Thursday, May 26, 2011

Top 5 Things I Like and Top 4 Things I Hate About X-Men: First Class

So X-Men: First Class is finally coming out. It feels like it was just yesterday that I was watching this film come together. Conversely, it seems like an eternity that I've been dreading it.

In all honesty, I'm conflicted. It's almost as if it were worse, it would be better, but because it has the potential to be really good, all I'm going to see is wasted potential. At least with the Catwoman movie (one of the few comic movies I haven't seen), you could tell just by seeing her in the costume that it would suck.

Now, none of my friends are X-Men fans like I am, so they are very excited by the trailers, which in all fairness are excellent, but I'm still not sold and I have good reasons for this. So without further ado, these are the top five things I like and the top four things I loath before ever having seen the film.


Set in the sixties

I think the idea of setting a comic movie as a period piece is an awesome idea, particularly if that period is the same period when the characters debuted. X-Men #1 came out in September 1963. If the film starts at that precise time, I'll get a giddy little thrill out of it (based on this image, I guess not... but so close!). More than that, I hope it references to the context of the time more than the actual comics ever did. The comics were written by old men who were writing fairly conservatively because of the comics code and aiming at a prepubescent audience, so it never really explored the Vietnam War, civil rights, or the hippy movement in the way this movie could. Hopefully they'll do this effectively and not just with a few forced jokes that fall flat.


As a fan, I'm glad they have the Blackbird and I'm glad that it looks just the way it does in the comics. I guess they had this in the previous movies, so it shouldn't come as any surprise, but it would be easy for them to throw on another fin, give it a paint job, add bright neon lights and other things to make a more marketable toy. Thank god this isn't being directed by George Lucas...

Xavier & Magneto together

One of the most compelling things about the X-Men is the relationship between Xavier and Magneto. They are both larger than life, heroic men passionately dedicated to the future and protecting those, like themselves, who have been unfairly discriminated against. Yet while Xavier favors education, patience, and tolerance, Magneto favors decisive action, demanding change... The thing is that neither of them are wrong. In fact, I have a close friend who could very well be the Magneto to my Xavier, if we were in similar circumstance. I'm glad that the movie will be exploring this, although based on the previews I've seen, I expect to be disappointed. More on that later...

The Hellfire Club

The X-Men universe is one of the most expansive franchises of all time, right up there with Star Wars and Star Trek. So far, the movies have done a poor job reflecting this, but in this film, they are introducing The Hellfire Club. This organization gets their name from a true historical society dating back to the foundation of our country and an earlier with history in England, Ireland, and the United States. They are just another society for rich hedonists where they scoff at conventional morality (or in fact, any morality) with quasi-satanic rituals and self-indulgence. They are pretty much the same in the comics, but they also plot to expand their power, often by inviting or coercing mutants. Where Xavier and Magneto represent two sides of a moral dilemma, the Hellfire Club represent complete selfishness and social Darwinism. I'm curious to see where they take that...


It's also nice that my favorite X-Man will be in this film, played by a young person rather than the stuffy Kelsey Grammar. They are including the pre-fur version of the Beast with his creepy hand-feet and that's just wonderful. Unfortunately, they are also including his transformation into the furry version of the character... which seems like they might be trying to do too much. I'm also not convinced they got the character right, as the Beast I came to know and love is much more jovial and exuberant.


The rest of the X-Men cast

When I heard that they were doing X-Men: First Class, I got excited that this might be a somewhat faithful interpretation of the original X-Men, since that is what the comic, X-Men: First Class, was about. This would mean seeing Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast, and Angel. When I found out that Magneto would be working with Xavier, I had hopes that his children, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, would be involved. Instead, we get the most hodge-podge lineup of second and third stringers I have ever seen.

Aside from Beast, we have a young Mystique, Banshee, Havok, Darwin, and Angel (who is not the classic Angel, but a new version of the character who barely was in the comics). Since this is most definitely a prequel to the previous movies, I will guess that Havok has been recast as Cyclops' father rather than his brother. While these are all characters from the comics, two of them are incredibly new and not even remotely popular while the others are... again, second string. Will Banshee join Magneto? Do I care?


Speaking of unpopular characters who were forced into this film, let's talk about Azazel. Azazel appeared in the seven issue storyarc called The Draco and he has not appeared again since. This story was written by the "winner" of my worst X-Men writer ever award and he won largely based on this particular story. In the comics, it has long been established that Nightcrawler's mother is Mystique. Although ignored in X2, this will likely be established in X-Men: First Class. Originally, Mystique had sex with a random German lord and when she gave birth to a deformed mutant baby, she had to flee and abandon the boy to be raised by gypsies. In "The Draco," Nightcrawler meets his real father, Azazel, a demonic mutant who has lived since biblical times and is confused with the actual devil because he acts like it. The story was so despised that no one has ever mentioned it again... until this movie.

Professor X has hair

In the comic books, Professor Xavier's hair started falling out at puberty when his powers developed as though the power of his mind was killing his hair follicles. I always liked this idea because it reinforced that mutants aren't just gifted with powers, they often come at the cost of being a social outcast. Sure, early male pattern baldness doesn't seem that traumatic nowadays with kids shaving their heads intentionally, but for a twelve year old in a New England boarding school in the 1940s or 1950s, it would be hell. It seems like a small thing, but I'm mystified that they would change it and I'd really like to know why. Did Professor Xavier have to look younger? Did he have to look sexier? I don't understand...

Magneto still seems too one-sided

Although this is supposed to be a movie about seeing the relationship between Xavier and Magneto develop and fall apart, I can't help but feel that what we are going to get is... well, you remember the Star Wars prequels? You remember how they kept having moments when you would see Anakin act whiny or selfish or angry and it was supposed to be like a flash of evil... like a glimpse into his destiny as Darth Vader? It set this tone that Anakin could have been good, but he had evil DNA.

Hollywood, I know you want me to subscribe to this idea of absolute good and evil... but I have a brain. I think about things. I also have compassion and I'm open-minded enough to realize that when someone disagrees with me... they probably aren't evil, but they look at things in a different way. For example, I see homosexuality as diversity which enriches our lives while others see it as a weakness and a perversion of the natural order of things. I'm not right and they aren't wrong; it is just a different viewpoint. These viewpoints are somewhat incompatible and cause us to fight in a public forum over specific issues like gay marriage and why it should or should not be recognized.

Magneto shouldn't be evil. He isn't Doctor Doom or Lex Luthor or the Joker. He's a divisive figure representing an extreme and frightening ideology, but he isn't wrong. The tragedy of Magneto is that his vision is incompatible with Xavier's. They are both men of conscience and conviction who passionately care about making the world a better place, but they disagree about how to do that and it is their methods, not their goals, which are ultimately incompatible. It is the age old battle between idealistic pacifism and pragmatic militarism... and the line between them is razor thin. The tragedy is that they are so close to being friends and allies, but just different enough to be mortal enemies. If you paint Magneto as a stock villain, you will lose all of that tension... as they did in the previous X-Men films.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Top 11 Dream Assignments

I can't help it. Try though I might to be an independent writer with my own creations and maintaining some sort of dignity, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I'd write other people's comic books, usually Marvel or DC. Often it isn't even characters I like or read. They are often comics I would avoid, but that's part of the challenge.

Like they say in theater, there are no small parts, only small actors. Writers have a similar expression. There are no bad characters, only bad interpretations. From the right angle, almost anything is interesting.

So without further ado... here are my top eleven dream assignments, in no particular order. Why eleven? Because I had one more than ten.

Superman: The Early Years

This is a concept I'm working on right now. This is about Clark Kent's first days in Metropolis. It's about moving from a small, happy town where everyone knew everyone to the big, exciting city where no one knows anyone. It is before Clark learns how to fly, before he knows he's an alien, before the costume.

This is a story where I hope to illustrate that Superman aren't two different personas, but the same person seen through different circumstances. When he is saving a bus full of people, it is easy for him to look heroic. The powers make this easy for him. When he is interviewing for a job or trying to help someone with relationship problems, he is very weak and ineffectual... or at least he feels that way, and acts that way... and hence people under estimate him, especially Lois. When she enters a room, everyone shuts up; when Clark enters a room, no one notices.

I also want to play up the idea that Superman is a great person simply because he cares about the people around him and has such small town values. He won't let the big, intimidating city desensitize and dehumanize him. He will obstinately behave as though he were still in a small town, introducing himself to everyone he meets by name and becoming genuinely interested in their problems.

Too often Superman is portrayed as saintly or Christ-ly while Clark Kent is portrayed as a clownish disguise, but I want to try to make both of them more human and relateable. Try to appeal to our better nature.

X-Men: Chapter One

Another concept going back to the original days. Again, I want to draw out the original themes of the X-Men with a focus on characterization. If you read the original comics, it is easy to miss the strongest elements of the story due to a lot of hackneyed writing (sorry, Stan. Much love).

I'd like to focus on the relationships of the characters, particularly how Scott became the leader of the X-Men and the original love triangle between Scott, Jean, and Warren. This love triangle is often forgotten due to the more popular Scott/Jean/Logan love triangle, but I think the symbolism is brilliant. Scott is self-repressed and has poor self-esteem, conflicted by his desire for love and his fear that he will destroy it. Jean's telekinesis manifests almost like a poltergeist symbolizing her own insecurities and an unwillingness to accept her own power. When presented with an actual angel (who is also rich and beautiful), she leaps into a relationship, but soon questions if that is actually what she wants. Warren, on the other hand, simply wants the best and most beautiful, but this too is wrapped up in his own insecurity and the feeling that he must prove himself to his father.

Although I'd like to do a faithful interpretation of the original comics, I would like to add a few more characters, particularly Moira MacTaggert as a foil for Xavier and female role model as well as Storm, since it might be fun to see her character before she grows into adulthood. I'd like to retell classic tales like the first meeting with the Brotherhood of Mutants, the discovery of the Savage Land, and the invention of the Sentinels all as very contemporary science fiction stories.

Batman & Robin

If you read a Batman comic, you get the distinct impression that Bruce Wayne has no life. He seems to spend the majority of his time in the Batcave investigating crimes. Occasionally, he will attend a social function and play the part of the billionaire playboy, but like the clownish Clark Kent, it often feels like an act. I've often thought that if Bruce Wayne was serious about stopping crime, he would use his business empire rather than his fists. Money is the greatest superpower, after all.

This story would focus on the day-to-day lives of Bruce Wayne and Tim (Robin) Drake. In Bruce Wayne's story, we would find Bruce realizing that Wayne Industries does not have the sterling reputation he believed when he is forced to confront their history military weapons development, unethical drug testing, and sweatshop labor. As he struggles to reform the company's business practices, he starts to realize that he is being strategically attacked by an unknown enemy.

In Tim Drake's story, we follow his life in high school as he makes friends and begins to carve out his own territory in Gotham. He sets up the "Bird's Nest," his own treehouse version of the Batcave, hidden in a broadcasting tour. He falls for a charming, blind redhead destined to be a new Batgirl and fights off an invasion from an evil parallel version of himself. The goal would be to focus more on the relationships of the characters, their day-to-day life, and broad adventures rather than the brooding, serious crime dramas we normally get.

Fantastic Four

I have a strange fascination with the Fantastic Four. There are a couple marvelous characters, but mainly the tone is somewhere between Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch. It's incredibly white and incredibly wholesome. But despite this, the eccentric genius of Mr. Fantastic is extremely compelling as is his counterpoint in the friendly, grounded, but often brooding character of the Thing. Furthermore, you get the sense that the Fantastic Four is nothing but a private scientific research agency whose scientific accomplishments never amount to any actual change or progress.

When I look at the Fantastic Four, I see Reed Richards creating the kind of technology we see in Star Trek and I want to see the social progress that comes with it. In my Fantastic Four, the team would be refocused as a scientific institute for study, exploration, and most importantly development. I think they've gone a little more in this direction with the Future Foundation (see pic above), but I think this can be expanded dramatically.

The Fantastic Four would be less of a team and more of a brand name for academics, brainstorming, exploration, and practical scientific application. Rather than being the story of a small family unit exploring the cosmos, it would be the story of a small family unit running a complex, state of the art organization with hundreds of employees ranging from scientist and students to lawyers and military personnel... all of whom are not only exploring but colonizing the cosmos. Sue would run the business, Reed would head the think tank, Ben would command the troops, and Johnny... well, Johnny would finally have to face how directionless his life is.

The first story would be about building a gateway for intergalactic travel through the Negative Zone. Trouble abounds from monsters in that dimension and greedy investors who want to use the gateway for exploitative purposes.

Alpha Flight: Socializing Superheroes

I always found Alpha Flight to be a funny concept: Canada's Avengers (particularly because Canada has a much lower crime rate than the US). Or the nefarious government agency overseeing Alpha Flight, Department H, as if Canada could compare with the US when it comes to shadowy, invasive black ops.

The problems of Canada simply don't compare to the problems of the US... and that is all to their credit, yet it makes it difficult to take seriously when the US is so much more dangerous. But that alone is a very interesting idea. A team of superheroes, sponsored by a government without any militaristic or tyrannical intentions, overstaffed, marvelous benefits and very little in the way of actual threats to deal with. Sure, the problems may not be as epic, but they can be weird, twisted and personal. Because the team is government run, you can have a cast of dozens spread across the provinces and focus more on their interpersonal relationships.

I also think it would be fun to have a guest appearance by Spider-Man early on to make relentless Canadian jokes all while being unnerved by the general cleanliness and politeness of Toronto.

Wonder Woman

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an obsession with Wonder Woman. She's the most recognizable female superhero, extremely popular, but she has never had a quality comic. Her fans may disagree, but its hard to argue when there has never been a Wonder Woman comic that is anywhere near as popular as the character herself.

I've made some detailed descriptions of how I'd revamp Wonder Woman, but mostly what she needs is a secret identity to contrast her heroic personality, a city to call her own, a good supporting cast, and a villain makeover.

In my interpretation, Wonder Woman has her life redrawn by the mythic Greek Fates and is reborn as Diana Prince, a psychology professor at the University of Opal City. She has dreams of being Wonder Woman, but psychoanalyzes it as fantasy based on a perceived hopelessness about her job and life. She gradually realizes who she is, but both her Gods and her home are gone. Eventually, she realizes that there is a chance that all of them, like her, were reborn in another form and seeks to restore them. This would mythologize WW stories of the past so they would still be canon, but the story and all characters would be recast in a modern contemporary "wish fulfillment scenario."

Her supporting cast would be constructed from students, colleagues, and existing DC characters. Enemies and allies would also be reborn. The big villain of the series would be Vandal Savage, the immortal warlord, in the attempt to create a true arch-nemesis who contrasts Diana properly. The stories would largely revolve around gender, control, and alternative lifestyles, thereby playing into the prominent themes of the original stories and avoiding the familiar elements of Greek myth that (for me) weigh Wonder Woman down and make the comic less approachable.

Doctor Strange

Another character who has always interested me, but his stories have always disappointed. Marvel isn't very good at developing a cohesive magical world, at least not as good as DC. It is very hard to figure out what Dr. Strange can or cannot do, so you don't really get a sense of peril. He's also burdened by a bland, emotionally flat cast consisting of himself and his loyal manservant, Wong.

I'd like to add some depth to his story by making him a caretaker for all things magical, particularly people who have been adversely effected by magic. As a doctor, healing the sick and troubled should be his first priority, but with as serious a character as the good doctor, you have to have some characters who are more emotional to contrast with.

I would start by including new characters who have a vague relationship to magic who could benefit from Strange's help. First on this list is Scarlet Witch who was recently written to have unchecked magic potential without the wisdom to utilize it. This would be a good contrast to the always wise and controlled doctor. Next would be Juggernaut, a character whose magic-based powers have always been an awkward fit in the X-Men. Since Juggernaut receives his powers from Cyttorak and Dr. Strange is often evoking the same source, he may be able to provide help that Professor Xavier never could. Finally, I would also want to add Hawkeye, since his bow-wielding skills would be much better suited to the fantasy environment, and his brash attitude would also be a necessary contrast to the doctor.

The story would center largely over Strange's attempt to expand his services to those in need as well as a search for his lost child by his wife, Clea.


Although I am not an Avengers fan, I'm attracted to the idea of writing for the best of the best. The problem I've always had with the Avengers is that their roster has always seemed awkward and their threats are usually hackneyed superhero fair. Just another megalomaniac, alien, or vague entity...

My Avengers would incorporate classic elements with the Invaders (the original Marvel superhero team) and new members, characters who deserve wider recognition and fit within the team dynamic. This would include Captain America, Iron Man, Namor, Human Torch, Black Panther, Vision, Storm, Scarlet Witch, Longshot, and Valkyrie.

The story would focus largely around Doctor Doom forming an alliance with other nations to bring about a third world war. His first target is the Avengers and he hits their every weak spot, targeting them individually and dividing them by their separate interests, and by placing a spy in their roster to hit them at their weakest.

Another story would be about the robot Vision evolving beyond a simple machine, detaching from biological concepts like gender, and becoming akin to a technological Hindu god. As he finds other AI striving for their own sense of identity, he becomes a reluctant messiah figure only to find his counterpart in his "father," Ultron, as he seeks to conquer the world for AI. This would lead directly into my next idea.

X-Men: The Third Race

With the X-Men, I often think about how I would write two books at once, since there are far more X-Men characters than one book can handle. This title would focus on the X-Men in San Francisco as a mutant rights and relations agency. The team would consist of Cyclops, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Sentinel Omega, Emma Frost, and Multiple Man.

The first story revolves around a set of terrorist bombings committed by robots disguised as people. While tracking down the culprits, the X-Men find that there is a revolution taking place by AI which is objecting to the way they are being used - usually for military, dangerous labor, or even sexual purposes. The X-Men have to decide whether to support or stop this revolution. This becomes complicated when they realize that there are Sentinels who have joined the movement. Eventually, this revolution becomes their own race of sorts and which conflicts with mutants as both races are poised to usurp the planet from the human race.

Uncanny X-Men: The New School

The other X-Men title I'd like to write is a throwback to the original idea of the X-Men as a school. We've seen enough of Xavier running the school, Cyclops and Emma Frost were no good at it, so I'd like to see a new headmaster and headmistress. My choice would be Storm and Beast. Storm has the evolved sensibilities and wisdom that made Xavier so effective while Beast has intellect and humor well suited to the job. Add to them the combination of Kitty Pryde and Colossus as student advisers and you have a team of classic members comprising an actual school.

As for the students themselves, you would need a class that actually feels deserving of the X-Men title, so I would go with a few new creations and a couple members from previous classes like X-23, Hellion, Penance, Pixie, Surge, Mercury, Petra, or Prodigy. I'd like to create a new telepath character for this series, since telepaths seem to be a necessary part of the X-Men.

For the story, I'd like to focus on recreating a classic feel but without relying on overexposed villains, so the first story arc would focus on the character who took Professor Xavier's legs coming back to destroy his dream.

WildStorm Revival

Finally, the last major property I would like to work on is the WildStorm line currently owned by DC. This was my favorite comic franchise before DC drove it into the ground and I would love to have a chance to streamline it with a series of interlocking stories introducing the history of the world.

The story would begin with two alien races, the Kherubim and Daemonites, crashing to Earth thousands of years ago and continuing their war on our isolated planet. Although they wage their war largely in secret, the manipulations of the alien races alters the natural development of our species. Through civilization, war, and religion, the human race become unknowing pawns in an alien conflict. We follow a lone Kherubim warrior, Zannah, as she fights the war through the millennia, often creating or destroying empires in her hubris. For this reason, she deservingly earns the nickname "Zealot."

The Kherubim/Daemonite war comes to the forefront during World War II when advances in communication, record keeping, and intelligence reveal the Daemonite influence on the Third Reich. In response, the Allied forces form their own team of superhuman operatives including Jenny Sparks (the foul-mouthed Brit with powers of electricity), Marc Slayton (an assassin who can disappear in a puff of smoke), and John Colt (a genetically engineered soldier based on a long-dead Kherubim warrior).

Flash forward the 1970s, an Kherubim scout probe bonds to a Russian cosmonaut over Earth's atmosphere and lands in war-torn Cambodia. The event is referred to as a "wild storm" due to the cosmic energy fluctuations in the atmosphere. The American black ops company known as International Operations send their foremost wetworks group, Team 7, to investigate. They are the best soldiers the nation has to offer and they are only used in the worst circumstance. Upon retrieving the woman/probe, they find themselves gifted by incredible telepathic powers, driving many insane, and causing the others to question their loyalties.

In the late 80s, children who were in utero during the "wild storm" are born with powers, most of which do not manifest outside of extreme stress. These potentials are found and recruited by the United Nation's StormWatch program, enlisted to deal with superhuman phenomena. They are this world's premiere superhuman response team.

In the late nineties, the hidden children of Team 7 are found and recruited by International Operation and enlisted in the Gen13 program to find out how their parent's exposure has manifested in them. This leads to the rescue of the alien probe called Void.

Uniting with the remaining Kherubim on Earth, Void prepares for the coming of the Kherubim which they quickly realize is not the beginning of a renaissance, but possibly the beginning of an invasion.

The idea would be to streamline WildStorm continuity to include storylines that were previously in continuity while creating a fresh jumping point for original content. Ideally, I'd want this series to continue in real time (e.g. characters age a year for every year of publication), but of course, this decision would not be up to me.

So that's it! Of course, there are other ideas I've had for stories, but these are the big ones. There are actually fewer than I thought and I think this exercise has helped me focus my ambitions a bit. Next, I'll do rough outlines of all of the original projects I would still like to work on. Until then, your comments and criticism are always welcome.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to develop video games with evolutionary potential

I just watched this brilliant video which discusses how new distribution methods are encouraging third-party development and innovation. It made me start thinking about two relatively recent games and how they went from inexpensive cult classics to groundbreaking A-list games.

The two games in question are Grand Theft Auto and Fallout. Not to sound like a hipster, but I played both of these games before they made it big with their big budget, high-graphics third installments. I never really got into them, but I definitely saw the appeal.

Both games have a very unique and specific setting. In GTA, you played the role of an amoral criminal accepting odd jobs from similarly immoral people in a fairly real (although comically exaggerated) environment. Although this sounds fairly conventional today, when I was in high school, this was extremely unique and edgy. In Fallout, the environment was post-Apocalyptic and you were forced to negotiate with strangers in a very realistic way for goods, although you could choose whether this was done by barter or force.

To get to the point, I think the reason why these games succeeded as well as they did when they became high-budget platform games is because the game mechanics were so strong in the originals. In GTA, they seemlessly integrated driving, running, shooting, storytelling, and map exploration to bring you a truly immersive experience. It is rare that any game does even two of those things well. In Fallout, they had a compelling environment which we can all relate to. What would you do to survive in the post-Apocalypse? And by limiting your resources, expanding your skill set, and varying the number of ways you can interact with NPCs, they gave you an open-ended gaming experience where you can truly craft your own story.

In short, if you can make a really well-designed game with a low budget and simple graphics, you have a much better chance of creating a groundbreaking game when you are fortunate enough to get commercial backing. But if you have the budget from the start, you might spend so much time trying to make the graphics good or adding a silly gimmick that you may forget the essential, simple elements necessary to really become absorbed in a good game.