Film // Idle Thoughts // The Promethean Tyranny of Ridley Scott

In a recent interview once-excellent director Ridley Scott spoke about his plans for the Alien franchise. Inexplicably this upset me to a frankly unreasonable degree, in part because Scott used to be great but now just peddles in unnecessary/bad prequels, but mostly because the interview makes clear that Ridley Scott has no idea why his early movies were good or what people (meaning me) want out of a new Alien picture. It should be noted that my frustrations with the Prometheus/Alien franchise and Scott himself are entirely trivial so only read on if you can handle half-formed thoughts, circular logic, and self-indulgence.

The interview covered a lot of shilling for The Martian, and went on to explore Scott’s approach to the next movie in the Alien franchise, a direct continuation of Prometheus that still predates the events of Alien. What this interview failed to touch on was the absolute awfulness of Prometheus and its inherently redundant story. The movie featured characters without arcs (Charlize Theron’s wasted Meredith Vickers), events without reason (the idiot-brothers cradling a terrifying alien phallus monster), horror without purpose (the admittedly powerful alien abortion scene that then has no effect on the main character at all), and answers without questions (here’s an alien ship identical to the one from that Alien movie but completely unrelated to it!) And why exactly would the Prometheans put a map back to their world in an ancient Earth cave, except it wasn’t their world it was just a random factory planet, and it wasn’t an invitation it was a trap, but they had all already left the trap unattended because reasons, but actually there’s a Promethean right there, but oh no there’s a weird alien-hybrid that’s basically an alien but is completely unrelated to the alien from Alien because this movie takes place on a different planet to that movie even though it has basically the same name for no reason other than to confuse people?

Unfortunately it seems like Scott hasn’t acknowledged any of the problems with the Prometheus movie and it’s relationship to the Alien universe – he speaks of wanting to answer the big question at the heart of the Alien movies, “who would make such a terrible thing?“. Wait, what? Who made the alien? That has literally never been a big question of the franchise! The origin of the alien is ambiguous yes, as are that space jockey and its ship, but this forms the basis of the terrifying atmosphere of the first two movies – we don’t need to see the birth place of this species or the factory it was cooked up in or whatever as that just undermines the horror of it all. Besides which, it never really struck me whilst watching these movies that these creatures were anything other than just plain old aliens, literally. Just random things that exist in the universe, a deadly wild parasitic species that it is best to avoid. The space jockey is a good case in point here; it looked truly alien in Alien, a creature that was physically different to humans, with an unknowable and tragic backstory of how it came to encounter/die to a bunch of other aliens. Prometheus spends a good amount of screen time demystifying the space jockey, and instead of it being an imaginative creature that is different in form and thought to humanity, it just turns out that they are really tall blokes who are also idiots. I’m really not sure where Scott is coming from here – the origin of the alien isn’t a story that needs to be told.

The positioning of the alien always seemed to me to be one of a natural entities – the aliens are just creatures in space, driven only by a natural urge to eat, survive, and procreate. This is highlighted in the film Aliens by Burke’s (and by extension Weyland-Yuanti’s) plan to capture an alien for use as a biological weapon. By trying to subvert the natural order of things Burke essentially kills everyone on LV-426; from Newt’s parents through to the colonial marines they are all dead because the company tried to take a wild thing and bottle it up for nefarious uses later. Alien features a similar sub-plot wherein the company sends the Nostromo to investigate the Space Jockey’s signal in the first place (and also instructs Ash that the crew are expendable in pursuit of this goal). Both of these movies (still the only two in the entire franchise worth a damn) specifically deal with themes of the limitations of human technology/innovation in the terrifying face of nature; so many scenes in these movies show technology catastrophically failing to save the day (think androids). But now we’re being told that the alien actually is a piece of technology.

I think Ridley Scott is trying to tie into this theme by exploring the origins of the alien as a biological weapon, but this actually undermines the theme in both of those movies. The moral of Alien and Aliens is that messing with a dangerous natural organism and trying to use it’s power for yourself will just get innocent people killed. Except the proposed plot for Prometheus 2 is that the alien always was an artificial weapon of war, so does that mean that Burke was right? We should be trying to capture the alien and use it as a biological weapon because that was always the intent. I guess it doesn’t instantly justify Burke’s actions, but it certainly does cast a shadow over the idea of the alien as an unstoppable force of nature.

Also, Scott laments that he let “those movies get away from me”, which is understandable I suppose. Except to say that James Cameron’s Aliens is probably one of the best sequels ever made whilst Ridley Scott’s second entry in the franchise is abysmal so…maybe it was better that Scott walked away. The last thing to say in this probably unnecessary bit of soapbox nonsense is that I was sorry to see that Scott making Prometheus 2 has resulted in Neil Blomkamp’s Alien 5 being shelved. Whilst Blomkamp’s record is a little patchy, his movies do at least consistently offer some interesting concepts and some excellent robots (I really would love to see a bunch of Colonial Marine robots fighting a horde of aliens); I’m far more interested in seeing a new take on this franchise than Scott having a third bite of the apple when his second already caused the tree to rot.

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 11/11/2015

Here we are again, new comics! It’s a quiet-ish week though with a few books that I possibly/maybe/might pick up.

Captain America: White #4 – So I will definitely be buying this book because it features more lovely Tim Sale artwork, but I must admit to being a little underwhelmed by the series as a whole. Whether it is the result of being on the shelf gathering dust for a few years, or that it so closely resembles other books in the Loeb/Sale Marvel Spectrum series isn’t clear, but for whatever reason I’m just not that excited by anything in this mini-series.

Captain America White #4 Cover

Descender #7 – I’m excited to see this book is back after a brief hiatus. This year has seen plenty of new indie sci-fi books, most of them very good, yet this is probably one of the best (alongside Bitch Planet). It’s an interesting universe, beautifully drawn, and compellingly written.

Descender #7 Cover

Secret Wars #7 – The event to end all events (at least for another year) continues it’s late running story. It really has been a terrific book so far and I’ve no doubt it will be equally strong as we go into the final 3 issues.

Secret Wars #7 Cover

Spider-Gwen #2 – This remains a solid book even if the magic from it’s first few issues seems to have dissipated a little (I’m not sure why that is, maybe because the narrative doesn’t seem to be moving forward very much?)

Spider-Gwen #2 Cover

Thought Bubble 2015 AnthologyThought Bubble is one of the UK’s best sequential art festivals/cons (that I will be attending again this year) and their annual comic book always offers a great selection of artists and writers. Besides the awesome Babs Tarr cover this has a Tim Sale short (as did last years) so I am all in! Also the profits from the book go to charity so what’s not to love!

Thought Bubble Anthology 2015 Cover

Possibles

All-New Wolverine #1 – I want this book to be good; I’m a fan of X-23 and it would be cool to have an exciting new Wolverine on the block. Unfortunately the brief preview that I have seen is chock full of stupidness and bland writing. I’m a sucker for mutant-led books though so it’s a maybe!

All- New Wolverine #1 Cover

DC Bombshells #4 – Marguerite Bennett’s writing is really strong on this book, but some of the art doesn’t sit well with me (purely on grounds of personal taste). When Marguerite Sauvage is drawing it, it is a really great book, but the rest of the time it doesn’t work for me, and this issue looks like it is sans-Sauvage so I probably won’t pick it up.

DC Bombshells #4 Cover

Diesel #3 – I love Tyson Hesse’s art on this book, but the writing is super choppy. The main character is really quite annoying and there isn’t a strong enough narrative core pulling all of the characters/happenings together for it to be compelling. This one will depend on mood – the art could pull me in, but it might not.

Diesel #3 Cover

Comics // Review // Doctor Strange #2

Concise //

Writer Jason Aaron has a fun vision for the good doctor, something akin to a mystical special agent in a dangerously chaotic world, and it is incredibly well served by bottling the characters up in a familiarly unfamiliar place for an entire issue; the sanctum sanctorum. Chris Bachalo is an artist at home creating panels of mad, frenetic action and this issue gives him plenty of opportunities as things go from strange to worse during a magic-maggot hunt throughout the house. This issue is everything I want from a Doctor Strange book; high concept magical nonsense, funny scenes, and unknowable impending mystical doom – a great issue all round.

Doctor Strange #2 Cover

Spoilerful //

Despite the fun concept and some very neat scenes I had plenty of misgivings after issue one of this new Doctor Strange, fortunately this issue manages to avoid the things that disquieted me most (if only through ignoring them rather than correcting them), instead making way for an incredibly fun bottle issue. The creatures that escaped Zelma Stanton, librarian from the Bronx’s mind at the end of last issue have made their way into the corners and crevices of the Sanctum Sanctorum and Doctor Strange is temporarily inexplicably powerless to contain them. So instead Strange and Zelma have to traipse around the house trying to find and kill these ‘mind maggots’ by hand. It’s essentially a super simple plot, but it is fully capitalised on in both the writing and art as every room of the house holds innumerable unknowable terrors and souvenirs that Strange has captured or collected on his way throughout the magical cosmos.

The issue opens with a full page look at the exterior of the Sanctum Sanctorum accompanied by a storied history  across a number of caption boxes. As interesting as the history of the building was it at first seemed strange for there to be so much background up front, but once it became apparent that the issue would almost entirely take place within those four walls it made a lot more sense. Really this issue does a lot of great work to introduce the house as a character in and of itself, and establish Strange’s world; both the immediate (the house in which he lives) and the distant (the magical dimensions that he guards us from). This version of Stephen Strange that I can get behind; a man possessed of incredible esoteric knowledge and bravery, all used in the service of protecting a world that he is from but not of. Strange may have been a regular human once, but the life he leads and the way he leads it ensure that he is not quite a regular human anymore. This issue goes to great lengths to establish that fact: the litany of mystical illnesses that he has, his various dangerous and nightmarish possessions, his tastes in otherworldly cuisine, it all serves to make Strange seem…well, strange. It’s for this reason that the characterisation from last issue that painted Strange as some kind of magical James Bond who sleeps his way through mystical missions doesn’t sit well with me – besides making Strange into a poor Tony Stark stand-in it also makes him seem all too ‘normal’, a word that he should never be associated with.

Elsewhere this issue, it is worth pointing out how consistently funny it is; with none of the heavy handed magic bar banter getting in the way like last issue, the jokes here stem from the bizarre eldritch world that Strange lives in and the blasé normalcy that he has in the face of utterly incomprehensible things. The cat-calling snakes, the Escher stairway, that refrigerator, the fact that after a near death book to the face Zelma finds Strange casually doing some research as if he absent-mindedly forgot to check she was ok. Wong also raises a smile in his first scene with Zelma, when he dryly and efficiently deals with a bunch of mind maggots and the terrors of Stephen Strange’s fridge all the while preparing a light lunch for the doctor. It all makes for a fun trip through a very unusual world and if writer Jason Aaron can achieve this kind of tone going forward then it will ensure this book remains a pleasure to read.

The set up for the wider arc also continues here, but in a far subtler way than last issue’s old father time monologuing about debts yet to be paid and such. For most of this issue Strange’s powers were on the blink for some reason, and the magical safeguards within the house failed to stop the mind-maggots at every turn. Even the presence of those maggots, creatures “never been seen in our dimension in all of recorded magical history” as Wong explains, hints at the darkness from another world that is creeping into the Doctors realm, and the fact that Strange has no answers establishes a chilling sense of danger. similarly the pretty traditional almost warning scene that closes the issue was compelling, as the sorcerer supreme of another dimension arrives to try and tell Strange what is going on. That he doesn’t quite make it was to be expected (and along with his failed attempt to get a message out in last issue’s bonus story gives the impression that this guy is having a very bad day), but it is an effective way to presage the horror that is coming to get our hero.

I am a huge fan of Chris Bachalo’s art and this issue takes full advantage of his style. Bachalo excels in creating brilliantly busy panels that fill the background and foreground with all kinds of eye-catching details but never feel over-crowded, so having Strange and Zelma walking through weird rooms and magic corridors gives plenty of opportunity for inventiveness. The Sanctum Sanctorum is brought fully to life with an array of beautifully realised spaces, just looking at that chaotic living room or hell dimension behind a door gives a real sense of the dangers of the magical world. Wong’s confrontation with the refrigerator and mind maggots is another page that works well as we get a batch of quick panels that almost felt like the comic book equivalent of editing in an Edgar Wright movie.

This issue fulfils everything I was hoping this book could be: it explores the dangerous world of magic, establishes Strange as an almost otherworldly figure who can still have a little fun, and sets the stage for some upcoming epic darkness. The supporting cast of Wong, Zelma, and even the Sanctum Sanctorum are in place and Strange is ready to investigate this rising threat; if the book remains this fun and exciting then we could be in for a great run.

Doctor Strange #2 Panel

Doctor Strange #2 // Writer – Jason Aaron / Pencils & Colours – Chris Bachalo // Marvel

Notes //

– Strange full of mind maggots at the end there looked really super disturbing!

– I like the idea that the house has just rebuilt itself every time it has burned down.

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 04/11/15

New comics! Plenty of issue one’s this week (not sure that’s always a good thing though!)

Doctor Strange #2 – Issue one has the visual flair and complexity that you would expect from Chris Bachalo and the premise of Strange as a kind of mystical James Bond is a compelling one, but it wasn’t without it’s faults. Issue two should be a chance to see how this book functions

Joe Golem Occult Detective #1 – Mike Mignola has delivered some amazing work in the space between pulp action and supernatural horror and this book looks like it will be another one to add to the list. Just the setting, a flooded mid-20th century New York, is compelling enough, and the source novel (with collaborator Christopher Golden) is said to be excellent too.

Monstress #1 – I’ve been excited about this book since it was announced earlier this year. The creative team, writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda, did some solid work on X-23, but it is really the inspired concept and setting that makes me eager to read this: the story of a young warrior woman in a post apocalyptic world plagued with giant monstrous creatures.

Paper Girls #2 – This is a great concept and a well put together book, I’m interested to see how Brian K. Vaughan takes things forward (even if I can’t believe issue 2 is out already!)

Uncanny X-Men #600 – So this is it, Brian Michael Bendis’ X-Men run finally comes to a belated end. It’s no secret that I’ve found this run to be full of meandering, uninspired nonsense and some loopy characterisation at the best of times so I’m not sorry to see it finish. Previews have confirmed that the awful ‘young X-Men in modern times’ story is sadly not coming to an end, but hopefully some of Bendis’ other storylines get appropriate closure (rebel leader Scott for example).

Extraordinary X-Men #1 – I am trying to keep an open mind with this book; Lemire and Ramos are perfectly good creators and the line-up could be interesting. Alas, Marvel editorial’s insistence that mutants be sidelined in favour of the inferior Inhumans continues to rankle me, and this book seems explicitly designed to tell the story of why there will soon be no more X-Men stories.

Television // Idle Thoughts // Supergirl – Flying Out from HIS Shadow

Last week’s Supergirl pilot was a fun hour of quality super-heroic adventure. Taking a similar approach in both tone and visuals to The Flash (although looking like it has a slightly larger special effects budget) the show is bright and optimistic and anchored by a terrific central performance by Melisa Benoist who is by turns adorable, goofy, stoic, determined, righteous, and bullet-proof. The episode keeps up a pretty breathless pace but still manages to confidently introduce a number of key characters, deal with the origin story of a fully powered hero, and feature a couple of solid action scenes (including an excellent aircraft rescue). Picking up the colourful, fun mantle of the 80’s Supergirl movie and 90’s Lois & Clark show, rather than the moribund grey bleakness of Man of Steel, is the absolute right approach to take here and it is done so mostly with aplomb.

Perhaps most pleasing is that the show seems determined to embrace the idea that both Supergirl the character and Supergirl the show are important feminist icons that can be a positive influence on their respective worlds. It was pleasing to see the large number of complex female relationships on display with a broad range of female characters possessed of different backgrounds, political viewpoints, and intentions. This isn’t achieved through exclusion of male characters though and there is a healthy range of male viewpoints available too. Amongst the smart ways of bringing this choice to life are things like Supergirl going up against a misogynistic alien villain (even if there was some on the nose dialogue in these scenes, “Why? Because she’s only a GIRL!“), introducing the importance of Kara’s nuanced relationships to her sister and both her biological Kryptonian mother and Earth foster mother (even though both father’s are present neither speaks), and having apparent male big bad, the Commander, actually be revealed to be in the service of Kara’s aunt.

The show isn’t perfect though featuring as it does plenty of trite expositionary dialogue and way too much information for just one episode to process. None of that is a long term problem though, given that the show now has plenty of characters and plot threads to explore, plus a solid super-villain story engine in the abandoned space prison set up. No, the larger problem present in the pilot, that could yet be an issue for the show as a whole, is the in-universe existence of fellow Kryptonian Kal El. The writers of the show take the decision, whether to avoid confusion with the movies or to create a running joke, of having no character refer to Superman as Superman. Instead you get a barrage of him’s and his’s, plus a bonus order of ‘adjective-man’s, the big guy’s, and my cousin’s. By trying to avoid putting attention on Superman through not showing his face and not saying his name the show actually throws a massive amount of attention on him – the entire pilot is constructed in a way that kind of expects Superman to show up at the end and tell Supergirl he is proud of her (a service that ends up being offered by James ‘not Jimmy for no reason’ Olsen) which shouldn’t feel necessary at all. Kara is proud of herself, as are her closest friends and family, so establishing ‘big blue’ as an absent authority figure from whom one should seek approval kind of creates this strange and unhelpful God analogy.

It’s a difficult square to circle certainly, the show wants to acknowledge Superman’s existence, but doesn’t want focus pulled from Kara, or for there to be inevitable/constant questions of why Superman isn’t helping Supergirl out of bad situations. To that end there is a curious relationship established between Kara and Kal El where he is her cousin who knows she has powers, but doesn’t appear to have been in contact since he just deposited her at her new foster parents house (which seems pretty strange for a guy constantly searching for links to his homeworld). Yet there are countless other references to Superman, both obvious (Jimmy Olsen’s presence, the Kara as Clark Kent look, working for a media/news company, the shirt rip) and also obvious (both save a plane on their first outing, Jimmy references both saving a plane as if it wasn’t an obvious thing). These work to establish Supergirl as part of the ongoing Superman franchise, but they risk giving the impression that Supergirl is ‘just’ a female version of Superman rather than having her own identity and cool trademarks. Having some of this stuff in the pilot is fine, but if it becomes a regular thing throughout the season then the danger will be that Supergirl never becomes a character and show in her/its own right.

It seems like the writers have a foot in both camps; referring to Superman unusually often (by name or otherwise) to remind the audience that he is out there and could show up at any moment (see you in sweeps!), but also not using his actual name or giving him a direct contemporary relationship with Kara so that he stays at arms length and can be ignored if necessary. Maybe this is the right balancing act, one that gives the writers freedom to use the character if they want or never mention him again. Or maybe they will write an endlessly inventive list of ways to talk about Superman without saying his name. In either case my hope is that the show capitalises on the good work done in the pilot to establish a world without Superman, one that is built around the tremendous performance from Benoist and that has the potential to be both as compelling and as much fun as contemporary comic book shows like The Flash and iZombie.

Notes //

– I am a big fan of the way Supergirl lands from flight; it looks like there is a momentum to her landing and it gives the super-power a real physicality.

– I am not a big fan of super-powered shows/comics/movies having people apparently kill themselves when first revealing their powers to someone – surely just flying off the roof top is as effective as falling off it before flying, and it has the added benefit of not making someone you love think you just died (even if it’s only for a moment).

– I am constantly upset that superhero media very rarely shows superheroes saving people rather than fighting villains so it was nice to see the show open with an act of selfless heroism that wasn’t punching guys at a bank robbery; here’s hoping the show continues to include more of this.