Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dope Island: The Fiend's superhero fix for those of you who couldn't go to Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The closest thing I had to New Year's resolution this year was that I'd start posting my dreams/nightmares online. If I haven't followed through, it's mainly because most of my dreams, as I can best foggily recall, were not of a very interesting nature. 

But I had a great one the other night. In it, I finally, FINALLY got hired at a local newspaper. I think it was the Morning Journal of Lorain, for whom I freelanced for 18 years before they downsized me (and just about everyone else) out a few years ago. But here, I was back on the team. When I showed up at the place you would never dream it was a financially struggling Ohio daily. The news offices were like a chain of airplane hangars or big-box stores, just vast spaces. Moreover, there was some kind of epic corporate musical-party celebration going on.  


Because it’s my dream, I guess, movies were the theme. There were some kind of full-costumed interactive singers, dancers, props, vehicles and performers all over the place, attired like cast members from GHOSTBUSTERS or GONE WITH THE WIND or gladiator or cowboy pictures, and many more I doubtless forget. It was an incredible, lavish display, but for some reason I was strongly cautioned to stay in my appointed work-area suite, not wander from annex to annex while the revues were all going on constantly.

During the fun I tried to get a conversation going with my new editor, who was an ever-smiling nice-mannered southern-type lady. I wanted to know basic things, like my new Morning Journal work hours and deadlines, duties, and whether I was part time/full time/freelance. Her dismissive responses started to get a little bit sharper and steelier, as though these were rude questions not worth answering. I got a sense that if I asked any more I would be out of a job again, so I just tried to watch the show. I still somehow managed to be buffeted by all the action and choreography into a meeting-room, where a big production number inspired by ALIEN (!) was having technical delays. That’s about when I woke up.

Let’s leave the Freudian interpretation of my pathetic subconscious aside for a moment and get to the point, finally: where in Rust-Belt Ohio can you really find something with the Hollywood glamour and glitz akin to what I have just described? The only thing I can imagine that comes remotely close is the local premiere of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, the latest Marvel Comics superhero movie to shoot in Cleveland.

Remember when the filming closed down roads all over Cuyahoga County last year? I think some people are still stuck in traffic. Probably just skeletons in their automobiles now, but never mind them, it’s movie time! The debut screening of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE or whatever the hell it's called, is going to be at the Valley View multiplex, with local dignitaries and what passes for celebs on the red carpet, is the hottest film ticket in town.

Meaning, of course, that those tickets are quite scarce and expensive. After the elites snap them up, it’s a cinch most of the Cleveland Movie Blog readers will be too poor to be able to go, even assuming you can get a night off from one of your dead-end-minimum-wage jobs. And even if you do get in, chances are that Cleveland’s few super-rich types in the CAPTAIN AMERICA audience will just take the opportunity to chloroform you during the screening, fly you to their private jungle island, arm you with minimal survival tools, and hunt you down as human prey in the rainforest, for their sadistic and depraved pleasure. I just have a feeling that could happen.

So how to get a superhero infusion anyway, when you can’t attend the biggest Cleveland movie-and-superhero event of this or any year? I can help, with a suggestion of a marathon double-bill of some of the smartest superhero team-up stuff since The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the books, not the movie). This little information provided courtesy of my low-paying side job watching the latest English dubs of Japanese animation.

Seems there is a Japanese “manga” (comic-book, to us barbarians) creator named Masakazu Katsura who ought to be a nerd icon; he’s put a lot of deep thought into the costumed-avenger genre in his work, and it just so happens that quality cartoon adaptations of two of his series have just come out simultaneously.
Know that DVD/Blu-Rays of these two series amount to around 8 to 10 hours of mind-breaking superhero viewing. But I promise, you won’t regret making the acquaintance of ZETMAN and TIGER & BUNNY – THE MOVIE: THE BEGINNING.

Really, as a post-modern saga of dysfunctional super-beings, ZETMAN made me think of WATCHMEN, and that is high praise. Masakazu submits for your approval the saga of childhood pals-turned-semi-foes Kouga Amagi and Jin Kanzaki. As a wealthy boy, superhero-obsessed Kouga teamed up with homeless waif Jin to fight Tokyo bullies and lawbreakers. But Jin did most of the heavy-lifting work, literally, being an experimental sort of homunculus. Though Jin is human in appearance he was secretly bred in a corporate lab alongside monstrous "Players" - homicidal, shape-shifting mutants used in cruel, gladiatorial duels, related to military R&D.

As young adults, Kouga has been built up by the media, mecha-suit technology and his wealthy, ambitious family as a sort of Iron Man-type celebrity, who may someday be able to parley his popularity into public office. Meanwhile, Jin – also known as `Zet' - has suffered the loss of the old homeless guy who was actually the scientist who made him. Jin makes a deal with his sinister successor-creators to hunt down and kill misbehaving fellow Players, who are hiding incognito in society, some as normal people, others as vicious predators.

Both superheroes are awesomely flawed. Kouga suffers from simplistic black-and-white morality and ego, while Jin's poorly understood Zet powers are inconsistent, and there are hints that he’s programmed to go bad as he evolves into the ultimate lethal master mutant he was designed to be.

Writing and plotting are as razor-sharp as a morphed Player’s claws. If you’re a fantasy fan but have never sat through a modern, non My-Little-Pony anime show, you’ll be pretty much spoiled here. This one goes to the edge with twisted morality and unexpected shocks, such as when rapists have to be rescued, and a ballroomful of winsome Tokyo schoolgirls get gorily slaughtered one at a time.

Compared to ZETMAN, Masakazu Katsura’s TIGER & BUNNY is obviously larkish, action-comedy stuff, but it still brings intellect to the post-modern superhero satire we’d all thought had been tapped out (you there, who thinks it’s time for a Howard the Duck reboot, please make like a Malaysian airliner and disappear). Strung together out of TV episodes (but looking like a million bucks, er, yen, all the same), it's the feature-length origin-movie of a popular television anime set in high-tech all-purpose metropolis Stern Bild (a place which looks like Cleveland would, if the Avenue at Tower City somehow grew and covered all of Cuyahoga County).

Here is where a "Hero TV" reality show focuses on costumed crimefighters, who have become all the rage since a vague cosmic event endowed assorted individuals with varied powers a few years back. Now the resulting superheroes' televised adventures are treated like sporting events, with an omnipresent camera team, announcer/commentators, and point-scores and popularity polls contriving WWF-style drama and competition between the good guys - who wear real-life corporate logos on their outfits.

There’s Blue Rose, a sexy girl who can freeze things; there’s Sky High, whose talent is flying (though in a neat minor detail he confesses shamefully that he can only really float like a balloon; he needs a jetpack to actually go anywhere); there’s Fire Emblem, a swishy and funky gay variation on the Human Torch. That’s right - a literally flaming homosexual. Seriously, you think CAPTAIN AMERICA has anything cleverer than that?

As TIGER & BUNNY begins, Barnaby Brooks, Jr., is a young blond hunk with short-duration super-strength, new to Hero TV’s scorecard and groomed to be a fan favorite. He thus becomes the rival of veteran do-gooder (and widowed single father) Wild Tiger. Sponsors demand the fading Tiger team with the rising Barnaby (whom Tiger nicknames `Bunny' in scorn), with the humiliating detail that the aging Tiger has been demoted. To sidekick.

The team tackles a few tricky cases edited in from the early TV episodes, like a plague of living statues and a slippery teleporting supervillain, while Barnaby learns the ropes of being a superhero, and his relationship with Wild Tiger becomes more complex. There isn’t a firm resolution at the end – it’s obviously an ongoing thing. The preview of the later season of the show seem to indicate (and this is common in anime, even the sillier ones) that things will get much darker, as Barnaby investigates the conspiracy over his parents' unsolved murder.

Still, I had lots of fun with TIGER & BUNNY, even as I thought nothing could possibly top ZETMAN. And both originated with one guy, Masakazu Katsura, whom I sincerely hope will leave Japan before the nuke-plant radioactivity gets to him; I don’t believe it really endows superpowers, sorry.

I’ve saved the best for last. The bonus disc in TIGER & BUNNY: THE MOVIE, at least in the Blu-ray edition I watched, is a spectacle all in itself, the
2012 premiere showing of TIGER & BUNNY: THE MOVIE in Japan in 2012.

It’s no mere red-carpet parades of speeches, but rather a feature-length live variety show (that was simulcast throughout the Far East at the time), with the Japanese voice actors PLUS anime characters in full cosplay -costume mode (Sky High flies!). The voice thesps do comedy skits, interview each other, sing and dance, and yield the enormous stage to guest Japanese rock bands and solo artists. Holy expletive deleted, Batman! It looks like the biggest fun any movie or superhero fan could have, outside of my dream about the Morning Journal the other day.

Sorry, Cinemark Valley View has a loooong way to go to beat that. And comfort yourself as you watch this double-bill and feel that you’ve had a marvelous time after all, without wasting the gas money. You and I both.

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