YouTube Cinema: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

June 26, 2008

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.

As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.

In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.

This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.

Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.

Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.

MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.

This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.

Read This: The Forever Formula

June 22, 2008

FROM JASON’S RECENT AMAZON ORDER — Extending the human lifespan sounds like a great achievement, right? A friend of ours recently linked to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about Resveratrol, a drug that significantly prolongs life and eases old-age ailments.

The write-up also hinted that pharmaceutical researchers are on the cusp — as early as two generations away — from making drugs that will push the average life expectancy to 100, or maybe 120, or even higher.

I was immediately reminded of a book titled The Forever Formula, written in 1979 by Frank Bonham. I had to read it again, and Amazon shipped me a copy. Typically labelled juvenile fiction, you could easily breeze through it in four hours.

The novel is set in 2164 and is seen mostly through the eyes of 17-year-old Evan Clark, brought forward in time from 1984 through suspended animation. When he wakes, he learns his father created a drug called Rejuvenal that allows people to live to 250 years old.

But the Rejuvenal treatments have exacted a horrible toll. Most other nations have banned the drug, but the United States gave rise to a Senior Party controlled by the superannuated. The birth rate has fallen, the elderly have stripped most young people of habeas corpus, and the oldest are dying of terminal boredom — a mysterious geriatric disease called the Logardo epidemic.

In a world where 80 is the new 21, overpopulation is a cancer that eats away at the young. Only the truly elderly are allowed to live under plastic domes and breathe purified air. They have the best food. They play croquet, attend eternal gin parties, squabble with their equally old neighbors.

And worst of all, Rejuvenal has warped their bodies, draining skin of its firmness and color. It leaves users with gelatinous, see-through skin stretched over clearly-visible muscle and sinew. The side-effect is called Guppyism.

Meanwhile, with the elderly sapping the best resources, the young live in the moldering wrecks of cities, their air drained of oxygen because ocean plankton are all but extinct. Roaches and rats overrun everything outside the domes and voraciously attack people. Impoverished vendors sell oxygen on the streets and the government has planted miles of cloned tree farms.

In real life, the idea of overpopulation is a ludicrous one because there is so much landmass in the world completely uninhabited. Right now, more than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the East or West coasts.

But as Scott Rubin of Geeknights is so fond of pointing out, the problem isn’t so much overcrowding as it is a) finding ways to distribute food from rural farms to urban population centers, and b) dealing with the byproducts of those centers.

Let’s spin some numbers. The global population in 1950 was about 2.5 billion, and today it’s reached 6.7 billion. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be 7.9 billion people by 2025 and 9.3 billion by 2050.

The US is growing at a faster rate than any other industrialized nation. The country has swelled by about 100 million people in the past 41 years and US census experts estimated that the population hit 300 million in October 2006. If it continues to accelerate at a steady rate, it will top 400 million sometime around 2040.

But let’s say the average lifespan did, as Bonham worries, go from 75 to 250 years. Those numbers would exceed the already-burdened curve we have now between supply of essentials and demand for the same. Things get even worse in The Forever Formula when Evan learns the American president, Charlie Fallon, wants to scan his brain for the recipe of another drug Evan’s father was working on — one that would make Man immortal.

A group called the Juvenile Underground decides that such a formula would mean Seniors would establish a permanent slave underclass among the young and consume all the country’s remaining resources. They help Evan escape his hospital cell and go on the run.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than to say it comes close to being great, except for a deus ex machina that leads to a (for some) happy ending. It’s all a little too convenient, and manages to candy-coat some pretty grisly deaths. I think Bonham would have been better served penning the last few chapters bluntly and bloodily.

Awesome video game artwork

June 20, 2008

FINALLY ESCAPING ANDREW’S FREE TIME — This isn’t going to be a super-massive post, but I found these awesome pictures that someone shopped earlier this year. He took several different video game sprites and integrated them with real photos giving a surprisingly interesting effect. Credit to RETROnoob for some awesome artwork. Follow the link for more photos as well as higher-resolution images.

How Portal could take its concept another step

June 20, 2008

FROM JASON’S CHEAP-ASS GAMING ETHIC — So, a day late and a dollar short as always, I finally played Portal.

Yes, yes, I understand that it came out last October — nine months ago, for those of you counting along at home — but I had no desire to play Team Fortress 2 and I am indifferent at best about Half-Life. Andrew posted his analysis of Portal way back in November, when it was still relevant, and I realize how right on the money he was back then.

But I’ve got some thoughts after blitzing through Portal in about three-and-a-half or four hours and I just had to share. First of all, I’m not a puzzler, and Portal is little more than a puzzle game. It’s a mind-bending and slick puzzler, to be sure, but still relies on a figure-this-out-and-move-on mentality.

So the problem, for me at least, was that the game was too much about solving mazes and not enough about outsmarting AI. There were so many times I wanted to find a flesh-and-blood enemy — a Nazi, because that’s what video games are for — and open a portal under him straight into an incinerator. I wanted to open a portal behind a super-soldier and sneak through with a knife to slash his neck before he could scream. I wanted to fire bullets through a portal. I wanted to make portal pits, teleportal baddies into shafts, drop them from so high that they splat on the ground, and make looping portal traps in enemy paths with bullets flying in and out infinitely.

I didn’t get a chance to do any of that. Instead, I (briefly) got to outwit turrets, which turned out to be my favorite part of the whole ordeal. Zapping a portal exit behind a tripod turret and tipping it over a second later was exhilarating. Imagine how much better it would be if the turrets were actually smart….

I think it’s a safe bet that some Portal-esque weapon will make appearance in the next Half-Life episode. The clues are all there; the Aperture logo can be spotted in the Orange Box installment. I can offer one bit of constructive criticism: The gun needs a laser sight to show me quickly what direction I’ll pop out of the exit. That would have been extremely helpful in lining up switch activation puzzles, too.

I really did enjoy Portal, don’t get me wrong. It was just so deterministic. Shoot this place on the wall to get to the next level. Do it this way, not another, smarter alternative. Don’t do it that way. There’s only one, four-step method to get across that gulf. There’s only one way to disable that trap. There’s only one way to get through that map. Ugh.

There’s enough been said already on teh Intarwebs about the game’s humor — which was amazing and original — so I won’t waste time there. I want to dally instead on one specific atmospheric component: The blood trail markings.

There were no NPCs in Portal to give you the story, to point you along toward the end. There was only evidence that someone else had been there before, a weary and insane lab rat trailblazer who scribbled survival tips and ravings on the walls. It reminded me a lot of the film Cube, which was another survival thriller that hinted at a never-ending and deadly testing of human reasoning.

Andrew’s right in his November post: Portal is important. Let’s be honest — PC gaming hasn’t given birth to a new genre in a long, long time. I remember those early adolescent years when things like RTS and FPS were new and shiny and full of hope. That doesn’t happen anymore. Admittedly, Portal is just a new spin on an old genre, but it’s the best spin I’ve seen in more than half a decade. It made me think — really wrinkle that brow! — in angles perpendicular to the ways I usually do. It bent gravity. It made space meaningless. And it taught us about the dangers of lying.

Spore Creature Creator leaked, my night consumed

June 15, 2008

The Spore Creature Creator Demo has been leaked ahead of time (it’s supposed to launch June 17). Download and try it out. The thing has some kinks, takes some getting used to, is fun to play with, and generally helped me waste two hours tonight. The number of creature parts is limited, but there’s enough there to help spawn a few thousand variations of xeno-whatsits.

I’ve got to say — if the rest of Spore is as engaging as this tiny little portion, it will be well worth the price. So far, I’ve only gotten to play with the tinker-toy part. I can’t wait to get my hands on an actual free-roaming environment with some of these bad boys and see how they interact with other animals.

It will be interesting to see what traits succeed with Spore’s sharing mechanism. What works better in a swamp — lobster claws, insect mandibles, or primate hands? Is speed more important than brute strength? Can a venom spitter beat a serrated horn? Can cyclopians survive well? Are tactile adaptations a sure way to get a dominant species? How much difference do color and markings make?

I can’t wait to see how detailed and in-depth the game designers have gone. I’m usually the kind of guy to wait until the first price drop to buy a game, but I’m getting this one on launch day. Already, I can see it combines everything I loved about Legos with everything cool about evolution. Take that, creationists!

EDIT: Andrew here. Just thought I would add one of my creatures that I created today:

Read This: The Physics of Superheroes

June 11, 2008

Gwen Stacy was killed by Spider-Man’s bad science.

FROM JASON’S TENUOUS GRASP ON PHYSICS — I loved the idea of science when I was in elementary school. The field opened up worlds of amazing discovery and speculation. What I was never so great at was rigor and math.

So when I took a gamble two years ago and picked up James Kakalios’ The Physics of Superheroes, I was impressed at how easy he made very difficult-to-grasp concepts. It was like he wrapped carrots in dark chocolate and got me to eat my veggies.

Conservation of momentum? Caloric conversion to kinetic energy? Thermodynamics? Quantum mechanics? Suddenly, understanding it all was as easy as Superman lifting a Ford.

The author is a comic book geek-turned-scientist who first connected the two worlds in his mind while reading Action Comics #333. In his foreword to the book, Kakalios writes that he “noted that the writers and artists creating superhero comic-book stories get their science right more times than you might expect.”

I suppose you could look at The Physics of Superheroes as a textbook of sorts — Kakalios uses the concepts teaching college physics classes. But I prefer to see it as due diligence to a lot of comics I really liked growing up. What kind of muscle would it take for Superman to leap a tall building? How strong would Spider-Man’s webbing have to be to support him? How much would The Flash have to eat every day to keep up with his metabolism? If Magneto walks, does he generate electricity? If The Atom shrinks to subatomic size, how does he breathe?

And it’s all laced with a sense of humor that’s pretty infectious, and not too well hidden in these great clips uploaded to YouTube:

Look, after reading this book I’m still no physics genius. I’ll be totally honest: I skipped a few math-heavy pages with lots of numbers and symbols, and looked for just the author’s prosaic explanations. But now the theory I remember studying in college is put in a context that’s memorable and much more easily indexed for future use.

Get out there. Buy it. Borrow it. Read it. Trust me.

Five films that don’t get enough love

June 10, 2008

Dark City — Hey, kids! Remember The Matrix? It came out in 1999 and completely blanketed critics’ praise of what might arguably have been a better movie in the same mind-blowing existential genre. Dark City starred Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt. It also had Rufus Sewell, who — as opposed to Keanu Reeves — could actually act.

Instead of an attack by machines, Dark City features ghastly, skeletal masters of mind-over-matter, who experiment on humans by rewriting their memories. They toy with people like rats in a lab, and Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland is the Faust who sells his soul to help them. Just like The Matrix — and much less popcorn-y — the protagonist discovers he’s lived his life in an imposed reality and has to follow the rabbit to escape.

There is no kung fu.

Cube — Andrew tuned me in to this 1997 Canadian sci-fi-thriller last year, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it. Seven people awake in a labyrinth of stacked, cubic rooms, nearly all laced with deadly booby traps. There are filament wire traps, flame throwers, gas, spears, acid… and the prisoners have to reason their ways through to escape.

The first, blaringly obvious thing about Cube is the set design. It takes place all in cubic rooms (duh), but the walls are elaborately patterned with geometric shapes and backlighting. The secret is that it was all filmed on one set and the crew rotated the cube and changed out the lighting for each “new” room.

Some characters crack under the pressure — I lost my bet with Andrew about who would become the raving baddy — and most meet grisly ends. The endearing thing (which the sequels ruined) about Cube is that you never find out why the prisoners (all named after actual, real-life prisons, by the way) are there or who are their captors. There is no grand reveal.

Dracula 2000 — I never said all the films on this list were good. This one is great for its cheese, it’s slick action, its cavalcade of not-quite-stars, and its heart-pounding (see what I did there?) revelation that DRACULA IS JUDAS ISCARIOT.

Oh, yes. I’m not kidding. The reason ol’ Drac hates silver is because of the 30 pieces of silver he was given by the pharasees to betray Jesus. That’s also why he hates crosses. Judas tried to hang himself, but God cursed him to wander the night eternally as punishment. I’m serious. That’s the big twist.

Did I mention that Dracula is played by none other than Gerard “Leonidas” Butler from 300? Madness? THIS! IS! DRACULAAAAA! The film also stars Jeri Ryan, Jennifer Esposito and Vitamin C (the casting director must have been undead) as Dracula’s brides; Christopher Plummer as Van Helsing and Jonny Lee Miller as his protege; and Omar Epps and Danny Masters (Hyde from That 70s Show) as short-lived vamps.

I can also sum up the best (read “funniest”) part of the movie in six words: Vampire sex scene on the ceiling.

Lucky Number Slevin — My friends all turned their nose up at this slick revenge flick, and I have no idea why. Maybe it looked too hipster, too cool. Maybe it was their natural fear of all thing Josh Hartnett. Maybe it was Bruce Willis’ handlebar mustache. I don’t know. But Slevin, from 2006, is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen and is laced with lots of twists. Toward the middle of the movie, you’ll discover it’s not the movie you thought you were watching. The directors pulled a Kansas City Shuffle on you.

Slevin is a fast-talking smartass caught in the wrong place and the wrong time (or just maybe the perfect place and the perfect time) between two rival gangs. He’s kidnapped alternately by The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley), each who want to use him to kill the other. But Slevin’s got his own plan, and his own reasons for playing both sides against the middle.

There’s also Lucy Liu, playing adorable instead of cold and bitchy. The only weakness in the film, for me, is very the end, which is too Hollywood-happy to work. One of the characters should have stayed dead. The strength, though, is the fastest, sharpest dialog this side of Pulp Fiction.

Batman — Everybody lately has been sitting around circle-jerking about Batman Begins, but they just don’t get it. The best Batman will always be Tim Burton’s masterpiece from 1989. Everything else about the Dark Knight is just imitating.

Burton did everything right. He gave us Batman as a shadowy hero from the start, kicking ass without weighing us down with an hour-long origin story. We get one villain — that’s one, not three — and he’s a scary son of a bitch. Jack Nicholson is a deadly and psycho version of the Joker, not a Cesar Romero clown. The sets were straight out of the comics and had the same eerie nouveau feel as Batman: The Animated Series.

Look, I like Christian Bale, OK? He’s good. And I like Batman Begins. But Michael Keaton will always be the coolest Bat, in my opinion. He was quiet, hard, enigmatic. You could feel his pain without having painful exposition drilled into your brain. Burton’s Batman was just plain the best-executed, artful version of the Dark Knight’s story. But who knows — maybe this summer’s same-titled sequel will flap to the forefront of cannon.