Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"I better get extra credit for this..."

Last time, I happened to mention that the tv program "Big Bad Beetleborgs" wasn't as bad as "Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills." And to be fair, it wasn't. It also wasn't as bad as "Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog," "VR Troopers," or "Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad" (whose poor spelling still makes my teeth itch). But then, they were all attempts to cash in on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and everybody who watched them knew it.

I didn't watch much of "Big Bad Beetleborgs" when it came out in 1996, but there are a few things I remember distinctively about it. One was that the kids worked in a comic book shop that sold merchandise of the Beetleborgs. I always found this somewhat puzzling. Who made the merchandise, and why did they never show up to squash the rumors that their characters were destroying real monsters? It would be like finding Clark Kent working in a shop that only sold DC comics, and then you hear on the radio that Superman not only is real, but he just punched an alien in the face. You aren't sure if you should bring up the fourth wall issues involved or if you should just smile and hope you can get out of there before anything goes wrong.

I also remember this guy:

I'm not going to make any Elvis, Bob Hope, or Jay Leno jokes because I know they've all already been done before, but I will point out that it takes a brave ghost to wear an outfit that not even a Bedazzler can make into a bigger eyesore.

Flabber here embodies for me what might be either be the greatest or laziest writing I've ever seen in a children's series. Allow me to explain.

Halfway through the first season, the show decided to perform a casting switcheroo. Shannon Chandler, who played Jo, was leaving the show and being replaced by Brittany Konarzewski. Now, normally when a character is replaced, they move out of town and a new character arrives at just the right moment to fill their shoes. But the show didn't want to replace Jo, so they kept the character and simply replaced the actress. How'd that work out?

Well, we went from:


...yeah, they needed to think of something quickly.

So here's where the writing comes into play. The show simply portrayed that this was a magical transformation caused by one of the comic relief characters casting a spell. The only problem with this was that any logical person in a world with monsters, ghosts, and robots would undoubtedly find it suspicious that their daughter dramatically changed appearance.

Flabber, therefore, came up with a plan. He cast a new spell, so that everybody would see Jo as her old self...unless, of course, they happened to be in the room when the new spell was cast, then they'd be immune and see her as she (now) truly was. Oh, and the audience? Well, technically everybody watching the show did "see" the spell get cast so we get to see the new actress as well! Isn't that convenient? Everybody wins!

But anyway, I'm not here to discuss the Beetleborgs. I'm here about teenagers with tattoos who fight aliens. ...or fighters who battle tattooed teenage aliens, the wording of the title has always been rather awkward.

This show was one of the first (that I remember seeing, anyway) to attempt to cash in on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers craze. For a while during the late 90s, it seemed that anybody with a ninja outfit and some bad rubber monster costumes and a bucket of paint could produce one of these programs. The sets were ridiculous, the storyline was nonexistent, the martial arts might have been passable if it weren't for the sudden camera short, it was bad.

Not only was it bad, though, but it was also hilarious.

The concept of the show was simple. An alien being hides on Earth and picks a group of teenagers to defend the planet from an evil intergalactic threat. The primary villain routinely sends monsters down to the planet to wreak havoc, and the teenagers respond by transforming into their heroic alter egos/stunt doubles and fighting the monster. However, the monster gets a quick upgrade and the heroes have to either push themselves past their individual limit or work together to summon the Ultimate Combat Machine Ever Made to finally take the monster out.

Now, I realize that's the plotline of every one of these types of shows, but TTAFFBH did a few things differently that, while they flat out didn't work, I appreciated the effort.

For one thing, the kids didn't hang out at a juice bar. These kids were hip and knew that Friends was the Next Big Thing for adults, so they hung out at a coffee bar. Plus, instead of getting their powers from dinosaur robots, they got their namesake and power source from various constellations in the night sky! Tell me THAT doesn't scream original product!

All right, there was really only two things I could think of that made this show different. One was that the bad monsters might temporarily die, but odds were pretty good you'd see them again in a later episode, as the villain never believed in letting a bad minion not get a second chance. Eventually he'd learn to try sending more than one monster at a time, but by then most of their weaknesses were figured out and it just felt kind of sad.

The other was one of the moments during the first episode, after the mismatched group of teenagers have acquired their powers and are wondering what comes next. One wonders if they'd hang out together at school. The general reaction?

"Pfft. Please. Me, hang out with people like you guys?"

That's right! They might be a squad of heroes who are the planet's last hope, but she's head cheerleader and he's a math geek! He's a surprisingly effeminate-for-the-90s prep boy and she's a rebel! Did you expect them to be friends? What did you want from a show like this, a moral lesson? Go back to Sesame Street if you want help making friends, we've got monsters to kill!

Coming up next, we'll take a look at the main characters, the first episode, the main villain, and the glory that is "Ninjabot, the Samurai Robot."

Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh snap!

It's funny. Through most of my life, I've been a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to the projects I care about. There's actually a story my mother used to tell about how I would write reports for school when I was in elementary school.

Now keep in mind these were the days before computers and word processors, so I had to actually type them. On a typewriter. And I hated the "backspace/whiteout" key. So if I ever made a single mistake, I'd pull the page out, crinkle it up, and start all over again with the page I was working on.

Now, I actually enjoy writing. I enjoy doing a blog. I had some hopes that this might've gone to something bigger, and I have some big ideas to do with it, but until that day comes I may as well keep posting stuff.

And so, today, I'm posting. Not a big project, not some fancy essay I prepared, I'm just going to pick something at random, post a picture, perhaps, and write.

Let's see what I have in my "My Pictures" folder. Maybe I'll find a few ideas I can expand upon in future writings.

Ah, Jessica Cannon, the spunky, sassy sidekick from the game SiN: Episode 1. Granted, the series is actually called SiN: Episodes, but since the first one was the only one to ever come out. This character was voiced by the wonderful Jen Tayor, who has voiced a lot of other great characters.

However, I think the fact that there's a sound clip for when you crouch down behind this character that says "Stop checking out my ass, Blade (your character)" that makes it all the more hilarious when you realize she's also the voice for Princess Peach for Nintendo.

Up next?

...well, the show wasn't as bad as Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills.

...which I'll probably want to do a retrospective about at some point. God.


...all I know is that apparently giant monkeys and sea monsters attack a boat. And the monkeys are all dressed like sailors.

I must find a copy of this comic.

Right after I locate a copy of:

Because, that's why.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A game I love and a game I...own.

When people ask me what I collect, I used to say "collections." I had an antique camera collection. A Star Wars action figure collection. A rather sizeable comic book collection. A hat collection. Sword collection, antique video game system collection, penny collection, rock collection, baseball card collection, baseball player autograph collection, tabletop RPG named it, I probably had some at some point. Scary thing is, I still have a lot of those collections, just boxed up.

And yes. I am a nerd.

But one collection surpasses all the others: I own a lot of games.

No, seriously, I own a lot of games. New and classic video games. Word puzzle games. Wooden antique games. I even own a competitive Sudoku game AND a Sudoku Rubik's cube.

And then there's the board games and card games. They can have any number of players from one to...well, one just says "four or more players." I've gotten up to 10 people to play at once, someday I'll break that record. Games that are set up, played, and done with in fifteen minutes, and games that can take weeks to complete. There are games that can be played with children and games that specifically state the players should be adults (no sex-themed games, though. With the people I see regularly, I really don't want to show up with anything that involves the words "lick" or "touch." The closest I have to that is a card game named "Wench" that...well, keep reading.)

Those still sit on their own shelves. Those are the things that get brought out now and again for fun with some friends. They're the things that, even if they completely stunk, usually had something about that I seized on and found interesting. I've introduced friends and family to games that they've enjoyed so much that they went out and bought their own copy. I've introduced friends to games that were so awkward to play that they'll likely never be brought out again unless there's copious amounts of alcohol present.

Of course, words don't really put the collection to justice. Now, it's not going to place me in a Guinness book or anything, but unless you have a lot of kids and they all get bored really easily, I'm going to assume most people reading this do not own this many games.

Without further ado, I present...the shelves.

No, that's not a complete set. In fact, about to post this, I just found another board game under my desk.

I fully plan on reviewing a few of these games, but for now a synopsis of a couple that will only fill a couple of paragraphs will work.

First up, I may as well start with the game I already mentioned, "Wench."

Advertised as a "thinking drinking game," Wench is one of the strangest games I've ever seen. Keep in mind I own a board game based on Iron Chef Japan and a card game based on beating up every other player to take their lunch money. It's fast, it's frantic, and with the right crowd, it's probably a lot of fun. I got it for free, but I never let price determine the fun factor. The object of the game is simple: get rid of the cards in your hand. This is done primarily by playing a card in front of you and by giving cards to other players. There are two types of cards: table cards and turn action cards.

Now, before I go further into the rules, let's discuss the most glaring detail of this game:

That's right. It doubles as a deck of regular playing cards, in case you're in the children's section of the library and suddenly feel like a game of solitai- what? Oh, the pictures? Well, fine then. We'll discuss that.

Wench is eye candy. It's meant to be about as classy as you'd expect to find in a game advertised for frat houses. It makes no apologies, in fact it doesn't just hang out in the gutter, it's determined to show you just how pretty the gutter can be. The artwork is by Monte Moore, whose artwork is extremely detailed and well-crafted, but does tend to contain a lot of cheesecake. But look at the detail work on the Iron Man piece below:

The man has serious talent, nobody can deny that. But if you're going to be buying a game called "Wench!" you shouldn't expect Pollock or Rembrandt to adorn the cards.

Anyway, the other key part of the cards is all that text. Each card comes with a "rule" printed on it. When rules are broken, you follow the instructions on the cards. The table cards only affect the game when they're in play. The turn action cards (with a blue border instead of a gold border) can affect the game at any time. For instance, the "Crab" card indicates that when someone picks up something with only one hand, you may immediately give them a card. Only one card can be given per player per "round" so it's important to remember who's doing what and what cards they might have.

The game also encourages secondary penalties, such as taking a drink or losing some pennies (wherever gambling isn't illegal, of course, the game is quick to specify this). I can only imagine games of this devolving into someone slipping up a few times and then getting drunk enough to keep screwing up. Maybe the purpose of the game is to show that sober people tend to win things. Clever.

Now, you might be saying, "Erik, that's all well and good. But maybe I have a bit of class, or I don't drink, or either I am or I know women who find this to be disgusting and crude. And from reading this it's obvious you wouldn't pull this game out for any random mixed group of people. What game can I play with others that is still fun but isn't for people who are either doing their best to get drunk or want to win at all costs?"

In that case, I'd recommend Once Upon A Time.

In one of the more original ideas for a game I've ever seen, this is a "storytelling card game." There are two different types of cards in the game, "Once Upon A Time" cards and "Happily Ever After" cards.

"Once Upon A Time" cards contain characters, items, places, adjectives, or events that might happen in a story being told. This could be anything from "A King," "Axe," "Very Wise," or "A Garden." Players keep a set of these in their hand. "Happily Ever After" cards give a goal to reach with your story, such as "and he learned to never gamble again" or "and once he was dead, the people were free." A player's goal is to weave a story using the cards in their hand, using and playing each one as they read what's on them in order to empty their hand.

For instance, in the example given above, you might start with "Once upon a time, there was a king. He was a very wise king, and all of his people loved him. He also had a beautiful daughter, who all the young men were in love with. One day, while in the garden..." This lets you get rid of three cards while still building an actual story. This is where the types of people you know comes into play. If you know someone who wants to win at all costs, he might just say "once upon a time a very wise king was gambling in his garden. He lost his favorite axe, and he learned to never gamble again." Technically, yes, you won, but congratulations, you're also a jerk going against the spirit of the game.

Now, the challenge is fleshing out your story well enough so that the other players don't accuse you of being said jerk but also being aware of what other people might have in your hand. Suppose an opponent had the card "hunt," and you were in the middle of telling how the hero of the story was attempting to track down a dragon. If you mentioned "hunting" or "hunt" or anything close to that (the times I've played, if someone makes a strong case for it being a close enough synonym, we allow it), that player is allowed to play the card, poach your story, and continue it in whatever direction they so desire. Suddenly, your dashing prince is a pirate lord, and your faithful dog companion becomes a robot from the future with a dire warning.

Really, the only limits on this game are the people playing it. You can rule that a card can only be played once every two sentences, that a story has to be at least 10 sentences long, that a sentence has to be more than three words, and so on. It might feel like it becomes complex at first, but again, once people get into the spirit of spinning a story for their friends that they don't want to be told sucks, the play flows naturally and becomes entertaining when someone is just about to finish explaining why "he never went in the woods alone again" and someone grabs the story and takes it in a whole new direction.

But that's two of the games for now. They're for two very different audiences, of course, and are just a sampling of the types of not just games I own, but games that are out there to be discovered. I have games about racing starships, surviving a zombie apocalypse, working with other players to cure diseases across the globe, or tracking a criminal across London. Each one will get their time in the spotlight, but for now, why not just pull out a chair, sit down, and have some fun?

"Once upon a time, there was a writer who wanted to have a really kickass blog..."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Spotlight: Grenadier

Warning, there will be spoilers.

In a medieval world where swords can deflect bullets, mechanized cannons assault fortresses, and one of the deadliest warriors in the world is a man who wears a large accordion on his chest, who can save a nation when it's attacked from within?

I present to you Rushuna Tendo, the Senshi of Smiles.

Now, I commented in my last post that I really, really liked this series. It's one of the few series I felt compelled to buy not just the animated series, but also the manga volumes just to see how they were different. I've always had a strong fondness for westerns, whenever I see something akin to a western taking place in ancient Japan or space, I feel drawn towards it.

Amongst the series I've watched are Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Wild Arms, Outlaw Star, and one of the first series I ever owned (hello, bargain bin!), Early Reins. But those are series for another time. Now, let's focus on Grenadier.

In the manga, Rushuna is a young woman in a search for her own identity. She knows very little about herself other than she's "from another land." Her goal is to find out where she's from and eventually find her way back. She was trained in the art of the gun from an old master, but had no other real goals or aspirations in life other than to solve her own life's mystery and protect others.

In the anime, Rushuna is still a young woman, but her motivations are slightly different. She was trained to act as a bodyguard and body double for the Tenshi (the ruler of the land) and is now on a quest to master what's called the "ultimate fighting technique." And what is this technique, you might ask? It's to "remove the opponent's willingness to fight without fighting." She finds out that the Tenshi, also her best friend, has placed a price on her head and every master warrior in the realm is out to collect. The overlying story is figuring out why she's being hunted and her attempt to get back to the capitol to confront her friend.

But what does it mean to "remove the opponent's willingness to fight?" Rushuna has to convince her opponents that it's in their best interests to not fight at all. By stripping an opponent not just of their ability to fight but also of their motivation to fight, she firmly believes that the world could become a better place. How does she strip someone of their motivation to fight? Sometimes all it takes is a hug and some comforting words, but other times it involves destroying everything they own so they realize how outclassed they are. Mixed message? Well, keep reading.

Now I know what people who have seen anime are thinking. They're thinking "Wow, a master gun user who tries to get everybody to solve their problems without loss of life, has blond hair, and is being hunted for unknown reasons? That sounds least, it did back when it was called Trigun."

I'll admit, when I first saw the series, that's the same thought I had. But is it simply "Trigun with boobs?" Well, in a way, yes, but that doesn't make it bad. Looking at Hollywood, there's any number of successful movies that have spawned numerous similar ones. For instance, Indiana Jones was heavily influenced by early pulp adventure movies, but you can trace all of the following to it: Tomb Raider, The Mummy, the Uncharted video games, National Treasure...the list goes on. Plus, I find it really interesting that Dark City, The 13th Floor, and The Matrix all came out at around the same time.

Now, granted, not all remakes or homages are worth the time and effort. Look at the classic movie Casablanca: take a tough, disillusioned bartender who bumps into a former lover. This former lover and their new sweetheart are key figures in the resistance against an evil, oppressive totalitarian regime. While initially neutral, the bartender's attempt to profit from something that would save lives backfires, and they realize some things are worth fighting for and risks themselves to help the two escape with the help of a sympathetic police officer who switches sides at the last moment. The movie ends with them watching the love of their life fly away, and the cop recommends it's time they join the resistance and take up the fight for the greater good. It's a classic story that produced one of the finest movies of all time. But you know what other movie has the exact same story?

So, yeah, not every attempt to replace an awesome hero with a pair of breasts works out, but let's look closer at this one.

What Grenadier (the anime) boils down to is the journey of a young woman who constantly feels at odds with herself. She's trained from a very young age to be one of the elite warriors of the entire nation, yet meets someone who convinces her that violence is the wrong path. She attempts to live to this impossible ideal, while constantly finding herself having to utilize her old skills to save her friends and innocents around her. The character even brings this up herself, acknowledging that her actions don't always mesh with her speeches about peace.

There's also a rather interesting moment when one of the secondary characters, a young girl named Mikan, steals Rushuna's gun and points it at her. The girl tries to draw back the hammer of the pistol just to find it won't budge. Rushuna explains that the gun is designed that way on purpose, "to be able to feel the weight of a life." She explains, "To shoot someone, you have to have a certain awareness of it." Compared to your standard Hollywood action hero who shoots people like they were tin cans on a fence, it's nice to see someone acknowledge that a life of even the lowliest soldier is still worth something.

There's also a moment with Mikan when the girl is able to confront the leader of a gang attacking her home. This is the same gang that killed her parents in an earlier flashback. However, she spares the man's life after Rushuna explains that if you take someone's life out of revenge, it just means someone will want to kill you back as revenge in a never-ending cycle. Plus, the man was a gang leader, but without his "ultimate weapon" Rushuna destroyed or the gang that gets scattered to the winds, he's just a defenseless, pathetic old man, one not worth holding a grudge against if revenge consumes the girl's life fulfilling it.

Now, that's not to say that the whole series is wishy-washy "make love, not war." Rushuna's fight scenes (both in the manga and the anime) are extremely impressive if often completely ridiculous. These are scenes that require a willingness to suspend disbelief to new levels, such as when she uses the stream of air bubbles from a torpedo to fire back at her target since the water hinders her ability to fight. Silly? Yes. Something the Mythbusters wouldn't even want to attempt? Probably. Awesome? Definitely.

If the series has one genuine failing, it's that it seems too self-aware at times. Rushuna constantly finds herself in a variety of skimpy outfits, and, as shown in her physique above, there's plenty of eye candy. The fact that she reloads her gun by flinging bullets out of her cleavage epitomizes this, and yet the series does it all with a wink to the audience, as if to say, "yeah, we know this is why some of you are here, so we decided to just take it over the top!"

Now, creating a series with the idea "the plot comes second to bouncing breasts and tight butts" is hardly uncommon in Japanese entertainment. I have the feeling that's how Agent Aika, Mouse, and Tenjho Tenge all got started (and for the most part they all sucked). But when a series seems to be trying really hard to flesh out the characters and deliver a strong story and a powerful message, it dilutes the whole thing when you keep throwing in jokes about breasts.

What you wind up with in Grenadier is the start to some very strong philosophical conversations that get cut off all too soon because of time restraints. However, the manga does go on for 7 volumes, but it doesn't focus on the "peace through less fighting" message as much (Rushuna actually does kill in the manga, but only in the defense of others, and even then she tries to save her opponent's lives when she can). What it does do is flesh out the secondary characters more and better develop the world these characters inhabit, so while the two stories don't mesh perfectly, they're still similar enough to enjoy together.

Overall, I enjoyed Grenadier. It's by no means as good a series as Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell, but it covers a lot of bases and handles them pretty well. If the anime would have just tightened up what it wanted to be a bit more, I really think the series would've been amazing. As it is, it's just good, goofy fun with an interesting twist on a common message. The animation of the cartoon is clean, and the artwork of the manga is quite crisp. If you're an anime or comic fan, I'd recommend it. If you've never watched anything Japanese before in your life...start with Spirited Away or Cowboy Bebop.

Oh, and if you're worried that I've spoiled too much about the series, I really haven't. There are lot more interesting fights, moral dilemmas , and interesting characters that show up. So go ahead, give it a look. Just don't expect it to be more than simple fun.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

That ain't right.

I'm a strong follower of That Guy With The Glasses, and it was through his website I got to enjoy learning of video reviewers such as Linkara, Nostalgia Chick, and even Brad Jones (whose reviews of the absolute worst movies of all time are all that keep me from burning down modern movie theaters sometimes because I know it can get much worse than Red Riding Hood).

One that I got into late is a young man by the name of CR, whose nostalgic look back at "Familiar Faces" (how convenient that's what he named his video series) recently brought a series back to mind that I've always been a large fan of. However, there's one thing about it that also embodies an issue I have with a lot of the entertainment I've seen coming out of Japan.

(Now, first a disclaimer. This article is in no way my attempt to suggest that Japan is a nation of perverts. It's in no way suggesting that anybody who likes video games, anime, or manga (cartoons and comics to those not in the know) is a pervert. What this is is an attempt to acknowledge two extremely different cultures and a large gap between them of what is acceptable and what society frowns on.)

Anybody who knows me can confirm that I've seen a lot of entertainment that came from Japan around and after the turn of the century. Cartoons, comics, video games, magazines, live action movies, soap operas, weather reports, I watched and read it all and soaked it in like a sponge. Some stuff I really liked. Some stuff I absolutely hated. But I was hooked on everything Japan had to offer. I even ate the imported snack foods and started shopping in Asian markets for ingredients whose "animal/vegetable/mineral" categorization I couldn't even begin to guess at.

But as time went on, I realized some common themes amongst a lot of the things I saw. One was that the Japanese love their giant robots. Another was a tendency to be coy in their descriptions of people, places, and things. This might've simply been a translation issue, but if I had a nickel for every time a character made a reference to "that place," "that person," "that time," or "that thing," well, I'd have a lot of nickels.

But one thing I saw was that Japanese entertainment (at least for the time I watched it) focused a lot on young heroes facing stark odds. It might be a high school comedy series or an apocalyptic nightmare, but a lot of series would place teenagers in the starring roles as the only people left who can get the job done. I was puzzled when this was applied to stories about war and battling (Neon Genesis Evangeleon, the Gundam series, Stellvia, pretty much every Final Fantasy game) since I assumed that an adult soldier would be better trained and more durable. This isn't to say teenagers and children are incapable soldiers (I've seen video footage taken from Africa to show me otherwise), and a lot of series take the time to explain how there's usually something unique about this particular group of teenagers or there's something in the design of whatever equipment they're using that is better suited for younger soldiers to utilize it.

Again, the root for this is undoubtedly a cultural issue. I've read essays discussing how Japanese adults enjoy the freedom from childhood and how stuck in procedure the adult life becomes after school. I've seen people discuss the fact that younger audiences simply aren't interested in seeing older heroes, and how the series with younger characters always do better. I'd be willing to accept any simple explanation, but there's one thing that I really need to get off my chest.

When you import a series to the United States and one of the more sexually suggestive characters is underage, I think the studio is perfectly within its rights to change their age.

One example is going to be the star of my next article, Grenadier.

Keep in mind I actually really like this series.

follows the adventures of a young woman named Rushuna Tendo. She lives in a standard fantasy historical Japan, which means everybody has guns and occasionally a giant medieval suit of armor shows up. The manga and the anime have two very different takes on the character, but a lot of the basics are the same. Young woman, long blond hair, constantly described as a foreigner...oh, and there's her method of reloading guns which has become rather infamous online.

Yes, you did just watch a woman reload a gun by launching the bullets out of her cleavage. Her very ample cleavage. And just how old is Rushuna in this series? How old is a girl not only sporting a chest that big, but constantly getting her clothes ripped to the point where she's barely dressed, flashing her underwear at people all the time, and at one point actually losing her underwear in combat? Sixteen, according to her.

Now, from my limited understanding of Japan's age of consent, the federal government has set it at 13, but individual regions can have their own laws setting it as high as 18. So obviously there's going to be a huge cultural difference here. But would it really hurt the story that much if the translators changed Rushuna's age from 16 to, say, 22? I don't think so. In fact, considering we see the character drink, bathe nude (no dirty bits are shown, at least nothing more than you'd see in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue anyway), and jiggle all over the place, I'd think changing the character's age would make her more appealing to a wider market.

Not convinced? Let's look at one of the biggest offenders in recent history: Dead or Alive Xtreme 2.

Released in 2006, this game was the sequel to the original Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Enhanced graphics, plenty of mini-games, and a widely advertised "physics engine allowing individual breast movement" (there's warning flag number one) were all featured, along with starring the women from the popular "Dead or Alive" fighting game franchise. The game was rated M, meaning you couldn't buy a copy if you were under 18 (not that there aren't shops who don't pay attention or anything).

Now, I will admit that in 2008 I bought a used copy of the game. I'm sticking with the story that I actually enjoy beach volleyball games (I owned Beach Spikers for the Nintendo Gamecube and it got quite a lot of play for a while) and this was (and still is) one of the only games I've seen for the modern console generation. But as soon as I put the disc into my Xbox 360, I flipped open the manual and something caught my eye.

Kasumi, Kokoro, and Ayane had their ages listed as "?." So I did a quick Google check, and found out that in Japan (where the game was developed, of course) their ages are listed as 17, 16, and 16, respectively. Looking up, I got to see the opening movie for the game.

Now, I'm not going to upload the video here, I'll just link to this: Don't watch if it'll make you rage-quit the internet and try to hunt me down to punch me. If you want to know which girl is which, well, Kasumi has red hair, Ayane has purple hair, and Kokoro...well, I was going to post a picture of her, but honestly I just didn't feel right posting anything I found on Google. She has really long, dark hair, if that helps.

Is the game horribly sexist and exploitive by its very nature? Of course it is. Should studios forbid any games like that from being made? I'd have to say "no." Seeing as games are now being recognized as an art form by the United States, I think games are, by themselves, a medium to express ideas, much the same way movies and tv are. And nobody's saying Playboy should be forbidden from having their own TV channel or that they should ban all movies like Zombie Strippers. At least nobody anybody takes seriously.

However, when I realize I'm playing a game that actively encourages me to take zoomed-in photos of teenage girls, coax them into caring about my character through gifts, or buy skimpier and skimpier outfits for them in the hopes they'd wear one, I keep expecting that at any minute I'm going to hear the theme song for To Catch A Predator in the background and Chris Hansen is going to walk and and ask what I'm doing.

(For the record, the game went back to the game store the next day for a refund. I'm not sure when I'll feel clean again.)

Again, when the game series was originally brought over here, I honestly don't think there would have been any horrible change to the plot if characters had their ages bumped up to 18. Would it still be somewhat creepy? Perhaps, but at least you couldn't argue as well that it was portraying itself like a game to satisfy pedophiles.

Oh, and did I mention that for each character you can unlock a special pole-dancing mini-game/movie? Yes, even for the 16 year old. Thanks for keeping it classy, Japan.

Now, I'll fully admit that there are a lot of things from Japan where it'd simply be impossible to change any ages. Any series that takes place in high school, for example, would be extremely difficult to swap ages around in. A series where a specific plot point focuses around a certain birthday would be really difficult to change anything that important about. Of course, other series would have to be considered on a case by case basis to determine just what kind of message the series sends to have a character that young.

And I know that there are a lot of die-hard fans of stuff from Japan who protest is you change even the slightest thing about their entertainment. They want the obscure pop culture references, they want the original translations of places, people, and time periods. They want it to be just like how the Japanese artist intended it to be.

To which I say...why? Does it really take away that much from the story for the character's age to indicate them as a bit wiser or a bit more experienced in life? If you're worried that the character will lose some of their "child-like innocence," I'd argue you can still portray innocence or naivety as a legal adult. I'm sure we all know someone who managed to get through high school still able to be shocked by anything explicit.

Now, if people disagree with me, I'd love to have them comment below with their reasoning. And again, I'm not saying that all series should have the changes implemented. Just ones where people might think the boundary of "good taste" might be getting crossed based on our country's principles and standards.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pure. Awesome.

I made a short trip downtown today to check out my local comic book shop both to see how the employees held up after the Maine Comic Arts Festival and to check out the latest sale they were having. After browsing for a couple of minutes, I realized there were two people in the shop I didn't recognize. A woman stood on the customer side of one of the counters, but there was a man I didn't recognize sitting behind the counter. He was sketching something I couldn't quite make out, and it wasn't until I started to pay for my purchase that I realized it was Andy Runton. That's right, it was Andy Goddamn Runton.

What's that? You don't know Andy Runton from the contents of a week old roach motel? Well, that's because you're ignorant. But don't worry, I've got the cure. Ladies and gentlemen, meet... Owly (and by extension, Wormy).

Owly (the book) is the tale of Owly, the, well, owl. He's a kindhearted soul in the forest who enjoys gardening, swimming, reading, and building homes for creatures in the forest. In fact, ongoing themes in the stories involve the creation of birdhouses, growing plants, and making sure there are areas for butterflies to come to in the spring.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Erik, I live in the fast and modern world of 2011! I live fast, drive fast, eat fast, and sleep fast! I listen to music by artists with such little creative ability that frequently there's only two verses, and one of them is repeated three times. I watch movies by Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, where the attention span of the audience is so small it requires the entire planet to be destroyed just to keep me entertained or the camera needs to change view every five seconds for another view of an explosion or insane angled shot up someones nose. Owly looks...dull.

And you'd be absolutely right. Compared to a lot of today's entertainment, Owly moves at a snail's pace (which is only fair, since one recurring character is a snail mailman). There are no explosions, no loud soundtrack, no fact, there's no dialogue at all. At least, there's no written dialogue. Look at the panels below:

Now, which of the following seems to be the most likely event in this setting? Remember, the book is labeled "all ages."

a) Owly is excited at the arrival of geese heading south for the winter, having been waiting at a place they can safely land at.

b) Owly is thankful that the geese criminal syndicate has arrived so he can pay the random to get Owlette back before they break any more of her pinfeathers.

c) Owly's friend wormy is ready to die, and Owly has arranged for geese to carry him to worm Valhalla, located somewhere between Boca Raton and Pompano Beach.

d) Owly's finally going to get a chance to see if those land mines work.

If you chose anything but "a," I have the feeling I'm too late for you. You can resume waiting eagerly for the next Three Musketeers "remake" to come out because culturally, you are dead inside.

Now, the next thing you're going to notice is that the book is in black and white. Now, I know that most comics that aren't published by a major company tend to be in black and white because of their budget and because it's more "artsy," but in the case of Owly I think that even if it were a major publishing company putting out the book, it wouldn't need color. The message is simple and clear. The cleanness of Andy Runton's lines compared withe the amount of detail work he can get in a scene is amazing. Look below:

You can make out everything that's going on there, you can tell each character separate from the background, and look at the detail on that picnic table. The vase doesn't blend in with the bunny, each item on the plates is identifiable as a separate item. It is, quite simply, amazing. Now, Simon and Schuster has put out an Owly book titled Friends All Aflutter which is in color, and while I won't say it takes away from the artwork, I honestly felt that it wasn't necessary. Would smaller children enjoy it more? Perhaps.

But compare the detail there to trying to figure out which robot is which in any combat scene in the Transformers movies, where all you can see is shiny metal heap A colliding/sliding/blowing up shiny metal heap B.

So why am I pushing for people to become more aware of a series that I've admitted isn't as fast, exciting, or colorful as most other entertainment? Because it has something missing from most blockbusters and cartoon shows. It has heart.

No, not that kind. I mean it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, and everybody I've ever shown the books to always puts them down afterward with a huge smile on their face. It might be the story of Owly trying to find Wormy during a storm, Owly entering a birdbath-building competition, or one of my favorites, Owly trying to overcome his fear of flying.

Let's face it, Owly has over sized eyes that wouldn't seem too out of place of a lot of Japanese characters, but in this case they're used mostly for expression. Below I have a screenshot of Owly having a flashback to a time he gave his mother a picture he drew as a child. Look at Lil' Owly's face.

I'm not really 100% sure how to describe that expression. Look at his eyes, and how his wing tips are touching slightly askew. I see hope, a touch of nervousness, and a need that all small children have of a parent not just accepting something they've done, but treasuring it. What Lil' Owly's hoping for there isn't just that his mother will say "nice drawing, kid," but for her to exclaim how much she loves it. That much emotion captured in one panel of a comic is a rare event, but Andy Runton is a cheating bastard because the man managed to pull it off several times in every storyline.

Anyway, while Owly can come across as extremely childish compared to other comic books, I'd argue that it shows a maturity most comic books lack. It isn't about the the violence or the impossible breasts on women that appeal to a teenage boy's idea of awesome, Owly just is what it is and tries to tell its message in a clear, concise manner, whether it's to help others, watch out for your friends, or how small sacrifices can come back with big returns.

If anybody reading this has small children, I would highly recommend it as an introduction to reading, especially since words aren't there to confuse anybody. Compare the scene above with Owly watching the geese with the page below:

Does it really matter what any of that text says? I hope not, because when I was a kid, I would've jumped straight past that to look at the pictures. And what do I see? I see the Atom standing on a cannon preaching, I see that Lex Luthor's apparently dyed himself green because there's no way that's the Martian Manhunter, I see that Snapper Carr's ga-ga eyed in love with the Atom, and Wonder Woman's trying to crush two people with a tree.

Now, you might say "Well, that was the silver age. They had a lot of exposition because the artform was still new. What about comics designed for kids? Maybe something from Disney?"

That's quite a lot of words for young kid to read. If you aren't afraid that your child might develop a love for comics, why not give them a copy of a volume of Owly? You might even find you enjoy it as well, since I found in at least one babysitting adventure that narrating what happens can be just as much fun.

Oh, and as for my encounter with Andy Runton? I did wind up buying a copy of Friends All Aflutter, I shook the man's hand, and then he proved just how awesome he was:

I think I skipped when I left the store. I don't care. It was awesome.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Cutest Whiskers In Outer Space!

Recently, I posted on Facebook to try to decide on ideas for what my next post should be. Do I discuss the nostalgia factor of classic heroes to today's heroes? Maybe a description of how I'd design a great video game based on what others got right or wrong. Perhaps I should just focus on one of my personal favorite topics, a mathmatical proof of the perfection of dancer Kym Johnson.

You can't argue with math, folks. The numbers support it.

Finally, someone chose one of my options, so to show how easily influenced I am by the opinions of others, I present my newest topic: Character Spotlight! Now when I first suggested "the cutest whiskers in outer space," I know some people expected me to discuss this little bundle of joy:

Sadly, this little delight is disqualified because she isn't located in outer space (at least, not until she destroys a few more things I thought were safe on shelves). Instead, we look out to the stars to find...a telepathic Russian cosmonaut dog and a talking commando raccoon with a jetpack?

Anybody who calls comic books childish and immature, I point to you Awesome Exhibit A and Awesome Exhibit B. Let's see any other non-animated medium come up with characters like this and make them not suck royally or be so completely bizarre that it makes my head hurt.

Now, Cosmo the dog is going to get his own spotlight in the future, but for now I thought I'd talk about raccoons in popular culture. They've been one of my favorite animals since as far back as I can remember (the other being skunks...but that's also another story). Let's look back at the first raccoon from my childhood.

If anybody else remembers Ranger Rick, then congratulations, you were a tiny little liberal hippie like I was. The magazine of the same name would frequently have our little fuzzball above helping to solve environmental issues such as recycling Christmas trees, cleaning litter, and replacing non-recyclable Styrofoam cups (remember, this was the 80s) with paper cups. It got me to get my church to swap their cup styles for post-service coffee, something I was really proud of in my childhood.

Yes, Rick Raccoon was also my favorite one of the Shirt Tales, though asking which of my favorite from that series is like asking "of all your fingers, which hurts less when it's broken." The show wasn't any good, they introduced Kip Kangaroo (voiced by Nancy Cartwright aka Bart Simpson) in the second season for no reason, and let's not forget their "secret origin" is "Hallmark designed a few characters for cards and then made a cartoon from them." Lame.

Close behind him in the list of "things I watched then but have no stomach for now" is Bright Heart Raccoon, decidedly the coolest of the Care Bare Cousins because he knew SCIENCE where the rest were mostly ineffective.

Other raccoons I remember are Sly Cooper, the master thief from the video games of the same name, Marine Raccoon from Sonic the Hedgehog (the less said about her, the better), RJ from Over the Hedge, the raccoon suit that let Mario fly in Super Mario Brothers 3, any number of raccoons in movies that require forest animals, Neeko from Pocahontas, and...

...oh god.

Anyway, another huge one is the animated movie Pom Poko, created by the same producer of the excellent Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki's Delivery Service. Pom Poko is the heartwarming animated story of a large group of raccoons that attempt to save their living space from human development with the ingenious plan of smacking humans with their inflated testicles. I wish to god I was making that up. Just look:

To be fair, they don't just use their balls to bludgeon people. They also use their oversize scrotum to hang glide. Cause why not? But don't worry, it's not just a weird movie, turns out that in Japanese culture tanuki (raccoons to you and me) are often portrayed with extra-sized testicles that they bludgeon humans with. See?

Thanks for keeping it classy, Japan.

Moving on before I lose all of my remaining sanity to memories from my childhood, the best raccoon in current times is, obviously, the aforementioned Rocket Raccoon.

Imagine if you will, an entire sector of space occupied by a planet named Halfworld, an idyllic haven on one half of the surface and a sterile, mechanical block on the other half that serves as an asylum for the crazies of the universe. There, genetically altered animals see to the safety and entertainment of the inmates. Of these animals, the most awesome of them is Rocket Raccoon, official cop of the entire sector. And if you think I'm being ridiculous, I'll point out that on his adventures he takes a walrus with laser tusks. I wish I could make that up.

A walrus with laser tusks

Anyway, after his own miniseries where he saves the world, Rocket hopped around in a couple other comic titles for a few cameos (including a rather memorable one with She-Hulk against a race of asparagus people, but again that's for another time), but he finally got to shine again during a storyline called Annihilation: Conquest, a plot wherein a diverse group of allies (including our plucky raccoon and a giant, sentient tree named Groot) have to save the universe from an evil threat.

From there, Rocket became a key member of a team of superheroes called the Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket's role on the team is to provide tactical advice, but for the reader his role is often to provide a bit of lighthearted fun when the storyline risks getting too dark and to act as a narrator, providing the point of view that the reader can instantly connect with. An example is when the team is fighting a giant monster from another dimension. The story breaks occasionally with "footage" of the team being debriefed after the mentioned mission. Instead of requiring a lot of text from the characters explaining what we, the reader, can already see, we get:

Lovable ol' Rocket's not a member currently, but based on how much writers love to write him and readers love to read about him, it's only a matter of time before he's on the team again, and I, personally, cannot wait. It sure beats waiting for the resurrection of Chucklewood Critters.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Flashback: Justice League Of America #18

(This is an article I wrote back in 2007 that I just uncovered. Thought it was worth finishing)

For my second official post, I thought I'd set the Wayback Machine to March of 1963, and bring you all into the days when comic books were still fresh. When you didn't have people talking about Civil Wars, rapes, blood, breasts falling out of costumes, and Rob Liefeld still getting work. Heck, I'm not even sure Rob Liefeld was alive in 1963, so, bonus!

(And if he was, it'll be a lot easier to find him and beat him up at that young age than now. Now, he's expecting it.)

In 1963, the Justice League was still in its infancy, consisting of some of the biggest powerhouses the DC Universe had to offer. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Flash, Green Arrow, the Atom, Aquaman! They were -the- go-to guys (and woman) to get the job done. You knew it, I knew it, your grandma knew it, and as this story shows, even microscopic universes knew it, as you'll find out.

The story starts with Snapper Carr complaining to his girlfriend Midge (no, not the one from Archie comics) that as of late, he's been the resident 'bench warmer' of the Justice League. Y'see, in those days, taking a teenager with you into battles against super villains was par for the course. Batman had Robin, Superman had Jimmy Olsen, and Wonder Woman was forever being followed by a young Hugh Hefner, gathering souvenirs from battles and offering to dab a towel on her skin when she got sweaty.

(This, one might point out, could possibly be a feat that Japan studied with some interest, viewing how in about 90% of their animated works it falls upon students to save the world when they have trouble diagramming sentence structure and can barely work out where the Alps are on a world map.)

The Justice League had Snapper Carr, a 'hep cat, daddy-o' who didn't really bring much to the "already-crammed-with-that-graham" super team, but he owned a nifty hot rod (the Justice League even installed a device in it that would allow it to fly, obviously hoping a passing Air Force plane would shoot it down) and snapped his fingers a lot. My personal theory is that they wanted someone expendable to take point, on the off-chance Doomsday showed up early.

When Snapper finally arrives, he finds that the Justice League is gone already! Despondent, he gets out his Streisand albums, puts them on, climbs into the tub, and slowly picks up the razor blade a-

Sorry, got lost in my own little fantasy there. Anywho.

It turns out the Justice League has been MINIATURIZED. After a brief scene where the Atom has to figure out where they've gone, he joins them in a miniature universe. Once they land on the proper atomic-sized planet (lucky aim, I'm thinking) they find that they've been brought there by the champions of that world for a serious reason.

To kick their asses.

No, I can't make this up. Y'see, it seems the protectors are androids powered by a strange energy source to be able to handle any invaders, be them by land, sea, or outer space. However, these same energies are also shortening the lifespan of each generation of the native people, so the androids finally realized that they have a humdinger of a problem. If the civilization dies, then they have nobody to protect, see? Unfortunately, the energy sources, they claim, make them impossible to defeat, so they need the League's help.

So, the league breaks into three teams to face the androids, and promptly get their asses kicked six ways from Sunday. Meanwhile, the native people are letting out a collective "I knew we should have gone with the Green Hornet!"

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, after getting their butts handed to them on silver platters, are trapped in a cage, where the Protector that beat them up claims that 'Not even Superman can break through those bars!' And sure enough, the Kryptonian's 'super-muscles' (his term, not mine) are of no use.

That Superman. He's a regular cheerleader, isn't he? A superpowered ray of sunshine.

That's nothing. Read the first panel of the next page:

"Now get back in the cage-kitchen and make me a damn cage-sandwich, woman!"

Who knew, huh?

Anyway, Batman finally figures out the secret of the protectors of this little hellhole. They have spooky mind-powers. Once someone says something, ("You cannot defeat us." "You cannot break those bars." "You will enjoy Gigli, dammit.") the people who hear it are forced to believe it, no matter how ludicrous ("The Seattle Mariners will win the World Series!")

And no, you can't override one comment with another. Once you tell someone they can't, nobody else can tell them they can.

So, if you're the world's greatest super team and you just realized it's impossible for you to beat a foe because they told you that you can't, which would seem to be your best option?

a) Send the Atom back up to recruit another hero to combat them, telling them it's /vital/ that they wear earplugs the entire time. Say, the Metal Men. Or Hawkman. Or Metamorpho. Y'know, someone who could possibly take them down on their own.

b) Figure out a way to pitch the androids into battle against each other, using the infinite loop you caused to somehow send them rocketing off into space, never to harm anyone again.

c) Send the Atom back up to recruit highly-trained soldiers that would have the skills and abilities to take down these three android threats with minimal help from the League members.

d) Go find Rick Jone- er, Snapper Carr, a teenager with little to no real training, shrink him down, plug his ears, and then play offense for his quarterback, blocking the blows and allowing him to destroy the androids.

If you answered d, then you skimmed ahead.

"Must remember," the mighty Martian Manhunter repeats on the next page, "I wait until nobody is looking, then just hold his head underwater. Two minutes, tops."

And where the hell is Flash running from? What does he do, wait fifteen seconds after everybody is gone, then zip out catch up?

Anyway, since Snapper can't hear the Protectors, the League is able to give him several boosts that allow him to smack them down like they were teenage Thai prostitutes (so I'm told), and take away their power sources. The aliens are so thankful, they happily return the League to their home world, and Snapper Carr gets to impress his girlfriend.

And he better be doing the ol' "wet and bubbly" with her. I mean, the character idea might've been good back then, but let's face it. Who wouldn't use "Oh, yeah, then I totally saved Superman's life" to get themselves a little sumthin' sumthin'? Female muscles.

Monday, May 16, 2011

This might get wordy.

Did you all know that the opening to Back to the Future spoils a scene that happens at the end? A minute into the first movie, the camera is panning over all the different clocks that Doc Brown has set up. What most people probably notice but completely ignore is the following clock:

See the little guy danging there from the minute hand of the clock? The guy dressed exactly like how Doc Brown is dressed at the climatic scene of the movie? Yeah. Time travel, eh?

Actually, background objects lead me to my real topic. More often than not, your average movie or tv show completely forgets about the background of the plot. I don't mean the set pieces, which are often greatly detailed and undoubtedly very expensive, but the details within the background are often overlooked. The objects, the sounds, and even the people frequently move in and out of a scene with no greater purpose than to keep you from realizing that the story's extremely two-dimensional, and nobody has anything to do other than wait for two people to fall in love or defeat the bad guys.

In really bad movies and tv shows, they also includes the costars.

Let's look at a movie I just saw that has an interesting take on background characters: Thor.

Having just seen the movie, I'm still torn about whether or not it was a "good" movie. Did I walk away feeling like I got my seven dollars worth? Sure. It was certainly more value than the ten dollars I spent on nachos-minus-cheese and some Junior Mints. Was it fun? In its way, yes. Would I have done some things differently? Yes, and almost all of it involves the backup characters. I'm ignoring Thor because, really, what do you need from his character? Big guy, blond hair, hits things with a hammer, learns humility. It's not complex.

Spoilers follow, but I'll try to keep them as minimal as possible.

(When it comes to SHIELD, I think less is more. Having them around wasn't really necessary to the story, and seemed to just be a way of waving a banner saying 'COMING SOON! THE AVENGERS!')

Let's start with the biggest backup character: Dr. Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman. Now, I've never been the biggest fan of Natalie Portman, but that's possibly just hard feelings from the new Star Wars episodes. To be fair, she isn't a bad actress, but here the character And I'll admit, I'm puzzled why the felt the need to take a character who was an actual nurse-later-doctor and turn her into a physicist. How hard would it have been to write the script so she plays the doctor who initially treats Thor after his arrival? You want her to be upset at the "big, bad government" then have them be the people who take her medical records, not her science notes.

Honestly, watching the movie, the romance felt tacked on, and maybe that's what's bothering me about her character. I will admit that these are attractive actors playing attractive people (okay, an attractive person and a god), but Foster fell for Thor pretty quickly in my humble opinion.

Imagine the following scenario instead:

What if, instead of Thor becoming the fixture of Jane Foster's world, we swap it around. This is his guide in this world to educate him not just on location, but culture. He needs Jane a lot more than Jane needs him. Jane tolerates him because a) she feels a strange sense of responsibility for this giant galoot who follows her around, and b) somewhere under that barbaric behavior she keeps spying hints of the nobility and romanticism underneath. Thor always speaks kindly and gently to children and women, he appreciates the majesty of a thunderstorm even if he needs to be dragged inside to watch from a window, and the things from our world unknown to him (medicine, art, nature) he takes in like a child, amazed at the wonders "mortals" have achieved. Then, once Thor reclaims his power and glory and she's able to see him in all his majesty, then you have her start to admit to herself she has a crush on the big guy, NOT when he's still in the running for "most likely to find a way to dent his head in a padded cell."

But, there should be distance. He's a god, she's a mortal. He's amongst the bravest, most beautiful women in existence who do more wonders in a day than most people in a lifetime, she's a struggling doctor who shares a living space with her friend and occasionally mismatches her socks. There should be some play on just how different these two are. Look at the Lord of the Rings movies, for example, when they discuss how, even though he'll likely live a very long time, Aragorn is going to be old and wrinkled before Arwen has a single wrinkle. That should probably come up considering Odin was fighting frost giants before our calendar even reached A.D.

Let's look at the other background characters. How about the Warriors Three and Lady Sif?

Was it just me, or once they arrived on Earth did they go from being the noblest, mightiest warriors of the Asgardian realms to a college guy's frat buddies and the hot chick they hang out with? The scene with them knocking on the glass exclaiming they found Thor perplexed me. Of course you found him, you walked in a straight line from Point A to Point B and there he was. Did they have a Thor-detecting compass? Did their GPS (God Positioning System) tell them Thor was "five miles west, make a left at the 7-11?" Wouldn't they have been drawn to the hammer, since it was significantly more godly than Thor was at that point? Wouldn't a fun scene have been them trying to ask directions?

And did it bother anybody else that they made the actor playing Fandral look so much like Cary Elwes without letting him just be played by Cary Elwes?

Seriously, I kept expecting him to say "as you wish" or inform a frost giant that "unlike some other Norse gods, he can speak in a Scandinavian accent."

These characters did their job well, though I would have liked to have seen more of their involvement in Thor's childhood. Build up just how strong a friendship he has with the four who are apparently the only other Asgardians significant enough to live in the palace and go on adventures. Do they live in the palace because of their might as warriors, or is it actually the suburbs and Sif just has three of the strangest roommates of all time? (Note to self, pitch sitcom idea as "Asgard Meets How I Met Your Mother." We'll call it "Third Rock From The Aesir" or "How I Met Your Mjollnir.")

Then there's Big Daddy Odin and Loki. God bless you, Anthony Hopkins, you were overacting like every day was meant for the blooper reel, but from you we believe it. Loki...I don't know what to make of you. You're the god of lies and mischief, but it honestly felt that Obadiah Stane did a better job pulling the puppet strings in "Iron Man" than you did here. And he was played by "The Dude." I got a lot of your character, but you were...inconsistent. Were you really just having fun when you disrupted Thor's "big day" by letting the frost giants in, or was it part of your bigger plan? You didn't learn the big secret of your past until later, so maybe some character development where we show you getting overlooked in the past would've been nice, let us see where that resentment came from.

Then there was Darcy, Jane Foster's best friend. At least Dr. Selvig knew people who knew people at SHIELD and was a good point man to send to retrieve Thor.'re going to be joining the ranks of Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl, Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd, Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element, and Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2 as one of the characters that I honestly didn't see why you had to be included. If anything, having a roommate or "best friend" that only pops up now and again would add to why Jane keeps Thor around since she's undoubtedly lonely. Instead, we get a character who seems designed to just spout the most obnoxious lines in the movies and make us really start to root for the Destroyer armor.

But as I said before, it's not just background characters but also the backgrounds that are key to making a movie good. I was disappointed early on when we had the huge, sweeping view of Asgard, and at the bottom of the screen, where the streets were, I kept seeing either tiny CG people standing around or really bizarrely shaped shrubberies. Besides Thor, Odin, the Three, Sif, Loki, and Rene Russo, the only other people who show up in Asgard proper (I'm not counting Heimdall since the dude never takes a coffee break. Honestly, he's the one background character I had no problems with whatsoever.) arrive to hear Odin give a speech and then are never seen again. What do these people do all day? Who tends to gardens, builds the fascinating archetcture, or cleans the floors? Are they all gods and the magic of the realm does that itself, or are some "gods" just more godly than others? I want to see a populated Asgard, not just keep hearing the character in Monty Python say "It's only a model" any time I get a glimpse of the city.

However, there were details I picked up that I really did enjoy, though you have to be a comic book fan to pick them up. In Odin's vault I spied multiple artifacts from the comics, including a rather familiar...well, let's call it a "gauntlet" with six...let's call them "gems" placed in it. If only those frost giants knew what they had walked past.

As for the city in New Mexico...fine, I'll buy that somehow the rainbow bridge moved from Scandinavia (you know, where the people that worshipped Asgardians lived) to the southwest United States. I'll even buy that it doesn't land in the same spot each time (look out, California, it seems to be drifing northwest). But the city itself seemed to be misplaced as well. Maybe it was just me, but I didn't notice a lot of Hispanics in the city. And the people trying to pull the hammer out of the ground seemed like they belonged in The Dukes of Hazzard, not Thor. The city felt like just another backdrop.

Oh yeah, and the Hawkeye cameo? Wow, was that pointless. "Look, he's got a bow! He might fire it! He says something snarky! He never fires an arrow! Look for him in The Avengers!" If it weren't for the fact that I'm a card-carrying member of the Clint Barton Fan Club (Member number 00000243, get a 10% discount when you show your card at the Carson Carnival of Traveling Wonders), I'd wonder "Who is that guy? Why is he here? He's undoubtedly awesome, why couldn't he be Jane's friend instead of Darcy?" ...okay, maybe I was wondering the last part anyway.

If I had to grade Thor as a movie, I'd probably give it a high C+ or a low B-. It was fairly average, nothing about it really leaped out at me as spectacular. But as for the background material...I'd still give it a C. It had some fun eye candy for the comic book fans, but a lot just felt like filler when it could've been so much more.

If they ever do make a sequel to this, I'd love to see actual background characters who are recognizable, even if they just walk through a scene. The X-Men movies did this really well (well, the first two did), and Thor could benefit as well. Toss in a montage of Thor fighting various things like lava men, Ulik, or Fafnir.

Honestly, if they had just tossed in one scene during the ending credits where one of the planets in space looked like this:

...the movie would've gotten an A++. God bless you, Ego, you ridiculous bastard.

(Issues I didn't talk about: time line issues between Asgard and human mythology, the obvious deleted scene where Thor and Dr. Selvig get into their "bar fight," Loki's reputation as God of Lies when everybody believes everything he says, and the fact that Heimdall was black, but who really cares about the last one? If you're upset that Heimdall was black, you really need to get out more.)