The Biggest Superhero Films That Didn't Happen, Part 2
Comic Books, Film
A while back I did a series of columns on “comfort food” entertainment. I thought I’d pretty much said my piece on it, but a couple of things cropped up that made me want to come back to it again.
Mostly what I wanted to do was call your attention to some new items that came to my attention during what turned out to be a couple of really crappy days last week.
I won’t bore you with the details, but last Friday turned out to be a day filled with unnecessary family drama, workplace tensions, and other stuff that left both Julie and myself cranky, exhausted, and just disgusted with humanity in general by the time we got home that evening.
And then we opened the mail, and were somewhat cheered. Some items I’d forgotten ordering were there, a book and two movies. I told Julie that we were by God taking the night off, then I unplugged the phone and we made sandwiches and put in the first of the movies.
The first DVD was, as it happens, a recommendation from our very own Pol Rua. He’d been party to an online conversation where I’d confessed that I found blaxploitation, martial arts films and other trashy movies incredibly soothing. For me, settling in with Truck Turner or Grand Theft Auto or some other drive-in classic from the mid-70s is like curling up under a warm blanket.
Pol, upon seeing my comment, immediately made it a point to let me know that there was a movie out there he thought would be perfect for me and was I aware of it?
That movie was K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces.
It’s also sometimes marketed as “K-20: Legend of the Mask,” but they’re the same movie. I’d never heard of it under either name, but a few minutes on YouTube had convinced me that we had to get this DVD in our home STAT.
It really is a wonderful movie. You have to watch it with subtitles, which I guess is a thing for some people, but the story was so delightful we didn’t mind.
The premise is that it’s 1949 in an alternate universe where World War 2 never happened. Instead, aristocrats continue in a sort of 19th Century royalist culture, there’s a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. The military have developed a small prototype Tesla-coil superweapon, and there are whispers that the giant one was actually built, and then hidden in a secret location after it accidentally caused untold devastation at Tunguska in 1908.
Meanwhile, a mysterious thief nicknamed K-20 is pulling all sorts of daring heists across the city, pursued grimly by Inspector Kogoro Akechi, a renowned detective. K-20 has previously been content merely to lift money and jewels, but it raises the stakes considerably when he breaks into a science demonstration to steal the Tesla prototype. After that, Akechi is more determined than ever to bring him down.
As it happens, Inspector Akechi is due to marry Duchess Yoko Hashiba, with their engagement being front-page gossip all over the city. It’s THE event of the year. A naïve peasant-class circus acrobat, Heikichi Endo, is hired by a mysterious stranger to snap photos of Akechi and Yoko’s engagement party for the tabloids. Endo needs the money to pay for the circus ringmaster’s medical bills, so he agrees.
However, because he’s sneaking around on the rooftops the same day K-20 has threatened the Inspector, Endo is mistaken for K-20 at the scene and arrested. Turns out Endo’s been framed by the real K-20. He breaks jail with the help of thief and inventor Genji the Gimmick, and it is on, bitch.
Endo is now a wanted fugitive, and he decides that the only way to clear his name is to use his skills as a circus acrobat and, with the help of an underground brotherhood of thieves (and also, of course, of their leader, Genji the Gimmick and his various cool inventions) Endo will suit up in black himself and meet K-20 on his own turf.
Meanwhile, Inspector Akechi is still after K-20– who he thinks is Endo– and of course, everyone is after the missing Tesla superweapon….
…and that’s just the first half hour or so. I could go on and on. This movie is a pulp fan’s dream.
Adventure and romance and masked adventurers and dirigibles and autogyros and plucky sidekicks and plenty of that old-school swashbuckling rooftop action, not to mention a heaping helping of Mad Science (with a side of Nikola Tesla/Tunguska-flavored Conspiracy Theory.) It’s just awesome. We adored it.
The plot is the same kind of deranged labyrinthine one-adventure-set-piece-to-the-next roller-coaster ride Lester Dent used to do in Doc Savage. But with masks and capes and martial arts, Batman-style. It’s one-stop shopping.
When I talk about comfort-food entertainment, this kind of thing is what I mean. Nothing about K-20 is particularly innovative. The guy who takes on a masked identity to clear himself of a crime he didn’t commit, a mysterious supercriminal terrorizing the city, a race to find a hidden doomsday weapon before it’s used for evil…. these are all things we’ve seen before. We know it’s pretty certain that by the end that the good guys will win. But the fun of getting there, of seeing those old familiar elements combined in new ways, is what lifted the movie up for us.
That, and seeing it on exactly the right day. By the time it was over, I said to Julie, “This movie…. it’s like what Steve Martin used to say about banjo music. You just can’t be depressed when you’re watching it.”
And boy, did we ever need something like that. Recommended. Especially if you’re having a day where your relatives and your job are getting you down.
The next morning, we had to go down to the Department of Licensing to get our ‘enhanced driver’s license’ business dealt with. We are going on our annual road trip in a couple of weeks (bookscouting and goofing off in Victoria B.C.!) and instead of dropping an extra $500 on full passports for both of us, we decided just to get the fifteen-dollar Canada-only upgrade to our driver’s licenses.
It’s a huge pain, because there is no errand at the DOL that does not involve a long and tedious wait.
But it’s the only game in town, so you just have to pick a day where you can afford to lose four to six hours waiting in line, and bring a book.
Fortunately, I had a book.
A couple of years ago I recommended Paul Malmont’s wonderful novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, in which Doc Savage writer Lester Dent and The Shadow’s Walter Gibson, along with several other pulp writers, started out to solve the murder of H.P. Lovecraft and ended by preventing New York’s destruction in an apocalyptic disaster.
Likewise, about the only thing I genuinely really liked about DC’s recent First Wave experiment was the Doc Savage title that spun out of it, specifically the first arc written by the aforementioned Mr. Malmont.
So when I saw that there was a new sequel to The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, I instantly ordered it off Amazon and it arrived the same day as K-20.
I was delighted to discover that Paul Malmont’s still got it.
The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown takes place several years after the first book, and this time the focus is on science fiction pulp writers Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp, who, during their time stationed together at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1943, must foil a Nazi plot to steal a legendary superweapon. That weapon is….
… a giant Tesla coil that, rumor has it, was transformed into a death-ray weapon that caused the destructive event at Tunguska in 1908. Naturally, Heinlein and his friends have to find it before the Nazis do.
I know that there was no literary hanky-panky here, the two stories were done years apart and they’re not similar in any way, other than both of them having the same McGuffin and being done in a fast-moving pulp-adventure style. But the coincidence made me smile. Apparently, it was just meant to be a Tesla-coil weekend.
The other similarity is that Paul Malmont doesn’t re-invent pulp adventures here so much as celebrate them, and the men who wrote them. And for me that puts both Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and The Astounding, The Amazing, and the Unknown squarely in the same comfort-food category as all the other pulp adventures we have here in our home. I know these are books that are going on the short list of favorite novels that can always bring me out of a bad day.
At any rate, Paul Malmont’s new book is every bit as meticulously researched as his first pulp-writer adventure, and more to the point, it’s just as much fun. I got so lost in it while Julie and I were cooling our heels with all the other mopes at the DOL that I was almost sorry when it was our turn after a three-hour wait… because I’d have been happy to sit there long enough to actually finish. (As it was I did get about three-quarters of the way through.) Taking the sting out of a visit to that particular office in Seattle is, indeed, Astounding, Amazing, and Unknown.
I decided the last item that arrived in the mailbox the same day as the previous two did should count as “comfort food” entertainment as well… not because of me, but because of our seven-year-old godson, Phenix.
A lot of us love superheroes, I think, because the core concept, the genre itself, falls into that comfort-food zone of the pleasure of the expected. We like minor illusion-of-change surprises, stuff that keeps things feeling new, but major, actual changes that create something genuinely new are always met with a howl of dismay. Most of us who enjoy superheroes are on board with the idea of the good guys eventually winning and, no matter how convoluted the serial-style storytelling might get, the basic premise not changing too much from whatever it was when we started.
It’s much more about the characters and their landscape than it is the story itself. I think this is why, in recent years, we’ve had such a run on writers trying to force various superhero strips back to the way they were when the writers themselves discovered them… and also why the internet catches fire whenever a beloved long-running character falls victim to an editorial mandate that feels wrong to the audience (Hal Jordan in Emerald Twilight, Spider-Man in One More Day, Iron Man in Civil War. Etc.) And of course we all have our favorites. Mine is always going to be Batman, I think. No matter what DC has done to him over the years, no matter how many individual titles I drop or pick up, there’s probably always going to be a Batbook in there somewhere. I keep coming back to those comics.
Here’s what I found out last Saturday night. For seven-year-old Phenix, that special character is Green Lantern. Specifically, it’s the Green Lantern Corps, and the various other Corps that Geoff Johns set up with his “War Of Light” idea.
Let me give you some background. Phenix’s mother Carla is a single mom. She started out married to one guy who turned out to be a jerk. Then she was dating another fellow for a couple of years, and recently they amicably called it quits and now she’s seeing a new guy. Phenix has also been having a hard time in school lately… I gather there has been some playground drama, clique things about who’s cool and who’s not.
This is all totally normal, but sometimes Phenix has a hard time with it. It makes him a little nervous, like his world is unstable. However, he can’t really articulate all this, because he doesn’t have the tools to talk about his feelings that way. He kind of circles around it, usually with questions he asks in the car on the way to our home, or on the way back when we’re dropping him off. More often, he’ll just talk it through himself by telling us everything that’s going on with him (often all in in one breath) with Julie or I occasionally saying uh-huh, or helping him define what it is he’s trying to get at.
Here’s the thing. One of the tools Phenix sometimes uses to explain something is the meaning of various rings in Geoff Johns’ current GL mythology.
It came from the giveaway rings DC sent out promoting Blackest Night; Phenix scored a set on Free Comic Book Day last year, and it was a big deal for him. It got him all interested in Green Lantern and those are cartoons he never gets tired of.
But I never realized until last weekend how reassuring this idea is for Phenix. For him Green Lantern’s about a guy with a magic ring that can fight bad feelings. Seriously. I have lost count of all the times Phenix and I have talked about which rings have feelings that are good, which ones are bad, which ones can be bad if you let then control you, and so on.
All this is by way of saying that when his mother had something come up and asked to have Phenix stay with us overnight Saturday, I was all ready with our third mailbox arrival from the day before, a Green Lantern cartoon he hadn’t seen yet.
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is the latest of DC’s direct-to-DVD cartoon offerings, and we all loved it. It’s an anthology of various tales of the Green Lantern Corps, some adapted from the comics (“Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” is one of the offerings) and others are originals. All of them are linked by an overall framing story featuring the Corps facing off against a re-animated Krona.
After that, Phenix wanted to see more Green Lantern (Actually, he said “Let’s see all the Green Lantern!”) So we broke out everything we had. Hal, John, whoever.
It was a great time and afterwards he asked to see the comics starring the Corps. Fortunately I had a couple of Tales of the Green Lantern Corps trade collections on hand.
We read some of those, and then he fell asleep. He asked me to leave the books out for him “in case I wake up early and want to look at them more,” but I think it was really more talismanic. He wanted to know the Green Lanterns were nearby.
There’s been a lot of fan snark directed at Geoff Johns over “mood ring Lanterns” and “the Rainbow Brite Corps” and so on, and likewise there have been all sorts of sneering reviews of the new Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie as being “too simplistic” and “a superhero movie by the numbers” and so on.
But these things take on a whole different character when you are looking at them with a bright kid. It helps you to understand that not everything has to be for us.
Now, when I say something like that, it always leads to an indignant flurry of comments that I am advocating we should “dumb comics down” or “you just want everything to be Marvel Adventures,” or whatever. Like it’s strictly a binary thing.
The truth is that there’s a huge middle ground between, say, Tiny Titans and Watchmen that’s largely ignored. Especially at DC, whose schtick for the last decade or so has been taking classic characters and ‘making them edgier’ or ‘reinventing’ them or whatever.
It’s ironic to realize that the one run of comics that (at second-hand) so completely hooked our godson on Green Lantern– Blackest Night and all the stuff that ran up to it– is also the run of Green Lantern comics that we don’t think he should read.
Seriously. The Green Lantern titles as they currently exist are too much for our godson because, knowing how Phenix reacts to horror stories and monster stories, those comics would doubtless give him nightmares. Which is pretty much the opposite of what you want from your comfort-food entertainment.
But at least we still have the cartoons, with more on the way.
I find that something of a comfort, myself.
See you next week.
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