Monday, November 16, 2015

Jupiter's Legacy: Its real legacy will probably be a not-very-good movie

Jupiter's Legacy, Volume 1
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Frank Quitely
Published by Image Comics

You never know what you're going to get with Mark Millar comics. Actually, that's not true. You can usually guarantee that you'll get something "edgy", characters speaking "cool" dialogue, some concepts that seem new and exciting until you realize that they're mostly just tropes recycled from other, better creators and given the ol' modern Millar take (preferably pared down to something that will be easily adapted into a movie), and, if you're lucky, some pretty good superhero action. So why bother with his latest tiresome thing? In this case, his co-creator makes it worth a look. You can always expect Frank Quitely to deliver great artwork, and this is no exception. He makes the action and character interplay here work really well, enough so that you almost forget about the empty shell of a story that Millar has delivered.

Here's the thing with Millar: he tries to seem relevant, or at least new, when he's creating these takes on superheroes, but there's never anything going on below the surface. In this case, he seems to be going for a generational story, possibly commenting on where society is now versus where it was when superheroes were first created. But he doesn't actually have anything to say about either generation or time period; they're just the latest mold into which he can pour a violent superheroic conflict.

I probably don't need to get into specifics, since what I just described is something that Millar has done time and again, but let's look at how this story doesn't hold up. The comic kicks off in 1932 with a small group of friends going on an expedition in search of a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean that their leader saw in a vision. We find out that after they found the island, they were given superpowers (how they got them is treated as a big secret, but later we find out that it was just aliens who apparently wanted to make America great again) and came back to change the world, pulling the United States out of the Great Depression and ushering in several decades of heroism. Fast forward to 2013, and now their kids are living as entitled celebrities, lacking the moral character of the earlier generation and feeling like there's nothing left for them to do, since their parents have already defeated all the villains.

So, there's at least an idea there, with a conflict between generations (although why did it take the heroes more than 50 years to have kids? Shouldn't there be at least one more generation there in between the original heroes and the ones that were presumably born in the 1990s?), maybe something about Millenials being left adrift and older generations not understanding why their kids don't share their values, not noticing how the world is crumbling around them? Unfortunately, the kids don't actually have enough drive to actually engage their parents in a battle of wills, so the main plot conflict ends up being between the Utopian, the leader of the heroes, and his brother Walter (who I guess is called Brainwave, but I don't think that ever comes up in this volume of the series), who has felt like the Utopian has been holding him back all these years, insisting that the heroes only fight evil and not get involved in politics (this begs the question of how exactly they pulled the US out of the depression in the first place. Just by leading by moral example and encouraging people to work harder?). So, Walter convinces the Utopian's son Brandon that his father has been holding him back and it's time for him to lead. For some reason, all the other heroes (only one or two of which actually get names or speaking parts; where did these dozens of other heroes, and the villains they fought, get their powers, anyway?) not only take Walter's side, they get on board with the vicious murder of the Utopian, his wife, and his daughter. But that can't be the end of things, so the daughter, Chloe, escapes (not through any demonstration of agency of her own; no, she gets rescued by her boyfriend, the son of a supervillain), going into hiding and raising her son in the increasingly dystopian world that Walter and Brandon soon create. We catch up with them ten years later, with the kid being raised to believe in heroic ideals and secretly using his powers to fight for good, until, of course, he gets discovered, his family is exposed, and they have to stand up against the forces of oppression.

But that will have to be a story for another volume, since this is just the first installment of a series that may or may not ever be completed in comics form (it will probably get turned into a movie first). For now, all we have is this volume, which has precious little going on below the surface. If we're meant to buy into this world at all, we should get a sense that heroic conflicts have been going on for decades, but there's nothing to suggest how the existence of these amazing people has changed the world, and other than a few mentions of fights against villains, we have no idea what they've been up to for the past 80 years. We should be able to tell that the tension between Walter and his brother has been simmering for so long that it has finally come to a boiling point, but there's no sense of shared history between them, there's just arguing meant to advance the plot.

And what of the actual feints toward politics and relevance? The little we see of Walter's plan to fix the US economy (before the Utopian shuts him down for no discernable reason) is basically gibberish:

Really, Millar has no real idea of how superheroes would realistically affect the world outside of how they affect the plot. After we jump ten years into the future, we see that Walter and Brandon's plans to make everything better have failed, turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare in which any remaining heroes or villains are hunted down and presumably executed. But why did their plan fail? In what way did it make things worse instead of better? Why did they turn to rigid control of the populace rather than promoting personal freedom? I could probably come up with some answers to those questions, but Millar doesn't even bother; he needed an evil empire for his remaining heroes to fight against, and even though characters occasionally speak lines of dialogue that makes this all sound relevant, it's really all just a poorly-thought-out plot being hammered into place.

So, empty as this comic is, is it worth reading at all? Well, Frank Quitely certainly does his best to paint as pretty a picture as he can on top of this fragile eggshell, and if you're willing to be generous enough to Millar to accept that there's absolutely nothing going on below the surface of this superhero fight delivery device, I suppose you'll be able to enjoy it. Quitely sells a sense of scale in superhero comics like few other artists, so it's fun to watch him detail the large battles and amazing feats the characters get up to (although there are fewer of these than there really should be; like I said, there is no sense of what the world is actually like with all these costumed characters flying around). There's little sense of personality in anyone beyond the six or seven main characters, but Quitely does what he can to fill panels with other people, interesting costume designs, and nice-looking settings. And there's at least one cool superheroic fight scene of the type that Millar excels at, with characters using their powers in interesting and exciting ways and the day being won while badass proclamations are uttered:

If more of the book was like that, helping us understand why we should care about what happens to these people rather than just assuming that their lives are important because the text says so, maybe there would be something here. And who knows, maybe Millar will take the time to detail more of what happened in the characters' pasts and explore what must be a backstory that took place during the huge time gaps of this volume (he has also done a prequel series called Jupiter's Circle, illustrated by Wilfredo Torres). But somehow, I doubt it, and I'll be surprised if there's ever any suggestion that there was some actual thought put into this other than how much money it can make when it gets turned into a movie. So, when does volume 2 come out?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sword of Honor: I might be obsessed with Musashi Miyamoto now...

Sword of Honor
By David Kirk
Published by Doubleday

That Musashi Miyamoto was an interesting fellow, wasn't he? Reading even a basic account of his life gives a picture of a fascinating person, one who wandered Japan fighting dozens of duels, developing his own swordfighting style, formulating a philosophy, and ending up as a highly regarded author and artist. It's no surprise that he's a figure that has resonated across centuries and continents, inspiring retellings of his life in the form of prose biographies, films, and manga (to name just a few examples).

And here's another one to go on the pile, taking the approach of a historical novel with Miyamoto as the main character. This is actually the second in a series, with the first entry, Child of Vengeance, following Musashi's earlier days and climaxing with the battle of Sekigahara, in which, based on what we learn in this book, he would have fought on the losing side, but fled in order to avoid dying for a pointless cause. This book picks up almost immediately afterward, with Musashi having realized the unfairness of the system of samurai honor that would compel a man to die at the whim of his lord, whether that means being struck down in battle or ordered to commit seppuku for whatever reason a man's master deemed necessary.

At first, Musashi lives outside of society, subsisting as a hermit in the wilderness, but he is eventually forced to interact with society, and his rage at an injustice leads him to set out on a campaign of (fairly random) action against what he sees as a corrupt system. When he is targeted for assassination by the Yoshioka swordfighting school for some perceived slight against their honor that he can't even remember, he heads to their home base of Kyoto to confront them, leading to an escalating series of confrontations and duels that culminates in an incredible bloodbath of a battle.

Through all of this, we get a fascinating view of 17th-century Japan, not just from Musashi's perspective, but from other characters as well, including the Yoshioka swordsman sent to kill him, the de facto head of the Yoshioka school, and the captain of the Tokugawa clan who has been charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and sees Musashi's battle against the Yoshioka as an opportunity to sway the populace toward supporting the new shogun. Musashi's battle against the impenetrable edifice of the feudal system makes sense to him, but getting other points of view provides a wider perspective of how people fit into this society, and why they might fight to uphold practices like seppuku that seem insane and brutal from a modern perspective.

What's more, while Musashi's cause may be righteous, he isn't let off the hook for his failings or given the unassailable position of a social savior. He gets a conscience of a sort in the form of a women he befriends, a blind immigrant from the Ryukyu islands who questions the meaning behind his actions and tries to dissuade him from proceeding down his ever-more-violent path. This relationship gives him a fascinating inner struggle along with his outer battles, leading to a classic dramatic conflict in which he almost gives up on his quest for justice/vengeance/recognition, only to be drawn back in to a fight that turns out to be almost apocalyptic.

David Kirk's writing style captures the era and the characters incredibly well, bringing the period to life without getting bogged down in overly descriptive explanations of things like honorific terms or the different ranks within clans. In fact, he mostly sticks to English, referring to people mostly by their given names rather than family names, and only using Japanese terms for specific cultural concepts like seppuku, substituting other terms where appropriate (like "the Way" for Bushido or "masterless" for ronin). It makes for an easily-understandable reading experience that doesn't require additional study into Japanese history to follow.

And then there are the fight scenes, which are pretty amazing. Kirk has a way of putting the reader right into the middle of the action, describing movements moment-by-moment while making the reader feel each motion and impact, conveying the way the body moves, the instinctual reactions that Musashi makes, the exhilaration of victory, and the exhaustion of lengthy battles. This works wonderfully, and as the book proceeds, the scale of the fights build and build, until the climactic battle that pushes the adrenaline into overdrive and delivers on the expectations that had been building for the entire book. It's an incredible experience, one that won't quickly be forgotten.

As someone with an interest in Japanese culture, I found this book fascinating, and I highly recommend it. I'll be watching for the next installment, which will hopefully get to Musashi's duel with Sasaki Kojiro. In the meantime, I've got plenty of other Miyamoto-related media to consume...

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Kung-Fu Klassix: Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
(a.k.a. Invincible Pole Fighter)
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
China, 1984

I had been wanting to see this movie for years, and now that I've had the chance, I'm happy to say that it's pretty awesome, if not in my personal martial arts movie canon. It stars Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Dirty Ho), which is always a sign of quality, and it's full of really good action, often pitched at an operatic level in which the characters' strong emotions are demonstrated in the ferocity of their fighting. 

The plot kicks off with a battle in which the Yang family, who are loyal to China's royal family, are betrayed by the evil Pan Mei, the queen's father. I'm sure these events have some historical significance, but to somebody who doesn't know their Chinese history, it's basically just political scheming for power. The battle is pretty great though, with the seven Yang brothers using their family's deadly spear technique to kill dozens of enemies before they ate overwhelmed by hordes of guys with spring-loaded weapons that wrap around their spears (and arms and legs), holding them immobile and rendering them helpless and easy to kill. It's a bloodbath, but most of the brothers go down fighting gloriously, and their father, who wields a cool bladed staff, only falls after being shot full of arrows, jumping to the top of a 15 foot tall family tombstone, screaming curses while covered in blood, and dying standing against the monument in a defiant stance:

Only two of the Yang brothers survive the battle (although I think at least one other brother was captured, but he's never seen again). One of them, the sixth brother, is driven mad after seeing his father and brothers betrayed and slaughtered, and he returns home to his mother and sisters, where he spends most of his time either in a near-catatonic state or attacking anyone who happens to be nearby, which forces the women of the family to fight him, including his mother, who wields an awesome dragon-headed staff that was gifted to the family by the emperor. He's played by Alexander Fu Sheng (The Avenging Eagle), who died in a car accident during the filming of the movie, so he kind of disappears at a certain point without playing what should have been a major part of the final battle.

Meanwhile the fifth Yang brother, played by Gordon Liu, seeks refuge in a monastery (after being helped out by a hunter played by director Lau Kar-Leung [Dirty Ho, Legendary Weapons of China]). This isn't exactly a philosophical movie like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin though, so even though the abbot (Philip Ko, Eastern Condors) initially refuses to allow him to become a monk because he's too caught up in seeking vengeance, he overcomes their objections through force of will, shaves his own head, and insists on staying. Having cut off the head of his spear to avoid being recognized as a member of the disgraced Yang family, he decides to learn the monks' method of pole fighting, although he objects to their use of non-lethal methods. They mostly practice on wooden wolf dummies, working out ways to defang the animals rather than kill them, but he demonstrates the superiority of his methods by just smashing the dummy. You would think they would just kick him out for his behavior, but he somehow manages to win them over, mostly because it's necessary for the plot. However, we do get one goofy fight in which Liu attacks a wolf dummy that the abbot manipulates like a puppet, and one pretty awesome fight in which the abbot tries to stop him from heading off to rescue his sister, who was kidnapped by Pan Mei. This scene is probably the highlight of the movie for me, with some amazing acrobatics and some great acting by Liu, who is so determined to save his sister and achieve vengeance for his family that he simply cannot be stopped:

It's also the source of the movie's title, which references the eight symbols of Taoist cosmology, with Liu managing to rearrange the furniture in the monastery mid-fight to create an arrangement of these symbols on the floor:

Having proved his point, I guess, he heads off for a pretty brutal final battle with Pan Mei and his men, a scene that sees him and his sister just destroying guys left and right, whether they're stabbing them with poles or carving them up with their father's bladed staff, or, in one memorable moment, when one guy gets impaled with a pole, then Liu hits the pole so hard it goes flying out his back and impales a second guy:

At one point, it looks like they might not be able to prevail against the large number of men, but the monks show up in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle, and even though they fight non-fatally, they use their wolf-defanging methods to do some pretty nasty stuff:

And then, of course, the good guys prevail and, in a somewhat distasteful manner that's still in keeping with the film's level of violence, murder the traitor while he's cowering in defeat.

Overall, it's definitely a good film, with some great fight scenes and a level of emotion that gives the battles real stakes, but the way the monks so easily capitulate to Liu's perversion of their way of life and the cartoonish level of violence in the final battle end up making this one less than fully successful. The film does seem like kind of an end of an era, a sendoff for the old-school kung fu stories of the 70s just as the industry was about to shift in favor of more modern, stunt-based films like Jackie Chan's Police Story (which came out in 1985). This is a pretty good way to go out though, and it's definitely worth watching.