Thursday, December 30, 2010

Culture Shock 12.30.10: Summer will determine superhero supremacy

Looking ahead to summer 2011, it seems like the new year will bring the ultimate battle for superhero supremacy.

Three movies from two rival studios will slug it out to see which one can jump-start a franchise that will keep moviegoers flocking to theaters for summers to come.

In one corner are "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger," both produced by Marvel Studios, which is a newly inducted subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. empire. And while Paramount Pictures is releasing the films under Marvel's pre-buyout distribution deal, both movies still mean a lot to Disney. The House of Mouse is depending on them to be strong lead-ins for 2012's all-star Marvel movie, "The Avengers," which will feature the bulk of Marvel's flagship superheroes — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk — together for the first time on the big screen.

Paramount was originally signed to distribute "The Avengers," too. But in October, Disney agreed to pay Paramount $115 million to get back the distribution rights to "The Avengers" and "Iron Man 3." Disney has a lot riding on "Thor" and "Captain America" doing well, and it's a real gamble because neither film has "Iron Man's" secret weapon: Robert Downey Jr.

"Thor" is scheduled for release May 6, while "Captain America" unspools July 22. Sandwiched in the middle is "Green Lantern," based on one of DC Comics' most venerable superheroes and produced by DC's parent company, Warner Bros. "Green Lantern" is set for release June 17.

"Green Lantern" may be a bigger test for Warner Bros. than "Thor" and "Captain America" are for Disney. With the exception of the Batman franchise — currently going strong despite Joel Schumacher's attempts to kill it in the late '90s — Warner has had rotten luck of lateturning DC's stable of characters into successful film franchises.

"Superman Returns" (2006) was a misguided bore that portrayed the Man of Steel as one-half Christ figure and one-half deadbeat dad, which isn't a winning combination. And the studio's attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen have all been dead ends. One false start was to be helmed by Joss Whedon, who is now in the Marvel/Disney camp writing and directing "The Avengers."

With a likable and, more importantly, bankable leading man in Ryan Reynolds, "Green Lantern" is the best chance for Warner to finally find the hidden potential in all of those superheroes it owns. The Flash is already up next with a tentative 2013 release date.

The bad news for Warner Bros., however, is the fanboy reaction to the first "Green Lantern" footage is mixed. Green Lantern's CGI costume doesn't look quite right, and Reynolds seems miscast as the square-jawed superhero/test pilot Hal Jordan.

The good news for Warner is fanboys don't matter. If they did, "Scott Pilgrim" would have been a huge hit this year rather than a box-office dud. You can make a movie that appeals both to staunch comic-book fans and general audiences, as "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight" and Sam Raimi's first two "Spider-Man" movies prove. But you don't have to cave to fanboy demands to get a hit (for example, the first "X-Men" film).

The better news is, miscast or not, Reynolds at least seems to have the right idea about how to play Green Lantern. He's reportedly described the role as a cross between Han Solo and Chuck Yeager. And as long as his Jordan ends up a bit more Yeager than Solo, that's not a bad combo.

With the summer movie season having become the playground of superheroes and sequels, how these movies fare could determine what movies Hollywood's major studios make for years to come. They will certainly determine whether DC/Warner remains just an also-ran to Marvel/Disney.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Culture Shock 12.23.10: Take Christmas Eve Eve to heart

Time is almost up, because today is Christmas Eve Eve.

It's not an official holiday. It's not even a semi-official holiday like Christmas Eve or Groundhog Day.

But lots of people observe it — unknowingly — nevertheless.

Unsurprisingly, Dec. 23 — or Christmas Eve Eve, as I like to call it — is one of the busiest shopping days of the holiday season, easily outperforming the day that has traditionally held the title of busiest shopping day, the day after Thanksgiving, or "Black Friday."

According to the myth-busting website, Black Friday hasn't done much in recent years to deserve its reputation. Between 1993 and 2002, for example, the day after Thanksgiving placed no better than No. 4 and as low as eighth on the list of busiest Christmas shopping days. Christmas Eve Eve, meanwhile, was the busiest shopping day of the year four times during the same period: 1993, 1994, 1995 and 2000.

The real pattern, according to Snopes, is the final Saturday before Christmas usually claims the top spot, which makes sense. However, Thursdays and Fridays hold their own when they fall on Christmas Eve Eve, like this year.

When I was a child, I thought I was the one who first came up with calling Dec. 23 "Christmas Eve Eve." It seemed totally natural and pure genius. Plus, I'd never heard anyone use the term before.

Unfortunately, since then, I've learned other people have had the same idea. As with most of my best ideas, I eventually found out that someone else had managed to steal it before I'd even thought of it. I blame time-traveling thieves. (Sure enough, someone else also already thought up time-traveling thieves. Is nothing safe?)

While Christmas Eve Eve still lacks the respect of mainstream lexicographers, it does merit an entry in that most indispensable of dictionaries in the 21st century, the Urban Dictionary, online at Go there, and you'll find this straightforward definition of Christmas Eve Eve: "The day before Christmas Eve, 2 days before Christmas." You'll also see it used in a sentence: "Stay away from the malls on Christmas Eve Eve."

Now, this being the Urban Dictionary, you'll also find some — how to put it? — unconventional and highly suspect definitions. For example: "an attractive woman you meet on the first pages of the Bible and on Christmas Eve; some people have got the daft idea that she's Father Christmas' niece."

OK, I have no idea what that means. However the terms "daft" and "Father Christmas" indicate it's possibly some odd British usage, like how the British insist on calling french fries "chips" and potato chips "crisps," or like how they call apartments "flats" and automobile trunks "boots." Really, there is no excuse for this. As long as the English have been speaking English, you'd think they'd be better at it.

Christmas Eve Eve has, over the years, become the true Christmas Eve.

That's because Christmas Eve has halfway joined with Christmas Day to become a kind of super-sized Christmas Day that lasts at least 30 hours. Like the Christmas shopping season, Christmas Day itself is expanding to fill more of the calendar.

By sundown on Christmas Eve, everything is already closed and everyone has finished their shopping — unless they're buying a tacky hat for Cousin Earl at the truck stop. Some families even open gifts on Christmas Eve because they have to hit the road to Grandma's house first thing in the morning. All of that, for a lot people, makes Christmas Eve Eve the real day for last-minute shopping and children's breathless anticipation.

Yes, Christmas Eve Eve even has its own song, titled "Christmas Eve Eve," performed by the musical duo of Paul and Storm, whom I found on YouTube just after I wrote the above paragraph. Also, Paul and Storm had the idea of comparing Christmas Eve Eve to Groundhog Day before I did. (Will this temporal thievery never end?) It's a fun little song, and it should be because it's a lot like "Dead" by They Might Be Giants, which is not the greatest song in the world, but it is close enough that Tenacious D might have had it in mind when they wrote their song "Tribute."

Or maybe not.

So, here's to Christmas Eve Eve. Thankfully, you come only once a year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Culture Shock 12.16.10: It's not just a telethon; it's an 'Americathon'

As the "great recession" lingers on, it's hard to imagine a time when things were, in some ways, even worse.

Sure, the Great Depression was worse. Everyone knows that. But I'm talking about the 1970s, when, apart from the music and the movies, everything pretty much sucked.

Kids today, you think you've got it bad, but at least you're not waiting in line for gasoline. Now that was bad. OK, maybe I didn't wait in line for gasoline, but my parents did. And I had to listen to them complain, which was almost as bad. And between Watergate, the hangover from Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, stagflation and polyester fashions, it seemed like the United States was on its last legs.

The whole country was in the dumps, and if you didn't think so, President Jimmy Carter was there to remind you.

So, in 1979, along came a movie that seemed to sum up how the country felt about itself. It was a screwball comedy called "Americathon," written by Firesign Theatre's Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.

Forgotten since the 1980s, "Americathon" is back and available as a manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive, online at And it seems just as relevant now as when it was in theaters.

Set in the then future year of 1998, "Americathon" depicts the United States as flat broke, and the mortgage is coming due.

No one can afford a house, so everyone lives in their cars. But that's OK, because no one can afford gasoline, either, and everyone rides bicycles or jogs to work. (Conveniently, everyone also wears track suits, because riding a bike in slacks is just asking for trouble.)

The dollar is worthless, and everyone has to pay for everything — including phone calls — in gold. (Ron Paul called to say, "I told you so.") Meanwhile, the Chinese have become successful capitalists, Vietnam is a vacation and entertainment hot spot, and the Jews and Arabs have put aside their differences to create one huge country, the United Hebrab Republic.

You know, apart from that last bit about the Jews and Arabs, none of it seems that farfetched now, does it?

Presiding over America's decline is President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), a former California governor apparently based on once and future California Gov. Jerry "Governor Moonbeam" Brown. Needless to say, President Roosevelt got elected solely due to name recognition, and his solution to the country's fiscal woes is to spout New Age platitudes and raffle off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He's already moved the White House into a Los Angeles condo.

Time, however, is running out, because the president got a $400 billion emergency loan from Native American billionaire Sam Birdwater, played by the late, great Chief Dan George ("The Outlaw Josey Wales").

And Sam wants his money back in 30 days or he'll foreclose.

Frankly, I think we could do a lot worse than Chief Dan George running the country, but nobody asked me.

Anyway, the president's new media adviser (Peter Riegert) has an idea that just might work: a telethon. So, they recruit pill-popping actor Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to act as emcee, and the Americathon takes off.

Unfortunately, some of the acts are a lot like the opening round of "American Idol."

Can the Americathon succeed? Who are the shady characters working behind the scenes to sabotage it? Is that really a young Jay Leno in a boxing match with his mom? (Hey, I'll fork over a donation if it means I get to see Leno beat up by his mother.)

With 30 years' hindsight, "Americathon" is probably funnier now than it was in 1979. Plus, it's always great to see what amounts to an all-star cast of '70s television stars — Ritter, Korman and Fred Willard — in the sort of roles they do best.

And George Carlin narrates the whole thing, which is appropriate, because he spent the last decade of his life telling us all just how doomed we are.

In summation: "Americathon." It's funny, and maybe you should order a copy. Just do it while your money is still worth something.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Culture Shock 12.09.10: 'Smallville' embraces tights for all (except Clark Kent)

You will believe a man can fly. Eventually.

Since its debut in 2001, "Smallville" has been bound by the "no tights, no flights" rule instituted by the show's original producers, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.

Now, as "Smallville" approaches the end of its 10th and final season, Gough and Millar are gone, having departed after season 7. And the show's new producers seem fed up with the "no tights, no flights" premise of focusing on Clark Kent and his journey to becoming Superman.

Ten years is a long time, especially for a TV show, and "Smallville's" star, Tom Welling, is 33 years old. By any reasonable measure, he should have started wearing the Man of Steel's red-and-blue tights years ago.

Ah, but that stupid rule...

So, even though they're stuck with "no tights, no flights," Gough and Millar's successors have, improbably, managed to cheat their way around it. In the process, "Smallville" has become something I never would have expected in a network TV show.

It's become a showcase for Superhero fetishism.

For the past two seasons, "Smallville" has been all about Superman. You're just not allowed to call him that yet. Clark has left behind Smallville High School and his high school sweetheart, Lana Lang. He has moved on to Metropolis, The Daily Planet and a relationship with Lois Lane, who already knows Clark's secret identity, even though he doesn't have one. Clark has even joined with other superheroes to form the Justice League, which is weird because Clark is the only one who doesn't wear a costume.

The "no tights, no flights" rule is still in place, but it applies only to Clark. If Hawkman shows up, he's allowed to fly. And regular guest stars Green Arrow and Aquaman definitely don't have a problem with tights, except when they're not wearing much of anything at all, because "Smallville" averages the most beefcake per episode of any show not called "True Blood."

"Smallville" has finally shed its high-school-based, monster-of-the-week formula to become the closest thing television has ever seen to a live-action comic book.

Clark's world is full of heroes and villains and spandex tights. It's often over-the-top, sometimes even absurd — but in a good way — and it is increasingly filled with Easter eggs intended to please fans of DC Comics.

Nobody but us fanboys cared when longtime Teen Titans adversary Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson showed up to threaten Clark a couple of weeks ago. But for us, it was a geektastic moment, made even better by the fact that Slade was played by "Battlestar Galactica's" Col. Tigh, Michael Hogan. (Both Tigh and Slade wear eye patches, which is what makes it really cool, if obvious casting.)

The same episode that gave us Deathstroke also introduced Aquaman's wife, Mera, played by Elena Satine, who showed few inhibitions as the Queen of the Sea. (If Elena needs a fan club, I volunteer to serve as its president.)

I've long maintained that superhero comics are, intentionally or not, thinly veiled fetish fantasies, which is why they're read mostly by adults. Think about it: Superheroes are, for the most part, incredible physical specimens who run around in skintight costumes and beat each other up. Along the way, they routinely find themselves captured, tied up, caged, tortured or mind controlled — just like all this season on "Smallville."

By embracing the tights for everyone but Clark, "Smallville" has also embraced all of that. It has, in its PG-13, broadcast-standards-compliant way, become the kinkiest show on television. And this time I am including "True Blood."

Clark may not have put on his cape yet, but he's definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Culture Shock 12.02.10: Keeping the Krampus in Christmas

Editor's note: This column was originally published Dec. 3, 2009.

An old tradition that's seeing renewed popularity amounts to Christmas' own version of the good cop/bad cop routine.

The good cop is Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, aka St. Nicholas, aka Father Christmas. He's the "jolly old elf" known for his vast, global surveillance system — which he uses to keep track of who's been "naughty" and who's been "nice" — and his knack for breaking and entering.

Everyone has heard of Santa. But probably few have heard of his partner, the "bad cop" in our little tale. He goes by the name Krampus.

A scary, devilish, goat-like fellow with long horns and a bad attitude, Krampus originated centuries ago in German-speaking areas of Europe, where he was especially popular in the Alps.

While Santa bribes children into good behavior with the promise of presents, Krampus keeps them in line with threats of punishment. Santa carries a bag full of toys. Krampus carries a bag filled with naughty boys and girls.

Christmas is rife with Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, some of which, in different forms, go back to pagan solstice celebrations that predate Christianity's arrival in northern Europe. Evergreen trees, Yule logs and mistletoe come to mind. Long before people used mistletoe to steal kisses from the unwary, the plant was best known for killing Baldr, the Norse god of light and beauty.

As years passed, these traditions became part of Christmas, as did, for a while at least, Krampus. But Krampus was perhaps just a bit too wild to settle down in what was becoming an increasingly Christian holiday season. As National Geographic blogger Marc Silver writes, by the 1800s church leaders had marginalized Krampus, making St. Nick a solo act.

By the time German Christmas traditions made their way to England, and later America, Krampus was no longer a major part of the festivities.

Anglo-American Christmas celebrations began adopting German customs like Christmas trees in the 1800s, after Great Britain had resorted to importing monarchs from Germany. German practices became even more prominent following Queen Victoria's marriage to the German-born Prince Albert.

By the time Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, Christmas looked much like it does now, with no Krampus in sight.

Ebenezer Scrooge had to get by with three Christmas ghosts instead — or four, if you count Jacob Marley.

That, however, has started to change.

According to Silver, the Austrian state of Salzburg now has more than 180 Krampus clubs devoted to celebrating the long-lost Christmas figure.

Most have sprung up in just the past 20 years.

Now, every Dec. 5, club members recreate the traditional Krampus celebration. They dress in ghoulish Krampus costumes and head out for a night of carousing, which sounds a lot like how adults currently celebrate Halloween in the United States.

Here in America, Krampus is still virtually unknown. And if he weren't, he would add a new wrinkle to the annual debate about the true meaning of Christmas.

But with the Christmas season now starting even before Thanksgiving, maybe there is room for one more Christmas tradition. You don't want to end up on Krampus' list, do you?