The Avengers

Summary: If you like action movies, comic book movies, special effects, Jos Whedon’s work, or pop culture experiences: go see it. It’s worth seeing on a big screen with the sound a bit too loud.

Fair warning, there will be spoilers below. If you have a problem with that stop reading now.

As some of you may know, I’ve been an Avengers fan for the majority of my life. I was thirteen years old when I picked up a copy of West Coast Avengers issue #31. The next month I picked up Avengers #291, and from there on I was hooked. I own 90% of the issues published (including the myriad of spin-offs) between 1963 and 2006, when I decided to spend my discretionary money on LEGO instead of comics which just become increasingly difficult to store over time. I grew into my adulthood with the Avengers. I said this to give some context so that you might understand why I had been dreading and looking forward for this movie to come out ever since they released the first Iron Man movie in 2008.

Because it’s exceedingly early in the morning and I’m feeling like rambling, I will say that Iron Man is not my favorite Avenger. That would be Hawkeye, followed pretty closely by Captain Marvel (Monica Lambeau), She-Hulk, Captain America, and Hank Pym (Yes, really: Hank Pym). However the first Iron MAn movie was really excellently done. The updated the origin story in a way that made sense, they cast a nearly ideal actor for Tony Stark, and it really worked on a lot of levels and was very enjoyable to watch. For me it really hasn’t lost much of it’s luster either and when I saw it earlier today on the big screen again, it was still a thrill. It also started a flicker of hope that when the eventual Avengers movie arrived it would be worth seeing.

Oh yeah: I arrived at a local movie theater today at 11:10am so that I could watch Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton version, not the crappy Ang Lee versions), Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and then (at midnight) The Avengers. To be honest I had already been planning on doing essentially this at home however the allure of doing so with a big screen, though without a pause button, was too much to pass up, and I’m glad I did it. It was an excellent opportunity to interact with fellow fans of all kinds and see the movies in a format that does them credit. It doesn’t quite feel like I actually spent 16 hours at the theater yet, though I’m pretty sure it will in the morning. Well, later this morning. Or perhaps this afternoon. Anyway…

As I said on Twitter while waiting for the traffic to clear out of the parking lot: I have a few quibbles with the movie but overall it was quite good and I am likely to see it at least one more time in the theater. I think it was true to the spirit of the comics and worked pretty well in the universe they’ve created with the movies so far. I was thrilled to see Maria Hill as a character, and a pretty kick-ass one at that, and having Hawkeye as a founding member in this version of the Avengers was a treat for me though really not nearly enough of him since he spent half the movie on the bad guy’s team against his own free will.

It was every bit a Joss Whedon movie. Long sections following a particular piece of the action without a cut. Witty dialog and the almost trademark humor. And he kills off a fan favorite character. I’ve really enjoyed the Agent Coulson character through the various movies. The way the actor continued to pull off understatement in the face of everything going on around him in some cases had him stealing scenes. During the marathon they had specially shot introductions to each of the five preceding movies with just Coulson talking to the camera for a couple of minutes and they were all funny and endearing and added to the experience. (I’ll be shocked if they aren’t a DVD extra) For those who may not be familiar with Mr Whedon’s previous history on this point, it’s an actual thing. Assuming he had the choice, I can see why he picked Coulson. Hill didn’t have enough time on screen to have enough impact. Nick Fury is… well, Nick Fury. I’m sure he’ll die someday. Or maybe not. Hawkeye or The Black Widow? It’s not worth killing off a character you can milk for merchandising and possible sequels later. Any of the big three (Cap, Thor, Iron Man) is pretty close to inconceivable for somewhat obvious reasons, including the previous. Hulk? Ditto. I don’t really pay much attention to channels that might have leaked Coulson’s death before hand. I don’t actively avoid spoilers, but I don’t generally seek them out. So when The Avengers finally started to roll tonight I went into it actively watching for who I thought he might take out, and I didn’t see it coming. Here’s the thing: Having that sort of reputation means that every time he does it, the impact is lessened and in the case of a character I really liked and to some extent cared about, I think it seriously cheapened the whole thing.

Oh look, Mr. Whedon killed off somebody we care about again. Ho hum.

I think I’m pretty much done with that Mr. Whedon. We get the point. We got the point before Serenity. Now that you’ve done it in a movie that a hugely significant portion of the population of the western hemisphere is likely to see I think it’s time to move on before that horse you are beating becomes less then paste.

Moving on, we have the three female characters with names in the movie. I’m not sure if I should feel elated or disappointed that there were three real characters with speaking parts that were female in a mega-blockbuster comic book movie. Given the demographics at the marathon that I was at today, which was at least 30% women (Really. Yes, I was a little surprised. And clearly MANY, or possibly most, were there NOT because they came with their boyfriends) having 25% of the major cast being female isn’t too bad for this kind of movie. Somewhat more interesting was the kind of range I thought the characters had. Maria Hill is a soldier, and as previously mentioned a pretty kick-ass one. On the other end of the spectrum, Pepper Pots played a purely supporting role as essentially a wife (Sure, not married, but whatever). Granted, a wife that didn’t put up with much from her husband and can give back in kind but unlike the strong, take-charge Pepper Potts we saw in the first two movies the very first opportunity for her to leave town for safety she gets sent packing. And then there was Natasha Romanov, The Black Widow.

Of ALL of the characters who should have emotional issues in the Avengers, it’s the Hulk. It’s kind of his thing. Yes, occasionally in the comics for whatever reason he gets over it temporarily. It is always, however, temporary. Why in this movie is the Hulk over his anger issues but they go back to the 1960’s to play out the Widow/Hawkeye stuff? I can tell you, it wasn’t very good the first time around and it didn’t come off a lot better this time. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong on that point but it didn’t quite feel right. I’m looking forward to hearing a feminist deconstruction of the character.

One last set of thoughts, and then I really must go to bed.

In all of my time reading comics the cliche that has always irritated me most is the bit where the good guys have to fight one another for the first half of a story. I know some people seem to adore that bit and debate endless who could beat-up who scenarios but I was bored with them before I was done being a teenager and have only thought the pretense for that particular brand of fan-service to have gotten more and more irritating since then. It will surprise no one then when I saw that in some ways that the big fight between Thor and The Hulk was the most boring part of the movie. I really thought about going and getting some more pop, maybe stroll to the bathroom, and then take in some movie posters but I figured how long could they possibly take to wank on the screen? Nearly 20 minutes is the answer, and it was about 19 minutes too long. The bit not long after that where they’re all in a conference room and bickering? That was fine. That shows actual relationships and conflicts of interest and all sorts of interesting stuff. But who would win if Thor and the Hulk got in a fight and Captain America tries to break it up? WHO THE FUCK CARES! That said, the single punch delivered by Hulk to Thor in the big battle at the end? Unnecessary, but funny.

No tag for this post.

It never ends up like the magazine photo

I think that there is a truism in cooking that US media producers should keep in mind: It never ends up like the magazine photo. If you have ever done any amount of cooking you’ll know this fact, if not in those words. Even if the sum total of culinary creation you have indulged in extends as far as pressing buttons on a microwave you can not have failed to notice that the contents of the tray you pull out of the microwave has barely a passing resemblance to the “Serving Suggestion” pictured on the box. Attempts at real cooking with fancy ingredients inspired by the glossy pictures that face you down in the grocery store check out line only fare somewhat better, even if the flavor of the result hopefully knocks your socks off. The lesson learned fairly quickly from cooking is essentially that there are two kinds of recipes: The kind of recipe that makes something taste/feel a particular way, and the kind of recipe that makes something look a particular way. Unless it’s a photography magazine, generally the recipe is for how something tastes and that’s usually a good thing.

I think that begins to describe what happened with the BBC’s attempt at making a Top Gear series specifically for US audiences. In this case I think they had one of those recipes, but it appears to be the recipe (formula) from the photography magazine. You know, the one that says to use glue as the milk in cereal so that it looks right. Despite all the stories of kids eating glue in grade school, I never tried it more then once and while watching the episode “Cobra Attack” I was reminded why I never liked the taste of it very much.

There are definitely good things about the show but they seem to be largely mixed in with the bad. Adam Ferrara in particular embodied several of them. For example, his detailed deciphering of a Lamborghini model number was really useful information and was presented in a way that was interesting. On the other hand his interview of the legendary Buzz Aldrin was… not interesting. A full two minutes is given to the conversation between the two and as far as I can tell it was two minutes too long simply because the photography style recipe had been doggedly followed without any apparent understanding about why it works for Jeremy Clarkson. That formula must say that there should be some pleasant chit-chat and then the host eventually asks about the cars the guest has driven, followed by a softball along the lines of, “How did you like the track?” to move things along to the video replay of the celebrities attempt to drive quickly in a slow car.

I think one of the key reasons why it works for Mr Clarkson and not for Mr. Ferrara is that Clarkson at least looks like he is interested in the answers to the questions he is asking. For the first 40 seconds on the interview Adam seems to make an attempt to be genuinely interested in asking about Aldrin’s career and experience and then spends the remaining 1 min 20 seconds seemingly bored by asking rote “How about the blah blah?” from a list, even when Buzz at least tries to make those answers at least passably interesting. I would really be curious to see the rest of the footage from this section. Was there really nothing else more interesting to show the viewers?

In any case, the point of those questions is not to find out the details of what the guest has driven previously in any sort of detail, but instead it is to determine what kind of driver the guest is. Are they used to driving sports cars? Do they regularly drive at all? Are they a lead-foot or are they cautious? It gives information about the character of the guest which can be interesting. This recitation was not.

That kind of slavish copying of the style and rote of the original Top Gear series permeates the entire episode and are the key to the problems with the show. The main feature of this episode, and the source of the title, is a chase between a Dodge Viper and a Huey Cobra helicopter. Wow, I haven’t seen anything like that before. Oh, wait. A highlight of the next episode is a race against downhill skiers. Wait, not this one.

The flavor of the original Top Gear series is not attained by following that photographic formula to the letter. It is done by selecting the ingredients carefully and paying attention to what is happening in your pot while they cook. It doesn’t matter if the recipe says “high heat” if on your stove it starts to burn immediately. You turn the heat down! More apropos of this episode: a “pinch” of salt is a highly subjective measurement and should be adjusted to the taste of the audience.

One thought in fairness though, is that I have only seen episodes of the UK series after it had a chance to mature. I only have access to Season 6 and later easily, and so that is primarily what I have seen. Given enough time it is feasible that this lame copy could find it’s own voice. I suppose I just don’t trust that will happen. In that vein I asked people for good examples of UK media properties that had been remade in the US. The only examples that had come to mind for me had been the highly unfortunate “Coupling” by NBC. On balance there are several good examples including “Antiques Roadshow” (which I had thought was originally from the US), “American Idol”, and “The Office”. Now, I don’t particularly like either incarnation of those last two but that doesn’t make them bad shows in either form and I don’t think it’s fair to simply lump this attempt into something that could just be a popular misconception.

So is the US version of Top Gear a travesty? Heck no. The aforementioned bit explaining Lamborghini model numbers is a good example of when it really works. Similarly the graphic overlay of the guest’s position on the track while watching the lap is a nice touch, though using some transparency effects to make it slightly less prominent would be nice. Those kinds of little touches show that there is something there but unfortunately I think that by following the wrong formula a little too well makes the entirety end up tasting just like the paper those magazine photos are printed on.

Things you should know about HDTV

I’ve been running into a huge number of people who don’t understand what’s going on with HDTV lately, so I figured I needed to put something out for the couple of people who do read my blog.

  1. The HD broadcast switch is a funded federal mandate. (see item #3)
  2. You do not have to get rid of your existing TV unless you really want to. (see item#3)
  3. Every household in the US is entitled to two (2) coupons good for free HD to SD content converters. You can get your coupon from https://www.dtv2009.gov/. These are set top boxes that go from a standard pair of rabbit ears or whatever you’re using as an antenna to your TV and let you watch HD content on your regular old non-HD TV.
  4. You are getting something (two things!) from the government for FREE here people.
  5. If you plan to continue using a VCR or other SD equipment (Tivo series 1 and 2, Windows MCE, MythTV, etc) to record programming make sure that you get a converter box that can change channels on a schedule or can be controlled by your recording equipment. If your recording equipment has built in schedules of some kind they may not match the new HD lineup and schedule.
  6. Shop for a new TV carefully. Just because you buy a new “HD capable” TV does not mean you can just hook up an antenna and start getting HD content. Many “HD Capable” TVs sold do not include an HD tuner (though it’s better than it used to be) since for the most part the manufacturer’s figure that you will have either a cable box or satellite receiver that will do the tuning instead. A TV with an HD tuner will likely cost $100-$200 more than an otherwise identical model.
  7. Not all HD capable TVs are widescreen. Many manufacturers make several “normal” (4:3 aspect ratio) sets that are just as “HD capable” as their widescreen versions.
  8. Not all HD capable TVs are light and thin. I personally own a ~125lb 30in widescreen CRT that I really quite like except when I decide to move it up or down stairs. CRTs still for the most part look better than other competing technologies. The problem is that, as evidenced by my 125lb wonder of modern technology, the technology does not scale well to really big screens.
  9. “Plasma” TVs use much more power than a similarly sized CRT. Really big plasma TVs use proportionally more power. My brother heats his living room with his (Not a joke).
  10. LCD TVs use much less power than a similarly sized CRT. Really big LCD TVs use proportionally more power which may actually be more than your current 27in non-HD TV uses. Do not take the word of the salesman at the store on this one, get a Kill-A-Watt and find out for yourself.
  11. The biggest downside to many of the non-CRT technologies is that they can be very difficult to see anything when you are not directly in front of them (though it is much better than it was a few years ago). Some sets are much better than others. If the comfy chair is off in a corner you may not be able to watch anything on that big new thing heating the living room. Before you go to the store, figure out where you might end up trying to watch it from in your room and figure out what that distance and angle are and try and replicate it in the store to see what it will look like.
  12. A 30in widescreen TV has a picture that is about the same size vertically as a 27in “normal” (4:3) TV. Remember that the measurement is diagonal.
  13. You do not have to have cable or satellite to get local broadcast HD channels. Most satellite receivers get their local HD content from an antenna you hook up to the back of them. Some cable systems don’t display all of the local HD channels.
  14. Most cable systems highly compress their content so it is very possible that NBC/ABC/CBS/FOX/PBS/CW/etc might look better from an antenna in your area.
  15. Not all content from HD sources is really HD. There’s quite a bit of programming (especially children’s and daytime programming) that is still displayed in SD. Re-runs of Cheers and Friends will always be in SD. The HD source might make it look a bit better than the old SD signal though.
  16. Not all stations that are broadcasting in HD are broadcasting HD content at all. Up until Fall of 2007 my local CW affiliate in particular was broadcasting everything in 480P which meant the widescreen dramas (Like Smallville) get shrunk to fit the lower resolution and looked really bad on my widescreen set with black bars on all sides. (Thanks to Aaron for pointing out they had changed over) Still, it is something to watch for in your area, especially on stations that are not affiliated with the big four networks.

That’s all that I can think of right now but if anyone has any questions feel free to ask them. If I don’t know the answer I’m more than willing to look them up.

Chicken or Egg?

So I am just about done with Star Trek: Next Generation Season 4 through Netflix, and my understanding is that there is some overlap between that Star Trek: Deep Space 9. So my question is: Is there a particular combination that I should watch them in so that they make the most sense in the shared continuity, or does it not matter?

For example, should I setup my queue so that I get ST:TNG S5 D1 at the same time that I get ST:DS9 S1 D1, or should I watch all of ST:TNG S5 and then watch all of ST:DS9 S1, or the other way around.

Any advice on this would be greatly appreciated.

Oh, and while I’m on the topic: I find it very interesting finally getting to a season where I have seen absolutely none of the episodes. Since I have seen some of the later episodes, finding answers to things like “Who is the little Klingon hanging around Worf?” and “Cardassians? Who are they?” is really a pretty big relief. While I understood that Alexander was Worf’s son, I never really knew how that had happened and, in fact, had never seen the episode where Worf got together with the mother until I finally saw that in June or July.

Though honestly I find it a bit hard to take that there had been a major bloddy war going on with the Cardassians during the entire first two years of the show and they never quite bothered to mention it. I smell RetCon!

Update: I did check around a bit more and I think I’m going to watch DS9 S1 after I finish TNG S6.

Intermitent immediate gratification

For those who have not been keeping up with the news, Netflix has recently started the rollout of their long anticipated electronic service, called “Watch Now” to complement their existing DVD-by-Mail service. The rollout is being staged to their various million subscribers and I am lucky enough to be one of the relatively early accounts to have the feature activated. As has been covered elsewhere pretty thoroughly, the selection is not huge yet but there is definately stuff worth watching and I am most interested to see if I can get it working through any part of Windows Media Center Edition. I haven’t seen anything that says it’s not possible since it does seem to be using some variation of streaming WMV, so hopefully when I have time to really take a look tomorrow I’ll be able to find out for certain.

Never quite Lost it

I finished watching Lost Season 2 on DVD (out from Netflix) last night, or all of the episodes anyway. (I didn’t realize disc 7 was just extras until I watched the last episode on disc 6 last night which was very obviously a cliffhanger.)

I had talked with a friend about it just as the first disc was arriving and she had mentioned that she wasn’t interested in seeing Season 2 because she was apparantly tired of the neverending slow reveal of mysteries paired with just a bit too much posing. I just wanted to know what was in the hatch.

Honestly, I almost agreed with her when I had finished the first of six discs of episodes. Specifically episodes 1-3 where, I think, possibly the most grotesquely painful replaying of the same 10 minutes of footage that I have ever seen on television. Yes, the hatch opening was a big deal for the series but you don’t spend three entire episodes without moving on to something, ANYTHING, else.

The good news? As soon as they got over themselves and got on with the rest of the season things took off very nicely and I really think there was enough balance of interesting new mysteries along with answers for the old mysteries even if not complete, and usually leading to new mysteries. The last episode of Season 2 alone was a great payoff for answering quite a few issues and I was reasonably happy with most, thought not all, of the answers.

Was there still maybe a whole lot of posing? Hell yes, but I think there may have been slightly less than in Season 1. I also had some small issues with the overly melodramatic continuing epic saga of the stunning and dramatic love triangle supreme of all time, space, and eternity that is Sawyer, Kate, and Jack’s story of love, unrequited and not, spurned and returned, and flowing through the, well, you get the idea. It runs on even worse than that last sentence. Possibly the most irritating thing about it though is that I think I might know people just like that.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for neverending plot lines, my 85% complete run of the Avengers comic from Marvel not being another indication, but I thought it was fun and it succeeded just as well as Season 1 at making me nervous to be alone in the dark after the TV had been turned off.

Update: Intelliflix

Just an update about how Intelliflix is doing. I decided back in July that it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to cancel my prepaid 1 year membership, so I’m just keeping track of how it’s performing at this point.

A couple of interesting tidbits:

  • The inventory of Xbox 360 titles displayed on their site has not changed since I joined on April 8, 2006, even though 24 titles have been released since then.
  • I have received exactly 2 game discs from Intelliflix, both of them Xbox games. (I joined because they advertised that they rented Xbox 360 games.)
  • I have received a total of 25 discs from Intelliflix in the time that I have received 69 discs from Netflix.
  • It takes an average of 6 days for a movie to report as “shipped” before I see it in my mailbox. (Fastest: 3 days. Longest: 10)
  • It takes an average of 4 days for a movie to be reported as “returned” after I ship it back. (Fastest: 3 days. Longest: 5 days)
  • Longest time between shipments in a queue: 52 days. (At the suggestion of their customer support department, I have my account split into 3 queues. The “game” queue has shipped 2 discs to me in the time that it has existed, I have received one of those. The queue was created on July 5, 2006.)
  • The most notable feature added to their website is that now they tell you which of the items in your queue they apparently do not have in their inventory.

As you can see I’m still not particularly happy with the service, but I think it would be far more trouble to cancel my 1 year prepaid membership than to continue to track how well they are doing and maybe satisfy my curiosity about whether they actually have any Xbox 360 games at all or not.