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Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Small Town Heories cover

As we grow, we learn about the world that surrounds us. The first independent exploration across the floor brings us a sense of the space around us, but strange phenomena like steps are beyond us. Then as our eyesight and cognitive functions improve, we appreciate vision in three dimensions. We grasp the idea of depth and “see” a context for the faces of mommy and daddy that have loomed above us in the cot. Our natural curiosity propels us to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new lives for ourselves, and boldly going where no baby has gone before.

This may seem a perverse way in which to begin the review of Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon, the fifth in the series, Wearing the Cape, featuring Astra and the junior team of Sentinels, but it nicely captures the spirit of the problem confronting all those who write a serial. When the first episode sees the light of day, the author waits with trepidation to see whether he or she’s managed to find the magic formula that will pay the bills while the next in the serial is written. In fact, this author has the talent to produce new books at a steady rate. He’s now a professional writer with a loyal following, keeping everyone happy. Well, keeping most people happy.

The problem may be put simply. The world of the superhero can be very two-dimensional. Each character comes with inbuilt strengths and weaknesses. In the right circumstances, any given character will prevail by using the strengths and shielding the weaknesses from attack. The plot in each book is therefore like a structured game or dance as opponents manoeuvre against each other to face combat in circumstances which favour one side. If the plot comes out right, the good guys have the edge over the bad guys, and we can pass on to the next thrilling instalment. Except, after a while this can grow a little repetitive. There are only a limited set of conditions in which each class of superhero can win or lose. After a few fights, we’ve seen most of these situations played out. So if the series is to develop, it must gain depth and context, i.e. the characterisation must show real growth, and there must be world-building so we understand how and why these particular superheroes and their antagonists came into being, and what motivates them to fight.

Marion G Harmon

Marion G Harmon

This book makes a more serious attempt not only to give some of the history explaining how this particular version of reality came into being, it also introduces a wider political context for the action, some of which takes place in Cuba. So, for the first time, we can begin to locate the American experience of superheroes in an international context. More interestingly, there’s also a discussion of the different types of political system that might emerge if some of the local citizenry develop superpowers. It’s all very well to assume some people would side with the forces of law and order, offering help to subdue superpowered villains as they break the law. But this ignores the need for a legal structure in which the powerful may be protected from civil liability. Imagine the problem if a gang of supervillains breaks into a bank. Superheroes surround the area and a fight ensues. Not surprisingly, a significant amount of damage is caused to buildings, the street furniture, and any vehicles in the area. And that’s before you get to any ordinary humans who get caught in the crossfire. So who pays to repair all the damage, replace broken fixtures and fittings, and cover the medical expenses of the humans injured? There must be careful liaison between conventional police officers and the superpowered helpers. Rules of engagement must be agreed. There must be penalties if the superpowered exceed their defined roles. There must also be investment in new forms of jail to hold those villains with different powers, and in the development of new weapons that can defeat the supervillains when none of the superheroes are around, or, perish the thought, if one of the superheroes goes rogue.

So one of the joys of reading books like this is to see an author making a real effort to develop the basic scenario. The opening books were auspicious because there’s real ingenuity in the way they exploit the information made available through time travel. However, as the series has progressed, the changes made using this information have produced an increasingly divergent reality which no longer matches the future from which the information was gleaned. So now the heroes are flying more by the seat of their pants, hoping their best decisions are good enough to keep their world on a safe track. Our primary hero, Astra, is also growing up. She’s still making mistakes as you would expect of someone of her age, but there are signs of maturity creeping in. Some time soon, she’s going to become a fine superhero leader. While she waits for more responsibility and some national recognition, the rest of her team rally round for the big set-piece fight at the end with others making guest appearances from earlier books. It’s pleasing to see how everyone gets their place in the action as a new set of supervillains poses different challenges to overcome. So having wobbled very slightly in the last book, Harmon is very much back on track with Small Town Heroes, leaving a mess of troubles for Astra to deal with when she gets back home in the next book.

For reviews of the other books by Marion G Harmon, see:
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights
Villains Inc
Wearing the Cape
Young Sentinels

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

July 27, 2014 6 comments

Dreams-of-the-Golden-Age-Carrie-Vaughn

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn (Tor, 2014) gives us the sequel to After the Golden Age (2011). Moving forward some twenty years or so, Celia West is now a dedicated mother and dynamic business woman. She’s married to Dr. Arthur Mentis, a superhero with mental powers, and has two teen daughters, Anna and Bethy. Having watched Celia work her way through the early years of living with two superhero parents, we now get to watch her try to make a better job of bringing up her own two girls. All of this is, of course, under the shadow of superpowers. Being a numbers person, she’s calculated there’s a 40% chance of the next generation having superpowers. Even if the genetic quirk does not kick in on one generation (she did not have any superpowers), the same percentages apply to the next. That’s why she’s not only watching her own children like a hawk (well-known detective without superpowers), but also monitoring what’s happening to the other families that were exposed to the trigger radiation all those years ago.

 

To avoid repeating myself, I invite you to read the review of the first book After the Golden Age, because all that stuff about parenting is relevant to this sequel. Once you have that under your belt, you can absorb the idea this is both an adult and a YA book. We get the parental angst as teen daughter Anna is doing the secretive thing and not talking with those who could give support and advice if she’s developing superpowers. Indeed, so bad does it get that Celia tells her best friend, the police chief, to put the children under surveillance and try to keep them out of trouble if they begin fighting someone a little out of their league. From the teens point of view, we see them trying to come to terms with their powers and decide what to do with them. Naturally, they almost immediately see themselves as superheroes in waiting but, when one tries to interfere in a robbery, he finds himself outclassed and is badly beaten. His problem, like Anna, is that his power is slightly more passive than aggressive. The other three who can freeze things, sorta control the weather, and blow stuff up with laser beams, do a lot better because they can disable their opponents.

Carrie Vaughn

 

Anyway, with the addition of an out-of-towner who can jump (he’s much in demand for basketball), these teens do the usual thing of forming a gang, bickering, getting jealous, falling out, wondering who to go to the prom with, and so on. The parents do the big corporate superhero thing of trying to save the city by making it a better place in which to live. Needless to say, a supervillain is in play. He or she may be nicknamed The Executive and works entirely out of sight, manipulating people to get what he or she wants. It’s fairly obvious from an early point who the villain must be, but the confirmation of The Executive’s identity is one of these really elegant jokes that comes in the final quarter of the book.

 

This should be leading you to my conclusion that this is a very good book in parts. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not simply throwing away all the YA stuff. In fact, some of that proves to be interesting as they discuss whether to tell their parents about their powers, or how to strike the right balance between a positive use of their powers and avoiding serious injury or death by recklessly exposing themselves to danger. However, all that becomes academic when Celia is yet again kidnapped. The scenes with her tied to a chair and exchanging opinions with the villain are the highlight of the book. Unfortunately, although elements of the rescue are done well, the whole sequence goes on too long and is, at times, confusing. So this is a brave attempt to write a sequel to an outstandingly good book and, as sequels go, this is good of its type. I just wish authors did not feel under such commercial pressure to revisit the same themes quite so relentlessly. This means you buy Dreams of the Golden Age if you enjoy superhero fiction and don’t mind it being of slightly patchy quality.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011 – 13)

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment

GLHeader

I suppose I should not be even faintly embarrassed to admit watching animated versions of the superhero stories. I read the comics decades ago when I was a child (and sometimes later). Seeing traditional characters in animated form is a pleasing way of updating and developing old ideas. For, yes, when you only have a few pages in illustrated form to play with, the ideas tend to be superficial when the edition is a stand-alone. Even when the narrative arcs stretch over multiple issues, there’s no real chance to go into the character development and plotting sophistication possible in novel form. This makes the “half-hour” animated format more appealing because seeing the characters interact offers more scope than a static drawing with speech bubbles.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series is a case in point. This comprises two narrative arcs of thirteen episodes which show Hal Jordan and a team come together to meet a variety of different challenges. The structure is a balance between the broader development of character and plot, and the immediate need for an “adventure” subplot for the individual episodes. I’m not going to go through the individual episodes but there are a number of elements that are worthy of comment.

Kilowog

Kilowog

When the first episode kicks off, we have Hal Jordan, Kilowog and an advanced AI to control the systems of the ship called the Interceptor as the core team members. The AI who’s addressed by the name Aya becomes pivotal to the major emotional narrative arc. Although this is a rerun of Pygmalion, it manages to set up and then develop the trope in a particularly pleasing way. The original myth was first committed to paper by Ovid in Metamorphoses. The point of the story is that the inanimate can become animate. In the first version, a statue comes to life. In this animated version, the onboard ship’s computer becomes self-aware and, later, creates a body for herself. Her “mistake” is to base her physical appearance on Razer’s dead wife Ilana. Aya believes this likeness will be more appealing to Razer, not understanding that successful long-term relationships are based on personalities, not on simulated external appearances. This departs from the traditional story in which artists create a representation and then animate it through their love. Obviously a team of individuals would have worked together to code the AI system, but this artifact is essentially intangible. The “person” is brought into being through interaction with the crew and the effect of exposure to the pure Green Lantern energy. Over time, the artificial “person” becomes increasingly “real”. This is drawing on the later idea found in Pinocchio where the wooden puppet becomes a real boy, except Aya retains an artificial body, later plugged into the remnants of the Anti-Monitor.

The second theme is the generality of human emotions, principally of rage, fear and love. It may be simplistic, but the culture of the Red Lanterns and Razer’s slow embrace of a more peaceful outlook on life represents the “teaching” element in the series. Insofar as any series of this type is able to influence the fanbase in its behaviour, the evolution of Razer into a potential Blue Lantern is making a peaceful worldview appear more cool. Similarly, although the imagery is annoyingly clichéd, the discovery of the yellow crystals in episode 8 offers the chance to consider whether fear is a positive or negative emotion. Some people are motivated to act because they are afraid of the consequences of inaction. This can lead to spectacular successes and we acknowledge those individuals as brave. Others are paralysed by fear and hide themselves away in the usually forlorn hope the threat will somehow overlook them. As we move into love, this dual nature of fear comes sharply into focus. People often fail to say what should be said if relationships are to be formed and maintained. Episode 9 therefore plays with the superficial world of sexual attraction, ignoring the reality of the emotions underpinning what happens in the long term when relationships mature.

Razer and Aya

Razer and Aya

It’s amusing to see Hal Jordan confront his replacement on Earth and his alternate when he travels into a steampunk dimension. Jealousy is just another way of addressing the fear that status or reputation has been damaged or lost. When you’re working your way into a role, you build up your self-confidence by telling yourself you’re the best. When you later come back and meet a young man doing exactly the same, it’s difficult not to feel threatened. That’s where humility comes in. The mature leader embraces the newcomers and helps them. Thematically, the steampunk version in Episode 16 plays this perfectly with Steam Lantern being almost excessively humble. It takes Hal Jordan to build up the man’s self-image so the alternate can accept himself a truly heroic. In a sense it also plays with the same idea at a societal level. The culture is doing its best to survive with only limited resources. The one scientific genius has saved the world by doing a deal with the Anti-Monitor, but then has problems in readjusting the scale of his thinking to meet the immediate needs of the people. With the fight appropriately led by a woman in an airship, democracy is restored and the world “saved”.

Steampunk meets superhero

Steampunk meets superhero

The relationships between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris, and between Razer and Aya are developed in a particularly satisfying way. For the first couple, the problem is physical separation. While Hal was still based on Earth, they could see each other on a regular basis. Once Hal goes off to defend the galaxy, maintaining the relationship becomes more problematic. That makes the episodes featuring Zamaron, the Star Sapphire homeworld, fascinating. For the second couple, this is a “first love” situation for Aya. Neither of them come equipped with the usual emotional tools to make the relationship run smoothly. The tragedy of Aya’s overwriting her memory to erase painful emotions is therefore inevitable given both Razer’s inability to confront the loss of his first wife, and her literal mindedness. The moment in the fight against the Anti-Monitor when, in the heat of battle, Hal gives inadvertent relationship advice is a rerun of “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov. She loses herself for the greater good. The ultimate sacrifice in Episode 26 is the perfection of the cycle. It’s the only way to save the galaxy. For once, my literal mindedness sees this as amor vincit omnia except, this time around, love saves all except those personally involved.

I’m not going to say this series of twenty-six episodes is one of the best of its type. There are many problems with some of the individual episodes and times when I cringed. But this is a very good attempt at making a galaxy-wide threat scenario work at both a space opera and a personal level. Although the name on the shingle is Green Lantern, i.e. Hal Jordan, I prefer to see this as Aya’s story. She may start off as an AI system piloting a starship, but she ends up a very brave woman.

For a review of the film, see Green Lantern (2011).

Young Sentinels by Marion G Harmon

September 3, 2013 Leave a comment

young-sentinels-cover-final

I confess to liking the books in the Wearing the Cape series, the latest of which is called Young Sentinels by Marion G Harmon. When we started out, the world was a simple place for Hope Corrigan, now Astra. Then came her breakthrough and she’s pitched into the middle of an evolving situation (pun on evolution intended). The world is going to become a very different place through a blend of science fiction and fantasy in a superhero context. As always, change is a double-edged sword. For some it will work out well. In this instance, outcomes depend on temperament. An altruistic individual given superpowers will probably use those powers to protect and serve the community of ordinary humans. Individuals with criminal tendencies are gifted new ways in which they can unilaterally shape the world into something appealing to their sensibilities as “superior” beings. This potentially involves quite large scale damage and destruction and, as in the last book, we start off this episode with a big set-piece attack on Chicago’s infrastructure. This is a classic blackmail/extortion manoeuvre. “This is a small sample of what I can do.” Pause for evil laughter. “Obey or feel my wrath. I want a green Earth and one million dollars.” You know the melodramatic style of supervillains in the making.

At this point, I need to pause for a moment of reflection. Recently, I was talking to an author who’s made a living for himself writing the books he wants to write. Instead of limiting himself by picking a target audience of readers and then trying to guess what kind of books they would like to read. He’s produced book after book, prepared to wait for readers to find him and like his work for what it is. Not everyone can afford to do this, of course. But, in a perfect world, writers would produce the best books possible and not pull their punches. As in the last book which began with the arrival of a Godzilla, the opening set-piece in this novel is problematic. Yes, it’s good to see the superheroes rallying round to rescue people and save as much of the infrastructure as possible. And with first-person points of view, we readers can be at the sharp end of the fight. It’s very exciting. But it’s also inherently limited.

The superheroes are rescuing people who are being injured and will probably die unless they are saved. But the terror, pain and suffering of the rescuees is glossed over. The result is very one-dimensional. The forms of the different attacks are great ideas. . . In this book, an omniscient author could have been with the joggers on the park paths as the first signs show. Their uncertainty makes them pause. Then the reality of the danger registers. Some will blindly flee. Others will try to think where their safest route might lie. All will be trapped, praying for help to come. None of this is even referred to. The problem for the author is the readership. If he’s becoming dependent on younger readers who enjoy positive outcomes for their new heroes, none of the dark terror content fits. It’s the same with the politics. This is boring to the young but fascinating to those of a more mature outlook. Since we’re focused on Chicago, here’s a city at the epicentre of an escalating conflict. Because the best and strongest of the superheroes have their base in the city, it’s become a target for supervillains with a point to prove. How many ordinary humans have to die? How do the hospitals cope with the influx of wounded from each new assault? Just how many times must the city rebuild sections so casually demolished? Do we assume that, as with flooding, the private insurance industry refused cover for all breakthrough-related damage after the consequences of the Event became apparent, forcing the creation of a national program, financed by the federal government? Why is this city not like real-world Detroit with a shrinking population, insufficient tax revenue to pay the emergency services personnel to risk their lives putting out fires or rushing to the scenes of accidents, and so on?

Marion G Harmon

Marion G Harmon

Let’s be blunt about this. The supervillains we’ve seen are the equivalent of home-grown terrorists. When America was attacked on 9/11, it was traumatised. Why is there no equivalent emotional response to this unremitting stream of attacks on American soil? This fictional Chicago should either have expelled the superheroes or all but a stubborn group of hold-outs should have left the city deserted. As it is, the context for the action has not grown as it should from one book to the next. It’s actually ironic. The author has produced a situation in which the people yet to breakthrough have to remain at risk because our heroes need people to protect and rescue. Indeed, one logical possibility would have been the abandonment of cities in all areas where the breakthrough phenomenon has produced significant numbers of adversaries. This will leave unoccupied war zones for the “good” and “bad” to fight it out. The surviving population can be distributed across the countryside in small communities, sheltering until the “good” win a permanent victory, the victorious “bad” arrive to enslave them in perpetuity, or the survivors breakthrough and can defend themselves.

I’m not saying this failure makes Young Sentinels a bad book. Indeed, as it develops, we have gestures at a political context. Shankman is up front, with the Goons and the Humanity First groups making their presence felt. The family situation for Malcolm Scott/Megaton, albeit transitorily explored, does encapsulate the broader debate. Eventually, some citizens do pretend to participate in an exodus from Chicago by spending time with relatives elsewhere and, for those who remain, there are “evacuation” procedures. But to my mind, this is inadequate and represents a looming problem that should be addressed if the series is not to fall into young adult territory on a permanent basis and therefore lose much of its interest for older readers.

Back to the book as is, there are some really nice touches like the status of Shelley and the practical mechanics underlying the upward and downward mobility in superhuman abilities. There’s the underlying divergence between the records of the future and actual events on the ground, while the question of privacy as applied to superhero identity gets a good workout. Structurally, I think there are too many points of view. On one or two occasions, I had to pause and check whose POV was operating. The voices are not sufficiently distinctive. Nevertheless I find the trio of conscripts rather pleasing with Ozma winning the prize for the most innovative superhero I’ve encountered in the last decade. The climax is beautifully put together and builds tension expertly except it does depend on a coincidence which now creates a forward link to the next book which I look forward to because it gives the relevant person another chance for darkness: the desired murder for revenge is only postponed. Finally, it’s good to see the Teatime Anarchist is still relevant (albeit in name only).

Taken overall, there’s an emotional heart to Young Sentinels which just manages to stay above YA level and eventually makes the book satisfying on its merits. That’s despite the ending where we have results with no obvious price paid. Although it’s not completely unsatisfying, it fits too much into the YA model where protagonists are seen to get what they want too easily: it’s escapist wish-fulfillment. More generally, Astra has proved her emerging leadership qualities. Fortunately she does make mistakes. Although she’s not entirely destined to be this society’s Ender Wiggins, some moderation of the sweetness and light would be beneficial. More doubt and guilt would help her grow into a more credible person. So with some frustrations evident, I recommend this as part of the continuing Wearing the Cape series.

For reviews of the other books by Marion G Harmon, see:
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights
Small Town Heroes
Villains Inc
Wearing the Cape

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

April 29, 2013 2 comments

iron_man_3_poster_final

Summer is a-comin in, so loudly let off a few explosions as the first of this season’s superhero movies hits the cinemas with main force. Up to the end of 2011, there was a certain mechanical efficiency about the more recent adaptations of comic book characters or toys to the big screen. We would go through an introductory set-up and then would come the set-piece inserts. There are almost always car chases, guns are produced and manage to fire prodigious amounts of ammunition without having to pause for reloading, and there are increasingly loud explosions. This is great for those who have hearing difficulty because the fillings in their teeth vibrate to indicate just how loud some of these explosions are when replayed through the new generation of sound systems that pack decibels into the darkness of the auditorium. So, for example, conventional technology excitement comes with the Fast & Furious series, and science fiction gets its thrills from Transformers. This is not to deny these films deliver what we might call spectacle. Some of the special effects generated using CGI are remarkable to behold on a large screen. But as a generalisation, these are soulless vehicles. There are actors standing in front of green screens and in real locations, but their function is to explain the plot and justify the action. The scripts come with very little sparkle or individuality. Thanks to the focus group mentality of the larger studios, everything is aimed at the common denominator core of components that can be built into this season’s blockbuster success. For a while, this brought a steady stream of highly successful films in terms of box office takings. They were less successful in the eyes of those who prefer something slightly more idiosyncratic.

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

 

In the first outing, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saw the light and decided his company should not be the largest arms manufacturer in the world. Technology should be used for more positive purposes. He therefore has to battle for his soul by fighting the older man running the company alongside him. As films go, it’s a little on the worthy side with our heroic actor allowed one or two moments of egocentric wit to show us he’s cut from a different cloth. Interestingly, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also played relatively straight as the “love interest”. When we come to the second film, we’ve cleaned house and now face a business competitor who thinks he can get an edge by recruiting foreign talent. I found the relationship between Stark and Potts to be annoying and the fight at the end was overly long and repetitive, but it was still reasonably watchable.

 

In part thanks to the return of Shane Black to directing and joint scriptwriting, Iron Man 3 proves to be something of a revelation. This picks up after The Avengers where the alien invaders met their Waterloo. Now we’re back to more parochial affairs with the arrival of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fiendish terrorist who’s out to bring down the US with an escalating sequence of attacks. Also lurking in the undergrowth is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who’s been anonymously promoting his ideas through a think tank of increasing importance to the US government. Finally, we have the return of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is Stark’s suit buddy.

Ben Kingsley being menacing

Ben Kingsley being menacing

 

I think the most important observation I can make about this film is how little time Stark spends in one of his suits. Indeed, in part, his latest technological developments have made him somewhat redundant. This frees the actor from having a fixed expression on his visor and lets the man behind the suit carry the action. The result is a more normal relationship with Pepper Pott and a rather pleasing relationship with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young boy who may have some of Stark’s skills given only a monkey wrench and some high-sugar sweets to keep him hyper. Whatever it is he’s got, the broken suit seems to get repaired while in his possession. When it comes to the fight at the end, we also avoid the suit-on-suit battering contest which always grows tedious quickly and has a fight against humans with added firepower. Noticing the plant in the early scenes doesn’t quite prepare you for the extract applied to people. It’s a delightful fantasy touch.

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

 

I’m not sure everyone will understand all the humour. As a Brit, I found Ben Kingsley’s performance one of the best pieces of self-mockery I’ve seen in years. The accent and attitude when off-camera are wonderfully revealing if you understand British accents. Taken overall, this is one of the most amusing superhero films of recent years and, despite the presence of a callow youth in a key role, it manages to avoid all hints of sentimentality. This is a story about people and the suits are just tools. Indeed, they prove to be disposable tools when a choice has to be made between making the relationship with Pepper Pott work and making the machines work. Throughout, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who keeps the film moving. He remains one of the most charismatic and watchable people on screen. Separating him from the suit was one of the most intelligent decisions taken by the Marvel studio. I remember it happening in the animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, episode 125 when the Avengers team are transported to the nine Realms of Asgard and Stark loses his suit. Surviving until he can find the resources to build another using uru-armour was much more interesting. A human struggling without the aid of technology is something that can give us all a greater vicarious thrill. So it is that I crown Iron Man 3 as clearly the best of the three in this series so far, and a difficult film for all the other blockbusters to beat later in the 2013 season.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Thor

 

Kick-Ass (2010)

March 18, 2013 2 comments

Kick-Ass

It’s sometimes appropriate to explain my choice of films from the back catalogue. In this case, I’m motivated to look back for two reasons. The first is that I almost paid to see this when it did the circuit. Wherever possible, I go to see the films with my wife and am therefore constrained to avoid films that are, by her standards, gratuitously violent. The second reason is the news that a sequel is on its way. The trailer is already out and I was curious to see what I missed and thereby gain some insight into how well the sequel may fare. Kick-Ass (2010) is a beautifully subversive film about “superheroes”. I mean, if you think about it, there are all these millions of people around the world who read the comic books. They are dyed-in-the-wool fans of Superthis or Incrediblethat or Fantasticwho, yet no-one ever tries it in the real world. Ah well, that’s not actually true, is it? For a while, children used to jump off furniture pretending they could fly like Superman. Boy did they ever have a surprise coming to them when they woke up in hospital with broken limbs and concussion. Indeed, so serious did this problem become that television shows used to start off with a warning that no-one at home should attempt anything even vaguely heroic. It says a great deal about the gullibility of the young that such warnings should be deemed necessary. But back to this film (which does not have any warnings up front).

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz armed and dangerous

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz armed and dangerous

 

It’s making the point that most people are too afraid to intervene when they see criminals at work. Ask yourself honestly. If you were walking down a street and came across a mugging, would you remonstrate with the knife-wielding thief taking the cellphone from the wimp, or would you immediately turn around and walk the other way? Yes, self-preservation is one of these basic human instincts and no-one should think any differently unless they put on the uniform of a police officer or are authorised by the government to carry concealed weaponry of great power that can terminate anyone with extreme prejudice just by twitching a finger. Ah, wait, there’s the uniform thing. All superheroes have uniforms and not all of them have superpowers. Batman has gadgets, Green Arrow has a bow, Black Widow fights rather well with her bare hands, and so on. Police officers have their batons, tasers and guns. Even high school kids with no brains could put on a uniform and become a hero.

 

Yeh, like that’s ever going to happen!

 

So this kid, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) buys a uniform and practises not climbing tall buildings or jumping across the gap between those buildings. He knows the line between fantasy and the real world cannot easily be crossed. In his first outing to prevent the theft of a car, he also discovers a knife can deliver a painful wound to the stomach and that standing in the middle of the road can get you hospitalised when a car hits you. Some lessons have to be learned, but the aftermath of the injuries is quite a lot of metal reinforcing his bones and fairly extensive damage to his nerve endings so he doesn’t feel the pain (as much). When he comes out of hospital, one of the girls in school Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) befriends him (and not for the obvious reason). This partially restores his self-confidence so, when he next takes on three experienced gang members, he’s like one of these punching bags with a round bottom. Every time he gets hit, he bounces back and whacks them with his batons. This being the cellphone camera era, ten or so innocent bystanders video this heroic losing performance. He’s still fundamentally incompetent as a fighter, but he’s become a star of the internet. He calls himself Kick-Ass.

Mark Strong and Christopher Mintz-Plasse loving every minute as villains

Mark Strong and Christopher Mintz-Plasse loving every minute as villains

 

In another part of town, a loving father, Damon Macready aka Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), teaches his daughter Mindy Macready aka Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), basic survival skills and a real life criminal, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), worries that someone is interfering with his business. His only problem is where to find good help because his henchpersons are not overendowed in the brain department. So here comes the crunch. This film is a very clever juxtaposition between real menace and innocent make-believe. Next to our hero, even local petty criminals are lethal. Step up the level and the drug syndicate kingpin and his henchpeople are serious criminals who let nothing stand in their way. They have bought police protection and, some years ago, they framed a young police officer, Damon Macready, as a drug dealer and had him locked up. He’s emerged as a Batmanlike vigilante and his sole purpose in life is to bring down the D’Amico gang. He and his daughter are coldblooded killers and are slowly working their way through the lower reaches of the criminal empire, eliminating dealers and taking their product and money. By accident, Kick-Ass finds himself caught between the two opposing forces (not counting the corrupt and not corrupt police officers). This is not the right place for a young boy to find himself. But the kingpin sends a message when he kills a Kick-Ass wannabe. Whether it’s the original idiot or a fannish impersonator, every Kick-Ass found on the streets is fair game. When Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the kingpin’s son, calls himself Red Mist and pretends to be a crime fighter to lure out Kick-Ass, life gets complicated.

 

This film very cleverly plays the superhero game with one important variation. The babygirl Mindy can kill almost everyone she meets. This breaks the usual convention because children are not supposed to be vicious killers (or to swear quite so fluently). Our wimpy hero must balance two competing fantasies: to bed the most desirable girl in the school and to live to enjoy the girl, something he’s likely to find challenging if he continues to act the part of Kick-Ass. So he tries to retire, but discovers that with no power comes the responsibility to make up for past mistakes. Matthew Vaughn who shares the scriptwriting with Jane Goldman has struck a very delicate balance between a comic book superhero film and straight satire. The result takes itself very seriously and is all the more enjoyable for not mocking or overtly sending up the genre conventions. Aaron Taylor-Johnson walks a fine line between incredible naïveté and a stubborn determination not to embarrass himself (too much). His performance holds the film together. Surprisingly, Nicholas Cage manages to be a sympathetic character, leaving it to Mark Strong to do the villain with considerable style. Kick-Ass is great fun which may suggest the sequel may be worth seeing even though Chloë Grace Moretz is all grown up now and the shock value of her role as Hit Girl is lost.

 

Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon

September 26, 2012 1 comment

Some believe the world should never change. They are comfortable with the now as it is, doubting that innovation can ever really be an improvement. The alternative possibilities are never directly considered. Indeed, the possibility of change is disconcerting to such people and to be avoided wherever possible. In political terms, conservatism is inherently popular, preserving the traditional, maintaining stability, and promoting continuity. Yet, in some areas of human activity, the pace of change is embraced. So technology marketing convinces us that yesterday’s 3.6 was nothing more than a stepping stone to the terrifying power of 4.0 which can all be ours for only a few pounds/dollars more. We’re encouraged to throw away the old, and queue like androids to acquire the next i-prefixed gismo.

Ignoring the local folklore creatures, the modern notion of the vampire stems from The Vampyre by John Polidori. Since 1819, therefore, we’ve essentially been recycling the same trope of beings that feed on blood drawn from living creatures. In most cases, they return from the dead and exhibit other supernatural abilities including transformation into a bat or a mist form. The best exponents can also psychologically dominate their potential victims. So, whenever you see the magic word “vampires” or suitable images on jacket artwork, you know what you’re getting. The only variables are in the language and the way in which the vampirism is described, changing the market focus from forms suitable for children, addressing the teen market, and then delivering different adult plots depending on whether the vampires are straight or gay, self-reflective parasites or predatory killers.

Marion G Harmon a superhero beginning the breakthrough

We now come to Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon. Because he likes to keep his audience on their toes, this is the third book in the Wearing the Cape series, except it’s really 1.5, fitting between events described in Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. More importantly, it focuses on Jacky Bouchard aka Artemis, a relatively minor character in the first two books, and gives her a leading role in this intermediate book. Obviously, we’re still in The Post-Event World, i.e. individuals can react to life-threatening events by spontaneously developing breakthrough superpowers. This is relatively rare but, when it occurs, the individual’s new abilities or powers reflect something psychologically important to them. For our immediate purposes, it skews the usual vampire “parenting” trope. In most traditional stories, the existing bloodsucker will descend on the flock, gorge until sated, and then throw the dry husk away. This is the rational predator at work. If a biter uplifts a bitee every time it feeds, that’s a lot of competition emerging onto the meat market. Suddenly, the sheep grow alarmed by their losses and take defensive measures. Worse, the original vampire may have to fight newbies to establish and maintain territorial rights over the flock. Only in rare cases does a vampire intentionally create another. Well, courtesy of Marion G Harmon, we have a different route. If you’re a passionate vampirephile, you can breakthrough into superpowers except, instead of being faster than a speeding bullet, you’re sprouting fangs and suddenly terrified of eating a garlic sauce with your fettuccine.

This is no more disconcerting to society than developing the power to manipulate one of the elements or fly. Any power in the wrong hands can be a danger to those in the immediate area. So, in principle, you can have good and bad superpowered individuals, plus the opportunistic swingers. Our heroine is a good vampire who’s sent to New Orleans to help police the local vampires. State laws prevent them from feeding on humans under the age of eighteen, so age verification at the doors of pubs and clubs used by vampires has to be reliable. Fairly quickly, she realises there’s a more serious problem developing as a vampire may have broken through with the power to create other vampires. Alternatively, a new drug is enabling a small percentage of the users who die to be reborn as vampires. No matter which cause proves correct, the idea there may soon be a plague of vampires is something up with which society will not put. So Jacky, a local police officer with only a semi-controllable hairstyle, a member of the Catholic Inquisition, and a granny with a powerful mojo, take the side of righteousness and set out to save New Orleans, if not the world, from being overrun by an army of powerful predators.

The most pleasing aspect of this book is the rigorous way in which the author explores the new world. For example, who would have thought there could be such significant advantages to a vampire like Jacky when she goes breaking and entering. His analysis of the relative strengths of security systems including motion and heat sensors is great fun. Home security would need a whole new upgrade if vampires were real. The only minor problem is a slight straining of credibility in our heroine’s apparent lack of understanding of the relative strength and weakness of vampires. Speaking hypothetically, if I was suddenly to become a vampire, I would immediately begin a series of tests to discover exactly what my limits were. I would also seek expert advice from as many people as possible. After a few weeks, it would be very difficult to take me by surprise. While working with the Capes, Artemis has had many opportunities to talk with the leading experts in the field. Yet this book shows Jacky still relatively unprepared for taking on her own kind in New Orleans (although she does learn fast).

Bite Me: Big Easy Nights shows Marion G Harmon maturing as an author. This is an assured performance, nicely balancing interesting ideas against the need to propel the plot forward. More importantly, he’s also pushing the vampire trope into slightly less familiar territory. The blend of superhero and supernatural conventions is far more successful here than in the mass of urban fantasy novels which mix different types of being together and let them fight it out. You could read this as a standalone but, as is always the case in a series, it would be a richer experience if you’d read Wearing the Cape. So no more conservatism. Forget 1819. Rapidly accelerate past 1.0 and 2.0 and embrace the terrifying power of 1.5!

For reviews of other books by Marion G Harmon, see:
Small Town Heroes
Villains Inc
Wearing the Cape
Young Sentinels

A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review and you can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.

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