Friday, March 31, 2017

Superman 4: The Quest of Peace (1987)

I went into Superman 4 (1987) expecting to see a total train wreck of a film. Instead, what I found was a mostly pleasant Superman film with some issues, but far fewer issues than Superman 3.

Was the film really that bad? No, it wasn't.

Valiantly, the script reached for what worked in the first two Superman films. For the most part, it touched its mark.

In the cultural zeitgeist, it chose the themes: nuclear weapons, corporate takeovers, tabloid journalism, and greed. Recall that the 80's was the era of greed. "Greed is good." With a nuclear summit breaking down, a boy asks Superman to solve the nuclear problem. Meanwhile, the Daily Planet has been subject to a hostile takeover and turned into a sleezy tabloid.

Overall, I found the setup acceptable, the pacing good, the procession of events clear, the acting appropriately stylized, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep keep our hero jumping.

That's not so say that the film entirely work. There was a better film here at one point but it suffered under two problems. By my best guess (and this is a guess): 1) the production didn't get enough money, and 2) the suits demanded that a 120 minute film be cut down to 90 minutes.

I'll be honest here. The early film works, but there are place where it gets choppy later on. I'm positive that too much of the film was removed to make the studio executives happy. This being the 80's, that's a good bet as film were being released to fit neatly into 2 TV hour slots (with commercials). Yeah, it was a thing. Look it up. (Don't take my word for it.)

The other area where the film suffered were the special effects. The miniature work remained excellent, but the bluescreen work looked uninspired.

Taken together, Superman 4 is a middle-weight 80's action flick. Nothing special, but nothing really terrible, either. Competent, if uninspired. So what changed? Why is this Superman film so reviled above all others?

I blame Frank Miller.

In 1986, Frank Miller rocked the comic world with The Dark Knight Returns. An increasingly specialized comic market fell in love with this grittier Batman and gritter Superman. The comics fans now wanted different fare. Now that they've read Frank Miller, how do you keep the kids in Metropolis?

The message that Superman 4 brought was the exact opposite of what the comic fan base desired. This is a film founded in idealism and hope. The fight scenes weren't realistic, they were based on those crazy things Superman did back in the 50's and 60's, where physics were optional. S4 is literally a world-wide fight to save the world from nuclear destruction. S4 is the exact opposite of what the cynical 80's comic market wanted. S4 represented the sort of comic that the comic market now considered cheezy and bad, a low point in DC comics. Thus, S4 was bad. And once fan boys start piling on, you either agree or get pummeled. Thus, S4 became a whipping boy for comics fandom.

Meanwhile, the culture that needed Superman in 1978 didn't need Superman now. When Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 were released, the whole summer blockbuster thing had just gotten started. Superman was the first successful franchise following Star Wars. It redefined the superhero film. It gave an entirely new direction to action and adventure. In 1981, the world met Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark. Other films showed up: ET, The Road Warrior, The Terminator, Ghostbusters, Alien, Aliens, Back to the Future, Conan the Barbarian. By the time that Superman 4 showed up, trying recapture the magic of Superman: The Movie, a decade of innovation and excitement had changed audience's expectations. The SF that once awed us were now expected.

Two years later, 1989, Batman premiered on the big screen. Warner Brothers had learned its lesson and gave the audience what it wanted.

Superman 4's main problem was it was the wrong film at the wrong time. The studio executives had failed to spot the changing public trends and gave the public a film that could not resonate with the culture.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Allies vs the Soviet Union Pt 3

The Allies didn't go on to fight the Soviet Union. They knew that they would need to solve some difficult problems in order to win. Given the difficulty of the problem, they knew that they would need new weapons systems and new approaches.

How difficult of a problem was this?

It's called the Cold War. Both sides tried out out-develop and out-manufacture each other, in an arms race, with neither gaining the superiority needed to ensure a victory until they mass-deployed nuclear missiles, which created MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The Cold War is proof that neither side had a military path to victory against the other.

So when someone says, "Side X could have defeated Side Y," take a look at the weapons systems developed for the Cold War with idea that these weapons were prerequisites to any successful traditional assault on the other side of the world. The catchword here is "intercontinental."

For example, the B-52, an intercontinental bomber, was bid in 1946 and began service in 1952. Criteria for its development must have begun soon after VE day, if not while the war raged. The military knew exactly what it needed to defeat the USSR, and it didn't have those tools. Importantly, it wanted an bomber with a 5,000 mile range, which is double the range of the B-29.

The Cold War wasn't just war by proxy, it was an era where each side fully expected to fight the other to the death, and each side was actively preparing to do so. Forty years later, at the fall of the Berlin wall, neither side had declared victory.

Who would win if the Allies and the Soviet Union fought? Nobody. Despite the greatest economy in the world, stalemate was the best that anybody could produce.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Allies vs The Soviet Union Pt 2

So, if the Allies had actually fought the Soviet Union after WW2, what would they have to do in order to win?

I see a multi-pronged approach: 1) Western Europe, 2) Baltic, 3) Crimea, 4) Eastern Russia, 5) Sea, 6) Air.

The basic idea is to attack where the Red Army isn't, to stress supply lines, to damage industrial infrastructure, and to create air bases to penetrate further into the Soviet Union.

The East is the easiest and hardest front. The Russian will ceded that territory, giving the invader the long supply lines and extended front in exchange for few lost people or resources. Quite simply, any Siberian campaign would be a significant resource sink for the Allies, requiring years of road building without the Soviet Union spending a single resource. Even a token resistance force inside the area would have a large impact on American operations.

Control of the seas is vital to the Allies, especially the Baltic and Black seas. The Allies would focus on constricting trade as their primary means of warfare. Their goal would be to strangles the USSR economy. While this can't deliver victory, this would be the most effective means of limiting their war machine.

No assault on the USSR could really succeed as long as its manufacturing base was safe, and that would mean a push by the Allies up the Crimea and into the Russian heartland. The Allies had the troop transport and logistical expertise necessary to begin and conduct such a naval operation, assuming that they had enough troops. (That's not necessarily a good assumption). Even so, it's a long way to the eastern Urals with a long, exposed flank. (Objectively, there is no good way to the eastern Urals.)

Meanwhile, the Red Army in German is a juggernaut and knows exactly how to push back a competent and vicious foe. The battle in the west will be brutal under even the most rosy scenario, sucking down troops and equipment.

The Russian challenge is how to knock out an enemy that's equally difficult to crack. They don't have extensive fleets, so how would they even build up a landing against England? Like Germany, they would face D-Day somewhere. Meanwhile, the Allies are all through the Mid-East, with multiple footholds on the continent. They control all the major seaways. Effectively, the Allies can wage war incessantly should they desire, trading with the entire world, out manufacturing Russia on every measure. Their food comes from two hemispheres. They can move goods and services wherever they want.

Once committed to defeating the Allies, the Soviet Union has to take everywhere, because every place that it doesn't take becomes a landing zone for the Allies. The entire coastline becomes vulnerable, and that's a whole lot of coastline. Defending it requires permanently encamped armies, each able to handle an Allied assault.

Most likely, the war would end with a negotiated truce. The Allies will have pushed back the USSR somewhat, and would trade territory in Europe for territory seized elsewhere. The overall borders would look very similar to the Cold War borders.

But what about tanks and planes? Yes, both sides would have them. They'd shoot at each other a lot, then factories would build more. Sometimes Americans would defeat Russians, and sometimes Russians would defeat Americans. There's far more to planes and tanks than rock/scissors/paper. No single set of numbers will tell you who would win because you need context, doctrine, and strategy of the combined military forces to even begin assessing the issue. The simple truth is that both sides had effective weapons and knew how to use them as part of their overall strategy and tactics. The best tank didn't automatically win and the worst tank didn't automatically lose. Tanks and planes may work that way in board games, but they don't work that way in real life.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Allies vs the Soviet Union after WW2

If the Allies had continued to fight to Soviet Union after the defeat of Germany, who would have won?

This is one of those perennially never-completed arguments, so I though that I'd have a little fun and give my answer to this impossible question.

First, we have to examine the idea of winning. Winning is where one nation achieves its military/political goal, thus you must rate success by each country in accordance to its own goals rather than victory through an arbitrary measure, such as crossing the finish line.

We know what happened in real life. The Allied powers thought about continuing the war into Russia, but on consideration, decided that pursuing that option was not desirable. Likewise, Russia made the same calculation and decided similarly. Both sides would have preferred to see a more total victory, but even Russia saw its goal as unattainable.

I believe that the political powers of WW2 were correct in their assessment. If the war had continued in Europe, nobody would have won. Both sides would have failed to achieve their military and political goals. Given this conclusion, to continue the war would have been an unnecessary human slaughter. This didn't make the end of WW2 any less a mess, but it does inform us that the mess was preferable to a military solution.

But, what if the Red Army and the US Army had fought? In the short term, my money would be on the Red Army due to sheer numbers, and in the medium term, on the allies due to Russia's over-extended logistics and economy. In the long term, both sides would have settled on a peace. Many dead, little gained.

Superman 3

I find myself charmed by Superman III despite the flimsy nature of the film. It seems to stand astride two basic foundations, one the foundation laid down by the original Superman films, and the other by the 80's and what the suits wanted. As you can guess, these didn't go together well at all.

I'll just rattle away a bit, so excuse any rambling.

I found myself most charmed by the computers. Despite the fact that they really didn't act like computers at all, because the writers were pretty ignorant of computers of the day, they only had period computers to work with, and all the misconceptions about computers were period misconceptions, only workable in that period. We saw green screens, amber screens, keyboards, tape reels, and all other sorts of stock computer tropes, all slightly updated for the 80's and the personal computer revolution.

Not surprisingly, the big villain turned out to be a computer created by the supposed big villain (who was Not-Lex-Luthor and Not-Lex-Luthor's evil sister). This computer became self-aware, seized the evil sister, and turned her into a cyborg to fight Superman. I can't say that this is the first film that depicted the fear of computers taking over, but it certainly brought the subject out of the cult sphere and into mainstream conciseness. Computers strip away our humanity.

In that way, I suppose that S3 had the theme of humanity being stripped away, and without that, we become cruel. There's a place where Superman is split in half to fight his evil self. His human self is the part that wins, not his super self. It is then this human-superman that defeats the evil computer by using his human smarts. Despite their seeming divinity, computers, not matter how well programmed, are not our new gods, for even if they are all powerful, they cannot be all knowing.

This is re-emphasized with the updated Lana Lang, a "today's girl" who's a level-headed single mother struggling to raise her son well. She's got her act together, not like the flighty or defenseless women of previous decades, but also not aggressive, like Lois Lane. Her Superman is not a man who flies around with a cape, but a man who comes home and helps her to make a family, which makes Clark quite the Superman indeed.

What is humanity? Family. Middle-American values. Sober living. Sweaters draped across the shoulders and conservative dress. All the stuff that makes the Moral Majority happy. (There would be no more Superman bopping Lois Lane in the 80's).

The first two Supermans were products of the Carter era, or more importantly, the Post-Nixon era, where our icons have fallen and we really do need a new icon to stand up for America. In the 80's, we are now into the Reagan era, the Conservative have come into power, and the center of symbolism has changed.

The new villains are Corporations, not dictators, and their limitless ambition only worships at the altar of money. We saw this begin with Lex Luthor's in the first Superman, but then he was just this guy with an evil plan. This time, the villain leads and entire corporation. Out in the real world, this is an era when corporations are always changing their names (or so says Jefferson Starship), merging, and synergizing. Old corporate names are literally disappearing as new ones emerge, moving factories to other countries, and playing a new kind of economic politics to their own advantage.

The film makes strides against racism. I don't think that we saw a single black face with a speaking part in the last film, but in this one, the co-star is Richard Pryor, a black man. We also see a black fire chief amid a sea of white faces. Even so, the majority of all faces remain white and male.

The actual plot of the film is rather ridiculous, even by Superman standards, with an weak overall ending. The main villain creates fake kryptonite, which turns Superman evil, then splits him in two, but after he literally pulls himself together, flies off to defeat the evil computer which has run out of control. The story feels like a modern Hollywood film, where someone wrote a decent script, and then suits demanded changes until the whole film rattled along, good-enough, but not great. Honestly, I can't stay that it's any more incoherent or stupid than the latest X-Men film.

What missing from the film is everything 80's. If you will, this film depicts an idealized 80's, with no modern music, new wave fashion, punks, Japanese cars, smog, or anything else rejected by middle-America. In a way, the film de-urbanizes Superman, saving him from the East-Coast elites. It's only his return to middle-America that reconnects Superman with his White Christian American roots, that makes him a truly American again.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Putting Together a Justice League Film (a thought experiment)

As a little thought experiment, let's lay out a Justice League film based on where the DC universe is right now.

We have five primary characters. Of those five, three will be "new" to the audience.

Batman
Wonder Woman

And new:

The Flash
Cyborg
Aquaman

This means that the film will need to introduce us to three new heroes and the villain(s).

At the moment, the DC universe does not have many villains/villain groups capable of matching the Justice League. We could go the multi-villain route, but that would require setting up around 5 villains to take on the five heroes. That's eight major characters introduced in one film. Our other alternative would be to introduce a single villain capable of delivering enough firepower to require five heroes. There aren't many villain groups like that in the DC universe, with Darkseid being the best known.

So based on the practical requirements of the film, if you don't want an epic monstrosity, you'd need to go the Darkseid route. Darkseid has faceless minions strong enough to provide fight, and enough power to to require the assembly of a Justice League.

If I was going to write a comic book, I would choose the opposite. Since comic books love to run many books, getting more villains is a bonus. I would have a group of villains ally together, learning to work together, just as the Justice League must learn to work together. When the showdown comes, both teams should have their issues worked out, meaning that the fight should feel like anybody's guess (even if we do know that the villains will lose). The villains will lose not because they aren't capable of winning, but when the stresses build enough, their seemingly settled problems flare up, and their base distrust of each other proves their undoing.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Always Coming Home (1985)

Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula LeGuin is a textbook on a culture that doesn't yet exist. If you like reading textbooks, you'll love reading this book. My personal experience included nodding off and vertigo. Too much textbook and not enough story. It's quality stuff, just not the sort of stuff that my brain wants.

I did not complete this book.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chalice (2008)

Chalice (2008) by Robin McKinley is a sweet slice of romance paired with a large dollop of fantasy. Served warm, they go rather well together.

The sweet romance progresses much as you would expected, with Robin finding plenty of ways move it along without the romance feeling too forced.

Robin spend considerable amounts of time ensuring that her heroine is a complete and round person, not needing a hero at all, but certainly not at the point where she doesn't need anybody.

Normally, I don't find magic systems very interesting, but I enjoyed her neighborhood fantasy, where the workings of the magical neighborhood matter. I was fascinated with idea of a magical local government, and how its members would work and function. Indeed, I found her magical beekeeper far more interesting than I find most magical folks. (I could call her a hedge wizard, but that would be like calling rice a kind of wheat. It's tru that they are both grains and very related, but you can't really call them the same thing.)

In total, although not a page turner for me, I found this book a refreshing read and a nice break from doom and gloom fantasy.

Think Tank (A Free LARP)

Bring you laptops, paper, post-it notes (tm), and wonkiness. Congress wants a report and it wants the report in only 4 HOURS. Go.

What's the report on? That's up to the DM. I recommend requiring reports to implement the craziest, least workable political ideas of today.

For example:

  • Determine the costs and timetable to force-convert all Americans to Islam using Walmarts.
  • Invade Mordor.
  • Take away all the guns in the United States.
  • Fake an alien invasion in order to allow permanent martial law.

Your finished report should be as official and clean looking as possible.

Note to Game Masters: This works best if your researchers feel the full brunt of surprise. Perhaps mislead them with the wrong question? That's so much like real life.

As a bit of extra fun, you could even stage a Congressional hearing. Congressmen like PowerPoints, so include those, too. Congress ought to get a presentation (if time is available) or a video presentation (if it isn't).

If everything goes right, there's little that a Game Runner needs to do. It's up to your players to organize themselves and get the report out. Or throw curveballs because you're feeling evil. There's nothing like having your Congress characters issue a list of questions 2 hours into report preparation.

As a variation, you can play this as a dispersed game. There's no reason why this game can't run over a period of time, with your players sorting this all out virtually.

To add more complexity, you may want to put an ideological or political spin on the game. Anything that can put players at loggerheads should be considered (depending on the context). Opposing ideologies can make for fierce internal debate.

(You have my permission to print and reprint this scenario as required to run a game. If you remember to credit Douglas Milewski as Writer, that would be triple-awesome.)

Have you actually run this game? Leave a comment.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fake Lore for the Y-Wing

It's a snow day, so I thought that I'd have go at Y-Wing lore. I've never much liked canon for the ship, so I'm going to rewrite it, making the Y-Wing analogous to the Mosquito fighter-bomber of WW2. The upgradability of the Y-Wing is analogous to the continuous upgrades that Merlin engine underwent during WW2, which sustained the Spitfire as a viable fighter through the entire war.

Where the Star Wars universe differs from WW2 is in its mature starship technology.  Decades won't be making a huge difference between craft. In our world, aircraft such as the A-10, the B-52, the F-15, and the MiG-21 have taught us that as long as an air frame is useful, it sticks around. Best, it seems, isn't always best. Even more interesting, countries of limited means have begun using jet trainers as cheap fighters. Some have even revived the piston engine for close air support. These vehicles may not be the best, but they do the job.

----

The Y-Wing was designed and developed by Koensayr Manufacturing in the tense years before the Clone Wars. Aimed at smaller planetary markets, the vehicle was intended as an escort fighter, easy to fly and cheap to maintain. Despite this goal, the eventual production model proved overweight and underpowered. According to those early pilots, "it put the dog in dogfighter."

The Y-Wing would have gone down in history as a market failure if not for the Clone Wars. The sudden outbreak of war put all available fighters to work while manufacturers were slammed with a titanic backlog of orders. Given extensive delays for any replacements, militaries modified their existing Y-Wing fighters by removing unnecessary weight and by over-powering their engines. With those field changes, the humble Y-Wing unexpectedly proved itself the best cheap starfighter in the galaxy.

Because these fighters were so easily modified, planets were able to retask these fighters into numerous roles, such as scouts, ground attack fighters, minesweepers, couriers, and torpedo boats. By the war's end, these fighters had become the predominant local starfighter in the Outer Rim. General Dodona said, "They did everything that we asked of them and more."

With the rise of the Empire, the need for region defensive craft diminished. Planets that voluntarily accepted Imperial Garrisons were required to scrap their local fighter groups, and so the Y-Wing quietly disappeared from arsenals and resale lots. Planets that resisted the Empire quickly saw their fighters destroyed.

During the rise of the Rebellion, salvaging surplus Y-Wing became mission #1. Their ease of repair and ease of modification was exactly what the Rebellion needed. Aggressively recruiting veteran Y-Wing ground crews, General Dodona's personnel rebuilt the vehicle far beyond its original specifications, producing a strike fighter capable of matching the new Imperial TIEs. The resulting Y-Wings proved so capable that they led the Rebellion's desperate attack on the Death Star, completing a suicidal trench run to fire on a thermal exhaust port. Later in the war, through the dogged innovations of the ground crews, the Y-Wing continued proving its worth, maintaining its place in the Rebel arsenal despite the introduction of newer craft.

For most of the war, Y-Wings performed the bread and butter operations that sustained the Alliance, freeing up the more expensive craft (such as X-Wings, A-Wings, and B-Wings) for higher profile missions. According to records, Y-Wings flew 70% of all sorties. After the war, Y-Wing pilots often boasted, "The X-Wings got all the glory, but the Y-Wings did all the work."

---

Overall, I liked how this worked, making the Y-Wing the scrappy underdog of starfighters. It exemplified what makes the Rebellion great, by taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Rather than giving it the story of, "it's old and not that good anymore," the story becomes, "somebody's got to do the work." The Rebellion's use of the Y-Wing represents the exact opposite of the Empire's approach towards military technology.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Prophet of Lamath (1979)

The Prophet of Lamath (1979) by Robert Don Hughes, is a humorous Game of Thrones before there even was a Game of Thrones, with Pelman the Powershaper as the main protagonist and the main antagonist. (It's a noteworthy trick pulling that one off.) The book reads smoothly but not engagingly, plots along bumpily, offers stock archetypes who never really get to stay archetypical, with a narrative that bouncing about like a pingpong ball.

The work is a non-Tolkienesque fantasy, featuring no gods, elves, orcs, quests, or anything like that. It's pretty much humans running about mucking up each other's lives, and a two-headed dragon (mistaken for a god) that Pelmen gets into a rather vicious argument with itself.

The work is eminently skimmable, which I did as I found the finer description rather tepid.

A very unplotted book, the characters do their own things, bringing the story repeatedly into odd locations and dislocations. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes this didn't. In this respect, it's more like a fantasy narrative from the 40's to the 60's than anything like the 80's and beyond.

In terms of literary orthidoxy, it breaks many rules. The head hopping and POV slides about extensively, but rarely destructively.

The novel features a loose Christian theme, that being the Power. Don't worry about it beating you about the head. It's there, and it's part of the work, but stays rather low key through the story. Being published after Star Wars, it's like the Force, except not the Force, but does something of the same thing.

Refreshingly, the book contains little to no cynicism, and no flat-out "bwa-ha-ha" villains. If there's any villain, it's pride, vanity, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and wrath (the seven deadly sins sans lust). You won't have any problem figuring out which character represents which sin. For the most part, this works amazingly well.

While being no page turner, the book does have its fun moments. If you need a good change of pace, or need to get Game of Thrones out of your soul for a little while, this is a good pick.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sister Light, Sister Dark (1988)

Sister Light, Sister Dark (1988) by Jane Yolen is a curious feminist fantasy, though better called a human-scale fantasy, centering around the prophecy of the Anna, yet also centering around the coming of age of Jenna. When this tale is following its own voice, this curious tale works, going where you expect but never quite how you expected, or why. This is not a work where the heroine jauntily lopes along, from one fight to another. This is very much an internal story with external features. Where the novel falls down is when it hews too close to trope, too close to what it should be.

By human scale fantasy, I mean that the book pays great attention to the people in it, giving them time to act, react, and consider, letting us get to know them.

The book is only the beginning of the tale, for the Great Alta saga covers three books. There's much left to be done. I found the wrap-up for this book quite unsatisfactory as any stand-alone conclusion, so just aim to read the whole batch when you get started.

Magic doesn't play a large place in the fantasy even while it does. The magic here isn't the magic of spells and world alteration, but a subtler magic, one that's structural to the narrative, not easily produced or reproduced. I find the low-key stakes of magic quite welcome and more compelling than world-shaking spellcasters. The magic here means something to the people who have it, shaping their world.

While the tale does have prophecy, the tale undercuts that prophecy just as much as it sustains it. In the end, the character must do as she must, making her decisions as she goes.

If you like to think about your fantasies, and don't care so much for fight scenes, then this is a book for you.