Dark Phoenix rises, and it isn't so bad

I find myself utterly flummoxed by the enormous negative reaction and dismal critic rating for Dark Phoenix, which was not nearly as bad as its reviews.

First, I want to declare my least popular opinion: I really don't care what happened in the comics. Don't get me wrong - I love comics, I used to have a pull list of my own before they became ludicrously expensive, I've read the Dark Phoenix saga in the original Chris Claremont.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, a movie adaptation needs to be able to stand on its own in its new medium, and that means changes. Some of those changes are good - I mean, have you ever read the novels on which Sleeping With the Enemy or The Hunt For Red October were based? Sometimes they take the source material and run it through a Cuisinart, but as Stephen King himself has said, the book is right there on the shelf. They can't change a word. (And he would know, given what Hollywood has done to some of his work.)

The Dark Phoenix story is not just the issues collected in the trade. It is also 30-odd issues leading up to it, with multiple storylines threaded in and out. As such, it is tricky to encapsulate the story in a single movie, as those behind the annoying X-3: The Last Stand discovered. And as the creators of Dark Phonenix have now discovered.

Really: Could a single movie include Mastermind, and the Hellfire Club, and the Lady Grey backstory, and the D'bari AND The Shi'ar in space, plus the Skree and Krulls and don't forget Uatu the Watcher... More importantly, would we want them to do so? I mean, it took 22 movies to build up to Avengers: Endgame, and by the time we got rolling in Infinity War, you were either in or you were lost. 

Both X3 and Dark Phoenix had another problem: A key character is missing. In X3, James Marsden couldn't hang around to play Cyclops through the Phoenix saga because he had to run off and be the real hero of Superman Returns. (A similar issue distracted Bryan Singer, who left the franchise he launched in order to resurrect Superman.)

In Dark Phoenix, the X-Critters are attempting to complete their biggest saga without Wolverine, who was neatly dispatched in the darkly emotional (and a tad dreary) Logan last year. 20th Century Fox chose not to recast Wolverine, as they are handing the X-Baton off to Disney, and allowed the character to simply disappear from Dark Phoenix. Maybe that's because it would be somewhat creepy for 51-year-old Hugh Jackman to spend a movie longing after a 20-something Sophie Turner. That only flies in Hollywood.

There have been far too many moments in the X-Men series where men stand around debating what to do about a woman, usually Jean. This was nicely dispensed by having the leader of the D'bari take the form of a human woman, so that the ultimate battle is between Jean and Vuk (Jessica Chastain) instead of Xavier and Magneto and Wolverine and Cyclops and even Mastermind deciding what should be done with her. This is a nice twist, and allegedly made to distinguish it from Captain Marvel. It was instantly derided as "trying to join the current trend of powerful women," because after dozens and dozens of superhero stories starring and largely focused on men, three women-led films are just crazytalk.

Unfortunately, the D'bari are the weak point of the film. Chastain practically speaks in a monotone, perhaps to indicate she is an alien intelligence translated into English, but it's a poor acting choice because we fail to feel any sense of menace from her. When she speaks of rebuilding the D'bari empire on Earth, she might as well be ordering a pizza. And her minions are practically faceless, certainly with no personalities whatsoever. They're just a convenient foil for the X-Folk.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

PhoenixAnother complaint: the movie spends a great deal of time blaming Xavier for placing barriers in Jean's mind, protecting her from the memory of causing her mother's death and her father's decision to surrender her to Xavier. This is a slight variation from both the comics and X3, in which Xavier placed the barriers to keep Dark Phoenix from taking over Jean's mind.

However, the movie goes to a ridiculous extent blaming Xavier for everything that happens, and it feels unsupported by the story. Xavier didn't create the power of the Phoenix or cause Jean to become Dark Phoenix. He did not call the D'bari to Earth or hinder anyone's ability to fight them. His decision to protect Jean from grief and trauma is ethically questionable, to be sure, but it is hardly responsible for all the mayhem that follows.

In addition, Mystique (an under-used Jennifer Lawrence with one blue foot out the door) spends a long speech haranguing Xavier for making the X-Men poster children for mutants. When James McAvoy snaps back that he prefers medals and speeches to being hunted to extinction, he's speaking for the rest of us, wondering where Mystique has been for the last few movies when they were an inch from being rounded up into concentration camps. Mutants holding the right to live as themselves in public has been her cause all along, and it rings false when they have achieved it and she complains about Xavier's methods.

The movie cannot make up its mind whether Xavier is right or wrong in his choices, making him well-intentioned and kind and not directly responsible for any of the badness... and yet forced to take full responsibility by everyone else, including himself. In the end, you find yourself blinking in disbelief and rooting for Xavier to slap someone silly and sentence them to go watch the last five movies again.

END SPOILERS

Extra credit should go to Sophie Turner, who studied mental illnesses in preparation for playing a Jean both drawn to and repelled by her new powers as Dark Phoenix; and to McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto, reprising their roles one more time with nuanced and skillful performances (plus or minus the writing of their characters). No one thought anyone could take over the roles created so well by Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and these two have done a terrific job.

Nicholas Hoult does a capable job as Beast, emoting through untold layers of makeup and special effects, while Tye Sheridan and Alexandra Shipp are simply there as Cyclops and Storm, neither impressing nor failing as their characters. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver, though criminally underused and muted from his terrific appearance in Days of Future Past. (Blink and you miss it: Chris Claremont is in the awards ceremony toward the beginning.) 

In the end, Dark Phoenix is not the best of the X-Men franchise and it doesn't really feel like the finale of the series, though it is unfair to compare it to Endgame even in that respect. But it is hardly the disaster that the critics and many fans have painted it. It makes more sense than Apocalypse and is far more entertaining than The Wolverine, but neither is it the delight of X-2 or Days of Future Past. Its dialogue was not nearly as clunky as X1 and the story was not so dreary as Logan. 

It is practically inevitable that the series (which was already quasi-rebooted with the First Class crew) will be rebooted again under the Disney umbrella. Swear all you want at the Mouse, but these days, just about everything they take over ends up vastly improved. I look forward to seeing what they will do with the X-Folk, with the minor regret that we may not see McAvoy and Fassbender at the chess board again. 


Guest Voices: Long live the king(zilla)

It has been five years since Godzilla swam off at the end of the 2014 Godzilla, and now the king has returned to reclaim his throne.

Michael Dougherty, director for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, decided that for this sequel he would give the "G fans" what they said they all wished was in the first movie: More monster action and fan service galore.

The plot centers on the world trying to cope with the fact that monsters are real, and the best way to deal with it. Vera Farmiga plays Dr. Emma Russell, who feels that the Titans (monsters) can be lived with and studied. Her estranged husband, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), thinks they should be killed, after their son Andrew died in the 2014 battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs. Daughter Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) is dragged into the middle, as eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) enters the fray.

In all of this, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is still trying to get the governments of the world to understand that Godzilla and the other Titans are all part of the natural order of the world and that coexistence should be a goal. But when the Titan King Ghidorah awakens, it causes a chain reaction of Titans awakening across the world that only Godzilla can stop.

If you know me and have listened to me speak on the sci-fi convention circuit on panels, you all know I am one of the biggest G Fans out there. My love of the Godzilla movies has led me to write papers for school on the significance of the films and the symbolism the movies have created throughout the years. Iguana

So what has Michael Dougherty brought to this new Godzilla film? Pure popcorn fun and so many call backs to the old films you will need to get the movie on Blu-ray to be able to find them all. Once the action gets going, it is non-stop, with kaiju sightings, battles, and people running in terror from the monsters.

And man, what monsters! Along with Godzilla, there are three other monsters from the Toho movies: Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah are all beautifully crafted into CGI monsters of power. The battles between the monsters are fierce and just as destructive as they should be when monsters the size of skyscrapers are fighting. It was one of the most fun times I have had at the movies in a long time, seeing so many of my childhood favorites on the big screen again.

One of the most impressive things in the movie is the soundtrack. Legendary Pictures was able to acquire the rights to use the original music from the Toho movies. Hearing the classic music of the Godzilla and Mothra themes made it so magical. I was grinning ear to ear, listening to Mothra’s music as she came out of her cocoon.

It isn't perfect. Emma's storyline gets a little silly, and the eco-terrorist's motives are left to the oversimplified and overused points of "We are killing the planet and need to be destroyed." Millie Bobby Brown isn’t given a lot to do in the film, but what she is given she does a fine job of it. Some of the jokes in the film are forced and can be plain dumb. But luckily, Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Stanton is given all of the best jokes, and he does them well.

Spoiler Warning!

The Mothra Twins do make an appearance... but the way it is done is cool, with no singing.

The only Toho monsters in the movie are the Big Four...no one else shows up from the Toho roster of monsters, which is a little of a letdown, but hopefully if they make more movies, others can be adapted for the Monsterverse. Rodan and Mothra’s screen time is very limited which made me wish we could have seen more of them. But, for when we do see them it is wonderful. Although his only appearance is in video footage and a wall painting, Kong is mentioned several times. This makes sense, as the battle to end all battles comes next year with Godzilla vs. Kong pitting the King of Skull Island against the King of the Monsters.

End spoilers

How did they handle my hero Godzilla? Wonderful! He was the unstoppable force of nature that we all grew up watching and cheering for. When he gets smacked around in the fights you can’t help to cheer for him to get up. His facial expressions are done to perfection and I found myself cheering and jumping for joy at the end of the movie. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the big G, and it made me so happy to see him doing what he does best: Wrecking stuff and proving that he is the king.

If you are not a fan of the Godzilla genre, can you enjoy this movie? Well, if you like a good action flick and don’t mind rooting for a giant lizard and moth, you should be good to go. This isn’t Shakespeare, folks.

All in all, I loved this movie. I plan to go see it a few times to catch whatever I might have missed in the Easter Egg department and to see my hero stomping around. In other words...

Long live the King!

 

Jim D. Gillentine is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.


Summer Movie Round-up!

Summer is usually when the movies get big and dumb, and we all flock to them anyway. Is it that we have no taste in the summer, or we’re craving air conditioning and overpriced popcorn? Or maybe it’s that we tend to have more spare time and fewer commitments. At any rate, summer means movies, and usually not the art-house flicks.

I don’t pretend to watch every movie - I leave that to my guest columnist Rahul Menon, who literally does watch every. single. movie. But here’s a quick rundown of the movies coming up this summer, and what we expect from them.

 

Already Out

No, we didn’t bother reviewing Endgame, because a) just about every one of you saw it anyway, and b) every blog in the universe had a review. What could we add to the conversation? We were all too busy standing in line to see it again.

Also out: Aladdin, which has middling reviews but I hear that Jasmine finally gets her own bloody song, and it’s about time. Also Pokemon Detective Pikachu, which you could not pay me to see, and Brightburn, which is Evil Superman as the Bad Seed.

And there’s Booksmart, which is confounding me. I was actively angry at the trailers, which appeared to depict two young women who are supersmart but of course completely socially inept, because everyone knows “book smart” is antithetical to having a social life or understanding the basics of human interaction, with an (un)healthy dose of fat-shaming as the plus-size friend is the loud, obnoxious and clueless one. However. Several people I know and trust have seen it and say it isn’t that at all, and it’s actually a terrific movie. I’m not sure I’m convinced enough to head to the theater, but I might give it a chance on Netflix. Have you seen it? What do you think?

 

May 31

Godzilla: King of the Monsters. If you follow us on any social medium, you know that guest columnist Jim D. Gillentine is the biggest Godzilla nerd in the Western hemisphere. Probably you could have figured that from the 19 Godzilla-themed posts on his Facebook in the last 24 hours. (I am not exaggerating, I counted.) So look for a Godzilla review next week, as we watch the Big Iguana go to town on a collection of traditional kaiju from … you know, I will let Gillentine handle that.

Rocketman. Early buzz is much more positive for this biopic of Elton John than a similar-themed Bohemian Rhapsody a few months ago.

Ma. Horror flick starring Octavia Spencer as … a psychopath knocking off the usual nubile, drunken teenagers? Offbeat casting and Spencer is an Oscar winner, which is about the only thing that would interest me in what looks like a paint-by-numbers thriller.

 

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• Comic book nerds unite, because the long-running X-Men saga is taking a second try at Dark Phoenix. They certainly couldn’t do a worse job than the first attempt, despite the very
best efforts of the Phase One crew, and Sophie Turner has impressed me in the trailers at least.

• Also releasing: Late Night, in which Emma Thompson is a talk-show diva and Mindy Kaling is her unexpected muse; and The Secret Life of Pets 2, about which the less said is better. Also also: a Ron Howard documentary about Pavarotti is of great interest to me and probably will play absolutely nowhere near me.

 

June 14

• Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth escape the Marvel Universe to take on the awesome suits of Men in Black: International, co-starring Emma Thompson (again!) as the new Zed.

• Also releasing: a new Shaft movie with Samuel L. Jackson, a zombie flick titled The Dead Don’t Die and a whole lot of little drama films you’ve never heard of.

 

June 21

• CultureGeek Junior (a.k.a. Ian Smith) is approaching Toy Story 4 with a now-familiar mixture of dread and excitement. For his generation (end-millennial), Toy Story is the language of childhood, and the third film closed on a perfect note. Do we want to reopen the toybox? Can they really pull it off a fourth time without screwing it up? Look for his assessment in late June.

• Also releasing: a reboot of Child’s Play, which seemed like the world’s worst idea until I heard that Chucky’s voice is Mark Hamill. Now I’m paying attention. Also a documentary on Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. See above note about Pavarotti.

 

June 28

It's a catchup week, with a weird Danny Boyle flick about a world where the Beatles never happened titled Yesterdayand the next installment in the Conjuring series with Annabelle Comes Home. I have very complicated feelings about the Conjuring movies, which I may detail in another column someday. There's also a scattering of dramas and documentaries, as is usually the case in a catchup week before...

 

July 5

The Fourth of July is another tentpole week in a summer full of tentpoles, but this year they’re going light on us: only one mega-film releasing. Spider-man: Far From Home returns us to the MCU in the aftermath of Endgame, and hopefully will answer some of our lingering questions.

  • What happened to all the families with a five-year gap in ages now that they were un-snapped?
  • Why is Peter’s best friend (and apparently all his other friends) still in high school? Were they all snapped?
  • Who's running the country when the snapped politicians and leaders got un-snapped? Runoff election time!
  • What happened to all those people who were on planes or undergoing surgery?
  • Was the rat really Loki?
  • Why didn’t anyone pick up the trash for the five years of the Snap?

(Okay, that last one is probably only bothering me.)

There’s also a couple of thrillers coming out - Midsommar, Cold Blood Legacy - but no one cares.

 

July 12

It’s a catchup week, as we see a bunch of non-tentpoles crowded into a week without a superhero. We have two thrillers: Crawl, about a woman fighting alligators during a hurricane (okay); and 21 Bridges with Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman as a disgraced New York detective fighting bad guys by shutting down New York’s bridges and tunnels. Already the premise raises red flags for me, but I’d happily watch Boseman read the phone book, so….

Also releasing: Karen Gillan and Dave Bautista in a ride-sharing “comedy” titled Stuber (no) and The Farewell, a “comedy” about a grandmother who is dying and being lied to by her whole family. I must be missing something there.

 

July 19

500Disney’s at it again, with the “live action” Lion King remake. Okay, we know it’s not actually live action but just a totally different kind of animation because hey, real animals on the veldt don’t sing and dance. Shut up.

It’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Beyonce and Alfre Woodard on the voices, with James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa because there is no other God before him. Also, John Oliver as Zazu is my pick for casting choice of the year.

Literally nothing else is going up against this. Oh, except a documentary about David Crosby.

 

July 26

• Quentin Tarantino can’t leave Leonardo DiCaprio alone, as he’s put him with Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One is a fading actor, the other is a stunt double, and Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Christopher Walken and Margot Robbie show up as well. Supposedly it’s Tarantino’s “love letter to L.A.” I generally can’t stand Tarantino (yeah yeah I know) but it’s vaguely interesting from the trailer.

 

Aug. 2

• It doesn’t matter how many times the Fast and Furious people make me watch the same. bloody. trailer. I have no interest in Hobbs and Shaw, but perhaps I would feel differently if I had seen any of the prior F&F films. What do you think?

Also releasing: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, updating Dora the Explorer to teen years and hopefully giving young girls a new heroine.

 

Aug. 9

It’s another dumping ground, with horror flick Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, dramas The Kitchen and Brian Banks, and Kenneth Branaugh directs Artemis Fowl from the Irish fantasy YA book series.

 

Aug. 16

We close out the summer with Angry Birds Movie 2 and 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, proving that no movie can be so bad or flop so badly that someone won’t greenlight a sequel. Also crime drama The Informer, comedy music pic Blinded by the Light re: Springsteen, and I kid you not, Playmobil: The Movie, with... Daniel Radcliffe? I cannot make this up.

That’s the run-down. So what are you looking forward to seeing? What would you like to see CultureGeek and the Guest Voices review? Happy summer!


Guest Voices: SuperLegends Finales!

I previously reviewed the just-completed seasons of Arrow and The Flash in tandem, as the two shared a lot of common themes this year.



While the same is true of Supergirl and Legends, a lot more than I expected, I must acknowledge it’s like comparing a straight superhero story (Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle’s run on Supergirl, for example) to the Keith Giffen/J.M. Dematteis era of Justice League, where half the plot revolved around Booster Gold and Blue Beetle’s get-rich-quick schemes, the Martian Manhunter was addicted to Oreo-like treats, and Green Lantern Guy Gardner was laying the groundwork for the #metoo movement with every leer.



With that said, these two remarkably different shows both taught us this season that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself … but that fear itself has friends in high (and low) places.

Former TV Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter was introduced in the early days of Supergirl as an American president who — like reporter Kara Danvers and DEO leader “Hank Henshaw” (the Martian Manhunter) — was not what she seemed. Olivia Marsdin was a Durlan, a member of a shape-shifting race introduced in the Legion of Super-Heroes comics.

That secret comes out to the public early in the season, and America takes a turn for the xenophobic. Enter Sam Witwer (formerly of Smallville and the U.S. version of “Being Human”) as Ben Lockwood, small-town businessman by day, iron-masking wearing demagogue “Agent Liberty” by night, stirring up people’s resentments over jobs lost to extraterrestrials.

Mass detentions. Alien registries. “Earth First” signs waved at protests.

 And that’s not even getting to the introduction of Lex Luthor (a masterful Jon Cryer). Or James Olsen getting superpowers, but of a less wacky variety than in the comics.

Brainiac 5 gets a love interest: Dreamer, a trans* woman of Lallorian lineage, ancestor of his Legion teammate Dream Girl. Nicole Maines (trans activist turned model and actress) brings a great energy to the series — like Mon-El in season 2, she’s someone for Supergirl and J’onn (and Brainy) to mentor, but unlike Mon-El, she doesn’t pull Supergirl into a romantic subplot that overwhelms everything else.

 We get to see Jesse Rath — a regular this season as Brainy — run through a gamut of emotions this season, with hints at the less benevolent Brainiacs of the past.



Meanwhile, over on Legends, the team starts out the season facing a murderous unicorn that spits hallucinogenic goo at Woodstock and ends with a circus at a “monsters-are-people-too” theme park literally built overnight using a magic diary, and a double homage to both Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire AND the Disney animated classic Peter Pan.

In between, DC Comics demon Neron tries to collect a whole lot of souls by stirring up fear of magical creatures — including an ogre who just wants to sing, a minotaur who plays the guitar gently, the Baba Yaga, and a mummy — through creating a “monster spotting” app whose terms of service include handing one’s immortal soul over him. (No one reads the terms of service, right?)

Legends is the show about the underdogs. So of course, one of the season’s standout characters is a food delivery worker named Mona who ends up as monster dietician and all-around wrangler. And of course, when the team starts to feel a little big for its collective britches, there’s a heavier-than-expected price to pay.



But there are great character moments both serious and farcical all along the way. The Legends take a “hard pass” on the 2018-19 “Elseworlds” crossover, so Supergirl, The Flash, and Green Arrow take a “hard pass” on helping them out with something of seemingly lower stakes later.

Sara Lance and her girlfriend Ava’s romantic life gets sorted out in Ava’s personal Purgatory — an “IKEA Store from Hell.” Shipmate Zari (the modern-day version of the 1970s DC Saturday morning heroine “Isis,” except they can’t use that name now), a rare example of a Muslim heroine, gets some great characterization all along the way and some resolution to the crisis that brought her to the team in the first place.



Oh, and Tom Wilson — Biff from Back to the Future — will make you cry. More than once.



Though the Legends sat out this year’s crossover, all five shows (Flash, Arrow, Legends, Supergirl, and the new Batwoman series) will participate in the late-2019 “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event. And both of these season’s finales tease to it in their own ways.



Supergirl season 4: 5/5 stars


DC’s Legends of Tomorrow season 4: 4/5 stars

 

Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.


Guest Voices: Flarrow Finale

Legacy. Family of choice. Good intentions with bad results. Redemption. Sacrifice.

DC Comics’ interconnected shows on The CW took an interesting path in the 2018-19 season, with the four series (see also Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl) seeming to pair up thematically in key ways this year.

The Flash and Arrow shared similar concerns with the big topics listed above.

 Both series introduced some new characters and some new settings: Green Arrow meets a hitherto unknown half-sister, Emiko Queen. Team Flash gets to know Nora Allen, Barry and Iris’ daughter from the future where The Flash disappeared in a capital-C Crisis.

But we also met new characters … and older versions of some familiar faces … as Arrow flashed forward to the post-Crisis era and we caught up with some (but not all) of our familiar band of crimefighters. And by digging into Nora’s past on The Flash, we see another stage in the life of Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash.

Events in the present day would have their effects in the future, instilling every present-day decision with more weight as we saw the consequences down the line. Is the timeline malleable? Thawne certainly thinks so.

 The Flash welcomed guest stars Chris Klein, Sarah Carter, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and Kyle Secor over the course of the season.

Arrow welcomed Colton Haynes back to the main cast as Roy Harper/Arsenal and also featured Kirk Acevedo as last-season’s main villain Ricardo Diaz, Michael Jai White as Ben Turner/Bronze Tiger, and Adrian Paul (TV’s Highlander) in a role I won’t disclose, with relative newcomers Katherine McNamara and Ben Lewis playing key roles in the future scenes.

Oh, and halfway through the season came the “Elseworlds” crossover, which also included an episode of Supergirl. (Legends of Tomorrow sat it out due to character congestion.) And in that crossover we met a mysterious figure called The Monitor … and we met the Barry Allen of Earth-90, a seasoned hero played by John Wesley Shipp (who’s previously played Barry’s dad and alternate universe Flash Jay Garrick in these series). Yes, the 1990 version of The Flash is now in these shows’ multiverse.



The Monitor has some dire predictions about the future. And the thread doesn’t just stop there. This fall’s five-series crossover (Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, and the newly launched Batwoman) will be titled “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the seasons’ finales all point to it in their own unique ways, there will likely be tears before it’s over, and the road started with this season for most of the shows.

Arrow season 7: 5/5 stars
The Flash season 5: 4/5 stars

Tomorrow: Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl finales!

 

Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis. 


Guest Voices: Writing in a Shared World

Ever wonder what it's like to write a book in a shared universe, like Marvel or Star Wars? Novelist Sela Carsen shares her experience.

 

Writing is a solitary endeavour, by necessity. If you’re talking, if you’re chatting, if you’re engaging with other people, you’re not getting words down on your manuscript. And if you want to put out a finished book, that’s what counts -- getting the words down.

But there are instances where working with others provides a framework for something bigger than just your own story. One of those instances is taking part in a shared world.

There are a few ways that shared worlds work. This is one of the most common: You’re invited to participate in a world that someone else has already built and populated with their own characters. You can’t change things about the canon, but you can work inside it to your own tune, as long as you don’t mess with established storylines. Think of the many Star Trek novels here.

I did this with the Nocturne Falls universe, run by Kristen Painter. In order to meet the demands of her ravenous readers, she invited about a dozen authors to write in the cozy, sweet, paranormal, small-town world she’d built. The rules were limited:

  1. Set it in the town. We could build new places, but they needed to fit logically with the rest of the setting.
  2. We could connect with the canon characters, but not change their storylines (i.e. we couldn’t decide we didn’t like the relationship that had already been written, and write in our own hero or heroine instead).
  3. And we had to stick with the tone of the stories -- no gory violence, no swearing, no sex on the page. Actually, that wasn’t so much a rule as a guideline, and it was more about appealing to the readers who already loved the original stories. They were “clean” romances (yeah, no one actually likes that word, but it’s the keyword that readers know) so if we wanted to tap into her readership, that’s what they wanted.

The rest was up to us! People wrote cozy mysteries and young adult and straight PNR and the readers loved it! She ran the project for two years, and her readers ended up with more than 30 new Nocturne Falls stories, in e-book, in print, and even in audio.

There’s a call out right now for a shared world based on a contemporary romance series that’s already out. The call actually states “The … World is comprised of original works of fiction written about the … series characters and/or in the story settings. Writers may maintain the original authors' characters and settings or add their own.”

I’ve asked whether that means authors can take those original characters and change the canon stories from the series to include a different hero or heroine, but I don’t know the answer yet. The world is also accepting stories written in different romance subgenres, including historical, paranormal, and mystery.

Another approach might be: a physical world is established as a framework, and authors can write whatever they want inside that world as long as it doesn’t break the physical rules or the overall concept. Maybe it’s a town, maybe it’s a motorcycle club, maybe it’s a sci-fi galaxy.

This is the kind of world that often works well for a “band of brothers” series and storyline. Decide on the basic rules for the group, and if there’s an overarching storyline that everyone needs to touch on, then let ‘em run.

It also works for broader strokes. I’m currently working on a brand new sci-fi romance series set in a galaxy called the Obsidian Rim. It started with two authors who came up with the historical background of the post-apocalyptic galaxy, the new geography of the “Salty Way” and the physics by which humans can travel there.

There are about eight of us involved now and the closer we get to the first set of release dates, the more interesting the details become. We don’t have to use each other’s worlds as touchpoints, but we knew up front that being able to reference other stories in the series was something that readers would enjoy. If they read about another author’s planet or characters in my story, they’ll seek out those books. And if another author has her characters visit Gizem Station (my world), then readers may find it intriguing enough to look for my books.

As a variation, I encountered one shared world (a magical university/older kids Hogwarts sort of thing) where the authors were ALL up in each other’s stories. The entire concept was to so tightly entwine the stories and characters that readers would need to read the series in its entirety to see the whole world and how all the pieces came together.

Any way that people decide to come together to build a world can work as long as everyone is clear on the rules beforehand. But no matter what the world is, you still have to do your own writing!

 

Sela Carsen is an award-winning author of paranormal and sci-fi romance — with or without sex and dead bodies. Your pick. She maintains a permanent nerd-on for fairytales and mythology, and openly hoards reference books about obscure folklore. Born a wanderer, she and her family have finally settled in the Midwest. Until they move again, at least. Find out more at http://selacarsen.com


It's a Disney Day

With the final Endgame trailer, the long-awaited announcement of the Disney+ launch and the hotly-debated Star Wars IX trailer, it's pretty much a Disney Friday. 

Yell all you want about the Mouse, the fact is that they're making entertainment that the vast majority of the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world) desperately wants to watch.

Disney's stock jumped up 11.5 percent in one day after the announcement of the programming lineup and price of Disney+, the long-awaited streaming service that will shift all of the Marvel movies, traditional Disney animation, the 500+-film movie library, the Disney Channel backlog (Mouse help us), the ever-widening Star Wars universe, the Pixar films and National Geographic for $6.99 a month or just under $70 a year.

Am I the only one who didn't know NatGeo was under the Mouse now? Look, I can't know everything. Grad school. Yeah, that's my excuse and I'm keeping it. Meanwhile, Disney owns all or part of Hulu and ESPN, so be looking for a possible bundle deal if those are important to you. 

Variety's got the full list, so check it out here. They really didn't need to indicate that Disney's upcoming movies would be on it - seriously, duh - but the Loki series, the live-action Star Wars series, WandaVision, Rogue Trip, and some of the other original offerings look interesting. Disney is investing $1 billion in this thing - that's like one whole Marvel movie! - and since this is pretty much the way entertainment is going, pay attention, folks.

Netflix dropped 4.5 percent, but I'm not worried. They're still the streaming 800-pound gorilla, and the day of the announcement was going to smack them regardless. Still, bad timing to announce they're raising their prices AGAIN on the same week. AT&T, YouTube TV and Sling have all increased prices - guys, remember we have actual choices now. This is not cable, where we were all trapped by whatever the hell they wanted to charge us and we had to take everything (plus or minus premium) or nothing. 

It's not like it was really a question - my family is so Disney that our subscription was inevitable. But the fact that it's so frigging affordable makes it a definite yes for us. 

Then there's the Endgame trailer.

 

Frankly, I liked the second one better; it gave more of a sense of history and of the prior 22 movies or so coming to this moment as well as Black Widow being badass and Tony (almost) being human. But really, honestly: they made sure to include Captain Marvel smiling! 

No, I don't have my tickets yet, because I don't have $15,000. (Seriously, people, it's going to be on for a while. You'll catch it.) I appear to be the only one....

Fine, let's talk Star Wars. No, I'm not going to analyze every frame of the thing and speculate about whether the title means Rey is actually the daughter of Mara Jade (give it up, guys) or whose voice is laughing at the end and I'm just gonna say HELLO LANDO and hand over my money, okay? 

I'll be unhappy if they retcon some of the startling, groundbreaking changes made in the series by Last Jedi - no, Rey doesn't need to be descended from anyone special in order to be awesome. And "No one is ever gone" is kind of the whole point of nine movies (plus other schtuff) about The Force, right? 

And the less said about the incel assholes the better. A woman's holding the lightsaber now, get the hell over it. 

 

In the meantime, Hamill's gonna be himself. And may the Force be with him.

 


Guest Voices: The Love That Hears Its Name Whispered, With Laughter

(Note: As they sometimes say on NPR, the following is by no means explicit but does acknowledge the existence of sex.)

I had a great idea for this entry. I was going to talk about the way pop culture, from movies to TV shows to popular music to comic books and more, has a gender disparity in the way masturbation is portrayed depending on whether the person engaged in the act is male or female. It could be summed up in what the activity suggested about the person as a social animal: If the character is a female, this is an empowering act that shows “she doesn’t need a man” to have a satisfying sexual life, but if it the character is a male, the act is humiliating proof that he “can’t find a woman.”

(Apologies for the heteronormativity and gender binary-ness of it all.)

The thesis fits the pop culture I’m most familiar with. And therein lies the flaw at the heart of the experiment: a pitifully small sample size, even though some people think of me as a walking encyclopedia.

Thankfully, you and I have been rescued from a likely embarrassing outcome by someone else with the time and resources to actually do the research correctly: Australian academic Lauren Rosewarne’s Masturbation in Pop Culture: Screen, Society, Self (Lexington Books, 2014) is a soundly researched look at the phenomenon using more than 600 instances as its evidence base.

And now I will say a novel thing you never hear online: I was wrong.

To the extent that masturbation is talked about, it’s often in the sense of an “everyone does it, but we don’t talk about it” talk from parent to child. But the “caught in the act” scenario applies to men and women, the “sad and lonely and looking for release” depiction goes both ways, and there are even examples like Michael Winterbottom’s NC-17 indie film 9 Songs where not only is the character involved with someone, they might even be in the same bed.

Rosewarne’s book is a fascinating read, though it’s priced as a college textbook, so reader be rich (sic). So instead of going off on a bunch of anecdotes — which would not constitute data — I’ll instead leave you with one anecdote and a recommendation, not in that order.

* The Recommendation: Chynna Clugston-Flores’ indie comic Blue Monday (available in collected editions from Image Comics) is a must-read for anyone who likes post-punk and New Wave music, manga aesthetics, and the high school comedies of John Hughes and his imitators, or preferably all of the above. But John Hughes is now problematic, I know, so I’ll add that those problems are not on evidence here.

 Volume 4 of the series, Painted Moon, has a riotous sequence in which the core group of friends discovers that two of their own have never learned to manage their tensions, so to speak, and peer-pressure them into (separately) getting in touch with themselves. Queue up the Buzzcocks’ punk classic “Orgasm Addict” as hijinks ensue and Bleu, our aquamarine-tressed heroine, suddenly starts getting a lot of bathroom passes.

The whole series is a delight, but this installment of the series turned the “horny boy/shameful girl” stereotype on its ear to hilarious effect.

* The Anecdote: I don’t know why I didn’t know until … more recently than I care to admit … that Cyndi Lauper’s hit single “She Bop” was an empowering anthem about masturbation, but I’m absolutely positive that neither of the junior high teachers who used the song for a unit on verb conjugation knew anything about that, even though the song was one of the reasons records eventually got labeled. (Cyndi Lauper, Guns ’n Roses, Sam Kinison, 2 Live Crew, they were all alike, right?)

In the same way that Bleu Finnegan or Drew Braverman of TV’s “Parenthood” may have loved themselves a little too much and too often, that song was bored into my brain as we tortured the rhyme scheme with such verb tenses as “they shall have bopped.”

(The voice of Cyndi Lauper was also present for a more poignant and strange moment in my high school years when I was picked to play the color Green in a teacher inservice about a possibly pseudoscientific personality model called “True Colors.”

I love Cyndi Lauper now because I am not history’s greatest monster, and I hope she got some royalties for those bits of strangeness. But 30 years after its release, if I hear “She Bop” coming on the radio, I’m still changing the station.

Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.


Guest Voices: Shazam!

Today's guest voice is author and comics nerd Jim D. Gillentine. He says the Magic Word.

 

I lucked into an early screening of the new DC movie, Shazam! and I have to say...  it is one of the best comic book movies I have ever seen. We're going to avoid spoilers, because that's the rules of this site and because I truly believe that you need to go see this film yourself to fully enjoy it.

The best thing by far in this film is the acting of Zachary Levi as the main character. He is able to portray the wonder, starry-eyed excitement a 14-year old boy would have to become a superhero with the power of the Greek gods at his disposal. Asher Angel, the actor that plays Billy Batson, does a really fine job playing the child counterpart to Shazam and you find yourself really wanting to give the poor guy a hug during the sadder moments of the movie.

But the best acting goes to Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freemen, Billy Batson’s foster brother. The scenes between Levi and Grazer are pure comedic gold! I was laughing so much at the interactions between the two of them. They by far had the best scenes in the movie and are worth the ticket price alone.

But what is a superhero movie without a good villain? No worries there, as Mark Strong as Doctor Sivana does an excellent job giving us a villain we love to hate and yet, still feel a little sympathy for, because of how much his childhood influenced his path in life. Everyone else in the movie put a great effort in playing their characters and I tip my hat to director David Sandberg to be able to bring out the best from the cast.

The only real gripe I have for this movie is that I have to wait to go see it again in two weeks. If you want a fun, enjoyable time at the movies with your family then go see Shazam! I think you will be very pleased with what it has to offer.

 

Jim D. Gillentine is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.


Guest Voices: Us

Today's Guest Voice is Rahul Menon, filmmaker and grad student. Rahul sees every movie. EVERY movie. 

 

I think this would be the apt time to coin a new genre just for Jordan Peele: ‘Socio-Horror.' Us is a blast of ideas that’s been smartly packaged and sneaked into a movie theatre as a horror movie, with just enough absurdity to spark conversation.

Us-movie-poster-384x600The #Oscar win for Best Original Writing for Get Out hasn’t gone to Peele’s head. He’s still the same old writer, director, actor and creator: he loves absurd dark humor, he's a horror nerd, and someone who likes to make socially provocative projects.

I can’t talk about Us without talking about Lupita Nyong’o’s sublime performance, Mike Gioulakis’ chilling cinematography and Michael Abels’ haunting score. Lupita Nyong’o is so brilliant in this movie that I’m quite confident that she’ll be overlooked by the Academy, just like Toni Collette in last year’s Heredity. Her performance is essential to the psychological impact of the film, and she succeeds in a big way.

The creative cinematographic choices by Mike Gioulakis are key in illuminating some of the film’s core themes. It crafts a striking and memorable imagery, and enhances the overall chilling experience of the movie. The first time you watch it, enjoy the visuals and the absurdity of the whole thing, the second time you go for it, enjoy the deeper meanings of those visuals, which may lay out different interpretations for different people.

To think that this is Michael Abels’ second time scoring for a movie is just unbelievable! The score lives, breathes, and dances to every beat of the story, along with the characters. You will be spooked by the score, and you will feel like dancing to it, at the same time.

For those of you who have seen and loved Get Out, you know you are in store for lots of allegory and symbolism, satire, social commentary and metaphors. This movie showcases Peele’s ability to build tension and release it in a satisfying way, both with humor and horror, and at times it will remind you of his old comedy sketches from Key and Peele. You will have a lot of questions once the movie gets over; you will definitely want to have a conversation and a discussion with someone, which in itself  is a big win for this movie. 

Get Out was thematically better, much tighter and concise in its story. But Us is definitely a better horror film, using all the tropes to its advantage, and is easily some of the finest visual storytelling that you are likely to see in 2019. This is like a wild horror fever dream, and pretty much every component has to be viewed with the perspective of a social issue.

But the most important thing is that Jordan Peele is just beginning his film career as the new Master of Horror. Regardless of any plot issues the movie has, the guy is a master film maker.

As for Jordan, please keep making horror, please keep making us shudder, the genre loves you. I can see why you were chosen to revive The Twilight Zone.

So do I pay for the next Jordan Peele movie right now, or how does this work? 

"When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you."

 

Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Facebook, Instagram, IMDB.