It’s no fun being Superman – Roger Ebert, from his review of Superman Returns
I remember that quote from Roger Ebert very vividly, and when it comes to Superman Returns, it just seemed rather fitting regarding Bryan Singer’s film.
One of the themes that many writers on Superman have dealt with, has been the idea of Superman himself feeling like an ‘alien’ among humanity. It was something that was brought up in the film Superman II in 1980, and in Returns, it plays out as an underlying theme for this film.
In analysis, I have felt that one of the more recent Superhero revivals has an understated message about fitting in, and that is Bryan Singer’s 2006 film.
Superman as a character, is a being that possesses great powers due to energy from our planet’s own sun, but also was raised by humans, and adopted an alter-ego to blend in among them, aka Clark Kent.
Many writer love that use of duality to try and give a character depth. Even the writers on several of the Batman films played around with it, showing Bruce Wayne struggling between his normal and secret identities.
Almost 20 years would pass from Superman’s last outing (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), until Returns’ debut. Though attempts had been made to reboot Superman in the 90′s, the final result we got in 2006, is what I like to refer to as ‘A Bridging Vehicle.’
It seems to be a given when you have a sequel to something that was last seen 8+ years ago: you often have to deal with the death of older characters (or the actors who played them), introduce new characters, and knock a character down so far that they have to really struggle to climb back up to the top again. ‘Bridging Vehicles’ have been used on several films in the last 7 years, such as Tron:Legacy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Men in Black 3.
Of course, in the case of Returns, this isn’t meant to bridge us to the 4th Superman film, but the 2nd. It’s rumored to take place after the events of Superman II, in which Superman fought the Kryptonian Crmininals led by General Zod, yet the environments and set pieces are more 21st century than early 80′s.
In examining Singer’s take on Superman, I noticed there seem to be three themes that run through the film. I’ve decided to outline them on this posting.
Superman is cut off from his past, and homeworld of Krypton
Starting with a prologue where Superman has been told that remnants of Krpyton may have survived, he goes off into deep space for 5 years, only to find there really is nothing left of his home planet.
Returning to Earth, he then seeks solace in the Fortress of Solitude, only to find the crystals that allowed him to see the holographic visions of his father Jor-El, are gone! Without them, he has become further cut off from his past. Already having lost his (adopted) human father many years ago, he has now lost the one link to his biological father, as well as the knowledge and recordings of his home world.
Before Superman had returned, Lex Luthor had conned his way into the will of a wealthy-yet-naive widow, and inherited her fortune. Using her yacht, he and his henchmen headed towards the Arctic, to find the Fortress (of which Lex had entered in Superman II). Lex was able to activate the crystals in the Fortress, and finds out through the Jor-El hologram that they can create landmasses.
He then takes the crystals, and returns to Metropolis. After testing a sliver of one of the crystals, He intends to supplant the North American continent, burying it underwater with billions dead. The end result being that he can sell survivors plots of land on his new continent, at exorbitant prices. I know, I’m thinking it too: all this trouble for a land-grab scheme?
With word that Superman has returned, Lex and his men steal a large chunk of Kryptonite, and create a casing into which is placed one of the crystals. Launched into the waters off Metropolis, the crystal grows, absorbing the Kryptonite, and the properties of the Earthen rock on the ocean floor.
From the depths rises New Krypton, its rocky formation similar to the sterling white forms of Superman’s former home world, but gray and foreboding. Its presence alters the atmosphere with ominous clouds and lightning, and creates a rift in the ocean floor that shakes the foundations of Metropolis nearby.
Eventually, Superman sets down on New Krypton, and faces off against Luthor. However, Lex soon sees that Superman has weakened, and takes the opportunity to knock him around, even giving his associates turns in beating him up. Lex finally stabs Superman with a small shard of Kryptonite, embedding it deep in his body, before Superman plummets off the land mass into the ocean waters below.
Some will eagerly point out the symbolism to Christ’s torturing and eventual stabbing, but to me, I was moreso interested in a sense of ‘rejection’ in the scene. New Krypton is the closest Superman has gotten to his homeworld (if you don’t count the Fortress of Solitude), yet he cannot survive on it due to Luthor’s tainting its creation with Kryptonite.
Kryptonite in the DC Comics, was a radioactive element that was blown out into space when Krypton exploded. In a sense, it’s a sad state of affairs: a piece of Superman’s homeworld, tainted in such a manner that when combined with a newly-created land mass created from Kryptonian technology, also keeps him from achieving any solidarity to his homeworld.
After plummeting off the side of New Krypton, Superman is rescued by Lois, and her husband Richard White (Jason Marsden). Unable to fully remove the Kryptonite shard, Superman then leaves them, absorbing as much of the sun’s rays as possible, before burrowing deep under New Krypton.
As the formation is lifted into the air, Lex Luthor and his associate Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) escape in a helicopter, but not before Kitty dumps the rest of the crystals Lex stole onto the rock formation’s surface (doing this after hearing Lex admit he’s fine with billions dying for his land deal).
Superman lifts the rock formation out of Earth’s atmosphere, with the Kryptonite on it severely weakening him. Eventually, he gives it a mighty heave, and it slowly flies off into space. This also serves as a major scene for Superman. With this move, he has sent off into space, the last remnants of his homeworld, and the means of knowledge and wisdom from his father. He now truly seems to be, “The Last Son of Krypton.”
The Whiny, Emo Superman
During one of his cross-country lecture sessions, someone asked Kevin Smith (a big Superman fan) what he thought of Singer’s film. It was already fan-knowledge that Singer had dropped out of filming X3 – The Last Stand to focus on Returns. Even with the last X-movie being directed by Brett Ratner (the director of Rush Hour), Smith still said that he enjoyed Ratner’s film more than Singer’s Superman interpretation.
Though he didn’t outright hate Superman Returns, he did have some issues with it, and even noted that even with Superman fighting criminals and all, not once during the entire film does the Man of Steel throw a punch.
When Smith made mention of this version as “The Whiny, Emo Superman,” I couldn’t shake that line. It did seem that he had hit the nail on the head, as the writers had just thrown Kal-El into an emotional well of despair. That he just feels so different that noone cares or understands him. The girl he loved is now married with a child, and has written a Pulitzer-prize winning article titled, Why the World Doesn’t need Superman. That almost sounds like a declaration from an ex-girlfriend posting on Facebook: “Such-and-such is a real jerk, and here’s why.”
There was one scene that did make some a little uneasy, where Superman goes to Lois and Richard White’s house, uses his X-Ray vision, and ‘watches them.’
It’s a cozy little image of suburbia that he sees, but with Lois now ‘taken,’ he has to accept they can’t be together. As he makes his way skyward, we hear the words of Jor-El:
Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them.
They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.
For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.
We then see that Superman has decided to follow these words. Attempting to do good and set a shining example for humanity, he then starts a quest around the world, attempting to help almost anyone, anywhere.
Eventually, he does appear before Lois in his suit, and they finally have ‘the talk’ regarding his leaving. It also is told that Lois wrote the article, feeling that he had abandoned them (thought it almost sounds like she’s saying, “You abandoned me”). He takes her for another flight through Metropolis (such as in the Richard Donner film), but even this isn’t enough to shake her resolve. She isn’t willing to just forgive and forget that he went away for 5 years, especially not now, since she has a family. Her admittance is supposedly the end of any possible rekindling of a romantic relationship between them.
“The son becomes the father, and the father…the son”
There seems to be significance to this line in Superman Returns, as we hear Jor-El’s (aka Marlon Brando) voice play out over an old image of Krypton’s crystalline structures in the opening sequence of the film.
In this film, we have Superman cut off from the words of wiswom and knowledge from Jor-El, when the crystals are taken from the Fortress of Solitude. All Superman has now are the memories of his father’s words.
The film also introduces us to a child that Lois Lane has. The audience is left to assume that he’s the son of her husband Richard White, but we are led to question this, when Lex Luthor notices the boy’s eyes droop when he reveals the Kryptonite casing for one of his crystals.
Though the final word on who the father is, comes when Lois’ life is threatened, and the little boy (off-camera) shoves a grand piano into him, saving his Mom (but also making him one of the youngest murderers in Superhero history!).
Even with this display of Super-strength, the little boy doesn’t show any other signs of powers, and stays relatively quiet and docile through the rest of the film.
After Superman plummets back to Earth and is in critical condition in a hospital, Lois and her son visit him. Before they leave, Lois whispers something to Superman. We don’t hear it, but it is implied that she whispers to him, that her son is actually his as well.
Supposedly, this gives Superman the will to live again. We next see him in the boy’s bedroom after he’s asleep (once again, creepy-voyeuristic Superman in action), and repeats the same words we heard from Jor-El in the beginning.
This seems to tie into the theme that Superman as a character has grown up. He has now been thrust into adulthood, no longer reliant on the words of his own father, and is willing in some ways, to watch over and protect this boy…possibly to guide him in the future, when and if his full powers manifest.
Given the look on his face, it looks like he is finally happy, that his thoughts of being lonely are now gone, that he may truly not be “The Last Son of Krypton.”
Superman Returns received semi-positive reviews from the critcs, but its box-office totals did not justify eagerness to start on another film, with its worldwide cumulative totals barely able to make back the film’s $270 million budget, and advertising costs.
One of the issues the film may have had, was that it tried to stick very close to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve film ideology from the early 80′s. While many have a fondness for those pictures, trying to make that same kind of shtick work almost 20+ years later is difficult. Singer tried to infuse some darker elements into his film, but it just doesn’t feel like it holds together as a memorable piece of entertainment. I’m sure many of us can think of a few scenes from the film, but there’s nothing that sticks in our minds as “incredible.” I think in the end, it was walking a pretty precarious tightrope, and didn’t quite know how to balance itself out.
If the film had succeeded, Singer had said he wanted to go the route of “Wrath of Khan” next. These three words are often bandied about, as many hope to make their second film darker and more serious in tone than the introductory first film. Though just what Singer would have had in mind for his follow-up, we’ve never heard.
With the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we finally have our first Superman film that severs the ties to the original incarnation from 1978. At the moment, its release is being met with some less-than-positive critical reviews, but a large smattering of adoration from filmgoers. With word that Snyder’s film is already on the fast-track to having a sequel made, one has to wonder just where the newest incarnation of Superman will go.
As I’ve stated in several previous reviews/dissections, I am quite fond of the Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart.
The film proved to be an intriguing story about creativity, music, and writing…traits that one doesn’t necessarily find in animated films, let alone those involving high schoolers.
One of the selling points of the film, was the fictional story-world that the lead character, Shizuku Tsukishima, creates. After coming across an antique store with a statue of a dapper, humanized cat-figure in its window, she is compelled to write a story revolving around the statue.
Even so, Whisper’s overall story was moreso one of high school drama, which made it tie very closely to the manga it was based off of, which was written and illustrated by Aoi Hiiragi. Ms Hiiragi noted in several interviews, that she was surprised that her manga was chosen by Hayao Miyazaki to be used for the basis for one of the studio’s films. One can probably imagine her surprise when a few years later, she’d be called upon to make a slight return to the world of several of those characters.
When a theme park came calling for Ghibli to do a short revolving around cats, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to incorporate the cat characters of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, and Muta, from Whisper. Aoi Hiiragi was also contacted to write a story based around the short. Though the theme park eventually cancelled the project, the seed of the idea began to germinate and grow under Ghibli, into something else.
In the end, Hiiragi’s story would be developed into a film, to be used as a testing ground for new animators at the company. As well, the length of the project grew, until it was soon decided by Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, that the film actually had a storyline that had a compelling character in the guise of its lead, a high school student named Haru.
There were a number of Studio Ghibli fans who discounted the film, given its shorter running time, and decidedly un-Ghibli-like character stylings. When it came to the designs, one could say the filmmakers chose to make the characters moreso resemble Hiiragi’s drawing style. You can see this in the example below, regarding Haru’s character:
The final product of The Cat Returns, can at best, be considered a pseudo-sequel to Whisper of the Heart. It’s one of those films that newcomers can enjoy, but for those who have seen Whisper of the Heart, there are several characters and themes that can be seen throughout.
I decided to list them here, as I couldn’t find very many who had gone through and found them. Below are the few that connect these two films together.
1) Baron Humbert von Gikkingen
Whisper of the Heart’s most iconic fantasy image, is one of Shizuku and the Baron, freefalling against the backdrop of a strange fantasy world. Whisper’s incarnation of the Baron also didn’t completely delve into his character, but gave a small backstory created by Shizuku, when she was writing her story.
The filmmakers even throw in some deja vu, regarding one shot were Haru first gets a good look at the Baron in statue form. The set-up is very similar to a shot in Whisper, regarding Shizuku:
The composer for The Cat Returns even utilizes the Baron’s theme from Whisper as well, usually in some of the more action-oriented segments he’s in.
In Whisper, one of the most iconic moments was when Shizuku happened to spot a large cat getting onto a train. She soon found herself getting sidetracked, and following him. His path led her through all sorts of back-alleys and paths, before she came across the antique store where the statue of the Baron resided. The filmmakers of Returns also reference this follow-the-leader scenario in several scenes:
This also ties into making us believe that this story we are seeing, was written by Shizuku. Whereas the large cat Shizuku followed led her to the antique shop where the Baron’s statue was, Haru’s journey led her to The Cat Bureau, wherein resided the Baron. Also, both cats have a darker coloration around their left ear, as can be seen in the images below:
During the course of Whisper, Shizuku learned that the large cat she spotted, was known by many different names. Seiji Amasawa referred to him as Moon (“because he looks like a ‘full moon,’” he remarked to her). Another time came when Shizuku heard a little girl refer to the cat as Muta.
This was a fun tie-in to Whisper, because it definitely makes the story of how Muta got his name more fun, and can help us to think that what we are seeing, is definitely a story written by Shizuku. We don’t know how many other people would have considered the name of Muta for this cat, so making it out to be Shizuku’s story just clicks.
This also comes into play in a later scene, where in the cat kingdom, Muta tells several of those gathered, that his name is also Reynaldo Moon (note the ‘Moon’ reference?).
In both Whisper and Returns, these two magic moments are key to certain events.
In the case of sunset, it’s a time when the Baron’s presence takes on a certain mystical, and theatrical appearance.
In Whisper, Seiji showed Shizuku a rather fascinating abnormality in the statue’s eyes. When the sunset hit the eyes, they seemed to flicker and come alive. In Returns, the setting sun was reflected in the Baron’s eyes, only in this storyline, he really DOES come alive. As well, each of the scenes contain the following images, that act as a mirror-image to the events:
Sunrise also happens at the end of each film, and is a pivotal moment for both Shizuku in Whisper, and Haru in Returns. Shizuku and Seiji share a moment as the sun rises, and it also acts as the symbol of a new turning point in their lives. As for Haru, it shows her in freefall, before she is rescued by her friends, and then decides to truly start in a new direction regarding how she views life.
Also, Haru’s freefall scene is slightly reminiscent of a scene in Whisper, where in her mind, Shizuku imagines herself freefalling with Baron, off on an adventure.
Some would call these images minor callbacks, but it feels like the extra strand of connective tissue between these films, that not many would even think to consider.
4) The Baron’s ‘residence’
Much like the antique store that the Baron resided in in Whisper, his residence of the Cat Bureau in Returns looks very similar in style, mostly due to the upper floor windows and balcony. The style in the film of The Cat Returns actually differs greatly from Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, in which the Baron’s residence actually did resemble the antique shop moreso. As an aside in one panel, he even tells Haru that he sells antiques out of his residence as a hobby.
Above, you can see an image of the shop from Whisper (left), the manga of The Cat Returns (center), and the film version of Returns (right).
While I mainly compared the films Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, I could also see some people out there comparing the storytelling of Ms Hiiragi’s manga story, and the final film product. There were some storypoints that were dropped from Hiiragi’s story, not to mention restructuring of some characters and their story arcs…but, that could be a story for another time.
In regards to things like ‘sequelitis,’ Studio Ghibli has been one of the few studios that does not go the American way with their film productions. In America, when an animated film makes money these days, it is then usually set upon to become a cash-cow with merchandising and sequels close at hand. While Ghibli is no stranger to merchandising, they never shift into overdrive if one of their films does incredibly well (I never heard of a Spirited Away marketing blitz in Japan after that film made so much money). There has also never been a video game developed based on any of their film properties, though one has to wonder if some game companies have tried to get Ghibli to loosen their grip, and do something akin to Kingdom Hearts.
Regarding straight-on sequels, a mis-translation a few years ago made it sound like Hayao Miyazaki was considering a sequel to his simple-yet-sweet 1992 film, Porco Rosso. Then again, there are probably thousands of fans around the world that would likely wish for more sequels to Ghibli films, but I always enjoyed how the majority of their works are nice in a one-time experience sort of way. Continued events would most likely ruin some of the more heart-felt moments that we have been privy to on the big screen, something not often thought of by those begging and pleading for more.
Up until The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader seemed nothing more than an ominously breathing, black-suited foe. But, when the revelation came about that he was Luke Skywalker’s father, it changed everything. Suddenly, this symbol of the Dark Side of the Force, and the Galactic Empire, was found to be not some kind of droid or robotic samurai, but a man contained within a suit.
It was during Return of the Jedi, that we were finally told of the name Anakin Skywalker by Obi-Wan Kenobi. From that point on, Luke’s quest takes a very different turn. While it seems that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda were steering Luke to kill Vader (why else would they not tell him the truth?), Luke instead attempts to save the man who ‘ceased’ to be Anakin Skywalker.
Of course, Luke’s belief that some good still existed in his Father is proved true when Anakin throws the Emperor down a shaft in the second Death Star, saving his son, and destroying the Sith.
It is in Luke’s struggle to get his Father off the crippled Space Station, that Anakin asks his son to remove his mask, to see Luke “through his own eyes.” As we watched, Luke removed two pieces of the ominous helmet, to reveal a white-faced older man (actor Sebastian Shaw), with circles under his eyes, and a gash in the top of his head. As he utters his last words to Luke (without the ominous intonations of James Earl Jones), Anakin expires.
Later on, after burning his Father’s body, and then joining his friends to celebrate the end of the Empire, Luke is visited by the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and then notices the two are joined by a third, this one Anakin, no longer burned or scarred, but looking normal and very pleased.
Of course, this is how many of us knew Anakin, up until 2004, when Shaw’s ‘spirited’ presence was replaced by Hayden Christensen (I guess killing children and force-choking your wife can have advantages in the after-life). However, we’re here today to talk about figures of Anakin, when we knew him way-back-when (aka the Sebastian Shaw years).
As the Star Wars toy line began to wind down in the mid-80′s after the trilogy ended, there were few places for it to go (aside from figures based around the Ewoks and Droids cartoon series). As figure production ended during the Power of the Force toy line, Anakin Skywalker emerged as a rare and very strange figure. Much like The Emperor, Anakin was a figure whose robed form was made up in a rather ‘block’ action figure. As well, he came without any form of weapon.
At the time, one could find Anakin only on the Power of the Force cardbacks, or as a special mail-away promotion (I still remember seeing that promotional sticker on the numerous Rancor Keepers that failed to sell at Kay-Bee Toys back in the day).
After this appearance, it would be some time before Anakin would reappear to Star Wars fans. With the impending release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, Kenner began releasing figures that had some relation to characters that would be seen in the upcoming prequel. As we would be seeing a younger version of Anakin, Kenner then released the Sebastian Shaw Anakin in a brand-new sculpt, but in two forms.
The first release happened in late 1998, when Anakin was included as part of the Jedi Spirits “Cinema Scene” 3-pack. Along with figures of Obi-Wan and Yoda, the set was meant to replicate the end-scene of the three Jedi, appearing to Luke.
Though if some thought that the 1985 release of Anakin was stiff, the newer version was pretty much a statue. While it looked like he had neck and arm joints, they were firmly locked into place on the translucently-frosted Jedi.
Even though he couldn’t move, I found this release to be really cool, and the 3-pack recreated one of the last film’s iconic moments.
In early Spring of 1999, Anakin appeared as part of the Power of the Force ‘Flashback’ series. This figure series included a small pull-tab device that showed an image of Anakin from Return of the Jedi, and a younger image of Anakin from Episode I (portrayed by Jake Lloyd).
Though he looks very much like the Jedi Spirits release of Anakin, this figure is largely a new sculpting/molding. The body and Jedi robes Anakin is wearing are definite proof of this. The head-sculpt appears to be the same as the previous release, but due to the plastic and paint, works out pretty well.
This version of Anakin also broke the mold, in that he came with an accessory this time: a blue lightsaber (albeit the same style as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s). At the time, almost every figure seemed to come with some sort of accessory, and this may have just been Kenner’s attempts to keep kids from thinking they weren’t getting their money’s worth with this ‘action’ figure.
In a sense, it is a little sad that with the level of sculpting-detail that Hasbro has done in the last decade, and with how George Lucas defined the trilogy’s imagery in these years as well, an updated Sebastian Shaw sculpt in Jedi Spirit form, is most likely a wishful thought. As it stands now, the only trace of Shaw within current action figures, are the incarnations of Darth Vader, in which removing his helmet shows Shaw’s scarred face underneath.
In another sense, going through Sebastian Shaw’s figures reminds me of those days-gone-by. The original release of Anakin reminds me of my youth when I first started collecting figures, and the next versions remind me of those days in high school, when I began to collect again, and when the Special Edition films were released in 1997, showing many naysayers that even with the convenience of home video, many would still come out to see some films on the big-screen.
One could find it hard to imaginethat with the popularity of its films, why did it take so long for Indiana Jones to return to the action figure aisles?
In the early 1980′s, Kenner held the license for figures to be made for Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released, the license passed to LJN. Unlike Kenner’s figures, which were in the same scale as those from Star Wars, LJN chose a 6-inch size, and only released 3 figures.
In 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came and went without any figures or toys, but then again, fans of Lucasfilm productions were in the middle of the Dark Ages, with the Star Wars’ Power of the Force line having ended a few years prior. It wasn’t until the announcement in the late 2000′s that Indiana Jones would be returning for a fourth feature, did merchandising swing into full-gear. Kenner was no more by this time, having been absorbed by the Hasbro toy company. As the Indy line began to take shape, the release for action figures and playsets from the films looked to follow this schedule:
Summer 2008 – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Raiders of the Lost Ark
Fall 2008 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Winter 2008/2009 -Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Spring 2009 – Raiders of the Lost Ark (additional figures from the film)
Hasbro also expanded their reach into other age-groups, with the static-figured Adventure Heroes for younger children, and the creation of 12-inch, articulated figures with real clothing for collectors.
Indiana Jones and the Toy Shelves of Doom
Naturally, when you have a well-loved film franchise returning to popularity after 2 decades of absence, you’re going to ramp up production of merchandise for the latest installment (if you lived through the hype that was Episode I, you know where I’m coming from).
The latest adventure of Indiana Jones saw the release of 9 individual figures, a couple figure packs, vehicles, and a Temple playset. Though in a move that was rather surprising, Hasbro blitzkrieged the toy aisle with a second line of Indy material: figures, and vehicles from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Thus in May of 2008, both lines collided with a jumble of figures, vehicles, and more merchandise. It was almost like there was a crazy grab for new fans, and old ones.
Though one of the most startling things to be found, was the difference in sculpting and articulation between the lines.
Here’s one example above. The Indy on the left is from the Raiders line, and the one on the right from the Crystal Skull line. While the newer film has a pretty good sculpt of Harrison Ford, the Raiders Indy just looks…generic. Definitely a step-down from the level of sculpting quality we had come to expect from Hasbro who were now able to make spot-on likenesses in their Star Wars figure line.
The Crystal Skull line was also not without problems, as some figures were strangely out of proportion. Just take a look at Mutt Williams below, compared to two of the other figures in the line. Some would say Shia Labeouf can have a big head, but this is ridiculous.
Hasbro also created a mail-away offer tied between both lines. Each figure came with a small top secret crate, that contained both a relic from one of Indy’s past adventures (some fictional), and a small sticker. Collecting 6 stickers and sending $5 dollars for shipping and handling, would make the sender the proud owner of an exclusive crystal skeleton, complete with a gold (painted) throne to sit on. You can see examples of the crates, a few of the items they contained, and the final mail-away ‘prize’ below:
Of course, within days of its release, word was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was not turning into the return that many of the fans had hoped for. George Lucas’ attempts to move Indiana Jones from the realm of 1930′s matinee serials to 1950′s B-movies, wasn’t being widely accepted by many. As well, many had no problems with Indy attached to a sub in Raiders, jumping from a plane on a raft in Temple of Doom, or getting his whip-training, facial scar, and fedora in a single afternoon in Last Crusade…Jones surviving a nuclear explosion in a lead-lined fridge was just going too far for today’s audiences!
But, I’ve gone off track.
Needless to say, the shelves were never bare of Crystal Skull figures, or even the Raiders line. Mutt Williams and plenty of background characters continued to gather dust throughout the summer season. Indiana Jones games and vehicles sat on shelves past the summer, and on into 2009.
So, what happened? With so many fans eager for the return of Dr Jones, why wasn’t there a buying frenzy for all things Indy and plastic? Well, I’ve given it over to a couple of things:
1) Tastes in Action Figures – There’s one likely reason why George Lucas’ Star Wars line has been able to weather itself through several generations, and keep collectors coming back for more: its diverse and strange universe of human and alien creatures.
Indiana Jones doesn’t deal in alot of strange-looking aliens (well, with the exception of Crystal Skull’s ‘inter-dimensional beings’). Plus, almost every bad guy Indy has fought is basically a man in a (fine-tailored) suit. Rene Belloq, Lao Che, and even Walter Donovan were sharply-dressed men looking to off Indy. Belloq did show up in the Raiders toyline, but only in his final ceremonial outfit.
As well, the background characters didn’t really make kids go crazy. While adults remembered the characters of the Nazi spy and his monkey, as well as the black-robed swordsman, these figures excited kids as much as seeing Jar Jar Binks on toy shelves again. Given this logic, one can’t imagine there were kids requesting figures from Crystal Skull like Jim Broadbent’s college dean, or John Hurt’s crazy Harold Oxley character.
2) Over-Saturation – Sometimes it would be nice if some stores would show restraint in ordering merchandise. It’s not that many weren’t excited for Indiana Jones to appear, but I never once saw a store peg picked clean. In fact, the only figure that didn’t seem to spend much time on pegs was Irina Spalko. Even though she is the main baddie in Crystal Skull, it seems the odds of short-packing female figures was prevalent (I got lucky and just happened across her at a suburban Walmart one day). As it was, there were more pegwarmers of the generic Russian soldiers, and Colonel Dovchenko.
3) Choices for various vehicles – Whoever decided on vehicles for Raiders of the Lost Ark, they did pretty good with their choices, notably choosing to create the cargo and troop vehicles during the big desert chase where Indy tries to get the Ark back. However, when it came to choosing vehicles for Crystal Skull, the vehicle choices only came down to one: The Jungle Cutter.
Sure, the vehicle has ‘spinning blades,’ but it probably had about 2 minutes of screen-time before Indiana Jones disabled it with a rocket launcher. One wonders why choices such as the amphibious “Duck” vehicle our heroes use to escape, or the large troop transports in the film weren’t considered.
In a sense, it is sad that no vehicles were made after the summer of 2008 lines. I’m sure many were hoping Hasbro would have created the German tank from The Last Crusade.
By the end of the summer, with the figure line showing no signs of disappearing any time soon, prices quietly began to be slashed on Indy merchandise, and orders for the next wave of figures all but dried up. For those hoping to go on The Last Crusade, finding these figures would be like going on a quest yourself.
*Next Time: We look into the short-packed Wave of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Will we find illumination…or something else?*
As I started writing about Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, I suddenly realized I was doing a great disservice by not analyzing another character who grows and changes in the film: Howl himself!
Though Howl’s outward appearance doesn’t make as major a change as Sophie does, it is his inner self that changes over the course of the film.
The village where Sophie lives has rumored about Howl for some time. Though noone seems to know exactly what the wizard looks like, Sophier’s co-workers at the hat shop tell how he’s interested in devouring the hearts of pretty young girls (even Sophie’s step-sister Lettie mentions this).
Our first appearance of Howl is as a handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man. Though he doesn’t devour Sophie’s heart, one could say he has almost ‘stolen’ it, given how she seems in an unbelieving daze after their encounter.
Howl doesn’t reappear until after Sophie has been cursed, and finds her way into his moving castle. Though he does have an apprentice (a little boy named Markl), this doesn’t necessarily make Howl ‘mature.’ The castle is helter-skelter inside and out. Dust and cobwebs all over the place, not to mention books and bric-a-brac everywhere.
We soon find that Howl is also a fugitive of sorts: he uses multiple identities across different kingdoms, and different portals of entry to them. With a war going on, each of the kingdoms is recruiting wizards and witches to join in with their battles, but Howl does not take sides, preferring to stay neutral to the kingdom’s various affairs.
Using his magic powers, Howl turns himself into a winged creature, that seems to just pass through the battles, sometimes taking on some of the aircraft or wizards in small skirmishes. However, such use of power is slowly taking a toll on him. Calcifer mentions that the more times he goes into these battles, he loses himself to being unable to regain his human form. One could almost see this as Miyazaki’s way of saying that war can ‘change’ people, sometimes not for the better.
Sophie is one of the first to really make a change in Howl’s lifestyle (for the better). First intentionally (cleaning the entire castle), and then accidentally (messing with his potions in the bathroom). This results in Howl having a breakdown in vanity, when he shows her that his blonde hair has turned reddish-orange, before finally regaining his ‘natural’ black coloration.
In a surreal and dark scene, we see Howl lamenting that unless he’s beautiful, he has no point in living. This causes the room to twist and bend, and a green ‘goo’ permeates through his skin. Sophie considers this to be the equivalent of him ‘throwing a tantrum,’ but also shows how vain Howl has become.
When we next see Howl, he’s laying in bed (in his rather cluttered bedroom). His hair is still black, and from this point on, he doesn’t attempt to change its color again (a first step into accepting who he is, and moving into maturity).
After the ‘hair fiasco,’ we find out more regarding Howl’s immaturity. He tells Sophie about how he once was in love with the Witch of the Waste, but then when he found out she wasn’t beautiful, he left her. As well, he has not answered any of the summons by the different kingdoms in regards to their recruiting him for their side of the war.
Sophie recommends that Howl meet with at least one of the Kingdom’s rulers, and explain his own feelings in regards to the war. Howl feels that such a thing won’t deter the request for him to serve, when he hits on a ‘bright idea.’ He suggests that Sophie pretend to be his Mother, and get him out of his obligation with one of the kingdoms. Naturally, she sees this as just another way for him to avoid responsibility. When Howl sends her off, her expression and tone definitely make it clear that she is disappointed at his ‘solution,’ and is doing this ‘under protest.’
However, Howl gives her some consolation to this plan. Before she leaves, he slips a ring onto her finger, telling her that it will protect her, and that he’ll be following her in disguise.
Going to the Royal Palace of one of the kingdoms, Sophie has an audience with the King’s Royal Sorcerer, Madame Suliman. Suliman reveals to Sophie that Howl was once her most gifted student, one whose powers she felt could lead him to taking her position. However, his heart was ‘stolen’ by a demon, and he left his apprenticeship.
Suliman claims that Howl’s uses of magic now are purely for selfish reasons, and that without a heart, he may soon be unable to control his powers. This is some nice insight into the powers Howl has, as well as the thought that demons exist in this world, and can corrupt the magic of some users.
Eventually, Howl shows up in disguise, attempting to retrieve Sophie. However, his disguise is seen through by Suliman, and she uses her powers to make Howl’s powers manifest. Without his heart, Suliman’s powers bring forth the winged creature inside Howl.
Sophie manages to get through to Howl, causing him to regain focus, and escape with her and The Witch of the Waste (who had also been summoned by Suliman). Using a flying vehicle, Howl sends them back to the castle, while he disappears from sight.
After this, Howl returns late in the evening, transformed moreso into his winged creature form, and dripping blood. Sophie awakens and follows his trail, encountering Howl in a carved-out cave, embedded with toys and children’s things. At the end of them, she finds Howl transformed into a large, winged creature. She tells the winged Howl that she wants to help him, but is met with a response of “You’re too late,” before the creature disappears into darkness. A few moments later, it seems that the encounter was nothing more than a dream, but it may have given Sophie some clues to helping Howl.
Sophie then speaks with Calcifer the fire demon, regarding Howl. Calcifer and Sophie have a deal that if Calcifer’s curse is broken, he can break Sophie’s. However, neither is allowed (per the spells on them) to tell what needs to be done to break the spell. At this point, Sophie suspects that Calcifer was the demon who stole Howl’s heart. He is unable to say yes or no to her question, but when she inquires what would happen if Calcifer was extinguished, the fire demon mentions that Howl will die if he (Calcifer) dies.
Eventually, Howl reveals himself to everyone. He’s in good spirits, and informs his new ‘family’ (which now includes the true-aged Witch of the Waste) that they are moving to a new location, since the link to one of the kingdoms has been severed (to prevent Suliman from finding them).
The new place they move into is moreso a ‘home’ than anything else: in fact, it’s the former hat shop that Sophie once lived in! Howl has even included an extra bathroom, and has given Sophie her own room. It feels moreso like Howl is growing up, thinking of others. He even gives Sophie a little insight into his past, by taking her to a secret garden, allowing her access to come here whenever she wishes.
Howl’s new role as a family protector continues on, as he soon after goes away. The town is evacuated, but Sophie, Markl, and The Witch of the Waste stay behind. Howl patrols the skies, becoming more and more bird-like as the war draws closer.
When Howl finally does return to the new home, it is when it is threatened. Howl manages to stop a bomb from destroying the home, and attempts to help cleanse Calcifer of a deadly ‘tracking bug’ that was snuck into the house.
He then attempts to leave, but Sophie wants him to not fight, and come away with them to seek refuge within the castle (whose main location is situated on the outskirts of the town, away from the firefight). However, Howl claims that he won’t run anymore, and that he is committed to fighting to protect her and their ‘family.’
Unable to stop him from leaving them, Sophie has Markl, The Witch of the Waste, and Calcifer transferred into the castle. Going outside, she can see Howl tearing into one of the kingdom’s flying machines. From the distance, he looks like a roaring monster, most likely a side-effect that war has thoroughly unleashed his inner demons, pushing aside his humanity.
Sophie then severs the castle’s connection to the hat shop, and taking control of the castle, intends to get to Howl (with Calcifer’s help). Her assumption is that if Howl realizes that the hat shop is no longer tied to the castle, and that they are safe, he’ll give up fighting (and most likely quell the darkness inside him).
However, when the Witch of the Waste finally realizes that Calcifer has Howl’s heart, her old selfish desires and vanity surface, and she grabs for it, breaking up the castle, separating Sophie from the others.
After being separated from the others, the ring Howl gave Sophie begins to emit a light, and she goes through a doorway, finding herself in Howl’s past. As she watches, she sees a younger version of Howl in the floating garden, amid a series of falling stars. Each one seems to be a living being, that soon dissipates and dies within seconds.
One of the falling stars lands right in Howl’s hands. As Sophie watches, he seems to talk to it, before ingesting it. After a few moments, a flaming mass emerges through his chest, beating. It is here that Sophie is witness to how Calcifer came to be in Howl’s employ: in order for Calcifer to live, Howl gave Calcifer his heart, in exchange for the ability to use his powers. This revelation gives Sophie the last puzzle piece to saving Howl: In order for Howl and Calcifer to be free of the other, Howl’s heart must be returned.
Sophie then emerges back to the present, to find Howl standing before her, now an enormous, feathery creature. The only vestige of humanity is Howl’s face, which is slowly being taken over. Even his eyes seem dull and blank when Sophie addresses him. Sophie tells him to take them to the others, and silently, the Howl-bird does so.
Upon arriving with the others, Howl collapses, feathers from his bird-form floating away, to reveal his human body. However, he does not move.
Pleading with the Witch of the Waste for Howl’s heart to be returned, the old woman complies. After Howl’s heart fades into his chest, Calcifer suddenly escapes in the form of a twinkling starlight. However, without Calcifer’s power, the remnants of the moving castle fully collapse.
Shortly afterwards, Howl speaks, but complains of a weight on his chest.
“A heart’s a heavy burden,” replies Sophie, as she smiles at Howl’s return.
The return of his heart, is one of the final symbols that Howl has now fully-matured. Now no longer relying on Calcifer for the brunt of his magic abilities, he now has full responsibility over his own magic and actions.
The final scenes show that the castle has been rebuilt. But unlike its previous incarnation of something that a young boy would build, the new castle is smaller, and seems more suited for the new family that Howl and Sophie have brought together. Though it does have a few of the original castle’s traits, it shows a familial compromise that makes it very…homey.
…But wait, there’s still more of the surface to scratch away regarding Miyazaki’s film. In our next part, we’ll look at another transformed character: The Witch of the Waste.
Let’s face it: when it comes to a movie series, the third film in most series is often the one that can make-or-break it. While some series can fly gracefully into the night (like Toy Story, Back to the Future, and Lord of the Rings), there are plenty of others that just crash-and-burn in their third act (I’m looking at you, Godfather, Spider-Man, and Pirates of the Caribbean).
When my friend and co-worker Eric Prahl invited me to see Iron Man five years ago, I had very little knowledge of the character or Tony Stark. Most of what I knew was from the inebriated MEGO doll of Iron Man in Toyfare Magazine’s Twisted Toyfare Theater. However, the theatrical experience was a film that was definitely movie-magic. While Tony Stark was an egotistical and brilliant man, he also had his own faults that he realized he needed to take care of. As well, the film’s use of visual effects (done largely by Industrial Light & Magic and Stan Winston Studios),worked together in a seamless tandem, that reminded me of the CG/practical effects tag-teaming done on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
The overwhelming success of Iron Man quickly pushed director Jon Favreau and Marvel into high gear, giving us a sequel just 2 years later. Iron Man 2 was one of those sequels where they attempted to go bigger than the first film, and for that, the production suffered as the storyline was pulled in multiple directions. You had Tony Stark dealing with the ghosts of his father’s past, preserving the Stark legacy, being further brought into S.H.I.E.L.D., developing his relationship with his friend James Rhodes (this time played by Don Cheadle), and dealing with a Tony-wannabe in the form of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).
I know that last sentence went on forever, but that’s what the second film felt like to me: it was just too much, making it a good-but-not-great sequel. So it was with that last sequel in mind, that I entered Iron Man 3 with some trepidation.
Like the first two films, 3 intermingles Tony’s past to tell the story(with one cameo that definitely made my eyes go wide), where we find him struggling to make sense of life in the aftermath of encountering alien warriors, and almost getting killed in another dimension. Fearing for his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his his friends, Tony has all but spent his down-time building suits.
While the previous film hinted at other countries possibly building their own Iron Man tech, the world in this film has come under a new threat, by a bearded figure calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Stark gets embroiled in this conflict in a rather shocking way, but definitely leads one to understand his emotions when it happens.
Up until now, I’d never really seen much of Director Shane Black’s film repertoire. He made a name for himself in the movies, scripting the Lethal Weapon films, and had a hand in writing one of the most anticipated, and biggest flops of 1993: Last Action Hero. Some have said that Black’s writing style feels like he has one foot firmly planted in the realm of 80′s action films, and that shows quite a bit in Iron Man 3. Co-written by Black along with Drew Pearce, the ‘retro-tech’ of the writing style definitely seems comfortable (For more information about this, check out Cinema Blend’s analysis).
While Iron Man does figure into the plot, Black never seems to forget that Tony Stark is at the heart of the story. That is something that money-grubbing studios would have jettisoned by now in favor of putting more Iron Man on-screen to sell toys. It’s always nice to see that to many of us, Marvel Studios still values making us care about what’s inside the suit, not how cool it looks on the outside. I daresay that by the end of this third film, Black has made Tony Stark a much more well-rounded character, than Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Trilogy.
While Iron Man 2 gave Don Cheadle a chance to get people introduced to his characterization of “Rhodey,” it is in Iron Man 3 that he really gets a chance to shine. He’s not on-screen as much as Downey, but when he does show up, I couldn’t help but imagine Terrance Howard seeing this footage and wishing that he was on this rollercoaster ride. There’s even some ‘buddy-cop’ moments between the two that just kept my eyes glued to the screen.
What also helps the story, is that we’re on ‘cool-down’ mode after the pumped-up excitement of The Avengers, and that helps us to pull the film’s story away from a bigger story, and making it seem more intimate regarding the world of Tony Stark and his friends. If Iron Man 2 faltered for me with its shaky focus, Shane Black has stabilized the series with his own level of craftsmanship. I could have gone on for another 6 paragraphs about the film, but that would be treading into dangerous spoiler territory, something I am wont to do.
Though it sounds like I have praised the picture to the moon, I will say it’s far from being a perfect film. There are some areas that have questions that seem unable to be answered upon one viewing. There are mysteries to solve, that like any good detective, requires going over the clues a few times, before a pattern emerges. Not to say that this will detract from your overall enjoyment of Iron Man 3, but for those that may want more thorough answers, repeat showings will definitely be in your future.
I will say that once the film was over, I found myself wondering something I didn’t think I’d ever wonder: “Where can they go from here with Iron Man 4?” I never wonder about future films, but this film made me one of the masses.
If three films can lead to uncertainty, we’ve had plenty of examples where a fourth film has led to Hollywood throwing the twisted, lifeless corpse of many franchises to the curb. One can only hope the management at Marvel Studios is able to pull off (when the time comes), something we’ve never encountered before: An eye-opening fourth film, that maintains the mantra of, “How can we keep the audience pumped for more?”