Friday, August 12, 2016
It feels good to hold this book in my hands. It's 220 pages, full color, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. This book is the counterpart to the Field Guide to Superheroes project I did with Vigilance Press, and both ultimately have their roots in a course on the Heroic Epic I took with Darren Miguez back in Vegas, so long ago I honestly don't remember the date.
The original list of 40 villainous archetypes didn't change too much from my initial list all those years ago, though it grew a little to include 21st century boogie-men like the Terrorist and the Evil CEO. A handful of the characters in this book were invented long ago for the Worlds of Wonder setting, but I always had more ideas for heroes in WoWo than I did villains, which is why the Field Guide to Superheroes was so easy and the Handbook took many years. I have come a long way when it comes to collaboration; I have learned to let artists design, because they do that better than me, and I have learned a bit about how to nudge concepts artists give me into something I am more enthusiastic about writing.
One of the key parts of this book is the YOUniverse, which is a setting embracing the concept of public domain. There are several public domain characters in this book, including the Black Terror, Hugo Danner, Stardust the Super-Wizard, Women in Red, Miss/Black Fury, Green Turtle, Night Bird, Wolf Savage, and even Dracula, Robur the Conqueror, Captain Hook, and the Egyptian sorceress called the Beetle. Other public domain characters -- like Sherlock Holmes, Amazing Man, and Lash Lightning -- feature in the background of these characters even if they're not personally represented. But all the 55 characters in the Handbook are public domain, even if they did not start off that way. I did this for a very specific reason: I was tired of inventing settings which, a few years later, I could not continue writing because someone else owned them. This happened with Worlds of Wonder. I didn't want to spend all that time making something and then be unable to develop it. Mike was totally supportive of the idea of making the characters public domain, which was totally against his own self-interest. I can't express how grateful I am.
The idea of including support for running super villain RPGs came from reader feedback. I was initially cold on the idea, as I prefer games in which the players cooperate and are heroic. But as I delved into the idea and read up on what other writers had done with it, I began to see how I could help GMs and players in an all-villains game. I ended up with nine different campaign models for super villain gaming, and most of them, I would totally be happy playing in.
We priced this book at $20 which, honestly, is a steal. For a book this size, with interior color art, the fair price is at least $25 and maybe $30. If you buy the print book, you also get the PDF for free (something I first saw with Evil Hat's Fate games, and loved).
If you are interested in super villains -- how they are portrayed in comics, TV and film, the stories they tell, and the symbolic meanings they embody -- I think you'll like this book. And if you're a gamer, you'll love it.
Check it out.
Friday, August 5, 2016
I also managed to avoid watching any of the many (so many!) trailers and promo spots for the new SUICIDE SQUAD film. I did, however, read that the film went back for extensive re-shoots after the two-hit combo that was BATMAN V SUPERMAN and DEADPOOL. The first film was panned for bleak and pessimistic tone and for being a confusing muddle; the second took the superhero audience by storm, proving that a film does not need to cost $250 million to be fun, edgy, or funny. I haven't reviewed DEADPOOL here and it seems too late to do so now, but I'd like to go on the record as saying I respect Ryan Reynolds as a man who not only isn't afraid to make fun of himself, but who is talented enough to do it well.
But back to SUICIDE SQUAD, which I approached with a relatively open mind.
SUICIDE SQUAD is not a bad movie, but it is a deeply flawed movie. This flaw does not lie in the performances, which range from serviceable to solid to, actually, rather touching. Everyone will rave about Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, for good reason. She is charismatic and her tale is half the movie. But I was personally struck by Jay Hernandez's El Diablo, a character I had never heard of till now and would have pegged as "one of the guys whose head blows up to show the audience how those neck-bombs work" if I was just looking at the cast photo.
Likewise, the flaw is not in how the film was shot, which is serviceable enough if as hard to follow as you would imagine when all the bad guys are wearing black and it's always night out.
The flaw is not in the casting, though I have to agree with friend of the blog Marc Singer who notes that Will Smith is playing the wrong part. He really should be Flagg in this movie. But Smith is a talented actor and Deadshot has been re-imagined to suit him. He pulls it off. Like many, I was not quite sure what to make of Jared Leto's Joker before the film began, and I have heard horror stories of his performance on the set, but honestly his take on Joker was solid. His physical appearance has been pushed so far into "edgy" that it is a self-parody, but the performance itself is perfectly good. Honestly. I mean, if you're a Jared Leto hater, you really should not let that stop you from seeing his Joker. He's good. There's even a couple references to well-known Joker/Harley moments in this film. Fan service!
No, the flaw in this film is entirely structural, and comes from the film's last-minute rewrite, reshoot, and tonal change in the wake of BvS/Deadpool. And, unfortunately, it is obvious from quite literally the first few minutes of the film, because the two headliners -- Smith's Deadshot and Robbie's Harley -- are both introduced to the audience AT LEAST THREE TIMES EACH. And then Amanda Waller goes on to be rescued TWICE. And the people who were written into the script to die don't die, because the climax has been re-shot to make it more optimistic and less in line with "the DC Murderverse." In this, SUICIDE SQUAD resembles nothing so much as the latest attempt to make FANTASTIC FOUR, when Josh Trank's bizarre and relatively interesting body horror movie which just happened to have the names of four people from an old comic book was cut in half and given a head transplant from a lazy superhero paint-by-numbers TV pilot.
Let's take these one at a time and start with the character introductions. Now, this film has an ensemble cast and aside from Joker and Harley (thanks, B:TAS!), most people in your target audience are not going to know who any of these people are. So it is absolutely necessary to introduce them. But this film does so serially, introducing them first, and then again, and then again: once in a more subtle "let's show them to you and let you learn about them from what they do" way (Deadshot and Harley in their cells, interacting with guards) and once as pure exposition: Amanda Waller walks into a room with a few generals and just straight up shows them her laminated copy of WHO'S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE. Now, I don't know for sure which one of these two introductions was David Ayer's, but the second one feels like flop sweat. "Audiences are never gonna keep track of all this shit. They need to be spoon-fed." And then we get a purely unnecessary scene in which Deadshot makes so many head-shots that he literally burns holes through three metal targets, just to show us (AGAIN!) what he can do. And so the introductions seem to go on forever and ever, strung out all the way to Slipknot, last to appear and introduced with a single line of exposition. When I saw that, I knew my first guess about "dude whose head blows up to show the audience how that works" was wrong. If that intro had been much earlier in the film, and less time had been spent going over and over Deadshot and Harley, we might not have seen the strings, and the repeated introductions of the same characters makes the first reel of the film take forever.
The Squad loads up on a helicopter and flies out to Midway City where the big bad is. Except that ... Their mission is not to take out the big bad? Their mission is to rescue someone? And then they're done? Flagg says explicitly this. The seams of the rewrite is showing. Was SUICIDE SQUAD originally more of an Escape from New York plot (OMG YES) in which the Squad has to go into this war zone and bring out someone, but along the way they learn the real truth and take it into their own hands? I would have loved that movie. It looks to me like the whole big bad CGI fest at the end is tacked on from the rewrite. But back to Waller. We spend quite a long time working our way through the streets of the city (um... Who shot down the helicopter? How come this is never addressed? Seams. Something big was cut -- probably a big sequence in which an army is initially sent into the city, only to be converted into minions of the Big Bad, and we would see the converted-army's anti-aircraft weaponry being set up or something). And when she is rescued it's played as a climactic moment; the entire Squad is shocked to learn Waller is the person who has been trapped. And then they put her on a helicopter and she gets ONE MILE before she is shot down and captured AGAIN.
Okay, this is just really obvious. Characters have had a lot at stake rescuing Waller. El Diablo violates his code to rescue her. She murders perfectly nice innocent people as she is rescued. The Joker shows up and rescues Harley, and Deadshot lets her escape. Big shit went down. And then, five minutes later, Waller is captured again, Harley has returned to the group, Diablo is again afraid to use his powers. It's like the whole fight to rescue Waller the first time was for nothing. The audience's investment has been wasted. The seams are showing. Unless you're John Byrne, the man who killed Wonder Woman twice in three issues, no writing team would fall back on "well, let's just re-capture Waller" unless there was simply no time, budget, or logistics for any other option. Waller's recapture sets up the new climax, with its CGI Big Bad on a closed set. I wonder what the original ending of the movie was gonna be like.
And I'm pretty sure Boomerang and Katana were going to die. Let's be honest, for a group called SUICIDE SQUAD, very few members of the team die in this movie. In THE DIRTY DOZEN, the original template for Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, only one man survives. In this film, there's Slipknot (who cares) and, in the climax, El Diablo. That's it. Everyone else makes it, and it's a big cast. Who else died in the original ending? My money is on Boomerang and Katana, because they are watered-down versions of Deadshot and Harley. Boomerang is basically a normal guy who, instead of shooting guns, throws things, killing people except with less reliability. He flirts with Katana in a way very similar to the way Deadshot and Harley bond, only not as well. He's more laughed-at than laughed-with. He inexplicably carries around a stuffed unicorn, his surrogate for Deadshot's off-camera little girl. Harley is pining for Joker, whom she actually believes to be dead for a while, just as Katana is pining for her long-lost husband. The scenes in which Katana talks to her sword are parallel to Harley's recurring glimpses at her phone, where Joker is texting her. One has a sword, the other a baseball bat. The only reason you create two pairs of characters this similar is if you intend to kill off one of the pairs to create catharsis surrounding the survival of the other pair. Boomerang and Katana's deaths become "it could have been me/us/them" moments for both Deadshot/Harley and we, the audience. But instead, out of a fear they'd be accused of "Murderverse" again, of being "too dark and gloomy", Captain Boomerang and Katana are spared. Flop sweat strikes again.
For many audiences, the flaws in SUICIDE SQUAD produced by the tortured method of the film's production may not be obvious. Viewers will complain about the beginning of the film, which will seem to repeat itself or drag. They will complain about the film "skipping around a lot" or "not making sense," as if films like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR make a lick of god-damned sense. What these audiences are really seeing is how a film becomes compromised when the studio panics. I don't know what Ayer's original film would have been like. Maybe it would have been dark and gloomy. Maybe it would have been pessimistic. But it still would have had some strong performances, a dynamic and charismatic set of leads, and a pretty interesting Joker. It would have rewarded audience investment. It would have had a better payoff. The seams wouldn't be showing.