My inaugural Film Friday post didn’t draw a lot of comment, but that hasn’t discouraged me from watching lots of movies during my Canadian exile. To be honest, movies are kind of saving my life right now.
Here’s what was screened in August at my Secret Worldwide Headquarters. Comments welcome!
(And if you are looking for comic books — go here for that)
The Glass Key (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Maltese Falcon (1941): Treated myself to a day in the dark at the Vancouver Cinematheque over a B.C. holiday weekend. Femme Fatales and hard boiled dicks. I’d seen all three films before, but not for awhile. Thoroughly enjoyed them all, but The Maltese Falcon still leaps off the screen. Stunning to realize this was John Huston’s directorial debut. Fun to watch The Glass Key, as it was the blueprint for my favorite Coen Brother Film (Miller’s Crossing).
The Candidate (1972): Robert Redford, at the peak of his stardom, as a literal California Golden Boy campaigning for Senate. Sharp writing. Kind of depressing, to see that today’s campaigns use the same platitudes and deceptions as forty-five years ago. Redford is good, and Peter Boyle is great as the campaign manager. But Peter Boyle is always great. This movie is ripe for a remake, or better yet, a sequel, with Redford playing a six-term incumbent Senator entirely untethered from his youthful ideals. Has one of the better “70s Endings” of the 70s.
Foxcatcher (2014): True (weird) crime story about a couple of U.S. Olympic wrestlers. Little to recommend in this one, save the performances. Steve Carell disappears into his role but the movie takes us nowhere. We come into the movie knowing the main character is a creepy rich dude, and leave with little more insight than that. Plenty of wrestling along the way.
Bridge of Spies (2015): Sure, it’s a total “Dad Film,” but I’m a dad, and it scored with me. Pushed my buttons — nostalgia, spy stuff, cold war, Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks and making idealistic speeches about what makes Americans into Americans (spoiler: it’s The Constitution). Plus I was just in Berlin last year, and spent a cold afternoon tracing the ghostly remains of that damnable wall. Swept me away.
Elle (2016): Sexual assault and its aftermath, played for maximum outrage. A pretzel of a movie, in terms of its message, morality, and plot. It’s vile; it’s also entertaining. Paul Verhooven has lost none of his contempt for people. Isabel Huppert is fantastic. Glad I saw it and I might even recommend it but no desire to see it again.
Arrival (2016): The aliens are here, but they don’t know how to use Google Translate. Frankly a disappointment. Very much looked forward to this after seeing director Denis Villenueve’s Sicaro, but now I wonder if most of what I liked about that film owed to Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay. Mostly I found this picture empty — some austere imagery, but little else. Could have used more linguistics! (You never want to see that in a review). I gather some jumped off this picture at the third act twist — that’s actually when I got on, but it was too little and too late.
American Hustle (2013): The best Martin Scorsese movie that Marty never made. Period piece where con men are forced to pull a con for the FBI. Christian Bale’s performance kept reminding me of someone, and I couldn’t put my finger on it … until Robert De Niro showed up, and then — oh, sure, he’s doing De Niro! Entertaining Scorsese homage but in the end it is like the paintings Bale’s character sells — an artful fake. Performances are uniformly great except for Jennifer Lawrence, who is perfect.
La Tête d’un Homme (1933): French detective tale filled with great faces and inventive camerawork. Drifts in and out of melodrama but memorable for an uncommonly detailed characterization of the bad guy. In the end, maybe as much about social class as crime.
Putney Swope (1969) and Chaffed Elbows (1966): A couple of independent, farcical, anti-establishment Absurdist films from Robert Downey (not that one). The first was nominally about the advertising industry, and the point of the second pretty much eluded me entirely. Many (but not all!) of the causes they lampooned have faded with time, and the films haven’t always aged well, but both stood as a reminder that movies needn’t be “good” or “relevant” in a contemporary sense to have worth. Both made me think a bit, and investigate an era of New York cultural life that I didn’t know much about. Was also fun stumbling on an odd inspiration for Boogie Nights in Putney Swope.
Jules and Jim (1962): Three friends, multiple romances, some weirdly pragmatic choices — unconventional, messy, authentic even when it is absurd. Honest. Watched this because it was on my list of unwatched classics; because I liked 400 Blows; and because it was a way to mark and honor the passing of Jeanne Moreau. And … I like Jeanne Moreau as much as the next guy, but I’m not letter her drive me off a bridge, KnowWhatI’mSayin’?
Elevator To The Gallows (1957): I wanted more Jeanne Moreau, so I gave this Parisian noir a chance, and it was much more to my liking. The murder plot and the young-lovers-on-the-run (pre-figuring Goddard’s Breathless) were just OK. Mostly it was Moreau wandering around Paris while Miles Davis improvised a musical score … but that was fine.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Grim and low-key crime story “staring” Robert Mitchum, though it seems Mitchum is scarcely in it. Damn, but that man had presence — a genuine movie star. Mitchum’s character complains that he is nearly 51 in this picture (Mitchum was 56 when he shot it) and I think … hmm, I’m half a lap past that one. Uh oh. Another strong performance by Peter Boyle as the standup guy bartender who is really the rat that no one notices.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953): Gentle slapstick as a pleasant everyman goes on vacation. An effervescent champagne bubble of light physical comedy. Just the tonic for distracting myself from the looming threat of thermonuclear war. Followed up with Playtime (1967), where creator Jacque Tati reached for something beyond comedy, and came up with an opulent visual ballet of people caught up in the sterility of modern life, before they knock the corners off their world and recover their innate Parisian joie de vivre. Tati spent years on this film, built a little city to make it work, and lost his fortune when it failed … but it is beautiful, in all its plotless, affectionate, optimistic glory. Might have been my favorite film of the month.
The Party (1968): A studio “wild party” movie from the sixties, pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Here’s the thing. I love Peter Sellers, but don’t think much of his frequent partner Blake Edwards. So I tune in for Sellers and hope for the best. In this case it also means looking past Sellers playing an Indian caricature in “black face.” But Sellers’ character is such a harmless fool that it is hard to resent him. If it wasn’t so silly it would have been the worst movie I saw all month. (Still was).
Bigger Than Life (1956): Sumptuous melodrama where James Mason gets hooked on cortisone, chews out the mailman, bounces a check at the dress shop, and gets in a fight with Walter Matheau. Oh, yeah, he also goes Bible Crazy and tries to kill his kid. Phew! Mason was Executive Producer on this picture so it must really have been a story he wanted to tell. Bad James Mason would have made a Good Doctor Doom!
Sunrise (1927): Beautifully-composed, audience-pleasing melodrama. Just an everyday story about realizing how much you love your wife after you fail to murder her. The misty lens of time makes every setting look so careworn that it is easy to overlook this is supposed to be about the stark conflict between the wicked city and rustic country virtues. Emotional. And sure, the sun rises at the end … but that dude still planned to kill his wife.
In A Lonely Place (1950) and Straight Time (1978): Unrelated films that I group together because they feature appealing leads (Humphrey Bogart and Dustin Hoffman) playing shitty human beings. Star power and charisma makes us buy in with both leads, taking us on a journey of abuse with the lesser cast around them. Bogie is an abusive screenwriter while Hoffman is a guy who pretty clearly needed to remain behind bars. Both end up ruining the lives of everyone they touch. Neither film lets their star off the hook, either.
White Material (2009): Wanted more Isabel Huppert after seeing Elle, so I tried this film about a woman trying to hold her family and business together during an African civil war. At first I thought Huppert was fulfilling the headstrong-woman-with-indomitable-will trope; later I saw that her willpower was closer to delusion, and began to dread the price it would make her pay. Watching characters you like willfully ignore danger is tense.
The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974): Beloved swashbucklers of my youth. I still love them, though I have long since memorized every line in these films. Even as a young man I most identified with Athos. Now I see Oliver Reed’s blarney for what it was. (But I still identify with him). Very good screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, which I doubly appreciate having struggled to adopt Dumas myself.
Germany Year Zero (1947): Italian neorealism goes German. Shot in Berlin right after the war, and filmed kind of as they went along with many who were not actors at all. Can’t imagine how this story of civilians scrambling to survive the ruins of war could be more authentic. Goes to the darkest place.
Stagecoach (1939): Peak Western from John Ford and John Wayne (in the movie that made him a star). An accompanying interview with Peter Bogdanovich helped isolate what made this movie so remarkable, beyond its entertainment factor. Bogdanovich pointed out how the script used stock characters to subvert genre norms — how the disgraced drunken doctor and woman of ill repute are the heroes of the piece, while the upstanding banker is the bad guy. Native American stereotypes aren’t so deftly handled but hey, it’s 1939. Bogdanovich also repeated the tale of Orson Welles watching this movie around-the-clock while working on Citizen Kane.
Insomnia (1997): Stellan Skarsgård is a half-bent cop trying to solve a murder above the arctic circle, where the sun never sets. The crime is solved easily, but Stellan messes it up, and soon he’s planting evidence and getting blackmailed. Didn’t really get on board with this one, sadly; Stellan seemed to go off the rails too far and too fast, insomnia or no. Didn’t expect this of someone who so easily accepted the existence of the Mighty Thor.
Sudden Fear (1952) and Daisy Kenyon (1947): Someday I will look back on this era in my life as the time I had so little going that I binge-watched Joan Crawford movies. I don’t much like Joan Crawford, and Sudden Fear was in line with expectations.When Joan discovers her husband is plotting to kill her, instead of … I dunno … going to the police or running away, she instead concocts an impossibly-complicated plan of pre-emptive revenge (the least bizarre component of which involved throwing herself down the stairs). There was some noir-ish punch to the chase scene at the end, but I had long since checked out. But Daisy Kenyon was an unexpected pleasure. It was every inch the romance melodrama as Sudden Fear, but here the Joan Crawford/Dana Andrews/Henry Fonda love triangle is propped up by a twisty, messy plot, with some biting dialogue from flawed and damaged characters. It was good enough to make me look at Joan Crawford a whole different way, and to read up on her a bit. Still not a fan, but for the first time I understand why some people are.
Battles Without Honor And Humanity (1973): Brutal Yakuza exploitation picture. Based on true events, but the names and faces fly past so fast that I had to give up on following the plot and just enjoy all the angry Japanese dudes flying into a rage and killing each other. There are four more movies in this series, but I kind of feel like I’ve already seen them all.
Plus Some TV
GLOW, true binge snackfood, already forgotten much of it but fun while it lasted; Defenders, slow and predictable with trite dialogue, I prefer these guys; The Tick didn’t impress me much with the pilot, but I’ve read good reviews and will give it another go. Maybe.
Share comments below, please — happy to discuss any or all of these.
More next month, I expect!
Happy 100th birthday to the King of Comics. We are still catching up to where you were!
I wrote before that I finally kicked the Marvel Puzzle Quest habit — and I did, I swear! But part of that effort involved parking myself on another game these past several months. That game was DC Legends. After nine months of daily effort, I’ve exhausted this game, as well, and I am here to tell the tale.
What wisdom might I offer, aside from “avoid playing games that never end?” Read on!
First things first. What is DC Legends? It’s a mobile game where you collect and level-up a roster of DC heroes and villains so you can win fights to level up to win fights to level up to …
(Are you sensing a grind? Good on you. This game is the king of grinds!)
How does it play? Well, if you’ve played Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, you can skip to the end of this review. DC Legends is effectively a re-spray of Galaxy of Heroes, with DC’s characters standing in for Jedis and Stormtroopers. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I tried Galaxy of Heroes and didn’t much like it, while DC hooked me for several months — theme matters!
For those coming in fresh, here’s what to expect from DC Legends.
There’s a story — something to do with Black Lanterns and evil wraith versions of DC characters running amok — but the story is at best chrome on top of the same basic thing that you are going to do over and over again. And that thing is leading four characters into turn-based RPG combat against four other characters, either in player-vs-event or player-vs-player mode.
This is a lavishly-developed game, with a lot to recommend it. The good things first! I gave the story short shrift but the game is nicely themed. There are dozens of characters to collect and level up, each with a set of powers and gear to earn. All characters are nicely rendered in 3D with spectacular attacks, like Supergirl tearing up a chunk of floor and tossing it at the bad guys, or Siren whirling her blades around before sending them spinning off into the other team. Each character has three powers, generally falling into the attack one/attack all/buff or special effects category, and even after playing the game all the way to Level 70 I never really tired of watching the animation. Battles play out in signature DC locations that are nicely detailed, and the game has a lush soundscape of music and sound effects that are actually worth listening to — a rarity for a mobile game. It’s fun to learn how to best employ your characters and to build up your roster as you grind through the game content.
But, ah, there’s that word — “grind.” The degree to which you enjoy this game is heavily bound up with your love of grinding. This is true of most free-to-play games, and to be fair, the grind in DC isn’t as bad as many (*cough Marvel Puzzle Quest *cough), but you are still going to have to put in an hour or so a day to make any kind of decent progress. Purchases are available to speed your development, though to tell the truth I never spent a dime on this game (a rarity for me). If I could have found a way to meaningfully spend five bucks I would have done so, but the value proposition in the store just wasn’t there, what with nearly everything being a blind purchase, and seemingly everything worth purchasing being up on a high shelf somewhere. I found it easier to grind …
… and here the designers have done us a favor, building grind tools right into the game. On the most basic level, you can speed up game animations, so fights won’t last so long. Once you’ve gotten to the point where repeating low level content doesn’t pose a challenge, there’s also an autoplay button that will let the battles play without requiring your input at all (and you can always jump in and start playing again, if your characters start to lose the day). Finally, you can auto-complete missions straight from the menu by spending Speed Force, a somewhat-plentiful currency that grants an automatic win and gives you a roll on the reward table for whatever that node offered.
(And, yes, it is bizarre to laud a game for a feature that lets you get it over quickly. Not sure there are any other games where playing less is the goal. Golf, maybe? Dunno).
There are a blizzard of things to collect and spend in this game. Heroes are awarded via shards. Some minimal number of shards is required to unlock a character for play, then more shards to advance the hero up through the ranks, from one to five stars. After five stars, the character can advance to “Legendary,” triggering a costume change and a new set of supplementary powers. I had several characters up to Legendary-3 level when I quit, with Cheetah sniffing Legendary-4. In addition to shards (of various rarities, of course) there are raw materials for leveling up gear, experience points for advancing character levels (which are distinct from stars and Legendary levels), the aforementioned Speed Force, hard currency gems to buy just about everything, and at least two other expendable currencies that lubricate the whole engine.
It’s all rather confusing, and comes down to never having enough of what you need. And what you need will change over the course of the game — for a long time I was starved for basic Essence, and was swimming in Experience; when I quit the game I was out of Experience, and had millions of useless Essence. The economy is confusing and I think the game suffers for not having a single screen where I can see all the different stuff I own all at once — your inventories are referenced only when needed to make a purchase, which makes it difficult to assess your progress through the game, or to reliably decide whether your WhosiWhatsits are better invested in Cyborg’s Boom Tube Manipulator or Zatanna’s White Rabbit. Short of spending literally thousands of dollars, you won’t be able to develop all of your characters equally, so you will have to concentrate on maybe 4-8 characters to get you through the game — and when you eventually arrive at your choices, you will grit your teeth a bit realizing you can’t recover the precious resources invested in secondary characters along the way. Live and learn.
Your experience in the game will go through levels of understanding. At first you’ll concentrate on collecting those characters that you like best or that are most easily available; later you will try to exploit the rock/paper/scissors relationship between energy/physical/mystical heroes; finally you will graduate into the meta of trying to assemble the best squad of four characters that mutually support each other with the right attacks and buffs. It is fun to develop your roster and learn how to squeeze the most performance out of your teams. Mission nodes identify the hero shard they (sometimes) award, so you can direct your grinding to collecting the maximum daily Flash shards on offer (or whoever), and more-or-less control which characters you build up. There are escalating levels of basic and advanced content to chew through, weekly events, special hero challenges, player-versus-player, free spins of the prize wheel, and more. There’s plenty to do.
Problem is, it’s just the same thing, over and over. The stakes may change a little, but it is still always your four guys versus four other guys. The expense of taking characters to high level is going to lock you into a handful of playable characters, meaning you are going to see the same guys over and over again, and your options for swapping in characters from your bench will be limited. I sense there are all sorts of synergies to try out but I never had the roster to take advantage of them.The game adds new characters every month, but the new content couldn’t retain me because it was so tedious and time-consuming to level new characters to viability. By the time I quit the game, I was only using five characters.
And I can’t say that I chose those characters with a lot of knowledge or forethought. The game is loaded with granular details but not a lot of explanation. I mean, I guess it is good that my attributes went up …
But how do those attributes translate to game performance? To be honest, I’m not sure. I know they are good to have, and I know how I got them, but I got here by grinding, rather than making hard choices. I’m sure there is a skillful meta game here where I am supposed to evaluate my many buffs and powers against the enemy roster to give myself the best chance of victory … but remember that part where I said I could really only develop five really competitive characters? Yeah, well, that means options are limited — you pretty much just put your best guys out there and bottom-feed.
Lots of details, but few ways to find your way through them. Lots of characters, but few that can be made viable. Lots of content to unlock, but few meaningful differences between fighting Solomon Grundy in Metropolis instead of Sinestro on Thanagar. Lots of currencies to manipulate, but resource gating ensures you can only be working toward one or two critical purchases at a time. There are lots of different horses to ride on the merry-go-round, but they only go in one direction, and you always end up where you started.
resource gating … grr …
There are some curious choices, too. The character roster is peculiar — multiple versions of Green Arrow, for instance, but none of the New Gods. A highly anticipated system of clans and daily missions was added to the game but all it really did was unlock another layer of grind. The player-versus-player ladder seems clogged with an uncommonly high number of cheaters and hackers (at least to judge by community message board complaints), but this appears to go largely unpunished. And as noted, I could never really talk myself into purchases.
Chris Hemsworth as Aquaman? I might buy THAT!
(The game is a damn memory hog, too — at 1.5 GB, it chewed up three times the memory of anything else on my iPhone).
But what probably bothered me the most was the narrative choice of making my enemies into “Wraiths.” They’re the same heroes and villains that are on my own team, for the most part … but they’re all grey, a color scheme that obscures their details. The result is that many of the game’s characters — with all their 3D details and animation — are just grey blobs on the screen. It’s a rotten choice — an answer to a question no one asked — and it robs the game of much of its spectacle. I can already go into battle with multiple versions of Batman on my team. Believe me, I won’t get knocked out of the fantasy if I see Batman on the other team, too. My guys are on the left. I can deal.
nice to see DC’s movie slate supported with in-game content
So what does it all mean? Is DC Legends worth a download? On the one hand, I played the game every day for about nine months, and it was fun enough — an hour a day spent with DC’s characters. Figuring everything out was a challenge and finally beating each layer of content was rewarding. But it was a long ride to nowhere, and it was surprisingly easy to quit the game. I suppose I’d say its ok to date this game, but not to marry it. High level play is too opaque, and too expensive. I suppose you can churn around at low levels and just collect the character of the month (Doctor Poison! Oh boy!) but as soon as you think you’ve seen it all, you should stop playing …
… because you have!
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts. Have I missed some hidden layer of this game? Did I quit just when it was getting good? Should I be more enthusiastic about Doctor Poison? Lay it on me … and please check out my Superhero Games page, where I’ve collected all my many game reviews from here at Longbox Graveyard!
It’s not all comic books here at Longbox Graveyard (and it’s maybe not even comics any more — I did just kill the blog). My recent movie to Canada — sans family — has left me with idle hours in the evening, and my new job ensures that come dark I’m creatively drained, too. What’s a poor Moleman to do?
Watch a lot of movies, of course. Here’s a list of the films screened at Longbox Graveyard Secret HQ this past month.
(Note that despite the image below, this post is pretty much bereft of comic book content — go here for that)
Spider-Man: Homecoming: Perfectly reliable, mid-tier Marvel entertainment. The Captain America PSAs were a scream. I did coincidentally catch the Doctor Octopus train fight from Spider-Man 2 on cable the other day, though, and Spidey 2 blows Homecoming out of the water in pretty much every way.
Baby Driver: Caught it alone in a Vancouver movie theater, killing time until the Canada Day fireworks started. Walked out of the theater brilliantly focused, alert to every sound and color, like I’d emerged from the most effective meditation session of my life. I guess you could say the movie captured my attention. Favorite picture of the summer.
War For The Planet Of The Apes: Yeah, sure, OF COURSE we are living in an era where talking monkey movies are legitimately in the discussion for the best film trilogy of all time. Watching the scenery in this movie, all I could think was … this has got to be British Columbia. Yep, it was. Journeyed out to the Othello Tunnels the next day to experience one of the locations. Caesar Is Home.
Dunkirk: Doesn’t fully live up to the rapturous reviews — and I say this as a WW2 buff and a Christopher Nolan fan — but I did enjoy this human-scaled epic. It was chilling to see bodies bombed on a beautiful beach, and ships sink on a clear and untroubled ocean. That’s probably just how it felt, the juxtaposition of life and death. Thinking back on it, though, I’m inclined to agree the movie is “at heart a high-stakes drama about proper queue etiquette.”
Cabaret (1972): One of those genre classics I’d managed not to see in my half-century of being a film fan. Despite my love of the Silver Surfer, I’m not mad for musicals, but I enjoyed the melodrama. Never really got Liza Minelli, either, but I can see how this picture helped make her an EGOT superstar.
Hell or High Water (2016): Held up on re-watch, originally saw this in the gloriously shitty little La Paloma theater in Encinitas last year. Grim, gritty, and pulls off the trick of getting you to root for some pretty awful heroes. Didn’t realize until today that this film shares a screenwriter with Sicario, another recent favorite, and now I’m anxious to see that selfsame screenwriter’s directorial turn in Wind River. Chris Pine was also pretty good here …
Star Trek Beyond (2016): … but Chris Pine is only so-so here. Same with poor Idris Elba and everyone else who wasn’t Sofia Boutella. Second or third time I’ve seen this movie and I still don’t know what the hell is going on. I’ve been a supporter of the JJVerse in general, but each picture is proving worse than the one before.
John Wick (2014): Worst-Russian-Accents-Ever. I fell asleep.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): … the original still packs some punch. Not so much for the “Earthman, get off my lawn” bit so much as for how it made me long for a prosaic time where White Men In Uniforms might be trusted to pay attention when confronted with unimpeachable evidence of Impending Doom.
Force Majeure (2014): Can’t stop thinking about this one. Fate confronts a couple with an ugly truth, and then their lives unravel, one thread at a time. Unsparing and uncomfortable — reminded me a bit of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster in that regard. Director Ruben Östlund is one to watch and now I’m eager to view his Palme d’Or-winning The Square.
Shock Corridor (1963): Working hard to develop an appreciation for Sam Fuller. I admire that he tried to elevate his material with political and racial commentary … but pulp is pulp.
Genocide (1968): Deeply strange Japanese picture where a hot-but-insane American temptress escapes a Nazi death camp to join the East Bloc to create a strain of insects that can destroy the world. Ripped from today’s headlines! Would have had the bleakest ending of any movie I saw this month if not for …
Shoot First, Die Later (1974): Come for the crazy car chases, stay for the fashions, casual violence, cat murder, sexism, and the frozen-faced beauty of a leading man who looks like he walked off the set of Team America World Police. And that ending! Oy.
Rules of the Game (1939): The outrages that shocked French society upon this film’s release have largely faded with time, but what remains is a masterfully constructed comedy of manners. Sweeps you up as only a classic old movie can do.
8 1/2 (1963): Fellini clearly has problems with women, but at least he puts them all in full view. No one shot a dream sequence better. In a crazy sum-of-the-parts way, this movie does depict the experience of being a director (at least to the degree that I’ve come to understand it directing video games). I love the part where Mastroianni’s knees give out while his producer hauls him toward his ridiculous, overbuilt spaceship set.
L’Atalante (1934): A dreamy, aimless cruise down the canals of France. Remarkable for its slice-of-life filmmaking — like a time machine, really. Plus, it has lots of cats.
Persona (1966): Overall I think Bergman’s reputation for being challenging, dour, and remote is overstated — I find his movies insightful and full of life. But Persona is … challenging, dour, and remote. And brilliant! This is what you get when Bergman decides he’s not concerned for the commercial success of a film (a masterpiece).
Plus Some TV
Enterprise, season one, which I like despite myself; Batman Brave And The Bold (which is the best Batman); and the Black Mirror Christmas Special, which is the most messed-up goddamn thing ever broadcast.
More next month, maybe.
Welcome to the latest (and last!) installment of Super-Blog Team-Up, where I and a dozen other intrepid comics bloggers all take on the same subject. This time, we are looking at death, both for pop culture characters and for the Super-Blog Team-Up itself, which meets its demise with this installment!
I’ve selected the Death of Captain Marvel for my topic — Jim Starlin’s 1982 send-off to the throw-away character he had made relevant a decade before. This was a sixty-six page stand-alone volume, the first in a series of original graphic novels published by Marvel, and while this is a talky and sentimental book (just this side of maudlin), it is still a good read, and particularly meaningful to me, Captain Marvel fan that I was.
No one got Captain Marvel’s life better than Jim Starlin, and I can’t imagine anyone doing better with his death. Starlin is all-in, here, kicking things off with a Captain-Marvel-as-Pietà beneath a title that leaves no doubt how this story will end up.
But how do you build tension in a tale where the outcome is known from the start? By setting out the emotional stakes, of course. Just as in any other superhero book, where we know the good guy will triumph over the big bad (but don’t know if they will get the date with their best girl), here we know that Marvel will die, but we don’t know how it will happen. Most importantly, we can’t anticipate how the Captain will face his own death, though we might have guessed.
It turns out that Captain Marvel died as he lived — with grace and uncommon understanding.
First, though, we go back to the beginning, as Starlin opens with a cogent summary of Captain Marvel’s career, framed as a recording Marv himself is making for posterity. It’s sad to realize that many readers might have been coming to Captain Marvel for the first time here, expressly to witness his death, but I guess that’s what you get when bumping off a low-sales C-lister. Even for fans of the character, though, Starlin’s summary is strong reading, nicely condensing the character’s origin and hitting the high points in his unique career — telling how Captain Marvel turned against his Kree overlords and went native on Earth; how he received Cosmic Awareness and became earth’s protector, and how Marvel and company triumphed over Thanos in final battle (for the time, at least).
Ol’ Marv sure had his share of colorful foes!
Then there’s a bit of action — because this is a comic book, after all, and Starlin always made sure even the most cosmic threats could be undone by a punch in the mouth. This time it is cultists worshipping Thanos’ turned-to-stone body. Marv makes short work of them, and even this action sequence crams in talking in this very talky book … in this case Marvel’s thoughts as he battles, nicely illuminating what makes him different, that he uses his cosmic powers to anticipate his enemies and to defeat them with a minimum of violence, and certainly no loss of life. It is Captain Marvel at the height of his powers, and his most self-aware.
It is also his final fight in this earthly realm.
It is in the aftermath of that battle that death begins to claim Captain Marvel. You know how it is in old movies — that no one has a cold, unless it signals the onset of a fatal disease?
And a page later, the fatal diagnosis.
A bit more backstory reveals Marvel was inflicted with his disease from exposure to Compound-13 while battling the villain Nitro, in a tale that marked the end of Jim Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel, and in which Starlin left the Captain for dead. Well, it only took a decade, but Starlin got his way!
With his death all but certain, Marvel goes on his farewell tour, breaking the news to his lover, Elysius, and then to his old partner, Rick Jones, who does not take the news well.
Those characters do join in the attempt to devise a cure, but the medical race-against-time is a subplot doomed to fail, and not just because Starlin gave away the conclusion of this tale with the title. In short order it is discovered that Captain Marvel’s photonic Nega-Bands are all that is keeping him from dying on the spot, but that those same bands inhibit any treatment the heroes might devise. The clock is ticking down with no real hope of a cure.
The Captain’s final hours are spent receiving visitors, and here is where the book really starts to tug on your heartstrings. There’s good characterization here, such as when The Thing fills the leaden air with old war stories, while Spidey can’t stay in the room …
… but more than any individual interaction, I loved this part of the book because it let Starlin fit Captain Marvel into context, to show how he was a special and important force in the lives of everyone in the Marvel Universe. He drove home the emotional void that Marvel would leave in his passing, and made that so much more important than all the goofy super villain fights and team-ups that comprised the Captain’s career.
Seemingly every hero in the Marvel Universe made the pilgrimage to bid the Captain goodbye.
One-by-one, the heroes parade by Marvel’s bed — even a Skull general, who gives Marv a Medal of Valor for being such a great adversary! — but in the end, despite Rick Jones’ continual railing against unkind fate, only one outcome awaits …
And with Captain Marvel on death’s door, it is inevitable who would visit him last!
In the theater of his mind, Thanks restores Marvel to health, and sets up one last battle.
The fight only runs a page or two — and it’s no time-mind synch-warp — but it does let Marvel go out on his feet, battling back against Thanos and his phantoms, and allows Marvel to accept that he is finite, and that even the best of the good fights must one day come to an end.
With that, he is gone, putting a bookend on what I’ve previously argued is an accidental masterpiece, a superheroic career with a genuine beginning, middle, and end. Marvel’s death was touching, and it elevated everything that came before. May he remain dead! With other characters carrying on his trademark-sensitive name, there’s every reason to believe the Captain can remain at his well-earned rest.
Plus, this Kree Captain Marvel doesn’t have to be alive to remain a fictional force in our lives. His life (and death!) live on through stories that are made more poignant by his eventual demise.
Re-reading these stories, in particular, has been an illuminating experience for me. A prime mission of Longbox Graveyard has been for me to revisit the pleasures of my youth, to try to fit everything into some kind of nostalgic higher purpose. Captain Marvel’s stories haven’t always fared well on re-examination, but the point, really, isn’t to determine if something was good or bad, or worthwhile to have read and obsessed over.
Re-reading these old tales is its own reward. Not because (as I once read somewhere) the stories have changed any since we read them last, but because we readers have changed. The twenty-year-old me who first read this tale in 1982 is a distant shadow to the fifty-five-year-old-me typing these worlds, but I can remember feeling sorrow for the Captain’s death, as well as an insider kind of cool for being an original fan of the character, who didn’t need a summary of his adventures.
And I can well remember thinking that death was a far-off thing that I would somehow, impossibly, never have to face, just like the good Captain himself.
At this time in my life, death is real. The best friend of my youth that I read these stories with was claimed by cancer just a couple years ago. I am (I think) in good health, with many years yet to live, but as a male in his fifties still working full-time to support his family I am well aware that I walk in “sniper alley,” with heart attacks and strokes and yes cancer too watching me through the crosshairs. I take comfort in knowing I’ve lived a good life and my passing would be mourned by many (maybe not including Spider-Man, but you can’t have everything).
Still I value my life more now than I did in my twenties, and would more greatly regret giving it up, not being able to see what became of my sons, or what children and art they might bring into this world. A fatal bolt from out of the blue would free me from the agony of U.S. politics, and Kim Jon-un’s sparkly new ICBM, and also relieve me of the duty of figuring how to bring Longbox Graveyard to a close … but aside from that, I’m not seeing a lot of upside.
So I wish myself long life, and long life to all my Longbox Graveyard readers, and when our end comes, may we greet it with the spirit of Captain Marvel, the peaceful Kree man of war.
And that end is here in truth for Super-Blog Team-Up, which announces its death with this entry. Please drop around the many other fine blogs in this project to pay your respects:
- Comic Reviews by Walt : Death Of The Mutanimals
- Between The Pages: I Have Been And Always Shall Be Your Friend
- Chris On infinite Earths: Death Of Supergirl
- Crapbox Son Of Chthulu: Death Of My Love For Marvel Comics
- Comics and Coffee: Superman: The Man Who Murdered The World
- Superhero Satellite: Death of a Collectors Passion — A redemption story
- Retroist: These Pirates Of The Caribbean Models Are To Die For!
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: The Death Of Galactus
As for whether this marks the end of Longbox Graveyard … well, you have to admit, it is the perfect opportunity, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll be back next month.
Or maybe not.
Regardless, thank you for reading, and for your many thoughtful comments through the years. Be well!
NEXT MONTH … maybe there ISN’T a next month!