Spider-Man: Homecoming: Spins a Web, Any Size

Somehow I managed to make it all the way to November without sharing my thoughts on Spider-Man: Homecoming. Don’t ask me how. I talk about Spider-Man all the time, even when I’m just reviewing totally bizarre Spider-Man knockoff games. I thought I’d already blogged about Spidey’s newest cinematic outing, but I guess not, so here goes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is fantastic. It’s the best big screen Spidey outing since Sam Raimi left the series, and while it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of Spider-Man 2, it does successfully rebuild this character for a new generation.

Spider-Man Homecoming boat Marvel Peter Parker Iron Man

There are three key factors that make the movie work as well as it does. The first, and most important, is that the film knows its message, and it gets that message across clearly. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a story about young adulthood, and the awkward growing pains of a teenager trying to find his way in the world, while coming to understand that his actions have a real impact on others.

Following in the footsteps of past creators like Lee, Raimi, and Bendis, this movie uses Peter’s Spider-Man adventures as a superheroic representation of the more relatable coming of age story that Peter must go through. What makes this particular Spider-Man stand out is that he really is a kid: he’s only a few years past puberty, inexperienced, impulsive, scared, barely knows what he’s doing. Peter has a big heart and a genuine enthusiasm for helping people, but he has a lot to learn.

Though Uncle Ben’s “great power, great responsibility” mantra isn’t recited, this classic concept is the unspoken theme of every scene in the film. Even when you’re laughing at Peter’s jokes or swinging between buildings with him, Spider-Man: Homecoming always reminds you that actions have consequences. There are multiple occasions where Peter swoops in to save the day, totally unprepared, causing catastrophic situations to occur that risk real lives. Even when he successfully stops a supervillain, saving innocent lives, it leads to the equally real lives getting shattered, as the villain’s loved ones must then grapple with what happened. Every glory is bittersweet, every failure followed by another one, but Peter keeps going, staying true to the very themes that have always made Spider-Man’s story so universal.

Perhaps due to this focus, Homecoming nails the feeling of being a teenager in a way  that prior movies didn’t quite capture. It’s often funny, but there’s a serious undercurrent of anxiety and social pressure lingering beneath the humor. Peter is at the age where he feels ready to prove himself, to be considered an adult, just like anyone his age does — but he’s still young at heart. He gets scared when he’s too high up. He doesn’t know if he’s going to survive when the Vulture drags him into the sky. He’s a hero the audience can’t help but love and relate to.

Spider-Man Homecoming Tom Holland Marvel

That’s why the second factor that knocks this movie out of the park is, of course, Tom Holland, the Spider-Man of a new generation. Holland portrays a young Peter Parker who feels ripped straight off the comic book page. The sequence where Holland really shines is in a scene adapted from the “Master Planner” story in the comics.

The third factor that makes the movie so terrific is Michael Keaton, the Vulture. Adrian Toomes has been a favorite villain of mine in the comics since “Funeral Arrangements,” a lesser-known Spectacular Spider-Man by J.M. DeMatteis and Sal Buscema. Vulture’s come within striking distance of the big screen on many occasions, but the wait was worth it. Keaton’s Vulture is one of the most interesting MCU villains to date.

Vulture Michael Keaton Spider-Man Toomes Marvel

To explain why the Vulture works so well, I’ll just quote my own answer to a question that was posted on Quora, regarding which Spider-Man movie villain was the best. To read my full answer, check out this link, but here’s the part regarding the Vulture:

Having just seen Spider-Man: Homecoming last night, I’m honestly willing to say that Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture gets a firm second place. As a villainous presence, Vulture is like a horrifying creature of the night, both unstoppable and deadly… but at the same time, the man behind the wings is revealed to be very human, very realistic, with beliefs that are understandable and relate deeply to contemporary times, even if his actions themselves are pretty horrendous and immoral. He’s a hardworking guy just trying to support his family, but he won’t flinch about killing anyone who gets in his way.

What makes both of these villains work so well is how they play off of Peter Parker himself. The key to what makes Spider-Man such a great character is that he’s the everyman, the working class superhero, the awkward regular guy who gets super powers. Both Molina’s Otto Octavius and Keaton’s Adrian Toomes also seem like regular people, with real lives and real goals they care about, both of whom just happen to fall on the wrong side of the tracks.

Homecoming doesn’t top Spider-Man 2, if only because the new film doesn’t grapple with the themes of despair, guilt, and bittersweet failure that Raimi did so beautifully. However, that’s to be expected: while Spider-Man 2 showed an older Peter who’d been wearing the webs for a few years, this new Peter is just getting his footing. He’s only fought one supervillain, and hasn’t even been tortured by the Daily Bugle yet.

So, needless to say, Holland’s Spidey certainly has some tough challenges ahead of him. But as seen in this movie, he also has a heart of gold — just like the comic book character — and it’s going to be an absolute thrill to see him return when Avengers: Infinity War rolls around.

In Comics, Reboots Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

Here’s a controversial idea to throw out there, which many may totally disagree with: what if the two major comic book universes rebooted every five to ten years? Planned reboots. Total reboots.

Let me explain.

Walter White Breaking Bad

Remember  Breaking Bad? Great show, right? And what made it great was that when it started, you knew it was going somewhere—and then, when it got there, the finale was everything we ever could have hoped for. All of the seeds that were planted in the first season paid off in a huge way, so that fans felt rewarded for having embarked on Walter White’s journey.  Throughout Breaking Bad, we saw one man become something entirely different than what he was at the start, and it was believable. Unlike so many popular TV shows, which run too long and thus lose the very things that made them great in the first place—I’m looking at you, House MD—Breaking Bad had a five season plan, stuck to it, and was thus the perfect picture of how to tell a great serialized story.

You know why Breaking Bad was such a great story?  Because it was planned. Because it had an ending.

What if American comic books could tell stories the same way?

swampmanthing

What I’m proposing is simple. First, let’s clean the slate. Start all of the various superheroes fresh, right from the beginning—totally fresh, with no carryovers, no “some parts of continuity are still valid but not others,” none of that.

And then, once the clean slate is established, we start with a brand new comic book universe — let’s call it “World One” — and we set an END DATE.  For the sake of argument, let’s say five years, six years, whatever. So this means that World One has five years to play out.

And then, once writers are assigned to their various characters, let’s allow those storylines to play out with total freedom. This allows characters to grow, change, die, be reinvented, or what have you. Also, when the universe does reset, we don’t need to do some cataclysmic end of the universe crossover: we just need to say that we’re moving onto the next universe.

Consider the advantages of this.

wolv_ninjas

Let’s say that when World One starts, the writer assigned to Wolverine begins by depicting the Weapon X storyline. That writer then has the freedom to, during their five year reign over the character, bring Wolverine from that point all the way to being an old man, ala Logan. Alternatively, they might decide that they want to have this version of Wolverine take the place of Xavier, leading a new team of X-Men. Or, they may want to have this Wolverine sacrifice himself to save the world from Apocalypse. In a planned universe with an end date, all of these things are possible.

The stakes would be heightened. Individual events would matter. Characters would be free to change, grow, evolve.

If comic universes operated on a five-six-or-however-many-years year plan, all of these options would be open, and comic book deaths would have meaning again. If the World One version of Wolverine died, he would stay dead. The World Two version of Wolverine, whenever he appeared, would be an entirely new writer’s vision of the character.

Batman Begins

Because the end of World One was planned from the beginning, there’d be no feeling of betrayal when it ended. This is the problem with most reboots. When The Amazing Spider-Man rebooted Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, it caused an uproar of negativity that the new series never quite recovered from, and this was because the old trilogy still had a lot of fans who were expecting a Spider-Man 4, never thinking that Spider-Man 3 was the ending. In contrast, a planned reboot wouldn’t stab the old fans in the back, because everyone would already know it was coming. The third part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was, from the outset, promoted as the end of the series. This left the door open for a new film interpretation of Batman to enter the door in a few years, without trampling on Nolan’s legacy.

Look, I love comic books, especially Marvel. As I’ve written before, I credit superheroes—especially Spider-Man—with helping me come out of my shy shell as a kid, and I’ve retained my love of them into adulthood.  The characters that Marvel and DC comics have brought to the world are iconic, and that’s why they’re now lighting up the silver screen and bringing in billions of dollars.

But let’s face it, comic continuity is a mess. Storylines can’t be shocking or exciting when they always, always revert to the status quo. Planned reboots would be different, because each reboot would herald the beginning of a new story. If a fan loves one version, they get to have that version. If they hate it, well, they can just wait for the next time around.

logan-jackman

Planned reboots would allow characters to have endings. Consider the impact of this year’s Logan: the reason that movie was so heartbreaking was because we knew it was the end of Hugh Jackman’s character. There might be a new Wolverine someday, sure, but at least we got a chance to say goodbye to the old one. Endings matter.

Endings are important, because endings are what gives a story deeper meaning. Without an ending, a story is forever unresolved.

We all know that the biggest American comic books out there aren’t ever going to end permanently: there’s too much money to be lost if Superman is suddenly gone forever, no more issues, done. But with planned reboots, an individual version of Superman could end, could be a complete, satisfying story. In a few years, the comic would still get to continue, without trampling on the work of the previous writer.

Would it work? Who knows. I’d imagine this might not be the most popular solution for the comic book continuity quagmire. But personally, I think it’d be worth trying out.

 

 

 

 

Dark Tower Trailer is Here!

Afters years upon years of waiting, the first trailer for the upcoming cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower is real, it’s breathing, and it’s live:

As readers know, the Dark Tower series was hugely influential on me — as a writer, a reader, and as a person — so this is easily my most anticipated movie of the year. It’s a hard one to get right, but so far, I’m impressed.

As the filmmakers have said, they are pulling from multiple books in the series for this first film, which I think makes sense; the original book, The Gunslinger, is fairly slow paced compared to the subsequent books, with much of it consisting of Roland and Jake following the Man in Black through the desert. It looks like this one uses the general plot structure of The Gunslinger, combines it with the house/portal from The Waste Lands, and then uses some of the New York elements of the last two books. Having everything somewhat different from the books actually works with this storyline, in a way it wouldn’t with other adaptations, since the notion of alternate realities, timelines, and dimensions is sewn right into the fabric of the Dark Tower mythos. As Jake famously said in the first novel, “there are other worlds than these.”

Either way, I definitely got chills hearing that last line. Idris Elba seems like an absolutely amazing Roland, with all of the gravitas that the character demands. Jake and the Man in Black look to perfectly capture the characters in the books. Can’t wait to see this in theaters.

The “Von Doom” Fan Film Reveals the Doctor Doom We’ve All Been Waiting for

Superhero films may have taken over the multiplex, and characters both A-list and B-list may have become household names, but there’s arguably one major Marvel Comics character whose legacy on film has been mistreated more than any other: Victor Von Doom, better known by the title Doctor Doom.

Famous Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee, who co-created almost all of the Marvel Universe, has long said that Doctor Doom is his favorite villain. While the Joker has catapulted to the #1 spot on most supervillain lists thanks to a long line of fantastic film and animated adaptations, Doctor Doom is a character who has long been held by many comic book enthusiasts as the greatest comic book supervillain of all time. Doom is a complex figure whose mythology combines science fiction and sorcery; he’s a vain man pained by a dark past, a tortured soul who believes himself to be the hero, believes that he could save the world if only everyone accepted him as their leader. His story is epic, tragic, one of the most developed in all of comics.

What Doom is not, and never has been, is the obnoxious, greedy businessman that he was portrayed as in the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, or whatever weird stuff they were trying to do with him in the 2015 reboot. While villains like Magneto and Loki have risen to prominence due to excellent film adaptations, there has never been a proper, faithful cinematic depiction of Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom Victor Von Doom fan film Marvel Fantastic Four Ivan Kander

Well, until now. Thanks to filmmaker Ivan Kander, there is now a fan film named Von Doom available online, that does for Doom what 20th Century Fox has failed to do. Gritty, epic, and faithful to the comics, Von Doom may be only 14 minutes, but it’s the best 14 minutes that Doom has ever had on film. Using time travel as a plot device, it tells the story of Doom’s tragic origins, as a young boy in the small Eastern European country of Latveria, and his young adult self’s attempt to combine magic and science in an effort to change the past. Don’t be wary of the fact that it’s a fan film, either: like Truth in Journalism, the Venom fan-film that I reviewed back in 2013, this is quality stuff. But don’t just take my word for it: check it out below.

(And after you do, continue reading my thoughts, right below the video!)

Now, this film isn’t perfect. It’s too short to get as deep as I’d love for it to,  and the budget is lower than a studio production would be. But what really shines here is that Ivan Kander really understands Doom’s personality, really gets what makes the character iconic, and even came up with a clever way to frame Doom’s story in a way that could fit three periods of his life within such a short runtime.

I’d love to see what Ivan Kander could come up with for a full length studio production, but even in the absence of that, Von Doom contains a lot of lessons that 20th Century Fox should pay attention to, if they ever want to utilize one of their biggest properties in a way that will not only befit the character’s legacy, but also get fans into theaters. To me, these are the biggest takeaways from Von Doom, and how it could influence future films:

1. The Origin Really, Really Matters

Doctor Doom Victor Von Doom fan film Marvel Fantastic Four Ivan Kander origin story

Both Fantastic Four franchises to date have completely ignored Victor Von Doom’s comic book back story, and both have also totally destroyed the character as a result.  That’s because Doom’s origins aren’t some throwaway reference, and tying them to the Fantastic Four’s origins is a mistake. Victor Von Doom’s childhood tragedies are as important to his character development as Magneto’s Holocaust origins are to him, and if you tamper with the story, you lose the character.

Doom’s back story is epic in scope. You can’t just pay lip service to Latveria and expect fans to be happy, because the character is Latveria. Victor Von Doom began as a poor boy in a poverty-stricken country, fled to the United States, became a brilliant scientist, and then came home as a revolutionary, ready to overthrow the authoritarian government that had enslaved and brutalized his people. Now, this doesn’t change the fact that Von Doom is also an authoritarian himself — the people of Latveria might be safe beneath his rule, but they certainly aren’t free — however, the complexity here is what makes the character interesting.

You Need Science AND Magic to Make a Proper Doctor Doom

Victor Von Doom Doctor Doom fan film origin story latveria Ivan Kander Marvel Fantastic Four

Doctor Doom, the armored figure that Victor Von Doom is destined to become, might seem at first like a purely science fiction character. He’s a brilliant scientist, he attacks his opponents with armies of robots, he uses life model decoys. But what Von Doom really gets right, from the very beginning, is that Doctor Doom’s interest and skills in the mystical arts are also a huge component of the character.

Some of Doctor Doom’s best stories involve him relying purely on magic, and he’s listed as one of the most powerful sorcerers in the Marvel Universe. Sure, the whole magic thing doesn’t fit into the wacky sci-fi high jinks that define the Fantastic Four, but there’s a solution for that…

Make Doom the Protagonist of His Own Film

Victor Von Doom Doctor Doom fan film origin story latveria Ivan Kander Marvel Fantastic Four experiment

Seriously, if there’s anything that the Von Doom short film proves, it’s this: Doctor Doom works better as a protagonist, instead of being squeezed into a Fantastic Four movie. That doesn’t mean he’s a hero, but he thinks he’s a hero, and a character as complex as Doom deserves center stage.

The bad writing that Doctor Doom has suffered from in the Fantastic Four movies is at least partially because both films have unsuccessfully tried to tie Doom into the Four’s origin story, and it’s a bad fit. While Doom is linked to Reed Richards, and despises him, much of his actual character arc is largely independent of those four blue-costumed heroes. Doom has gotten into blows with most of Marvel’s heroes, but those battles aren’t really his focus. In the grander scheme of the Marvel Universe, he’s a well known dictator who has diplomatic immunity when he visits other countries, and thus can’t be arrested. He’s not just a foil for the heroes.

No, Doctor Doom deserves his own movie. A Doctor Doom film could tell the story of Victor Von Doom’s rise, fall, and subsequent rise. It could tell the story of his exile from Latveria, his mastery of science and magic, and then his return as a man in a metal mask. Again, Doom can be the protagonist without being a hero. A film that focused on Doom, and only on Doom, could have an epic narrative similar to Batman Begins.

If the film needs a villain, then Ivan Kander’s Von Doom proposes a terrific solution, through the use of time travel: use Victor as both the hero and the villain. Pit the younger Victor against the older Doctor Doom. There are lots of ways to make this work, and the Fantastic Four aren’t necessary for it. They can have their own new reboot — preferably one which has them battle against, say, the Mole Man —  and Doom can meet up with them in a sequel, if need be. But not yet.

 Get the Personality Right

Doctor Doom Marvel Victor Von Doom Fantastic Four Stan Lee

And finally, here’s another big one. Doom’s personality has to be right. He’s not a psychopath, not a cocky businessman who tells dumb jokes, none of that. The character as depicted in Von Doom is Doom as he should be.

Again, Doom doesn’t see himself as a villain. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the hero of the story, and he’s in a constant struggle to do the right thing, to take the path that he believes will make the world a better place. Doom has flaws, but insanity isn’t one of them. He’s arrogant, vain, and haughty. But he’s also a character that viewers should, at least on some level, want to root for — a character whom we should be saddened by when he starts making decisions that we know to be immoral, even if he is too stubborn to see it.

A solo Doctor Doom movie is a blockbuster success waiting to happen, and if the studios ever decide to pursue it, then Von Doom should be their primary inspiration.

Some Thoughts on the End of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine

 

Quick note, I’ll be getting back to my Southeast Asia stories next week! But in the meantime, a pause: 

It’s crazy to look back and realize that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men movie came out. I still remember sitting in that theater, so nervous that they were going to get it wrong. Like any kid of my generation, I was obsessed with superheroes, and the X-Men were always near the top of my favorites list. And in particular, I loved Wolverine; the gruff loner of the team, the outsider who never quite fit in.

These days, there are multiple superhero films released every year, and characters as out there as Groot and Doctor Strange are featured on T-shirts, posters, and billboards all around the world. But back in 2000, superhero movies were a rare oddity, and when they did come out, it rarely turned out well.

x-men-1

So yes, I remember sitting in that movie theater back in 2000, totally nervous, feeling certain that this was going to be the only X-Men movie that ever got made, and just as certain that they were going to ruin Wolverine. The commercials had marketed the movie as more of a horror-like suspense than a sci-fi film, the costumes were all black leather, and the actor that they’d cast as Logan was some unknown Australian guy who was way too tall, too friendly, not angry enough.

And then the movie started… and there he was. This beaten, tired, reckless guy in a cage fight, wandering from place to place, not knowing who he was or where he came from. The impossible had happened, and somehow, a four-colored comic book character with six razor sharp claws had just been brought to life.

Wolverine Hugh Jackman

From that first moment, that first scene in the bar, it was clear that Hugh Jackman owned this role. And he never stopped owning it. Jackman made Wolverine into a household name, redefining the character for an entire generation of fans. And then, instead of stopping after a couple movies, he continued playing the character for almost 20 years, a legacy almost unheard of in any major franchise. Even more amazingly, his passion for the character only became stronger over time. From then and until now, Jackman was Wolverine. He’s made that role his own, arguably more than any other superhero actor to date.

Sure, Christian Bale was amazing as Batman. Robert Downey Jr. has brought Iron Man from a B-list favorite into the poster boy of Marvel Comics. Tobey Maguire was perfect for Peter Parker. But honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been another actor who has been this dedicated to a superhero role, starring in so many different films, and even playing such a key role in the writing of the character as the series went on.

Hugh Jackman Wolverine Logan

 

What Hugh Jackman — and the director, Bryan Singer — understood about Wolverine, that could have been so easily screwed up, was that the fundamental appeal of the character is his humanity, and the constantly wavering contrast between the good man buried within him and the rabid animal that he was brainwashed to be.

Another creative team may have simply painted Logan as the X-Men’s cranky outsider with a bad temperament, or maybe the supporting character who is simply the badass of the team with all the best one-liners. Jackman’s take, instead, is to always show the vulnerability in those eyes — the eyes of a man who lost his memory, his past, and everyone he’s ever loved — while also not shying away from the brutality; this is a guy who has spent his time beating people in cages, who can fly into a rage and skewer soldiers on his blades, but who at the same time can fall in love, protect children from harm, and even learn to believe in some idealistic dream preached to him by an old bald guy in a wheelchair.

Wolverine may be a killer, but he’s not supposed to be cold. Jackman understood the character’s inherent warmth, and that’s how he was able to embody Wolverine so successfully.

Hugh Jackman Logan Wolverine

It’s surreal to think that when Logan comes out, in just a few days, we’ll never see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine again. From a creative perspective, I admire his decision to end the story now, while he’s ahead. Too often, these giant sci-fi vehicles just roll on and on without any closure; while there’s no doubt that the X-Men franchise will continue for years to come, this movie will at least allow fans to say a true goodbye to the character who first made the X-Men movies so popular to begin with.

When we look back on classic adventure characters in film, we always associate them with the actors who defined those characters as well. Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator. Carrie Fisher was Leia. Bruce Willis was John McClane. And I think, in the future, when we look back on Wolverine, we’ll always remember the way that Hugh Jackman held out those claws, forever etching his place in cinematic history.

Next time: The journey through Laos, I promise! 

Clay Tongue Reviews

Happy New Year! Hope you all had an amazing switchover from 2016 to 2017. To ring in the New Year on this end, I’d like to get started by showing my excitement at some of the reviews for my new release, Clay Tongue: A Novelette. Getting the opportunity to read a review of one’s work is truly one of the most thrilling parts of being a writer, and here’s a bit of what Clay Tongue‘s reviewers have to say so far.

Clay Tongue Nicholas Conley fantasy

First off, we have Steve Johnson of Book to the Future:

“The feeling of childish and adult fears mixed together in a child’s mind is a very delicate theme to navigate, as well as ideas of existence, the cost of it and of how we value life.  It is a powerful cross-section of themes, a mix which is always done well by Conley.”

Over on Goodreads, C. S. Wilde had this to say:

“This story is as gentle as a snowflake and yet, so very powerful. Nicholas Conley has the ability to touch even the darkest hearts with his stories.”

Clay Tongue fantasy novelette Nicholas Conley

Marian Thorpe took the time to add her thoughts:

“A lovely story of hope and the power of love and belief in what is right, rather than easy. It would be a good story to read out loud to the assembled family over the holiday season.

Then we have J.L. Gribble:

The gorgeous cover to this novelette is a perfect match for the beautiful language and sweet story contained within. This short tale is well worth checking out for a quick escape.

And finally, we have Misti Pyles of My Trending Stories, who says:

“Clay Tongue isn’t very long, but has plenty of room to draw the reader into Katie’s tale. Katie’s just a kid, but her view of the world is bigger—and far more clear—than the adults in her life. Her love for her grandfather is fierce, as is his for her. There is magic in the pages of this story; magic both large and small, as well as love, hope, and vision.”

Clay Tongue novelette Nicholas Conley fantasy

Off to a great start, I’d say! Clay Tongue is available on Amazon, as both a paperback and an ebook. Hope you all continue having a terrific New Year.

Luke Cage: The Real World Hero for Our Times

The most impactful image in Marvel’s Luke Cage — the shot that lingers afterward, cutting straight to the core of what the series is trying to say — isn’t an explosion, an alien invasion, nor even a scene of super-powered fisticuffs. No, it’s something much less fantastic, but far more important.

This scene comes near the end of its first season, the entirety of which has been on Netflix for a few weeks now. As comic fans know, Luke’s primary superpower is his rock hard skin, an epidermis so powerful that it can repels bullets; however, since his cotton and denim clothing doesn’t possess the same magical properties, his many confrontations with Harlem’s criminals tend to leave all his hoodies, jackets, and t-shirts riddled with bullet holes. So when the police go out in search of Luke, they hunt the streets for a tall black man with a bullet-holed hoodie — only to find that many people in the Harlem community have begun wearing hoodies riddled with holes, as a sign of solidarity toward their misunderstood hero.  One man, as the police drive by, even holds open his holey hoodie to them, to show that he’s not afraid. It’s a brief moment, but an unforgettable one.

Method Man, who has a brief guest role in the series, says shortly afterward that, “Bulletproof always gonna come second to being black…there’s something powerful about seeing a black man, who’s bulletproof, and unafraid.”

Luke Cage bulletproof

There’s no question about how much Luke Cage resonates in today’s world. The fact that the main character wears a hoodie is a direct reference to Trayvon Martin, and the show’s star, Mike Colter, has stated on a few occasions that this is due to “the idea that a black man in a hoodie isn’t necessarily a threat. He might just be a hero.” It’s clear just how much the showrunners deeply care about the issues they’re confronting, and they aren’t afraid to make powerful statements about the racial tensions, systemic racism, and inequality that exists within the United States today, and has always existed since the country’s inception.

Luke Cage is an amazing series, due to its combination of bold themes, fantastic writing, and great direction. A lot of what really makes it work, though, comes down to the title character. As played by Mike Colter, Luke is smart, confident, and charming, but also subtle, reserved, and soft spoken. He’s a good guy who doesn’t want the glory of being a hero, but nonetheless ends up being the big brother that Harlem wants him to be.

Luke Cage and Pop in Harlem

There’s a truly honest connection that Luke has to the show’s depiction of Harlem, in a way that goes beyond the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, who are more like celebrities than next door neighbors. While Daredevil foiling Fisk might land his name in the papers, and Jessica Jones’s heroic exploits might earn her more business as a private investigator, Luke has no superhero identity, no cape, no mask — especially not by the end of the series, when his old life as Carl Lucas, escaped prisoner of Seagate Penitentiary, is brought back into the public eye. Luke is who he is. He must actively deal with his increasingly important role in the day-to-day life of Harlem, whether he’s helping a neighbor out of a jam, giving a eulogy for a friend, or getting blamed for somebody’s busted window. All of it feels astoundingly real, grounded, and relatable. If there was a superhero in the real world, he or she would probably be a lot like Luke Cage, and we’d be lucky to have someone like him around.

Openly political, cerebral, featuring an almost entirely black cast and centered around a black hero, Luke Cage is one of the boldest shows of the year, and possibly the boldest project that Marvel Studios has ever done.

How Captain America: Civil War Nailed What Makes Spider-Man Great

As a Spider-Man fan, it’s been a tough decade. After crawling to the top of the world with the unprecedented success of the first two Sam Raimi movies, Spider-Man enjoyed a brief moment as the world’s favorite superhero; a huge victory for a character usually defined by being the awkward weirdo of the superhero table, and just as much of a victory for those of us who always loved him for it. However, the fallout from Spider-Man 3 — which wasn’t terrible, really, but didn’t come close to Spider-Man 2 — was the first blow. The fall terminated in a ridiculous editorially mandated reboot called One More Day (and followed by the equally wrongheaded Brand New Day), an ugly stain on the comic book mythos that has yet to be erased.

All this, combined with the less-than-enormous response to the two Amazing Spider-Man movies (which also weren’t so bad), and, well… something’s been missing.

Until now.

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Captain America: Civil War has a lot to recommend it. Ever since Marvel Studios first launched, this is probably the best movie they’ve ever done; it’s not quite the genre-defining blast that Marvel’s The Avengers was, but it is definitely a game changer. The conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is real, visceral, and painful to watch, in a movie that isn’t afraid to dramatically alter the status quo of Marvel’s cinematic landscape. And amazingly enough, Spider-Man is one of the best parts.

Why? Because they actually got Spider-Man right. He’s only in two scenes, but he’s the shining moment of both of them. And boy, is it wonderful to see the real Spidey again.

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The comic book Spidey hasn’t really felt like himself since Brand New Day, and though I wasn’t a fan of the deterministic totem elements of the JMS run, JMS’s take on Peter’s non-superhero life was something to be applauded: I’ll take JMS’s high school science teacher version of Peter over the corporate “Parker Industries” Peter any day. What makes Spidey great is his social and economic normalcy, how real his life is, how he’s an everyday awkward human being that can get evicted, lose his job, or be late on bills, instead of a larger-than-life superhero. While I liked the two Amazing Spider-Man movies far more than I expected, they also focused too much on determinism instead of chance: too much focus  was put on genius scientist parents, and this focus undermined the fact that Peter’s role as Spider-Man is accidental, luck (or bad luck) of the draw.

The Spidey that we meet in Civil War is still young, only six months into his superhero career. But from the moment that Tom Holland, our new Spider-Man, first appears on the screen — walking through a lower income apartment complex with an old DVD player in hand — we know that we’re in for something special.

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I think it’s too early to call Tom the best Spider-Man, since he’s only had a few scenes to show what he can do. For now, Tobey Maguire’s amazing performance in Spider-Man 2 is still the pinnacle, and Andrew Garfield did a good job as well.  But in the few scenes Tom has, he nails it. He becomes Peter Parker in the flesh, and I think it’s very likely that by the time he gets center stage in his own film, he might very easily become the best Spider-Man we’ve ever seen. His portrayal combines the joyous sense of humor, the enthusiasm, the human quality, and the heart. He takes the best aspects from both prior Peter Parker actors and melds them into his own interpretation.

“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t… and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” – Peter Parker, to Tony Stark

The scene where Peter meets Tony Stark is a masterwork in how to establish a three dimensional character in only a few minutes of screen time. Within one scene, we find out that Peter Parker is a poor kid in Queens, a dumpster diver. He’s quick-witted, smart, and funny, but definitely a dork. But most important is the quote above, the young Peter’s shy callback to his Uncle Ben’s famous mantra. This Peter is an awkward, clever kid with a big heart, who just wants to do the right thing.

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When Captain America tells Peter “You got heart, kid”, he nails exactly what the movie itself gets right about Spider-Man. Spidey is a character whose mythology is all about heart. Spider-Man isn’t about darkness, shadows, secret agents, or epic conflicts. Tragedies are important to his narrative, but only as important as they are to our own narratives in real life. Just as us regular people lose our loved ones, just as we feel guilty over every loss, so does Peter. When Stan Lee had Peter age, go to the college, get a job, and get married, it worked — because Peter is a normal person, in a way that other superheroes are not, and the balance between his normal life and his superheroic exploits should never be undone for the sake of a shocking twist.

The struggle for balance between Peter and Spider-Man’s lives, separate and yet unified, is exactly what made Spider-Man 2 so terrific. That’s the movie that the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming should look to for inspiration.

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What makes Spider-Man such an iconic figure is his normalcy. He’s a regular person trying to do the right thing. A nerdy kid from Queens, with a big heart, a big brain, a mouth that tends to run in circles when he gets nervous.

In Civil War, Marvel Studios shows us a glimmer of what makes Spider-Man great. As long as they don’t lose sight of that uniqueness, as long as they remember who the character is, then Spider-Man: Homecoming should be something truly special.

 

Favorite 12 Posts of 2015

It’s crazy to realize that I’ve been writing blogs for Writings, Readings, and Coffee Addictions for a few years now, and to look back on how much has changed in that time. Every year is a new adventure, a new saga of highs and lows, and 2015 was the biggest year yet.

Last year saw not only the release of Pale Highway, my proudest achievement to date, but also publications on Vox, Alzheimers.net, SFFWorld, and more. This blog gained more followers in the second half of 2015 than it did in all of the preceding years combined. Of course, I also wrote quite a few blog posts, and in order to look back on the last year, I’d like to look back on the ones that meant the most to me.

I originally meant to make this a top ten list, but why limit oneself to artificial rules? After straining to narrow them down, I decided to settle on twelve instead.

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12. Why Superheroes Matter

To start with, a disclaimer: the only reason that this doesn’t rank higher is that I actually wrote it toward the end of 2014, not 2015 as I originally thought. Still, I wanted to give it an honorable mention.

Why? Because this is one of the most personal blogs I’ve ever written. It’s not just an analysis of why superheroes have become such a huge part of popular culture, but also a personal tale of the impact that characters like Spider-Man had on my childhood, and how they helped me to become who I am today.

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Nicholas Conley – Morocco – Sahara

11. Morocco

Travelogues are challenging to write, because it’s such a struggle to isolate the moments that most define these experiences, to pinpoint what one takes away from a new culture. Going to Morocco last winter, experiencing the Sahara Desert on camelback, was a mind blowing experience that I won’t ever forget.

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10. Echoes of Leaving

The single most defining moment of my post-high school young adulthood was when I first hit the road, exploring the country on my own terms, going from state to state on a daily basis. Echoes of Leaving, a blog post named after one of my first flash fiction publications, is a nostalgic look back at a time that truly defined so much of the rest of my life.

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9. Pharmaceutical Nightmare

Now, onto a blog that tackled a recent news story. The one good thing about recent Turing Pharmaceuticals controversy was that it raised awareness about a very real problem facing the United States, where drug companies can exploit the sick to reap huge profits. It’s something that we need to keep talking about until real change happens.

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8. Five Things More Important than the Color of a Starbucks Coffee Cup

Seriously. Stemming from what was undoubtedly the most ridiculous “controversy” of the last year, the best thing we can learn from the #StarbucksRedCup nonsense is that arguing for the sake of arguing does nothing to improve society, and that we have real concerns that we should work to find common ground on.

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7. Cover Reveal: Pale Highway

After years of hints and suggestions, this was the moment where I finally got to spill the beans and show Pale Highway to the world for the first time. It was all new then, and I remember how my heart was pounding as I finally posted the cover image. It’s insane looking back, realizing how long ago this already feels!

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6. Thank You, Lane

It’s amazing how much the simple kindness of a stranger can impact a person. Though I might never see Lane again, I can’t thank him enough for helping me out of a tough spot.

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5. Hogewey: A Better Kind of Nursing Home

Working in Alzheimer’s care, one of the greatest tragedies that I’ve seen is the system itself, and how it doesn’t give proper attention to the individual. As I mentioned during my radio interview last week, Hogewey is a “dementia village” in the Netherlands, and it represents a potential beacon of hope for the future. Let’s hope that someday, there will be many more Hogeweys all over the world.

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Nicholas Conley – Pale Highway

 

4. The Proof Has Arrived

Wow. Wow. That moment where Pale Highway came in the mailbox for the first time, that first experience holding it… there are few forms of happiness that are as deeply personal as seeing one’s dream realized in physical form, holding it, knowing that all of the work paid off.

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Alzheimer’s – Vox – Nicholas Conley

3. I’m on Vox!

Okay, so this is really more of a tribute to the Vox essay than it is to my blog post that links to it. But the reason I’m listing it here is that this was really the first time I ever publicly wrote about my experience with Alzheimer’s patients, and the outpouring of responses I received was truly transformative, as I got my first true look at how so many, many people connect to this issue. This is one of the pieces I’m most proud of in my writing career so far, and I hope that I’ve done my small part to raise awareness about the reality of Alzheimer’s disease.

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2. Top Five Coffee Moments  

Okay, so I have to admit, while this post was fun to write, the real reason that it’s here is because of you. And by that, I mean everyone who replied to the prompt. While it was enjoyable to think back on my top five Coffee Moments , it was an absolute blast reading all of the Coffee Moments that you guys came up with.

Cheers, all!

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Pale Highway – Nicholas Conley

 

1. Release Day: Pale Highway

Of course, you knew this had to be number one. Out of everything that occurred over the course of 2015, this was the achievement I was most proud of. I’ll just finish this off with a quote from the blog itself, as the Nicholas of that day can explain the feeling better than I can:

What I’m feeling right now is so surreal that I can’t quite put my finger on the right word to describe it. I wrote Pale Highway because I believe that people with Alzheimer’s—people who suffer from a neurodegenerative disease that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed down—deserve recognition. It’s crazy to look back on that first day I began typing this story, or the first day that I set foot in a nursing home and met the many residents who lived there, amazing human beings would have such an unexpected impact on my life. Pale Highway is a book inspired by my connection with these courageous people, conceived during my experiences in healthcare, and finally born here, now, today, in the form of this book that I’ve spent the last few years pouring my heart into. And so now, here it is, and I hope you all enjoy the read.
Admittedly, now that we’re in April, 2016 isn’t quite a “new year” anymore. But still, happy new year to all of you, and I hope to continue seeing all of your icons and text for years to come!

 

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New Pale Highway Updates

Good morning everyone!

So for all you radio listeners out here, I’ll be speaking on the February 23rd show of Portsmouth’s True Tales Radio, brought to the New Hampshire seacoast by Portsmouth Community Radio WSCA-LP 106.1 FM.

Six storytellers, including myself, will tell their real life stories related to Februrary’s theme of “Frontiers.” On February 23rd, I’ll be speaking sometime between 6 and 8pm, ET. For those of you who aren’t in New Hampshire, no worries! You can also listen online through Portsmouth Community Radio’s official website.

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Some great new reviews of Pale Highway have popped up in the last few weeks, and I don’t want to miss the chance to share them with all of you here. First of all, we have this wonderful review by Thomas S. Flowers, who begins by embracing the glorious ways of the coffee bean:

Before I dive into this review, I had to brew myself a fresh cup of joe, to put myself in tune, hopefully, with the ways of Nicholas Conley. The ground bean vapors, I pray, will act as my spiritual guide in writing this review.

…and then delves deeply into the book’s subject matter.

In fact, the “plague” acted as nothing more than to keep the momentum of the story, to keep motivations rolling towards its ultimate conclusion. The real story is in the tired, tragic life of one Gabriel Schist. In that story, we find so much more than the arc of one man’s life, we also find perhaps a “highway,” if you will, pointing us toward deeper, more meaningful questions, not about what we’ll wear this weekend on a date, but rather, questions of what we’re doing with our lives, how we’re treating those we love and strangers alike, who we are spending time with. In the immortal words of Henry David Thoreau, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

As if that wasn’t enough to have me smiling for weeks, Catherine Rose Putsche had this to say:

It is not often that my own words escape me as I try to recount the beauty, the true understanding of such a devoted man who struggles to hold off his own real-life manifestations to save everyone around him. Conley, has created a memorable, life-like and loveable protagonist who will stay with me for a long time and I have no doubt that this story will have an impact and raise awareness to each and every reader out there who has lost, or is losing someone in their lives’ to this despicable disease, as I and so many others have.

Finally, we’ll stop here with a review from Ms.Nose in a Book:

I absolutely loved it and enjoyed it and look forward to reading more from this author as I really loved his writing. I give this book five out of five stars. If you are a fan of Science Fiction or this book sounds interesting to you, definitely check it out. I know you won’t be disappointed!

I really can’t even begin to emphasize how amazing it is to see how deeply people have connected with this book, to know that something I spent years picturing in my head, working on, and agonizing over has finally found its roots in the world, and is growing.

Hope you’re all having a great weekend, and drinking lots of coffee.

P.S., though I didn’t think that any video footage had been taken from my Dover Library visit, it appears that at least one clip came out of it, which is a nice surprise: