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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Geeky and Gorgeous: The Ladies of Comic-Con

Maybe it's because some girls just love playing dress-up. Maybe it's the success of films like "Spider-Man"and "300." Or maybe when superheroes, geeks and comic books are all put together in one convention center, there's no way to keep the hotties away.

Who knew you'd be able to find so many ladies who are easy on the eye -- the laser eye, that is -- at New York's Comic-Con convention?
Could it be that inside every sexy woman lies the beating heart of a "Battlestar"-watching, Halo-playing, "X-Men"-reading über geek? (Ah, we wish.)

Women in costume. There's nothing better.

Stan Lee to oversee Virgin Comics' superheroes

Mastermind Stan Lee
Mukesh Singh / Virgin Comics
MASTERMIND: Stan Lee, drawn in comic book style.

Does Stan Lee have any more heroics in him? Richard Branson hopes so.

The British tycoon is going into business with the 85-year-old Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil and dozens of other signature characters made famous by Marvel Comics.

Branson's upstart Virgin Comics will formally announce the deal with Lee at this weekend's New York Comic Con, where Lee is being honored as "a living legend" and is scheduled to receive the inaugural New York Comics Legend Award at an event at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.

The new venture will have Lee as the editor overseeing a line of superhero comics that will launch next year with a tentpole title he is writing himself. That project -- the title of which remains under wraps -- will center on a superhero team that sounds similar to his classic work on the Avengers at Marvel. (Lee ended his exclusive relationship with Marvel in the 1990s but still has ties to the company and even has cameo roles in the upcoming Marvel films "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk.")

"It will be a team of 10 heroes and they will be dealing with personality conflicts, personal problems and chemistry within the team," Lee said in an interview this week. "I'm going to get started working on it right away and I'm very excited about doing something that will be fresh and breaking new ground. I can't give away the details or the names yet, but I have some exciting things in mind."

Virgin has had a number of big-name creators writing comics under its banner, among them filmmakers Guy Ritchie, Terry Gilliam and John Woo, actor Nicolas Cage and musician Dave Stewart.

The company has largely steered clear of traditional superheroes. While Lee has an esteemed background in that sector, his most vital work was in the 1960s and 1970s, and his most recent work, with its bombastic dialogue, is not in sync with the tone of today's elite comics writers.

Sharad Devarajan, chief executive of Virgin Comics, dismissed any notion that Lee may be out of step with the times, however, noting that, especially as an editor, Lee will be a magnet for Virgin.

"We could not be more excited about creating a whole new universe with Stan Lee," he said. "His presence and the tremendous respect people have for him will be a call to action for writers and artists."

Lee's name certainly carries cachet in various corners of the entertainment business. This week, Rainmaker Entertainment Inc. announced a deal with Lee's Pow! Entertainment to create a franchise called "Legion of 5" that will reach the public as a feature-length animated film, toys, video games and comics. Last summer, Walt Disney Pictures signed a three-film, first-look deal with Lee's company. Lee also has been host and a producer of the Sci Fi Channel show "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?"
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Saturday Morning: 1968 - VIDEOS

The Archies set a number of trends in 1968The operative word to describe the 1968-69 Saturday morning schedule was 'change'. After two years of superhero and action/adventure cartoons the networks and the animation studios decided to shake things up a bit. When you take a look at the world-altering events that occurred forty years ago, moving away from action and into some more amusing and less dangerous fare was not a surprising move.

That doesn't mean that Saturday mornings were totally void of any type of heroic action in 1968. In addition to shows like Spider-Man, The Herculoids, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, all entering their second seasons, three of the seven new series premiered that featured a hard-action bent. The rest focused more on humor and slapstick then on flying beings who could shoot beams out of their hands. And, out of the seven, five of the shows were the cornerstones of trends that would continue well into the 1970s.

So, if you have your Thing Maker in front of you, let's journey back in time to 1968.

ABC only had two new shows on the schedule as The New Casper Cartoon Show, Spider-Man, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Four, and George of the Jungle all returned. Both shows featured adventures through unknown territories. The first, Hanna-Barbera's The Adventures of Gulliver, was loosely based on the book Gulliver's Travels. For this cartoon it was Gary Gulliver and his dog Tagg who, while searching for his father, end up shipwrecked near the kingdom of Lilliput. After Gulliver and the Lilliputians resolve their differences he continues the search for his father and the treasure he had found. Along the way Gulliver encounters the evil Captain Leech -- a man who is after his father's treasure map.

The other cartoon to premiere on ABC was the Filmation-produced Fantastic Voyage. Based on the 1966 film of the same name, Voyage featured the adventures of the C.M.D.F -- Combined Miniature Defense Force -- a government team that would shrink down to microscopic size in order to battle against unseen and unsuspecting enemies. Sometimes this would be genetic, just like it was in the movies, sometimes the criminal would be human in nature. The voice of the C.M.D.F commander, Jonathan Kidd, was Ted Knight, a man who was the voice of many Prescott-Scheimer-Sutherland (the founders of Filmation) creations in the late 60s.

CBS, like the last two years, led the way in series premieres and trendsetters with a total of four new offerings. The first of these was Go-Go Gophers. Actually, Gophers wasn't that new -- it was one of the segments on the Underdog show during its first few seasons. The show featured an Indian tribe composed of two gophers whose goal was to keep their sacred land protected from the nearby Calvary post. While not the most exciting cartoon, Gophers was a trendsetter because it was the first time a network had scheduled original Saturday morning fare prior to 9:00 am. It also knocked long-time player Captain Kangaroo out of the weekend market for the first time since its premiere in the 1950s.

The only new Hanna-Barbera program on CBS was The Great Race-inspired cartoon Wacky Races. Featuring a group of 11 different cars in a series of road rallies across the globe, Races was one of the first series to feature a large group of regular characters (23, plus the unseen narrator) as well as focus the attention of the show on the villains rather than the heroes of the series. So much attention was given to the villains, Dick Dastardly and Mutley, that they received their own spin-off series in the 1969. In addition to all of this, Races began a trend of slapstick/chase cartoons that would really take off in the next year.

The other two cartoons that premiered on CBS in the 1968-69 season were the breakout hits for the fledgling Filmation animation studio. One of them would be a trendsetter that would set the stage for other cartoons for years to come, while the other featured two voice actors that would have a regular place on Saturday mornings for nearly 20 years. The first show, The Batman/Superman Hour, was an amalgam of the older New Adventures of Superman/Adventures of Superboy cartoons with the first animated adventures of Batman, Robin and Batgirl.

As the show was ordered during the peak of the live-action Batman series on ABC, and the licensing of the animated series unknowingly went to Filmation, the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward were not used in the cartoon. Instead, actor Olan Soule and Los Angeles Disc Jockey Casey Kasem became the voices of Batman and Robin. Both voice-actors would move over to the same roles when Hanna-Barbera took over the DC Comics license in the 70s and would remain the voices of HB's Batman and Robin well into the 80s.

The second show offered by Filmation was the one that really laid down the framework for Saturday morning programming for the next few years. The Archie Show was the first in a decade-long line of cartoons that featured characters from the Archie comic books. Starring Archie, Reggie, Jughead, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale High, The Archie Show was most famous for its musical element -- The Archies musical group. During each of the 17 episodes produced for 1968 there would be two Archie's songs performed by Archie Andrews and his friends Reggie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica.

The Archie Show was a trendsetter in many ways. First, like The Beatles cartoon before it, and the live-action Monkees that aired in prime time, Archie prominently featured music that was playing on the radio at the time. Second, it set the stage for some of the first animated music videos. Granted, The Beatles had their own share of musical romps on their show, but on The Archie Show the musical numbers were separate from the story itself.

Third, the show introduced canned laughter to Saturday morning programming. Now, before you start writing that correction comment, remember that cartoons like The Flintstones and The Jetsons, which had a laugh track, were originally on the network's nighttime schedules before they jumped over to Saturday mornings. The use of of the laugh track would pave the way for shows like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Josie and the Pussycats to use canned laughter in later years.

Finally, The Archie Show gave itself and other animation studios the impetus to create other cartoons featuring groups of characters that just happened to have musical interests. In the case of Filmation, those bands, while performing, would look a lot like The Archies did when they performed. As an example, view the following musical number from an episode of The Brady Kids, which premiered in 1972.

There was only one new entry on the NBC schedule during the 1968-69 season: Hanna-Barbera's The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. One of the most expensive shows that Hanna-Barbera had produced up to that time The Banana Splits mixed live-action and animated segments into a one hour program. While many local stations broadcast shows featuring a live host introducing various cartoons, this was the first time since Ruff & Reddy that Hanna-Barbera had produced this type of programming for Saturday mornings. And, it was also a trendsetter as it marked the return of original live-action programming to the weekends.

The live action segments featured Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snork (or Snorky, if we are getting technical) -- a group of costumed characters (designed by Sid and Marty Kroftt, who would go on to bigger and more psychedelic things) who were also a band. The meetings of the "Banana Splits Club", many of them taking place at Six Flags Over Texas, would be wrap-arounds for three cartoons and one live-action show. The Splits would also perform musical numbers from time to time to fill the space.

During the first season the three cartoons were The Arabian Knights, The Three Musketeers and Micro Ventures. Knights was the story of a unique group of heroes with extraordinary powers who banded together to fight the corrupt ruler of Baghdad. Musketeers featured the animated adventures of the characters created by Alexandre Dumas. Micro Ventures was similar to the concept of ABC's Fantastic Voyage -- a professor and his children would shrink down in a dune buggy in order to view the world from an insects point of view.

The only live-action series to air on The Banana Splits was Danger Island. Directed by Richard Donner and featuring a young Jan-Michael Vincent, the show centered around a group of explorers who were looking for the lost city of Tubania on a chain of islands in the Pacific. Pursuing these explorers were an inept (of course) group of pirates led by Captain Mu-Tan. Each episode of Danger Island was 10 minutes long and would end in a cliffhanger.

As you see, 1968 was a year of transition for Saturday mornings. And, while there were fewer premieres that year, those shows that were new set the stage for the total transformation of the schedule from one full of superheroes to one full of pies in the face and pratfalls. We'll look at that transformation next time as we explore the year 1969, which featured a pink panther, a detective dog, and the first solo outing for Sid and Marty Kroftt.

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Hi, I'm a Marvel...and I'm a DC: Iron Man and Batman


Heavy Suit, Light Touches

The world at the moment does not suffer from a shortage of superheroes. And yet in some ways the glut of anti-evil crusaders with cool costumes and troubled souls takes the pressure off of “Iron Man,” which clanks into theaters today ahead of Hellboy, Batman and the Incredible Hulk. This summer those guys are all in sequels or redos, so Iron Man (a Marvel property not to be confused with the Man of Steel, who belongs to DC and who’s taking a break this year) has the advantage of novelty in addition to a seasonal head start.

And “Iron Man,” directed by Jon Favreau (“Elf,” “Zathura”), has the advantage of being an unusually good superhero picture. Or at least — since it certainly has its problems — a superhero movie that’s good in unusual ways. The film benefits from a script (credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) that generally chooses clever dialogue over manufactured catchphrases and lumbering exposition, and also from a crackerjack cast that accepts the filmmakers’ invitation to do some real acting rather than just flex and glower and shriek for a paycheck.

There’s some of that too, of course. The hero must flex and furrow his brow; the bad guy must glower and scheme; the girl must shriek and fret. There should also be a skeptical but supportive friend. Those are the rules of the genre, as unbreakable as the pseudoscientific principles that explain everything (An arc reactor! Of course!) and the Law of the Bald Villain. In “Iron Man” it all plays out more or less as expected, from the trial-and-error building of the costume to the climactic showdown, with lots of flying, chasing and noisemaking in between. (I note that there is one sharp, subversive surprise right at the very end.)

What is less expected is that Mr. Favreau, somewhat in the manner of those sly studio-era craftsmen who kept their artistry close to the vest so the bosses wouldn’t confiscate it, wears the genre paradigm as a light cloak rather than a suit of iron. Instead of the tedious, moralizing, pop-Freudian origin story we often get in the first installments of comic-book-franchise movies — childhood trauma; identity crisis; longing for justice versus thirst for revenge; wake me up when the explosions start — “Iron Man” plunges us immediately into a world that crackles with character and incident.

It is not quite the real world, but it’s a bit closer than Gotham or Metropolis. We catch up with Tony Stark in dusty Afghanistan, where he is enjoying a Scotch on the rocks in the back of an armored American military vehicle. Tony is a media celebrity, a former M.I.T. whiz kid and the scion of a family whose company makes and sells high-tech weaponry. He’s also a bon vivant and an incorrigible playboy. On paper the character is completely preposterous, but since Tony is played by Robert Downey Jr., he’s almost immediately as authentic and familiar — as much fun, as much trouble — as your ex-boyfriend or your old college roommate. Yeah, that guy.

Tony’s skeptical friend (see above) is Rhodey, an Air Force officer played with good-humored sidekick weariness by Terrence Howard. The girl is one Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, also in evident good humor), Tony’s smitten, ultracompetent assistant. His partner and sort-of mentor in Stark Enterprises is Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges with wit and exuberance and — spoiler alert! — a shaved head.

These are all first-rate actors, and Mr. Downey’s antic energy and emotional unpredictability bring out their agility and resourcefulness. Within the big, crowded movements of this pop symphony is a series of brilliant duets that sometimes seem to have the swing and spontaneity of jazz improvisation: Mr. Downey and Ms. Paltrow on the dance floor; Mr. Downey and Mr. Howard drinking sake on an airplane; Mr. Downey and Shaun Toub working on blueprints in a cave; Mr. Downey and Mr. Bridges sparring over a box of pizza.

Those moments are what you are likely to remember. The plot is serviceable, which is to say that it’s placed at the service of the actors (and the special-effects artists), who deftly toss it around and sometimes forget it’s there. One important twist seems glaringly arbitrary and unmotivated, but this lapse may represent an act of carefree sabotage rather than carelessness. You know this ostensibly shocking revelation is coming, and the writers know you know it’s coming, so why worry too much about whether it makes sense? Similarly, the patina of geopolitical relevance is worn thin and eventually discarded, and Tony’s crisis of conscience when he discovers what his weapons are being used for is more of a narrative convenience than a real moral theme.

All of which is to say that “Iron Man,” in spite of the heavy encumbrances Tony must wear when he turns into the title character, is distinguished by light touches and grace notes. The hardware is impressive, don’t get me wrong, but at these prices it had better be. If you’re throwing around a hundred million dollars and you have Batman and the Hulk on your tail, you had better be sure that the arc reactors are in good working order and that the gold-titanium alloy suit gleams like new and flies like a bird.

And everything works pretty well. But even dazzling, computer-aided visual effects, these days, are not so special. And who doesn’t have superpowers? Actually, Iron Man doesn’t; his heroism is all handicraft, elbow grease and applied intelligence. Those things account for the best parts of “Iron Man” as well.

“Iron Man” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has a lot of action violence, none of it especially graphic or gruesome. Also, Iron Man has sex, and not with the suit on. But not completely naked either.

IRON MAN

Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway based on the character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Dan Lebental; music by Ramin Djawadi; production designer, J. Michael Riva; visual effects by John Nelson; produced by Avi Arad and Kevin Feige; released by Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes.

WITH: Robert Downey Jr., (Tony Stark), Terrence Howard (Rhodey), Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane), Shaun Toub (Yinsen) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts).

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‘Iron Man’ Scene After the End Credits

Iron ManWent to see Iron Man tonight and, as expected, it was awesome! A review will be posted by our own Wordslinger, so be on the lookout for it soon.

Just wanted to warn you all to stay put until after the film’s end credits have finished, because there’s an extra scene.

I don’t want to go into anymore detail, because if this is the first you’re hearing of this extra scene, that means you haven’t read all of the spoilers about it yet.

Trust me, just stay in your seat!

Ok, if you MUST know, see the SPOILER at the end of this post.

After seeing the movie, I can say: 1) way to make a comeback Robert Downey, Jr.!; 2) starting off a movie with an AC/DC song is one way to hook me in immediately; 3) Jon Favreau, you sir, are officially trustworthy; 4) Shaun Toub, oh the things you can do with a car battery — if I’m ever in captivity, I’d want you to be there to have my back; 5) Gwyneth Paltrow, bravo for a performance that made me forget that you’re only in it for the paycheck; 6) Terrence Howard, sorry, but aside from your one foreshadowing line, I just wasn’t feeling you; 7) Jeff Bridges, thank you for not Nick Nolte-ing your role — you were totally badass!; and 8) Clark Gregg, you are my new favorite “Hey, I know that guy. Where do I know that guy?” guy.

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Holy Crap: MacGyver Blockbuster Film Coming!

Today at Maker Faire 2008, MacGyver creator (and real life inspiration) Lee David Zlotoff announced he has a big budget MacGyver movie in the planning stages.

Zlotoff mentioned he somehow ended up with the movie rights years ago (extremely uncommon), giving him full control over the film. While few specifics were mentioned, and no formal announcement has been made, its extremely promising that the man with the power to make the film is getting the ball rolling. The question is...do you bring back Richard Dean Anderson as old MacGyver, or bring in a younger, Christian Bale-type to reprise the role of makeshift gadget god? [Maker Faire on Giz]

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Studios change rules of distribution

Movies used to progress through ancillary windows in orderly fashion. But nowadays studios are following a mantra straight out of an old Blondie song: "Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, anyway."

Determined to give consumers as many options as possible, studios are distributing pics over as broad an array of platforms as possible, many of them simultaneously. In the digital age, the need for ubiquity seems to trump piracy fears.

Another flurry of high-profile digital initiatives surfaced last week, ranging from an online revival of the WB network to major studio deals to sell movie downloads through Apple's iTunes Store. Hulu, which had restricted sharing of its video content, set up a YouTube channel for clips that have embedded Hulu ads.

"The single most important thing," News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin said at the Milken Institute Global Conference last week, "is making content available ubiquitously -- and for a reasonable price."

That way, Chernin points out, there's less demand -- incentive -- for pirated content.

"Piracy is always a major concern in every deal," says Lionsgate prexy Steve Beeks, whose company joined the majors in inking an iTunes sales deal and is a major investor in the CinemaNow service. "But Lionsgate strongly believes that the best way to attack piracy is by giving consumers alternate ways to consume media."

Warners has also been aggressive about expanding its reach through dueling distribution strategies, and last week, Time Warner topper Jeff Bewkes talked up the results of its experimentation with collapsed VOD windows.

"We think it's extremely important that we have as many legitimate options available in the marketplace as possible," says Warner Bros. prexy of digital distribution Thomas Gewecke.

Traditional bricks-and-mortar rentailer Blockbuster, meanwhile, has been busy trying to reinvent itself as a sell-through business. The Dallas-based chain is mounting a bid for Circuit City, another struggling retail chain, and even surfaced as a potential partner in the pay TV net Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM are trying to launch.

Wall Street has been unimpressed, advising Blockbuster to focus on turning around its existing business. But Chernin suggested topper Jim Keyes had good reason to be scrambling. Noting that VOD, PPV, DVD and electronic sell-through all provide the same level of profitability to Fox, he dropped this tidbit: "What we do want is pay-per-view to replace video rentals."

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