The Sandman – Netflix

“Unfilmable” is thrown around a fair chunk, in particular for written media that isn’t action-focused, or dialogue-driven. Cerebral material can be a true challenge to translate. Dune(1984) vs Dune (2021) is a good example of how different approaches can lead to vastly different results. With a good team, almost anything can be filmed now-days.

The Sandman is an older comic from the late 80s to mid 90s, covering 75 issues. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors where I just seem to click, and this series can be seen as foundational work to pretty much everything that he made since. Prose-driven, with anthropomorphic representations of states of mind, with a strong application of fantasy horror. I read a few of the comics when I was younger, and they were just enthralling because they were so different. This is when Infinity War was the big deal! Long-form comics are making a resurgence now, yet the stage was set back with The Sandman.

Netflix has recently launched their series on the first two storylines from the comics (of at least 12 main storylines, depending on your view). It is thick and slow, just like the comics. Some scenes are just disturbing in their construct (ep. 5 in particular) where humanity is laid bare. The protagonist is not exactly endearing, as he naturally lacks humanity, making for some interesting moral/ethical points of view. Empathy isn’t the point here, it’s the pure logical construct behind pure purpose, and then the means to achieve it.

The writing is solid, the art design fantastical, and the actors representing the Endless all do an admirable job. Boyd Holbrook is a standout, but not for the right reasons. He plays the same type of character here as he has in other media. It feels like a mis-cast as his character is by far the most nuanced and beyond the actor’s range – we need to sympathize and it just doesn’t work. It is important to note that the British/American divide is clear as day in this series, a staple of Gaiman’s work. It’s anti-bombastic and intellectual…

I enjoyed it, and I think it strikes the best possible balance of translating the comics to video format. I’d be more than interested in seeing more. Now, knowing Netflix, I am expecting a note about this series being cancelled sometime next week.

The Marvel Issue

Comics, at their core, are serials. They are chapters of a larger story. In the golden and silver age, these chapters were usually self-contained within a given series (e.g. Fantastic 4 storyline was only in Fantastic 4 comics). This made it harder for new series to launch, as cross-overs were harder to coordinate. In the 80s this started to change, and there were large cross-over events, like the infinity saga. To understand all the bits and bobs, you needed to buy multiple comics series in a given month. Since these events were contained, it felt special.

Then the 90s, and the quest for more money. Cross-over events continued and came with an overall increase in sales. So what would any greedy person do? Make more cross-over events! Marvel was notorious for this, where it seemed impossible to read a Marvel comic without having to buy 4 other issues. And then they came up with the idea of special covers for the comics, meaning collectors had to buy 4 or more copies of the exact same issue to get all the covers.

This has multiple impacts.

  • Cross-over storylines were getting near impossible to follow, more like a giant conspiracy theory to track.
  • The storylines lacked focus/closure because the “good content” was being spread across 4+ issues a month.
  • Some of the links in storylines were made after publication. You’d pick up a comic and be confused as it referenced something that happened in a different series
  • Market saturation generated a “bubble” effect, where people bough comics for their resale value rather than their story. This made supply a challenge, and people couldn’t follow the story if their local store couldn’t stock shelves.
  • All bubbles pop. The market crashed and Marvel took the biggest hit (Atari vibes here).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is following this same pattern, and doubling down on it.

The original Iron Man and Avengers had a clear linear structure and you knew that something else was coming. To watch a sequel, it was good to watch the first one (e.g. Iron Man 2 was better if you watched Iron Man). This all came to a head with the Avengers saga with it having links, but not dependencies, on the other films in the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Dr Strange, Thor). Fine enough.

What happened next is the what I like to call the Disney effect, or as we know it, the quest for more money. Disney+ launched and with it the next phase of the MCU. Every piece of content released since then is directly tied to the Infinity Saga, either interstitially, or as a consequence. Wanda Vision was an amazing series (with a horrid ending), but it is also mandatory viewing to make any sense of the recent Doctor Strange film (Spider-Man 3 is more than useful too). What we have in this phase is non-stop cross over events, where superheroes in one series are impacting another.

We’re in the storyline fatigue phase, where you need a Disney+ subscription to watch an 8 hour film (cut into 8 pieces) whose sole purpose is to prologue another film, which is a prologue for yet another film. For a Disney+ series, you can stop it, go and see what’s needed first, and then get back to it. A movie though, the experience is diminished because you’re confused. When the last Infinity film came out, Wanda was good and intelligent. Why is she “crazy” in Dr Strange? What actually happened in No Way Home aside from setting up the multiverse (and a confusing link to Venom)?

There’s market saturation, similar to the “dystopian teen sci-fi” crazy of the mid 00’s. MCU is making some really poor decisions if they want this to somehow be sustainable, repeating the same mistakes Marvel made in the 90s. Hopefully they can return to independent storylines, and keep the cross-over events as special occasions.

Stranger Things 4 – Eps 8 +9

Good but too long. Some spoilers.

I had mentioned in my The Boys review that it’s important to treat each episode like it has value. Stranger Things has become a good example, with Episode 8 being 90 minutes and Episode 9 being 150 minutes of plenty of filler. We’re not in Dragon Ball Z territory here, but man…

Now, when the stuff actually happens, it’s as good as any 80s horror homage can be. There are plenty of great scenes to pick from, with Eddie’s guitar shredding masterpiece being a true standout. It just takes forever to get to these pieces, with dialogue that should have happened miles ago.

Episode 8 is called Papa, and well, it deals with the guy that has no empathy. It takes 90 minutes to reach a point of catharsis, and El’s helicopter attack/scream is impressive to behold. MBB is an impressive actress, though that’s mostly when she isn’t talking. But after 4 episodes of being in this mess, it reminds me too much of Lost’s season 3, where there was a writer’s strike and everyone was stuck in a cage for half the season.

Episode 9 was the final attack on Vecna. You know that horrible 80s horror trend where you would should at the TV “don’t go in there / do that” ? This episode is full of such moments, things that stand in stark contrast to the rest of the series. The total lack of urgency in anything here (except Eddie + Dustin) is infuriating. I won’t spoil much here, but the horror sports jock is there to stall for 10 minutes while having done nothing for hours, and then just gets wiped off screen. Sadie Sink (Max) still stands out here above all the others, in being able to convey actual emotion and character progress.

After an entire season, Mike had 3 minutes, Will spends the entire season afraid to say that he’s gay, Lucas finds out that being popular isn’t worth it, Hopper’s storyline didn’t go anywhere (but I will give a hand to Murray’s arc), Jonathan has a 2 minute scene, and Steve… well Steve is still the most interesting bro-dad on TV today.

Vecna, while a very interesting character, is a weird one as all the prior seasons had rather human antagonists, with a shadowy upside down as a threat. He’s impressively well acted, but spends an inordinate amount of time explaining things and gloating, just like a James Bond villain. That he still wins, feels kinda good in that regard, as it turns the tropes on their head.

This season had some standout moments, but it simply took way too long to get to them. Tighter scripts and better editing would have helped a ton to get a meaningful story across. 9 episodes, and 14 hours of content needs some work. Maybe we’ll see a fan edit of all this so that it comes down to a more respectable 45 minutes per episode (or less).

Season 5 is an interesting prospect. It’s clearly the end game of the larger arc. My guess says we’re going to fall into Stephen King honors next, with Hawkins turning into a replica of Derry, Maine. The whole multi-dimensional bit was explored at length, and The Dark Tower could use an on-screen analogy.

Stranger Things 4 is still a decent watch, and it won’t get cancelled by Netflix until it’s all wrapped up. And, there really isn’t much else out there that’s comparable. Backhanded praise, I know. It has so much good stuff in it, just a shame you have to get through the muck to get to it.

The Boys – Season 3

Well this was another level.

First, an important tangent. The Boys had a weekly episode launch, which means you need to wait if you want to binge. The positive side effect here is that you have more time to digest each episode, and each one therefore has more impact. The standout portion here is that this highlights episodes that are pure filler. The Boys has no filler, each episode is full of content. This is a high contrast to nearly everything on Netflix and most of Disney+(MCU in particular). This is not an 8 hour movie, which is refreshing to a point I forgot what it felt like.

The season itself is interesting for a multitude of reasons. The parallels to the Trump era of US politics is extremely pointed in its insanity. The fact that Soldier Boy is somehow worse than Homelander and Stormlight is impressive. The special effects and gore make some of the scenes stand out something fierce. Episode 6 in particular is a standout in “WTF did I just see?”. And cap this off with ridiculously strong performances by Karl Urban (Butcher) and Antony Starr (Homelander), give each scene a tremendous amount of nuance. Finally, the writing/pace of the storyline feels hectic, and time just seems to fly by in each episode.

The “scorched earth” approach here is certainly an interesting twist to the typical storyline, where there’s a much larger highlight that all superheros are essentially flawed humans without consequences. There’s a flaw in the MCU space where heroes are somehow idealistic, where in reality if there were no consequences for actions, then what’s really going to motivate people to be socially “good”?

I don’t want to spoil the storyline, as there are some interesting twists and turns that hit quite well. I will say that the Maeve storyline finally comes to a close, where it was clear that the team didn’t know what to do with her.

I can see where Season 4 would go, and ideally this will close out the larger chapter of the story. There’s a ticking clock on how this can keep going, but at the same time, The Boys is what the future of streaming should be.

I’m still digesting what I watched, and recommend that folks don’t binge the series, but take some time between episodes to find some sanity. Still trying to figure out what I just watched… and strongly recommend you do the same!

Umbrella Academy – Season 3

Stranger Things, The Boys, and Umbrella Academy… all launched within a couple weeks. They may not have identical markets, but there’s a pile of overlap. Seems a really weird decision… unless this is the point of the year that people unsubscribe? May be too cynical.

Anyhoot, I’ve watched the Umbrella Academy with an odd curiosity. The premise is somewhat simple, what if there was a dysfunctional superhero family? This is different from The Boys, where the supes are simply evil, here they are simply flawed. But flawed in a way that if they overreact, really bad things happen for other people. Maybe the premise is “what if immature kids had super powers”?

Season 1 was about dealing with their horrible father and their destiny of causing the end of the world. Season 2 had them time travel backwards and go through similar steps (though with a significant amount of cultural context). In both, there was a continual antagonist force of The Commission, a group that controlled the timeline.

Season 3 sees them pull a Back to the Future 2, back to the present but with changes. Their actions in the past (with their father) meant he didn’t adopt them, but others instead (Sparrows). And a similar set of actions has created a paradox that threatens to destroy the universe (though in this context, it’s still just Earth). The Commission is gone, and the antagonists are the Sparrows and themselves.

The net result is a significant amount of character bloat and the feeling of “the same” from prior seasons. The scenery is smaller (mostly within a hotel) and the episodes are shorter. It’s a weird mix, honestly, where there’s very little story progress at all, but tons of character development. The end of the season is the “cleanest” of all the endings so far, but still leaves room for more.

Some notes:

  • The Elliot Page transition is handled in character, and handled in a way I’d hope most humans would
  • Luther’s character arc here is a long time coming, and finally acts like the audience surrogate he was supposed to be.
  • Victor’s arc remains extremely painful to go through. It’s finally called out with a statement like “you know what they call a superhero that doesn’t listen to anyone else? A villain”. Where all the siblings are childish (well not Five), Victor’s power levels are such that their outbursts are catastrophic.
  • Diego’s arc is really quite solid. The relationship with Lila (strong chemistry) makes it a fascinating growth.
  • Five is interesting, and still the strongest character in the series. A leader who wants to just enjoy life, but keeps getting pulled back in to clear up the mess. Aidan Gallagher does a fantastic job.
  • Klaus finally comes into his own, which is both cool to see and frustrating that it took this long. While his character himself finally finds himself, his role in the larger context is pure deus ex machina. Still steals every scene he’s in.
  • Allison… I am not a fan of the arc here. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a particular scene with her and Luther that is beyond the pale compared to the other insanity in the series. Allison has always been a selfish character, using her powers for her self-gratification. That continues here, but to another level. Given this purposeful usage of power, I consider her to be the true villain.
  • Reginald Hargreeves has a weird arc here, where the first few episodes have him positioned as bumbling idiot who’s forced to pop pills. When the pills are removed, then he turns back into a puppet master. I dunno, it’s 2 different characters and feels like it comes out of left field.
  • Sparrows – Ben is interesting, in that he’s no longer a selfless character but one continuously looking for external approval. It fits well with the rest of the siblings. The remainder of the Sparrows are window dressing with horrible character traits (what if superheroes have no villains to fight?).
  • The music choices remain a strong highlight, in particular the Footloose battle in episode 1. The quirkiness of the series is the true highlight, and music choice is the best part.

Season 2 remains the standout in the larger context, and Season 3 loses a lot due to the lack of crazy and clear villain. I would be surprised if there was a Season 4 given the challenges present in this season and Netflix’s penchant to cancel as much as possible. It would be unfortunate, as the ideas here are quite solid. We can use more quirky bits, the world is serious enough.

Stranger Things 4 – Eps 5 -7

Episode 4 remains the season (if not series) highlight, with very strong visuals on mental health and PTSD.

Episode 5 continues that message with Hopper’s monologue on the karmic effects of his time in the military, and Eleven’s literal exposure to her memories in order to access her powers again. There are comedic bits with the kids tracking down Suzie, and Joyce/Murray with the Yuri airplane bit. I am not a fan of the editing in this episode because the themes swing so heavily from one end of the spectrum to the other, which reduces each other’s impact. Oh, an Vecna takes another victim.

Episode 6 feels like the other half of episode 5 if the editing was tighter. They are running 5 main story arcs at once, and that’s a herculean feat. There’s a reason this is avoided. It works here simply because Stranger Things released all these episodes in a batch. Weekly serials would not work. The episode feels like pure stalling to put the characters in the proper place for the next episode. This is the first episode where Vecna doesn’t attack someone.

Episode 7 is the payoff for the setup. Hopper and Joyce/Murray meet up. Eleven learns the truth about Vecna, which is both interesting to see but also mind bogglingly stupid when you think about the chain of events leading up to it. Stranger Things has always had a mystery box portion where you simply need to suspend logic and go along for the ride… *hand waving*… when they get to explaining some logical bits, it rarely works out (see Season 2, Ep 7 – The Lost Sister). Aside from Dark, I can’t really think of a recent mystery box that had a satisfying reveal. A season highlight for me is Eddie (Joseph Quinn), who is a surrogate for the audience geek. He has a completely rational view of all the crazy stuff going on, which is an offset to Robin’s let’s-see-how-far-this-goes approach. Eddie’s chat with Steve in this episode is solid.

There are 2 episodes left, coming out in a few days. I don’t see how these will be episodes as much as a single film split into 2 parts. And at an average of 1:15 per episode, this is a very long season. With one of them being called Papa, I’m hopeful they can finally close the Brenner mystery box. After 3 episodes of flashbacks, I’ve had enough.

Overall I’m surprised at what this season has delivered so far. It’s tonally much different than the 3 prior, with a significant focus on mental health and a monster than feeds off it. I’m not convinced the story understands why this is actually important, as compared to the 80s horror tropes it is emulating, but it’s still there. 2 more to go.

Stranger Things – Episode 4

I thought I would bundle these more, but this particular episode merits it’s own post. Spoilers, obviously

Every so often, you find a particular episode that perfectly encapsulates a series. There’s a little piece of magic found, where the individual pieces fit just right and you get some magic. It requires impeccable timing, amazing acting, a tight story, and an appropriate score. Episode 4 somehow manages to do this, and more miraculously, does so after the doldrums of the first 3 episodes.

The long setup of the first few episodes comes to light here, on all the arcs. Jonathan finally stops being a stoner long enough to actually do something of merit. Will and Mike finally have a conversation that’s more than reacting to El’s behaviour. El is heading back to regain her powers. There’s a big action scene where the military comes to take the kids that pays off with some nice comedic bits from Argyle. A payoff for the stoner comedy is more than welcome.

Hopper escapes, right in line with most action films. Joyce and Murray meet Yuri and are double crossed, while Hopper gets sent to a worse prison. There’s something about a defeated hero that works here.

Robin and Nancy go full undercover to get into see Victor Creel, a source of the suspected murders. Again, Maya Hawke beats the tar out of the script focusing on how women are not even given a chance in a male dominated society. It’s a monologue that is so far ahead of anything else this series has produced, I was just stunned in the delivery. It also comes with a “poltergeist” subview of the start of the curse, which is framed in the typical just enough but not all context of most horror reveals.

The final thread deals with Max, and her acceptance of her inevitable death due to the continual trauma from her brother’s death. She experiences more trauma the episode, and tries to make some sort of amends through letters to those she cares about. She eventually does get captured by Vecna, set up for the kill, and then with the help of Kate Bush, visualizes all the positive memories and people she cares about, enough to escape and “run up that hill” (which is not what the song is about, but it fits). It’s an absolutely fascinating take on mental health, from depression and isolation, through acceptance, and recovery. One that Netflix sorely has lacked. It’s astonishing that a series based on an 80s homage is able to take any topic seriously enough to pump this quality out.

Plus, as always, Steve is the man. He continues to be a better parent than every other adult in the entire series. Which is a topic for a future post.

If Season 4 was a 15 minute summary of the first 3 episodes and then ended here, I would consider it a win. There’s zero filler, and plenty of spotlight for the actresses to shine. No wonder Kate Bush is all over the place right now… for sure this is sticking in people’s skulls.

Love, Death & Robots – Season 3

Not quite sure if spoilers apply to this or not, but hey, it’s back. It’s as short as Season 2, but the stories themselves are much more focused. I do get that Season 1 was pretty much Heavy Metal in visual form, but this particular season has much less fantasy and more sci-fi, which I consider an improvement. I think the season overall is the best of the bunch, and that more than a few episodes really make you question the ending/moral. That’s the beauty of sci-fi shorts after all.

On a per episode aspect:

Three Robots: Exist Strategy

This was the original short in season 1 and the robots are back with pretty much the same format as before. Slightly different take on what society is doing with regards to the climate crisis and how “castes” of society are trying to address it. I found it the weakest of the bunch.

Bad Travelling

This is pretty much a horror story set on a ship on the high seas. It’s more or less a continual set of bad events that people simply try to survive through, somewhat similar to the zombie/pirate story in Watchmen. The claustrophobia of a single ship really helps sell the horror aspect. There’s no sci-fi here, but the short is still quite good.

The Very Pulse of the Machine

This is pure sci-fi and could only work in this medium. Without spoiling much, the gradual decline (is it?) of the protagonist mental space makes you question if what you’re seeing is real or not. This one is a true highlight of the season.

Night of the Mini Dead

Zombie apocalypse filmed so that it looks like miniatures. The only point that seemed to matter to me what that this was but a speck of dust in the galactic scale. It looks cool mind you.

Kill Team Kill

This is a very violent take on a CIA robotics program gone rogue. I immediately shouted “that’s Shardik!” but sadly it wasn’t. Every season seems to have some set of soldiers fighting impossible odds, and then a horrible twist at the end. This is that episode.

Swarm

This one turned out way better than I expected. I find that the best sci-fi are the ones that make you question the context and imagine the world-building around the story. This is like a kid with their toes in the surf of an infinite ocean. I’d rank this higher if there wasn’t an absolutely useless sex scene.

Mason’s Rats

A comic short and a military organization of rats and a farmer’s attempts to get rid of them. This is a weak story overall because the ending isn’t earned. Looks cool and talks about the excess of AI robots, but it could have used another 5 minutes.

In Vaulted Halls Entombed

This is a weird one since it’s quite similar to Kill Team Kill… a solider squad it tasked with finding a thing, and that thing is killing them. The big bad here is an eldritch horror, and the ending is unnecessarily ambiguous. Cabin in the Woods did this story line better.

Jibaro

This is a stunning take on infatuation and obsession which lead to horrible loss. The main character is deaf, which means that the sounds shut off completely when he’s the focus, making for a really amazing sensory experience. This one is a real highlight of the season, and plays out like a fable of old.

Guardians of Justice (2022)

So this popped up on my Netflix feed the other day. It gave a lot of Kung Fury vibes, with a surreal take on the 80s. GoJ is that, but quite a bit more. It tries to answer the question, “what if Superman was depressed?” Or perhaps, what if superhero flaws were human?

Adi Shankar is a very particular individual. He takes mainstream ideas, and then strains them through all the tropes he can muster, turning the subject inside out.

Guardians of Justice is such an endeavour. The plot itself is a unhealthy take on the superhero genre, with an in-your-face approach to get the message across. Alan Moore runs on multiple complex levels, but the goal is deconstruction (and The Watchmen technically only has 1 superhero, everyone else is human with a fetish). There’s no subtlety here, and the mix of genres (live action, anime, CGI) help to keep it interesting. There’s something to be said about a boss battle being more like a video game than just a mush of blurry CGI.

As much as I enjoyed the 80s comic book and (heavy) social filter, the more enjoyable part was how every character has some rather massive flaws that are not plot bound but based on the character. It makes for a dark take on the “good vs bad” of the MCU, and honestly highlights the rather major flaws in that recipe. There are no giant plotholes here, no hand waving, no McGuffin to chase.

I can’t say the series is for everyone, it is not at all a pick-me-up type of story. It starts off on an incredibly dark take and just dives deeper as the story goes on. Heck, by the end you’ll wonder if there ever was a “good guy” in the entire story. Still, I’m glad that the series came out. It takes some interesting risks, and for the most part, they pay off. Well worth a binge.

Wheel of Time – Series

Where LotR was the fantasy foundation for, well, pretty much everything, Wheel of Time (WoT) can be seen as the major precursor to the sprawling epics of today (think what Game of Thrones should have been). I read the series multiple times, re-reading every book when a new one came out – fair to say it’s been formative in my understanding of fantasy literature.

WoT spans 13 (!!) novels, and close to 12,000 pages in paperback. It took 23 years to get it all out, and the main author (Robert Jordan) passed away before the final 3 novels could go out. Others have tried to emulate this structure (Sword of Truth is next up, which is a long post itself) with varying levels of success. The logistical nightmare of building something this large, with this many meaningful characters is astonishing. And to actually be able to finish the storyline with some level of quality is astounding. The most meaningful part of this series is the approach to magic use in fantasy settings – a setting of its time. Both men and women have access to magic, though the men have to pass through a taint in order to access that power – eventually rendering them mad. While I am certain there are plenty of ‘woke’ people who will see this as a bad setting, actually reading the books demonstrates a continuous level of grey at all levels. From that initial separation and frankly, stereotype, the world needs to find some balance. Rarely does it work out.

It’s certainly a filmable series, but the sheer size would make this closer to 600 episodes without some amazing writing and editing. Amazon has taken that bet. Amazon released the first 3 episodes of 8 for season 1 last week. New episodes every week until Christmas.

Something was there before…

First 3 Episodes

I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a 20 year old story, but I guess there are people who don’t know King Kong loses in the end, or that the Titanic sinks.

The focus for these is really exposition, setting the stage for what comes. You meet the main characters of import – Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Moiraine, and Lan. There are quite a few others along the way, and generally if they have more than a few lines of dialogue, they will be important later on. You get a quick overview of what happened an age ago, see Two Rivers, the trolloc battle, Shadar Logoth and the tinkers.

The army of shadow is well done, with the faceless in particular quite ominous. Think of the orcish army from LotR, but on serious evil steroids. The character learn quickly enough that they have been quite sheltered and that life outside their town is much more complicated. The major factions are put into play in some fashion, and the episodes generally follows the flow of the first novel.

There are no sex changes here, which makes sense given that this concept is sort of fundamental to the story capacity. They are multi-cultural, which works out just fine in the short term. It will be interesting to see how the Seachan are approached in future seasons… but that’s a while to go still. The actors do a serviceable job, with rather apt representations of their novel versions. Rand and Mat are easy enough to run with… Perrin is going to be interesting to see develop. In the novels, he has continual self-doubt that defines his character for a very long time. I’m quite curious to see how the actual Forsaken are cast and played through – they tend to be written as exaggerations of character flaws, with centuries of experience to plan ahead.

Now, is it a great series, with amazing production values and tight writing? It is not. It lacks the discovery element of modern writing style (think the wonder of Harry Potter), a martial approach to pretty much everything (like GoT at the start), and the need to set up dozens of threads for future tugs. How many series are able to knock it out of the park in the first season?

Is it worth watching? I would certainly recommend it, and for two reasons. First, so that you can experience the foundation for modern fantasy stories. You may think it’s a trope now, but it probably became one because of this series of novels. Second, because we could all use more series in this genre where the characters and plot are aligned. For every Expanse or Handmaid’s Tale, we get a Red Notice, or Warrior Nun.

I’ll have a fulsome review once all 8 episodes are out.