Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: E. Philipps Oppenheim's The Double Four

As The Double Four opens country squire Peter Ruff is summoned to Paris to meet with the mysterious old woman heading the titular organization, with which he has previously been deeply involved. At the meeting he finds the leader on her deathbed, from which she tells him that he is to be her successor--a charge he is reluctant to accept, though it is also clear that he has no choice in the matter. Afterward he is promptly set up in London as grandee Baron De Grost.

Over the course of the story we never get a comprehensive image of just what the origins, purposes and activities of the Double Four are, but it is quite clear that it was at least in part a notorious criminal organization, that it has since distanced itself from such activities, and that its primary concern is now espionage. By and large, this espionage seems to be conducted on behalf of the alliance of Britain and France, against Germany, and it is this which occupies Ruff's time--in particular, his successive battles with German agent Bernadine, the Count Von Hern.

The luxurious atmosphere, the ruthless but genteel and ultimately duel between Ruff and Bernadine, are classic Oppenheim--and so are the plentiful melodrama, hokey plot twists and right-wing propaganda of yesteryear. Less familiar was the book's structure. A collection of short stories turned into a cut-up novel, the book is not just loose, but essentially episodic--between the first and last tales Ruff and Bernadine simply clashing, the matter being resolved, and then the book simply returning to them at the outset of the next battle. In fact, the order of several of the stories in the middle could have been rearranged without the reader's experience being compromised. And the fact that the book does consist of so many short bits was initially a bit jarring, so much so that I was tempted to charge them with being more thinly sketched than they should have been. (Like every other reader of my generation, I suppose I've simply become used to taking my spy fiction in doorstop-length doses.) Still, it was a light, quick read with a pronounced retro interest, perhaps not so satisfying as The Great Impersonation but also suffering from less of that book's weaknesses as well.

The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on Spy Fiction
My Posts on James Bond
A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Marvel Superhero Movies

Listed below are my posts on superhero movies based on the Marvel characters.

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)
Ant-Man's Opening Weekend
X-Men: Days of Future Past
New and Noteworthy (Avengers, "The End of SF"-Again, Fringe Renewed)
Making Iron Man 3: A Geopolitical Perspective

For the broader listing of superhero-based films, click here.

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)

I remember often thinking that the 2005 Fantastic Four movie was overcriticized. It was by no means ground-breaking--but it was entertaining enough as a lightweight, colorful crowd-pleaser.

The problem seemed to be that taking that approach with a superhero film was unfashionable at that time. In that relatively early phase in the comic book superhero movie boom, the more grounded look and feel, and more thematically involved approach of Bryan Singer's original X-Men, or Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (which preceded Fantastic Four to the theater by mere weeks), was, despite the colossal success of Sam Raimi's Spiderman, proving influential.1 (Indeed, it seems to have been important in selling the concept in those days.)

The Fantastic Four did not easily lend themselves to "grounded." The team's members (a guy with a stretchy rubber body, another who has turned into a rock-creature, stil another who turns into a creature of fire, etc.) and their interpersonal dynamic (as with Johnny Storm's obnoxious sibling-like relationship with the Thing), are singly and collectively flamboyant even by Marvel standards. And the Tim Story-directed, Mark Frost and Michael France-scripted version did not try to pretend otherwise. They created a movie that was relatively faithful to the original not just in its incidents, but its look and feel--and the opinion-makers objected to exactly that. (And this sensibility, arguably, affected the sequel's depiction of Galactus.)

Of course, things have changed in the past decade. As the studios have relied more heavily on heaping helpings of the kind of spectacle that gets viewers to fork over the 3-D and IMAX fees, a flashier look and bigger action have become more prevalent--which are at odds with that more grounded approach. (Just compare Singer's far more flamboyantly science fiction-al version of Days of Future Past with his first X-Men film.) Meanwhile, after Nolan, after the new takes on Superman (which Singer helmed in 2006, and Nolan produced in 2013), after a great deal else, the darker, heavier approach has become banal--and excited something of a backlash, one expression of which was how Ant-Man became something of a surprise hit last summer ($500 million global), and praised precisely for offering something lighter.

Ironically, just as a faithful version of the Fantastic Four became an easier sell, the 2015 film version went in the opposite direction--going more grounded, ambitious, darker, and getting hammered for it by the critics, and at the box office.

1. Some of us thought the movies went a little too grounded--not least in the handling of the Dark Phoenix saga, which was not what the purists hoped, and which may just be getting a remake because of it.

My Posts on Superhero Movies
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Small-Screen Superhero Boom

Just as we have been deluged by Marvel and DC superheroes at theaters, so have we been on network TV. This past season the CW, an obvious candidate admittedly, had not just Arrow, but The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow--altogether, a substantial fraction of its prime-time line-up. FOX has Gotham. ABC has Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (which was followed by Agent Carter). CBS, stereotyped as stodgier, produced Supergirl (even if, at last report, the show has since relocated to CW).

Unsurprisingly the list gets a lot longer if one looks beyond the bigger-named superheroes to more obscure or original figures, and the options afforded by cable and streaming. Alongside Gotham, FOX has the Sandman spin-off Lucifer. NBC gave Heroes another shot with Heroes Reborn (even if it hasn't worked out). Syfy Channel has Wynonna Earp. Netflix is serving up Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the Playstation Network, Powers.

And of course, more children and family-oriented programming can seem to offer nothing but superheroes. Nickelodeon has The Thundermans and Henry Danger, while Disney XD has had Lab Rats and Mighty Med and now a merger of the two in Lab Rats: Elite Force, and its animated offerings have included a barrage of Marvel-based cartoons.

Today a fairly avid TV watcher can, assuming their taste, and their range of cable and streaming options, is broad enough, fill their viewing hours with nothing but first-run superhero shows.

The reasons for the success of superheroes in this medium seems a bit less obvious than on the big screen. TV's smaller screens and smaller budgets mean that the big, flashy action that is the films' stock in trade at theaters is less of a draw. Still, the sheer popularity enjoyed by the concept would seem to have had some spillover effects, above and beyond the not unimportant direct spin-offs and tie-ins (like Agents of SHIELD). And small screen superheroes do share an advantage with the big screen variety that pays an even bigger dividend here--the format's easy accessibility in comparison with other kinds of science fiction, which are in fact less evident than they used to be (much-touted "peak TV" not having brought about some new boom in space opera, for example).

At the same time, it is worth noting the limits of the genre's success in this medium--a far cry from the consistently box office topping performance it has had. (Not one made the Nielsen's top ten this season.) In short, even if science fiction and fantasy television does have a superhero component, the genre remains in its relatively subordinate place in the market, far behind reality TV (Dancing With the Stars) and procedurals (NCIS, Blue Bloods) and nighttime soaps (Empire)--with the superheroes notably not counted among those few science fiction shows that buck the trend to become mainstream hits (The Walking Dead).

Superhero TV
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry

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