Remember when Wolverine pretended to be Australian?
Nineteen Eighty-Nine’s X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men is a redundantly titled television pilot episode funded by siphoning the budget of RoboCop: The Animated Series. The myriad x-books were pretty hot at the time, but still probably viewed as second-stringers compared to, say, Spider-Man, at least among mainstream audiences. Marvel Studios had produced a number of successful animated hits for the likes of Hasbro and the Muppets. So this wasn't some amateurish attempt at breaking through. It also wasn't very good. Here are some thoughts.
The theme song is catchy, but not even laughably bad in an “unglamor-rays” kind of way. So, take that sentence as my assessment of its quality.
Stan Lee extroverts at us as we witness a military convoy transporting everyone’s favorite muscular grandpa: Magneto. The container holding the villain seems to be charged with some kind of unexplained energy. Inside, Magneto is trapped within a field of similarly vague energy while being watched by a wildly bigoted, rifle-wielding, cigar chomping Colonel. Still wearing his super villain costume for some reason, Magneto threatens his captors with the imminence of his “Brotherhood of Mutant Terrorists”, which is... not a better name than the in-comics “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”. Maybe not worse, though.
The White Queen shows up in her lite bondage get-up (y’know, for kids), and intimidates the support vehicles of the convoy to isolate the container truck. Her powers force the soldiers to believe the road beneath them is melting. With them out of the way, she then hurls a bolt of... something into the truck, disabling the energies. Somehow. I don’t know. Anyway, a now freed Magneto breaks the Colonel’s rifle and wraps him in a halo of magnetically charged gun fragments before tossing the man through a hole in the container. Don’t worry, the Colonel lands in a ravine or something; he’s fine. Kid’s show.
Elsewhere, an anxious and confounded Kitty Pryde is dumped off in front of the X-mansion by a surly cabbie. It plays like a scene from a horror movie. The mansion looms nearby and she’s clearly nervous about entering. She reads a note from which we learn (in voice-over) that someone has been creepily watching young Kitty long enough to know her dark secret. She’s a mutant with the power to move through solid objects. This voice even knows she privately calls this power “phasing”. Kitty has never told anyone about her gifts. No wonder she’s afraid. This is not an okay thing to do with telepathy, Professor. Yeah, it’s Professor X. I don’t know why the show treats it like a mystery.
Appropriately frightened, Kitty foolishly enters the mansion, sealing her fate. The front door closes behind her and she’s greeted by what, for all the world, appears to be the wheelchair bound specter of a starship captain.
“Don’t be startled,” the Professor’s ghostly visage says to the girl who has probably filled her fashionably cuffed khaki pants. To be clear. These two people have never met. Kitty doesn't know anything about the Professor or his powers. Don’t be startled, though. Wow. Anyway, he puts her mind at something resembling ease by telling her being a mutant isn't so bad. One day you might be played by Ellen Page. So, there’s that, I suppose.
“I don’t use my gift recklessly,” the telepathic Professor later says. No. You just use it to terrify a confused teenager you lured away from her family to your secluded home and whose mind you've very clearly already read before.
|A girl about to become a superhero? Or a girl about to join an inescapable cult?|
What follows is the exposition dump you might expect from the pilot episode of a superhero team kid’s show. Professor X describes the team as they show off their powers (which he describes) in the Danger Room, which he also describes.
The show’s team is a pretty solid one. Cyclops, Colossus, Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler were popular and highly visible at the time. In his description of the team’s makeup, Prof. singles out Storm’s abilities as being inexplicable. Which is weird because of the puzzling inclusion of The Dazzler among the cast of characters. She turns sound into light, a power I've always liked but never understood. In Pryde she’s always referred to (even by herself later) as The Dazzler. It’s like The Iron Bull or The Beatles, but never like Ramones or Beastie Boys. Maybe it’s a personal branding thing. Anyway, she doesn't get to do much in the show. No one does really. That’s a problem with a show focused on a team. You can bring in Kitty as an outsider point of view character, but then the show becomes about her.
|Turning sound into light? Makes perfect sense. Controlling the weather? No idea.|
Speaking of characters who dominate their adaptations -- there’s one thing people tend to remember about this pilot: Wolverine’s accent. It’s kind of Scottish, but it’s supposed to be Australian, and it’s absolutely demented. Apparently the accent is the result of the word “dingo” appearing in Wolverine’s dialogue in reference to the Aussie Pyro. Also, America was a little bit in love with Australian stereotypes in the eighties. But a misrepresented nationality isn't all that’s wacky with the Canucklehead. He growls/purrs before delivering many of his lines, making him seem more deserving of Kitty’s eventual codename of Shadowcat. It’s like Eartha Kitt’s portrayal of Catwoman. But threatening rather than sexual. Unless one finds childish, directionless rage sexy.
|I’d hate to imagine what quality of accent we would have gotten had Colossus ever said “taco”|
Where modern interpretations of Wolvie make him out to be a lovable grouch, earlier versions of the little guy had him behaving like a barely contained, belligerent psychopath. Late eighties/early nineties Wolverine was on the cusp of becoming a ubiquitous Mickey Mouse-esque media icon. As a result, public perception of him was a little murky. As a further result, the dude in this cartoon is only visually and nominally the Wolverine I know and love.
And he freaking hates Kitty. When she mouths off at him for (accurately) calling out her whininess, it looks like he’s going to literally eviscerate the child.
On the topic of Kitty’s age -- why does Nightcrawler keep flirting with her? She’s fourteen. She says as much. It is totally appropriate for Kurt to playfully compliment a lady, to show off and be the dashing hero that makes him so beloved. He’s a charming, passionate, and caring man. So it makes sense to have him be the most welcoming to the new kid. In fact I think Nightcrawler is the most accurately interpreted character on the show. But, why, after Kitty recoils in horror doesn't Kurt pick up on her visible discomfort? And why does he keep trying to touch the frightened fourteen-year-old girl? Don’t do that.
Speaking of unwanted advances, Magneto and Juggernaut attack the mansion. And apparently Cerebro is a security system as well as an illegal spy system. One that Kitty breaks by phasing through. The Prof. reads Magneto’s mind to discover he’s after something called the Mutant Power Circuit which can evidently enhance powers. I thought Cerebro was a tired plot device in the live-action movies, but this is a plot skeleton key.
Of course the Professor entrusts the Mutant Power Circuit to someone so green she didn't even know she’d been conscripted into this war she also didn't know about. And of course within seconds -- after Magneto tries to sway her to his side of the mutant/human supremacy divide -- Kitty throws the device at the villain to secure her escape. Then he leaves with what he wanted: the mansion partially damaged and the circuit entirely in hand.
Magneto’s plan? One: Steal a key component of the mutant-hunting supercomputer Cerebro and use it to somehow guide a comet toward Planet Earth, where both humans and mutants totally live. Two: Hope more mutants than humans die from cold and starvation, I guess. Three: Mutants rule the now mostly lifeless, uninhabitable world. It’s just that simple.
The Brotherhood lives in the Asteroid M space station, above Earth. So they’re fine until they run out of resources. The rest of the populace? Good luck.
However, the X-Men arrive in space via their airplane to poop the party. Cyclops fires a blast of concussive energy from his eyes, through his visor, further through the face plate of his space helmet, and into the side of the asteroid base. Storm maintains the asteroid’s internal atmosphere, leaving her out of the fight. The other X-Men pour in and make their way to the control center, peeling off members to get into one on one fights along the way. Kurt (who is written in-character well enough that he simply bypasses the Blob) and Kitty are the ones who confront Magneto in the end. Kitty causes Magneto to damage the Cerebro circuit thingy when trying to subdue him. Lockheed, a purple dragon thing we’d earlier seen being tormented by the Brotherhood, bites Magneto’s angle.
The Brotherhood leaves for parts unknown. Nightcrawler grabs two cables, completing an electrical circuit that let’s him direct the comet toward Asteroid M. The other X-Men flee the scene, leaving Kurt behind. Attempted heroic self sacrifice follows. But, at the Professor’s request, Nightcrawler teleports away from the space station just as the comet smashes into it. But Kurt appears in space, headed toward Earth’s atmosphere and to his burning doom. Kurt just decides not to use his power to teleport away from danger, I guess. Instead, he pleads for help from the (obviously not designed for space-flight) Blackbird jet. But then (again, at the last moment) he remembers he has superpowers and he Bamfs away into the aircraft. He sheds his suit at some point. That seems like a bad idea in space.
|Kitty, you don’t know that man yet. This hug is out of nowhere.|
Also Lockheed is on the team now. I mean, he’s an alien dragon none of them have ever encountered. And the only thing we've seen him do is bite someone and burp fire. But, whatever. Bring him back to Earth.
Also also, Wolvie still doesn't like Kitty, though Storm is optimistic about the girl. Roll credits.
By the late eighties, the X-Men were known for very complex, often violent and troubling exploits that dealt with the worst elements of human nature. It might have been a struggle to understand all the characters and relationships and histories. So it was important to shed much of that baggage in an adaptation.
It is sometimes true that the mutant metaphor gets buried under the reality of most x-characters being conventionally attractive, heterosexual, well-to-do, and able-bodied. But the metaphor is still potent. In Pryde, we get a lot of coded racist fear directed at the mutant population, and Kitty repeatedly judges Kurt negatively based on his looks. That’s a start to laying out the social issues. But Magneto is undeniably evil in his motivation and in his actions. And if he’s the public face of mutant kind, yeah, of course people fear and hate mutants. So, the fear is justified and the fear of the fear is justified. And... what then? Where do our heroes fit into that kind of world? Pryde was probably not going to address these questions. Though it’s hard to say.
Being fair, I don't think one can expect a deep dive into character development and social commentary in what wasn't even really the first true episode of a show that never got off the ground. It’s good looking, though the action is tepid. The characters are mostly identifiable by their looks rather than their personalities. Pryde of the X-Men isn't especially good, is what I’m getting at. Luckily, this pilot led (in a sense) to the excellent X-Men arcade game from Konami. And even more luckily we got a much more successful X-Men animated series a little later. Pryde is a relic and a neat glimpse at the awkward transition from the world of eighties animation into the nineties. Beyond that, I can’t say much good about it.
|"I'm always watching you. Always."|
I’ve been reading a lot of Valiant comics lately. While I was aware of the publisher’s early titles, I only noticed them from afar. To me they were interesting covers and little more. Turok was the one that stood out most to me, because of its relevance to video games. However, thanks to a Humble Bundle sale, I now possess more than a few (actually most) of the revivified publisher’s new books' first issues. I think I’ll record my thoughts about some of them here, for no particular reason.
First up: Rai Vol. 2 Issue #1 by Matt Kindt and Clay Crain.
|I think he's trying to scratch the small of his back.|
Rai, like many of Valiant’s small stable of characters lives in a shared comic universe slightly removed from our own. It’s a world where superpowers are coveted and feared in equal measure. Simultaneously, Valiant books have an eerie sense of ennui caused by the powers of corporations and governments. There’s also an unsettling casual nature to the violence of this world which belies a Silver Age enthusiasm toward scientific potential. This muddling of tones results in believable, but near-fantastic science fiction settings with little emotional investment in much of the brutal violence permeating the stories. It’s a bit difficult to digest at times.
Issue #1 of Rai establishes cultural angst regarding the roles and rights of artificial intelligence. There are pale shades of Ghost in the Shell, and of that work’s focus on the line between artificiality and authenticity. It’s frequently trodden ground, but ground worth retreading, though it’s importance in this issue is minimal at best. I can see where it might lead to interesting twists later down the line.
|Meanwhile, at Korin Tower...|
Lula’s fan-girl fixation on Rai causes her to hang around the scene of the rare crime she kind of witnessed in the hope her hero will show up. She doesn't offer much other than exposition, explaining the social atmosphere surrounding the PTs (the books name for Japan’s apparently oppressed robot population). She comes across as a little suspicious. Lula just happens to conveniently show up when a murder is discovered? It’s framed in a way that makes it seem very strange coincidence. This may be another plot element later explored. But in this issue, we’re not given a lot of reason for her to be our narrator. Multiple perspectives would really help expand upon the world-building. Rai seems to be kind of a big deal in general (at least in Japan), so why follow this one fan and not another?
And the world could use a bit more explaining. There’s a guy wielding a pistol on one page and utterly bumfuzzled by the sight of a more traditional revolver on another page. To be clear, these firearms look functionally identical. So why the confusion? Maybe it’s an art problem, but I know writers can sometimes get caught up in making the past somewhat foreign to characters of the future, making future folk seem clueless when that doesn't make any real sense.
|Look at my sweet novelty toothbrush!.|
Speaking of the art -- I’m not sure how I feel about Clay Crain’s work here. His lineless, painterly style works well on background art, but leaves his characters looking, at times, a little indistinct and too loosely rendered for coherent storytelling. There are some instances of dubious anatomy and inconsistent faces, but nothing too terrible. Vaguely rendered characters and fantastical architecture reinforce the notion of a Japan that is both vast and lonely. I think the coloring is what turns me off the most on the art front. Most scenes are realistically (if somewhat unpleasantly) dim and indistinguishable. The art didn't really click with me until Rai showed up, largely because he stood out from the bland colors of the rest of the populace. Probably intentional, but still a hindrance to my enjoyment.
Thought balloons have an odd, unnecessary gradient on them. Which is fine until the boxes have to overlap. In those instances the gradient prevents the balloons from blending into one shape. It’s a small and nit-picky detail, but again -- like the rest of the color work -- it gets in the way.
There’s some brief supplementary material in the back of the book fleshing out the -- fictional within the fiction -- character of Spylocke. It doesn't go nearly as far as Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but the short descriptions of Spylocke’s movies are enough to give personality to New Japan’s popular culture.
Rai #1 kind of hides it’s most interesting parts. Under the bleak, pseudo noir future fiction veneer, I found its hints of a multi-generational story most appealing. It calls to mind the Phantom or Iron Fist in that each bearer of the name could offer drastically different interpretations of their duties. I hope subsequent issues have addressed this aspect of the character because I’m not certain I would seek out issue #2 based solely on this premier story. However, it might be worthwhile to check out where the ongoing adventures of Rai have landed him a dozen or so issues down the line.
For some reason, at around episode five of my Dead Space video playthrough, I started getting bizarre audio distortion. As a result, I've given up of the longer less edited videos with included commentary. The playthrough will now be much shorter and bereft of my text prattling. Anyway, my thoughts on the game as a whole are pretty well summarized in an older blog post. But I did want to get these thoughts down somewhere.
Chapter Ten: End of Days is where the shine really fades off the apple, so to speak. The game becomes much more about resource draining enemy encounters rather than a sustained, tense atmosphere or suspenseful exploration. Dead Space puts Isaac in a room with enemies to use up ammo and health packs, ensuring the way forward is scary. It has been done many times already. The fear now is drawn from distracting game design.
“What weapon or ability does the designer want me to use here?”
“Am I supposed to just run away from this fight?”
“I’m pretty sure I already destroyed that body, but now it has re-spawned intact. Is the game setting up a scare even if I’ve already out-thought it? Joy.”
This is the unofficial padding section of the game, and it continues through most of the remainder of Dead Space. It’s a problem that carries through the two main sequels as well. These games don’t have good third acts.
Another issue (for me, at least) is the stereotyping on display at this point in the game. Dead Space doubles down on unappealing horror cliches by exploiting mental illness and religious dogma. I won’t defend fanaticism or narrow, inflexible thinking here. However, the Dead Space universe only appears to have one religion -- though I think I heard someone shout “Christ!” at some point. And this one religion/suicide cult appears to be peopled entirely by dangerous fanatics. No other perspective is offered. You’re either an non-theistic victim of crazy people or a crazy person victimizing the generally level-headed faithless. That’s a different kind of narrow mindedness. It gets worse with each subsequent game until the Church of Unitology becomes an actual in-game foe in DS3. And I wish Dead Space could be more sophisticated than that.
I don’t think any of the games clarify who Altman was. But the peripheral fiction expands upon his life and legacy. He did not found Unitology. It was founded around him. Altman didn't worship the marker; he understood its danger. His fate is apparently explored in the book Dead Space: Martyr. I haven’t read it. In further expanded universe lore it’s revealed our man Isaac has a history with the church. His parents sacrificed his college fund to the Unitologists, likely hurting his career prospects. Self-destructive fanaticism has chased after his footsteps over the years. Even within the first game’s fiction Isaac has an understandable axe to grind with religious fanatics. Unitology seems to have endangered the woman he loves, killed thousands, and threatens all life in the universe.
But where’s the other side to this conflict of ideologies? It isn't hard to imagine a species scattered by interstellar distances might feel a lack of wholeness. The promise of unity could be quite enticing to humanity’s space-born generations. Unitology, regardless of its origin offers that to the believers. Can’t we have one moderate Unitologist who examines their faith and acknowledges the horrors inflicted by the church and still manages to keep their head on straight? It would be nice, yeah?
Whatever; they’re all religious and therefore crazy. And therefore dangerous. And therefore deserving of the brutality inflicted upon them throughout the trilogy. I guess. Or so Dead Space seems to want us to believe. Keeps it simple.
I’m not asking Dead Space to pick a one side over another when it comes to religion. Rather, I’d like to see many sides, like an icosahedron of nuanced ideas. I want more sophistication from this game I adore.