Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Movie Review: Iron Man 10/10

Last year I reviewed Superman Returns without using my handy Criteria for Comic Book Movies, and ended up giving it an 8. I have regretted that review several times since then. Nothing major, but I had a clouded judgment, given that it was a Superman movie, and I am a huge Superman fan. If I'd used my Criteria for Comic Book Movies, I think Superman Returns is a 6, maybe 7 at the most.

By contrast, I am fully convinced that Iron Man is a 10. It is a perfect comic book movie. But just to make sure I'm not biased, I'll stick to the Criteria this time.

1. Source Material. Iron Man sticks to its source material as though it were scripture. The origin story in the film is same as the original comic book. The characters are pulled right from the pages of Iron Man, and the villain, Obadiah Stane and his Iron Monger suit, were the wrap up to a long-running animosity between the two. The film achieves a tight summation of the first 20 years of the Iron Man mythos without sacrificing the heart of the tale.

2. Visual Storytelling. The montage giving the audience Tony Stark's back-story was brilliant, and epitomizes what comic book film-making should be about. The story jumps time several times without losing linear continuity, effectively saying more with less. The Iron Man suit's powers are demonstrated, rather than revealed through exposition.

3. Costume. While it is definitely sleeker and sexier than the original Iron Man armor, the armor of the film is undeniably the same as the comic book's. Any improvements made are in the details, rather than the obvious choice some might have made years ago, which would have been to lose the red and gold colors in favor of something less bold and...well, comic book.

4. The fourth rule is that Superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way. I should have added the caveat, unless they're Tony Stark. However, while Tony starts out as a womanizing playboy, his serial sexual escapades are framed in a negative way. Early Tony is not presented as a moral exemplar. His experience in the Middle East is transformational beyond his becoming Iron Man. He seeks to become a better person in his private life as well. I like this, because it means that when I take my kids to films like this some day, I don't have to explain why Superman humping Lois in the fortress of solitude wasn't considered morally reprehensible (I'd like to say that I don't think this is prudery. And perhaps I need to limit my criteria to Superhero Comic Book Movies, since films like Sin City are adaptations of comic books with lots of sex in them. )

5. The fifth rule used to be "Keep Joel Shumacher away from your film." I might add Sam Raimi to that list now, given the general public's response to the third Spider-man film. I think the core idea behind this rule is that good special effects, flashy special effects and glitzy sets do not a comic book movie make. The mise-en-scene of the film should not be garish or painted entirely in oversaturated primary colors. The setting can look completely realistic, which ostensibly allows for the actions of the super-hero to be even more fantastic. Iron Man does not take place in some fictional world, but in our world, with something to say about the issues taking place in our world. While it might not actually change anything about the real world's problems, I have to say that the moment where Iron Man descends with a vengeance upon terrorists preparing to wipe out a small village has a certain cathartic joy to it you just can't get from watching Hotel Rwanda. It's part of the fantasy of the comic book, that these heroes are real in some possible world somewhere, making things right in a way our world never seems to achieve.

6. Give the fanboys and girls things only they will appreciate. Iron Man showcases one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever, when Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner. Or perhaps he's supposed to be Hugh Hefner. As a fanboy, I know that Stan Lee was Hugh Hefner in Fantastic Four many years ago when She-Hulk was taking Ben Grimm's place for a while. A magazine of ill-repute got pictures of She-Hulk while she was sunbathing on the roof of the Baxter Building and when She-Hulk shows up at their office demanding the pictures, the sleazy mogul behind the magazine was modeled on none other than Marvel Comic's mogul himself, Stan Lee.

7. Make sure you've got good villains. Jeff Bridges was positively menacing, and when Iron Man and Iron Monger go at it, the slug-fest is worthy of the best splash pages of any comic book. There's nothing like using a motor cycle as a weapon after you've clotheslined its rider.

Beyond my formalist, anal-retentive comic book criteria, Iron Man is what summer blockbusters are meant to be, with Robert Downey Jr. reminding us all throughout the film why he was once nominated for an Academy Award.

The preview for Dark Knight was amazing. But all I could think when I left the theater is that Batman has some big shoes to fill this year. They look a lot like red and gold ski boots and if you're wearing repulsor gloves...and yeah. You can fly.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

How to Read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time

In 1990, I picked up a book by a writer named Robert Jordan, who at the time was mainly known among fans of fantasy for the Conan novels he penned, which were among my favorites at the time. Seeing one of my favorite post-Howard Conan writers had written something entirely his own, I bought the trade paperback without a moment's hesitation. I was not at all disappointed. The Eye of the World, the first novel in the Wheel of Time series, followed the classic formula high fantasy had been treading since Tolkien wrote of Sam and Frodo leaving the Shire with Nazgul in pursuit. The difference was, that unlike Terry Brooks' Shea and Flick Ohmsford, the young adventurers leaving their village were not vertically challenged, and several were females. And the differences didn't end there.

Getting to the end of the book and realizing it was the first in the series was icing on the cake of a thrilling, fast paced fantasy read. And the second book in the series, "The Great Hunt," while it didn't live up to the expectation "Eye of the World" had set, was still very good. I couldn't wait for what I assumed would be the conclusion, the third book in the series. After all, nearly all high fantasy before the 90's was wrapped up in a trilogy, wasn't it?

Alas, "The Dragon Reborn" did not wrap up the story, and in a pre-Internet world, I had no way of knowing that Jordan intended for 12 books total. I'm not sure anyone following the series in those days did. And by the time book 6 came out, I was sick of waiting for things to wrap up. The way I sawy it, while Terry Brooks had pumped out two Shannara trilogies, he'd had the good sense to wrap things up at the end of each book so fans weren't hung out to dry waiting.

So I got stuck at book seven for several years. Although I had no intention of ever reading them, I kept getting the books as they were released. I thought long and hard about selling all but the first book, since I'd read it three times in the course of reading up to book 6 (I found that I needed to re-read the whole series when book 6 came out, as I couldn't remember who the hell half the characters were).

The reason I started reading the series again was friend Jeff Nelson. Jeff is a voracious reader and had read all of the books. Where many others had given up, he'd persevered, and still had many good things to say about the series. So Jeff was my initial inspiration.

The way I got over the hump of Book 7 was I've been a gold member for awhile, and had been thinking about using the unabridged audio version of Book 7 to get me started again. I listen to books on my I-pod while doing yard work, shoveling the walk, or driving. Last year, as I was working hard on our yard and basement, I began listening to Book 7, sure that I'd be using it to augment my actual reading of the book.

I'm not sure I've picked up a Jordan novel since. But I am about to begin Book 11. And I'm looking forward to the posthumous collaboration of Jordan with Brandon Sanderson sometime next year. So, to all those who have given up on Jordan, and wished they hadn't, or to those who are thinking about starting but have heard too many negative reviews, here's how I recommend reading Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series.

I'd like to begin with a few words to Jordan's detractors.

1. Understand that Jordan as a writer, loves detail. He will describe clothing in so much detail, that if "Wheel of Time" ever gets optioned for film (it needs to be a television series, but more about that in a moment), the costume designers will be able to go for a hell of a lot of coffee breaks. He is fond of giving elaborately detailed descriptions of every character, even the minor ones. If you can't handle that, shut up and stop reading the series.

2. The repetition of previously established plot elements in subsequent books is for the people traveling on planes who pick up book 5 in the airport. It allows them to enter the world enough to get through the read. It's a device publishing companies use with bestselling series like this one to ensure that the series remain a bestseller. While I have never started any series mid-way through, some people apparently do, and these passages are for them. If you can't handle that, shut up and stop reading the series.

3. Jordan likes to weave intricate plots with a cast of characters so large it necessitated a glossary at the end of each book. Many of the books are entirely character based, and so seem to have "no action" taking place. This is because you as a reader want someone to storm a tower, engage in a climactic battle, or throw a ring into a fiery pit. Jordan is too busy marrying characters or introducing a new plot thread to bother with such things. And while he may not talk about a character for one book, he has almost always gotten back around to them later on. If you don't like character development the way Jordan does it, shut up and stop reading the series.

4. Bottom line: There are already enough posts all over Internet chat rooms, Amazon, and Indigo (or the other online bookseller of your choice) telling us about why they are no longer reading Jordan to sink the Titanic again. If you gave up on the series, just write "ditto to so-and-so's review, I gave up too" and get on with your life. Just shut up and stop reading the series.

So, now that I've announced that I know why people generally give up on the series (which were reasons I shared), let me tell you how I got back on the Wheel.

1. I started thinking about "Wheel of Time" as a television series. It's long enough to sustain several seasons, the iron is hot for the striking insofar as fantasy media goes, and the cast is basically Beverly 90210 (or whatever teen drama is currently hip - sue me, I'm old) meets Lord of the Rings. The cast would be young, attractive and cool, and the setting would be cool in the current deluge of fantasy films. But it's too damn long for a single film installment, so a television series makes the most sense. I got to thinking about how we watch television series, which is one episode at a time. I began to view the chapters in each book as "episodes" of "Wheel of Time" as a television series, and each book as a "season." I don't like every episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and there are some seasons I like better than others. Some of my favorite episodes are in my least favorite seasons. But I love the characters, and I want to see what happens to them, so I tune in. I love Rand, Mat, Perrin, and many of the characters in Wheel of Time. I want to see what happens to them. So I keep tuning in.

2. I listen to them on audiobook. This is an extension of the "Wheel of Time" as television series concept, since it takes about 40 minutes or so to listen to a chapter. Some people just aren't that patient, but if you did it on your work commute or as part of housework, yardwork, or some other activity which would allow you to pay attention to the story without sawing your hand off, then you could easily get through a "season" of "Wheel of Time" before you know it. And Jordan's prose actually lends itself (in my opinion) better to audio than to regular reading. The repetition of how Aes Sedai do this or that is less annoying, because your brain is also thinking about washing the dishes.

3. I remember that Robert Jordan used to be a Dungeon Master for his kids. So much of "Wheel of Time" reads like a long-form role-playing campaign. I've got this nagging, but unconfirmed suspicion as a DM myself that many of the vignettes in "Wheel of Time" are narratively tightened versions of gaming moments. They just feel that way all too often. I find that thinking about "Wheel of Time" as a gaming campaign gives me ideas for my own gaming, especially in areas of character development. And it challenged me to run a campaign involving three different groups of players all playing in the same world and time period, but in different places, with their actions having major ramifications for each other's groups.

4. I got over the reasons I quit. Simply put, they were my reasons. I had expectations of Jordan he never intended to fulfill. I expected him to wrap it up in a trilogy. He didn't. I expected him to snap Rand out of his sullen funk. He didn't. I expected him to stop telling me about the embroidery on coats or dresses. He didn't. I expected him to bring a certain major character back from the dead. He didn't. And finally, I expected him to finish before he passed away. And he didn't.

It was that last one that really galvanized me. When I heard he had terminal cancer (many years after it was a reality), it got me thinking about the legacy the man would leave on this earth. An epic bestselling fantasy series. And I realized that, to quote Elvis and Sinatra, he'd done it his way. I might not like some of the choices Jordan made, but I love the world he created and the people walking through it. And I wanted to know how they fared in the end.

So that's my journey to Book 11 of "Wheel of Time" and I wanted to share it with everyone who visits my blog or reads my reviews at Amazon and Indigo, because I've enjoyed the journey. I want new readers to know what to expect, but also how to let go of those expectations, and to know that the journey is one worth taking. Especially if you want to be there when the final novel is released next year.

Me? I'll be starting book 1 this fall and listening to all the previous "Seasons" of "Wheel of Time," one per month, in anticipation of the final installment. The Wheel of Time turns...and I'll be turning pages with it.

NOTE: One final word. I'd like to add that while "Wheel of Time" is one of my top fantasy series of all time, I pray to the publishing gods at Tor to re-release the whole bloody series with new covers. Each time a new book comes out, I am further convinced that Darrell Sweet is not only the worst possible choice for cover illustrator for this series, but also that he has never read any of the books, or in the case of the first one, not even a description of the major characters. Judging from this post, I am not alone. In a perfect world, Keith Parkinson would have been the illustrator before he passed away. Since he is no longer an option, I'm suggesting Seamas Gallagher, who has done what I consider to be the best renditions of the characters from the series, with the exception of the interior art of the Wheel of Time roleplaying rules from Wizards of the Coast. Barring that, I'm ordering the whole series from the UK, where the covers, while a bit boring, are at the very least, not annoyingly inaccurate.