Excelsior, Stan Lee

When I was as a kid, happily watching X-Men: The Animated Series with Spider-Man pajamas on, Stan Lee often seemed like he was just another superhero. He was the grinning, sarcastic, grandfatherly figure behind all the magic, holding his hand out and inviting you to join the fun. For me, as someone whose maternal grandparents were New York Jews, there was always something familial about Lee’s presence in my favorite superhero stories; the New York accent, the creativity, the combination between heartfelt sentiment and witty humor.

young stan lee marvel comics.jpgSuperheroes always save the day, and so, as a little kid, it seemed hard to imagine a world without Stan Lee. But I remember one day, when my elementary school self watched an interview with Lee, and I  suddenly realized he was getting older—which caused the second, scarier realization that at some point, he’d die. At such a young age, this thought saddened me deeply. If Stan Lee died, would all of the superheroes still be around? Would the magic die?

Now, that day has come, and in certain respects, it’s important to realize than while the world has lost Stan Lee, Lee himself finally has the chance to rest. In his final years, he faced many struggles, from the loss of his wife to his ailing health to the much-documented elder abuse saga, all of which was heart-wrenching to watch. Still, the loss of Stan Lee hits almost every superhero fan heavily. If there’s one thing that’s deeply heartening to see, it’s the wave of love and affection for him visible today, exploding across social media: a love that he fostered for decades and decades, whether he was creating superheroes, writing for “Stan’s Soapbox,” or making gleeful cameo appearances in every Marvel movie.

stan soapbox racism bigotry marvel

Stan Lee wasn’t the only creative force behind Marvel Comics, of course—you can’t ever forget to mention Kirby, Ditko, and Romita, to name just a few—but there’s no question, to me, that Lee was the guiding agent, the force of nature that turned Marvel into the phenomenon it is today. He was a man who poured all of his love, energy, and enthusiasm into an art form once perceived as silly and childish, and successfully transformed it into the biggest force in pop culture today. When measuring the impact of characters like Spider-Man and movies like Black Panther,  it’s easy to see that, in the end, Lee became one of the single most influential creative voices of the 20th and 21st century, though he probably didn’t realize it at the time. By creating so many colorful figures who fought to make the world a better place, he inspired countless weird, awkward children to see these heroic characters in themselves, and to try to do the same thing. Everyone identifies with at least one superhero, and it was truly Stan Lee’s focus on these characters which made that possible.

Though I never met Stan Lee in person—I once saw him from a distance, which was amazing enough—I can’t shake the feeling that I’ll miss him, as if a distant family member died. Of course, I’m hardly alone in that sentiment. I’d imagine that millions of people across the world today, millions of adults who grew up on superheroes and kids who love superheroes today, are mourning Lee’s death, and remembering his legacy.

The news of Stan Lee’s death hits just as hard and heavy as everyone thought it would. However, the magic that he put out into the world isn’t dead, and never will be. All the concepts that Stan helped create, from worlds to world-eaters to multiverses to geeky teenagers with spider-powers, live on, and countless more kids will be drawn into the Marvel Universe for years to come.

Thanks for everything, Stan. Rest in peace, and excelsior.

stan lee with spider-man marvel creator

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.

Hilarious Spider-Man Ripoff Games in the Google Play Store

Okay, so one day I was on a long ride, and had some time to kill. I’ve always enjoyed Solitaire, though I haven’t played it for a few years. However, since my tablet was fully charged, I figured that it was a good opportunity to download a Solitaire app, and get back into the game. And hey, I figured, why not do Spider Solitaire while I’m at it?

So anyway, I go into the Google Play Store, and as I start typing “Spider,” it pulls up a search for “Spider-Man games.”

Now, I have to admit, I’m not a gamer. Don’t get me wrong, I shot up my fair share of demons back in the Doom days, but the world has changed a lot since then. However, as longtime readers know, I’m pretty passionate about superheroes, and Spider-Man in particular. Seeing the term “Spider-Man games” got me immensely curious about how such an acrobatic character could be adapted to a game playable by cell phones and tablets. Was it even possible?

I had to know. So I accepted the search for “Spider-Man Games,” but I could have never prepared for the array of hilariously dubious parodies that soon presented themselves to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I get it: programmers want to make their own Spidey game, and can’t afford the official license, so they skate as close to the edge as they can without tipping over it. Nonetheless, the results are pretty amusing. Coming up ahead, here are the best ones I saw.

 

Spider Adventure

Spider Adventure Doc Ock Spider-Man ripoff knockoff

Hey, it’s Spidey vs. Doctor Octopus, just like Spider-Man 2!

Oh, wait. No, it’s not. It’s just a spider-themed vigilante in a Spider Adventure, facing off against a bad guy with metal arms. What a weird coincidence, huh? Though I don’t know if that’s actually a spider on the hero’s chest, a biohazard symbol, or some weird combination of the two. Maybe it’s an abstract representation of a nuclear-powered spider. Who knows.

Anyway, according to its description, Spider Hero is an open world adventure that gives the player the opportunity to become a “guardian of the universe” (note, not the galaxy) by stopping a corporation from creating an army of mutants. Hey, sounds good. The game gets really good reviews, so if you’re curious, you can download it here on the Play Store. 

Stickman Rope Hero

Stickman Rope Hero

Okay, Spider Adventure was one thing, but now it’s starting to get silly. This game lets you pilot around a hero who looks a lot like Spider-Man — but he isn’t Spider-Man, he’s the Stickman Rope Hero. And those aren’t webs he’s swinging around on, oh no, those are ropes. Can’t you tell?

Just to make sure that you never confuse this badass dude with that punk Peter Parker kid, the Stick Man Rope Hero takes on his enemies with some heavy duty military weapons, including machine guns, bazookas, and tanks. So he’s more like the Punisher… except, uh, he swings around on “ropes.” This game also gets really good reviews, so give it a look here. 

Strange Hero

Strange Hero Spider-Man

Huh, it’s weird how much this “Strange Hero” looks like another spider-themed vigilante. It’s also weird how this screenshot shows him doing exactly the same pose as the opening scene of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but y’know what, when a hero’s gotta jump into action, there are only so many ways he can do it.

However, while Spider-Man generally takes on crooks and burglars, the plot of this Strange Hero game has you stopping a whole alien invasion. So hey, that’s cool. Take that, Avengers!

Here is the game’s page, if you want to check it out.

Amazing Spider City Survival

Amazing Spider City Survival Spider-Man yellow

I know that you think that the superhero in the image above is Spider-Man, but it’s not. You know how you can tell? Because Spider-Man wears red and blue, whereas this guy — the “Amazing Spider Superhero” —  wears yellow and purple. See? On top of that, I’ve never seen Spider-Man fly through the air carrying lifelike clothing mannequins from the mall… oh wait, is that supposed to be a live civilian? Hmm. Maybe this is some kinda weird planking competition.

Well, whatever this guy is doing with that planking champion, the game’s description seems like a quest that the real Peter Parker would probably approve of, since it involves saving the city from gangsters, or something along those lines. Give it a look here.

Snake Slither and Block

Snake Slither and Block Spider-Man Pac-Man game

Okay, now this game here has officially gone too far for me to handle. Looking at the image above, I don’t whether to laugh, cry, or scream in terror. The more I stare at it, the more I can’t figure out whether I’m looking at Spider-Man, or the classic old “snake” game, or Pac-Man, or Tetris, or some bizarre mutant combination of all those things at once. It’s just too much!

And with that said, I’m officially Spidered out. Time to take a deep breath, and watch Spider-Man: Homecoming again.

What about you guys? Have you all encountered similarly hilarious ripoff games before—whether Spidey-related or otherwise—and what were they like?

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

civl

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.

Spider-Man-3-1200x632

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.

spid_killer

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.

spidey2swing

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.

spidey2choice

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.

sunset

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.

arkham

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.

pale_books

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.

pale_proof

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.

Alzheimer's - Vox - Nicholas Conley

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.

Coffee

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!

Beach_GabrielSchist

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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Who will be the next Spider-Man villain?

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All right, so now that we know a new Spider-Man movie is coming out, who’s going to be the bad guy?

Some backstory: just two weeks ago, the internet cracked in half with the recent (and rather explosive) announcement that Spider-Man is going to be entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The idea that Sony would ever make a deal with Marvel seemed like a fairytale, but now the pieces have been set and Marvel’s Spider-Man is set to come out in just a few years.

For anyone unclear on what this means, it comes down to this: Spider-Man is now going to enter the same world as the now-iconic Avengers characters, meaning we’re going to see him interact with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evan’s Captain America, and so on.  With that in mind, it seems like a sure bet that he’ll probably be joining the team by the time Avengers: Infinity War rolls around.

However, that’s all some ways off. For now, we’ll concentrate on Spidey’s first MCU solo outing, and try to make a guess at who the villain will be. Let’s survey our options:

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1: A prior villain

So, let’s see. Out of our bank of previously-used villains, we have multiple Green Goblins, Doctor Octopus, Venom, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro and the Rhino. These are some of Spider-Man’s most well known, most interesting enemies, but…

They’ve all been on screen before – and we’ve seen Goblins up there three times already. Since Marvel is rebooting Spider-Man a third time, it seems unlikely that they’d use a villain that the audience is so familiar with, and thus draw more comparisons to the prior two continuities. I could be wrong, but I predict that we’ll be seeing something new this time around.

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2: The Vulture

Why the Vulture? Well, primarily because the Vulture has come so close to getting into a Spidey movie, so many times, that he seems like one of the more obvious choices. Sam Raimi wanted the Vulture in Spider-Man 3, then wanted him in Spider-Man 4 and his flight harness was teased in Amazing Spider-Man 2.

In the comics, the Vulture was Spider-Man’s first supervillain, and he’s continued to menace the wall crawler ever since. Though often underrated and/or misused, I think that the Vulture would be best approached by emulating J.M. DeMatties Funeral Arrangements storyline, wherein the character is diagnosed with terminal cancer and sets out on a suicide mission to take down everyone who he blames for turning him into the embittered, caustic criminal that he is today.

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3. Scorpion

For my money, I’d bet that this guy is near the top of their list, if not at the top.

Mac Gargan was the original anti-Spider-Man, created entirely for the purpose of killing the webhead, and there’s a lot of room to play around with his origin while not losing the key elements: Margan is a down-on-his-luck private investigator, he’s transformed into the anti-Spidey, and then he flips out.

Once the basic parameters are set, there’s a lot of potential to flesh out Gargan’s backstory. Though Scorpion has often been the victim of poor writing and lazy character development, the character himself has enormous potential to be one of the MCU’s most memorable villains.  Scorpion would also present an opportunity to show the public’s uncertainty regarding Spider-Man, if they stick with the general idea that Scorpion’s creation is bankrolled by a public figure (it doesn’t necessarily have to be J.J., I don’t think).

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3. Mysterio

This character has already been rumored, which isn’t too surprising; he’s unique, visually distinctive, and he’s one of the Stan Lee classics. Mysterio, as the so-called master of illusions, offers a lot of special effects opportunities that would make for a very different – and unpredictable – Spider-Man film.

On film, Mysterio could be played similarly to a sort of less-horrific Freddy Krueger, constantly warping reality in bizarre and unsettling ways.

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4. Morlun

Though Morlun is one of the more recent Spider-Man villains to hit the scene, having first appeared in 2001, he’s also one of the most cinematic.

A sort of immortal, vampiric supernatural force, Morlun is driven to feed off of the powerful energies produced by so-called totems – beings that have bridged the gap between man and beast, such as our poor part-arachnid protagonist. Though Spider-Man and Morlun have only fought a few times, each encounter has left massive devastation in its wake.

In a Spider-Man movie, Morlun would present a threat unlike any that we’ve yet seen: an unstoppable, seemingly godly force that is driven to destroy Spider-Man at all costs. It would give the filmmakers an opportunity to really demonstrate Spider-Man’s fierce strength of will, his endless perseverance against a force more powerful than he is, and his determination to do the right thing at all costs. Such a film could capture the same spark that made Roger Stern’s classic two-parter, Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut!, such a classic. Spidey is always at his best when he’s the underdog, part of why Spider-Man 2 is still the benchmark when it comes to Spider-Man movies.

It would probably be better to leave out the deterministic aspects of Morlun’s original storyline, and how it relates to Spidey’s origin; the spider bite that gives Peter his powers should remain an accident, not an act of destiny.  But what matters, really, is the idea of Morlun himself, and that Peter will have to put in everything he’s got if he wants to take Morlun down.

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5. Jackal

Great character, but it’s not going to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if we someday do see an adaptation of the infamous Clone Saga, in one form or another, but certainly not for Spider-Man’s reintroduction.

Sure, there’s a lot more to Miles Warren than the Clone Saga, but it’s his defining storyline. The second his name gets mentioned, it’s what people are going to expect.

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6. Carnage

Also unlikely. Carnage, AKA the symbiotic alter ego of serial killer Cletus Kasady, has always been a character that spins off of Venom, and it would be rather strange to do Carnage before the Venom symbiote has even appeared.

That said, Carnage is another character oozing with cinematic potential. Kasady’s chaotic, anarchic philosophies are diametrically opposed to Peter Parker’s utmost focus on responsibility.  And—similarly to Morlun—using Carnage as  villain would also present an opportunity to show Peter overcoming a force far more powerful than he is.

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6. Kingpin

Just a month ago, this would have been impossible, since Marvel has the rights to the Kingpin, and Sony has the rights to Spider-Man. Now, it’s a hot topic of conversation, especially since Kingpin is set to be introduced in the upcoming (and fantastic looking!) Daredevil Netflix series.

That said, while I wouldn’t be surprised if we do someday see Spidey and the Kingpin intersect, I wouldn’t count on it happening in this movie. Kingpin is more important to the Daredevil mythos than he is to Spider-Man, and I’d imagine that Marvel will want to keep all of his big character defining moments in the Netflix series…at least for a while.

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7. Kraven the Hunter

One of the all-time greats, largely due to J.M. DeMatteis’ dark storyline, Kraven’s Last Hunt, wherein the hunter buries Spider-Man alive and assumes his identity. If Kraven is chosen, then Last Hunt is the story to adapt. It’s the story that brought Kraven from the B-list to the A-list.  Though not especially visually engaging, Kraven could present a more cerebral sort of enemy, incredibly different from any that we’ve seen so far.

Other possibilities:

Hobgoblin? What, before the Green Goblin?  Nah.

Hydro-Man? Wouldn’t count on it.

But on the other hand, there are many more options out there. Tombstone, for one. Shocker. Chameleon. Shriek. Mendel Stromm. Carrion. Smythe and the Spider-Slayers. Cardiac. Black Cat. Spider-Man has so many villains that the possibilities really are endless. Maybe they could even bring in the so-called Legion of Losers, comprised of such terrifying foes as the Spot, Gibbon, Grizzly and the Kangaroo…

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Or maybe not.

In any case, the news is fresh and we still have a long way to go before any real news leaks. So in the meantime, we’ll just have to keep on theorizing.

Why Superheroes Matter

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In the 21st century, superheroes – those silly little spandex-clad characters that used to be a subject of ridicule and the content of moldy cardboard boxes – have moved beyond the ink stained pages that birthed them, and they have ascended to the pinnacle of popular media. Three of the ten highest grossing movies of all time are superhero movies. Any trip to a department store, mall or internet shop is filled with billions of products advertising brightly-colored characters with capes and masks. While Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have been a part of American culture for decades, the contemporary era has seen formerly B-list characters like Iron Man, Hellboy and Daredevil become household names.

Through film, TV, comics and video games, the superhero genre has transformed into more than just a form of escapism. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have used WWII-era characters to tell stories that deal directly with contemporary political fears, while superheroes like the X-Men are a rallying symbol against racial, sexual and geographic prejudice.

Popular culture has finally accepted comic books as a legitimate form of storytelling.  The superhero genre has become monumentally huge.

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But why, exactly? What is it about the idea of a “superhero” that appeals so much to people? What is it about this genre that’s taken the cinematic world by storm?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can describe my own experience.

Let’s flashback to the early nineties – and let me tell you, I was a quiet kid. I’m still introverted today, but the child version of Nicholas Conley was not only introverted, but deathly shy. Anxious around people, uncomfortable about himself, his identity, his body and his voice.

To put it bluntly, when I was young, I didn’t speak. I had a wonderful family, amazing parents and a comfortable lifestyle, but my social anxiety was utterly crippling. Communication, interaction with others, even family members, caused me to snap shut like a clam; I’d retreat into the back of my mind and hide. I was closed off from everyone, because I didn’t feel comfortable being myself.  I felt as if I was an alien that had come from a different species.  Whereas other kids were able to talk to each other, laugh and joke around, I felt completely closed off and unable to participate. Anytime I was forced into a big social situation, I went deadpan, flat, and I became the social equivalent of a brick.  People would look at me, smiling, talking, trying to hug me, and I just didn’t do anything. I couldn’t figure out how to do anything.

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Though I had a lot of love from my family and others, it all felt strange and foreign to me.  I felt terribly unable to present myself to others. I was scared to talk, but I also felt unable to talk.  Everything I said came out wrong and bland, an unfitting representation of myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked myself – the me on the inside – but I didn’t like the flat, shy, awkward me on the outside, and I couldn’t find a way to make these two totally different beings come together.

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So, I was silent.  I was reserved.  But I watched everything, with a deadly sort of intensity. I paid attention to every single clue, every expression, everything that entered into my sphere. I had a far easier time relating to adults than I did with children. I had a very analytic, encyclopedic type of brain that absorbed information like a computer, loved analyzing things (which might explains why my blog posts are so long…) and especially loved learning every single piece of information about anything I found interesting. It wasn’t enough to just know a few things—I had to know everything.

Every day was stressful and anxiety-inducing. I felt like more of an exposed wound than I did a person.  Having always been fairly empathic, other people’s emotions struck me as being startlingly intense and hard to handle; due to my intense social awkwardness I didn’t know how to respond to them.  I generally wanted to spend most of my time alone.

So, in any case, there was this one VHS tape, featuring a bizarre red and blue character named Spider-Man.

Art by Kaare Andrews.

Art by Kaare Andrews.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Three, four, somewhere in that range. But I remember this one videotape more vividly than I remember almost anything else.  It was an episode of the lesser-known—but underrated!—Spider-Man cartoon from 1981, titled Doctor Doom: Master of the World.

The episode has a rather simple plot, really. The villain, Doctor Doom, places a mind control device onto the President of the United States, and uses similar devices on every other world leader.  With every nation on Earth under his control, he has himself elected as the so-called “Master of the World.” However, before his vicious plans can truly get underway, he’s foiled by Spider-Man; that strange, wiry, red-and-blue suited character with the webs and the big white eyes. Spidey outsmarts Doom, turns his robot army against him and saves the day, cracking jokes the whole time.

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It’s strange how something as small as a VHS tape from an eighties cartoon can have such a huge impact on a child, an impact that effects the entirety of a person’s life. But it did. It absolutely did, in a way that still amazes me when I look back.

We had a few more VHS tapes from the same series. These episodes featured other villains; the Lizard, the Green Goblin, the Kingpin. All of them were deadly, but in the end, Spider-Man always won through a combination of intelligence, skill and a bit of luck. Watching these cartoons at that young, impressionable age, I found them completely mesmerizing.  I began gobbling up tapes from other cartoons of that era, such as The Incredible Hulk and Pryde of the X-Men. 

And that’s when it all exploded.  Soon, the slew of now-classic 90s cartoons took off—Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Tick, et cetera—and pretty soon, I became an expert on just about every Marvel and DC superhero that existed. From that point on, I was absolutely obsessed with superheroes, to the point where they occupied my every waking thought. I’d spend long hours reading the comic books, watching the cartoons and playing make-believe games with my younger brother.

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But as much as I fell in love with every superhero I learned about, none of them quite eclipsed my adoration for the character who introduced me to all of them in the first place.

Looking back, I fully understand. As much as I loved (and still love) every superhero, there was just something about Spider-Man that spoke to me on a level that other superheroes didn’t. Something that, even today, I still connect to in exactly the same way. There’s something both perfect and perfectly flawed about the character.  On one hand, he’s edgy and tormented; his motif, powers and costume—and particularity those big white bug-eyes—have a certain bizarre creepiness to them that can’t be denied, and Peter Parker’s back story is terribly tragic.

But at the same time, there’s a fascinating duality to the character. Instead of simply being dark and gritty, there’s also something loveable—and almost cuddly, in a way—about Spider-Man. The playful sense of humor, his messed up personal life, the inherent optimism that the character maintains despite his painful lot in life…

It wasn’t just that he was likeable to me as a kid, he was inspirational.

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Of course, as a young boy, I loved superheroes because they were inspirational. Here I was, this scrawny and self-conscious little kid, and these guys were what I wanted to be.  Strong, powerful, confident, able to do great things.

But what separated Spider-Man, I suppose, is that he was actually like me. Peter Parker was a weirdo, like I was. When trapped in his “real” identity as Peter Parker, he was a nerdy, shy, socially awkward, self-conscious misfit—but then, in one fell swoop, he could put on that wonderful, face-covering, Steve Ditko-designed mask and become the person he truly was on the inside: Spider-Man, the cocky, brave, wisecracking hero who always saved the day. Unlike most other heroes, Spidey could mess up sometimes. He got sick, didn’t always get the girl, wasn’t always celebrated by the general public, but he was free.

Art by John Romita Jr.

Art by John Romita Jr.

In the same way that I felt trapped within my own shy and fragile identity, Peter Parker was also trapped. But unlike me, Peter had an outlet. By becoming Spider-Man, he could cast aside his skin – the flawed and inaccurate perception that others had of him – and then, with the aid of that red mask, he could publicly reveal himself to the world.

Understanding the character better as an adult, I now see that as one of the fundamental keys to Peter Parker’s character development. Unlike most other superheroes, who assume a fictitious costumed identity in order to fight crime, Peter Parker did the reverse. By assuming that identity, by becoming another person, Peter actually sheds his worries, doubt and self-consciousness.  By becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker becomes himself.  And by seeing Spider-Man’s example, the younger me was inspired to realize that hey, maybe I can be myself, too.

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Instead of hiding behind my “mask” of indifference, I could bring myself out into the open and be who I was. I could be comfortable in myself, and be proud of myself.

On top of that, the example that superheroes gave me as a child – these selfless, heroic figures who sacrificed their lives for the good of others – has never ceased to inspire me. In my life, I’ve always been passionate about helping others in any way that I can. Giving blood, working at jobs that support the less fortunate, showing understanding to people when they need it the most, these are the things I care about the most deeply.

And today, as an adult, I’m no longer shy. I’m certainly introverted, which isn’t a bad thing, but there’s barely a trace of shyness or self-consciousness left in me. I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin.

Now, it’d be silly to give all the credit for my life to a fictional character. As I said before, I was lucky enough to be born into an amazingly strong, close-knit family. But superheroes were certainly one of my biggest influences when I grew up, and it’d be a lie not to credit them with helping establish the idealism and moral code that is so fundamental to my life today.

And I suspect that, in this regard, I’m not unique.  I was born into a generation that grew up with superheroes, and the kids that read comic books, fantasy, horror and science fiction novels are now at the forefront of the entertainment industry.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

See, this is the reason that superheroes are so huge these days. This is why they matter.

On one hand, they are the contemporary equivalents of ancient mythological gods.  Superheroes are larger than life figures, more powerful than we are, able to achieve the great things that we can’t. But on the other hand, since Stan Lee and his league of Marvel artists revolutionized the genre in the 1960s, superheroes are also flawed human beings, real people who must overcome their problems so that the world can remain safe from alien invasions, criminal masterminds and extradimensional demons.

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Every major superhero holds a unique appeal. Sure, Spider-Man is the quiet, self-conscious outsider who opens up and dedicates himself to helping others. But Batman is the intense, focused intellectual with near-superhuman devotion toward a single goal. Iron Man is the inventor, the clever scientist, the mechanic who loves creating new things, taking them apart and seeing how they fit back together. Bruce Banner is the pent-up, repressed victim of a painful childhood who finally releases himself in a torrential green wave of emotion. The X-Men are the repressed minorities of the world, the victims of prejudice and unfair judgment, people who instead of lashing out, fight for peaceful coexistence with the same ones who judge them so harshly. Daredevil is the victim of a disability, who instead of allowing that disability to rule his life, instead learns to accept it and uses it to make himself a better person. Idealistic heroes like Superman and Captain America are the good, pure,  salt-of-the-earth people, the backbone of society, the people who instead of allowing the immoralities of the world to knock them out and pervert them, strive to make it better.

Batman Begins

Superheroes have taken ahold of society because they hold a truly universal appeal. They appeal to the children they inspire, or the child inside us that thrills at their colorful adventures and hijinks.  They appeal to adults, as their stories become a vehicle for the discussion of important social issues, problems and moral debates. Like the best escapism, the best superhero stories don’t just take us away from our problems. They also bring us back, make us think, and inspire us to lead better lives.

Modern myths? Living legends? Inspirations of both children and adults? Great, edgy stories? Yes, all that and more.

For those who prefer white backgrounds, this post also appears on Medium.com. Enjoy!  

Truth, Journalism and an Alien Symbiote with Sharp Teeth

“The great part of my job is that I get to be an ‘administrator of truth.’ Crime occurs every thirteen seconds in this city. You know how we have these statistics? Because guys like me are out on the streets, collecting these stories. We put the caution in cautionary tale, y’know? And being aware the crime out there, the people of this city can live their lives accordingly. In fact, I’m the one doing this city a public service. We’re the heroes out there….”

-Eddie Brock

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Though Spider-Man has always had one of the most imaginative rogues galleries in comics, there’s no Spidey villain with quite the same fan following as Venom.  Though Venom’s character has, over the years, been abused, written incorrectly and reworked countless times, there’s something perfect about the original conception.  Venom, more than Doc Ock, the goblins, Vulture or even the Scorpion, is truly the ultimate anti-Spidey.  Doc Ock might be the one who parallels an older Peter Parker and sure, Green Goblin is the one who twists Spider-Man’s head around, but Venom is the alien menace that really makes Peter Parker shiver at night – the perfect portrait of an egotistical, greedy, immoral man accidentally given great power.  A man who, in direct opposition to Peter’s obsessive doctrines about responsibility, uses that power only to hurt others and achieve his own ends.

Truth in Journalism – a short fan film produced by Adi Shankar, directed by Joe Lynch and available HERE – is an intriguing look at the character, a tribute that brings Venom back to his roots.

The film introduces us to Eddie Brock, scandalous news reporter, as he guides a Belgian film crew through New York City.  As Eddie’s layers are slowly peeled back – as he starts progressively acting weirder and weirder, from talking to himself in the bathroom to stringing muggers up on balconies – the crew comes to find that the person they’re dealing with might be a far more disturbed individual than he initially appears.

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The first thing that makes Truth in Journalism stand out is its commendably unique style.  It’s a professionally made film with a clear aim in mind; instead of simply imitating the comic, it creates its own dark, horrifyingly realistic sandbox and then plays around in it.   The grainy, black and white footage is gritty, uncomfortable, flawed.  The characters seem like real people instead of actors, and thus their actions—played in a brilliantly subtle manner, instead of being over the top—are utterly disturbing, instead of being thrilling.  While the clear inspiration is the 1992 French film Man Bites Dog, there’s also a touch of Pi in here, a bit of Eraserhead.

The other thing that makes this little adventure really click, though, is Ryan Kwanten’s performance as Eddie Brock.  I don’t know Ryan from anything else (I’m not a True Blood viewer), but based on this short film, I’d be inclined to sign him up for any big budget version of Venom in a heartbeat.  Kwanton totally encapsulates the twisted yet weirdly sympathetic character that David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane created.  The character that later stories and writers all too often forget about,  as they attempt to twist Eddie into being something he’s not.

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This is the real Eddie Brock.  He’s not a noble antihero, not a slobbering brain-eating beast, and certainly not a raving lunatic.  Eddie Brock is a liar, a hypocrite who portrays himself as an idealist – I.E., “administrator of truth” – but in reality, is all too willing to sell out and betray those ideals the second that they get in the way of his goals.  He constantly justifies his immoral actions with poor excuses, desperately tries to prove his importance, and refuses to accept responsibility.  Eddie Brock is, at his core, a power hungry loser who really, really, really wants to be winner.  His psyche is too fragile to accept his own failures – so instead, he blames Spider-Man.  It’s Spider-Man’s fault for turning in the real Sin-Eater, Spider-Man’s fault that his reputation is in shambles, Spider-Man’s fault that his career and life are ruined.

No, this line of reasoning isn’t remotely logical, but Eddie Brock is not a logical man.  He’s an emotional wreck, an impulsive opportunist with severe self-consciousness problems.  That’s why Venom, when used correctly, is such a creepy enemy for Spider-Man.  Whereas Peter Parker is all about responsibility, temperance and guilt, Eddie Brock is a small man who constantly justifies his actions as being for the “greater good,” but refuses to take responsibility when people get hurt.

The Eddie Brock in this short is totally believable.  He’s a real, tragically flawed human being, a person who’s brought down not by terrible catastrophes but instead by his own ego, ambition and arrogance.   The way that Kwanten plays Eddie is simply perfect; you can sense that Eddie is a likable guy, a talented guy with a lot of ambition, the kind of guy who is probably really fun to share a beer with…but at the same time, Kwanten deftly portrays the simmering rage and desperation beneath Eddie’s act; the more we find out about Eddie, the more we see how he’s simply a skilled performer with an obsessive need to prove himself.

He desperately needs to be somebody.  He needs friendship, he needs respect, he needs affirmation.  Notice how, throughout the short, Eddie slowly corrupts the entire film crew, even as he’s trying to prove his innocence to them.  He’s the kind of guy who, if you met him on the street, you’d probably like him – and you’d even sympathize with him – but who would, if it suited his ends, double cross you in a heartbeat and say it was your fault.

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In the the film’s dark denouncement, when Eddie finally gives up, gives in and releases his other side, we know that he’s not going to feel any guilt over his murderous actions.  He’s going to tell himself that he “had to do it.”  He’s going to justify that he had to kill those men “for the greater good.”  And then, most likely, he’s going to continue to repeat the same pattern he’s previously demonstrated to us.

I’ll admit, I actually really liked Spider-Man 3 – though it certainly doesn’t hold even a candle to the absolute masterpiece that is Spider-Man 2 – and I actually thought Topher Grace did a good job as Eddie Brock.  The problem wasn’t Eddie’s characterization; Eddie was suitable hypocritical, smarmy and egotistical, and the symbiote was as menacing as ever.  The problem was simply that a complicated character like Venom simply can’t be crammed into an already overstuffed movie like that.

What could’ve been the biggest bad guy of the franchise was stuffed into the last half hour of an overcrowded movie, and the result felt predictably rushed.  If Venom had been given time to breathe – say, in the potential Spider-Man 4 that never was – he could’ve been a cinematic villain on par with Doc Ock and the Goblins.  As it was, we only got a intriguing glimpse at the most popular Spider-Man villain of all time…and then poof, he was gone.

Truth in Journalism, though it has a short running time of only seventeen inutes, truly excels in all the areas where Spider-Man 3 missed the mark.  This is largely due to the fact that the people involved in this short film have a highly intuitive understanding of the character, and a fervent desire to flesh him out.  Instead of rushing Eddie along his path, the film takes time to develop him, make him likable – and at the same time, make him scary.  The Eddie Brock presented here is truly the comic book character brought to life.

But more importantly than that, Truth in Journalism is just a very cool little movie.  Unlike other fan films – which often function more as extended fake trailers for nonexistent movies than anything else – Truth in Journalism is a terrific piece in its own right.  It’s creepy, intriguing and wonderfully atmospheric.  Truly, an excellent achievement.

-Nicholas Conley

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Spider-Man 2: Because We Found the Rubber Band.

“Being brilliant’s not enough, young man. You have to work hard. Intelligence is not a privilege, it’s a gift, and you use it for the good of mankind.”

– Otto Octavius

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There’s this terrific scene in the 1978 classic, Superman: The Movie, where Christopher Reeve’s earnest performance really shines.  This scene depicts Clark Kent examining himself in the mirror, as he considers telling Lois Lane his big secret.  He takes his glasses off, changes his posture, deepens his voice – becomes Superman, essentially – and then goes right back to being Clark Kent.  In this one scene, Reeve’s excellent acting solves the age-old dilemma of why Lois can’t see past a silly pair of glasses; it’s because the goofy, dorky Clark Kent is such a different person, in every way, that one wouldn’t even stop to consider the idea that this guy could be Superman.  But this scene also points out another fact; the Clark Kent persona is an act.  The true Kal-El is the one who wears the red cape and takes off into the sky, abandoning his gauche mortal persona.

Peter Parker, better known as the amazing Spider-Man, doesn’t have the same luxury.   He’s awkward—really awkward.  Nerdy.  Highly intelligent, for sure – but very self-conscious.  He’s stuck with the imperfect, bittersweet life he was born into.  And most of all, he’s human.  He makes mistakes, he screws things up, and he tries to do the right thing, often at great personal expense.

And this is why Spider-Man 2, released all the way back in 2004 – before Twitter, before Facebook was big, before smartphones dominated the marketplace – still stands today as one of the all-time greatest depictions of this enduring character, cinematic or otherwise.   Spider-Man 2 is a film with far-reaching ambitions, as it attempts to be a heartfelt character drama, a heart-stopping blockbuster, and even a quirky, indie-style tragic comedy…and somehow, it succeeds at being all three.

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We all remember that back in 2004, Spider-Man 2 was an enormous success; what we often forget is what a truly weird film it is.  It’s remarkably offbeat.  Idiosyncratic.  It’s full of bizarre scenes such as the elevator scene, the Raindrops montage and the chocolate cake scene, bits that would normally never be allowed in a summer tent pole movie, but function marvelously here as the puzzle pieces of Peter Parker’s strange, melancholic world.  The movie is absolutely dripping with director Sam Raimi’s trademark style, from those nifty Evil Dead camera angles to spinning newspapers and ultra close-ups of screaming faces. But this very weirdness is the key to what makes Spider-Man 2 such a joy to watch, even all of these years later.

After all, Spider-Man has always been a highly unusual superhero.  Why should his movie be any less unusual?

Spider-Man 2, as it begins, reintroduces us to the world of Peter Parker; science whiz, college student, photographer, and, of course, high-flying vigilante.  In the year since his uncle died and Peter first put on the red and blue spandex, the stresses of real life have hit him like a bag of rocks.  He has to work multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills, he lives in a tiny, ratty apartment, he’s late to all of his classes, his friends are sick of his unreliability and his Aunt May is having her house taken away.  He can’t seem to catch a break.

Yet what makes Peter Parker such a wonderful character is the fact that throughout all of this, he doesn’t lose hope.  While it would be easy for Peter to become negative and cynical, he is an idealist through-and-through.  Despite the painful burdens he suffers from daily, he keeps his chin up.  He smiles easily.  While hardcore fans might quibble about how Peter’s famous sense of humor is put on the back burner in this film, it’s important to recognize that the character’s core values and personality traits – guilt, responsibility, anguish, vulnerability but also optimism and an absolutely remarkable inner strength – are displayed here in a real, startlingly human way that is utterly true to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s most famous creation.

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Tobey Maguire’s performance is truly the heart of the film.  Sam Raimi takes the risk of anchoring many important scenes with extended close-ups of Tobey’s face, as Peter reacts to the continually depressing situations around him; this risk pays off, precisely because Tobey is so capable of conveying a wealth of emotion in just a single expression.  Maguire is a very underrated actor, and it takes only one viewing of Spider-Man 2 to remember how talented he really is.

Just watch his face and body language throughout the scene where Peter watches the love of his life accepting a proposal from another man, in front of a crowd of thousands, and then, as the Daily Bugle’s photographer, he’s ordered to zoom in and take a photograph of her for the newspaper.  This comes only minutes after Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, has drunkenly renounced him, publicly slapping him in the face.  And finally, even when Peter is offered a free martini glass, like a band-aid for the wounds he’s just endured, the glass is empty.  Yes, to put it bluntly, Peter’s life sucks. 

Yet, who doesn’t relate to this?  We’ve all endured this sort of pain.  Peter’s condition is exaggerated only to make a point; Spider-Man 2 illustrates the idea that to be human is to suffer.  Suffering is what defines the human condition, and as a result, suffering is something we cannot escape from.

What other superhero would ever get stuck in that awkward elevator ride?  What other superhero would be stuck renting such a crappy apartment, with such a goofy landlord?  Then there’s the scene where Peter makes his big confession to his Aunt May, which is a masterstroke of acting for both Tobey and Rosemary Harris.  Peter braces himself, takes May’s hand, and he admits to her the truth about Uncle Ben; he admits to his wrongdoing, he admits to the terrible guilt that has plagued him since his teenage irresponsibility led to his uncle’s death by gunshot.  And then May lets go of his hand and walks away.  Her reaction is understandable, of course.  The feelings of both characters are relatable.  But that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch.

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What’s important to recognize, as well, is that despite Peter’s nerdy appearance, despite his awkward social demeanor, he is displayed here as being an incredibly strong-willed, admirable character, who is anything but weak.  He’s continually pummeled by the world, but instead of lashing out, like Doctor Octopus and Harry Osborn do, or giving in, he is resilient.   Returning to the scene where Harry publicly humiliates him, one can only imagine the self-torment that Peter endures here; not only the shame, but also the fact that he knows full well that he’s physically capable of crushing Harry’s hand.  Hey, Doc Ock would do it in a heartbeat!  But Peter doesn’t, because he’s a man of strong will, and a man who’s driven by his moral values.  He believes in doing the right thing.  He believes in weathering the many blows that life is delivering him, because he knows that he’s strong enough to take the hit.

But buried beneath the surface, Peter does have one thing that he can claim as his own.  He has one amazing escape from the world that no one can trample on or take away from him.  At a moment’s notice, he can become Spider-Man.   This transformation, as depicted in Spider-Man 2, is a thing of beauty.  We can’t help but be thrilled as our awkward hero sheds his foibles and becomes a stunning, graceful trapeze artist – flipping and swinging through the city, owning that city, protecting it from harm.

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The brilliance of this is that unlike other superheroes, we can truly empathize with Peter—we see ourselves in him–and that’s what makes the action scenes so compelling.  We identify with Peter’s problems, and so when his life is endangered as Spider-Man, we legitimately become afraid for his safety.  We’re very aware that he isn’t invulnerable.  He isn’t some worldly, ninja-trained badass like Christian Bale’s Batman, or a cocky billionaire like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.  No, he’s us, and like us, he’s capable of making bad decisions and messing up.  He’s capable of losing.  He’s capable of dying.

But this raises a question.

If suffering is the human condition, then what actions can we take?  Is it possible to alleviate this suffering?  Can we get ever rid of it?  Maybe if we forgot about other people and focused only on ourselves, we could find the happiness we deserve?

This is the question that Spider-Man 2 ponders.

As his problems continue to worsen, Peter eventually comes to the conclusion that there is only one source to blame for everything that’s wrong in his life – and that source is Spider-Man.  Maybe if he disposed of this secret identity, he could live a normal life.  Maybe he could have Mary Jane.  Maybe he could be happy, for the first time.  It makes sense, right?

What Peter doesn’t realize that there is no such thing as a happy, normal life.

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Art by John Romita, Sr.

Now, let’s examine the movie’s primary themes again.  As used here, the identity of “Spider-Man” is symbolic for many things.  Forget for a moment that Spider-Man is a costumed superhero, and instead think about what the existence of Peter’s web-slinging alter ego means in the context of this film.  Spider-Man symbolizes freedom, certainly…but more importantly, that red and blue costume also represents responsibility.   It represents adulthood.  Yes, adulthood.  The vicious child killer, the dream assassin, that great responsibility that hangs around our necks, haunts our lives and stands in the way of our passions.  Why shouldn’t we put our dreams ahead of our responsibilities?  Why should we care about how our actions affect others?

Peter wants to be happy.  He wants to be free from his burden.  So he forsakes the Spider-Man identity.  He sees the easiest fix for his dilemma, and he takes it.

This notion strikes very deep into the heart of Western culture, with its happiness-driven, consumerist ideals.  We hate pain – we do everything we can to avoid pain.  We’re constantly focused on the American dream of success.  We’re always seeking out the next big thing, hoping that this one will finally fill the hole in our lives.  We’re looking for the next product.  Seeking the next experience.  Desperately attempting the next get-rich-quick scheme.  Whatever our goal is, be it a new career, money, a wife, a car, we always are certain that if we get that one big thing, we will find the happiness we crave.

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This is why the inclusion of Spider-Man’s most megalomaniacal enemy, the brilliant Doctor Octopus, is perfect.  First appearing all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #3 in 1963, the comic book version of Doc Ock has always served as a dark mirror image to Peter; here, this parallel is shown in a new light.  Otto Octavius is introduced to us as a good man, albeit a bit arrogant.  But after his lifelong passion project, his renewable energy source, blows up in his face, almost taking half the city with it, Octavius refuses to learn from his mistake.  He doesn’t care that people could have been hurt, or even that his own wife was killed in the accident.  He just needed another minute; he could’ve stabilized the damn thing with another minute!  The accident leaves Octavius hospitalized, disturbed and angry.  Further corrupted by the influence of his artificially-intelligent mechanical arms — which are presented here as perhaps being not so much a separate intelligence as they are a physical manifestation of Octavius’ id, which is now overriding Octavius’ previously dominant ego – he immediately seeks to recreate his experiment, and goddamn the consequences.  His dream comes first, and if New York is destroyed, so be it.  Doctor Octopus demonstrates what Peter could become, if he were to forgo his responsibility and work only to achieve his own dreams at the expense of others.

Meanwhile, Peter becomes caught up in the elusive search for happiness and normalcy.  To achieve this goal, he gives up his alter ego.  He gives up on helping people, ignoring his responsibilities so he can instead focusing on helping himself.  And suddenly, the audience is given the famous “Raindrops” montage, which is one of the movie’s best moments, and the sort of scene you could only get with a wonderfully weird director like Sam Raimi.  In this scene, it is displayed time and again that even though getting rid of Spider-Man has solved several of Peter’s dilemmas, it hasn’t solved others.  His old problems have been replaced by new ones.  Even when Peter Parker, a brilliant science student, stops “wasting” his time swinging from rooftops, he still manages to goof up the simple process of changing a bicycle tire.  As Peter watches police cars race by – and bites into a hotdog, pretending not to be disturbed by his own lack of action – we see how Peter could, under the wrong conditions, have become a self-absorbed, morally-bankrupt Doctor Octopus instead of the selfless, morally-driven Spider-Man.

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Raindrops Keep Fallin’ from My Head, originally recorded by BJ Thomas and made famous in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is an ingenious inclusion.  The song’s happy-go-lucky lyrics also demonstrate the movie’s central themes quite well – and they demonstrate the lesson that, at this point in the movie, Peter Parker has not yet learned.

Which is what, exactly?

Once again, I repeat the movie’s central theme: to be human is to suffer.  Peter finds, of course, that getting rid of Spider-Man doesn’t solve his problems.  He will still suffer.  Suffering is unpreventable, inescapable.  So, does this mean a lifetime of gloominess for Peter—and for us, as the audience?  Will we never be happy?

Well…yes and no.

Art by John Romita Jr.

Art by John Romita Jr., the prior Romita’s son.  Clearly, radioactive spider blood runs in the family.

Happiness can’t be found through irresponsibility, or by running away from the person inside you.  What Peter learns over the course of Spider-Man 2 is that he can’t put his happiness over the lives of others, and he can’t find happiness by being someone else.

Happiness comes from acceptance.  When one realizes that suffering is inevitable—that we can’t avoid it, can’t get rid of it—when one learns that we can’t look to outside sources to find our happiness, we are instead forced to look inward.  By drawing on our internal strengths, we can harness our better traits and focus on the positives aspects of our lives instead of dwelling on the negative ones.  In Spider-Man 2, Peter stops fighting against his own morals.  He stops struggling with his identity.

He finally embraces his identity as Spider-Man, for perhaps the first time—free, untrammeled, flying through the skies—but he also comes to terms with the fact that even though he IS the amazing Spider-Man, he is also the troubled, socially-awkward Peter Parker.  They aren’t two separate people; both identities are merely different sides of the same man.  Without both sides, he is not a real human being.  And once he finally accepts himself, once he finally consolidates his identity and stops focusing on his problems, Peter is rewarded  with the one thing he’s wanted the most — the redheaded girl of his dreams.  He finally stumbles upon happiness, but only after he finds it inside himself.

This is the lesson of Spider-Man 2.  Instead of wasting time dwelling on the many bitter aspects in our lives, if we instead accept our suffering and embrace what we’re good at, embrace what we can give to the world, we can achieve greater things than we ever could otherwise.  With great power comes great responsibility, and we have a duty to give our talents to the world.  Through harnessing our individual gifts, through focusing on our strengths, we can improve the living conditions of those around us.  We can become Spider-Men.

-Nicholas Conley

Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red
Cryin’s not for me
‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’

Because I’m free
Nothin’s worryin’ me

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