It’s November, and we have a tradition around here. Right up to Thanksgiving, we like to spend Thursdays talking about the things in pop culture that we’re thankful for. Or for which we are thankful, if you’re going to get all Carol Pilbasian about the grammar. This week, we’re talking documentaries, Mario, Batman, and more!
Hulu Documentaries – Hulu’s selection of original documentaries may be paltry compared to their rivals over at Netflix, but in the last six months they’ve put out three great docs on three of my obsessions. Batman & Bill tells what I think is the important story of writer Bill Finger and his (until recently) unacknowledged role in the creation of Batman. See, Bob Kane created Batman and had a good lawyer, but his Batman was mostly a knockoff of The Shadow. Everything that made the character special happened when Finger came on to help write the stories. Bob Kane never had an original thought in his life and it bummed me out that he was credited as the sole creator of my favorite character. In the last year, DC has started to officially credit Finger as co-creator. But even with that small step, this doc is a must for anybody who cares about Batman or the creative process.
Becoming Bond focuses on George Lazenby, the man who played James Bond in one movie before Sean Connery came back to the role. Lazenby is fascinating and Bond presents him in a lengthy interview where he’s both arrogant and kind of dopey. There are dramatic re-enactments of his stories that are sometimes contrasted with his own narration for a Drunk History kind of effect. Lazenby has a reputation as sort of an a-hole, and you see that, but you also see this guy who as they say, faked it until he made it. And then he immediately went back to faking it again. He’s an old school raconteur, the kind of guy who could make his living on talk show appearances, but with a healthy dose of the kind of weirdness that will leave you baffled.
Finally, and most recently, is the amazing Too Funny to Fail. It’s about the launch and failure of ABC’s The Dana Carvey Show and the amazing team of creators who would all hit it big after. We’re talking Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Charlie Kauffman, Robert Carlock, Steve Carell, Robert Smigiel… it’s ridiculous. It details what it was like to work on this show that was way too weird for network TV at the time and just how it happened that this brilliant crew came together. I’ve been fascinated by this topic for years and wanted to write a book about it except that interviews would have been necessary and Colbert doesn’t have time to talk to me. So I’m thrilled that somebody told this story and now we all get to enjoy it.
Dark Nights: Metal – The craziest Batman story in years just hit the halfway point, and this miniseries from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo is an absolute bonkers delight. After wrapping up a successful run on the main Batman series, the pair have returned for a story that builds on what they’ve done before but also spins out into insane new territory. It’s about Batman discovering a dark multiverse and doing his Batman thing to protect our multiverse. But nobody quite believes him, especially since he’s making some hard to justify choices. (Keeping Joker as a prisoner inside the Batcave?) So the Justice League thinks he’s lost his mind and you get great scenes of Batman running circles around the world’s greatest heroes.
And as it turns out, Batman is the key to the dark multiverse, having been marked by Barbatos when he was exiled in time and then exposed to mysterious metals on four different occasions. The fifth turned Batman into a portal, releasing twisted versions of himself from other realities. (If this sounds insane, that’s because it is.) And that’s where we left off. It’s a fun Batman story, but it also plays with DC history in a way that hasn’t been possible for years because nobody has been able to make sense of that history since the last reboot. But Metal embraces stuff like Morrison’s Batman run and comes right out and says that yes, Final Crisis still happened. And we’re getting stuff like Plastic Man’s return (he’s still imprisoned in an egg, but we’re getting there), Detective Chimp, Blackhawk Island, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman…. All this stuff that didn’t fit into the rebooted universe, but now it’s back and it’s all crammed together, and it’s great. It’s a crazy-ass over-the-top story that makes a perfect capper to Snyder and Capullo’s run while also restoring the very specific kind of fun that’s been missing from the DC Universe for six years now.
Super Mario Odyssey – Nintendo remains a weird beast on the video game landscape. Their fixation with making their own hardware sometimes seems to hold them back (Nobody wanted a Wii U), while they could become the best developer in the business if they made games with their IP for the other consoles. As it stands, they’re separate from the Playstation / Xbox arms race. If you’re at all serious about video games, you don’t have just a Nintendo system – you have one of the two main consoles and then maybe also Nintendo’s new hardware, which is primarily used to play Nintendo’s games. (Their traditionally underpowered consoles never give you the best of any multiplatform release.)
But I’m kind of in love with the Switch. The strange new hardware that can be either a handheld or a traditional console doesn’t seem like it should work – just the idea of making graphics that look good on both a television screen and the small display on the Switch itself seems like a nightmare. You need enough detail so it looks good when it’s big but not so much that it’s muddled on the handheld. And other developers have had mixed success but Nintendo showed off the Switch early on with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and blew everybody away. And now they’ve done it one better with Super Mario Odyssey.
Mario’s newest adventure is, in many ways, a standard Mario 3-D game. There’s a new mechanic where Mario’s hat is a magic friend named Cappy – Mario can toss his cap as a weapon or he can use it to possess certain enemies. After all these years, it’s a hoot to actually control a Goomba or Bullet Bill, and those moments when you get to control a T-Rex are wonderful. But it doesn’t exactly reinvent the Mario formula. And yet, it’s such a pure joy to play. It’s a strong contender for best Mario game already and that comes down to just how much fun it is.
Odyssey doesn’t have lives as such – when you die, you lose ten coins. And since it’s a simple matter to collect ten (just get back to the place where you died and there’s a ring of coins marking the spot), there’s really no penalty in trying something crazy. If it fails, you’re out ten coins. But if it works, maybe you find a whole new level or a secret room or a warp painting. And you can use those coins to buy outfits, some of which allow access to new areas and some of which are just silly. Put Mario in a suit or a big fuzzy coat or a wedding dress – it doesn’t affect the gameplay, but it’s fun. There’s a friendly dog in a pith helmet you can play with. You can jump rope, play some volleyball, race as a bouncing snowman… there’s just so much to do. If you want, you can just complete the levels and keep going, but the amount of bonus content is truly amazing. When the game’s done, you’ve only scratched the surface. It’s a big, silly celebration of everything that is Mario. Pauline, the damsel in distress of the original Donkey Kong turns up as Mayor of New Donk City (a stage that puts Mario in contact with realistically scaled humans for the first time) and at the end, there’s a festival where Pauline performs a song while you run through scaled-down 8-Bit versions of Kong levels and it’s weirdly emotional for a guy who has been playing video games since he had a wood-paneled Pong system.
I’m having so much fun with Odyssey and it feels good to really be enjoying Nintendo again after sitting out the Wii U era.
Doughboys – You know I love my podcasts. And one of my current obsessions is Doughboys, a show where Nick Wiger (former writer for @midnight and Comedy Bang! Bang!) and Mike Mitchell (Birthday Boys, CBB) review chain restaurants. Every week they have a guest and they go to chains both big (Wendy’s) and small (Mr. Pizza, a South Korean chain with only two locations in America) and they discuss the experience. But first, they argue about Star Wars and video games, hurl insults at one another, and get badly off track. It is ridiculously fun.
Among the regular delights are Mitch’s running jokes about how Wiger hates fries and likes “hot salads”, and that doesn’t sound that funny but Nick (a man who unironically enjoys the Minions) gets so mad. Recently, Mitch told a story about seeing two raccoons have sex outside UCB and how it was funnier than anything he’d ever seen at UCB and he tried to get people to come watch, and I laughed so hard I choked. They’re funny, dorky guys who sometimes find reservoirs of hostility toward one another, and their interactions are just beautiful.
It’s a show that makes such good use of guests, too. They recently had John Hodgman to talk about Arby’s and they ended up discussing Massachusetts, reed instruments, swearing in video games, and so much more. Whether they’re having a beloved comedy figure like Paul F. Tompkins or Lauren Lapkus or somebody like Evan Susser or Fran Gillespie, comedy writers whose names you may not know immediately, they get the best out of them. Folks like Christine Nangle or Jon Gabrus just stir the pot and turn the ‘boys against one another, and that’s glorious. It’s funny and wonderful and whether they love or hate the restaurant, you’re going to get some great material.
If you can handle hearing people eat, I recommend the recent Shrimp Off with Hollywood Handbook hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport. They went to Red Lobster to see which podcast could eat the most shrimp and recorded it, and I love it. Nick turned out to be the worst eating competition partner ever, bailing on the shrimp early and getting really excited about a side dish of pilaf, and listening to Mitch get more and more frustrated while Sean and Hayes ran laps around them made me so very happy.
The Tick – I’ve been a fan of The Tick since he first turned up in a low-print run black-and-white comic in 1987, a parody of a parody of Batman. The big, blue, nigh-invulnerable loon went on to start in an excellent comic before moving to FOX animation for a much-loved series that ran three seasons. In 2001, he returned to FOX for a live-action series starring Patrick Warburton that played as a superhero Seinfeld but had the misfortune to be a superhero parody in a time when superheroes weren’t really getting any mainstream traction. It ran for only a few episodes, but you can’t keep Lady Justice’s favorite son down, because he’s back as an Amazon Original. The first half of Season One is available now (with six more episodes to follow in February), and it’s great.
Every incarnation of the Tick has tweaked the basic premise but one thing remains constant – the Tick himself. He never has a name other than “the Tick”, he doesn’t have a past, and it’s not even clear if he’s wearing a costume he can take off or if he’s ever not the Tick. And now, with a constant barrage of superhero material, there’s more to parody. And this version actually puts the focus on eternal sidekick Arthur. In this version, Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman) is a troubled man who watched supervillains kill his father when he was a child. He’s been in therapy ever since and the way his family is worried about him indicates that it’s still a struggle. He’s obsessed with proving the culprit, an elderly villain named The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley) is still alive. And so he’s utterly unprepared when the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) turns up in his life, recruits him as a sidekick, and leads every villain in the city to him.
Initially, there was a real question as to whether the Tick was a figment of Arthur’s imagination, though that was dispelled after a couple episodes of teasing. But man, it still seems like Arthur somehow created him. There’s a scene of Arthur as a scared kid hearing the Tick’s voice over the radio. And when Arthur asks him if he has a place where he lives, Tick’s only answer is an enthusiastic “I must!” There’s so much good stuff here. Aside from the Tick and Arthur, we have a plot to kill Superian (this world’s Superman), a former landscaper who’s grown to fifty feet tall, the actual return of the Terror, violent vigilante Overkill (“It was like he was trying to find a place to put his knife, but no place was good enough”) and his talking boat, and some actual superheroics. After six episodes of blundering, it was genuinely exciting to see the Tick and Arthur save a bus to close out the season. It’s an affectionate parody – creator Ben Edlund knows superheroes and he knows that there are things about them that are very silly.
The thing I love is that this version is finally building on things Edlund says he wanted to do with the characters but never got to. The Tick’s origin and the source of Arthur’s flight suit have been hinted at but never developed and finally, thirty years later, that’s the story he’s going to be able to tell. It’s a different approach than the comic and the previous two shows, but the Tick is always recognizably the Tick, and he’s the Tick we need in 2017.
Next week – more things! Probably at least one will involve Batman!