Riffing the Comics

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a geek institution (with “MSTing” entering the vernacular) for good reason. The original television show is, when you get down to it, a variant on the time-honoured tradition (which I believe to be distinct to America) of having televised genre movies in a special slot with host segments introducing the movie and maybe breaking in with little skits. This is an approach which started with Vampira – yes, the one from Plan 9 From Outer Space in the 1950s – and continued through Elvira and others up to the present day.

The MST3K difference is that the host doesn’t go away – whereas most horror hosts of yesteryear clear off for the actual movie, MST3K has its host (and their robot friends) appear in a silhouette of cinema seating at the base of the screen, cracking jokes about the (usually terrible) movies featured on the show. Anyone in fandom who has not seen the show – which is now easier than ever to access outside of its US stamping grounds thanks to YouTube and various other platforms – at the very least has reasonable odds of recognising two things: the term “MSTing” and the theatre silhouette.

Since the original run of the show closed out at the end of season 9, various “movie riffing” outlets have tried to continue this approach, with or without the silhouettes; The Rifftrax project spearheaded by Mike Nelson, final host of the original show, hit on the idea that if you went without the silhouette and just sold an audio file that people synced up with their copies of the movie being riffed, then a world of copyright headaches could be avoided. Joel Hodgson, creator of the show and the original host, established Cinematic Titanic, which tried to incorporate a few more comedians in the riffing crew with a redesigned silhouette in its first few episodes (released direct to DVD in a world where, already, some form of streaming or download setup would reach more customers), before shifting to a live show format which went without the silhouettes (because what would be the point of including them in a show where you can see the riffers onstage anyway?).

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Chilling Out In the Afterlife

Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues is a treat-sized bag of short stories set in a homebrewed but decidedly familiar superhero universe – specifically, the afterlife of said universe. The Hell Hath Club are a group of dead women who lunch together at the same infernal cafe, swapping their stories of how they ended up dead; it is these stories which are the titular monologues, offering a take on The Vagina Monologues with less genitalia (though not no genitalia) and more… well… fridging.

Valente happily admits the debts she owes to Gail Simone for documenting and shining a light on the whole “women in refrigerators” thing, but through these stories she does an excellent job of teasing out different levels of insight into the phenomenon. There is, of course, the straight up comics criticism angle, and if you know your comics – or, at least, are close enough to geek culture to have picked up some knowhow via osmosis and are happy to Wikipedia the rest – you should be able to figure out which characters Valente is analytically spoofing most of the time. Though her self-made superhero universe isn’t ragingly original, she does do an excellent job of erecting a scaffolding where Totally Not Harley Quinn, Totally Not Jean Grey and various other Totally Nots inspired by different companies’ franchises can coexist in the same world – and she also throws in just enough original ideas and twists to make her reimaginings of the stories come alive. (In this vein, my favourite is probably the way she’s able to do an undersea Atlantis realm which doesn’t rely on the old fallbacks of a) humans under a dome, b) merfolk who are basically just humans with water breathing and maybe fish tails, or c) Deep Ones.)

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Underworld: Bit Awkward

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

For this fifth Underworld movie director Anna Foerster and script-wrangler Cory Goodman decide that continuity can go take a hike. It seems like the bits of the previous movies they liked the best were the parts involving high-powered vampire politics, since in this movie they go out of their way to include both an extensive modern vampire coven based out of a high-tech manor house like in the first movie and an ancient castle where the vampires basically dress like elves like in the prequel, with most of the action happening in one or the other of these locations.

Of course, in Awakening we were told that the human authorities had found out about the existence of vampires and werewoofles and had instituted an almighty pogrom against both, and it’s made very clear in that that the vampires have suffered the worst of this – the woofles having entered a deal with the authorities whilst the vampires have been reduced to living in tiny remnants in forgotten places. There’s certainly no scope in that setting for the vampires to be operating out of a huge, fortified mansion in a major city like they do here, so Foerster and Goodman simply seem to have decided to ignore the whole collapse-of-the-Masquerade plot detail, which is not mentioned at all in the movie, not even in the opening narration.

(As well as wanting to revert to the intricate vampire politics of the first film – or, at least, the appearance of intricate vampire politics that the first film tried to create the illusion of – Foerster and Goodman also seem to have followed the lead of the first movie when it comes to the woofles, who once again dress like homeless people and middle class approximations thereof and live in out-of-the-way places. In this case, they are hanging out in a rather cool disused railway yard, and seem a far cry from the elite corporate woofles of Awakening. Then again, the collapse of the corporate conspiracy at the end of Awakening could have believably driven the woofles back to the margins of society, so that feels like less of an overt retcon.)

That opening narration extends into the opening action scene, which is so chopped up and edited that it feels like the edited highlights of a much longer sequence, just as the preceding footage constitutes the edited highlights of the earlier movies. The film’s plot is sufficiently messy and convoluted even in this final form that it feels like it’s gone through a range of different rewrites, never quite reaching the point where it worked the way it was intended to.

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The Self-Hating Pantomime

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

There’s no particular reason to review Batman and Robin at this point; the consensus that it’s awful is pretty much settled. At the same time, I think there’s scope to ask just why audiences turned on it so hard.

The movie does, of course, have some major flaws. The rainforest themed party sequence with its appalling racial caricatures is, of course, hugely problematic – as is Uma Thurman’s entire arc as Poison Ivy, with the voice of ecological concern being an extremist anti-human strawman and all those nasty “nerdy woman suddenly becomes sexy” and “sexy equals evil, especially if it comes in the form of a woman” tropes coming out in full force. Unfortunately, whilst we might consider these issues problematic, none of them really constituted dealbreakers for cinema audiences in 1997 (and sadly wouldn’t today for a lot of people), so whilst they may be a reason for individual viewers to dislike the movie, they don’t constitute explanations for why audiences as a whole turned against the film.

Yes, it’s absurd, campy, ridiculous, silly… but the 1960s Batman was all of those things, as is the 1980 Flash Gordon, and people can’t get enough of those. Why can’t Batman and Robin slot into the same sort of niche?

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A Good Game, Or At Least An Incredible Simulation Of One

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The general rule that even-numbered Saint’s Row games are much better than their odd-numbered counterparts remains true. For both the first and third games, developers Volition cooked up entire new cities to play with and seemed to rush the rest of the content, leaving game 1 feeling like a generic Grand Theft Auto clone with better character customisation and game 3 feeling like it was trying way too hard to play up the comedic aspects and over-the-top disregard for realism that had spiced up Saint’s Row 2.

The second game, of course, had the advantage that by setting the action in the same city as the first game they could get away with just giving the map a light update and concentrate more on stuffing the game with interesting content that gave a fresh spin on the concept. The fourth game repeats the trick by reusing the map of Steelport from the the third game and adding a whole new dimension to the game.

Specifically, it gives you superpowers.

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Underworld: Not Big, Not Clever, Not Even Once

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So I’ve covered the third and fourth Underworld movies here, but I never got around to reviewing the first two. Believe it or not there’s a fifth film being filmed in Prague this month and pencilled in for release about a year from now, and Len Wiseman talking about a sixth movie and a TV series in the pipeline, so I may as well take this mad October article marathon as a chance to catch up.


In a poorly-specified Eastern European city occupied mostly by Americans, in a world seen through a blue filter, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death-Dealer, a vampire tasked with hunting down and destroying Lycans – the werewoofles who are the vampires’ sworn enemies. The Lycans are supposed to be on their last legs, but Selene is perturbed when a group of Lycans she and her short-lived partner Rigel (Sandor Bolla) ambush shoot back with highly-advanced ultraviolet ammunition. Moreover…


Oh, you’re confused about the ultraviolet ammunition? Well, it’s ammunition filled with a fluid which has been irradiated with ultraviolet light, so the light dissolves in the fluid and destroys vampires when they’re shot with it as sure as if they were exposed to sunlight. Not a fluorescent liquid which emits UV light when it’s struck by X-rays or gamma rays or more extreme UV rays or something, just as most fluorescent liquids emit visible light when struck by ultraviolet light, mind – the dialogue in the movie makes it very clear it’s the former. Of course, the vampires who are examining the ammunition at the time are staring right at it whilst it’s supposedly emitting vampire-killing UV radiation, but sssh, quiet, just let it go. You’re going to have to deal with much greater leaps of logic if you’re going to sit through an Underworld movie to the end.

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My Demon Cock Has Gone All Limp

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, a while back I played and enjoyed The Darkness – it’s an ugly old game for sure, and I’d advise renting or borrowing it over buying it, but it has some fun mechanics. (Like I said in the last article, I liked the hilariously phallic and hideously overpowered demon tentacle power.) To summarise the premise briefly: young man who looks like Steven Seagal gets demonic possession as his special 21st birthday present from destiny, his girlfriend Jenny dies, he mopes.

As of the end of the previous game, our hero Jackie (who now looks and sounds somewhat less like Steven Seagal) is the kingpin of the crime family, and still mourns the death of Jenny. He has, however, reigned in the Darkness a little bit – in fact, he hasn’t used it for quite some time. However, when Jackie is attacked on a visit to his favoured family-backed restaurant, he is forced to unleash his Darkness powers to survive.

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Better If You Put Your Brain To Sleep

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

When I went to see Underworld: Awakening with Dan and Kyra I made sure to manage my expectations accordingly. All the Underworld films are incredibly stupid, but the previous one was stupid in a way which threatened to cease being fun, degenerating into a dreary exercise of sleepwalking through backplot which everyone even mildly interested in the film already knew back to front. The problem they had, of course, was that with the first two movies they more or less ran out of plot, so a continuation of the series would need to find some way to disrupt the status quo reached by the end of Underworld: Evolution.

This is adequately achieved in the first ten minutes of Awakening, in which we get a brief action-packed rundown of the first two films, then a tense action sequence to establish the new reality our protagonists are dealing with and depict the events which took them out of action, and then follows that up immediately with yet another action sequence in which our hero escapes captivity to find her world has changed utterly. If you’re thinking “wow, that’s a lot of action sequences”, you’d be correct: of all four Underworld movies, this one has by far the greatest emphasis on action and the least talky bits of any of them.

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How Many Bites Until It Starts to Suck?

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

You wouldn’t have thought it if you’d only followed superhero movies for the last decade or so, but there was a time when Marvel were DC Comics’ poor cousins when it came to cinematic adaptations of their material. Whilst both of DC’s headline characters, Superman and Batman, had yielded more than adequate big screen adaptations, pretty much all of Marvel’s cinematic experiments – from 1977’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the unreleased low-budget 1994 version of The Fantastic Four (by way of Red Sonja, Howard the Duck and Dolph Lundgren’s version of The Punisher) were complete turkeys.

Of course, that’s all changed – between the Spiderman series (if you discount the third one), the X-Men series (if you discount the third one), the Iron Man series and others, Marvel have more than made up for the fumbled decades. And it all began with the Blade series, and the success of 1998’s first installment. Wesley Snipes as a martial arts half-vampire was a formula for box office success which made Marvel realise that, despite their poor track record, it was possible to produce decent films from the pages from their comics.

It also established the tradition that the third film in any Marvel-inspired series would be dreadful.

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Holy Inmate Riots, Batman!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Anyone developing a Batman game has major hurdles to get over, even before you consider the inconsistent-at-best history of such things. (Anyone remember the clunky old Amiga platformer based on the first Tim Burton movie?) For starters, unless your licence is based on a specific property you need to decide which incarnation of the dark knight you’re going to portray – the Golden Age Batman, the Silver Age Batman, the one from the Tim Burton movies, the Nolan and Bale movies, the 60s TV show, the Lego version, Frank Miller’s interpretation, Grant Morrison’s rendition, one of the cartoons? The possibilities are endless, and even when you’ve managed to do that, you’re still faced with the main challenge: making the player feel like they are Batman, scourge of the night, fearless crime fighter, world’s greatest detective and international gold standard of square-jawed masculinity. Batman: Arkham Asylum is the first time I’ve really seen anyone succeed at that.

The first thing that Arkham Asylum gets right is that it tries to be its own creature; rather than being specifically an adaptation of a particular manifestation of the franchise, it presents the developers’ own take on the mythos, with strong influences from both the comics and from Batman: The Animated Series, one of the best superhero cartoons ever (and a fairly loyal take on the comics itself). In fact, it’s something of a Batman: TAS reunion, since the story was written by Paul Dini (a scriptwriter for The Animated Series and numerous other Batman cartoons and comics since then), and the voice talent includes several cast members reprising their roles from the series – in particular, Kevin Conroy takes on the voice of Batman, whilst Mark Hammill is clearly enjoying himself immensely as the Joker. (Looks like the Dark Side is a heap of fun after all…)

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