Kaleidoscope is a Netflix series with a different approach. When the viewer first starts the program, Netflix purportedly randomizes the order in which the seven middle episodes of the series are shown. An interesting narrative experiment, Kaleidoscope left me nostalgic for the way television used to be watched.
The various episodes of the series are named for different colors. Everyone starts with “Black,” a short introduction to the process of the series, and ends with “White.” Just for the record, my viewing order was “Yellow,” “Green,” “Blue,” “Orange,” “Violet,” “Red,” and “Pink.”
Kaleidoscope is a heist narrative. The events of the series circle around a complicated criminal score that, like all great heist stories before it, hinges on detailed planning and clockwork organization. The opening graphic of each story tells the viewer when the story is set in relation to the heist itself. I want to be particularly careful about spoilers here, but basically episodes set before and after the heist give the viewer glimpses into the origins and motivations of the characters whose lives are woven together over time. The time-jumping effect generates a powerful curiosity in the viewer to see what actually goes down during the robbery itself, keeping the viewer bouncing between asking “how is this going to happen?” and “how did this happen?”.
On November 10th, Kevin Conroy passed away after a fight with intestinal cancer. You may not recognize Conroy’s name or his image, but you have heard his voice. For the past three decades, Conroy was the main voice actor to play Batman. To me, Conroy will always be the voice of Batman.
No disrespect is intended to the many other fine performers who have been a live-action or animated version of Batman. Adam West’s distinctive style, for example, was a key component to the campy success of the 1960s Batman television series. Other actors such as Will Arnett and Diedrich Bader have excellent Batman voices. Michael Keaton has a very serious style. And, of course, Christian Bale has that raspy Bat-voice that was always a bit off to my ears but still fun to imitate.
Conroy became the Batman voice thanks to his work on Batman: The Animated Series. The series debuted in 1992 and it had kids rushing home from school to catch the next exciting episode (me too, but at the time this kid was in grad school). The show was visually moody and film noirish. It had clever plots and great action. Best of all, it did not talk down to its audience. Every episode was a mini-movie of sorts.
Conroy’s portrayal of Batman was the glue that held all of this together. His Batman had the deep and serious tones needed to intimidate Gotham City’s criminal element into surrender. Yet, he could also deliver a clever deadpan joke or remark. At times, his Batman could shift from stern leader to a caring, almost parental figure to those in his charge.
Marvel Studios’ decision not to recast another actor into the role of T’Challa in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was the right one. Chadwick Boseman left an indelible mark on the character and the franchise. Boseman would be difficult for anyone to follow in the role and any attempt to do so would seem like an insult to our memories of Boseman.
Commercial pressures mean that popular culture must move on though. While we speculate about who the new Black Panther, or Black Panthers, will be, this decision highlights the difference between the way time moves in the Marvel Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In comic books, time has always been a strange thing. Take, for example, Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man. When Peter first appeared, he was fifteen. This year marked the 60th anniversary of his debut. If comic book time matched real time, Spidey would be 75. He would be well passed retirement age, but knowing him he would probably still be in constant trouble.
Yet, comic book Spider-Man has aged. When I was born, Peter Parker was already an undergraduate. When I graduated college, Peter was in graduate school. I passed him, getting my graduate degrees before he did. That’s not bragging. I had a lot less supervillains to fight. But now, I’m in my mid-fifties and Peter is in his late twenties. In roughly a half-century, Peter has aged about thirteen years.
While we are all anxious to see how the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go about choosing a new Black Panther (or Panthers because there can be more than one), the upcoming film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will also bring one of the very first Marvel heroes to the big screen—Namor, the Sub-Mariner!
Namor first appeared in the very first superhero comic published by Timely Comics, the company that would become Marvel Comics. Published in 1939, Marvel Comics #1 (August 1939) was an anthology book that introduced some characters who would go on to be legends. By order of appearance, Namor was technically the third hero introduced after the Human Torch (not the one you know from the movies) and the Angel (definitely not the one you know from the X-Men).
From the very outset, Namor acted with very different motivations. He sought revenge against the surface world that had wronged his submerged civilization. In his debut story, he killed some divers and then set about on more attacks on the world above.
Even though there was something regal about him, it was hard to see Namor in a purely heroic mold. Later, he attempted to destroy New York City in an epic battle that pitted him against the Human Torch in the crossover fight that would later come to define Marvel’s shared universe. Eventually, Namor realized that the fascist threat was a greater menace, joining in the Nazi punching escapades of heroes like the Human Torch and, of course, Captain America. His super-strength, his ability to breathe underwater, and his uncanny ability to fly using wings on his ankles made Namor into a potent force for good.
By. Michael Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
SPOILER WARNING: This article gives away information from Doctor Who “The Power of the Doctor”
Last week, I wrote a column about regeneration in Doctor Who. This important device has allowed the series to continue since 1963 by using science fiction ideas to allow new actors to inhabit the role. This past Sunday, I anticipated a traditional regeneration story, with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor passing away in epic fashion and being replaced by Ncuti Gatwa’s Fourteenth Doctor.
Wow, did that not happen! Instead, we got one of the great surprises in the history of popular culture.
The episode was full of great moments for fans. We got three sinister foes– the Master, the Daleks, and the Cyberman—working together to destroy the Doctor. Also, two traveling companions of the Doctor from the classic era of the series returned in important roles. I have always liked Tegan, who traveled mostly with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) from 1981-1984. And I was thrilled to have Ace back. One of my all-time favorites, Ace traveled with the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) on television from 1987-1989. There were also a number of cameos by former Doctors and companions.
All of that gave the episode a nostalgic and celebratory feel in anticipation of the show moving into its 60th anniversary in 2023. If that were all that happened in “The Power of the Doctor,” the episode would have been a great finale for an incarnation of the character.
When it became clear to the producers of Doctor Who that their star actor was too physically ill to continue playing the role, they embarked on a creative plan to save their popular show. Reasoning that the Doctor was not actually a human, the producers decided that their main character could fall into a kind of emergency restorative state and then emerge with an entirely different physical appearance and some personality differences. And so, after a challenging battle against the Cybermen at the end of part four of “The Tenth Planet (1966),” actor William Hartnell gave the role over to Patrick Troughton.
The process, eventually called “regeneration,” became a regular feature that allowed Doctor Who to survive from 1963 until today. The various incarnations of the Doctor are typically numbered in an ordinal fashion (there have been some unnumbered Doctors too). Hartnell was the First Doctor. The current Doctor, portrayed by Jodie Whittaker, is the Thirteenth Doctor, although not for much longer. Airing on Sunday night on BBC America, “The Power of the Doctor” will bring her time to an end.
Within the narrative of the show itself, regeneration stories are often sources of heightened drama. The Doctor leads an extraordinarily dangerous life battling against evil throughout time and space. The story that often takes a particular challenge, forcing the Doctor to endure great physical harm and/or make considerable sacrifices to save the day. The Thirteenth Doctor had an amazing run. The first female incarnation of the character in the show’s history, this Doctor brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm back to the series. She also demonstrated a powerful commitment to her traveling companions, which she calls “her Fam” (short for family). There is also some unresolved romantic tension between this Doctor and her traveling companion, Yaz. Normally I am not much for romance subplots, but I really buy into it on this show. I really do not want to see heartbreak here, but I do not know how it can be avoided.
Outside the narrative, the process of regeneration is always fascinating to me. Regenerations are not surprises. The hunt for a new actor to play the Doctor is an involved and much hyped affair, involving fan speculation, producer teases, and even pub wagering before the big announcement. We have known since May 8th that Ncuti Gatwa will become the Fourteenth Doctor. Gatwa will be the first person of color in the role as well as the fourth Scottish actor to play the part (so President Morrison-Shetlar, I hope you will be watching!).
What is so exciting about these moments for me though is that beyond the identity of the actor, the fans have no idea what the new Doctor will be like. Something very old is about to become new again, but the exact details elude us. The time the details are being kept particularly close to the vest. Producer Russell T. Davies, who in 2005 brought the show into the modern era of television, is coming back to the series he loves but he is not telling us much.
All we know right now is that there will be three specials in 2023 (which will also mark the 60th anniversary year of the program). We know that David Tennant and Catherine Tate will be returning in one of those stories as the very popular Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble. We know that Neil Patrick Harris will be a villain in that story. It is such a wonderful mystery and I cannot wait to see what happens next!
Thirty-five years ago, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted. Arriving on Sept. 28, 1987, the series ushered in an entirely new era of Trek. In retrospect, it is also amazing that this new era happened at all. Today, Star Trek is a true popular culture franchise, spinning out in a variety of media. Back in ’87 though, Trek was pretty much running on old school Enterprise energy.
The original television series was a fan favorite but also a commercial disaster. NBC had canceled the show in 1968. A fan campaign saved it for a third season, but then NBC killed it for good in 1969. Spinning out into syndicated reruns, the series was finally able to flourish as a phenomenon. That did not prompt much of a return to television though, leading only to the two season Saturday morning Star Trek cartoon (1973-1974).
The franchise got a boost when Star Wars ignited an era of blockbuster science fiction films. Trek went to the big screen. By 1987 though, there had only been four of these movies. And every last one of these series centered on the original starship Enterprise and its crew.
As the name implies, Next Generation was an attempt to put someone else in the captain’s chair. Captain Kirk was gone. Captain Jean-Luc Picard arrived. In hindsight this might seem odd, but the question was serious. Could the Trek formula work with a new cast?
Halloween has been slowly changing over the past few decades from a holiday largely for children into an event celebrated by the entire family. There was always money to be had in costume manufacturing, but as adults have begun to participate more, new products have arrived to meet their needs.
At the same time, the superhero genre has exploded from nerd culture into the mainstream. No one should be surprised that a genre that thrives on costumed identities would be a source of Halloween fun. Every year though, I find myself amused by the lengths some costume makers will go to avoid paying licensing fees.
On one popular website, shoppers can filter their choices into male and female superhero costumes. There are 197 of the former and 190 of the latter. So, congratulations to the females for achieving some kind of equality.
Each of those categories are subdivided into “sexy.” There are 79 sexy costumes for women. There are 2 for men. One is Wolverine and the other we’ll discuss in a moment. Perhaps that disparity is a marketing consideration. Maybe men do not search for costumes looking to be “sexy.” It’s probably old-fashioned sexism though.
I like to look at really expensive residence ads. Like everyone, I guess I’m a bit of a lottery-win dreamer. I also like to do this from time to time because it really confuses the heck out of my advertising algorithms.
Recently I was looking at an ad for 217 W. 57th St. Penthouse, a new $250 million residence in New York City. To some seriously epic sounding music, the video ad for this place argues that this is the “highest residence in the world.” As one might expect for a quarter-billion bucks, the domicile has a number of bedrooms, all sorts of amenities, and its own ballroom.
Do you know what’s missing? A place to put your flying car, supercomputer, and space jet. As an old school comics fan, I can’t help myself. I see every skyscraper as a potential superhero headquarters.
Back in the day, there were basically two terrestrial choices for an urban super team looking to centralize. Superheroes built up or superheroes built down. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had Avengers Mansion, a swanky residence donated to the team by gazillionaire Tony Stark (back when people did not know he was Iron Man). There was something undeniably cool about the fact that a person could just be walking down the sidewalk, turn through a gate and go up to the Avenger’s front door (after being secretly scanned by security devices, of course). In order to make all of this work, the Avengers dug down into the solid bedrock of Manhattan Island to store all of their equipment and vehicles.
Recently I watched this summer’s Pixar blockbuster that wasn’t a blockbuster, Lightyear. I found myself enjoying a film on a streaming platform that a few months earlier just did not generate much excitement in the theaters. I started to wonder, would Lightyear be a much stronger film if it wasn’t about Buzz Lightyear? And if so, then why was Buzz Lightyear in Lightyear?
Lightyear rolls out as a strange subspecies of prequel. Offering itself up as a curious kind of origin story, the film does not explore Buzz Lightyear’s life before he met Woody and the rest of the Toy Story gang. After all, how could it? Buzz’s realization that he is a toy is at the comedic heart of the original Toy Story (1995). We can’t have Buzz learn that he is a toy only to somehow have him forget that he is a toy to then learn he is a toy again later.
While we know that there are hundreds of Buzz Lightyear toys out there in the Toy Story universe, we also cannot follow a different Buzz because we know that the “real” Buzz Lightyear is the one owned by the young boy Andy. We may have learned to accept that Buzz moved on to be Bonnie’s toy later, but Buzz’s individuality, his essence as a character, comes from Andy’s name scrawled on the bottom of his boot.
Leaving aside that paradoxically inspiring yet somehow also soul-crushing existential theory about identity, we must consider that any attempt to expand Buzz Lightyear’s story backwards in time cannot comfortably work within the continuity established by Toy Story.
by Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communications Study Professor
In this modern era of superhero movie dominance, the recent decision to shelve the completed $90 million Batgirl movie prophesies dark times to come at HBO Max.
As a character, Batgirl has long faced an uphill struggle. The first version of the character was created mostly to be a romantic foil for Robin the Boy Wonder, someone to keep the youthful sidekick busy while her mentor Batwoman tried to lure Batman into matrimony.
The best-known version of the character arrived in comics and on television in the same year. Barbara Gordon was introduced as a way to improve ratings when the show’s popularity waned. While that Batgirl could not save the series, she became a mainstay in the DC Comics universe for about two decades until a violent attack by the Joker left Gordon paralyzed. Since then, a few other characters have claimed the role and Gordon herself recovered and resumed her crime fighting.
Old school superhero fans have a curious attitude about the media. We hold comic books as sacred, the original texts that gave us our beloved heroes. Comic books are where superheroes are at their best However, we also love to see those characters make it to the screens of other media. Film looms particularly large in this way, the size of the audiences and the screen itself gives everything that big movie feel. Aside from an unimpressive performance by Alicia Silverstone in the painful Batman & Robin movie, Batgirl has not appeared in any other big screen Batman adventure. That is why the prospect of a Batgirl movie was so exciting. Even though this particular project was actually going to run exclusively on HBO Max, it felt big in a big screen way.
Except for its cover story, Amazing Fantasy #15 was a routine comic filled with conventional twist-ending sci-fi stories. An elderly man’s commitment to ringing the town bell is rewarded during a disaster. A fleeing criminal makes the mistake of trusting a talking mummy in a museum. An ordinary family couple turns out to be Martians hiding out amongst humanity.
Spider-Man was something new. When that wall-crawling “long underwear type” first hit the stands on August 1, 1962, he changed everything.
You know the origin story by now because of the fairly faithful movie adaptations. A young orphan named Peter Parker lives with his kindly Uncle Ben and Aunt May. The older couple dote upon and encourage the boy as much as their modest means allow. Yet for all his academic acumen, Peter is lonely, unable to fit in with the cruel bullies and popular snobs of his high school.
Over the weekend, we lost one of the truly great figures in comics art when Neal Adams passed away at the age of 90. Adams was a titan of the industry. His bold artistic style literally broke the comics page, moving out from the common practice of rectilinear panels with wild abandon. Pulse pounding action sequences on Adam’s pages were spaced around diagonal lines and sometimes the figures of characters themselves. Adams was also a master of expression. You always knew exactly what his heroes and villains were thinking by the looks on their faces.
There is a tendency among longtime fans to be a bit insufferable about the impact of older comics. I would never want to be one of those “the book is better” types. However, if you really love superhero movies, tv shows, and games, I want to share with you how much Neal Adams contributed to what you love.
Good X-Men stories: Given the popularity of the X-Men today, many people don’t realize just how miserable X-Men comics were back in the old days. It was a rare miss for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby duo. Eventually the comic would be converted to reprints. For a few glorious issues though, writer Roy Thomas and Neal Adams showed the true action and drama potential of these characters in Uncanny X-Men #56-63 (1969). While this burst wasn’t enough to stave off the reprint area, I am convinced that these glorious issues showed the power of this concept (particularly in some stories involving the Sentinels) that other creators wanted to bring them back.
An old saying goes– everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Unless you live in the Marvel Universe. There, some superheroes like Thor and Storm can and often do control atmospheric conditions. It must be strange to live in a world where weather control exists.
Unsurprisingly, weather is usually a weapon for Thor. As the Norse God of Thunder, Thor will summon down lightning and let loose terrible storms to smite his enemies. Thor prefers clonking his foes with his mighty hammer Mjolnir. The thunder and lightning arrive when Thor faces a particularly dangerous opponent that provokes his anger or frustration. These downbursts pummel monsters and drive down armies.
While not quite as powerful as Thor, Storm has a greater range of weather control. All forms of weather are hers to manipulate. Storm will often use thunderstorms in battle too, but she can also create blizzards to freeze her foes or fog to obscure the movements of her X-Men teammates. While technically not a god in the sense that Thor is, Storm was regarded as a goddess in her younger days. Storm’s powers are directly linked to her emotions. A bad mood could unintentionally lead to a thunderstorm. A good mood could mean a beautiful day. For many years in the X-Men comics, the need for Storm to control her moods frustrated her. This was also a thematic representation of her move from Africa to the United States. Storm often longed to return to the free spirit days of her time living in Kenya (these days she is Queen of Mars, but that’s a different story altogether).
The cover to Captain America #1 is one of my all-time favorite comic book covers. Released a few days before Christmas in 1940, the cover depicts the debut of our most patriotic hero. This image is a particularly fine example of the dynamic artwork of Cap’s co-creator, Jack Kirby. You can almost hear the savage blow that the good Captain delivered right to Hitler’s face, knocking the despot back and sending his red tie flying. His Nazi underlings look on, shocked and afraid, trying and failing to stop Captain America.
The cover is important because Captain America has gone on to be one of our most prominent superheroes. Although his costume is a bit different here—the abdominal stripes are a bit narrower, the head covering is more like a helmet than a mask, and the shield is more angular—visually this is pretty much the Cap we know today, athletic, action-oriented, and wearing his patriotism.
As I have gotten older, I have come to love this cover for other reasons. I am always impressed by how early Captain America is laying into the Nazis here. It was 1940. America would not formerly go to war until a year later. Cap was leading the way. Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby were both Jewish. They knew what was going on in the world. They knew what this country should be doing and whom we should be fighting.