Review of The Punisher (Netflix Series)

I realize that most interested parties have probably already watched the show weeks ago, but I just finished it last week and wanted to throw a few thoughts out there. If you haven’t watched it, yet, beware that there may be a few SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

I’m gonna be honest and say up front that this wasn’t the Punisher I wanted to see. Jon Bernthal (5’11”,b.1976) obviously bulked up for the role to add a little muscle and definition. However, in addition to being shorter than I’d like — Marvel’s wiki lists the character at 6’3″ — he wasn’t nearly as broad-shouldered and beefy as I feel Frank Castle should be. At least, that’s how he is usually drawn in the comics. (The same criticism goes for Thomas Jane (5’10”,b.1969), who nevertheless played a convincing Castle in 2004’s The Punisher.) It’s part of what makes him so physically intimidating.

This version, while sufficiently bad@$$ and coldly efficient in the midst of battle, too often (over the course of the series) revealed him to be vulnerable and even unsure of himself. I suppose this effort to “humanize” the character is understandable, if Netflix is hoping to maintain a broad(er) audience. His missing his family and repeated nightmares about their deaths are also understandable, especially if that tragedy only happened a year(?) or so earlier. I certainly don’t mind watching a hero, even a violent vigilante, struggling emotionally with trauma or his “mission”. But, what I would have preferred to see was less vulnerability and… whatever else that was, and more hard-edged, laser-focused planning, hunting, and slaughtering of bad guys. Granted, there was some of that, and it was great. But, there should’ve been more of it. (Heck, there was even one episode where Frank wasn’t involved in any fights!)

As for the villains of the piece, while it was a somewhat interesting story, the whole corrupt-CIA-and-psycho-veterans thing was tired, cliche, and seemed like a bit of a copout. The fact that it was mostly tied to Castle’s past and the death of his family made some sense, I suppose. But (and I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised), they changed part of his “origin story” drastically. The comics version, as many of you know, was that Frank’s family was slaughtered in Central Park by some overzealous Mafia gunmen. Frank survived but couldn’t get justice through the system, so he adopted the ‘Punisher’ persona in his “one-man war on crime” to eliminate as many mobsters, drug dealers, etc., as he could. THAT is the story I wanted and expected to see in this series. We saw a bit of it in season 2 of “Daredevil”, and early on in “The Punisher” he killed several members of the Nucci crime family. So, I am hoping that this will be followed-up on in season two of “The Punisher” (assuming there is one).

We already knew from things like “The Walking Dead”, Fury, and Baby Driver, that Jon Bernthal can play tough, intense, bad@$$ characters. And he did a fine job in that respect in “The Punisher”. However, his performance at times was so reminiscent of his co-star from “The Walking Dead”, Andrew Lincoln, that I had to look twice to make sure it was Bernthal. (Rick? Is that you?) On another note, his yelling/roaring at times while firing a machine gun was too much like Rambo (or some other Stallone or Schwarzenegger character), and it annoyed me. I will also say that I prefer Bernthal with a regular (though short) haircut and not the supershort, nearly bald look, or shaved on the sides.

Revah, Bernthal, Barnes, Moss-Bachrach

The David “Micro” Lieberman character (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) was done well, yet his departures from the comic version — starting with the overweight computer hacker “Microchip” Lieberman becoming a lanky CIA analyst who is presumed dead — bugged me. The chief bad guys — Agent Orange / Rawlins (Paul Schulze) and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) — were well-played and sufficiently detestable, particularly Russo’s betrayal. The Agent Madani character (Amber Rose Revah) was good at times, yet annoying at others. The sex scenes between her and Russo were gratuitous. I really liked the supporting character of Curtis Hoyle, played by Jason R. Moore, and I hope to see him again. (Maybe Moore will show up in something else, too.) The rest of the supporting characters were pretty good, too, especially the always enjoyable Jaime Ray Newman. The sub-plot with Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber) was somewhat irritating, but I think that was partially due to Webber, who often plays this type of disturbed/ing character. (E.g., Lee Harvey Oswald in “11.22.63”.)

Despite these faults, overall it was a pretty good solo outing for ol’ Frank. As hinted at before, the firefights and hand-to-hand combat scenes were bloody, intense, and generally satisfying for this action-lover. (Not quite as good as those in “Daredevil”, but decent.) The acting ranged from satisfactory to quite good, and the plot, though not great or without holes, was definitely passable. I also liked the opening theme music, which somehow fit the tone of the show quite well.

For what it’s worth, I’m one of those people who liked “Luke Cage” (I love big, superstrong guys) better than “Jessica Jones” (I generally dislike surly, cynical drunks). That said, I would rate “The Punisher” about the same as Cage — roughly a B, maybe B+.

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Fan-Cast: Deathstroke the Terminator

“You called me a villain. Never thought of myself as that. I’m a mercenary. A soldier for hire.” — Slade Wilson, Deathstroke

Most of you are probably aware that Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke the Terminator), played by Joe Manganiello (6’5″,b.1976), is set to be a villain — perhaps the main one? — in The Batman. Or, at least, he was, until questions about Ben Affleck’s involvement and other issues arose, then Matt Reeves took over as director, and now it isn’t certain if Deathstroke will be in the film, after all. A few weeks ago, though, I saw an announcement that Manganiello will be starring in a Deathstroke solo film, which will be directed by Gareth Evans (The Raid). Like most DC fans, I think Manganiello is a great choice for the role, especially physique-wise. But, news of the solo movie got me thinking again of who (else) I thought might be able to take on the role. So, here ya go…

Deathstroke the Terminator

From what I can gather, Slade Wilson was roughly 30 when he was promoted to Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, got married, and was shipped off to war. (His second.) Some time after this, he volunteered for the experiment that ended up giving him powers, i.e., the ability to use up to 90% of his brain capacity, as well as near-superhuman strength, durability, and agility. After a military discharge (possibly connected to bouts of depression), he became a wealthy and famous big-game hunter. A few years after that, after mercenaries broke into their home and kidnapped their younger son, Joey, Wilson confessed to his wife that he was also Deathstroke the Terminator, “one of the world’s deadliest and most highly sought after assassins.” Wilson saved Joey, but not before the boy’s vocal cords were cut, making him mute. Wilson’s angered wife, Adeline, shot him, destroying his right eye. However, Wilson’s skills with firearms, bladed weapons, etc., was so great, as was his ego, that his occupation wasn’t even affected. In fact, he incorporated his right-eye blindness into his “Terminator” costume.

While generally working as a mercenary/assassin and even bounty hunter, Deathstroke sometimes works with superheroes, too. He often tangles with the Bat-family of heroes, various Justice Leaguers (alone or together), and most especially the (Teen) Titans. At times, he has been known to infiltrate a super-team (i.e., either himself or a double-agent) and/or foment conflict between members. He has even led the Titans for a time. His older son, Grant, was a villain called Ravager; son Joey became a hero/Titan named Jericho; and daughter Rose later took the name Ravager, her loyalties wavering between the Titans and her father. Deathstroke’s abilities and training allow him to hold his own (and sometimes temporarily defeat) much more powerful opponents, even multiple foes at once. He is cold, brutal, often lethal, yet he retains a sense of military-born honor.

Though I have seen a version of Wilson with black hair and no beard, his iconic look is silver/white hair and a goatee on his chin (no mustache). He is a tall, white man, quite muscular, with a patch over his blind right eye. (DC’s wiki page puts him at 6’4″, 225 lbs.) A later experiment gave him regenerative abilities, which also means that he ages extremely slowly. That said, I think it best to cast someone in their 40s, possibly even 50s. (Especially if we want the option of introducing one or more of his children in their teens to 20s.) He should also be at least 6’2″ and very physically fit. (Of course, anyone cast would probably need to do strength- and weapons-training.) I considered Kevin McKidd (5’11”,b.1973), but he’s too short. Alexander Skarsgård (6’4.5″,b.1976) might work for a younger version of Wilson. Except for his height, Stephen Lang (5’10.5″,b.1952) might’ve been a decent choice 20 years ago, but now he’s too old.

And that brings us to my three candidates for the role of Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke the Terminator):

Ray Stevenson as The Punisher

Ray Stevenson‘s (6’4″,b.1964) name should sound familiar to you (and I think I’ve suggested him for another role or two), since he has played two Marvel characters — namely, Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone (see pic) and Volstagg in all three Thor movies. He is also known for such genre fare as “Rome”, The Three Musketeers, “Dexter”, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the Divergent film series, “Black Sails”, and voice work for “Star Wars: Rebels”. He is almost outside my preferred age range but still appears to be quite fit and could likely handle the physicality of the role. He is also the exact height of the comic-book Deathstroke.

 

Richard Armitage

Richard Armitage (6’2.5″,b.1971) should be another familiar name, as he has had roles in “Ultimate Force”, “Robin Hood”, “MI-5”, Captain America: The First Avenger, “Strike Back”, the Hobbit trilogy, “Hannibal”, “Berlin Station”, and voice work for “Castlevania”. That’s a pretty solid genre resume, and it includes some very physical action, including shooting guns and wielding swords. Plus, we know he looks great with chin whiskers (e.g., this pic I pulled from his IMDB profile). Just shave the mustache, trim the beard down to a goatee, dye it silvery-white, and we’re good to go!

 

Michael Shannon is The Iceman

Now, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to present a third candidate but ultimately I decided that Michael Shannon (6’3″,b.1974) was too good a possibility to pass up. He did such a great job with Zod in Man of Steel, and he spent part of that movie with a gray-n-black goatee (no mustache). So, we already know he can pull off the look; on the other hand, it might be too close to Slade Wilson’s classic look, so they might need to alter it. (Maybe a full goatee?) In any case, he has been in a ton of stuff besides MoS (e.g., Tigerland, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Jonah Hex, Machine Gun Preacher, “Boardwalk Empire”, The Shape of Water) and would make a fine Deathstroke the Terminator.

Do my candidates meet your approval, dear readers?

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2017.

Time Lord Santa?

Our friend and fellow-blogger Evan came to me this week with another fan theory he was eager to share, and it has nothing to do with Pokemon! (I know, right?!) In fact, it’s connected to Doctor Who, of all things. It was quite fortunate, too, ‘cuz unforeseen circumstances ate up lots of time (is that a pun?) that I had counted on to work on a fan-casting post. Normally, I would have saved Evan’s guest-post for closer to Christmas (for obvious reasons), but I’m happy to present it this week instead.

“Is Santa Claus a Time Lord?: A Doctor Who Fan Theory”

by Evan Minton

Santa Claus made an appearance in Season 8’s Christmas Special (of the modern series) called “Last Christmas” to aid The Doctor, Clara, and a group of supposed scientists defeat a group of face-hugging, dream-inducing alien creatures. The Doctor theorized that he was a production of their subconscious minds trying to free them from the dream-induced state that was killing them (since the whole North Pole base they were in was a product of the collective dreams of the “scientists”). But what if The Doctor’s hypothesis was wrong? What if Santa is real (in The Doctor Who universe) and he was actually helping out. The end of the episode certainly seemed to subtly imply that Santa was more than a figment of their imagination when the final scene showed a tangerine in Clara’s window. [Ed.: I’m assuming that a tangerine has some significance to the plot, ‘cuz I’ve never heard of a magical “Christmas tangerine”.]

But if Santa actually exists in the Whoniverse, then how do we explain puzzling aspects of his job? How does he get all the toys traveled to all of the children all over the world in a single night? How does he even have enough toys to give to millions of children in that tiny little sleigh of his? Moreover, how has Santa endured through centuries? All of these questions can be answered if the following hypothesis is true: Santa Claus is a Time Lord.

The Sleigh Is A T.A.R.D.I.S

T.A.R.D.I.Ses are well known for being “bigger on the inside than they are on the outside”. Santa could own a special T.A.R.D.I.S large enough to house enough toys to satisfy the world’s children. It could be as big as 100,000 warehouses, but only on the inside, of course. On the outside, it looks like your average run-of-the-mill sleigh. Santa’s T.A.R.D.I.S has maintained the appearance of a sleigh for centuries? Why? Probably for the same reason The Doctor’s T.A.R.D.I.S looks like a 1960s police box wherever and whenever he goes: the disguise mechanism is busted.

Santa’s sleigh being a T.A.R.D.I.S would not only explain how he can deliver so many toys, but also how he can get them all to their designated houses in one night. Santa can simply teleport to different locations in space, but have the T.A.R.D.I.S set to the exact same moment in time. This would give the appearance of every house in the world having a sleigh on the roof simultaneously. If Santa is a Time Lord and the sleigh is his T.A.R.D.I.S, then he can deliver all of the toys not only in a single night, but in a single moment! That’s the beauty of a space ship also doubling as a time machine.

He’s Lived For So Long Because He Keeps Regenerating

The reason Santa’s endured through the centuries is that he just keeps regenerating. Whenever his body gives out, he regenerates, just as Doctor Number 1 regenerated when he got too old. Unlike The Doctor, who mostly regenerates because he gets fatally injured (e.g., a Cyberman’s laser beam to the chest), Santa is rarely in harm’s way, so whenever he regenerates, it’s simply due to old age. This would also explain why Santa has been depicted as both a white man and a black man. Time Lords can change age, race, and even gender upon regenerations. So some of Santa’s regenerations being white and others being black is unsurprising, and it also explains why those who may have seen him have depicted him as such.

Why Does He Do What He Does?

One must wonder why Santa does what he does. If he’s a Time Lord, why doesn’t he simply explore space and time rather than confine himself to one planet and use his T.A.R.D.I.S for nothing more than to give away toys for free? Simply because he has a heart of gold. He uses his alien resources to bring joy to millions just as The Doctor uses his to save the cosmos from evil, chaos, and destruction.

Conclusion

What do you think of this fan theory of mine? Do you think it holds up?

After reading Evan’s theory, I sent him the following:

“Question: In this scenario, other than programming the T.A.R.D.I.S, is Santa personally involved in the delivery of gifts (i.e., going down chimneys, placing gifts in stockings and under trees, eating cookies)? (That would seem exhausting and monotonous, though that is a critique of the myth, not of your theory.) Or, once over each house, extremely fine-tuned teleportation coordinates can be calculated and then the gifts are “beamed” into their rightful places?”

His response:

“That’s a good question. I don’t know. I suppose if Santa is a Time Lord, he could have gotten some alien tech that would have allowed him to beam the presents into the house. This could also account for why so few children have ever successfully seen him, despite trying to.”

Works for me. Feel free to posit your own speculations in the comments below….

Of course, I realize that Evan isn’t the first person to think along these lines. And, as I understand it, the idea of Santa operating in the Whoniverse has been explored in comic and short-story form, too, though I think he is still assumed to be human. Regardless, I think this is a fun fan theory!

One o’ these days, I may have to check out this Doctor fella. Wait, he isn’t a “fella” in his latest regeneration, right? Sheesh!

New Tales of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

“Star Wars is the greatest modern mythology and we feel very lucky to have contributed to it. We can’t wait to continue with this new series of films.” — Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman

Let’s review… We have Star Wars: The Last Jedi (aka Episode VIII) coming out in a few weeks, Solo: A Star Wars Story (anthology film) due next May, the untitled Episode IX scheduled for Dec. 2019, and a third Star Wars anthology film (probably about Obi-Wan Kenobi) expected in 2020. Very cool!

These films will conclude the saga of and surrounding the Skywalker family along with the originally semi-planned trio of standalones to fill in some details about friends and previously-mentioned events. But, then what? Well, fortunately, Disney (who bought LucasFilm and the SW franchise in 2012) is on record as wanting and planning more Star Wars goodness. Back in January 2016, CEO Bob Iger told the BBC,

“There are five Star Wars films — four more with Episode VII: The Force Awakens — that are in varying stages of development and production. There will be more after that, I don’t know how many, I don’t know how often.”

Then, in September 2016 The Wrap reported the following remarks from Iger at an investors’ conference:

“I had a meeting yesterday with Kathy Kennedy and we mapped out — well, we reviewed — the ‘Star Wars’ plans that we have ’til 2020. We have movies in development for ‘Star Wars’ ’til then, and we started talking about what we’re going to do in 2021 and beyond. So, she’s not just making a ‘Star Wars’ movie, she’s making a ‘Star Wars’ universe, of sorts.”

Beyond Rogue One, it wasn’t clear what the anthology films would be about, until the Han Solo prequel story was confirmed. Now, of course, it has filmed, is currently in post-production, and has an official release date. There have long been suggestions and rumors about the standalone(s) to follow — I wrote some possibilities in “Ideas for Star Wars Anthology Series Films” — with focuses on Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Boba Fett being the most popular. Kenobi seems to have risen to the top, since The Hollywood Reporter reported this past August that Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry was being courted to take the helm of “a Star Wars standalone movie centering on Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Fett and Yoda fans should not lose hope, though, as THR also said:

“The Obi-Wan Kenobi standalone is one of several projects being developed by Lucasfilm and Disney that fall outside the trilogies telling the saga of the Skywalker family. A Han Solo movie is now in the final stages of shooting under new director Ron Howard and Lucasfilm is also looking at movies featuring Yoda and bounty hunter Boba Fett, among others.”

The latest news, however, has nothing to do with the anthology series. Rather, it seems that Lucasfilm and Disney are so pleased with director Rian Johnson’s work on The Last Jedi that they have handed him the reins to create (in collaboration with producer Ram Bergman) a new Star Wars trilogy with all-new characters and locales “from a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never before explored.”

“We all loved working with Rian on The Last Jedi. He’s a creative force, and watching him craft The Last Jedi from start to finish was one of the great joys of my career. Rian will do amazing things with the blank canvas of this new trilogy.” — Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm

Sounds quite intriguing to me. Vague, but intriguing. This may be just what the franchise needs to kick-start the post-Skywalker era. But, not everyone is so sure this is a smart move. In fact, Bobby Houston at CBM has a bad feeling about this….

Houston’s primary concern is of oversaturation:

“Star Wars is not an annual franchise. Star Wars is not the MCU. Star Wars is important. Star Wars has cultural heft and meaning. The last thing the series needs is a ‘cinematic universe’ style of approach because as we’ve seen it doesn’t always work out. Perhaps after episode 9 it would be best to let the franchise breathe and rest for a bit.”

Houston isn’t averse to new Star Wars films eventually coming out and recognizes the abundance of material and that a new trilogy “could go in almost any direction”. (He also said it would be “unhindered by the franchise’s canon and extensive lore”, which I disagreed with, since I thought he meant that Disney/Lucasfilm would not care if new films contradicted established canon/lore. But, upon re-reading it several times, I think he was restating that the huge amount of established canon/lore would allow for a plethora of possible plots and settings. This makes more sense in context.) But, he’s afraid that immediately launching into another trilogy so soon after this latest batch of trilogy + anthology films will diminish the franchise’s appeal. As a fan, though, he says,

“I hope I’m wrong, I hope Rian Johnson knocks it out of the park with this new trilogy and that years from now people continue to lose their minds and go crazy for Star Wars because that’s really special.”

He may have a point. So, maybe after the Kenobi anthology film wraps up, there should be a break of at least 5 years before launching the new trilogy, and then maybe go back to 3 years between films? As the old adage goes, “Always leave ’em wanting more.”

P.S. Oh yeah, there’s also that live-action Star Wars TV series to look forward to, which has reportedly been in the works since at least early 2015 (though George Lucas had ideas for one way before that)….

Amazon Takes Us Back to Middle Earth

“We are honored [and] thrilled to be taking The Lord of the Rings fans on a new epic journey in Middle Earth.” — Sharon Tal Yguado, new Head of Scripted Series at Amazon Studios

This one’s for real, folks! Honest!

Unlike the April Fool’s Day joke announcement of earlier this year, this deal looks to be entirely legit. Specifically, following a “bidding war” between several networks, Amazon has reached an agreement with the Tolkien Estate and the Tolkien Trust, HarperCollins and New Line Cinema, making Amazon Studios “the home of the first-ever multi-season television series for The Lord of the Rings.”

Rivendell by Alan Lee

To clarify, they aren’t actually going to be re-doing the LotR (or Hobbit) material, which I think is a good thing. What exactly they will be doing apparently hasn’t been decided on, yet, which makes it all that more surprising that the Tolkien people agreed to it. What we do know is that the series will focus on events that occur sometime prior to those in The Fellowship of the Ring. Matt Galsor, a representative for the Tolkien Estate and Trust and HarperCollins, publicly expressed confidence in the “exceptional ideas” by Tal Yguado and the rest of the Amazon Studios team.

Shaun Gunner, Chair of The Tolkien Society, speculates:

“[T]here is also a lot of excitement about the possibility of exploring the epic saga that is The Silmarillion, or even a series focussed on Aragorn’s background. Christmas has come early for many of us today.”

No cast or premiere date have been set, but the series will eventually stream on Amazon Prime. If things go well, there is also an option for a spin-off series down the line.

This deal comes on the heels of legal issues and a recent executive shake-up at Amazon Studios, as well as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ new mandate that they shift “away from niche, naturalistic series such as “Transparent” and “Mozart in the Jungle” and toward large-scale genre programming with potential for broad international appeal.” Bezos, who is a big sci-fi/fantasy fan, reportedly even got personally involved in negotiations for the Tolkien property’s TV series rights.

Naturally, fans will be concerned that the sets, writing, acting, etc., will be up to par. And, assuming the storylines are adaptations of existing Tolkien works, it needs to be at least as faithful to the source material as the Peter Jackson movies were — some would say “much more faithful!” Re-creating the various lands and peoples of Middle Earth ain’t gonna be cheap, either. Plus, as Entertainment Weekly‘s James Hibberd asks:

“Can a network find writers who can successfully bootstrap a relatively new-ish story set in these familiar fantasy worlds that capture at least some percentage of the original work’s worldwide appeal?”

I haven’t seen anyone else mention this, but I wonder if the talented Robert Kirkman might be a creative resource for the project. If you can’t place the name, Kirkman is the creator/writer of the “Outcast” and “The Walking Dead” comic series, who then went on to work with Tal Yguado (when she was at Fox) on the TV adaptations of those titles. When his special 2-year development deal with Amazon’s Prime Video was announced back in August, Kirkman and Tal Yguado spoke of their mutual admiration and anticipation of working together again. I’m not sure if he can or would work on a licensed property that he hasn’t at least co-created. Don’t know if he’s a Tolkien fan, either. But, if so, that could be an interesting match.

Regardless, all we can do is pray, hope, and wait & see….

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. Enough so that I may actually, finally re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time in many years, just to get in the mood. Who knows, I might even give The Silmarillion another try and possibly some of the lesser known tales of Middle Earth. I’ve had my hardcover editions of The Hobbit and the LotR trilogy with the amazing Alan Lee paintings on display for awhile, so it’s about time I read ’em!

The Director

It has been awhile since I posted one of my “original fiction” ideas. I came across this concept that I’d forgotten about and decided it was fleshed out enough to share. It would really work best as an ongoing series, whether novels, comics, or TV, so that there is time to really develop the characters and watch them connect the dots on the big conspiracy, plus other ideas.

“The Director”

Over the past decade or so, there have been a large number of disparate and seemingly unrelated “events”/incidents — some public, some private; some known to police/feds, some not. They have included various crimes (e.g., arson, burglary, kidnappings & strange disappearances, murder & assassination, fraud, terrorist bombings, etc.), as well as car accidents (some during car chases), a downed plane, and a few accidental deaths. Some of these have been solved, others have not. There have been other things as well, such as people suddenly “going crazy” or discovering documentation that either explicitly implicated someone in a crime (or cover-up of a crime) or was at least suspicious (like a piece of a larger puzzle). There are also links (though not apparent at first) to events in the corporate world — e.g., mergers and takeovers, stock manipulation, corporate espionage, class-action suits, et al. Other than in a couple obvious instances — e.g., insurance fraud and one of the arson cases, and deaths resulting from the downed plane & a couple car accidents –, no one has successfully made any connections between the various incidents. Until now…

A small-time private investigator and his bounty hunter associate encounter some lowlifes that turn out to have information about two other cases — one current and another closed but unsolved — which links all three together. A city police lieutenant has an unusual dream that inspires her to look for links between two seemingly unrelated cases; not only is she successful, but when she relates her discovery to a retired mentor, he remembers something similar about an old case of his that also turns out to be related. A former profiler for the FBI (now teaching criminal psychology at a college) reluctantly helps local police on an unusual case and unintentionally gets involved in something that leads to clues about an old, unsolved case (a child abduction/murder) that has haunted him for years. And then, there are the Men-in-Black (for lack of a better term) who begin to show up, either in the shadows or in a less-than-public confrontation and warning our protagonists to “back off” or slightly more politely “It’s our case and we’ll take it from here.” They always claim to work for one federal agency or another, but the names they give either aren’t in any federal databases or they are so highly classified that not even our heroes’ contacts can get access.

While it would not be revealed until some time into the series, the idea is that these prima facie independent events, spanning roughly 15 years and all over North America (but occasionally elsewhere), are all due to behind-the-scenes machinations of an extremely powerful individual and his/her efforts to cover up some of his/her activities. Obviously wealthy and/or in a position of influence, this person’s ultimate goal is to secretly take control of the U.S. government, while leaving not only the general public but most government officials and law enforcement thinking that everything still functions as normal. S/he has managed to fly under the radar, with very few in government, law enforcement, or the corporate world having an inkling of how much power this person wields. S/he is a master manipulator, who accomplishes his/her goals — from stock fraud to homicide to legislation — by directing actions through various intermediaries, sometimes several levels of them.

Eventually, our heroes discover and/or are contacted by a group calling itself ‘The Network’, who have begun connecting the dots on these cases. Their members include representatives from law enforcement, government officials, business/industry leaders, and various “lesser” members. They are just starting to get a handle on the magnitude of the conspiracy and have hypothesized the existence of ‘The Director’ (as they have dubbed him/her, though ‘Maestro’, ‘Kingpin’, and ‘Big Cheese’ have been suggested, too), though obviously not his/her identity or ultimate motives, and are doing what they can (with limited knowledge, despite their resources) to thwart The Director’s plans and build a legal case. Perhaps a later plot thread would be to see efforts to convince/recruit others into The Network, after we’ve spent some time with the above group.

I see this as an amalgamation of ideas from various comics, movies, TV shows (e.g., X-Files, but less UFO-centric) with elaborate plots and constant new revelations and conspiracies within conspiracies. Feel free to ask questions or make your own suggestions to expand on this concept….

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2018.

From the Mind of Mr. Zeus, part 12

File #: 2017Q4
Subject: new issue of quarterly ‘Official Mr. Zeus Fanclub Newsletter’
Purpose: readers’ enjoyment/entertainment and (occasionally) education
Author: Mr. Zeus (aka <name unknown>; formerly known as Jacob Szymanski, aka “Hacksaw Jack”)

“Big Guy Blues”

First order of business is a shout-out to the guys-n-girls of Sensei Custom-Tech and Electronics Innovations. As you might imagine, guys my size and larger sometimes have trouble using or operating devices meant for more average-size people. I might have mentioned before that I had some furniture and a few other things custom-made for me. (Also, my personalized gym & equipment, but that was more due to the particular needs of working out with tons of resistance rather than a few hundred pounds.) I have trouble fitting into most vehicles, which is why I love big trucks. Electronics — phones, computers, coffeemakers, essentially anything with a manual interface — can also be a little trying at times, ‘cuz my fingers are so big. It’s hard hitting those small buttons! Anyway, my buddy Bravado turned me on to Sensei, and they were able to customize a computer keyboard for me that is not only ergonomically-designed, but the keys are all 33% bigger and the materials are extra-strong, too. So, they can take a “beating”, and I don’t fat-finger nearly as much as I used to! 🙂 They also made me a bigger mouse of the same material. Very cool! These are actually prototypes that Sensei is developing for a line of products for people of various special needs — whether being extra-large and/or superstrong like Bravado and me, or a “little person” who needs smaller-than-average stuff, or someone with other physical challenges. I’m sure I’ll be using Sensei again, and if you have or know anyone who has special needs, I’ll bet Sensei can help you/them out, too.

“Where’s The New Book?!”

Book Update: You may remember that I told you last year about my new book deal for the fiction market. The first project is co-writing a novel with Phil Prendergast; well, he’s doing most of the actual writing this time around, but it’s based on my concept and plot idea. It is a murder mystery involving… well, here’s the summary pitch I gave to Phil, which was also enough to interest the publisher:

“Sherlock the Autistic, Albino Detective: Twenty-year-old Nathan Sherwood is a brilliant savant with an eidetic memory and intuitive mind for higher math & physics. He is also an albino and a high-functioning autist with a mild case of OCD. Having a fascination with detective mysteries, Nathan gives himself the professional pseudonym “Sherlock” (which is Old English for “white-haired”, after all) and hires himself out as a private investigator. After a shaky start, Sherlock’s successes in a couple of high-profile cases gain him a little fame and a growing reputation as a top-notch investigator, despite his social awkwardness and, er, eccentricities. Nathan/Sherlock is assisted both personally and professionally by his caretaker/aide, Emily Baker, a former high-school teacher and EMT whom he insists on calling “Watson”. His other near-constant companion is a very smart, well-trained, pure black ferret named “Nyxie”. (Inspired by “Monk”. Could also be thought of as a cross between Rain Man and a modern-day Young Sherlock Holmes.) Serious subject matter but with doses of humor.”

Phil had some health issues earlier this year that delayed work on the final draft, but he just sent it off to the publisher a couple weeks ago. That’s why the book hasn’t come out, yet, as I had hinted at in an interview or two. (Would’ve been a nice stocking stuffer this Christmas. Alas!) As it stands now, ‘Sherlock’ Sherwood and the Phantom Killer will likely debut in Summer 2018. I’m excited! Meanwhile, I’m organizing my notes for the sequel to my autobiographical The Rise of Mr. Zeus.

“Q & A”

The Q&A section went so well last time that I decided to do a few more this time, too. Maybe I’ll make it a (semi-)regular feature?

Q: Who is your favorite superhero to work with? (Charlotte T. from Shrewsbury, PA):

A: Olympia from Vanguard Prime, of course! 😉 Seriously, even aside from the fact that we’re now dating, I’ve always liked working with her, since I admire her both personally & professionally, and we seem to “mesh” well in our battle tactics and general outlook. Doc Matrix is pretty cool, too, once you realize that he doesn’t intend to sound arrogant or act standoffish. His social awkwardness is the result of being a supergenius and on the Autism Spectrum. And, of course, I’ve worked a number of cases and fought in battles alongside Bravado, and we just seem to always have fun together beatin’ on and roundin’ up supervillains and their minions.

Q: Do you look up to any other superheroes, and did you have a mentor when you first started out? (Ryan C. from Cherry Hill, NJ):

A: While I respect many in the superhero community, the top two that come to mind are both retired (or deceased) now. First is American Ultra. He was (and still is) such an icon of American ideals and patriotism — sort of an amalgam of Superman and Captain America, for you comics fans. I never got to meet him before he retired a few years ago (supposedly to an island retreat somewhere), but from everything I’ve read, he is/was simply one of the most honorable and selfless men to put on a uniform, military or otherwise. He has also been lauded by military experts as having one of history’s most brilliant minds for both tactics and strategy. After serving the United States and the world in general for nearly 60 years, A.U. deserves our thanks a thousand times over. The other “older” hero I most look up to was indeed my quasi-mentor during my formative years as a superhero — StormFire. Apparently, he silently observed me during a few of my first outings as Mr. Zeus, assessing my skills and demeanor, until he finally approached me and gave me a few words of sage advice. He had, of course, been “in the biz” for nearly 20 years and was well respected in the international superhero community, so I listened to whatever he had to say. (He had some good “war stories”, too!) We became friends and colleagues. In fact, he was the one to later sponsor me for membership in the Alliance of SuperHuman Adventurers. When he sacrificed himself during the Pakistan Incident of 2012, I lost a close friend, colleague, and teacher. Btw, I can neither confirm nor deny the popular rumor that StormFire was an extraterrestrial. However, I can tell you that his daughter, BrightFire, is just as powerful and just as stoic and “mysterious” as her father.

Q: Why did you change your alias when you started superhero-ing, and do you ever miss wrestling? (Manesh V. from San Francisco, CA):

A: My reasons for changing my nom de guerre were twofold, Manesh. First, “Hacksaw Jack” didn’t really seem like a good superhero name. Second, it was a big life-change for me, both personally and professionally, and I wanted to make a clean break. Changing my name — along with my look, of course — was as much a marketing thing as it was to aid my own mental transition. As for missing wrestling, some parts of it I miss (e.g., good friends, good memories) and other parts I don’t (e.g., some guys (and gals) were real jerks, plus there is a “dirty” side of the business that really made me uncomfortable).

Q: What size shoes and shirt do you wear? (Kong-Lei D. from Tulsa, OK):

A: Well,… that’s an interesting question. Being a man of unusual size (as mentioned above), I often need to have my clothes custom made. My boots range from size 20DD to 24E, depending on the maker. My shirts are probablly XXXXL, or something like that, since my chest is over 60 inches (biggest it has ever been).

Stay strong, my friends!

Done already?! Whew! Another newsletter out the door for mass consumption….

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2017.

The Harsh Realities (and Strange Appeal) of Stranger Things

Hey! I wasn’t sure I’d have a post for this week, since I flew home late last night from my vacation and haven’t gotten back to my regular schedule, yet. But, then I came across this review of “Stranger Things”, which I thought I’d share. I haven’t watched the show, but Thomas P. Harmon’s thoughtful and articulate review piqued my curiosity, so I may have to add it to my viewing schedule.

I’m just going to cite a few sections here and there, where Harmon gives some helpful background, observations, and/or assessment of the series. It is somewhat SPOILERish, though no major details are revealed….

“Netflix’s return to Hawkins, Indiana, [for its upcoming second season] should prove a test as to whether the show can maintain what made it a standout in this new media environment: namely that it resisted many of the sentimentalizing or dehumanizing elements of contemporary film and television. It did this without preachiness, without subservience to politically correct pieties or ideological dogmatism. The beating heart of Stranger Things is its moral depth and seriousness, which is the strangest thing about it…. [T]he show stars children but is intended for adults, and [it] neither sentimentally overemphasizes cheap innocence nor wallows nihilistically in degradation, violence, and gratuitous sex….

Stranger Things leans heavily on its 80s milieu. The kids on bicycles, the painstaking attention to period set design, the dated hairstyles, and the 10-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions are all there. The show slyly cultivates a sense of loss about those things: We have traded the imaginative, social experience of D&D for passive screen time in which the game does the imagining for you. We are also drawn to the unencumbered freedom the children have tearing around the town of Hawkins, and to the preteen-friendly space the boys set up in the basement of the Wheelers’ house. There they can exercise a limited sovereignty appropriate to children on the cusp of adolescence without constant adult intervention and supervision. Still, the sense of loss is not without a healthy critique: We quickly recognize that the children’s freedom is a product of parental neglect….

The show’s fundamental lack of sentimentality is evident when comparing it to the master of self-conscious sentimentality, Steven Spielberg. His films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T. were obvious source material for the plot, characters, and look of Stranger Things. The kids on bikes, the realm of children’s freedom away from neglectful adults, the sinister government scientists up to no good, and the elfin visitor from another place who combines touching vulnerability with extraordinary power, are all there. E.T. and Eleven even disguise themselves in blonde wigs and perch on bicycles driven by our boy heroes. But that is where the similarities end. As if they sensed, appropriately, that their Gen-X audience would recoil without it, the Duffer brothers added the realism and perception of modern film sensibility — without the Spielberg touch….

Unlike the scientists in E.T., the adults in Stranger Things don’t characteristically lack feeling or love; they either lack the knowledge of how to act on their love appropriately or the will to do so. They lack virtue, in other words. Their imaginations and desires have been stunted by a soul-sucking suburban existence that demands very little of them outside the very basics. The boys, on the other hand, are capable of helping Eleven because they live more fully relational lives…. [T]heir highly developed imaginations have both prepared them to accept the existence of “stranger things” and to deliberate about what to do in the face of them. They have received an imaginative training in courage, which prepares them to face the dangers of searching for Will in the face of quasi-demonic powers and of protecting Eleven from the adults who wish her harm. This is no sanitized vision of childhood emotional innocence versus the unfeeling reason of adulthood….

Despite the truncation of parenthood we see in the series, it is also true that there are glimpses of better things. When we see fatherhood and motherhood exercised well, it is in remarkably traditional terms…. At the conclusion of the series, even the hapless Wheelers and the distracted Joyce have changed the way they interact with their children. The adolescents’ domain in the Wheelers’ basement is left mostly intact, but now Jonathan Byers appears in it at the end of the evening to find his brother and drive him home. The freedom of the children is fundamentally upheld, but also moderated by the prudent — but not intrusive — attention of their elders.

Stranger Things doesn’t just avoid the sentimentalism and dehumanization of too much popular entertainment; it pushes back against it. The first season was deeply moral without being moralistic. In so doing, it worked against the regular assaults on innocence and human dignity in much of what passes for entertainment today. If this season can avoid those same cheap traps, it will continue to be a standout in today’s “golden age” of serial television.”

I encourage my readers to read Harmon’s full article.

Have you watched any “Stranger Things”, yet? If so, what do you think of Harmon’s review? If not, did this review make you more likely to watch it or less so?

Did Digimon Plagiarize Pokemon?

I knew I would be traveling this week, so I asked my friend Evan (of the “Cerebral Faith” blog) if he had any ideas for another guest post. As it turned out, he had indeed been mulling over something, and he dashed off a new anime-related piece for me — or, really, for you — lickety-split. Enjoy!


Did Digimon Plagiarize Pokemon?

by Evan Minton

“Digimon is just trying to cash in on Pokemon’s success”, “Digimon is just a poor man’s Pokemon”, “Digimon is just a Pokemon copy”. I’m sure you’ve heard these statements and others like them before. It is commonly thought that Digimon is just a copy of Pokemon. This is what many Pokemon fans say about the franchise. However, Digimon fans make the opposite charge; i.e., that Pokemon is a copy of Digimon. As a big fan of both franchises, I have an excellent vantage point from which to judge the validity of these charges of plagiarism, and I can tell you with certainty that neither franchise copied the other.

Why Do People Think One Copied The Other?

First of all, let’s get the question of why people think any copying is involved out of the way. There are, no doubt, similarities between the two franchises that do stick out.

1: They both have “Mon” at the end of their names.
2: The “Mon” in both cases stands for “Monsters”.
3: The Monsters fight each other and evolve to get stronger.

From looking at these similarities, it’s understandable why some would think one copied from the other one.

The Differences Outnumber The Similarities

However, the three things listed above comprise an exhaustive list of the things Pokemon and Digimon have in common. The differences far outnumber the things they have in common.

Pokemon – live alongside humans in the same world.
Digimon – live in a world by themselves and only interact with humans when humans go to the Digimon’s world or when Digimon come into the human world.

Pokemon – are the animals of the Pokemon world. There are no other animal species in the Pokemon world. The Pokemon themselves are the animals. This is why farmers get “Moo-Moo Milk” from Miltanks instead of cows, why Officer Jenny uses Growlithes and Herdiers instead of regular dogs, and why it is stated by Professor Oak at the beginning of the first two games that “Some people keep Pokemon as pets…” Now, in the first season of the animated television series, you do see some real-life animals making appearances (e.g., fish), but this is due to the fact that it was originally intended for Pokemon and Animals to exist side-by-side, but that was quickly rejected and retconned out of the series.
Digimon – They don’t act as the animals of the world. In the human world, real-life animals exist (e.g., Tai’s pet cat), and they have Digimon counterparts in the Digital World (e.g., Gatomon).

Pokemon – Either say their names (the anime) or make various noises/cries (the games). There are a few exceptions, such as Team Rocket’s Meowth in the Pokemon anime, but this is not the norm.
Digimon – Speak human languages.

Pokemon – Are generally amoral creatures, like real-life animals. If they commit crimes, it is only because their trainers commanded them to. This only applies to the games’ canon, though. In the anime, there have been some Pokemon (like Team Rocket’s Meowth) that have a moral compass and choose between good and evil.
Digimon – Can be good or evil, regardless of canon. In fact, some Digimon are inherently evil (like Devimon) and others are inherently good (like Angemon). Others can evolve into evil Digimon via “Dark Digivolution”. For example, a Greymon can become SkullGreymon, and an Angewomon can become Ophanimon Falldown Mode, which is basically a rogue Ophanimon with a Light Yagami mentality. Still others can choose between good and evil of their own free will.

Pokemon – When they die, they die. There are places in the games and anime where trainers buried their deceased Pokemon (e.g., Lavender Tower in Lavender Town in the Kanto region).
Digimon – With the exception of the Digimon Tamers’ universe, when a Digimon is killed, they revert back to Digi-Eggs and are essentially reincarnated.

Pokemon – Pokemon Trainers are given a “Starter Pokemon” and catch other Pokemon by battling them and detaining them in capsule spheres called Poke Balls. In fact, one of the goals of each installment of games is to “Catch Em All”, because catching Pokemon adds their data to the Pokedex (an encyclopedia-like apparatus), and the goal is to have data on each Pokemon currently in existence.
Digimon – People who have Digimon are either called Digidestined or Digimon Tamers. In the former case, because the sovereign ruler of the Digital World drafted them, because the Digital World was in danger. There is no goal for the human protagonists of either the Digimon games or the anime to obtain every Digimon in existence. In fact, in most cases, the human characters rarely have more than one Digimon. There are exceptions, such as Willis in Digimon: The Movie, and the player characters in some of the Digimon World games.

Pokemon – When they evolve, they cannot go back. The only exception is Mega Evolution, which was introduced in the X and Y games released in 2013.
Digimon – The Digimon belonging to the Digidestined can Digivolve on command with the use of a Digivice, and they can go back to their Rookie form after the battle is over. This applies only to the anime, though. With the original virtual pet series, Digivolution was permanent.

Pokemon – Their names are usually a combination of actual words. For example, Venusaur is a combination of Venus (probably referring to the Venus Fly Trap) and the second half of the word “Dinosaur”, because Venusaur looks like something from prehistoric times. Charizard is a combination of “Charcoal” or “Charred” and “Lizard”. This makes sense as Charizard is a fire breathing reptile.
Digimon – usually is a real word with “Mon” attached to end, like Terriermon or Agumon. “Agu” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for biting. Every Digimon has “Mon” at the end of its name, but no Pokemon does.

As you can see, there are many more differences between the two than similarities.

Let’s Hear It For The Boys!

Digimon was actually invented to be the “boy version” of Tamagotchi. Bandai made both Digimon and Tamagotchi, both started out as a virtual pet franchise, but Digimon evolved (pun intended) into a much bigger franchise than mere virtual pets. They noticed that most of the consumers of Tamagotchi pets were little girls, and they wanted to make a virtual pet series that appealed to little boys to make up the difference. Digimon was that virtual pet series. Digimon were primarily targeted at males, so they made one of the first Digimon a fire-breathing dinosaur (Agumon) because what little boy doesn’t think a fire-breathing dinosaur is cool. And they made it to where one boy’s Digimon could spar with another boy’s Digimon by linking the devices together, something Tamagotchi pets didn’t do. So, you could say that Digimon was trying to cash in on Tamagotchi’s success, but not Pokemon’s. And it wasn’t technically plagiarism, since Digimon and Tamagotchi have the same creators (i.e., Akihiro Yokoi, Aki Maita, and Takeichi Hongo).

Conclusion

Digimon wasn’t created to “cash in on Pokemon’s success”. It was actually created to make up for Tamagotchi’s lack of appeal to boys. There are obvious similarities between Pokemon and Digimon, which explain why charges of plagiarism exist, but the differences between the two make charges of plagiarism untenable. If the makers of Pokemon ever took the makers of Digimon to court — I don’t know if they ever did, but if they did –, they obviously lost, as Digimon still exists, and they probably lost because of the reasons I’ve given in this article.

Makes sense to me!

On a Nightwing and a Prayer

“[W]e need to find the perfect person. We need to get the script right. We need this movie to blow your mind.” — Chris McKay, director

I’ve mentioned the upcoming Nightwing movie before, and you may have heard or read other stuff. I’m excited about it, ‘cuz Nightwing/Dick Grayson has become one of my favorite DC heroes. Up until recently, all we knew was that:

1) Warner Brothers announced back in February that it was ramping up development on a live-action, Nightwing solo film based on the DC Comics character;
2) it was planned for release in the next few years (recently set for 2/1/2019, though that is likely tentative); and
3) The LEGO Batman Movie director Chris McKay has been given the helm, with a script from Bill Dubuque (The Accountant).

I just wanted to comment on a few of the latest newsbits….

Those newsbits come mostly from McKay himself, who has been sending out tweets and doing interviews over the past few months. Regarding what attracted him to the project,

“I’m a big comic book fan, and being able to do the story of Nightwing, to do a Dick Grayson story, which is a character that every single person in the world knows, but has never really had a lot of screentime…. I’m a big fan of underdog stories, and he is one of the biggest underdog stories in comics. And he’s a character that I grew up with. I like the arc.”

He continues…

“Robin was there as a window character for little kids like me to understand Batman’s world and see into Batman’s world. There’s no other character in comics that went through this real-time transition.”

Comic writer Tim Seeley thinks that a plot based on or “very similar to” the 6-issue story arc he recently wrote for the character is the way to go. I haven’t read it, but the synopsis I saw does sound interesting. On the other hand, it sounds like the impact of the events depend on Nightwing’s relationships with other heroes, and there really isn’t time to sufficiently establish those relationships on-screen, imo. In other words, there’s too much ‘history’ for it to really work. I’m not saying there can’t be references to known DC people and things, and I truly hope there are. We fans expect and deserve them. But this really needs to work as a standalone feature.

While no plot details have been revealed as yet, we do know that Grayson’s comic-based past will be acknowledged. As per McKay, “Yes. In some form. There will be lots of nods. Lots of nods.” This comment spurred plenty of speculation about what might be referenced in those nods. His youth working as a circus acrobat with his parents and their subsequent deaths? His years working as Batman’s original sidekick ‘Robin’? His time spent with the (Teen) Titans? Past (or current?) relationships with Starfire and/or Oracle? His day job as a cop in Bludhaven? There’s a ton of material to mine there, but we just don’t know what McKay and Dubuque have in mind.

From the beginning, McKay has stressed the intense physicality of the Grayson/Nightwing role and that the actor will need to be fully committed. “Every day. It is going to be gruelling from a martial arts, gymnastics and stunt perspective.” Isn’t there CGI for that stuff? According to McKay, not so much in this film.

“It’s gonna be a [frick]ing badass action movie with a lot of heart and emotion. It’s gonna be a crazy, fun ride. Whoever gets cast as Nightwing, and any of the other actors around, are gonna go through a [frick]ing boot camp experience because it’s gonna be a lot. I’m not gonna do a lot of CG. It’s gonna be all real $#!t. It’s gonna be real stuntwork, and they’re gonna need to do all of the stuff on camera and do it credibly. For the cast and the crew, it’s gonna be a visceral experience, and for the audience. It’s not gonna be like a lot of these movies where there’s a lot of CG and flying and things like that. Everything he does is gonna have to be real. His superpower is being really [frick]ing good, as a human being, at fighting and gymnastics and $#!t like that, so you’re gonna see that on screen. It’s gonna be fun!”

Sounds awesome!

Naturally, there have been a lot of actors’ names thrown around the fan-boards (e.g., Finn Wittrock). But, no one’s been cast, yet, and as per FlickeringMyth’s Jordan James, “according to Chris McKay himself, we shouldn’t necessarily count on Nightwing being played by a well-known actor.” (See also opening quote.) I think this is a great move, one that more superhero movies (and sci-fi/fantasy in general) should consider. In fact, a few years ago I came up with a few potential candidates….

McKay’s exuberance for the project is practically palpable, and he’s already predicting (sort of) an award win in at least one area:

“This movie is going to win a stunt Academy Award. They’re going to make a stunt Academy Award for this movie. I guarantee it. It’s going to be insane.”

I certainly appreciate his enthusiasm and drive to make a spectacular movie. As always, I just hope he does right by the character(s) and the source material, while balancing amazing action with well-developed characters and believable dialogue. It certainly has blockbuster potential, and I’d like to see it realized. “A [frick]ing badass action movie with a lot of heart and emotion,” indeed.