Thursday, July 31, 2008

New X-Men: 'E For Extinction' (114-116)

Of all Grant Morrison’s major works, the only one I haven’t really covered here is New X-Men. It’s ironic because NXM is one of my favorite things he’s done, a wonderful fusion of the best of Claremont’s style and Grant’s thematic concerns. As a big X-Men fan, and a big Morrison fan, there could be little better. I’ll be going through, arc by arc, digging beneath the surface and pondering how this work fits in with the rest of what Grant has done.

The most striking thing about ‘E For Extinction’ isn’t so much the arc’s quality in and of itself, it’s the way it makes you reconsider the quality of virtually every other X-Men comic or movie that’s not part of the original Claremont run. In three issues, Morrison and Quitely tell a story that’s both epic and personal, that’s both totally new and perfectly integrated with the existing mythology. The arc makes you wonder why other people can’t write the book this well, can’t create something that feels so fresh and alive. It’s the same as they did with All Star Superman, you read that book and it feels effortless. They make it look like they’re not great, it’s the rest of the world that’s slacking.

One of my favorite things about E For Extinction, and Grant’s run as a whole, is the way it presents the growth of mutant culture as an inevitability. They are the next evolution, and will eventually overtake mainstream humanity. That was a huge change in paradigm for the series, and one that was unfortunately erased by the lame deus ex machinas of House of M. I think having mutants on the ascent only makes the ‘hated and feared’ elements of the series even stronger. If humanity’s headed towards extinction, aren’t they going to fight harder than ever to preserve themselves?

The way Grant presents the X-Men, they’re essentially The Invisibles, people who have evolved and are fighting to ensure that humanity moves forward successfully. That’s part of the change in paradigm, from superheroes to rescue workers. They are post-human cool in every way, from Beast feeling like a ‘Hindu sex god’ to Jean’s casual use of her TK abilities in everyday life. They are those humans we see in Cassandra’s vision, only they’re not chasing the Neanderthals out with violence, it’s a nonviolent approach, they are better than the humans, and that’s why they’ll triumph.

X-Men comics, post Claremont’s original run, had a tendency to feel very insular. They battled a series of superhero villains, and any attempt at portraying these characters in everyday situations came off as contrived, or wasn’t attempted at all. The genius of Claremont’s work was the way he made the X-Men pretty much a soap opera. I think Buffy gets closer to the core of what made Claremont’s work great than either of the X-Men movies. Reading his stories, you always felt like these were real people, who were changed and affected by what they experienced. As the characters became corporate properties, that became harder to do, mid 90s X-Men comics didn’t feel like the ‘real’ versions of the characters, they were just stories that had no impact. Grant makes the characters feel real again, he gives you a different status quo and an increased focus on the characters’ personal lives. As the series goes on, it’s not the big action stories that hook me, it’s Scott and Emma Frost’s relationship, or the integration of Xorn into the team. It’s the personal stories.

In a lot of ways, the X-Men concept is wasted in the Marvel Universe. It’s an uneasy fit, having people hate the X-Men for being mutants, while loving the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. I think someone could do a great story with the X-Men set in our universe, showing how the rise of mutant culture changes everything. And, Grant has probably come the closest here, there’s still a lot of superhero tropes, but he takes the time to examine parts of the universe we haven’t seen before. Ugly John is a great example, not every mutant’s going to have cool powers, some will just be messed up. A guy like Ugly John makes it hard to feel so bad for the great looking, ultra powerful X-Men.

While I love Quitely as much as anyone, I’m not sure he’s the best artist for the stories Grant’s telling in this book. He’s brilliant as always, but I think the sexier, more real incarnation of the X-Men was best served by Phil Jiminez, later in the run. Quitely’s design work on the uniforms was amazing, and I love his Wolverine and Emma Frost, but his slightly more idiosyncratic artwork doesn’t fit here as well as it does in The Authority or All Star Superman. Obviously, I love what he did, and going from his work to Igor Kordey’s later in the run is like switching from Christopher Doyle as DP to your five year old cousin as DP halfway through a movie. But, I don’t think the book is as groundbreaking or essentially Quitely as We3 or All Star Superman. Basically, when Quitely is such a limited resource, I don’t think he’s as needed for this story as he was for most of the others he drew.

As for the arc itself, the first two issues serve mainly as setup, bringing us into this new world that Morrison’s created for the X-Men. There’s a lot of iconic, fun moments, but it works best on the initial read, when you get the shock of actually reading a competent X-Men comic, a great X-Men comic for the first time in a long time. Things really pick up at the end of the second issue, when we get the introduction of Emma Frost, and the destruction of Genosha.

Emma Frost is easily my favorite character in Morrison’s X-Men run, a bundle of attitude and edge, she captures the cold, futuristic feel of the book as a whole. You can tell he’s having a whole lot of fun writing her quippy, snarky dialogue. Basically every moment with her in these first few issues is an instant classic, be it spying on the thoughts on her favorite screen idols or marveling at her diamond appearance moments after her entire civilization has been wiped out. And, nobody in the run drew her better than Quitely. He could never quite get a handle on Jean, but he always makes Emma look good, in her long coat and ridiculously tall platform boots.

I also really like the way Morrison reinterprets Wolverine. Toning down the bezerker rage, Wolverine is now the elder statesman of the team. This makes sense if we’re to believe that he’s two hundred years old, he’s a kind of edgy, zen master. It’s particularly interesting that here he’s the calm one, and Scott has all the rage issues. Logan takes joy in poking fun at Scott’s repression, and Scott boils underneath the surface the whole time.

And, he looks much cooler in his leather jacket outfit than in the usual hat the shape of his hair outfit. Even in Claremont’s run, I feel like he spent most of the time in his civilian clothes. I have no clue why Marvel moved away from the Morrison outfits at the end of his run, they’re so much slicker than the ugly look Cassaday gave the characters. I normally love Cassaday’s art, but Beast’s adult diaper and Scott’s body condom didn’t work out so well. The Quitely outfits look better and more functional than anything else we’ve see in comics or the movies.

You may wonder why I’ve spent this whole review talking about culture and fashion, with nary a word on the story. I think that was Grant’s intention with the run. Yes, there’s some tension with Cassandra Nova, but the real goal of the arc was to remake the X-Men as sexy heroes for the twenty-first century, in a world that’s one step ahead of tomorrow. I think it works wonderfully, he nails these characters from the outset, and for the first time since Claremont, it feels like things can change, that these stories matter. Unlike some people, I don’t think this is the best arc in his run, but it’s a great overture for what’s to come. With well written X-Men, the longer the story goes on, the more the characters grow and change, the better it gets.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The new X-Files movie seems to have already been left behind by the internet, a one weekend failure that will quickly vanish from theaters. Now, few people were as big fans of the show as I was, but after watching the film, the major question was why did somebody decide that this was a story that needed to be told? I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with doing a new film, I was eager to see Mulder and Scully together again, but this film was just so aggressively pointless, it leaves you wondering what Chris Carter was thinking.

That’s not to say it was actively bad. If this was an episode of the show, it’d have been okay, one of the series’ weaker episodes, but not one of its worst. But, coming six years after the show went off the air, and playing in a movie theater, you’ve got to be a bit more than just a decent episode.

The biggest flaw of the film was that, once again, Carter exhibited a seemingly perverse desire to not give people what they want to see, to arbitrarily withhold information for no apparent reason, and tell a story that’s such a boilerplate ‘scary story,’ with none of the fun or excitement of the series at its best. The show is about Mulder and Scully working together to solve these cases, that was the constant, a template flexible enough to span elaborate mythology episodes, really scary episodes and funny episodes.

But, this film gives us essentially no moments of Mulder and Scully working together. Instead, he puts the two of them in a weird relationship, the details of which we’re not quite sure of. Presumably, Mulder has been hiding out in this house for the past six years, just hanging out. Scully wants him to get out, yet is angry at him when he goes back to investigating. What does she think he’s going to do? And, why have they just given up the fight and chosen to stay in this house? That’s an issue that comes out of the show’s messy conclusion. The film wisely avoids referencing most of seasons eight and nine, but it’s hard to reconcile the series’ rather urgent ending with the laid back world of this movie.

And, it really bothers me that they put Scully on the sidelines throughout the whole movie, giving her the subplot with the kid rather than letting her get out there and investigate. I thought the show had laid to rest the idea that Scully was a doctor, not an agent. On the show, she was every bit Mulder’s equal, as he says in the film, he needed her to do his work. So, why isn’t it treated that way in the film? I suppose the plot with the kid is meant to tie into her losing her own child, but that’s all so far in the background, a tossed off bit of information, it’s hard to emotionally engage with the character. I’ve seen reviews that said their kid had died, I assumed the part about ‘losing’ him referred to giving him up for adoption in the series.

Either way, if you’re going to go with Mulder and Scully as outsiders from the FBI, why not have them united, and not do this lame messing around with their relationship. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with putting stress on their relationship, but the way it’s played, it makes Scully into the domesticated character, not wanting her man going out and doing stuff. There are some nice Mulder/Scully scenes, but considering how tossed off the main plot was, it’s their relationship that the movie hinges on, and there’s no sensical or interesting development with them.

As for that plot itself, it didn’t really work for me. It doesn’t come close to ‘Beyond the Sea,’ an episode that plays a lot of the same beats in a much more emotional and effective way. Plus, the whole aesthetic is so relentlessly downbeat. There’s very few jokes in the movie, and I think the show always did have a strong humor component. I’d have rather seen a story that was a bit more fun. And, for me, there was a huge disconnect between the summer weather outside and the winter world of the movie. I think this would have been better released in the fall or winter.

The problem with The X-Files at this point is that nearly all the compelling supporting characters have been killed. Without the Smoking Man, Kryceck and the Lone Gunmen, the movie universe feels kind of empty. Skinner got perhaps the best role of the film, coming in for ten minutes, kicking some ass, then getting out of the way. But, if you’re going to do a movie with only two characters from the series, it’s got to be better. It’s got to be Jose Chung or Home good. Where the first film was a great expansion of everything the series did well that probably made no sense to new viewers, this film was so disconnected from the series itself, it’d probably play better for people who’d never watched the show, then for people who had watched the whole thing and wind up disappointed that it’s so poorly handled.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mad Men: 'For Those Who Think Young' (2x01)

Mad Men season two starts off strong, with an episode that draws you back into the series’ world, and shows how distinctly insightful the show is in exploring human behavior in social systems. Almost no other film or TV work is as precise in showing the subtle ways that people interact with each other. Amidst all the big themes and character arcs, what stands out is the show’s ability to construct single moments that are incredibly and real.

I will say that it took me until about halfway through the episode to really get back into the world. It’s always tough getting back into a show after a year away, you’ve got to remember what was going on, where the characters were at, and once again get used to the style of storytelling. Opening status quo update montage aside, Weiner seems to have gone with the throw you back into the world and let you catch up approach. I think it works, it flows seamlessly out of the first season, and it didn’t take too long for me to get back into the swing of things.

The most interesting segment of the episode for me was Betty’s encounter with her old roommate, who’s now a call girl. It makes her realize that in a lot of ways she’s prostituting herself as much as her old friend. She sells herself for fur coats and fancy dinners, for the life she claims to have always wanted. The series always keeps Betty’s past as a model near the surface, a reminder that she used to support herself and live a single life. She was probably still mostly cared for by men, but there was no guarantee that things would go this way for her.

Betty remains as delightfully removed from reality as she was last season, most notably during that moment where she compares her children to manure. I’m guessing her arc this season will further develop the contrast between the life she thinks she should be living, and actualizing more of her own identity. This is set up in the fascinating scene with her and the tow truck guy. The brilliance of that scene is we’re not sure how far she’s going to go. What will she have to do to get her car fixed, and will she be willing to do that? Even just hustling the guy for six dollars is a move we likely wouldn’t have seen from her earlier. She’s still aware of how she can use her sexuality, and the power it gives her over men. The scene reminded me a lot of what we saw with Brenda in Six Feet Under season two, where she tested the boundaries of what was acceptable within a relationship. And, Betty’s arc as a whole has much in common with what we saw from Carmela in The Sopranos.

More than ever, the show reminds me of The Sopranos. While the mob storylines got all the attention on the show, what made it so great was the incredible ability to accurately capture the tiny details of social interaction, and to have so much unsaid subtext in every scene. Weiner clearly learned a lot from Chase. What’s remarkable about the show is the fact that it could very easily play as soap opera, there’s no life or death events, it’s just everyday relationship drama, but they manage to make everything subtle, yet significant.

Part of that is the period setting, and the way the series is incorporated into history. We know the changes that will come to this world, so there’s a kind of inevitable tragedy to Don. Even as he claims that the youth will never have what he has, we know that the youth will change everything, and this entire world will be gone in six or seven years. Again like The Sopranos, it’s a show about the inevitability of generational change, and the older generation’s struggle to deal with a world with changing rules. Don is better equipped to deal with these changes than some of his bosses, he has a self awareness they lack, but is too stubborn to really change.

And, as always, the show looks amazing, like nothing else on TV. The subtlety of the series is something you could never do in a film. We know the world, we know the characters, there’s no need for obvious exposition or narrative tricks, we just look at their world and get out of it what we will.