Young superheroes, right and wrong

A new game gets it all right where THE NEW MUTANTS got it wrong

It’s Friday, November 13, so let’s have a Free-For-All!

I may have found a taker for the offer I made at the end of the last newsletter.

I thought it was a fair offer. Just a straight trade. Someone’s already agreed to do this with the new XBox and I might have a taker for a PS5 as well. It all depends on them actually finding machines at some point, which seems next to impossible at the moment. I’m offering a lifetime subscription for the buyer, as well as a one-year gift subscription for someone they choose. Considering each of my last two major publications ran for a decade, that feels like a genuine value.

I think it’s worth figuring out a way to get both systems here, specifically so I can write about the various big titles landing for the next six months or so. I’m rarely an early adopter for technology, but with both of these machines, it feels like anything you play this holiday season is going to require the upgrade, and there’s going to be plenty to discuss.

The last big game I played was Ghost of Tsushima, which I wrote about this summer. It’s a gorgeous game, and part of what I was so impressed by was how it felt like a technological beast, but it ran fast and loaded like lightning. It felt like a next-gen game to me, but I know it wasn’t. Wednesday night, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales was released, and the sounds my poor PS4 made while I played the first 90 minutes or so of the game were just terrifying. It worked just fine, but it pushed my machine as hard as it’s ever been pushed. I’m also playing Watch Dogs: Legion, and that feels much more like a current-generation game that may well benefit from running on a new machine. It’s not taxing the machine, but every now and then, I can tell that the game is struggling. We’re at that moment where things are switching over, and the machines I currently have just aren’t going to be able to keep up.

“You write about movies,” I’m sure some of you are saying. “Why do you need to have both of these machines?” The truth is that the definition of mainstream entertainment has broadened, and I think the big event games are every bit the pop culture events that big event movies are. I also love smaller games that surprise me, and with GamePass, it feels more and more possible to discover things we might not otherwise play. Video games have gone through several stages of evolution in their life since the 70s, and I’ve been there for all of it. I really loved Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars, the recent documentary based on his terrific book about the war between Sega and Nintendo, and I watched every episode of High Score on Netflix as well. Of the two, I think Console Wars is better told, but there’s a breadth to High Score that I enjoyed. Both projects sent me down Proustian rabbit holes as I remembered hours lost and victories won, and they emphasize how much of this industry has typically been driven by children and marketing directly to children.

When these machines cost $500 or more, are these childrens’ toys by any logical definition? These are entertainment behemoths now, investments for the home, and part of the promise in upgrading this time is finally having a 4K Blu-ray player that also plays these remarkable interactive entertainments. The experience of a truly great game right now is not like watching a film or a TV show or reading a book. Just as movies incorporate a number of other art forms, folding music and writing and performance and painting into something new, something that works in a different way than any of those things alone, so gaming feels like it is starting to truly become this thing that’s been promised to us since the start.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man was a preposterous amount of fun for the PS4, and I played every square inch of that map plus all of the DLC. It was a treat. My boys were the same way, playing every bit of it. My younger son is still playing it, as a matter of fact, and I think part of the reason he’s been all aboard for the last month is that he’s been itching to get his hands on the sequel. He’s going to lose his mind. I’ve played the opening act of Miles Morales, and it is, pound-for-pound, one of the most enjoyable, immediately-compelling gaming experiences I’ve had.

There’s a quick optional recap that recounts the events of the first game, this time from the POV of Miles instead of Peter Parker, and then we’re right into it. Miles and Peter have to escort a convoy of super-powered villains as they’re being transferred from one prison to another, and sure enough, the Rhino escapes, setting the stage of a city-spanning set-piece that teaches you how to play the character while also packing in a ton of humor and thrills and, yes, character all at once. There are two more quick missions before you arrive at your apartment, which is where I put a pin in it the first night, but just that short session with the game makes it clear that it is an improvement on the first Spider-Man game in every way.

There’s an old friend of mine who has his hands all over this game, Bill Rosemann, and his official title is Marvel Games VP & Head of Creative. When I was in my early teens, I was “the movie guy” in my neighborhood and Bill was “the comics guy.” He was the one who really educated me about what was going on in comics, the one who figured out what to give me to read. He was omnivorous. He bought everything. He read everything. He collected everything. He had longbox after longbox. He was the first person I saw buying bags and boards for his books. He knew artists and writers and, more importantly, editors. He had studied the way creative teams were built and swapped and blown apart, and he loved comic history deeply. He was crazy about all of it, and just by proximity, he managed to get me crazy about certain books and certain characters.

It does not surprise me in the least that there is so much deeply-felt love for every era of Spider-Man’s history baked into these Insomniac games. When Bill first described his job to me several years ago, it basically sounds like his job is to be the guy constantly fighting to make sure that the heroes in these games are the heroes you love. The first game was a terrific exploration of Peter Parker’s life, and I love how right they get the tiny frustrations, the way he tries to balance all the different parts of his life but fails, the science nerd Peter, the relationship with Aunt May… they clearly dug deep to make sure that it was rewarding to every Spider-Man fan, no matter what it is they love about Spider-Man.

This new game is a celebration of Miles Morales, a character whose place in the Marvel Universe now seems set in stone. It seems crazy that it was only nine years ago that he made his first appearance in the Ultimate universe. It wasn’t the easiest introduction, either, with some comic “fans” pitching a predictable fit about the introduction of a young Black/Latino take on the character. What’s turned Miles into a cornerstone of the current Marvel landscape, though, is the richness of his characterization and the cast of characters around him, and the new game takes full advantage of that.

I hope Rosemann is able to help shepherd a number of other major Marvel properties to the game world. I think The Avengers was an unfortunate grind, so it’s not just this “hey, those characters are neat!” thing where any game is going to automatically be great. But there are some great Marvel characters who deserve to be adapted with this kind of attention to detail and this kind of care for the original stories, and I would love to see some more of those happen under his supervision.

Now if only I could think of a good example…

THE NOT-PARTICULARLY-NEW MUTANTS

It would be hard for me to overstate how much I love the original New Mutants created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod. Back when Bill was trying to win me over to being a comic fan, he gave me the 1982 graphic novel that introduced the characters, and that’s all it took. I liked the X-Men just fine, but there was something about these younger characters that spoke directly to me. I look at those issues now and it’s clear that what I responded to was the way they used the onset of mutant powers to tap into the frustrations and alienation of being a teenager. It’s not particularly subtle, but it worked for me, and it won me over.

What really kept me on the hook, though, was the way the book got weird. It started with the introduction of Magik, a mutant sorceress who was also the younger sister of Colossus, and it really escalated when Bill Sienkiewicz took over penciling duties from Sal Buscema. Starting with issue #18 and the “Demon Bear” storyline, it became an addiction for me at the time. It was the first book I ever found myself hunting down the very minute each new issue showed up at stores. The introduction of Warlock as a character and the return of Karma only pushed the book further into weird, wild territory, and I couldn’t get enough.

I wish I liked something about The New Mutants, especially since it comes at the very end of the Fox mutant cycle. It would be nice to see them go out on a high note. Instead, I found myself so impatient and frustrated with the film that it’s hard to know where to start breaking it down. It is a drag, both as a film fan and as a fan of the source material. I don’t think it works at all, and it’s confounding because clearly Josh Boone and Knate Lee read the right books and started with some good ideas, including some casting that feels spot-on.

The film is not a straight adaptation of the comic, and like much of the Fox X-Men era, it feels like the biggest problems come from the way the film almost feels embarrassed to be a superhero comic book film. Since the first film by Bryan Singer, there has been a push-and-pull between studio and material, and I wrote about it quite a bit in Drew McWeeny vs The X-Men, a retrospective that covers everything (including my original reviews) through the first 12 films in the series. The New Mutants would be an inconsequential addition to the franchise even if Fox was still making the films, and it feels like that’s by design. They carefully built this thing to stand separate, segregated almost completely from the main storyline and characters, so it could easily be disavowed.

Cool. What fun.

In broad strokes, they’re taking a swing at the Demon Bear storyline from the comics, which makes sense. It’s a smart, self-contained arc that gives you room to dig deeply into all of the characters. Basically, in the comics, Dani Moonstar is a young mutant who has the power to make you see your worst fears as a real physical thing. Before she’s able to control that power, her own nightmares get away from her and her recurring dream of a demon bear that killed her parents calls forth a nightmare that threatens her and her new friends, even as their own worst fears attack each of them. It feels like Nightmare On Elm Street 3 in some ways, a bunch of young warriors teaming up to fight the things that define them, but with Marvel superpowers in the mix.

The film follows the same general shape, but it loses everything that made the original book charming and interesting in the process. There’s a central mystery involving Alice Braga that is anything but mysterious, and it leads absolutely nowhere. She’s not a character from the comics, the “misdirect” she represents isn’t much of one, and there’s nothing else to her character beyond the mechanical plot purpose she serves. Thirteen films into a franchise, “the military has evil intentions for mutant powers” is not enough of a spine to hang your story on, and it certainly isn’t going to dazzle anyone as your big reveal. I’m not even averse to the notion of making this a horror film compared to anything else Marvel has released. I just don’t think this film demonstrates anything that would make me love these characters or this world at all, and when I find myself bored while watching something I’ve waited over 35 years to see, there’s a problem.

Anya Taylor-Joy is the best fit here, and she’s not bad as Illyana. I was surprised to see how faithfully the render not only her powers but the brief glimpses we get of Limbo, the dimension where she was imprisoned. Taylor-Joy is playing a more punk rock bad attitude version of Illyana than the version from The New Mutants, but it works. She’s able to show you the cracks in the tough facade that humanize Illyana and make her more than just a super-powered mean girl. Maisie Williams seems well-cast, but Rahne is a tough character to get right no matter what. She’s a young Scottish girl who was raised hyper-religious, and when her mutant power manifested (she’s a shapeshifter who turns into a wolf), she was abused by her local priest because he thought she was evil. That’s heavy stuff, and it’s used for cheap shock here rather than real weight. Every one of these characters is carrying around enormous emotional burdens, much heavier than their backstories in the comics, and it makes it all feel so incredibly grim that there’s nothing to temper it in any way. It’s just mean and grim and grim and mean and yelling and running and grim.

The characters that really don’t come together here are Sam, played by Charlie Heaton, Roberto, played by Henry Zaga, and Blu Hunt as Dani, and that’s the biggest problem with the film. Dani and her powers are the engine for the entire film and I agree that you need to build the film around her as the central character. But when the book was published in the ‘80s, it leaned on some pretty old-fashioned ideas about Native American culture. It does not feel like any real update has been made, and so we get some vague “my people believe” talk at the start and end of the film, none of it authentic or grounded in real Native American culture, and it feels like the laziest kind of “representation” as opposed to something that’s genuinely driving her character. The same is true of the queer love story that’s been introduced. As an idea? Fine. It’s not something from the books, but it could work if it was written well or if there was any real spark of connection between the characters. It really comes down to the writing, and it feels as obligatory and by-the-numbers as everything else about the screenplay.

From a conceptual level, Josh Boone never cracked this as a movie. This feels like just as dire a miss as the Josh Trank Fantastic Four, dour and visually muddy and confused about what to do with any of the superpowers. I can’t blame any of the young cast for what’s wrong about the film. They weren’t given the material, and this adaptation really doesn’t make the case for why these characters needed their own film. Here’s the thing that really felt crushing when I was watching this: the young characters in Deadpool and Deadpool 2 were way more interesting than this and more worthy of a film of their own. Give me Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Russell Collins in a New Mutants film. At least I’m already invested in those characters as they exist on film. Don’t get me wrong… I love Rahne, Dani, Sam, ‘Berto, and Illyana. I do.

I just didn’t see them in this movie.

A PATREON WORTH YOUR ATTENTION

It is rare that I am genuinely shocked by entertainment news. The day Disney bought Star Wars was one of those days. And the announcement that was just made by J. Michael Straczynski is definitely one of those things that I find genuinely shocking, a surprise that I’m not sure I ever thought would be true.

Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite writers, and one of the most important touchstones of my own development as a reader and a writer. His collections, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, were both incredibly influential, landing on me at the exact right time. When I discovered his work, I read it constantly. I read it voraciously. Those two books are special because they’re not just his work, but his choices as an editor in terms of curating a significant sampler of the most important voices in science-fiction at the moments they were created. If you want to know what the most exciting writers of 1967 and 1972 were up to, those two books are your primer.

He originally announced that The Last Dangerous Visions would be published in 1974.

It was not.

And ever since, that collection has been the stuff of legend. When Harlan passed away a few years ago, I let go of my last hopes of ever seeing it in any form. I figured that was the ball game. Until then, I always had about a 10% belief that Harlan would eventually figure it out, if only to get out from under any financial obligations it might have put on him. Now it seems that Straczynski is the man in charge of landing the plane, and that he’s got a plan to make it actually happen.

You can check out his post today on Patreon. I’m going to sign up to support their efforts because I would love to finally hold that book in my hands. I am familiar with the way life can get between you and a book, and I am also constantly hopeful that we’ll see every one of those authors cross their finish lines. If we might actually get The Last Dangerous Visions next year, then anything’s possible. Maybe Patrick Rothfuss finally tells the end of Kvothe’s story. Maybe David Gerrold actually wraps up the War against the Chtorr. Man, who knows? Maybe George R.R. Martin finally tells his story his way after all. It’s possible. It’s all possible.

And, man, that is a hell of a good feeling considering how easy it is to be pessimistic these days. I’m thrilled, and if you’re as excited about this news as I am, consider throwing some bones their way via Patreon. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone who isn’t familiar with the first two books to pick them up now. They’re available in print, thank god, and they’re also available via Kindle. I’ve purchased both books several times over the years, and I go back to them again and again. These books turned me on to so many other writers thanks to Ellison’s amazing introductions and his curator’s eye. He set a hell of a table, and then he picked writers who delivered, story after story. He also gave them room to write afterwords that made them seem like real people, not just names under a title.

They are remarkable collections that were built to stand the test of time, and I’m so excited by this news that I think I’m going to break out my copies of both of them tonight and dive back in all over again.

AND FINALLY…

If you could snap your fingers right now and get any comic book character or series, whether published by one of the big two or some indie little obscurity, turned into a AAA-level video game, which character or series would you pick?

I would love, for example, a Cloak & Dagger game based on the mini-series that Bill Mantlo wrote back in the early ‘80s. I would design it so you have to play it co-op, or if you play it alone, you alternate playing as Cloak or Dagger depending on the mission.

My second choice? A Lloyd Llewllyn game based on the Daniel Clowes comic. That shit would be bananas.

As with every Friday Free-For-All, today’s newsletter is free, and anyone’s welcome to answer the question in the comments section. In addition, you’re welcome to talk about anything else you want as long as you’re considerate of one another.

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There are lots of exciting projects that I finally get to share with you in 2021, so now’s the time to sign up so you get to read everything I publish here and you get full access to my archives as well!