Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Super summer showdown, round two: the champions

The heroes in this round may not have been born unto godhood, like the last bunch, but somewhere along the way they acquired great powers, far beyond not only mortal men, but beyond most super beings. Most of these heroes represent humanity’s greatest champions and have vast, very versatile powers.

Contest #11: Green Lantern (DC) vs. Silver Surfer (Marvel)

There have been many Green Lanterns, but they all the same basic power: a magic ring that converts their willpower into green constructs of whatever they can think of. The Silver Surfer is an alien who was infused with the “Power Cosmic,” which lets him manipulate matter and energy and gives him abilities similar to the heroes in round one. In fact, despite being born mortal, both of these heroes have become among the most powerful beings in their universes. And both are pretty cool, so this is a tough one. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: Silver Surfer. Most heart: Green Lantern. Most compelling character: Green Lantern. Overall winner: Green Lantern. Although, honestly, the magic surf board beats the magic ring, hands down.

Contest #12: The Flash (DC) vs. Quicksilver (Marvel)

The fastest men alive, but only one of them has a well-developed history and ties to the mystical “Speed Force.” Classically coolest: The Flash. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: The Flash. Most heart: The Flash. Most compelling character: tie. Overall winner: The Flash.


Contest #13: Dr. Fate (DC) vs. Doctor Strange (Marvel)

These masters of magic are nearly identical, and both have a history of ridiculousness. Strange is a rip-off of Fate, but he also has aged better. Classically coolest: Dr. Fate. Most badass: Doctor Strange. Most firepower: Doctor Strange. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Doctor Strange. Overall winner: Doctor Strange.


Contest #14: Firestorm (DC) vs. Jean Grey (Marvel)

Firestorm, “The Nuclear Man,” was formed when two people fused together into one, and the hero could hear the voice of his other half giving him advice in his head. His power was to manipulate non-organic matter, changing one thing into another at will – although, apparently he was powerless to give himself a less hideous costume. Jean Grey, known variously as Marvel Girl or Phoenix, had an even bigger case of split personality: as her power grew from simple telepathy and telekinesis to enough cosmic power to consume planets, she found her dark side (Dark Phoenix) taking control. But man did it know how to dress! Classically coolest: Jean Grey. Most badass: Jean Grey. Most firepower: Jean Grey. Most heart: Jean Grey. Most compelling character: Jean Grey. Overall winner: Jean Grey.


Contest #15: Blue Beetle (DC) vs. Iron Man (Marvel)

The original Blue Beetle was a Batman rip-off, a playboy with lots of cool gadgets. The new version of the hero has alien armor that can do amazing things. But not as amazing as the original armored hero. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: Iron Man. Most firepower: Blue Beetle. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Iron Man. Overall winner: Iron Man.


Contest #16: Booster Gold (DC) vs. Cable (Marvel)

Booster Gold got his powers by stealing a super suit from the future. Cable is a mutant from the future who travelled back in time. Both of them have more power and prominence than they deserve. Classically coolest: Booster Gold. Most badass: Cable. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: Cable. Most compelling character: Booster Gold. Overall winner: This one's close, but Booster Gold gets the nod.


Contest #17: Zatana (DC) vs. The Scarlet Witch (Marvel)

Zatana has magical powers and wears fishnet stockings. The Scarlet Witch has mutant powers that allow her to manipulate reality in a way that mimics magic, and wears fishnet stockings. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: The Scarlet Witch. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: The Scarlet Witch. Overall winner: The Scarlet Witch.


Contest #18: Raven (DC) vs. Adam Warlock (Marvel)

Raven is the daughter of a human and an inter-dimensional demon, who can has several magical powers, including manipulating emotions, controlling darkness and teleporting. Adam Warlock is an “artificial human” with a self-aware cosmic gem on his forehead that feeds, vampire-like, on the life energy of others. Classically coolest: Raven. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: tie. Overall winner: Raven.


Contest #19: Starfire (DC) vs. Storm (Marvel)

Two female heroes that can fly and manipulate energy (cosmic in Starfire’s case, weather-related in Storm’s), and are famous for their skimpy outfits. Starfire is an alien princess. Storm is a mutant goddess queen. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Storm. Overall winner: Storm.


Contest #20: Aquaman (DC) vs. Namor the Sub-Mariner (Marvel)

Two Kings of Atlantis, one with a ridiculous orange and green get-up, and the other more ridiculously in just a green Speedo. Aquaman has a horrible name and a bland history. Namor has inexplicable wings on his ankles that let him fly, and a chip on his shoulder against humanity. Both have tried to reinvent themselves countless times, but despite having kingdoms that cover 70% of the Earth’s surface, neither has quite worked his way to the upper tier of superheroes. Namor is moody and has a longer and more interesting history. DC tried to make Aquaman edgier by giving him a beard and cutting off his hand. That’s a move in the right direction. They also made him shirtless. That’s a move in the wrong direction. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: Aquaman. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Namor. Overall winner: Aquaman, as long as he doesn’t take off any more clothing.


Round two score: Still all tied up – DC 5, Marvel 5. Cumulative score: DC 10, Marvel 10.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Super summer showdown, round one: the demigods

The 20 heroes in today’s showdown are the mightiest of the mighty, beings with almost god-like invincibility. But all of their nearly limitless power doesn’t guarantee them victory in a battle of cool-ness. So without further ado:

Contest #1: Superman (DC) vs. Thor (Marvel)

The most powerful heroes in their respective universes, the Man of Steel and the God of Thunder share many powers in common: super strength, invulnerability, flight, etc. Debuting in 1938, Superman is the first-ever superhero and historically one of the most popular and enduring. His track record is spotty, however, with at least as many groan-inducing stories as thrilling ones. And his recent screen history is absolutely abysmal. In some ways, Thor is even older, as the character is rooted in prehistoric Germanic tradition, but as a Marvel superhero he only dates back to 1962. Comic-book Thor takes a hit for using ridiculously over-the-top, faux-Shakespearean language in many of his depictions (like his co-creator Stan Lee), but gets a big bump up for his recent movie, which was fun from start to finish. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: Thor. Most heart: Superman. Most compelling character: Superman. Overall winner: Superman. Thor is trending up, and Asgard definitely beats Krypton, but Superman is one of the biggest icons in the world.

Contest #2: Captain Marvel (DC) vs. The Incredible Hulk (Marvel)

Captain Marvel is a little boy who turns into a full-sized adult Superman rip-off when he utters the magic word, “Shazam!” The Hulk is a Dr. Jekyll rip-off who turns into a giant, barely controllable green monster when he gets angry. Classically coolest: Hulk. Most badass: Hulk. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: Hulk. Most compelling character: Hulk. Overall winner: Hulk smash!


Contest #3: Captain Atom (DC) vs. The Sentry (Marvel)

Two more Superman clones, Captain Atom harnesses the power of the “Quantum Field” to do just about anything he wants, and was the inspiration for the Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. The Sentry harnesses the power of “one million exploding suns” to do just about anything he wants, including wearing the gaudiest belt buckle of any superhero. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: Captain Atom. Most compelling character: Captain Atom. Overall winner: Captain Atom.


Contest #4: The Spectre (DC) vs. Professor Charles Xavier (Marvel)

The Spectre is the “Spirit of Vengeance,” said to be the one who does God’s dirty work, such as slaughtering the Egyptian first-born during the Passover story in the Bible. Professor X is the world’s most powerful telepath. Both can see into men’s souls and seem to pull new levels of power out of thin air as needed, although only the Spectre is portrayed as really having limitless power. Professor X was portrayed by Patrick Stewart, who is pretty badass, but the Spectre has the better costume and resumé (employer: almighty God). Classically coolest: The Spectre. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: The Spectre. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Professor X. Overall winner: The Spectre.


Contest #5: Supergirl (DC) vs. Captain Marvel (Marvel)

Supergirl is Superman’s cousin and was invented at a time when DC was giving us super monkeys, dogs, horses and so many other preposterous “supers” that you’d think Krypton never exploded. Throughout most of her history, Supergirl has been pretty silly. However, in recent years, DC has taken pains to make her more interesting (and I’m not just talking about her new, bare-midriff look). Like Supergirl and her famous cousin, Marvel’s Captain Marvel (real name Mar-Vell) is an alien, and he has Superman-like powers thanks to the cosmic technology in his “Nega-Band” wristbands. Captain Marvel featured in several great storylines featuring a war between the alien Kree (his people) and Skrull empires. However, as a character, he has never really seemed to click. Classically coolest: Supergirl. Most badass: Supergirl;. Most firepower: Supergirl. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Supergirl;. Overall winner: Supergirl.


Contest #6: Superboy (DC) vs. Hercules (Marvel)

A teenage clone of Superman on the one hand, and an ancient Greek demigod turned superhero (a la Thor) on the other. Neither of these really work as well as the great superheroes they’re modeled after. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Superboy. Overall winner: Superboy.


Contest #7: Big Barda (DC) vs. Beta Ray Bill (Marvel)

These are two of the more colorful supporting characters. Big Barda is an immortal warrior from the planet Apokalips, where she was trained by the forces of evil but defected to the good guys. Beta Ray Bill is a genetically modified alien who defeated Thor in a fair fight. In an unexpected twist, this strange alien proved worthy of wielding Thor’s magic hammer, and gained all of Thor’s powers. He eventually got a magic hammer of his own. Classically coolest: tie. Most badass: tie. Most firepower: Beta Ray Bill. Most heart: Beta Ray Bill. Most compelling character: Beta Rya Bill. Overall winner: Beta Ray Bill.


Contest #8: Orion (DC) vs. Black Bolt (Marvel)

In Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” series, Orion is son of the evil Darkseid, who rejected his father’s ways and became the greatest champion of New Genesis. He is immortal, possesses Superman-like powers and uses powerful alien artifacts. Black Bolt is the ruler of the Inhumans, a secret society of super beings created by Kirby with Stan Lee. He is not invincible like Orion, but is very powerful and mysterious: he can manipulate energy, deliver a devastating attack known as the “Master Blow,” and a single whisper from him can level a building. Classically coolest: Black Bolt. Most badass: Black Bolt. Most firepower: Orion. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: Black Bolt. Overall winner: Black Bolt.


Contest #9: Mary Marvel (DC) vs. Ms. Marvel (Marvel)

Mary Marvel is a female version of Captain Marvel (the DC one), the superhero alter ego of Mary Baston, twin sister of Billy Baston, who transforms into Captain Marvel. Like Supergirl, she suffers from a long history of silly storylines. Ms. Marvel is a female version of Captain Marvel (the Marvel one), a human woman who obtained similar powers to Mar-Vell from a Kree device. She actually turns out to be a little more interesting and enduring than the hero she’s based on. Classically coolest: Ms. Marvel. Most badass: Ms. Marvel. Most firepower: tie. Most heart: Ms. Marvel. Most compelling character: Ms. Marvel. Overall winner: Ms. Marvel.


Contest #10: Power Girl (DC) vs. She-Hulk (Marvel)

Power Girl is apparently a version of Superman’s cousin Supergirl from an alternate reality that has since ceased to exist. She-Hulk is the cousin of the Hulk, who has been similarly transformed, but stays permanently in her muscular, green state, which is considerably shapelier and less monstrous than her cousin’s. She also retains her full mental faculties and even practices law in her green form. Classically coolest: She-Hulk. Most badass: She-Hulk. Most firepower: Power Girl. Most heart: tie. Most compelling character: tie. Overall winner: She-Hulk.


Round one score: All tied up – DC 5, Marvel 5.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Super summer showdown: introduction

About three years ago, my then five-year-old son went superhero crazy. It only lasted a few months before his attention turned to Pokémon or some other nonsense, but in that short time it was non-stop superheroes. Every night he would have me read to him from two giant superhero encyclopedias someone had bought for him: one detailing all of the DC heroes and villains (Superman, Batman, etc.), and one with all of the Marvel ones (Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.).

Just as with dinosaurs a while earlier, my son’s obsession re-introduced me to a favorite childhood diversion that I hadn’t given much thought to since. And in that short time, I learned far more about superheroes than I had ever learned from a few comic books and Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. Then, shortly afterwards, I saw the movies Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which opened up a whole new level of interest in the absurd but fun world of men who fight crime wearing tights and capes.

As I was reading to my son, I noticed that there were a lot of similarities between the two main camps – DC and Marvel. Both universes have heroes that shrink, heroes that stretch and heroes that scream really loud, just for starters. And so I began talking notes, because that’s what I do. Recently, my son started watching the Marvel Studios movies with me (Thor is now his “favorite movie of all time!”), and I dusted off those notes from three years ago. With four major superhero movies coming out this summer (Thor, X-Men, Green Lantern and Captain America), it seems like the right time to have some fun with it. So over the next few posts, I’ll show the results: a series comparing DC and Marvel versions of the same basic archetypes, with one question in mind: which company has the cooler version?

I’ve divided the posts into eleven loosely related groups of ten contests each. It was supposed to be ten groups of ten for an even one hundred, but rather than making hard decisions of who to discard, I took the easy way out and added an eleventh group. Still, there are many heroes and villains missing: I couldn’t get them all, but I did try to include all of the most popular ones as well as several of the more obscure ones.

Along the way, I'll consider such things as which hero is classically coolest (has the best "look"), which is the most badass (has the most intimidating presence), which has the most firepower, which has the most heart, and which is the most compelling character (has best chance for good storytelling). The overall winner will be the one that most lives up to these qualities and all of the other intangibles that make a superhero "cool."
 
So stay tuned: for the next several days, it’s DC vs. Marvel, and if it’s not quite a fight to the death (because no one ever stays dead in comic books), it’s at least a battle for pride. We’re going to once and for all determine who’s cooler: DC or Marvel?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Icons of buffoonery

A few months ago, I started a photo collection of the icons of badassery. I have now added a second collection: the icons of buffoonery. (I've added this as a permanent page: if you're on the main blog site, you can always access it by clicking the link at the top of the page.)

Among the first to be enshrined are...
  • Derek Zoolander
  • George Costanza
  • Michael Scott
  • Homer J. Simpson
  • Wile E. Coyote
  • The Marx Brothers
  • Chris Farley
  • Beavis and Butt-Head
  • Flavor Flav
  • Rick Moranis
  • Soupy Sales
  • ...and many more!
Click through and check out the whole list.
 
So what do you think? Who is missing? Leave your nominations in the comments below.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture + zombies: now that's a party!

Apparently, today is Judgement Day. Thanks to minister Harold Camping for the tip. Enjoy your last few minutes before the Rapture. (But not too much - don't blow it now! Which brings me to...)

Just in case you find yourself "left behind," the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) this week posted survival instructions for the coming zombie apocalypse.

Either way, today should be quite a day.

[UPDATE: Damn, I missed the Rapture. Still knee deep in zombies here...]

Image courtesy of primatebonz.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Meet the planets: Earth

Earth is the third major planet from the Sun, part of a binary planetary system that includes its rather large satellite companion, Luna (also known as simply “the Moon”). It is the most hospitable planet in the Solar System to life as we know it, owing to large amounts of water, an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and an ozone layer and strong magnetic field (magnetosphere) that shield it from harmful solar radiation. These features, and the abundant life that exists on the planet as a result, also make Earth the most unusual planet we know – even if we take most of it for granted.

Earth’s plentiful oceans have earned it the nickname “Blue Planet.” Its official name, Earth, evolved from the Germanic word for “dirt” or “ground.” However, the Romance languages use some variation of the Latin name, Terra, and most other languages have their own traditional names as well, including “Al-Ard” (Arabic), “Gaea” (Greek), “Dhara” (Sanskrit) and “Zemlja” (Russian).

Description

Earth is the largest terrestrial planet in the Solar System (size-F), and fifth largest overall, trailing only the four gas giants. Its mean diameter is 12,742 km (7,918 miles), although it is not a perfect sphere as its rotation causes it to bulge slightly wider at the equator and flatter at the poles. Its surface area is about 510 million sq km, of which about 71% is covered in salt water oceans, leaving 149 million sq km of land. Earth’s mass is roughly 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg, and this great mass compresses its interior, giving it the highest mean density of any planet in the system.

Earth’s average distance from the sun is called an “astronomical unit” (AU) and is equal to about 149,598,000 km (nearly 93 million miles). Although its orbit is nearly circular, its very slight eccentricity (0.0167) causes its actual distance from the Sun to vary between 0.9833 and 1.0167 AU. A more dramatic source of seasonal variation comes from the planet’s tilt on its axis – about 23° from the plane of its orbit. This causes the poles to alternately face toward and away from the Sun over the course of one Earth year. When the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, it experiences increased hours of daylight (more pronounced as one approaches the pole), and thus additional warmth that creates summer conditions. During this time, meanwhile, the southern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, causing it to experience shorter periods of daylight and falling temperatures. Six months later, the situation is reversed, with the southern hemisphere experiencing longer and the northern hemisphere shorter daylight hours. Planet wide, surface temperatures range from -89°C (-128°F) to 58°C (136°F), with an average of about 14°C (57°F).

Earth’s interior consists of a molten iron core surrounded by a silicate rock mantle and crust. Thanks to the planet’s relatively rapid, 24-hour rotation, this core generates a strong protective magnetosphere. The planet’s topography is quite varied thanks to active plate tectonics that cause the continents to shift and mountains to rise over the course of millions of years. Throughout its 4.54 billion year history, Earth has undergone dramatic changes, with its continents periodically merging into one super-continent and then shifting apart again. At times, the planet has been covered by large sheets of ice, and at times it has been virtually ice free.

Life first began on the planet about four and a half billion years ago and exploded in the Cambrian era about 535 million years ago. There have been five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, caused by asteroid impacts and/or the planet’s own geological activity, but life has flourished again after each of them. The presence of life has had a profound effect on the planet, altering its atmosphere, climate and topography. In recent years, humans, the planet’s dominant species, have had the most significant impact on the Earth, harvesting its resources, reshaping its lands and waters to their own purposes, and filling the space around it with artificial satellites.

Humans

Human understanding of the Earth as a planet revolving around the Sun did not begin until the 16th Century, and finally reached critical mass in the 20th Century when the invention of space flight allowed us to finally see and photograph the planet in its entirety. In recent years, our deepening comprehension of our impact has led to a greater sense of environmental responsibility, and given us more insight into how we relate to our planet – and potentially to other planets.

In the future, we are destined to leave Earth. Human space exploration is currently in its infancy, but technology is advancing rapidly and our destiny lies beyond. We are already developing cheaper, faster and safer ways to visit space, and a trip on a “space elevator” will be as routine to future generations as a trans-continental flight is to us today.

But our destiny is not merely to visit other planets, it is to live there, “terraforming” them to make them more Earth-like and habitable to humans. We will start with colonies in our own Solar System – first Luna and Mars, then on to Mercury and Venus, the asteroid belt and the giant planet systems that lie beyond. Finally, we will move on to other star systems as well. This isn’t merely conjecture: you can be sure that it will happen. Just as someone from ancient Rome could understand commerce but not that it would be conducted over the Internet, so too do we understand that our destiny is in space, even if we don’t yet understand the means that will get us there.

Other technologies will develop in parallel. Genetic engineering, for example, may be used to make plants, animals and even humans better suited to the gravity and environment of each of the planets we colonize. Technology will also help us further terraform Earth, reversing some of the environmental damage we’ve done and ensuring that it continues to be habitable for as long as possible.

In a billion years, when our sun begins to grow into a red giant and engulfs the Earth, with any luck our mutant, cyborg descendants won’t be there to see it happen. Or, if they are, they’ll have shifted the planet’s orbit and protected it with solar shields so they can enjoy the show.

Aliens (speculative)

Aliens are here among us, and their impact has greatly affected Earth history, dating back to the very beginning when organic compounds from meteorites may have planted the first seeds of life on the planet. Since that time, various alien species have visited Earth, using it as a garbage dump (thanks a lot, Xenu!), battlefield or vacation spot. Most of the aliens left after humans evolved, and only a few ruins remain of their presence. (For example, an abandoned, pyramid-shaped condominium project in what is now Giza, Egypt.) Every once in a while, they return to study us and see if we’ve developed intelligence. One of these days, they may even realize they’re probing for brains in the wrong place.

For now, though, Earth has mostly escaped alien interest. The official entry for Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is rather short, consisting of only two words: “mostly harmless.”

Images courtesy of NASA and Mark Weaver.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Superhammerman

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics made some really low-rent cartoon series of its major superheroes. Growing up in the 1970s, I got to watch re-runs of those cartoons every day after school. Spiderman, my favorite, was on every day, and was followed by one of five different superheroes, depending on the day of the week: Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner and Thor.

I don’t remember which day Thor was on, but I know that it was my least favorite day. (Although it did have the best theme song!) To me, even as a kid, Thor was kind of ridiculous. He is based on the Norse God of Thunder, and in those cartoons he talked as if he was quoting from the King James Bible, with a lot of “thee’s” and “thou’s” and other archaic terms thrown about.

So when Marvel Studios announced that they were making a Thor movie, I had serious reservations. As Thor was a necessary stepping stone to getting Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk together on the screen in next year’s The Avengers, however, I tried to keep an open mind.

Then I heard that Kenneth Branagh had been brought on board to direct, and I started to see trailers and stills from the set, and I started to get genuinely excited. Now, I have finally seen the film, and I am happy to report that it is good. Not Iron Man good, but pretty close. It is a fun movie from start to finish, and while it requires a heftier than usual suspension of disbelief, it is so good-natured and such a well-told story that you will willingly do so. Best of all, Thor doesn’t say “thee” or “thou” once!

Rating: **** four stars (recommended)

PRO:
  • There is a lot to like about this movie, but what resonates most are the performances. Chris Hemsworth shows outstanding range as the title character, moving from brash arrogance to fish-out-of-water humor to heroic humility with incredible grace. As good as Hensworth is, though, Tom Hiddleston is even better as Thor’s brother Loki, delivering an intelligent, multi-dimensional performance that I hope we’ll get to see more of in future installments. Ditto Idris Elba, who has a small part as Heimdall, but really steals the show in every scene he’s in. And Natalie Portman is great as human Jane Foster, convincingly selling her budding relationship with Thor despite limited screen time. I haven’t even gotten to Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s dad Odin, Colm Feore as the king of the frost giants, or any number of other actors. They were just all good.
  • The sets created for Thor’s home “realm” of Asgard were simply outstanding. I don’t know what the experience was like in 3D (of course), but in 2D it was a wondrous place to visit. The same is true of the realm of the frost giants, and if the New Mexico sets seemed tame by comparison, well, I think that was the point.
  • The action scenes, especially in the beginning, were really well done and engaging.
  • The villains were all cool, too, and all were surprisingly multidimensional and sympathetic. When I heard “frost giants,” I kinda groaned, but they were actually pretty awesome.
  • Finally, the humor was really well done. The movie has some genuine laughs in it, but they feel organic, not forced, and they help move the story forward. Like I said before, it is a fun movie.

CON:
  • Branagh tells too epic of a story, and doesn’t really have time to pull all the threads together properly in the end. As a result, the final scenes feel rushed and fall a little flat. This is not a big complaint, because Branagh really did have his hands full trying to make a successful movie out of this subject matter, but it would have been more enjoyable to me had the final scenes on Earth and in Asgard taken a little longer and had the same depth as the rest of the story.
  • It is possible that there are too many characters in this movie, as many of them do not get nearly enough screen time. The biggest wasted opportunity is Jaimie Alexander as the Asgardian warrior Sif. She does a good job in her limited screen time, and she has great charisma and a chemistry with Hemsworth that I hope we get to see more of in the future.
  • In the fantastical realm of Asgard, a helmet with giant horns and wings coming out of it doesn’t look out of place, but on Earth those costumes look ridiculous. Standing next to Agent Coulson in his black suit, Thor looks like an amusement park caricature. That will be a challenge going forward.


So here is my movie review quote for the back of the Blu-ray packaging: “There is a lot to like about this movie… Chris Hemsworth shows outstanding range… really well done and engaging… a fun movie from start to finish…”

And here is my quote for the haters: “Low-rent cartoon… kind of ridiculous… doesn’t really have time to pull all the threads together… wasted opportunity…”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Meet the planets: Venus

Venus is the second planet from the Sun and the closest to Earth in terms of size (often referred to as Earth’s “sister” or “twin” planet). It is the brightest planet visible to the naked eye outside of our own Earth-Moon system, and so has been observed since ancient times.

Because it is brightest near dusk and dawn, Venus is often called the “Evening Star” or “Morning Star,” and many ancient cultures originally thought that there were indeed two different heavenly bodies. Ancient names for the planet include “Ishtar” (Babylonian) and “Aphrodite” (Greek), both goddesses of love, and “Anahita” (Persian), a fertility goddess. The official name comes from the Roman goddess of love and beauty (Latin: Venus). Alternate names still in use in many parts of the world include variations of “Al-Zuhra” (Arabic), “Sukra” (Sanskrit) and “Star of Gold” (Chinese). Venus is also nicknamed the “Cloud Planet” because of its dense atmosphere.

In his novels, C.S. Lewis said that the Venusian natives called their planet “Perelandra,” while fellow writer Edgar Rice Burroughs claimed it was “Amtor.” They were both wrong.

Description

Venus is a size-F (large terrestrial) planet with a mean diameter of 12,104 km (7,521 miles), about 95% of Earth’s diameter. Its mass is about 81.5% of Earth’s, while its surface area and gravity are about 90% of Earth’s. Like the other terrestrial planets, it has a differentiated interior (likely a metal core surrounded by silicate rock), although the exact nature of Venus’ interior is not known with certainty. Due to its slow rotation, Venus’ core does not generate a protective magnetic field, which would help it retain water and protect it from the Sun’s radiation. The inability to retain water makes Venus’ crust so dry that there are no plate tectonics (the shifting that causes earthquakes), although Venus does appear to be volcanically active.

About 80% of Venus’ surface is smooth, volcanic lowland plains. The remaining surface consists of two highland “continents.” The northern continent is called Ishtar Terra and is about the size of Australia. It contains Venus’ highest peak, Maxwell Montes. The southern continent is called Aphrodite Terra and is roughly the size of South America.

Venus has an incredibly dense atmosphere (92 times the pressure of Earth's at the surface) composed primarily of carbon dioxide. The air pressure on Venus is equal to the water pressure about 1 km below the surface of Earth’s oceans. This atmosphere causes a runaway greenhouse effect that makes Venus’ surface the hottest in the Solar System, with consistent temperatures of about 460°C (860°F) over the entire planet.

The cloud cover on Venus makes the sky looks reddish orange, and the clouds are so thick that no stars or planets can be seen. Dim light from the Sun can be seen, but the Sun itself cannot be discerned. If the Sun could be seen from the surface, it would appear about twice as big and twice as bright as it does on Earth. Mercury would appear brighter than on Earth, becoming the “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” to Venus, just as Venus is to Earth (although not quite as bright). Brighter still, though, would be the Earth itself, as from the perspective of Venus, the sunlit side of both Earth and its Moon would often be in full view. Venus does not have any natural satellites of its own.

Venus rotates in the opposite direction of all the other planets, causing the Sun to rise in the west and set in the east. It also rotates very slowly, with a day on Venus lasting about 117 Earth days. (It actually takes Venus even longer, 243 Earth days, to rotate, but its backwards rotation works together with its orbital motion to make the same side of the planet face the Sun a little bit quicker.) A year on Venus is about 225 Earth days.

Venus’ orbit around the Sun is the closest to being perfectly circular of any major planet (eccentricity 0.0068). Its distance from the Sun only varies between 0.718 and 0.728 AU, with the average being 0.723 AU (about 108 million km or 67 million miles). Venus is also one of the least tilted on its axis (only 2.6° after factoring for its retrograde rotation). Combined, the two facts mean that there is very little seasonal variation on the planet.

Humans

Because telescopes could not penetrate its heavy cloud cover, Venus remained shrouded in mystery until very recently. Beginning in the 1960s, unmanned U.S. and Soviet spacecraft managed to unlock some of the planet’s secrets, including its temperature and atmospheric pressure, but it wasn’t until NASA’s Magellan mission (1989-1994) that the Venusian surface was finally mapped in detail. Future exploration is being planned and may shed more light on our strange “sister planet” over time.

Its size and location make it a prime target for human colonization, but major technological hurdles must first be overcome. Terraforming the planet will at a minimum require removing most of the carbon dioxide atmosphere, reducing the surface temperature, and introducing oxygen and water. It would also likely involve creating a protective magnetosphere and establishing a more Earth-like day-length of approximately 24 hours, as opposed to the current 117 Earth days.

The first colonies will be floating, self-contained cities high in the Venusian atmosphere, where temperatures and air pressure are more manageable. These will serve as bases for the population involved in terraforming efforts. A giant solar shield will be placed in Venus’ relatively stable L1 Lagrange point, where it could be maintained between Venus and the Sun with minimal effort, deflecting solar radiation and thus cooling the planet. Mass drivers will eject some of the dense atmosphere. If done right, this and other techniques will also speed up the planet’s rotation, eventually decreasing day length until it is roughly equal to Earth and Mars. Provided Venus's core is still molten, this will have the added benefit of creating a different spin rate between the surface and the interior, thus generating a magnetosphere.

As the temperature and atmospheric pressure drop, hydrogen will be imported en masse from Saturn or one of the other gas giant planets, and combined with the remaining carbon dioxide to form water and elemental carbon. In the end, oceans will cover up to 80% of the surface, and some of the remaining atmosphere will dissolve into them, further reducing pressure. When the temperature and water content are right, algae and various plant life will be introduced, which will convert much of the remaining carbon dioxide (and smaller amounts of carbon monoxide) to breathable oxygen. Sulfur (and the resultant sulfuric acid rain) will be removed from the atmosphere and rendered safe by similar chemical processes.

Enclosed surface colonies will begin at this time, tending crops and putting the finishing details on the planet. Eventually, as air quality improves, these colonies will transition to partially-enclosed, air-quality-controlled tented communities, and then finally to completely open settlements. A host of Earth animals will be introduced, from bees to whales, completing the transformation into a sustainable ecosystem.

Ongoing attention will be required to maintain the solar shield, which by the end will have been modified to let through about 50% of the Sun’s light and heat, equal to what Earth receives. (The Sun will still look twice as big in the sky on Venus, but it will only be half as bright.) If a magnetosphere proves unattainable, the solar shields and atmosphere will provide adequate protection against radiation, but large quantities of hydrogen will have to be imported periodically to replenish what is lost to space and ensure that the planet doesn’t dry out. However, with these measures in place, the Venusian environment will become the most Earth-like in the Solar System – our true twin planet at last.

Aliens (speculative)

There was a time, about 65 million years ago, when Earth was seen as undesirable real estate, the redneck trailer park to Venus’ gated community. The dominant species on the planet were the Cythereans, an intelligent, humanoid people. They were approximately the size and build of humans, save for their long necks, which made them about a head taller. Despite this, their physiology was very different than Earth mammals, being closer to a cross between a shark and a potato.

Their smooth, waxy skin was a pale, bluish-green color. They were entirely hairless except for some leafy, feather-like growths atop their heads and on their limbs, and the color patterns of these were the only obvious difference between males and females of the species. Their “bones” were made of a semi-rigid cartilage-like material, and their internal structure did not contain large organs, but rather a cork-like tissue intersected by the small, redundant “nodes” of various systems: circulatory, respiratory, etc. (In this way, a single individual may have over 100 different, tiny “hearts,” for example.)

Cytherean society was quite advanced for the time, and they enjoyed comforts like clockwork robotic miniature dragon servants and steam-powered flying vehicles. Unfortunately, they were vain creatures and the Martians finally had enough of them. It was a war that would destroy both civilizations. (And kill the dinosaurs back on Earth, but that’s another story.)

Some Cythereans managed to survive the devastation. Realizing that their war machines had doomed their environment, but unwilling to leave their once-fair world, they built giant, lava-proof crystal chambers deep underground. There, the best of their species lie still, in extra-dimensional suspended animation, waiting for someone to clean up the place. Meanwhile, a select few stayed behind as caretakers, and over the generations their descendants have mutated into a completely different species, at once more advanced and more primitive than their predecessors.

These neo-Cythereans have lost the feathers and developed thicker skin (resembling the rind of a cantaloupe) to withstand the intense pressure. They no longer have long necks, or indeed any necks whatsoever. Save for a small amount of cartilage that still gives some shape to their heads and faces, their skeletal system has shrunk to almost nothing, unneeded now that their bodies are grafted to cybernetic suits. Underground, they have become part of a closed-loop food chain, feeding off the milk and meat of the chicken-goats, which feed off the droppings of the squirrel-owls, which eat the oyster-lilies that grow in the soil fertilized by dead Cythereans. Because of the limited space and food resources in their underground world, they have become a disciplined society bound by strict codes. For example, they have tied their very existence to their sacred duty as caretakers, limiting their own population to the same number of Cythereans remaining in hibernation (originally over 100,000, but now estimated at only 20,000). If a population imbalance arises – a new baby is born, or a hibernation capsule fails – a lottery is held and the losers must fight to the death to restore the balance.

If and when we terraform Venus, there will be severe implications for both groups of Cythereans. There will be culture shock not only with the humans, but also between the two different groups of natives, whose languages no longer even resemble each other. Expect the ancient Cythereans to be grateful at first, but soon start acting like they own the place. Meanwhile, the neo-Cythereans will need to be given a new cosmic purpose in life (or, at the very least, some vocational training), as well as basic assistance in physically adapting to the new planetary conditions.

Images courtesy of NASA, Ittiz and Pedro Silva.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Five planets, one photo

In this photo from NASA, you can see five of the seven planets visible to the naked eye: Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Earth. (Only Saturn and Luna are missing.) You can see this conifguration every morning at sunrise for the next few weeks.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What will Marvel Studios do next?

Marvel Studios has been around since 1993, when it was founded to pursue film opportunities for Marvel Comics characters. Prior to this, only a handful of films had been made based on these characters, and they had been dismal, low-budget affairs. While rival comics company DC had seen the Superman and Batman franchises yield blockbusters, Marvel had yet to find the same success. Marvel Studios helped change that, negotiating deals with major studios and exerting greater creative control.

They found success early on, as partnerships with New Line Cinema, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures yielded Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), respectively. Each of those three films was considered both an artistic and commercial success, and each would yield an even more successful sequel. While other Marvel properties were not as critically well received (including Daredevil, the Ang Lee-directed Hulk, two Punisher movies, Elektra, two Fantastic Four movies, Ghost Rider, and the abysmal third chapters of the Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man franchises), few were actually box office bombs and the power of Marvel Studios continued to grow.

Finally, in 2008, the company was able to begin producing films independently. This is where I come in. I had watched some of the earlier movies, and had even found some of them enjoyable, especially the first two X-Men movies, which were ridiculous in many ways but had good character development. I was not prepared for Marvel was able to do with full control of its own creations, though. I read some comic books as a kid, and had a vague idea of who all of these super-people were, but I wouldn’t have considered myself a fan-boy. However, that all changed when I saw these films. The independent Marvel movies have become like heroin to me, and I am an unapologetic junkie.

Marvel Studios does three things differently than anyone else doing superhero films:

1) They stayed true to the characters. They changed some of the details, but the essence of who those characters are did not change. They didn’t dumb anything down and they didn’t compromise their ability to tell a larger story over time by throwing the coolest parts of 17 different story lines together in the first movie. They knew their characters inside out and had faith that those characters had deep reservoirs of compelling stories to tell. They gambled that audiences would like them for who they were.

2) They stayed loyal to their fan base. Comic books are action-packed, larger-than-life, pseudo-science, short-attention-span, soap operas. So are Marvel’s movies. They tend to not hold anything back, and are filled with the same sense of wonder, humor and balls-to-the-wall excitement that got our blood pumping as eight-year-olds. Ang Lee tried to make an artistic Hulk movie that was filled with allegories of human nature. Marvel understood that the Hulk needs to smash things. Sure, there’s some romance and intrigue and other fine plot points to consider, but Marvel makes sure that it never gets in the way of what they know we want to see.

3) They created a shared universe where all of their film characters co-existed. Each movie pretty much stands on its own, but by tying together very minor plot points and adding a heaping helping of Easter eggs in the background, they drive the fan-boys wild and set up a world where anything can happen.

Here is a list of all of the independent Marvel Studios movies to date that have either been released or scheduled for release:

2008
  • Iron Man
  • The Incredible Hulk
2010
  • Iron Man 2
2011
  • Thor
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
2012
  • The Avengers
2013
  • Iron Man 3 – Merging Iron Man into the same universe as Thor opens up the possibility of bringing in Iron Man's most famous enemy: the Mandarin and his ten magic rings.

Marvel Studios has said they would like to release two films a year. The rights to a lot of their key properties still reside with other studios, which presumably will work hard to keep the rights: Columbia has Spider-Man. Crystal Sky has Ghost Rider, and Fox has X-Men (including Wolverine and Deadpool), the Fantastic Four (including Silver Surfer) and Daredevil. (P.S. – Fox sucks. I’d kill for Marvel to get the rights to Daredevil.) However, there are still plenty of other characters that Marvel could use to create compelling movies within the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe. Assuming they do make two movies per year from 2013 on, here is my best guess of what else we are likely to see for the rest of this decade:

2013

  • Ant-Man – A founding member of the Avengers in the comics, Dr. Henry Pym creates a process that allows him to shrink to the size of an ant or grow as big as a skyscraper. According to Marvel Studios head-honcho Kevin Feige, the script (by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director Edgar Wright) is almost complete. With any luck, it will also introduce Pym’s eventual wife and fellow-Avenger, Janet van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp.
2014

  • Doctor Strange – Rumors are that the studio is hard at work to make this one happen soon. Doctor Stephen Strange is Marvel’s master of magic, and from what I understand he has some really cool and bizarre tales that would adapt well to screen. Johnny Depp might be a good choice for the lead. Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) should direct.
  • Captain America 2 – I would like to see this film further explore the character’s adjustment to life in the modern world, while tying in elements of his former life in World War II through flashbacks. We could learn that the evil organization Hydra has survived and that Cap has to finish a job that he started long ago. This could also set up…
2015

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. – Bring back the non-super-powered crew from The Avengers: Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye, etc. This movie could also introduce us to Carol Danvers (the future Ms. Marvel), Falcon and any number of other cool Kung-Fu/super-gadget folk. Here’s a fact: the entire G.I. Joe franchise was originally created as a cheap copy of S.H.I.E.L.D. Let’s see what the original can do. (I’m guessing James Bond meets The Fast and the Furious.)
  • Thor 2 – I don’t know much about this character and I haven’t seen the first one yet (it opens today in the U.S.!), but I think a sequel showing Thor at full power for two hours fighting some pretty nasty enemies could be great fun.
2016

  • The Inhumans – When I was a kid, I saw a picture of Black Bolt and thought he was the coolest super hero I had ever seen. He is the leader of the Inhumans, a group of mutant/alien/I-don’t-really-know-what people that live secretly in a secluded land. He never speaks, because a simple whisper from him will unleash enough power to knock down a building. He has other powers too, but I don’t know what they are. Comic books were weird back in the 1970s. I didn’t quite understand what I was reading. Still, from what I do understand, other people were similarly enchanted by these weirdos, and there might just be a story there.
  • The Black Panther – Dating back to 1966, this was the first major Black super-hero from either Marvel or DC, and remains a fan favorite. His real name is T’Challa, and he is king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and a part-time Avenger. Introducing him in his own movie could set him up for a role in…
2017

  • The Avengers 2 – Bring back the original crew, plus Ant-Man, Wasp, Black Panther and maybe Ms. Marvel. Do something over-the-top amazing that blows every other action movie that’s ever been made out of the water. Is that too much to ask?
  • Heroes for Hire – Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) and his partner Iron Fist are two more fan-favorites. They are an odd couple: think Rush Hour, but with Mr. T and Bruce Lee instead of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan.
2018

  • Captain America 3 – Now that we've seen Cap adjust to the modern world, this installment should see his world shaken to the core again by introducing an old friend turned enemy: the Winter Soldier.
  • Planet Hulk – One of the more popular Hulk story lines sees the Hulk banished to another planet because he’s too dangerous for Earth, and he ends up conquering it or something, I think. Anyway, this would be too cool, so just do it.
2019

  • Iron Man 4 – Sure, why not?
  • Thor 3 – Beta Ray Bill, anyone?
2020

  • Annihilation – Featuring Nova and some of the other cosmic characters (although, sadly, not Galactus and the Silver Surfer, unless Marvel can get the rights back from Fox). It could be hinted at with references from previous cosmic movies like The Inhumans, Planet Hulk and even Thor 3 (especially if Beta Ray Bill is introduced).
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. 2 – We should be ready for another one if these if the first one did well. Winter Soldier could factor in, and maybe more new characters could make an appearance, like the Falcon. Also, this could set up…
2021

  • The Avengers 3 – If we haven’t seen Ultron yet, now could be the time. There are a host of other heroes (the Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, the Vision, etc.) and baddies that we could see as well.
  • Namor, the Sub-Mariner – At this point, if Marvel is still going strong, I’m guessing they can even turn their naked-pointy-eared-fish-man-(with-wings-on-his-feet-WTF?) into a winning movie! Of course, this would launch a whole new realm of cross-over possibilities if Marvel Studios shouls re-acquire the rights to the Fantastic Four by then...


UPDATE: Marvel Studios has announced Thor 2 as its second film of 2013, much sooner than I had anticipated. Meanwhile, scripts for Ant-Man and Doctor Strange movies have been completed. Here, then, is an updated prediction with an emphasis on wrapping up the three-film Thor and Captain America franchises ASAP. I am assuming Iron Man will be the only franchise to go beyond three films – and maybe without Robrt Downey Jr. beyond the third installment.

2013 – Iron Man 3, Thor 2
2014 – Captain America 2, Doctor Strange
2015 – Ant-Man, S.H.I.E.L.D.
2016 – The Avengers 2, Heroes for Hire
2017 – Iron Man 4, Thor 3
2018 – Captain America 3, Doctor Strange 2
2019 – The Black Panther, Heroes for Hire 2
2020 – The Avengers 3, Annihilation
2021 – Iron Man 5, Planet Hulk
2022 – The Inhumans, Namor the Sub-Mariner

Towards the end of the decade, the emphasis shifts more to the cosmic side of Marvel. (And, of course, hopefully to the Fantastic Four if Marvel can re-acquire the rights.) By overlapping certain story elements, Marvel should be able to maintain continuity even as they de-emphasize characters like Thor and Captain America to avoid audience fatigue and allow their current crop of actors to roll. Then, after a suitable amount of time has passed, current characters can be re-introduced (with new actors if necessary) without losing any of that continuity.