Geek TV conclusion: Constantine

An extremely hectic weekend means this is coming a couple of days late, but here we go.

And so we come to the end of my look at upcoming comic book TV shows, what they should avoid, and how they can set themselves apart. My only regret? I seem to have done them in no particular order. Not even broadcast order, since Gotham’s pilot comes the day before Agents of SHIELD’s premiere.

But that’s neither here nor there. Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages… Mr. John Constantine.

Simplest costume, also kind of the best.
Simplest costume of everyone we’ve covered, also kind of the best.

Coming in late October (sensibly close to Halloween), Constantine is based on the DC/Vertigo (DC’s mature readers line) comic Hellblazer, and oddly not on the current DC comic Constantine. Well, they both star the same guy, but since the TV show isn’t about to cross over with the Justice League anytime soon, it’s clearly more based on Hellblazer.

John Constantine is a surly, somewhat amoral magician and conman who, to his frequent annoyance, is one of the few people capable of keeping demons and/or monsters at bay and defending the Earth. He’s been lurking around the comics for three decades, first as a supporting character to Swamp Thing, then as the star of his own comic (the longest running in Vertigo history), and currently as a rogue mystic in the main DC continuity, star of his own book and one of the few consistent faces in the occult super team Justice League Dark.

There was also a movie starring Keanu Reeves but we needn’t discuss that.

And now he’s coming to television. And I’d like him to stay there for a while, so here’s what I see as ways for him to do that.

Challenge: Don’t just be a crime procedural with demons

I get it, Constantine. Procedurals are popular. From the CSIs to the NCIS’s to Castle and Bones and the Hawaii Five-0 team. They’re comfortable and don’t challenge the viewer. But trying to mimic them is where everything started to go wrong for Agents of SHIELD. They sold themselves as Marvel movies come to television, and then delivered NCIS: Fringe Division. Only less cool than the tie-in the Fringe implies.

Not that the procedural format is easy to avoid. Many, many shows I like still require a certain amount of “case of the week.” Most of them US basic cable dramadies: Burn Notice, White Collar, Leverage, mismatched pairs/teams solving problems while, and this is the important part, dealing with some larger plot in bits and pieces.

Now from the trailer, it looks like this is happening. Something sinister is hinted to be on the horizon, and Constantine is right at the center of it. That’s good. That’s a good start. But what’s going to separate you from the bland procedurals is what you do with this. The Mentalist and early Agents of SHIELD had larger plots as well: the Mentalist was hunting Red John, the serial killer who murdered his family, and Agents of SHIELD had its weekly hints about Coulson.

But they didn’t go anywhere.

I gave up on the Mentalist when it was clear that they would never truly make any progress in catching Red John until the show was over, and that stretching this plot out was practically giving Red John magic powers. Seriously, he kidnapped a medium that the Mentalist (no, I cannot be bothered to look up his name right now) liked, then somehow convinced her that she was dead, haunting the Earth, and could only be contacted by seance.

Even if you DO believe in hypnotism this feels like a stretch.

I already discussed what Agents of SHIELD did wrong for its first dozen episodes, so let’s move on.

The key is to use procedural, case of the week elements and build something bigger, darker, and more sinister. Look at Hannibal. It dressed itself up as a crime procedural that happened to be darker than most, and used that to create a visually gorgeous masterpiece unlike anything on television. Your key move here? World building. The magical world of DC, and Vertigo before it, is a rich and complex place filled with rival magicians, demons, gods, and cults. There is so much you can do with all that.

Oh, yes, also don’t forget that your lead character is a lying, scheming, con artist whose saving grave is that he happens to target the bad guys more often than the good. You might not be able to show him smoking on screen (for serious, NBC? That’s just–wow), but don’t lose sight of any of that.

Opportunity: I mentioned world building, right?

Remember all those rival magicians and whatnot I just mentioned? Well, good news: nobody else doing DC stuff on television or in movies is using them. Well, none of them except Shazam, but that lot barely count. Gotham and Arrow aren’t even touching magic, none of the magical characters are on Zach Snyder’s Justice League radar, you can go to town here.

Good first steps I’ve seen involve sneaking the Helmet of Fate into an early episode, opening a door for Doctor Fate to return to television (following a two episode stint on Smallville). Jim Corrigan has been cast, which presumably will lead to an appearance by his alter ego The Spectre, the personification of the wrath of God. And if the success of Arrow and sharp drop in ratings for early Agents of SHIELD teach us anything, it’s that audiences do eat this stuff up. Building your show’s universe with characters from the comics is a trickier path for you, since the magical characters lack the recognition of Deadshot, Deathstroke, and the Flash, but there’s still some great potential here. I’ve discussed this in the past, but here’s my wishlist, complete with casting suggestions. Hey, Arrow keeps casting people I like in their show, and they’re doing pretty well for themselves.

1, The Phantom Stranger

Proper spooky.
Proper spooky.

Phantom Stranger has been lurking around magical events in the DC universe for a while now. He’s a mysterious entity, who appears when he’s needed, and typically assists other heroes in overcoming something big and mystical. In the current continuity, they’ve made it pretty clear that he’s Judas Iscariot, cursed to wander the Earth as a stranger to all while running odd jobs for God as punishment for his betrayal. I mean, they never say the names “Judas” or “Jesus,” but it’s still really clear. That said, I’d advise skipping that while you’re on network TV.

He works for this show because he exists between the forces of Heaven and Hell. Neither angel nor demon, he’s exactly the sort of ominous ally Constantine might need while he’s trying to work the two factions against each other (side note: please have him work Heaven and Hell against each other, that just seems obvious).

Casting suggestion: Idris Elba. The thing the Phantom Stranger needs most is gravitas. It’s got to be clear that if he’s here, something serious is about to go down. And the more imposing he is, the more fun it’ll be when Constantine doesn’t give a fuck about how imposing he is. And if there’s one thing Idris Elba can seriously bring to the table, it’s power and gravitas.

2. Swamp Thing

Proper swampy.
Proper swampy.

As I said above, Constantine and Swamp Thing go way back. And when you’re ready to move beyond angels, demons, and ghosts (which you should), Swamp Thing opens doors to the elemental realms. He’s the guardian of the Green, the force that links all plant life. And this frequently puts him at odds with humanity. Admit it, it’d be fun watching John have to match wits with a plant monster. If I have to explain further I’m not sure we can be friends. I mean, do I have to draw you a diagram here? He’s Groot with an expanded vocabulary.

Casting suggestion: Ron Perlman or Clancy Brown. Hellboy or the Kurgan. Even before you put the prosthetics on, they’ve got the size, the gruff demeanor, and the deep, booming voice needed to bring Swampy to sinister yet slightly lovable life.

3. Eclipso

Proper... I got nothing, sorry.
Proper… I got nothing, sorry.

Post-90s Eclipso is a textbook attempt to redeem a silver age concept that was a little ridiculous. Originally a super villain that only came out during eclipses, Eclipso was re-invented in the 90s as a god of vengeance who had gone rogue and was imprisoned in a black diamond. If you hold the black diamond (or a fragment thereof) and feel rage, Eclipso will either possess you (if you want to harm the object of your rage yourself) or manifest as a construct (if you want the object of your rage harmed but not by you), take your vengeance, and then just go nuts on the world in general. Well, as long as he stays out of direct sunlight.

Constantine’s an exorcist. Eclipso would make for a hell of a recurring nemesis.

Casting suggestion: Robert Englund. Eclipso is cruel, vicious, and fancies himself as having a wicked sense of humour, so who better than Freddy Krueger?

4. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ZATANNA.

Proper. Just proper.
Proper. Just proper.

Zatanna is the most powerful sorceress in the DC universe. She can basically make anything happen just by saying it backwards. She’s put in some time with the Justice League, primarily back in the late 70s/early 80s, but typically works solo. Like Dr. Fate, she’s no stranger to television, having popped by Smallville a couple of times, but she’d fit in much better here.

In any continuity, Constantine and Zatanna have history. Former lovers turned occasional allies, even if the alliance is sometimes reluctant on Zatanna’s side (he is, as I have implied, not the easiest guy to get along with). In current comics, she’s also his surrogate conscience. She pushes him to do the right thing, when it’s often clear the wrong thing suits him better. It’s even implied that she used magic to try and alter his personality to be more heroic, because noble though she tries to be, sometimes she’s willing to cross lines other Justice Leaguers wouldn’t. Which caused some problems during the classic story Identity Crisis that I don’t have time to go into.

She’s an ideal addition to Constantine’s supporting cast. She is the ideal addition to Constantine’s supporting cast. And if she’s popular, which how would she not be… maybe a spin-off would be in order? And if that happens, I know a writer you could get for relatively cheap to work on it. (Hint… it’s me. Me over here. This guy.)

Casting suggestion: Sarah Jones. She’s taken a couple of swings at television already (as the FBI agent tasked with hunting down time-displaced criminals in Alcatraz and the morally shady count room manager for the Savoy casino in Vegas), but nothing that’s lasted past a season. But she’s got a great intensity and a habit of outshining more famous co-stars like Sam Neill or Dennis Quaid. She needs a hit like I need Zatanna in this show. And then on her own show. Which you could hire someone else to run, if you needed to… Bryan Fuller’s probably too busy between Hannibal and American Gods, isn’t he? Damn it, why can’t he just write everything…

And that’s the lot. Well, okay, there’s also Agent Carter and iZombie, but they’re not until mid-season and I do not have much to say about them. And Supergirl and Titans haven’t been officially picked up yet (although Supergirl’s super close–I apologize for the wording, I see now that was the wrong thing to do). So we’ll call that a wrap.

Next time… other stuff. It’s been a busy day, I’ll figure that out later.

Geek TV part four: Arrow

Green Arrow first turned up on television as a rare bright spot in the mostly problematic sixth season of Smallville (well, problematic if Lex Luthor and Lana Lang hooking up gives you the jibblies, as it should). Two years later, he was added to the main cast, as the show adjusted to its post-Lex identity.

In the months that followed Smallville calling it a day, rumours began to circulate that the CW network was looking to fill the Smallville-shaped hole in its schedule with a show about Green Arrow, since the Smallville fans took to him so well.


This would not be a spinoff of Smallville, they made clear. Justin Hartley would not be returning to the role. This would be about Oliver Queen’s early days, in a world without other heroes (at first).

I’d been a fan of Green Arrow since Kevin Smith relaunched the character in 2001. That he might get his own TV show seemed astoundingly improbable: that it would actually be legitimately good seemed miraculous. And yet here we are: Arrow is the gold standard for comic book TV shows.

Sorry, I meant LIVE ACTION TV series.
Correction: LIVE ACTION TV shows.

Which isn’t to say the show is flawless. It is not. But as season two improved on the freshman year, so too can season three build on that momentum. Here’s some thoughts as to how.

Challenges: don’t get sucked into old habits

No series embraced “the illusion of change” like Smallville. This is a storytelling trick familiar to anyone who reads superhero comics: you change things up in a major way while still leaving the door open to put everything back the way it was when you need to. Examples include the Death of Superman, Bruce Wayne getting his back broken in Knightfall, Dr. Octopus taking control of Peter Parker’s body in Superior Spider-man, or introducing a new, more diverse Avengers line-up that totally won’t be tossed out the window when the classic line-up hits movie screens in May.

Only two of these people are in the next movie, and one is the guy they've made even whiter.
Only two of these people are in the next movie, and one is the guy they’ve made even whiter.

But Arrow… Arrow is at its heart a show about evolution. In the flashbacks to Oliver’s time on (or nearish) the island of Lian Yu, we see how he changed from spoiled playboy to the deadly vigilante, known as “the Hood,” we met in the pilot. And in the main storyline, we watch Oliver grow from murderous vigilante “the Hood” to would-be legitimate hero “the Arrow,” and presumably from there to Justice League member Green Arrow.

So this is a show that embraces change. In the vein, here’s some tropes from Arrow’s first two seasons that maybe we could tone down a little.

1. Someone is insufferable

Mostly Thea. I know, you’re on the CW, and the network of Gossip Girls who keep Vampire Diaries about the Next Top Models seems to require a certain percentage of YA melodrama. Thea Queen, Oliver’s younger sister, takes the brunt of this, making her the first season’s least likable character, including the guy who’s master plan was “kill all of the poor people.” Sometimes she improves, but she keeps falling into that “angry pouty brat” place. And when she isn’t? When she’s actually likable? Laurel or Roy just take her place. Someone always seems to be irrationally pissed at the world, especially the part of the world that’s Oliver, and maybe this could be fixed by a five minute conversation, but that just brings us to the next issue…

2. Felicitous interuptus

Any time Oliver has to have an important personal conversation, be it an attempt to salvage a relationship, protect his company, or prevent his family from collapsing under the weight of the latest soap opera twist, you can bet that one of his team, Digg or Felicity, is going to show up with news about this week’s villain. And he’ll have to miss another fundraiser/board meeting/intervention to go shoot arrows at Count Vertigo, because he’s a hero and responsibility and all that.

Guys… I’m your biggest fan. I absolutely am. But even I think it’s getting old. Whatever your lead, Felicity, I’m sure it could have waited five god damned minutes.

3. Oh no! The team’s collapsing!

Again, YA melodrama demands a certain amount of tension between the leads. But elsewhere on the network is Supernatural, which really only has two leads. And let me tell you… Sam and Dean splitting up and getting back together (as a demon-slaying pair of brothers, don’t get ideas) once per season is getting tired.

I’m not saying Oliver, Digg, Felicity, and Roy have to stay best of friends every week, but… there’s a middle ground. Community found it back in season two, when they buried “the gang splits up” as a possible threat once and for all.

Opportunity: get weird

You’ve done something you never did before. You’ve added something that was never there. And it’s something that’s a guarantee against going stale.

With the debut of the Flash, super powers now exist in the Arrowverse. The line was sort of crossed with the introduction of mirakuru last season, but now there’s people who can run faster than sound and control the weather. Sure, most of that’s currently happening in Central City, but that’s no reason not to let it bleed into Starling.

How would Oliver deal with legitimate super powers? He had enough of a struggle with mirakuru, what would he do against someone legitimately bulletproof? In a world with the Flash, Firestorm, and the Atom, is a guy who’s good with a bow still relevant?

Which is exactly what I wanted to see last year, but couldn’t, because that would have meant connecting Arrow to Man of Steel, and that’s been declared as off the table. But now that we have open talks of seeing Firestorm on Flash, and Brandon Routh talking about having seen concept art for his Atom costume, we are clearly off to the races.

Go ahead and work the non-powered villains like Cupid, Komodo, and Captain Boomerang. Bring in non-powered heroes like Wildcat, Manhunter, and Katana. But remember that your big bad this year is an immortal, and your sister show is filling itself with people who have or will have super powers. So go nuts. Embrace the larger world that Flash has opened up, and then shoot arrows at it.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap this up with a look at the last man to the party (in terms of airing dates), John Constantine.

Geek TV Part 3: The Flash

Way, way back in 1990, in the wake of the massive success of Tim Burton’s Batman, CBS launched a TV show based on DC superhero the Flash. And 14-year-old me couldn’t have been more thrilled. It was the one thing I most looked forward to watching every week. But sadly it didn’t last beyond one season, breaking my puberty-riddled heart.

And now, 24 years later (you go to hell remorseless march of time, you go to hell and you die), the Flash is coming back to TV, this time as part of a larger televised DC universe, the Arrowverse.

Which is ultimately going to be an awkward name for this thing but since it all grew out of the TV show Arrow, here we are.

At least eight easter eggs in this poster.
At least eight Easter eggs in this poster.

From the trailer, it’s looking hell of solid. So let’s talk about how they can go the distance this time.

Challenge: biting off more than you can chew

One of my concerns two years back, when Arrow was starting out, I was a little concerned about how the fight sequences would go. You see, we were just coming off of ten years of Smallville, a series that habitually half-assed its action sequences. For a show that never looked low-budget, Smallville surely didn’t know how to do a fight scene.

Seriously, they spent all of season eight building up to a climactic battle between Clark and Doomsday, and when it finally happened, it lasted less than a minute. Boiled down to a few punches from Doomsday and a charge-tackle from Clark that disposed of Doomsday off-camera. Which would be bad enough, but the season 10 fight between Clark and Darkseid was even worse.

Now, Arrow has it down. Their fight scenes are spectacular. But a fight scene on Arrow only needs choreography, stunt men, and some arrow work. A fight scene between Flash and Captain Cold involves super-speed effects and ice blasts.

And that’s just one of the Rogues, Flash’s primary band of villains, three of which have already been cast. We’re talking flame throwers, ice guns, people jumping in and out of mirrors, the Trickster might not be so tough, but you see my point?

And that’s just the Rogues, who I feel I should point out ought to be recurring villains for basically the entire series. In the pilot alone, two other villains and a major DC event get hinted at. First of all, in the flashbacks to the death of Barry’s mother, we get a glimpse at what is clearly supposed to be the Reverse-Flash. Not so hard, it’s just more super-speed effects. If they can make Barry move at super-speed (they can), Reverse-Flash is just a reversed colour palette.

Second… Grodd.

The murder ape.
The murder ape.

Grodd, for those who don’t know, is a hyper-intelligent telepathic gorilla from a hidden society of super-advanced apes called Gorilla City–yeah. Comics are weird. But he’s a blend of telepathy, genius intellect, animal savagery, and a fanatical devotion to gorilla supremacy that elevates him from “evil talking monkey” to one of Flash’s deadliest foes. There’ve been two Grodd-related Easter eggs in promos for the Flash (check out the sidewalk on the lower left of the poster up above), and one pretty clear shot from the pilot that indicates they want Grodd to show up eventually.

Kind of hard to misinterpret.
Kind of hard to misinterpret.

The producers have straight up admitted that they haven’t figured out how to do Grodd on TV yet, but that they hoped Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might do some of the heavy lifting there. We’ll see… Arrow dropped hints and name-dropped Ra’s Al Ghul for two seasons before having him turn up, so they’ve got some time to figure this out.

And third… in a twist-end scene I shan’t spoil, they clearly refer to what remains the biggest, boldest, and possibly best event book in DC history: Crisis on Infinite Earths. They use the word “crisis” and refer to “red skies,” one of the hallmarks of Crisis on Infinite Earths and its follow-ups.

Guys… Flash producers… I love you all, but that is not a term you should throw around lightly. Because some of us… mostly me… possibly only me… want to see Crisis on Infinite Earths adapted to some sort of screen, but let me be clear: a Crisis on Infinite Earths that doesn’t combine the Nolan Batman movies, the current Justice League/Man of Steel crew, the Arrowverse, Gotham, Constantine, and what the hell, Superman Returns and Smallville into one worlds-spanning epic is not worthy of the title. So while you have bought yourselves until season nine before you have to worry too hard… tread carefully.

These are all big, expensive things, and they are all things that you are name-dropping, not just things on my Flash series wishlist (although they are all on that list, they really, really are). And I worry about the expense involved in doing them right because the climax of the pilot, in which Flash battles a proto-Weather Wizard (the real Weather Wizard, I maintain, is yet to come), comes down to a two-minute showdown based around Barry running really fast in a circle.

You’re going to have to do better than that when Grodd shows up.

Opportunity: embrace science

One of Flash’s catch-phrases used to be “Flash fact.” He’d use science as a weapon, figuring out how to use his speed to save the day through an understanding of physics, and then explain how it worked through his Flash facts. That was very much a silver age thing (since Barry Allen spent the first two and half decades after the silver age being dead), but one of the first things he said when he was brought back from the dead in Final Crisis (don’t ask, we don’t have time) was “Flash fact.”

And on the show? He’s already a science nerd. He got more excited about the potential of the Central City particle accelerator (which looks spookily similar to the Vancouver hockey arena) than seemed healthy. He’s a forensic scientist (as Barry is in the comics). And in his Flash duties, he works with a physicist, a biologist, and an engineer. This shouldn’t be a show afraid of being smart.

Not all of Flash’s fights have to boil down to “run really fast and punch bad guy in the face.” I gave you a hard time about a climactic battle involving running really fast, but actually, that is what I’m talking about. Using his speed in creative ways to beat the villains and save the civilians. Just don’t go to the “run in a circle” well too often either.

And it’s not just Flash: his villains are creative too. Captain Cold’s gun doesn’t just shoot ice: it can slow molecular movement. This makes things cold, sure, but it can also make fast things move slower, a key ability to have when you’re fighting a super-speeder.

Not to mention the fact that his future nemesis best friend Harrison Wells is a leading particle physicist. If you’re not at least trying to make science look good in this show, what are you doing?

Next time: what am I hoping to see as Flash’s parent show, Arrow, moves into season three?

Geek TV Part 2: Gotham

Continuing my look at challenges and opportunities facing geek TV shows, we move on to one that I spoke out against in the past, yet now find myself weirdly excited to watch.

I am more excited to watch Gotham, the Batman show without Batman, than I am to watch the new Kevin Smith movie. I don’t even recognize myself. And yet everything I’m hearing says that the pilot nails it. I did not see that coming.

So apparently Gotham is lurching from “show I’m going to watch every week but hate myself for it” to “show I might authentically enjoy.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pitfalls ahead. And not just over the fact that Bruce Wayne is only 12 in season one, although they continue to get a little mocked for that. But let’s talk specifics.

Challenge: We all know where this is going


The biggest challenge with prequel stories is that there aren’t a lot of surprises to be had. We know Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader. We know the tenuous peace between man and ape can’t last in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, because it isn’t called Dawn of the Planet of Apes and Humans Getting Along in Harmony.

So we know, going in, what’s going to happen here. Oswald Cobblepot will graduate from henchman to sadistic criminal overlord. Edward Nygma will become the Riddler. Jim Gordon will be appointed Commissioner. And eventually, Bruce Wayne will be Batman.

The challenge, then, is making the road to these inevitable destinations worth watching for however many years you run. And this is no simple matter. Let’s consider Smallville, you and I.

Smallville had no plan. Year after year they’d have hints and allusions to Clark’s greater destiny. Year after year Lex Luthor slipped a little further into darkness. But without a clear end date in mind, they had no idea how long they had to stretch this out. When should Lex cross the line from Clark’s best friend to his greatest enemy? When should Clark get into journalism? What season arcs can we have that SEEM to advance these plots but don’t? Or at least, only advance things in a way that we can undo with a Red Kryptonite episode?

Smallville's "Get out of character development free" card.
Smallville’s “Get out of character development free” card.

Eventually, they started pulling the triggers on the big moments because they were in their seventh season and had nowhere else to go. Also, Lex and Lana didn’t renew their contracts.

And this meant that by the last two seasons, what we had was a Superman show that was just afraid of saying “Superman.” Clark worked at the Daily Planet, with Lois Lane, who he was dating, while fighting crime on the side in a costume with a code name. It’s just that his costume was more of a red leather jacket and his code name was “the Blur” because he moved too fast to be clearly photographed, only leaving a red-blue blur in the image (later just red). They were Lois and Clark with less camp and better villains, but still asked us to believe that there were still steps left between Clark and becoming Superman.

And this is the problem you face, Gotham. At one point are you just doing whatever you can to keep the balls in the air? Six to five and pick ’em, if Gotham lasts long enough, Gordon’s going to lose his badge. Suspended, demoted, something, the corruption in the GCPD will overwhelm him, and we won’t really care because we know it can’t last. At one point, Bruce Wayne will reconsider his plan. Maybe when he starts liking girls. But that too can’t last, because there’s Batmanning to be done.

But therein lies your opportunity.

Opportunity: Gotham is an epic tragedy

There is one area in which knowing the outcome doesn’t hold you back, and that is in proper, deep, Shakespearean tragedy. We know from the prologue that Romeo and Juliet aren’t going to grow old together (or at all); Troy is going to fall by the end of the Iliad; and as I said before, we know that Caesar, leader of the apes, will be betrayed and his peace with the humans will crumble. This doesn’t have to rob these moments of their power.

James Gordon is fighting to save Gotham, a city collapsing into crime and corruption, while trying to pull young Bruce Wayne back from the brink of darkness. And the thing is, he can’t. Sure, he will be Commissioner, he will begin to at least reduce the corruption of the GCPD, and he might even put Fish Mooney behind bars (although I doubt it. Five bucks says she meets an umbrella-related end at the hands of her lackey Oswald Cobblepot), but he can’t save the city. Because if one good cop could save Gotham, Gotham wouldn’t need a Batman. And it will. In the end, it will.

So Gordon will ultimately fail, or at least be only partially successful, in his efforts to redeem Gotham, but his failure to “save” Bruce Wayne will accomplish what he couldn’t: creating the man who will be able to stand up to the Riddler, the Penguin, the Joker, and the rest.

And there’s still fun to be had. Who does Gordon convert? Who will his allies be? And how does he manage to rise above the corrupt heads of the department? There’s definitely narrative meat on those bones.

Plus, can I just say this, Gotham? In the right hands, Edward Nygma is fascinating. Read any Scott Snyder story featuring the Riddler. So be those hands. Show us that the Riddler is more than Jim Carrey overacting in green tights.

You had my curiosity, Gotham. Now you have my attention. Don’t waste it.

Tomorrow, my favourite super-hero show gets a spin-off. What do I want from the Flash?

Geek TV Part 1: Agents of SHIELD

We rumble ever closer to the dawn of the new TV season, which will feature no less than six TV shows based on or connected to comic properties, some of which won’t even get cancelled between now and Christmas.

Obviously I’d prefer none, but life has been really drilling in the message that I can’t have everything I want lately.

So to try and keep the number of geek TV cancellations down (and pave the way for the rumoured Supergirl and Titans series I’m hearing about), here’s the first of several posts as to what I see as the challenges and opportunities for some of the key players.

(No, I don’t have any sway over the various showrunners, but when I wrote one of these two years ago about dos and don’ts for Arrow, they did nearly everything on my list, so what the hell.)

Agents of SHIELD: don’t spin your wheels (any more)

Not my actual advice.
Not my actual advice.

Okay. It was a bit of a close call, but Agents of SHIELD is back for season two. It’s possible that the corporate synergy of Disney-owned ABC running a Disney-owned Marvel show made renewal more assured than we thought, but the second season pick-up came awfully late.

Challenge: pick up the pace

When we last left you, Agents of SHIELD, SHIELD had ceased to exist and Agent Coulson (who appears to have a hint of the space madness due to his life-restoring possibly Kree blood transfusion) and his merry band were tasked with rebuilding it from the ground up. Also Agent Ward, the blandest character on a show whose overall characterization could be called lackluster, had finally become interesting when they revealed he’d been a Hydra sleeper agent all along.

The last six episodes were legitimately good, with actual stakes and actual tension and real uncertainty about what would happen. And Patton Oswalt, which is always welcome. It didn’t pull your ratings up, but the fans you still had surely appreciated it. You need some more of that to kick off this new season. Because the fact is, you don’t have enough viewers left that you can afford to lose half of them in your first seven episodes again. And the most important thing you can do to avoid that? Don’t spin your wheels for half a season.

When season one kicked off, we had three big mysteries: how did Coulson come back from the dead after Avengers, what’s the secret in hacker Skye’s past, and some people called Centipede were trying to make their own super soldiers out of a witches’ brew of Marvel movie references.

And then all three plots just sat there until Christmas.

Once per episode you’d remind us something was up with Coulson (and name-drop someone from the movies, which was 95% of your connection to the Marvel cinematic universe for a while). Every once in a while you’d say “Ooo, Skye’s past is mysterious,” or have Centipede pop by and continue being crude knockoffs of the bad guys from Iron Man 3. And so it remained for your first dozen episodes, while you hemorrhaged viewers and good will.

So don’t do that again. We’ve now had a few hints at Skye’s past and Coulson’s resurrection, go somewhere with it. Get into what freaky alien stuff is happening in Coulson’s head, let us know who Skye’s dad is, and have a season arc that doesn’t take 16 episodes to get out of first gear.

Also, Ward’s finally interesting. Don’t let what I assume is going to be a big redemption arc push him back towards bland and dull.

Opportunity: stand on your own

Real talk, Agents of SHIELD. This season? Your biggest weakness is also your greatest opportunity.

Last season, you had two big Marvel movies to tie into: Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Now, for all the hype about having an episode directly tied to Thor, what we actually got was The Well, an episode which featured vague glimpses of Ward’s childhood (at the time, Ward was still as interesting as drying paint) as the team fought the most one-dimensional, least inspired villains of not only the whole season but of the entire Marvel cinematic universe, in a plot based around Asgardians with zero connection to Thor, Loki, or any of the events of either movie.

The villains from The Well made this guy look like Hannibal Lecter in comparison.
The villains from The Well made this guy look like Hannibal Lecter in comparison.

Then, in April, Agents of SHIELD was kind of forced to respond to the events of The Winter Solider, since they left SHIELD in ruins. And suddenly everything kicked into action. The stakes were high, Coulson’s secret was (partially) out there (even if it only raised further questions), Deathlok had been introduced, and you finally, finally, had a villain who was any fun to watch.

The argument by pro-Marvel pundits (I’ll refrain from calling them apologists) is that you couldn’t do most of this plot until after the Winter Soldier. And that’s true. But guess what, team? There’s nothing to wait for this year.

Guardians of the Galaxy came out a month ago, and while it’s still popular, there is really no way for you to tie it into Agents of SHIELD beyond Coulson’s Kree-blood space madness. It’s not like we’re expecting Star Lord to pop by and explain what Coulson keeps writing on the wall. He’s busy protecting the people of Pawnee. And the next Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, isn’t until May. By early May, you’ll need to be ramping up to the finale. You won’t have time to throw an Ultron-based monkey wrench into everything.

So on the one hand, you won’t have Marvel movie tie-ins to boost ratings. But then that only worked once. The bait-and-switch Thor “tie-in” led to a two-week ratings spike, but the Winter Solider had no real effect. Well, as Mr. Peanutbutter said… “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, fiddle-dee-dee.” No, wait, that’s not right… David Cross, what’s the expression?

Sorry, got sidetracked there… my point was, you can’t count on the movies to boost your ratings, but you’re also not beholden to them in terms of story. You don’t have to do a half-assed episode about Asgardian whatnots because Thor 2 just came out (seriously, Hawaii Five-O consistently writes better villains than the ones from The Well). You don’t have to schedule all of your interesting plot developments around Age of Ultron. You can tell a proper season story.

Joss Whedon’s name is still on this thing. I know you know how to make a seasonal arc worth watching with villains not pulled out of the NCIS reject drawer. So do that.

Tomorrow: Gotham had my curiosity. Now it has my attention.

Sad is happy for deep people: sad quotes for a grey day

A while back I thought it might be worth doing to occasionally blog about “items of joy,” things that made me happy even when happiness felt illusive. I had a harder time than I expected coming up with said items of joy, but it evolved into “My New Favourite Thing,” so that’s okay.

Anyway, the one item of joy post was about Doctor Who, which despite being one of my favourite shows and the thing I turn to when I’m feeling down (Day of the Doctor makes me happy every time), is notorious for tearing out the hearts of its fans and stomping on them. And yet I called the fact that it will break your heart three times a season a selling point, because why invest in a show if it can’t do that? I even borrowed a line from the show itself, from the classic (as in good, not as in classic series) episode Blink: “Sad is happy for deep people.”

Between some personal disappointments and the season’s first taste of snow, it’s a grey and downbeat day here in Parts Unknown HQ, so that quote suits my mood today. As such, here’s some downbeat quotes from some generally upbeat TV shows and why I think they’re brilliant moments. Many of them are going to be Doctor Who related, let’s just accept that.

Also, some videos of things that bring a smile to my face no matter what, because balance is important.

Bojack Horseman sums up the human condition

Buddhism teaches that desire is the root of all suffering. And nothing has really driven that point home for me like the cartoon horse who’s a faded sitcom star from the 90s.

I’ll avoid spoilers as best I’m able here. In the first season finale of Bojack Horseman, Bojack wonders why, after getting what he thought he most wanted, he’s still not happy. At which point, we get this exchange between him and his former ghost writer:

Denise: “That’s the problem with life, either you know what you want and you don’t get what you want, or you get what you want and then you don’t know what you want.”
Bojack: “That’s stupid.”

The sad fact is, that really does sum it up. Being content with what we have doesn’t drive us out of the cave to slay a mammoth and perpetuate the species, so instead we’re driven by always wanting the next thing, the next challenge, the next prize. We know what we want, but we can’t have it, and that makes us miserable, or we have everything we want and still aren’t satisfied, and don’t understand why.

And Bojack himself puts it best… that’s stupid. But if you can’t shake off the cycle that, again, is written into your brain from the day you’re born, and learn to be happy, that’s life. Which brings me to my next quote… after this musical interlude from the New Pornographers, because MAN do I love Brill Bruisers.

Achewood reminds us we’re stuck like this

Achewood is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you can get past the unusual tone, often simplistic art, and bouts of experimental storytelling, it’s hilarious, moving, and addictive like few other comics out there. It seems to have drifted to a halt, which is sad, but its archives are still filled with gems, such as the MoviePhone Defense, the saga of the Great Outdoor Fight, or the most gentlemanly death threat ever.

And then there was the day Michael Jackson died.

Two of the cast are talking Michael Jackson, and how his death is affecting them, and they’re a little confused as to why, since they weren’t even big fans. Until Cornelius Bear, the cast’s elder statesman, explains: losing Michael Jackson was losing their “Elvis,” and with it, “the private lie that someday you will be young once again, and feel at capricious intervals the weightlessness of a joy that is unchecked by the injuries of experience and failure. In other words, you two died a bit today.”

And then he finishes off with the line that drives home the real tragedy…

“Welcome to the only game in town.”

Getting old isn’t pretty. Knowing that the things of your youth are farther and farther away stings if you let it. The missed opportunities, the things you never did, they weigh on you more and more if you let yourself dwell on them. But life doesn’t really present another option. Tomorrow becomes yesterday whether you like it or not, and that’s all there is.

Jesus. I thought I’d be able to find something uplifting here. Not so much. This calls for puppets singing Space Oddity with astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Doctor Who quotes and plenty of ’em

Exchange the first. Backstory: in the Time War, the Doctor was forced to wipe out his own people, the Time Lords, in order to end the war between them and the Daleks that was burning all of time and space. In The Doctor’s Wife, the Doctor thinks that on a rock outside of space as we know it, there may be surviving Time Lords. He explains to his companions, Amy and Rory, that if there are, maybe he can explain to them why he had to do it.

“You want to be forgiven,” says Amy. The Doctor freezes mid-stride, looks back, and with just a hint of sorrow in his voice betraying the deeper sorrow in his heart(s), replies…

“Don’t we all?”

I always liked that line. I didn’t understand how powerful a moment it was until a dream showed me that I, too, on some deep level, wanted to be forgiven for a stupid thing I did a long time ago. And that desire to be forgiven becomes a deeper wound when forgiveness is impossible, be it because there’s no one left to offer it, or the person you wronged hasn’t been a part of your life since 1994, and probably hasn’t thought about you in years.

At which point, there’s really no choice left but to forgive yourself, and maybe beat yourself up less.

Exchange the second. At the end of his first episode, the 12th Doctor re-establishes his relationship with his companion, Clara, who’s been having a hard time accepting his change from the youthful, energetic Eleven to the older, dour, Twelve.

“I’m not your boyfriend,” he says.

“I never said you were,” she replies.

“I never said it was your mistake.”

With (literally) new eyes, the Doctor sees his relationship with Clara, now more than ever the most important person to him (Eleven may have been twitterpated with her, but he never truly recovered from the loss of Amy Pond), and understands it was never what he thought it was. Take it from me, that can sting like a mother. Even two years and change later, learning that one of your most valued relationships was never what you thought, could never be what you hoped… it hurts. But it’s important. Because not seeing the truth, embracing what is ultimately a delusion, and then running into the painted wall you thought was a tunnel hurts far worse than just accepting your reality.

That last paragraph got away from me a little. But I’m not going to elaborate.

Exchange the third. Let’s wrap this up with something ultimately a little more hopeful: the signature quote from Vincent and the Doctor. In this episode, the Doctor and Amy share an adventure with Vincent Van Gogh. As a special thanks, the Doctor takes him to the present, to a Van Gogh exhibit, to show Vincent that he wasn’t the failure his own time claimed him to be. He would be remembered, treasured, for generations to come. In the end, Amy hopes that this will help Vincent overcome the depression that plagued him throughout his life, prevent his suicide and cause more Van Gogh masterpieces to be painted.

She’s wrong.

But as she realizes that depression is a harder monster to fight than the literal monsters they’d faced together, the Doctor says this…

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

In this case, the tragedy of Vincent’s end doesn’t necessarily detract from the joys they shared with him.

Now, from here, I should make it clear that I am NOT discussing clinical depression or any sort of mental illness. I am not an expert on depression and cannot pretend to be one. I’m talking about sadness, and however deep sadness becomes, it is vital to understand that feeling sad and suffering from depression are not the same thing.

That said.

When you’re sad, it’s hard to imagine being happy again. Every reassurance, pep talk, reminder of better things feels hollow and empty. The thing that’s made you sad, the thing that’s broken your heart, that is all there is or ever will be.

But it’s an illusion.

It’s like when I’m sick, properly sick, and my world is consumed with nausea and suffering. The very thought of eating food turns my stomach. Not just in that moment: the thought that I may ever eat food, or ride in a car, or anything of the sort seems like the fever dream of a madman (my own fever dreams are just aggressively boring). But the next day, the nausea fades. Sleep comes easier. Car rides are no problem. And pretty soon I’m not just hungry, I’m ravenous.

So it is with sadness (again, NOT depression). Soon you smile again, soon you laugh again, and eventually the things you couldn’t be around because they re-opened the wound fade. Threeish years ago I couldn’t deal with season three of Scrubs: JD’s arc of pining after Elliot while she’s in a relationship seemed custom-built to destroy me. Now I can watch it no problem… except JD is still being a complete tool. Nothing changes that.

So the key is to take those reassurances, put them in a box, and remember them when the clouds begin to part. Because even if you’re not ready to hear them, they may well have still been worth hearing.

Because the bad things don’t make the good things unimportant.

Thanks for bearing with me, folks. Those of you that did. As your reward, allow me to share with you 32 seconds that can make anyone smile.

See you next time, with cheerier tales.

Geek Talk Junk Drawer

It’s Thursday, things are slow, I’m listless and a little agitated. This would be a perfect time to lose myself in another hilarious and slightly heartbreaking episode of Bojack Horseman, My New Favourite Thing… only I’ve run out. There are no more. Not until next year. And I don’t seem to have the attention span for much else.

So let’s chat, you and I. Let’s pass some time on these here interwebs by discussing things that wouldn’t fill a full blog. Which might be difficult because apparently I had 2,000 words’ worth of things to say about the new Sin City movie, when “Two hours of sub-par to terrible Sin City fan fiction” would have summed it up.

But this will spare all of you from getting an earful about Bojack Horseman. It’s hilarious, it’s got a surprising amount of heart and emotion in the back half of the season, Will Arnett and Alison Brie are both in it, just go watch it already.

New Doctor!

Check it!
Check it!

Part of loving Doctor Who is learning to accept new Doctors, even if you’re not ready to. I was just a kid when I heard that Tom Baker was leaving. I was taken completely by surprise when Colin Baker changed into Sylvester McCoy (despite it having been a rerun… this was pre-internet, there weren’t easy ways to learn these things). I was heartbroken when I learned Christopher Eccleston was only doing one season… and those were the easy ones. I may have actually screamed “NNNOOOOO!” out loud when word got out that Matt Smith was moving on.

But now the new guy, Peter Capaldi, aka. Twelve, has had two episodes to establish himself. And I think he’s doing okay. He has a sterner style, which sets him apart from Ten and Eleven. He wants to be a good man, but isn’t sure he is (something he has in common with Bojack Horseman–sorry, sorry, it just slipped out). And Clara’s finally getting more to do, after the whole Impossible Girl story kind of prevented her from being properly developed. All in all, Capaldi’s crushing it, and they still have my devotion.

But I haven’t figured out his theme music yet.

Not the opening credit theme, of course I know that. The in-episode theme music. Nine had The Doctor’s Theme, Ten started with that, then switched to The Doctor Forever in season three before returning to an amped up Doctor’s Theme in season four. The Doctor’s Theme played for the last time (well, until the 50th anniversary) in Ten’s final moments, and when Eleven began his tenure in the 11th Hour, so too debuted I Am the Doctor, which later evolved into The Majestic Tale (of a Madman in a Box). And as someone who clearly thinks about background music in TV shows a lot, those two were my favourites.

I don’t know the 12th Doctor’s theme yet. Sure, there’s some Youtube videos claiming to have it, but I need to hear it in action. I need to hear it against the Doctor telling the Atraxi to run, or facing down the Silence alongside River Song and the Ponds. I probably have, I just haven’t figured out what it is. Guess I should rewatch Deep Breath and Into the Dalek when I get a chance.

There are worse fates.

Shazam’s getting a movie!


This has been running around the web for a while, but the rumours and suggestions have finally been confirmed: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be playing Black Adam in an upcoming Shazam movie.

Seeing a lot of blank looks out there. What? You didn’t know reading my blog activates a camera in your computer/phone? I am always watching.

Erm… by which I mean, what, you don’t know Black Adam? Let me explain.

When I say the word “Shazam,” you think of Captain Marvel: a kid named Billy Batson who shouts the word “Shazam” and turns into an adult with magical powers that make him a nigh-equal to Superman. Black Adam had the powers of Shazam centuries earlier, but his more… forceful way of defending his home nation of Khandaq (think ancient Egypt turned into modern day Iraq) got him shut down by the wizard who made him his champion (that wizard being Shazam). But when Captain Marvel comes onto the scene, Black Adam finds a way to come back. So, Captain Marvel is the kid-turned-hero, and Black Adam is his nemesis.

That’s the classic stuff. Fast forward to today. Now Billy Batson’s alter ego is just called “Shazam,” because DC got tired of never being able to put “Captain Marvel” on the cover of a book thanks to their competitors, and decided that if everybody mostly knows him as the Shazam guy, they may as well call him Shazam and be done with it. I still haven’t fully adapted to that but it’s happened.

Black Adam, meanwhile, is still a primary nemesis of Captain Mar–Shazam, but he’s not always a straight up villain. While writing Justice Society back around the turn of the century, Geoff Johns altered the character: no longer was he a modern day thief who accessed the powers of Shazam to become Black Adam, but was instead the original reborn in the modern era. And the original never saw himself as a villain, simply the protector of the Khandaq who draws a different moral line than some prefer. In the last fifteen years he’s crossed the line to hero almost as often as he’s been a villain. He served in the Justice Society for years, possibly outlasting Captain Marvel*. Most recently, in the event book Forever Evil, when the Crime Syndicate (an evil version of the Justice League, I’ll spare you the explanation) wiped out most of the superheroes and conquered the Earth, Black Adam was the first of a small band of villains to step up and try to bring them down.

So Black Adam isn’t a mustache-twirling, magic-space-rock-wielding world conqueror like so many other superhero movie villains lately, and talk from Dwayne Johnson and the studio is that they’re going to keep him on that blurry line between villain and anti-hero, which I for one am excited to see.

Less excited by the rumours that Shazam will not connect with Justice League, but… well, we’ll see.

*Interesting story with no connection to Black Adam: Captain Marvel left the JSA in disgrace after his budding romance with teenage hero Stargirl (who had discovered that he was actually a teenager himself) was discovered by either the golden age Flash or Green Lantern, who, not knowing that Captain Marvel was really teenager Billy Batson, obviously disapproved. Cap left the team rather than reveal his true identity/age, because “too many people know, and it always changes things.” Sad story, but interesting reading. Anyhoo.

Supergirl back on TV?


New in the rumour mill: DC may be shopping around a Supergirl TV series. Now, this is a very young rumour, and even if it is totally accurate, a lot can go wrong between here and being given a series order, if two failed pilots for Wonder Woman and one for Aquaman teach us anything. But I like the idea. There is a risk that, even though the CW is currently believed to have passed, the makers might embrace the teen soap opera that defined Smallville and remains a part of Arrow. But you know what? Let ’em. As I said in an earlier post, Supergirl (well, Kara Zor-El) has never been better written than when they were targeting her towards younger women/girls. So I say, even in the face of ten years of Smallville striving to prove me wrong, it can work. But maybe try to make it more like Arrow and less like Smallville. In fact, always do that.

But making it appeal to girls without becoming female-oriented-Smallville, or Gossip Girl with super strength, is only challenge one. Well, challenge two, after getting a network to bite.

Next challenge: is this another stand-alone like Constantine? Or will they tie it into one of their other properties? And that’s a trickier question than I like. Because I don’t know that I want a Supergirl series set in a world where Superman doesn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong: Supergirl’s been around long enough that she deserves an identity of her own, rather than being defined as “Superman’s cousin.” The current writers of her book are trying, but her more famous relative is never that far from her narrative. A weekly series (or Netflix series) might give her the chance to be her own character as well. So I’m not saying I need Henry Cavill to pop by on a regular basis, but… Superman should still exist. Putting each character in their own box, where no other DC character is allowed to be, is something I’d hoped DC was moving past.

So that means I also don’t want Supergirl to join the Arrowverse, something that feels alien to say. But it’s true, for the same reason I don’t want Nightwing showing up: for all the characters that they’re adding to the Arrowverse, Superman and Batman aren’t on the list, and Nightwing without Batman doesn’t even make sense. Ra’s Al Ghul, okay, fine, he can exist without overt references to Batman, but not Nightwing. Why not use any other similar character, like Blue Beetle or the Question or Manhunter? Oh, right, they are using Manhunter… no not the Martian one, one of the other 20 DC characters named “Manhunter.”

Right, sorry, Supergirl. There may be super powers in the Arrowverse now, thanks to the Flash, but no aliens. And if we’re going to add Kryptonians, let’s start with the big guy. Or if you want a Supergirl type, introduce Wonder Woman, or Hawkwoman, or Big Barda–no, no, bad call me, you do NOT want Apocalypse and the New Gods on TV, you want them in the Justice League movies. That last bit might not have made sense to you. But you’re reading this on the internet, and I assume you know how Google works. Must I hyperlink everything?

That said... there are worse characters you could introduce in Justice League...
That said… there are worse characters you could introduce in Justice League…

Anyway. A Supergirl TV series that ties into Man of Steel and Superman V. Batman: Dawn of A Thousand Internet Complaints may be too much to hope for. But a Supergirl series where Superman is nowhere to be seen is like, I don’t know, making a TV series about Batman’s daughter where Alfred is a main character but Batman himself is never seen or heard from.

Hint: that didn't work.
Hint: that didn’t work.

The New Pornographers have a new album!

Finally… if you can listen to this without feeling at least a little happy, I feel sad for you.

Until next time, have a good day and WATCH BOJACK HORSEMAN.

Dan at the Movies: Sin City: a Dame to Kill For

It was nearly ten years ago that Sin City swept into theatres, and man alive was it a sight to see at the time. From the way Robert Rodriguez took the exact images from Frank Miller’s original comics and brought them to stark, mostly black and white life, to the way the incredible cast made the pulp dialogue sing. I loved Sin City, and used to watch two of the four stories over and over again from the booth of the Moviedome. So naturally I was thrilled at the talk of a sequel, since there were still Sin City graphic novels very much worth adapting. Which meant that talk of Frank Miller writing new stories to include in the sequel was a little discouraging. First of all, because that lowered the odds of them using the stories I wanted to see on the screen, and second of all, because Frank Miller has lost it.

No, seriously, he’s lost it completely.

Frank Miller did some good comics work in the 80s, but these days he’s gone around the bend, and nothing proves that more than his attempts to revisit past glories. I would have thought that The Dark Knight Strikes Back would have proven that for everyone, but apparently we needed more evidence, and now we have it.

But instead of a fresh installment of what has always been an anthology series, what we got was a movie trying to remind us of the original, by re-using as many of the characters as possible.

Included in the movie are two stories from the comics: Just Another Saturday Night, a short featuring Mickey Rourke’s Marv, back from the first movie’s The Hard Goodbye (the very first Sin City story), and the titular A Dame to Kill For, featuring Dwight from the original’s The Big Fat Kill (played by Josh Brolin, as this story takes place before he had plastic surgery to instead resemble Clive Owen… no, really, that’s what happens). Added in are one new story featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a card shark targeting Senator Roark, who you may remember from the first film’s That Yellow Bastard, part of the Roark family which controls Sin City and keeps it the pit of crime and corruption that it is, and the long-discussed direct sequel to That Yellow Bastard in which Nancy the stripper (Jessica Alba) is out to avenge her savior/lover Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis, back as a ghostly presence in Nancy’s life), who killed himself in the hopes that it would spare Nancy from Senator Roark’s anger over the death of his horrifying, serial killing, child molesting son at Hartigan’s hands.

Okay. Let’s break this down entry by entry.

Just Another Saturday Night

This is meant to be a quick intro back into the world of Sin City, as Marv goes after four frat boys for setting hobos on fire, ending with two of them being taken out by the army of prostitutes that rule Old Town (because Frank Miller loves him some whores).

What it actually does is underline the problem with this entire movie. Where the first film’s cold open, The Customer is Always Right, provided a perfect intro to the noir storytelling, visual style, and general lack of what you’d call happy endings that we the viewers could come to expect, Just Another Saturday Night shows us that Rodriguez and Miller don’t fully recall how the visual style worked last time while shouting “Hey everybody! It’s Marv! Remember Marv? We all liked Marv vengeance-murdering his way up the criminal ladder last time, right?”

In other words, it’s Marv without the thrills, occasional wit, and “I can’t believe they just did that” winces of The Hard Goodbye. They brought back the characters we loved, with none of the reasons why we loved them. Roll opening credits, and try to lower your expectations.

The Thing With Joseph Gordon-Levitt

I don’t know what this one’s called. I do know that I’ll watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt in practically anything, because he’s awesome.

Sadly the material doesn’t always rise to his level.

Johnny is an interesting character, and his motivations and methods for taking down Senator Roark are unexpected, but this story has the same issues as the rest: it’s a little too grim. I mean, they’re all grim. That’s the point. But the first film had lighter moments. This installment comes closest to recreating that, if only through Johnny’s undeniable charms, but there’s still not a lot of smiles or laughs to be had, and a lot of asking ourselves “Why are you showing this illicit poker game how good you are at manipulating cards, do you want them to know you’re cheating?”

It’s… okay. It would have been the worst if it had been part of the original, but here it’s almost a highlight.

Also Marv is in it. Because heaven forbid we have even one entry without Marv this time around.

A Dame to Kill For

Now this entry had every possible advantage it could. It’s a prequel to The Big Fat Kill, my favourite of the original entries, and (of course) also features Marv as Dwight’s emergency muscle. It has the most returning characters, featuring Rosario Dawson’s violent madam Gail, twin prostitutes Goldie and Wendy, and a re-cast deadly little Miho giving us our only taste of the blood-splattered “holy shit” action sequences of the first film, just with less charisma than when it was Devon Aoki (who had to bow out due to pregnancy). And it has the film’s real breakout performance, Eva Green as Eva Lord, the so-called dame to kill for that’s getting Dwight into more trouble than a trunk full of dismembered cops did last time around.

But it’s pretty clear this was a later entry in the Sin City graphic novels. The narration already feels forced and less engaging. Two minutes into the story and I was already getting tired of Dwight narrating about how hard it was to keep himself under control. And again, there’s less fun, less endlessly quotable moments, less to enjoy here than in its predecessor. It’s still the most fun, the most interesting, and the best written story of the entire movie, but you’re probably starting to get the impression that that isn’t a huge accomplishment.

As to Eva Lord. She might well be the most compelling and powerful female character either movie managed to present (even if her motives become a little cliche and two-dimensional), and Eva Green plays the hell out of her… but it’s hard to deny one little sticking point.

She is naked a lot. I mean, a lot. Which, depending on your perspective, could read as an endorsement rather than a condemnation, I suppose, but here’s the thing. I saw this with several female friends, and the fact that Eva might have been exposed more often than not really started to feel awkward. I could picture other women I know asking how necessary this was, and I didn’t have a good answer.

Now, a certain amount of nudity works well with this role: Eva Lord uses her sexuality to control men, it’s her primary tactic, and she’s adept at it. But I’m just going to admit… they could have dialed it down a touch. One could argue they were just sticking with the imagery from the comics, but if one were to argue that, I would ask one to recall how naked Nancy the stripper was supposed to be, and how many fucks Jessica Alba gave about that.

The answers are “Very naked” and “Zero fucks.” So there were other choices they could have made.

Still, if one were to watch this movie, A Dame to Kill For is going to be your one big highlight. It’s all downhill from there.

Fun fact: Clive Owen was going to reprise post-surgery Dwight, but he had a schedule conflict, so they used prosthetics to make Josh Brolin look like Clive Owen’s Dwight. Which, frankly, is probably better for the story. Less confusing for new people. Not there’ve been many of those.

Nancy’s revenge

And here, at the end, it all falls apart.

That Yellow Bastard wasn’t my favourite of the first film. It’s the one I rewatched the least. Well, after The Customer is Always Right. But it wasn’t bad, it was just bleak. The (possibly) one good cop in Basin City (get it?) goes to prison for lethally defending a young girl from a vicious predator, simply because said predator’s father was Senator Roark, who basically owned the police, and wanted his child-murdering son to be President some day. Roark uses freakish medical science to save his son’s life and regrow some bits that Hartigan shot off, son becomes That Yellow Bastard as a result, uses a released Hartigan to find the girl (Nancy, now a stripper, as I’ve mentioned), Hartigan and the Yellow Bastard face off one more time, Hartigan shoots himself in the hope that Senator Roark won’t go after Nancy if Hartigan’s already dead and unhurtable.

Like I said, bleak. Sin City isn’t a place where a grizzled ex-cop and the much younger woman who’s loved him for half her life get to ride off into any sort of sunset. But apparently that ending wasn’t good enough, so Frank Miller wrote an all-new story in which Nancy, four years later, is still filled with rage and despair, and is trying to work up the nerve to kill Roark for revenge.

And it serves as the final proof that Frank Miller has lost whatever talent he may have had, because it is terrible. Hartigan’s ghost wandering about in torment, Nancy’s narration, the general sluggishness of the plot, shoehorning in Marv to be Nancy’s backup, none of it really works. By the halfway point I found myself just picking apart the continuity issues that having Marv in this story created, as Marv’s presence puts this solidly before The Hard Goodbye. Examples:

  • By the end, Nancy’s lost her love of dancing, died her hair black, has several cuts on her face, and is a vicious killer. In The Hard Goodbye, she’s blonde, unscarred, dancing, and seems happy and well-adjusted. So I’m forced to assume she gets over everything, because no part of the Hard Goodbye could have happened before this story.
  • Also I assume that the Basin City police have zero luck finding either of the people who broke into stately Roark manner and left a trail of bodies in their wake. Nor the Secret Service, who are typically called in to this sort of thing. I know this because Marv and Nancy are just living their lives in relative peace by The Hard Goodbye, which once again, must logically take place after this.
  • Still, you’d think that after Senator Roark was killed in his own home, Cardinal Roark might have had better security.

All in all, having Marv in this story creates a huge pile of narrative problems, and the rest of the story just isn’t good enough to allow me not to notice them. Nancy turning from stripper to assassin and teaming up with a popular character to give the audience the justice-murder they were denied last time plays like bad Sin City fanfic, and the fact that it’s from the original author is just sad.

But what’s really sad, is that since this sequel was such a disappointment and, probably as a result, is tanking at the box office, I’m never going to see an adaption of the Sin City story Hell and Back, which at one point features the protagonist assaulting an enemy compound while high on powerful hallucinogens, meaning it would have been written like Sin City but shot like Spy Kids.

And I wanted to see that. Oh well. Maybe I’ll just find a way to rewatch the original Sin City this week. Or Guardians of the Galaxy. One of those.