Tuesday, 21 August 2012

An Epic of Epic Epicness?

Comparing tools

Epic Mickey is probably the most fascinating game I’ve never bothered to play. I mean, the creator of legendary PC mix-‘em-up Deus Ex digs into the nooks and crannies of the Disney Universe? League of Extraordinary Gentlemen + House of Mouse? That is some Alex Spencer catnip, right there.

But you can't help feeling that there’s a lot of compromise mixed up in there. Compromise of a few different kinds – the necessary sacrifices of working with Disney, maybe, and the necessary sacrifices of making a game that can reach kids and adults, and of making a game for the Wii, and of making a mainstream game at all.

That makes a sequel, which has the benefit of learning from all the mistakes its older brother already made, a very attractive prospect. Especially when you start throwing words like ‘co-op’ and ‘musical’ into that formula.

So I found myself sitting in Disney’s London headquarters, listening to Warren Spector – aforementioned head of the Deus Ex family – chat up both games, and hoping…

Some of that weirdness

…and then, inevitably, being let down a little. Spector opened with a stream of marketing-research buzzwords – Mickey was ‘cool’ now, he said, he was ‘surprising’ – and a back-of-the-box bulletpoint list of improved features. The camera’s not broken any more, the characters can actually talk now, and there’s even more persistence.

Which admittedly, are the kind of fixes that make this sequel sound like a good idea, but when you’ve got one of gaming’s most interesting brains up on stage, talking about a pretty great concept, it’s not exactly what you’re hoping for.

But slowly, Spector moved off script a little, and the interesting stuff started to come out. The history of Oswald the Rabbit – who Walt Disney created, and had Simon&Schustered away from him, before Mickey was so much as a twinkle in his eye. What Disney said no to – notably, a series of rejected Tinkerbell designs he wanted to se as a gaggle of jealous sisters for the fairy. The way the games intertwine the real and fictional history of Disney – its theme parks, after all, being the kind of places which feature secret underground bars, and its studios being the kind of places which feature secret underground tunnels. Enemies which meld an animatronic outer shell with a inkblot doodle centre. The kind of stuff which makes the Epic Mickey concept deeply fascinating, essentially.

Again and again, Spector kept coming back to that persistence thing – the importance of choices in how you play the game, and of their consequences later on. It’s the connecting thread through all of his career and output, and the thing which makes Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey a fascinating prospect.

Cutscene smooth

…and then I got to play the game a bit. Admittedly, it was more or less a tutorial level, and I was feeling the pressure of a dozen onlookers while I got stumped by a game designed for children, but my fifteen minutes of game didn’t bear out any of those virtues.

There were no quirky characters or settings nicked cheekily from ancient Disney lore – the game is a thing of beauty, in a way that doesn’t come across in screen shots. It’s as fluid as a cartoon, and Mickey’s jump animation deserves poetry written about it. But it didn’t feel like a world cobbled together from the debris of eighty years of animation history. The brooms from Fantasia danced around the margins of the level I stumbled through, and looked absolutely lovely doing so, but what was at the centre felt a little generic.

Nor did I get any sense of the Guaranteed 100% More Persistence we’d been promised. The narrator reliably informed me that it really did matter whether I chose to use the game’s paintbrush mechanic to paint or erase, create or destroy, but it didn’t seem to change the way the game played. There certainly weren’t any of Deus Ex’s trademark alternative routes or self-created puzzle solutions. There was nary a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft in sight.

It was that feeling again, of the compromise necessary to gain access to the Disney universe and its fictions, of shackling a sharp and inventive mind to the dulling influence of something like the Disney corporation.

So here I am again, sitting and hoping. This time, I will buy the game, will bother to play it. And hopefully at least some of that potential and some of those ideas and passion and weirdness will make it through into the final product. Let’s hope.
Mightier than the sword, etc.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

52 Pick Up - The Project 52 Podcast

Project 52.1 wide

It's been a long time coming, but it's finally here – Project 52's little podcasty brother, in which the six 'second wave' titles of DC's New 52 are discussed at length.

Recorded in an underground bunker at some point back around the beginning of time, the podcast gathers together five of comicdom's finest minds – CompĂ©re extraordinaire, Robin Harman, smooth of voice and shaggy of beard. The virtuous Tim Maytom, good and fair. Brett Canny, drawing from each of the seven gods whose names make up his word of power. Michael Eckett, with hair of silk and fist of iron. And hired idiot Alex Spencer.

In the hot forge of debate, these five personalities became one and, lo, the 52 Pick Up podcast was born, strong as adamantium and lengthy as fifty-eight of your Imperial minutes.

Doesn't that sound magical? Doesn't that sound like something you'd like to hear take place?

Well, now you can - using the embedded widgety chap below, or by right-clicking here to download and take on your merry way.


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Avengers - What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Three

Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle.  If you've made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel's record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven't ... well, don't you think you'd better catch up
Taking it easy being green

III. The Why
“I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.”
–Joss Whedon

The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and... well, see the above quote.

Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say?

Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of.

Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?)

The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people.

It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study?

'So then I take my pants off?'

After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface.

It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.)

Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control.

Group hug

Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.)

But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing.

Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her.

Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk.

Just ... chillin'

If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything.

It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder.

All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The Avengers works – as each franchise-bearing personality steps on screen, they exert their influence on the style of the film and struggle for control of it. We've all done it: you walk into a room full of people you don't know, and the best way to make an impression is to be an exaggerated version of yourself, to try and take some of the control back.

Let’s take a look at that in action in the actual film, though. Stuttgart, Germany. Most of the characters still haven’t met, and we certainly haven’t seen them in action together. And, the inciting incident once again, Loki strides into an operahouse, in slow motion, to strains of classical music. The music starts out diagetic, coming from the assembled orchestra, but as he takes over the scene it fluidly moves into score territory. Each act of swift violence matched with the shrill squeal of a violin bow.

It says, much more clearly than his dread soliloquying and insistence that the assembled crowd kneel before him, that he is in charge. In control. And then Captain America enters, and the dynamic starts to shift. There’s a bit of on-the-nose comment on the historical implications, but the choice of setting brings all sorts of stuff to the forefront. Cap fighting to protect the people that were his sworn enemy only weeks before – at least as he perceives it. Facing off against an enemy from a theology which has been notoriously co-opted by Nazi organisations (see: the controversy surrounding Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall). Whedon reminds you of the two very different contexts of these characters, and picks a logical overlap for them to meet in.

Until finally Iron Man appears, and rewrites the situation once again with his own music – AC/DC, obv – and snappy quips and modern technology, all of which he brings to bear against the two old men. And we barely need to see how it goes down – the film cuts bashfully away to Loki in handcuffs, Stark's sheer textual presence victorious.

This is not an image of Tony Stark

As I was saying … throughout the film, these big bright characters struggle for control, and then eventually relinquish it to become a team. It’s that which ties together all the disparate elements – the different speech, visuals, fighting styles – which fight for dominance in the film’s first hour. The way they all combine by the time of the climactic action scene, like spectral colours run a through a prism into a single beam of pure, muddled white, is what makes it all so satisfying.

So, the question stands: is that enough of an idea to explore, in something that takes up nearly three hours of your time, and billions of our dollars?

Hmm. I’m not sure. Hang on, I think I need to go and watch it again.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Avengers - What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Two

Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here.
[Insert thought bubble here]
II. The How
“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth's mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!”
Folklore

...And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any?

That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with.

We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that.

And, lo, noone else did disagree with the director

On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear? 
Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher.

So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye.

It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn.

Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground.

The Scarlett pimp-ernel

The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!) 

And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress clichĂ© into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan

And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach.

And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr). 

But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes.

Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film.

Made with real asbestos for that authentic 30s feel

As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth).

For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is pushed into a supporting role, as a sort of Jayne/Cordelia/Anya outsider figure. It’s one which turns out to suit rather him well, actually.

And so the remaining two hours of running time takes its time to combine and recombine these characters, in a way that not only gives each a few of their own little Moments – an iconic action pose, character beat, or funny line – but also gives a little taste of what each pairing is like together, both in terms of personality and power-sets. Captain America and Iron Man squabble, but fight side by side beautifully. Black Widow and Hawkeye have some weird romance going on, which carries into the noticeable fluidity of their combat. Hulk punches Thor in the face, with hilarious results.

The film is warming us up to the idea that these characters can not only coexist in the same reality, but make sense as a coherent unit. All the while, it’s rattling along at a one-action-scene-per-half-hour rate, leading into the final battle, which may be the single most engaging extended action scene I’ve even seen in a film. I giggled and pointed at the screen like a child with every explosion, gadget and Hulk-smash. My jaw spent so much of the running time hanging slack I might as well have been wearing a Ghostface mask. It was like watching Star Wars for the first time again.

And apart from the sheer visual spectacle of the scene, which is undeniable, I think a lot of that is down to how long it spends building to that moment, setting the pieces up so that they make sense when the film starts smashing them together. Squeeze, and release.

The Avengers never struggles to balance a large and disparate cast. It never outstays its welcome, and its action not just make sense but are genuinely exciting. It doesn’t rely on hitting familiar beats, or winking references. It’s even got laughs in it. 

It is undeniable that The Avengers is a particularly fine, perhaps even unprecedented, piece of action-movie craft. But is it also art?

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Avengers - What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part One

The first of a three-part analysis of Marvel's The Avengers or Avengers Assemble or Los Vengadores, or whatever name it was released under where you live.


Visual metaphor
I. The What
“These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that is the definition of family.”
 Joss Whedon

Most people came to The Avengers as fans of Iron Man, and the glut of not-quite-as-good Marvel films that have followed it. A lot came as fans of Avengers comics, whether Stan Lee’s or Brian Bendis’. Me? I came to it as a fan of Joseph ‘Joss’ Whedon.

For me, at least, it’s fascinating to observe all the choices made by Mr Whedon (even though it's impossible to know what part each of the army of people – and it truly is an army, as anyone who has sat all the way through the credits will attest – is responsible for all the choices and elements that make The Avengers work, who really had control. So for the sake of ease, let’s refer to all the invisible people – not the actors, but the producers, cameramen, special effects people, best boys – all the people who exist only behind the camera, as “Joss Whedon”. It’s a handy amalgam).

It’s through that lens we’ll be examining the film – starting at its opening which, having dived straight into the sci-fi-fantasy elements, brings them immediately to earth. To a top-secret SHIELD base in the US desert base, being more specific.

And so, that spark of supernatural – which, let’s be honest, with its slightly naff alien baddie and questionable physics, is a bit of a hard sell – grounds itself in the familiar reality of this militaristic set-up. All the bases, helicopters, jeeps, tight-fitting leather uniforms and dark muted colours place us in a comfortingly recognisable genre – the post-9/11, post-24 military blockbuster. For the first ten minutes or so, The Avengers is essentially a Craig-era Bond film.

The message is clear. This is the world that is going to be hanging in the balance – our own. (Or, at least, the modern cinematic version of it).

But then there’s that pesky supernatural spark I mentioned, which earths in plot terms, too, in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s Big Bad and Thor’s little brother. Being a magic-stick-of-deadly-blue-energy-wielding alien god, he’s the one element that’s out of place in this world, and genre. Accordingly, his arrival overturns it, literally and bombastically – as SHIELD’s highest-tech, most-prolifically-satellite-dished base collapses into sand in a matter of minutes.

Again, there’s a clear message – not only is Loki a big threat, but his very existence disrupts the natural order of the world he’s in (reminder: our world). Even Daniel Craig couldn’t stop this one. We’re going to need something new.

Assemble

Read part two - The How
(or skip to Part Three, if you're that way inclined)

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.