“Wait, it’s been how long since I blogged about my old plays? Twenty-five months? Wow. And what have I been talking about in the meantime? No, aside from The Flash and Arrow.”
Someone really took “My blog, my rules” to heart, I see.
Well, back to it. I mean come on, Dan, they were finally getting good.
Ladies and gentlemen, join me on a trip back to 2008, a time of antiquated things like hope, optimism, and American democracy… a time when I decided to take a crack at a genre I’d long enjoyed, but never experimented with… farce. And then I made it a murder mystery. I do like slapping murder mysteries onto things. This is Dying on Stage.
What’s it about?
Call it “Murder at the Muppet Show.”
The Comedy Invasion is a struggling sketch/variety show (picture a non-televised Saturday Night Live, or a Muppet Show with humans and a musical guest) hosted by its creator Johnny Rayner and produced by his long-time business partner (and to his chagrin, only business) Mera Lucas. Tonight they’ve gotten a windfall that could turn their fortunes around… star of stage and screen Gareth Gardner has agreed to guest appear. If the show goes well, they’re on top.
So imagine their dismay when their asshole lead actor dies at the end of the opening sketch, apparently poisoned. It’s up to the remaining cast and crew to figure out who the killer is without Gareth or the audience noticing anything’s amiss. Cue hijinks!
So why’d that happen?
…I’m not sure I even remember.
I certainly am a big Muppet Show fan, but in the end it didn’t have that big an influence. There might be some traces of Kermit the Frog in Johnny’s occasional flustered ranting and role as MC. Resident comedienne Finnian Shale (an early case of me defying the “comic characters are men” stereotype and saying “Well, why can’t this role be a woman?”) certainly owes a debt to Fozzie Bear, especially given her big joke routine is a direct homage to one of my favourite Fozzie bits.
Maybe it had some influence from my love of sketch comedy in general, really. Back then I think I was using Kids in the Hall as background noise while writing. That would make sense. The continued presence of Premise Beach on my blogs prove I’m a bit of a Kids in the Hall fan. Maybe fondness for the brilliant and sadly forgotten late 90s show Viva Variety drove the notion into my head. Maybe it just came to me. I used to write sketches, especially back in the days of my old company, Mind the Walrus, and had some funny ones lying around that I felt I could be seen more.
No, wait, now that I think about it, I reused old sketches because I hadn’t written sketch comedy in several years and had slightly forgotten how. Hmm.
I guess at some point “Murder at the Muppet Show” became a fun idea and I decided to chase it, even though farce is a whole different animal than simple comedy.
I’m not positive when I decided to combine murder mystery and farce, but it works pretty well. The thing that drives a farce is high stakes. There is a secret, or a crisis, and any second it could come out, and if it does, lives will be ruined. And from there comes our pace, the desperate dance of lies and cover-ups that fuel the comedy. Hiding a body, or a series of bodies, while trying not to be the next victim provides those stakes.
How’d it turn out?
Really, really funny.
The opening scene was the biggest challenge. I needed a scene of pure pre-show chaos, where everything’s crazy and everyone’s high-energy and trying to get prepped, and at the same time it needed to accomplish two key things. First, introduce the cast of ten characters (well, introduce nine of them and hint at Gareth, who would show up in the next scene), and second, give as many of them as possible a motivation to kill Frankie, the lead character and first victim. Tricky juggling act but I think I got there.
Gareth Gardner works well as a hybrid of two archetypes: he’s every Very Special Guest Star from the Muppet Show (above this nonsense but still having a good time), and the Suspicious Constable from British farces, constantly spotting the holes in the protagonists’ cover stories.
Not all of the cast is super well developed, but given how fast some of them need to die I don’t see how that’s my fault. This thing needs to hit the ground running, so I don’t have unlimited time to spend teaching everyone what vain actress Veronica Horne’s hopes and dreams are. I just need you to know she’s narcissistic, weaponizes her sexuality, and the shier actresses don’t love her.
Bucky, the long-suffering intern, is as funny as he needs to be. Especially if you get someone hilarious in the role, like we did. Cliff the stage hand’s forced transition to leading man is a nice arc. I enjoy Finn. She’s so earnest and so bad at keeping a secret. Her habit of saying exactly the wrong thing at any given moment might be a bit of Fozzie Bear slipping back in.
Also, I got to end it with a line that had been in my head for a while… “If we spirits have offended, think but this and all is mended… No refunds. Goodnight everybody!”
There is one odd thing that happened. Some of the sketches didn’t get the laughs I expected, at least not at the workshops. And it’s not because the sketches weren’t funny, they were tried and true material. I’ve gotten laughs with Lost and Found and Celebrity Where Are My Pants before and since. It’s just that compared to the more rapid fire off-stage scenes, the sketches slowed the pace some. A weird effect that doesn’t really help.
But that might be more of a staging issue.
Would you stage it again?
Absolutely. That said, there were a couple of issues that came up during rehearsal, that we never got around to smoothing out. See, if I’m at a rehearsal and not on stage, I like to read. And the director took that to mean that I couldn’t be interrupted or asked questions. Which… makes no sense to me.
But anyway, it works. The major comic set pieces are reliable and not difficult to pull off. The pace is solid, and the full-on Agatha Christie Poirot-style “It was YOU!” revelation of the killer is enjoyable.
Man, why haven’t I done this one again…
Repeated theme alerts
Man and Woman Cannot Be Friends: Of course there’s a romantic C-plot between Johnny and Mera, because why not.
Writing about writers: I mean, there’s not a lot of discussion about it, but Johnny probably writes the show, doesn’t he? Someone must.
Something something pop culture reference: Well I mentioned the “Good grief, the comedian’s a bear!” homage, but here’s an obscure one. Bucky the intern’s real name is Hubert. This comes from the first “An Evening With Kevin Smith” DVD, in which one of the fans asking questions introduces himself as “My name is Hubert but everyone calls me Bucky,” and Kevin runs with it. “BUCKY! You don’t even need to ask a question now, man… what was your real name?” “Hubert.” [Kevin chuckles] “Bucky!”
Next time… how do you follow up the funniest thing you’ve ever written? You abandon comedy and get dark.
You know, it’s a damn shame I already wrote, like, a dozen blogs about The Office, because I could sure say some more things about how lethally toxic Angela and Andy were as a couple. And how I don’t even know who I was supposed to root for in that story.
But no. We closed that book.
So previously I covered big crossover stories that I feel could be done even if they probably won’t. But hey, they already did Invasion!, and I wouldn’t have guessed that, so who knows. Today, though… instead of depressing myself by pitching ideas they could use but won’t, I’ll depress myself a little less by looking at the big, classic stories that neither Marvel nor DC could possibly do justice to.
I don’t know why I do these things either. But it’s no sadder than wondering how Marvel Studios could integrate the Fantastic Four if they got the rights back. I mean it’s pretty clear that Fox is going to keep making terrible Fantastic Four movies every seven years until Emperor Trump shuts down Hollywood for being too liberal and all the studios move to China. I don’t know why, maybe they’re just trying to dilute Marvel’s brand, but it’s clearly going to happen.
1. Secret Wars
Now, there’s a few Marvel event books under this particular banner. The mid-80s miniseries (and subsequent sequels) in which the all-powerful Beyonder gathered the heroes and villains of Earth for a battle-royale on his artificial Battleworld; the infrequently shipping mid-2000s miniseries in which Nick Fury discovers that the nation of Latveria (once and future domain of Doctor Doom, but at the time a democratic ally state) has been funding America’s tech-based supervillains, and thus leads a covert team of to attack, which has consequences down the road; and the most recent Secret Wars, in which a years-long storyline about the Marvel multiverse collapsing ends with the main and Ultimate Marvel universes fatally colliding, and Doctors Doom and Strange saving what they can in a new Battleworld.
I could cover all three of them, but only one really fits here. I don’t think anyone is really clamouring for an adaptation of the original Secret Wars. It’s pretty thin, narratively speaking, which makes sense because it was written to sell a toy line. And it got its name from focus groups finding that kids reacted well to the words “secret” and “wars.” Also, the MCU simply doesn’t have enough interesting, Avengers-level villains to pull it off. That’s why the only way to get all of their film characters (but never their TV characters) together in one movie is to have them fight either Thanos or each other.
The 2004 Secret War has its issues as far as adaptation goes. A) the MCU has no equivalent to Latveria except maybe, maybe Sokovia (who could hardly afford to spend money on American supervillains), and B) there has never been a Marvel movie villain where we had to stop and ask where they get the money to fund and fuel their high-tech weapons. The Marvel movie villains are mostly arms dealers and interplanetary despots, not bank robbers with gimmick suits. But… if they were really inclined… the basic premise would make for a hell of a Captain America sequel. So they actually could do this one if they wanted.
The latest one, however…
Why would they want to?
Because like the great Crisis On Infinite Earths, grand-daddy of the Event Crossover, which we’ll get back to, this event existed to clear the deck. It ended the Ultimate universe experiment, save for Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales, who was brought into the main MCU. It paved away some things they wanted to be done with (the re-aged Steve Rogers, the evil Tony Stark, the still-existing Fantastic Four), and let Marvel start fresh with new ideas. Some new ideas. A couple of new ideas. They didn’t go post-FlashpointNew 52 crazy or anything.
Marvel Studios is coming up on the end of Phase Three, the culmination of over ten years of interconnected films and largely ignored TV projects. It’s also the end of the contracts for their main stars. All in all, a great time to clean house and start fresh. Doing a Secret Wars-type story would let them reboot and recast without going full Amazing Spider-Man.
So why can’t they?
Because for all of the craziness happening, the army of Thors and the wasteland of Hulks and the extra-wastey wasteland of zombies and Ultrons, all of that, Secret Wars was ultimately a story about Victor Von Doom and Reed Richards. Doom is triumphant, he has reforged reality in his own broken image and rules it as a god, and it all falls apart when Reed arrives. The fate of the Marvel multiverse comes down to a grudge match between these two classic, eternal rivals.
And the Marvel Cinematic Universe just does not have an equivalent.
The closest thing they have to a Reed Richards is Tony Stark, but his first and greatest nemesis in the films is himself. Tony can’t exactly wrestle his own arrogance for the fate of everything. They simply don’t have anything or anyone on par with Doom to serve as the other half of the equation. The 2004 Secret War has some elements and characters the films lack, but with a little wrangling Sokovia could replace Latveria, Falcon or Ant-Man could replace Wolverine, and they could just suck it up, stop shunning the TV branch, and put Luke Cage and Daisy “Quake” Johnson in a movie. But they have nothing in their arsenal to replace Doom. Not even Loki.
2. Crisis On Infinite Earths
I’d save this for last but I already went and brought it up, so… here goes. Crisis on Infinite Earths is the grand mac-daddy of all universe-shifting crossovers. DC editorial decided that their complex multiverse of overlapping characters was a little messy and confusing, and thus commissioned a massive event miniseries to tidy things up. Every single character in DC’s stable made at least a brief appearance, even some they’d just acquired. Worlds ended, heroes and villains died, including Supergirl and the Flash, and in the end there was one Earth in which the survivors all co-existed. The DC universe changed forever.
Okay, sure, within twenty years and change there was a multiverse again and nearly every character they’d killed had come back (I can name two who stayeddead, but you don’t know them). Creators who grew up reading comics tend to bring back the stuff they loved as a kid. But, you know… it’s still basically different.
Why would they want to?
Because this is the dream crossover. Forget Supergirl visiting Star City or even the Avengers meeting the Defenders, this is the impossible dream. The stuff fan trailers are made of.
I’m talking Grant Gustin racing Ezra Miller. Fellow Supermen Brandon Routh and Tyler Hoechin throwing Henry Cavill a brood-intervention. Stephen Amell and Justin Hartley in an Arrow-off. The Dark Knight meets the Caped Crusader. Get weird with it, and all to stop a threat so big it takes upwards of five Supermen and three Flashes to bring it down.
So why can’t they?
Dude, think about it. Are you really going to be able to talk Christian Bale back into the batsuit? No. No you are not. Michael Keaton won’t be much easier, Christopher Reeve is dead, and 1990’s Flash, Superman Returns’ Superman, both Lois and Clark of Lois and Clark, and the 1970s Wonder Woman are all playing other characters in the DCW-verse.
Plus the only Joker you’re going to be able to get is Jared Leto and nobody wants that.
And which Earth would die to sell the stakes? Smallvile? Lois and Clark? You’re gonna get fans and ex-stars complaining on Twitter whichever you pick.
It’s the impossible dream for a reason. Even a Crisis on Two Earths (comic-wise, the first time the Justice League met the Justice Society), where the TV and film universes collided, would be a bit of an ask.
3. Secret Invasion
In case you were wondering if Marvel naming things based on focus groups liking the word “secret” was a thing of the past… well, we can’t be sure. Maybe writer/architect Brian Michael Bendis just wanted the homage.
Secret Invasion was the culmination of a story Bendis had been cooking since he took over the Avengers books. After a massive prison break which led to the newly formed New Avengers discovering an illegal, black-books vibranium mining operation in the Savage Land run by SHIELD, it becomes clear that some sinister force has infiltrated the global peacekeeping force. And, as time goes by, they learn whatever it is has infiltrated Hydra and the Hand as well. After Civil War splits the team in half, Luke Cage’s rogue Avengers find out who this shadow force is: shapeshifting alien would-be conquerors the Skrulls have mastered a new form of infiltration, one that no hero, despite magic or supersenses or being Reed Richards, could detect even when it was right in front of them.
So the question then began… who was a secret Skrull? Who could be trusted? Did the Skrulls orchestrate Scarlet Witch nearly wiping out the mutants or the Civil War that turned hero against hero? And when a ship full of heroes dressed like it was still the 80s crashed in the Savage Land, were any of them friends finally returned?
The answers were “Five people of note and some nameless SHIELD agents,” “Pretty much everyone,” “No,” and “No, that was just a waste of five incredibly repetitive issues.”
Why would they want to?
It combines both of Marvel Studios’ favourite tropes: heroes fighting heroes, and a climax involving fighting a giant horde of faceless alien minions. Plus, as we’ve learned from Winter Soldier, Civil War, and basing their film franchise around the Infinity Gauntlet, they love harvesting their event books for film plots. Not enough to fully give in to the endless cries for a Planet Hulk movie (looks like one scene from Thor: Ragnarok is all those people will get), but still.
Also, the story leading up to the event book was great. The years-long build-up, from the jail-break through to the secret within SHIELD and all the way to the big Skrull reveal and the two teams wondering who on the other side was a secret Skrull, it was one of the best slow-burn builds in recent memory.
So why can’t they?
Weirdly the fact that the build-up is the only good part of Secret Invasion isn’t the problem. Sure, it was savagely under-written, what with spending five issues on the go-nowhere Savage Land plot while the Skrull Queen gave a series of repetitive, half-issue monologues about change. Sure, the climax is hot garbage, since it boils down to all of the heroes lining up on one side of Central Park, shouting “Hey Skrulls, come fight,” and every Skrull in the global invasion saying “Yeah, sure, be right there.” Sure, the title doesn’t even make sense, since the Invasion stops being in any way Secret by the end of issue one. But the Civil War comic was also badly paced with a half-assed conclusion, and that movie turned out fine.
No, the issue is that there’s no real way to do the build-up. Are they going to slip some hint that not all is well into every phase four movie? That’s just going to lead to awkward, tacked on scenes that draw complaints, like Thor and his Vision Spa in Age of Ultron. And the reveal will make less sense without an established race of hostile shapeshifters like the comics have. Which brings us to another problem… Marvel Studios doesn’t have the rights to the Skrulls. They’re tied up with the Fantastic Four, so Fox owns the film rights. And as we know, Fox doesn’t give these things up easily.
Gonna break the format here, because “Why can’t they” is perfectly obvious. Marvel and DC the publishers don’t really get along these days, a state of affairs exacerbated by ex-Marvel head Joe Quesada pulling some dickish moves back in 2010. Which is sad, because back in the day, DC/Marvel crossovers were a frequent event, from their beginnings in Superman Vs. Spider-Man to the Teen Titans teaming up with the X-Men to the well intentioned but ineptly executed DC Vs. Marvel (or Marvel Vs. DC, depending on the issue number), which at least created the interesting experiment Amalgam Comics. And then after a hiatus, they managed to join forces one last time for the greatest inter-company crossover ever.
JLA/Avengers (or, again based on issue number, Avengers/JLA) is filled with classic moments. The Justice League saw Dr. Doom ruling Latveria, the ruins of mutant nation Genosha, Hulk tearing through the military, and the Punisher shooting up gangs (until Batman broke his own “don’t interfere” rule to whoop on him), and decided that this world’s heroes just don’t try. The Avengers saw Wonder Woman addressing the UN, Superman being deified, and the Flash Museum (“They have a museum dedicated to a speedster!” shouted an enraged and envious Quicksilver. “A museum!”) and decided the heroes of this world overstepped, ruling as gods for the public’s adoration.
It also had the best “fight-then-team-up” sequence of any comic ever… Batman and Captain America trade a few jabs, testing each other out, then Batman essentially says “You might be able to beat me, but it’ll take a while. Want to figure out what’s actually happening instead?” And off they go.
And then history gets twisted, creating an alternate past where the DC and Marvel universes had known about each other for years, to the point of getting together each Thanksgiving like the JLA and JSA used to do. And Hawkeye and Green Arrow exchange the one piece of dialogue that’s missing from most DC multiverse stories (especially this season of The Flash)… “For the last time, we’re Earth One, you’re Earth Two!”
But it’s not to be. If Marvel and DC the publishers aren’t getting along, one can probably count on Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers to be just as reluctant to get into bed with each other. Even if people would pay all the money on Earth to see Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man go three rounds against Batman.
Sadly, this will also prevent comics’ one-time weirdest inter-company crossover…
Archie Meets the Punisher. That happened. That is a thing that two companies agreed to make and paid people to write and draw. Multiple people, actually, because the Archie scenes are all drawn in the Archie house style, while a different artist drew all the Punisher scenes in a more appropriately gritty fashion. It’s fascinating in how audacious it is just for existing, in how committed they are to a team-up that makes no sense and should not be, but still somehow turns out worth reading.
So in that spirit… how much do I want to see Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle set loose amongst the teen-drama-fuelled noir mysteries of the CW’s Riverdale?
So. Goddamn. Much.
It would be so weird and so stupid and so, so mesmerising. But Marvel won’t let their Netflix characters cross over with their own film branch, so that there is a pipe dream. A ridiculous, near-indefensible pipe dream.
Maybe in Riverdale’s fourth season they’ll get desperate enough to do Archie Vs. Predator.
Next time… I return to a long-neglected blog series, discussing things that do exist instead of things that don’t.