sensation.

My main issue coming into “Century 2009” was whether Moore could make the previous entries in the third volume into something that was worth reading and investing in the first place. To wit, it makes much of “Century 1910” a little pointless, doing little more than introducing the spawn of Captain Nemo, the war against England that would eventually lead to the rule of Big Brother and the introduction of Haddo and the Antichrist. Even much of “Century: 1969” feels a little rough and unnecessary until the end, particularly the long tangent focusing on Mina wondering if it was worth being an immortal, but the whole series does manage to add up into a cohesive whole. The previous volumes also certainly had their own pacing problems that really didn’t come together until the last few issues.

What’s even more incredible about the conclusion of “Century” as well as the potential conclusion of the whole series is the way in which Moore allows his characters a moment of heroism before the end. Orlando, Mina and even Allan all get a moment where they prove that they were amongst the greatest members of the League, as well as being legendary heroes in their own right. After nearly 150 years of making sacrifices, never quite being able to do the right thing and barely surviving what they’ve been put up against, its wonderful to see them get a moment of being the kind of people they always wished they could be.

In the process of giving a fitting finale to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore created some of the most iconic sequences in modern comics and with the assistance of Kevin O’Neill, made some great, just incredible art. “Century” became one of the defining books of the decade with the conclusion of Volume 3 and should be put alongside the greatest of Moore’s other accomplishments. This is comic book writing, art and meta-commentary at its very finest.

Summer Classes: Firefly

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we take on the next 6 episodes of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.

You know, really not a lot has changed as “Firefly” approaches its conclusion. My problems with the characters remaining little more than archetypes, the show still depends on the plot and the charm in order to keep episodes coherent and a lot of the mysteries that Whedon introduced early on haven’t been fleshed out particularly well.

Even with all of that, these episodes just work better. I don’t know, maybe I’ve jived a little better with the show’s rhythms, maybe the reappearance of several characters has made the universe feel more filled in and complete or maybe its the focus on having some action but “Firefly” just feels more watchable and a hell of a lot more fun.

While the first batch of episodes was a sporadically dull, rather formulaic series, these ones have a lot more fun just by putting the characters in danger more often. Even in the lone dud, the formulaic and expected “Out of Gas,” there’s a legitimate sense of danger just by leaving Mal aboard the ship and at the mercy of others. Similarly, “The Message” takes a fairly expected plot twist (old war buddy doesn’t have the purest of intentions) and makes the whole episode work with a series of great action sequences and some fun and interesting different character motivations.

The standouts of this batch of episodes, as well as maybe the whole series so far are “Ariel” and “Trash.” Both episodes epitomize the differing goals of “Firefly” but they both do it in a way that shows the capacity Whedon’s sci-fi epic had to go on for years.

“Ariel” is the better of the pair, mostly for the great twists and turns as well as an excellent tense slow burn. While Mal and Zoe attempt to infiltrate an Alliance hospital to liberate medicine to sell on the Rim, Simon uses the opportunity to perform a brain scan on River to figure out what was done to her at the Academy. All of their plans are complicated when Jayne puts in a call to an Alliance officer, making a deal to sell out Simon and Jayne. The whole thing flows unexpectedly, with Zoe and Mal’s seemingly idiot proof plan hitting constant snags and Jayne constantly having to readjust his plans as more and more of River’s condition is revealed to the group.

On the other hand, “Trash” feels like an early build of the kind of show that FOX wanted Whedon to make. When the crew of the Serenity links back up with Mal’s sort-of ex-wife Saffron, they’re led to pulling a job on a series of orbital islands. The whole thing has a series of entertaining set-up and execution moves that fans of heist films are sure to recognize and the series of crosses and double crosses, although expected, are entertaining. That being said, Mal is particularly goofy here, rather than the hardened and occasionally cruel killer he can be and I was constantly wondering why he wasn’t shooting people first rather than asking way too many questions.

As I approach the end of the show, I think the thing which I’m constantly reminding myself is not to view “Firefly as a finished product. The hints of characterization, the unfolding of mysteries and the development of romantic relationships between the characters are little more than that, the beginning of something that could have been. And something that’s about to end.

Next Class: There’s a pair of “Firefly” episodes left and the companion film, “Serenity.”

“De-tec-tive…”: Batman Incorporated #2 gives a proper New 52 introduction to the Al Ghul family

Talia’s motivations for battling the dark knight’s worldwide project have been mysterious since she appeared at the end of “Leviathan Strikes,” and by the end of the second issue, her plans aren’t crystal clear. That, however, isn’t my question about this issue.

My question is why.

After the first issue’s cliffhanger of leaving Damian bleeding out from Goatboy’s sniper round, Morrison leads readers to the hideout of Ras al Ghul where he is accosted by the leader of Leviathan, Talia. Its abundantly clear that this isn’t a friendly visit. The opening, which wonderfully shows the seduction of Talia’s mother as well as the birth sets up her intents for her father.

Naturally, Morrison feels the totally unnecessary need to fuck up continuity, changing Talia’s lineage again but I’d have more of a problem with it if the whole thing wasn’t so damn entertaining. Rushing through Talia’s training, her time in college, Raj’s battle with his father and the “birth” of Damian, Morrison and Burnham do a great job catching up readers on one of their favorite characters and why she may have started the mission that she’s on.

For seasoned fans of the Bat-family, there is exceedingly little new material to dig into. That sort of is a good thing, particularly because the rest of the issue does so much to color her character and motivations both as the Demon Head’s daughter and as a super criminal on her own. That being said, Talia does take some manner of control over the League of Assassins, puts Ras under house arrest and reveals that Damian didn’t die last issue.

This was really my only gripe with the whole issue. Yeah, we all knew that Damian wasn’t dead and that Morrisson was pulling a cheap one at the end of Batman Incorporated 1 but he does it with no sense for drama. In an issue that’s all about Talia’s development from an innocent girl to a killer and mastermind, it’d be nice to show how her personal parallel character survived. If Morrison wasn’t interested in doing this same thing, why would he have Damian survive the bullet and then write it off in just a single enigmatic sentence. Its always been clear that Morrison adores Damian Wayne but its hard to see why when he treats the character like this.

I really enjoyed Batman Incorporated 2 a lot, mostly for what it did for Talia, who has long been one of the most underdeveloped of Batman’s rogues gallery and its interesting enough to make the lack of plot advancement still worth it. Hearing just a little of her plans for Leviathan as well as the way she feels about her father are sure to make the next few issues of one of the best books on the market almost impossible to wait for.

“My last name is a Conundrum.” – What is it about getting old that ruins the best comic writers?

Getting ready for the finale of Alan Moore’s genre defining “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” series has been a long ordeal. Whether it was enjoying the often tasteless but utterly thrilling second volume, the dense and reference filled Black Dossier or going back through the engaging mess that is “Century: 1910,” watching Moore develop his fully realized world is consistently intriguing.

That all sort of changes when you hit “Century: 1969,” last year’s volume that serves as the second part of the trilogy which ends tomorrow. “1969” is a tangled mess of Monty Python references, reworked lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil,” druggy occultism, kinky sex and Moore’s continued obsession with utterly whacked out ideas like The Blazing World.  None of it is presented with the same earnestness and charm that the original books showed off so effortlessly. Maybe its the harder to recognize references, maybe its the campy use of slang, maybe its the over the top drug usage but this all just feels like Moore at his most self indulgent.

Moore’s self parody in “1969” seems to not be an isolated incident. After the vicious pummeling that Frank Miller’s “Holy Terror” received after its initial release, I held out hope that one of my favorite writers and artists (seriously, the work he did on the first “Sin City” story is incredible) would be able to pull something out that actually had some artistic merit.

The problem is that “Holy Terror” is such an incredible pile of shit that it almost makes Miller’s earlier work look worse. The bold use of color, parallel lines and deliberately harsh heavy sketches now feels like what a lonely teen would scribble in his notebook, not the work of the man who wrote two of the defining Batman books had come up with.

That’s not even going into the story, little more than a Republican’s wet dream of domestic terrorists, blood, weak political leaders and the determination of single, psychopathic individuals. What makes this hurt so bad is that these may be the exact same themes that Miller used masterfully in “The Dark Knight Returns” but here, its just hackneyed and a little offensive. There are frames of Bush and Obama in characterizations that wouldn’t pass at a state fair art booth and a half baked love story that never pulls off what he was able to pull off with characters like Marv and Goldie.

So what’s the cause of this? For Miller, it seems to be a mix of becoming increasingly paranoid, insular and set in his ways. After the original debacle of trying to license Batman for “Holy Terror,” he unfortunately changed almost nothing in the final product as a bitter and fruitless attempt to give DC the finger. The bigger problem, however, is his refusal to escape from the tired and iconic art that made him a comic book hero 30 years ago. Its lazy and it looks like a man who doesn’t care at all about the content he’s releasing. For me, who has always held Miller up as one of the best writers and artists of the era, its a hard shock back to reality.

Moore’s always been a bitter guy when it comes to his work and repeatedly being burned by the industry certainly hasn’t softened him on wanting his work to appeal to anyone. He’s increasingly gone denser, making his work more twisting and self referential but without giving the audience any sort of payoff. While “The Black Dossier” may have been an ambitious project, the finished piece is a borderline incomprehensible read, with only small bits of the story connecting to anything that even resembles the series readers knew and loved.

Perhaps this is all some sort of a dare, Alan Moore desperately trying to find the people that are still faithful to him and his work. Admittedly, I’m willing to follow him down his rabbit holes but I still don’t have any idea how things like the Blazing World works and a full half of the references still go over my well read head.

After my third, fourth and fifth read through of “Century: 1969,” many of Moore’s more self indulgent moments felt more like deliberate choices in setting up a conclusion than weaknesses. It has always been clear that “League” was playing an exceedingly long game and that we’ve just been along for the ride but in an age when we’re used to receiving our books immediately, its hard not to want instant satisfaction. Hopefully, tomorrow’s release of “Century: 2009” will make the very long wait worthwhile.

“It wasn’t good for me either” – 10 decidedly queasy erotic scenes [Mildly NSFW]

Summer movies generally means you’re pretty much in for two things, lots of big explosions and lots of pretty people doing pretty people things. The problem with this, lots of the time, directors don’t exactly know how to balance actors that are used to doing action with scenes where we’re supposed to think they can be loving, caring characters. So, whether its intentional or not, here’s a quick rundown of movie scenes that’ll make you want to enter a dry spell.

1. Love in Zion – “The Matrix Reloaded”

There are few movies that more perfectly represent the bad summer movie sex phenomenon than “The Matrix Reloaded.” As Neo and Trinity sneak away from the dance party, they engage in awkward, grunting groping to the beat of bad ’90s acid house. The real problem here is the way the scene is shot. Most of the time, it looks like the pair are just clinging to one another and the two don’t look that different, making it even more strange and a little off putting. Weirdly, its one of the scenes that stands out the most in the second part of The Matrix trilogy and that’s probably not a good thing.

2. “Which one are you going to have sex with?” – “Eastern Promises”

As Nikolai tries to stay close to to the psychopathic Kirill, they stop by a brothel filled with heroin addled hookers. Kirill mercilessly grinds and licks on the vacant women, swilling vodka and yelling obsenities. Ultimately, he forces Nikolai to take one of the hookers to prove his alleigance to the family, leaving to a intentionally horrifying anal sex scene. Director David Cronenberg has always been interested in the way that nihilistic characters can make any intimate reaction into soulless congress and it’s done masterfully here.

3. Soulless Grinding – “Crash”

Cronenberg plays his hand in “Crash” right away, with several scenes of vacant empty love making in the first 10 minutes. Its all about the way that even when people claim to be at their most open and honest, they hide all their feelings and desires.

4. What time is it? – “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Sidney Lumet’s best’s film in years also opens with a sex scene, although decidedly a bizarre one. As Marissa Tomei and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have sex and plan a vacation to Brazil, viewers are meant to be pondering at one point in the timeline this scene takes place, before the twisting hellish crime spree begins. Instead, viewers are probably just focused on watching Hoffman moving around sluggishly, having sex with Tomei from behind. Sure, we might be supposed to think this but it doesn’t make me less queasy.

5. “Mommy…” – “Blue Velvet”

In David Lynch’s landmark surreal noir, the depraved Frank Booth enters Dorothy’s apartment and interrupts her encounter with Jeffrey. He inhales some sort of gas, dry humps her and engages in some light sadomasochism with his orgasm being a confusing mess of screaming pleasure and unfathomable, murderous rage. Lynch isn’t trying to arrouse by any means. Instead, this is the first look at how dark the film’s protagonist is and how far he’s willing to go to get what he needs.

6. “That bastard!” – “Macgruber

“Macgruber” plays almost everything for a laugh but nothing more than the pair of brutally awkward sex scenes. Both are filled with ridiculous, over-the-top grunting, whining and painfully shot thrusting. The second scene, featuring Will Forte having sex with the ghost of his dead wife on her gravestone. Its shot the same as the previous scene but is done for even more laughs, with Forte showing more pleasure at finding the car that passed him earlier than after sex.

7. Its more about what happens before – “I Know Who Killed Me”

At some point in its development, someone probably thought “I Know Who Killed Me” was an erotic thriller instead of just a borderline incoherent mess. Its memorable for all the wrong reasons but the scene that stands out is an awkward sequence where the Lindsay Lohan doppelgänger has sex with her not-boyfriend, with her prosthetic leg plugged into a wall socket next to them. Things get even more awkward when, post-coitus, she flashes back to her time as a stripper where her finger once was psychically cut off and fell into her glove in a slushy of blood and gore. If that didn’t make sense, watching the movie isn’t really going to help you either.

8. The tip of fame – “8 Mile”

“8 Mile” offers a lot of dubious facts about what the road to fame is like but the strangest is that the height of fame equates to a handjob from a coke addled coworker. As Eminem begins to pick up fans in his already masturbatory semi-autobiographical film, he’s taken into a back room by Brittany Murphy looking her worst for some celebratory handie. Its strange, poorly shot and weirdly inappropriate for a movie that’s trying so desperately to be “hard.”

9. Wait, its about that? – “Sucker Punch”

The entirety of “Sucker Punch” is little more than Zach Snyder’s adolescent sexual fantasies and nowhere is this clearer than in his semi-explanation of Babydoll’s dancing to the fact that she’s being sexually abused in a brothel at the time. Its a gross, hard to watch movie that only gets filthier and harder to watch as you think about it.

10. No butter, please. – “Last Tango in Paris”

Its one of the most infamously unsettling moments of unsettling cinema as Marlon Brando sodomizes Maria Schneider, using butter for lubricant. It’s a disturbing scene, particularly after hearing more and more about the making, in which Schneider was extremely uncomfortable with performing the scene. In a movie that already feels dangerously close to eroticizing sexual assault and rape at times, this scene certainly doesn’t help the overall tone.

Summer Classes: Firefly

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we take on the first 6 episodes of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.

For a long time, I didn’t really care to get into Joss Whedon. Of course, I knew people who really into it, who swore by “Buffy,” could quote “Angel” chapter and verse, and had opinions about a sci-fi show that I had never even heard of. I know some of my unearned distaste for Whedon was in the way he was presented by these people. No one ever talked about the worlds he created, the characters that were developed or the complex mythologies that were developed. Instead, people just mindlessly quoted the characters, making themselves out to be annoying Monty Python fans rather than people who had valid opinions about things.

A year ago, as the summer began, I started watching the first season of “Buffy,” the notoriously dull and hokey season of Whedon’s first work. I was unimpressed to say the least and abandoned it quickly. I was given no reason to keep going into the second season.

After “Cabin in the Woods,” I was given a reason to explore all of Whedon’s oeuvre. His 80’s horror homage was such a potent mix of genre defying  plot, the bitter and world weary sense of humor and the Lovecraftian conclusion showed me that the guy might deserve a second look. I started on a project (which will receive at least one additional post later) called the Summer of Whedon, and luckily, this class is helping me out.

Of all of Whedon’s cult shows, “Firefly” is the cultiest. The quickly abused and cancelled sci-fi show was treated beyond poorly by FOX and a ravenous group of fans have demanded more for the show for years. As a person who loves sci-fi, and as watched plenty of his favorite shows be trashed by FOX, I had a pretty decent chance to enjoy this one.

Ideally, yeah, I would love it but a lot of the problems that I’ve always thought Whedon has had initially held me back from getting into it. For one, he writes worlds and stories much better than he handles characters. Now, I’m not saying that he can’t do a great job defining the voice of certain characters or the way that they interact with one another but he definitely has trouble writing the initial character.

“Firefly” is a fairly obvious fusion of the western and the space opera, with a group of former rebels completing crimes for unsavory clients on the edges of civilization. The ship, the Serenity, is filled with archetypes: the cold quiet protagonist, the tough as nails deputy with morals, the sure-of-himself pilot, the shoot first-ask questions later killer, the whiz-kid, the priest with a dark past, the hooker with a heart of gold, the humanistic doctor and the survivor of atrocities.

The thing that bothers me the most about the use of these fairly obvious archetypes is the fact that Whedon doesn’t twist them at all. Granted, I’ve watched the first 6 episodes and so far, the characters remain little more than cliche. If Whedon’s purpose was to show how easily the old western cliches could be ported over to the space opera, then he’s succeeded but if he was trying to make those characters compelling in and of themselves, its a failure. I don’t care about River as a character because she’s flat, instead I’m forced to depend on the plot to make me care.

Luckily, the individual plots of the episode have been great. Where Whedon often played a very long game with episodes of “Buffy,” he’s working much better in making stand alone episodes that are loaded with world building. Watching the crew infiltrate a high class gathering looking for jobs might not feed into the long running plot of the show, but it manages to show that there is a richly developed world beyond what Whedon is showing us every episode.

That being said, the characters really grow on you. By the time I hit “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” the rhythm was working a lot better, with the characters bouncing off of each other in expected but enjoyable ways. We know that Zoe is going to bring the whole crew down to laugh at Mal’s fate, we know that Jayne is going to have a semi-romantic relationship with his favorite gun and we know that Wash isn’t going to cheat on his beloved wife with Saffron. The pleasure is watching them do just that in their own unique way.

Really, that’s kind of how I view all of Whedon’s work but I’m willing to keep going. The charm of “Firefly” is in seeing those classic plot archetypes being updated, although there might not be anything particularly new or original there. You know what you’re going to be getting in Whedon’s sci-fi show but, for the most part, that kind of works in this homage filled space opera.

Next Class: We’ve got another 6 episodes of “Firefly” before we finish the show and watch “Serenity” in two weeks.

Summer Classes: Battle Royale

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we examine the 2000 Japanese cult-smash, “Battle Royale.”

“You just have to fight for yourself. That’s just life…” – Mitsuko Souma, “Battle Royale”

On Patton Oswalt’s album “Werewolves and Lollipops,” the comedian discusses the moment where children finally realize that their parents aren’t always filled with wisdom and knowledge. Its a moment that he plays for laughs, but its also one of self discovery. Its the moment where the world’s gatekeepers are shown to be not all knowing, not all powerful and maybe, just maybe, fallible.

Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” doesn’t as much focus on that moment of self discovery as much as the fallout of such. The film, loosely adapted from the manga of the same name, takes a gory, exploitative look at children on the cusp of adulthood and what they are willing and unwilling to do when they lose the guiding force of adults.

“Battle Royale” is where the premise for the teenage blood-bath began. For a variety of poorly explained reasons, the Japanese government institutes a series of laws in an attempt to reduce teenage crime and truancy, which force a randomly determined class of 9th graders to kill each other to the last man. Thankfully, there’s a helpful video to explain the rules.

From the moment the students leave the room to begin the battle, the film takes a considerably more episodic look at the various survivors, spending much of its running time focusing on a few unique killers and pacifists. Its to the film’s benefit and detriment. A few of the side characters, the sex obsessed Kazushi, the cheerleading squad and any number of the girls Mitsuko kills, all seem to have rich personalities and motives for their choices. What we get from them is interesting but maybe deserving of more content than we receive.

That being said, the episodic nature seems to be deliberate, comparable to other violent teenage entertainment. I was consistently reminded of “The Warriors,” with its’ cartoony themed enemies and picaresque plotting but “Battle Royale” is much more united in theme.

“Battle Royale” uses the premise of high school being like life and death, something we’ve seen much more often in recent years, and takes it to the natural conclusion. Characters work out their lost loves, deal with their childhood traumas, try to take revenge on those who wronged them and try to just slip quietly by. It isn’t a particularly trenchant look at the topic, with others such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mean Girls, and Lord of the Flies offering a more insightful look at the issue, but “Battle Royale sticks with viewers. Whether its the gore, the unique style, the memorable sociopaths or the smart ending, it all ends up working.

There are a fair share of problems holding it back. The version available on Netflix Instant Stream is the remastered cut, which adds additional CGI, a handful of confusing, unnecessary and pointless flashbacks, three epilogues that try to explain said flashbacks and a somewhat comical subtitle translation. Its generally pretty good but I couldn’t help but laugh at translations like “you always hurt my ass.”

There’s a point late in the film that crystalizes everything that “Battle Royale” was going for and it doesn’t involve a drop of blood. As Nakagawa and Kawada wait at the temple for the rendezvous, Nakawaga looks back on her life before being brought to the island, remembering that she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. As she stares into the woods, she says “I thought I was going to have children and grow old. Now, I don’t think that’s the case.” Much like so many people, myself included, think about the future as a phase of their life ends, the sense that she knew she could die, forces all of the students on the island to deal with their unfulfilled futures, the choices they’ve made and more importantly, the things that they never did. “Battle Royale” reduces those regrettable seconds into a flurry of gunfire, flying knives and an ever running river of blood.

Next Class: We board the Serenity to view the entirety of one of the most well loved cult TV shows of all time, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi epic, “Firefly.”

“Everything else is a joke”: Comedian #1 falls into all the expected traps

I don’t think that I’m the only one who was legitimately concerned about a Comedian miniseries. I mean, initially, I was skeptical of the entirety of the Before Watchmen series but a book focusing on rapist/serial killer/government assassin Edward Blake felt supremely unnecessary. He’s barely in the original book, mostly showing up in flashbacks and even then he’s not spectacularly interesting. I don’t really want to know the man I am supposed to hate. I just want to hate him.

Unfortunately, Brian Azzarello doesn’t exactly think the same thing. His work on the book seems to be intending to make readers associate  with The Comedian, making us want to understand his motivations as he becomes a government attack dog, entirely bereft of morals. I’m not saying that the book is a complete failure but there’s nothing done so well that it couldn’t be found done better elsewhere.

The Comedian is one of the quintessential Alan Moore characters. An ultra-masculine, deeply unhinged sociopath focused solely on satisfying his own ends only to be destroyed by the smarter, more capable killers of the world. The purpose he serves in Watchmen mostly is as a representative of the evil we already know, the man in the guise of a hero who used his power solely to advance his own personal unhinged objectives. Moore designed him as the character we recognize but refuse to associate with.

That’s really my fundamental problem with Before Watchmen. Making Blake into a character that we are meant to see as uniquely human despite being controlled by the Kennedys isn’t something that makes him unique, it’s something that undercuts the vision of the character that Moore had. Even moreso, its a distinct difference in the character from the sociopath described in Darwyn Cooke’s excellent Minutemen #1.

There’s nothing wrong with the art in Comedian #1, although it may be a little bit pulpy for the normally realistic Watchmen series and the action sequences make Blake seem a bit too much like an actual superhero, and I liked the idea that the Comedian once had a different relationship with the government but he seems far too weak by issue’s end. As far as the timeline goes, we’re dangerously close to the beginning of Nixon’s presidency and where Watchmen begins to differ from our own timeline. Are we expecting this big of a shift of character from Blake? The ending Azzarello gives to issue 1 seems to imply that we can expect his character to entirely change to suit the one in the original book. I just want to ask, is that something we really want?

“I Do” – Wonder Woman #10 delivers a wonderfully heartfelt escape from Hell

Even as a long time fan of the character, I never expected to be this floored by a Wonder Woman book. I’ve loved the relaunched series, particularly Cliff Chiang’s near perfect representation of the Amazon and great design work of her enemies and allies, but its been light on what makes Diana the heroine she is. For the first 9 issues, she’s been making deals with gods, throwing down with the servants of Hera and finding out new things about herself but we haven’t really gotten to see a lot of how Wonder Woman feels about her place in the world.

Wonder Woman #10 gave me everything I wanted from the series and it might be the best script Brian Azzarello has turned in all year. For followers of the series, Diana entered Hell in an attempt to rescue Zola, a woman pregnant with Zeus’ child, where she was betrayed by Hades and forced into marriage. After the fantastic cliffhanger (pardon the absolutely awful but sort of necessary pun), we knew that she was at an impasse. For the first time since the second issue, it was inevitable that blood would flow.

What makes Wonder Woman 10 work so well where books like, say, Nightwing 8-9 failed is that it stayed true to the character but managed to do it in unexpected ways. Let’s digress to the recent revelation during the lead up to Night of the Owls that Dick Grayson was meant to be a Talon. While I generally liked this pair of issues for sheer entertainment value, they weren’t anything that I would need to read again. The Talon shows up. Nightwing fights it. Nightwing beats it. Nightwing walks away.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach per-say. The thing is that with a character with a background and personality as well established and far reaching as Dick Grayson’s we can expect more. Dick’s a relentlessly positive guy, one that’s fighting more for the heart and soul of Gotham than for justice in the streets. He wants to inspire people. He wants to show them that they can change. Instead, what we get is him nearly kicking a Talon’s head off and carrying a battered and bleeding body out of a subway station.

Wonder Woman 10 doesn’t play the same game. We expect that Diana is going to have to lie to Hades and then start a fight. That seems to be the only option. Instead, Azzarello surprises the audience by doing the least expected thing, playing to the character’s personality. Wonder Woman doesn’t bend for Hades and her escape, her rage at being interrupted by her half-sister Strife and her ultimate confession that she loves Hades just as she loves all life is a great reminder of what a positive, respected and iconic character Diana is.

Going well with Azzarello’s script is a variety of artists turning in solid work. The three different credits usually don’t bode well, generally being a statement that the book may have been rushed, but the character designs, particularly Hades’ blood creature, are well done and I always love to see Strife get involved in the fray. Even the ending is done with a suitable mix of finality and the need to create a cliffhanger as Diana and company return to Earth.

Wonder Woman 10 delivers the sense of breathless action and heartfelt character moments that fans have been waiting months for and it makes it all worthwhile. For those not picking up the book, it might be worth adding the Amazon to your pull list after this exemplary issue.