Monday, October 30, 2006

The Foolishness of Ignoring the Inevitable

It's astonishing how tenaciously people resist change, even when it's quantifiably better for them. This point is illustrated quite vividly in Who Killed the Electric Car? a documentary directed by Chris Paine and produced by uber-producer Dean Devlin (Godzilla, Independence Day).

The film begins with a "funeral" staged by several activists who are mourning the decommissioning of EV1, an electric car developed by General Motors in compliance with a 1990 California State Mandate requiring car manufacturers to make 3% of their entire line emission-free or be disallowed from selling their cars in that state.

From the funeral, the film backtracks to how the EV1 was "born" by narrating the passing of the legislation, and the efforts of General Motors in particular both to comply with and to combat the California law. Essentially, the narrative of the film is structured around this singular thread, from the development of the car, to the apparently unanimously positive reception it received from those allowed to lease and drive, but not own, it, to the responses of other car companies in both America and Japan to this initiative.

The film's second act, which is rather well-woven into the first, narrates how several powers that be, namely the American Car Manufacturers, the Oil Companies, and the Bush Administration, conspired to put the electric car into the ground, manipulating statistics and essentially putting the full-court press on the California Air Regulations Board. It also slams, although not nearly enough, in my opinion, the public for its failure to support the move to switch to electric cars.

The film essentially wraps up with an indictment of all of those responsible, car makers, oil companies, Bush and his lackeys, and the American consumer, for killing the electric car, in particular the GM EV1, which, not long after the California State government relented and drastically altered the mandate to suit the needs of the car makers, was recalled from all of lessees and ignominiously destroyed.

Insofar as it describes the oil barons, the car makers, and the Bush government as devils incarnate, the film didn't tell me anything I already knew, but I was shocked to find how little support the EV garnerned from American consumers considering escalating gas prices. By 2003, I"m sure the price of oil was already spiralling out of control. I find it truly strange that only lobbyists saw fit to champion the electric car.

This is a film similar in importance to Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11, but fortunately, without Moore's decidedly more strident tone (and a much better narrator in Martin Sheen). It's got a couple of gaps in the narrative, however, that may inadvertently hurt its chances of convincing people who don't already espouse what it's pushing. For example, the supposition that Bush gave people tax breaks to people just to buy SUVs may sound like a pretty rational line of thinking to someone like me, but if I were a gas-guzzling, parochial thinking, right-wing American who only has the vaguest idea of how finite the oil supply actually is, I'd want something a little less conjectural and a little more complete.

But the most important aspect of the film is how it brings home the fact that the technology for viable electric cars is not ten or twenty years away; it is here, and because of a combination of greed, apathy and ignorance, or whatever the real reasons are, it's been shoved aside in favor of...the Hummer. We don't have to wait another fifty years for a viable electric car; we don't have to wait until the oil supply runs out. Electric-powered cars are a things of today, and with companies like Tesla producing sports cars that generate 240 horsepower, are here to stay as well.

Consumers in America and the world over therefore have a choice, to continue to burn up the world's oil reserves, even going to the extent of drilling in wildlife preserves, or simply make the inevitable paradigm shift TODAY and go electric. It's actually comforting to know that at the time the electric car was killed, gas prices hadn't increased exponentially just yet. Maybe now people will start paying attention.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Evolution of Image Comics

This week, DC Comics relaunches, yet again, Jim Lee's WildC.A.T.s, this time with Lee himself on pencils and comics auteur Grant Morrison doing the writing chores. Judging by the previews, it seems to be a "back to its roots" approach to the characters, who look very much like they did when they first burst onto the scene in 1992. It seems Jim keeps wanting to return to that period in his life, when he was riding high on his success from Marvel's X-Men and hoping to channel all of that popularity into his own creations, essentially a bunch of thinly-disguised X-Men clones.

He seems to forget that the reason why he and his cohorts at Wildstorm have had to reinvent WildC.A.T.s (who at one point became the Wildcats) several times over was that people just didn't take to his characters and their convoluted space-opera storylines. He seems to forget that not even Alan Moore could elevate his creations past the copycat X-Men they really were. Look, I can even name the Marvel Comics analogues for several of the prinicipal characters:

Spartan-Cyclops (hell, Jim probably didn't think Scott was much more than a robot, anyway)
Zealot-Psylocke/Elektra (any other girl in a skimpy ninja/Hand outfit)
Grifter-Gambit meets Wolverine
John Lynch-Nick Fury

I hardly think that Morrison will succeed where Moore failed.

What's sad about this particular development is that it feels like a huge step backward from what has essentially been a very healthy, steady evolution of the Image Comics line. Granted, he is no longer part of them but of the DC Universe, but no one can deny him his role in kick starting the biggest challenge Marvel and DC have ever faced to their chokehold on the market.

What started out as six Marvel Comics artists essentially wanting to flex their own creative muscles and cash in on their massive popularity has become a truly diverse repository of talents and stories.

Although a lot of the original Image characters were ripoffs of the Marvel characters on whom the Image founders had made their names (Spawn, for example, owes his origin to Ghost Rider and the nature of his costume, a 'neural parasite' to Spider-Man's symbiote), they had the right philosophy, which was essentially to give struggling creators a venue to publish their own creations, and as a result some remarkably talented people have come to light whose work may not have seen the light of day otherwise. Marvel, who now depends largely on the talents of Brian Michael Bendis, owe a good part of their current success to the Image philosophy.

The bad news for Image is that as a company, they're no longer the market force they used to be, with Spawn, their top selling title, lingering near the bottom of the Top 100 list of comic books every month. The good news, however, is that they aren't really driven by these numbers, and as a result they are still able to put out some quality, offbeat books every month that aren't tied into the latest 52nd Infinite Civil Annihilation. Books like Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, the Luna Brothers' Girls, and other non-superhero fare are still around for whoever wants to buy them.

Image Comics, by coming when they did, truly revitalized the comic book industry. I remember the mid-nineties crash was loaded with more terrible books with variant/foil/embossed/die-cut covers than an average collector could shake a stick at. Marvel had gone incestuous (as Joe Quesada put it), giving choice writing gigs to its editorial staff instead of searching for new talent, and as a result coming up with extremely mediocre stories, and DC was, well, killing Superman or maiming Batman.

Image managed to put the emphasis back on the importance of creators. While it's nice to see talented new creators working on established characters like Spider-Man or Batman, it can be just as rewarding to see them come up with their own creations, which are that much more gratifying to read than the Marvel/DC character knockoffs that first populated the Image line of comics. Thanks to Image, now Marvel knows how to take much better care of its creative stable; it created the Icon line as a way to sweeten the pot for its existing superstars, who supposedly make all the money off their creator-owned books. Incidentally, none of the books in the Icon line feature superheroes as their main characters. All in the spirit of Image, really.

Given the sophistication which Image has achieved with its output, and its obvious influence on market juggernaut Marvel, it's sad to see one of the founding fathers of Image still preoccupied , after all these years, with pushing his pasteboard X-Men knockoffs.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Looking Ahead for Comic Book Movies

The quality of comic book based movies, just like their source material, seems to rise and fall in cycles. After the first couple of pretty good Superman movies came stinkers, just as after the first couple of good Batman movies came stinkers, after which the franchises were revived (sort of, in the case of Superman) with their fifth installments.

The Marvel stable seems to be going through the second phase of that cycle, with a succession of disappointments such as Blade: Trinity, Elektra, Fantastic Four, and X-Men 3. Sure, the last two of those movies may have made Marvel and 20th Century Fox a bundle of money, but on the whole they just do not approach the level of quality or craftsmanship achieved with the first two X-Men and Spider-Man movies. The real pitfall of these movies is that they really felt like commodities churned out just to make sure that Marvel had movies lined up for the respective years of their release.

DC/Warner Brothers, on the other hand, is in the renaissance phase, and it's thanks in no small part to the rise of Marvel movies. In Entertainment Weekly, a Time-Warner owned publication, no less than the Warner Brothers head honchos admitted that they were trying to make their superheroes "more relatable" just like their Marvel counterparts. The results were a truly revitalized Batman franchise, kicked off by the wonderfully-textured Batman Begins, a flawed but nonetheless solidly crafted Superman sequel and a highly stylized and enjoyable V for Vendetta. These films, as were the earlier Marvel films that "inspired" them, are proof positive that the best creative decisions are made by the filmmakers, and not the schmucks in the suits like Fox's Tom Rothman.

The next wave of Marvel movies, however, also seems to suggest that they might be onto the third cycle soon. The third Spider-Man movie looks, technically at least, leaps and bounds better than the second, just as the second was that much better than the first. This is in no small part due to the fact that this film is clearly a labor of love, and all concerned, from Sony Pictures to the folks at Marvel, are taking their sweet time in getting this baby ready for theaters, unlike the idiots at Fox who cobbled together X-Men 3 in the blink of an eye even after all their production snafus, apparently just to spite Bryan Singer.

Another film that looks like it's being carefully prepped, oddly enough, is Ghost Rider, which, while also a Sony/Columbia project, is being helmed by Mark Steven Johnson, whose Daredevil left something to be desired (although I've come to understand that Fox chopped off whole sections of the story to get in a shorter running time, hence its incoherence). This film was moved back seven full months, even though prinicipal photography had long been completed, so that Sony could work on the effects shots. That's commitment to making a spectacular movie.

Finally, Paramount/Marvel's Iron Man seems quite promising, given the pedigree of two of its stars so far, Academy Award Nominee Robert Downey, Jr. (Chaplin) as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Academy Award Nominee Terrance Howard (Crash) as James Rhodes. In addition, this film has the distinction of being the first comic book movie where the filmmaker, in this case director Jon Favreau, actively seeks the input of the fans instead of second-guessing them based on his own preferences. Granted, a lot of fanboys are retards who wouldn't know good filmmaking if it kicked them in the nuts (like the asswipe who called Meryl Streep's acting wooden out of frustration over the fact that The Devil Wears Prada really hurt Superman Returns' opening weekend), but it's very promising to see that the filmmaker's starting point is the core audience.

The next two years look to be good ones for comic book movies in general, with these three films, a very interesting Batman sequel, and a film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust all in the pipeline. If there's any observation I can make, it's that the presence of both Marvel and DC franchises, as well as other characters, in the film market helps ensure better quality overall when the makers of these movies try constantly to outdo each other, and learn from one another's mistakes and successes. After all, X-Men couldn't have been made without Superman, but on the flipside, Superman Returns wouldn't have been made if Bryan Singer hadn't cut his teeth on X-Men.

All told, this competition is bound to be healthy, and the ultimate winners are going to be the moviegoing public in general.

Monday, October 02, 2006

On Billboards and Overdoing It

The thing about human beings, and Filipino billboard owners in particular, is that we never seem to be able to do anything in moderation. Things have to be done in superlatives, or to put it more succinctly, extremes.

I'm actually a fan of billboards, to an extent. I like seeing really cool movie posters up on the sides of buildings, larger than life. Maybe they're dangerous and should be taken down, and that's fine, but I won't pretend that they aren't easy on the eyes, as are the ads of a scantily-clad Bianca King.

But the makers of billboards aren't really concerned with giving commuters and motorists particularly pleasant images, only with occupying as large a field of vision as they possibly can. Check out the obscenely large billboard on Guadalupe.

I was actually a fan of the first casualty of the billboard collapses; the Amanda Griffin billboard which crashed onto the Boni MRT station, which fell all by itself, without the benefit of a typhoon.
That alone should have started the inquiries and the MMDA ball rolling, but as usual, they needed the traditional kick in the pants, which 'Milenyo' certainly provided.

Billboards don't have to the be the bane of EDSA that they have been branded as, but because some people just can't have enough money, an entire industry is quite literally being dismantled. I'm not exactly mourning their loss, but I really can't help but shake my head at the thought that things simply didn't have to happen this way.

Some billboards can actually be a pleasant distraction when you're crawling through EDSA traffic at around six thirty or seven in the evening. I'd be the last person to complain about a fifteen foot long Francine Prieto staring lustfully at me and every other motorist grumbling through traffic, but I'm not crazy about having her crush me underneath tons of canvas and steel.

I confess that without billboards, EDSA will seem a tad drearier, but the owners of these metal monstrosities only have themselves to blame, really.